Posts Tagged ‘Li-Young Lee’

TWO QUESTIONS: On Photographs that Inspire and Confound; On Birds and Returning

January 4, 2011

This month’s TWO QUESTIONS column features questions posed by two U.S. photographers. Based in Austin, Texas, BILL MCCULLOUGH makes his living predominantly from photographing weddings.  However, he is far from your typical wedding photographer — his pictures are witty, surprising, spontaneous; they take us into social worlds not often seen so perceptively.  His humor is gentle and good-natured, very much like Bill himself.  EMILY PEDERSON is currently studying photography, languages (she has mastered Portuguese, Spanish, and Czech), and social justice at New York University.   Her grandfather was a noted underwater photographer, so she grew up with photography in her life.   She has photographed in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and New York, as well as in her home state of Rhode Island.--Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb

Robert Frank, "Elevator Girl, Miami, 1955" from "The Americans"

BILL MCCULLOUGH: In photography, music, painting, and many other forms of expression, there is work that strikes the perfect balance of technique and emotion that can leave one in awe.  You may ask yourself, “how did they do that?” You are both photographers who have been in the trenches and attempted many things; therefore, you also have insight, understanding, and respect of what is truly difficult to accomplish.  Is there a photographer, dead or alive, who both inspires you and stumps you?  If so, who and why?

ALEX WEBB:  Ever since I first picked up a copy of Frank’s The Americans –– sometime in the late 1960’s –– my favorite photograph in the book has always been the mournful elevator girl.  I hesitate to say much of anything about it because Jack Kerouac in his introduction to the book said just about everything that needs to be said:  “And I say: That little ole elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what’s her name and address?”   What Kerouac latches onto is what has always most intrigued me about Frank’s work, its emotive heart.  Somehow, Frank managed to make deep and surprising poetry out of the mundane stuff of the world of America.

That quality is still what interests me most about Frank’s work. But looking back now at this photograph, I am also intrigued by how it speaks of another era in America.  I can’t recall when I last saw an elevator girl.  The notion seems quaint.  It makes me almost nostalgic, nostalgic, among other things, for a more intimate world, where human beings –– including those in more menial positions –– somehow seemed to count.  Now, soulless elevators in Miami gleam of burnished chrome.  Chimes denoting each floor have replaced the human voice.  Modern demons may sometimes stalk these elevators, but mournful elevator girls are long gone.   I guess today, Kerouac would have to go elsewhere to find a name and number.

Robert Frank, "Barber shop through screen door, McClellanville, SC, 1955," from "The Americans"

REBECCA NORRIS WEBB: From the moment I first saw a print of Robert Frank’s barbershop in McClellanville, South Carolina, the image has lingered with me, a sign –– I’ve learned to trust over the years –– of a truly poetic image.  Like the strongest and most resonant poems, the image sends me into a kind of reverie each time I view it.  I think this has something to do with the fact that it’s a reflection, one that blurs inside and outside, like a daydream. So, for me at least, Frank’s mysterious barbershop blurs into the barbershop in my small town in southern Indiana where I was born.  Like Frank, I, too, have pressed up against a small town barbershop’s screen door, have seen into the interior thanks to my own shadow.  Come to think of it, the screen door itself seems somehow quintessentially American (I don’t recall coming across that many screen doors in Europe, for instance…).  The screen door is welcoming yet protective, practical yet vulnerable, luring both june bugs and photographers alike.

ROBERT FRANK LINKS:

Link to NPR story:  “Robert Frank’s Elevator Girls Sees Herself Years Later”:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112389032

Link to Robert Frank’s book, “The Americans”:

http://www.amazon.com/Americans-Robert-Frank/dp/386521584X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1294157675&sr=8-1

Link to reviews of the “Looking In: Robert Franks” The Americans” show:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/14/090914fa_fact_lane

http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/2009/sep/29/looking-in-robert-franks-emthe-americansem/

Links to reviews of Robert Frank’s,  “The Americans”

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100688154

http://www.harpers.org/archive/2010/01/0082794

Rebecca Norris Webb, Havana, 2008, from "Violet Isle"

EMILY PEDERSON: Rebecca, what is it about birds?  In Violet Isle, birds are constantly appearing in your photographs. Why is that? What is it that draws you to birds?

RNW:  As someone who comes out of the street photography tradition, I only photograph what I come across in the world, and the most common creature I found in Cuban menageries was the bird –– from roosters and peacocks and woodpeckers to cockatiels and pigeons and parrots.  I love the rich and resonant questions this suggests:  Of all the creatures, why are birds the most popular animal in Cuban menageries?  What does this suggest about the individuals who have these menageries?  What does this suggest about Cubans and their relationship to nature?  And what does this suggest about Cuban culture more generally?

What I love about photography –– and poetry –– is that sometimes images have the ability to suggest these sorts of questions.  One of my favorite lines about birds is by the poet, Li-Young Lee:

Only birds can reveal to us dying by flying.

And just yesterday I came across these two wonderful lines by T.S. Eliot in his poem, “Four Quartets”:

…a hollow rumble of wings…

…wait for the early owl…

Personally, when I first started photographing birds in Cuba, it was a period in my life that roughly corresponded to my acquiring my first pair of professional birding binoculars, inspired in part by the red-tailed hawks in Prospect Park near my apartment, the same kind of hawk that’s also found in my home state of South Dakota.

During one of my last trips to Havana, I remember the delight of watching a hawk attempting to open her wings just inches away from me –– instead of my observing the raptor from the usual distance of my field glasses.  Yet simultaneously I also felt a something catch in my throat as I watched the hawk fumble, unable to spread her wings fully in so small a cage .  Looking back, I realize that I often had this complicated and seemingly contradictory emotional response –– delight and discomfort –– while photographing caged birds throughout Cuba.

Li-Young Lee link:  http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/291

LInk to T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Four Quartets”:  http://www.tristan.icom43.net/quartets/

Alex Webb, Havana, 2008, from "Violet Isle"

 

EP: Alex, when you photograph you seem to go back again and again to a particular place. You don’t move there for a while to carry out your work, but you return over and over. How does that affect the way you see, the way you work?

AW: My meanderings in a country are rarely planned.  For instance, in Havana, even when I find myself working in the same neighborhood, it is often somewhat by chance: I wander into the same locale three days later –– or even, perhaps, a year later.  And even if I contemplate returning to a specific area, it is often a spur of the moment decision: I find myself completing work in one street or block and suddenly decide to return to somewhere that I have been before.  Sure, sometimes I may decide that a street or a market that I photographed in the morning might be more interesting in the afternoon or vice-versa, but as often as not the return to a particular locale is serendipitous.

For instance, the above photograph was taken during my last of 11 trips to Havana over 15 years.  Who know how many times I had walked down this particular street during my other trips.  But the particular mood and color and feel of the street caught my eye in fall 2009.

EMILY PEDERSON

Emily Pederson, Prague, 2009

I was born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1989. I study photography, Portuguese, and Spanish at the Gallatin School at New York University.

My grandfather was an undersea photographer and cinematographer, and documented undersea life in the Bahamas in the 50s and 60s. So there were always neat old cameras in my house as I was growing up, and I started to take photographs early on. The summer after my junior year in high school I lived in Peru for a month doing volunteer work at an orphanage. It was my first true experience of life elsewhere, and it played out like a fever dream. I took thirty rolls of film, and after that was significantly more fascinated by photography.

After graduating high school, I moved to New York City and have lived there since, except for four months last year, which I spent studying in Prague, learning Czech and traveling in Eastern Europe. I’m currently working with Alex Harsley at the 4th Street Photo Gallery, which he established in 1971, helping him distribute his work and documenting the history the gallery has witnessed. I see photographs as agents of information and as records of light. What allures me the most is how photography gives us the ability to freeze time.–Emily Pederson

My website: http://www.flickr.com/photos/emilykpederson/

BILL MCCULLOUGH

Bill McCullough, Waco, Texas, 2005

American photographer Bill McCullough was born in 1963, in Dickenson Texas. He graduated with a degree in Plan II economics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1986. He is a self taught photographer. His work has been published in Spot (Houston Center of Photography), United States; and Photonews, Germany. In 2008,  his work was purchased for the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His first solo show will take place at the SRO gallery at Texas Tech University in March, 2011. He has been chosen as a 2010 Fotofest discovery. He currently resides and works in Austin, Texas.

Bill’s webswite:  www.billmccullough.com

TWO QUESTIONS: On Framing and Philosophy; On Multimedia and Text/Image Synergy

February 17, 2010

This month, we have TWO QUESTIONS from Japanese photographer and editor, HIROSHI YAMAUCHI, his first question about how Alex frames his photographs and his second one about how Rebecca thinks about the marriage of text and images in photography books. Next, our second featured photographer, OLGA KRAVETS from Russia, asks Rebecca about which comes first in her photographic process –– the idea or the image –– and then questions Alex about how he feels about the  expansion of photography into the world of multimedia, and the challenges that places on photographers today. You can learn more about Hiroshi and Olga at the end of this column, which also includes links to their work.––Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb

ON THE FRAME’S ANATOMY; ON TEXT/IMAGE SYNERGY

Alex Webb, Ponce, Puerto Rico, 1990

HIROSHI YAMAUCHI:  Alex, when you come across a situation and “smell” the possibility of a good photo, do you run an anatomy of the scene first to divide spaces in your finder for what could happen?  It’s almost as if you precisely choreograph the elements in each of your frames.

ALEX WEBB: Saying “run an anatomy of the scene” makes the process sound highly analytical.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  My process is not about thought, not about analysis, but rather about feeling the totality of a scene and responding intuitively, emotionally, non-rationally.  I have sometimes used the word “smell” in this context (and I think I am paraphrasing Cartier-Bresson) specifically because smell is sensory, not rational.    The process can be a bit mysterious.  When I photograph, I sense the possibility of something — something about the feel of a place, the situation, some impending moment, the light, the color, the space, the shapes — and I often hang out and wait, hoping that something will happen, something will emerge.  But I’m never sure quite what this something is.  For me, the elements that go into the picture are often emotional elements: not just what is in fact “happening” in a situation (the purported “subject” of the image), but the space, the color, the light.  Form isn’t just form, it can be emotion.  Color isn’t just color for color’s sake, it, too, carries emotion.  Sometimes a shape in the foreground becomes some kind of transformative element, sometimes an empty space strikes a special emotional note, sometimes the color changes what wasn’t an evocative scene into something very different… Ultimately I never know what it is that I am going to find, and just how the world will surprise me.

HY: Rebecca, do you design your creative writing to play certain roles in your visual presentation as a whole?  Do you feel a good marriage of writing and photography can generate synergy, like a good meal with good wine?

REBECCA NORRIS WEBB: Originally a poet, I’ve long been interested in the relationship between text and images, and how the two can illuminate each other.  For me, it’s one of my chief obsessions, something I hope to explore with each of my photography books.  In some ways, when the relationship between text and images works well, it is like a good marriage or a good meal, where the different elements complement each other, sometimes creating a kind of synergy that’s stronger than the separate elements individually.  Ultimately, it’s about striking the right balance, so that one form doesn’t overpower the other.  That said, I don’t think all books call for a lot of text –– some books just need enough to point the reader/viewer in the right direction.  In my opinion, part of power of the photography book –– and one way it is like poetry –- is its ability to suggest complex themes and ideas, yet leave enough space for the viewer/reader to have his or her own unique experience of the work.

Since we are talking here about the photography book, I think the visual element has to be considered when thinking about the text.  For my first book, The Glass Between Us, my designer, Astrid Lewis Reedy, and I decided to place the text pieces, which I called “Reflections,” either across from a blank page or opposite another text piece, as way of creating a kind of pause visually for the reader/viewer, hopefully as a way of echoing the kind of reflective state of mind one feels when looking at the creatures in a aquarium or zoo — philosophically or psychologically or emotionally or humorously or, sometimes, all of the above.  After visiting a zoo, the poet Charles Simic once wrote, “…I noticed many animals who had a fleeting resemblance to me.”

ON PHILOSOPHY & PHOTOGRAPHY; ON MULTIMEDIA

Rebecca Norris Webb, Hot Springs, South Dakota, 2009

OLGA KRAVETS: Rebecca, your projects seem to me very philosophical: There is much that your pictures make me think of, after I go through them. When you develop the idea of a photo project, do you know in advance what your pictures would look like, what and where you would shoot, etc.? Will an unexpected picture find its place in the final layout of a book?

RNW: My work is first and foremost a collaboration with the world.  I’ve learned over the years to have faith in those images that speak most insistently to me, first when I encounter them in the world when photographing, and, secondly, when I come across some of them again when editing, those rare birds that continue to resonate in me in a rich and complicated way –– emotionally, philosophically, poetically, politically –– with something akin to a kind of hum:  the hum of life and death, the hum of beauty and suffering, the hum of praise and lamentation, the hum of the world.

So, I guess you could say that I follow these resonant images to the complex idea or ideas underlying the particular book I’m working on, not the other way around.  “The image is an idea, a true idea, an earlier idea than a concept,” says the poet Li-Young Lee, and I agree wholeheartedly with him.  When I work, I try to stay as open as I can throughout the entire process of photographing a project:  I don’t know before I go out to photograph what image I will find, and many of my photographs that end up in one of my books –– at both the beginning and the end of a project –– are unexpected ones.  That’s part of the excitement of working on a long-term photography project: you never know when or where you’ll come across your strongest photographs.  As a fiction writer once said about his creative process:  If I knew how a story would end before I wrote it, what’s the point of writing it?

OG: Alex, you started photography in the pre-digital era, when a photographer was just a photographer, so what do you think of the industry today, when one, willing to become successful, has to be a jack-of-all-trades — shoot not only stills, but also video, write text, record sounds, and, finally, also produce a quality multimedia piece?

AW: You are right that photographers seem to be asked to do more today by the industry than in the past.  However, I should remind you that photographers have rarely been “just photographers.”  The process of making a book of photographs — conceiving, editing, and sequencing (sometimes even designing) — has always demanded all kinds of other skills beyond just being a photographer.  Photographers used to always print their own photographs — sometimes an arduous task, potentially as time-consuming as some of the activities that you describe.  What is different is that now photographers are increasingly being asked sometimes to step outside of the vocabulary of still imagery into other fields — video and sound.  I personally remain deeply involved in the specific language of still images — books and exhibitions — but I think there are some very exciting possibilities in the realm of multimedia.  For the latter to be successful, a vocabulary has to be developed that is significantly different than either still photography or the moving image — so that in looking at the multimedia piece one is not reminded of what it isn’t — still photographs or film/video — but of what it is — a presentation that partakes of both kinds of media but is, in reality, its own unique medium.

Hiroshi Yamauchi, Beijing, 2007

Hiroshi Yamauchi was born in Osaka, Japan in 1974. After studying political science and international relations, he entered the School of Visual Communications at Ohio University.  Hiroshi worked at the Anchorage Daily News and other U.S. newspapers, returning to Japan in 2000 to work for a wire service.  In 2006, he freelanced for domestic and international newspapers and magazines, and in 2007 joined a photography quarterly,  81Lab. Magazine, which he now co-runs.

Hiroshi’s website:  http://www.wow-photo.jp

81Lab. Magazine website: http://www.81lab.com

Olga Kravets, Primorsk, Russia, 2009

Olga Kravets, a freelance photographer based in Moscow, has worked for Berlingske Tidende (Denmark), Dagsavisen (Norway), Financial Times Deutschland (Germany), Helsingin Sanomat (Finland), Kristeligt Dagblad (Denmark), Observer (UK), Tank Magazine (UK), The Globe and Mail (Canada), Throw (Netherlands), among others.  In 2009, she was a finalist for The Aftermath Project grant, and top-10 winner of the competition, “Young Photographers of Russia.”  Olga is the author of the photography projects,  “Primorsk. The Sunken Soviet City” and “Heroes of Karabakh.”  Her work has been included in several group exhibitions in Russia and Norway.

Olga’s website: http://www.olgakravets.com