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Go Canada, go!

Feb 27th 2010: Travel

How to make a life for yourself in a country you have never been to before, you don’t know a single person, and not only do you not speak the language, but everyone around you is reluctant to speak yours (can’t hold that against them though – I’m reluctant too)? This has been preoccupying me for the last week since I got here and it turned out to be not as easy as I had thought – though I’m sure had I given it a bit more thought up front I would have realized that.

Don’t get me wrong: Buenos Aires is a fantastic city. After the rain of the first few days it’s been nothing but beautiful, nice and warm and dry, and the neighborhood I live in, Palermo Viejo, is just heaven on earth. It’s so nice in fact that I have not ventured out into the rest of the city much. There is no bad mood, no feeling of frustration that a nice cup of coffee sitting on a small table of a cafe, at the sidewalk, in the shade of a big green tree, on a bright sunny day with blue sky, next to the cobble stone road wouldn’t fix. Not only that but Palermo is also the current cultural center: bars and clubs and boutiques and galleries everywhere. I even spotted a Starbucks! The stores all open between noon and 3pm and close around 8pm, while the bars and restaurants open 6pm-ish, but dinner is usually at 11pm. And the clubs open at 2am and don’t fill until 3 or 4am. The whole city is on a nocturnal schedule. Last night I had a beer with guy I met at a cafe in a plaza around the corner from me at 4am. And the Plaza was packed. And then there was a power outage which only seemed to encourage people to stay longer and drink more.

I immediately fell in love with this part of the city and knew this is where I wanted to live. Not as much because of the late drinking as I haven’t had too much of that yet, but because it’s really a peaceful place to let the soul rest. So my top priority was to find an apartment. After much online hunting I started prowling the neighborhood and looked out for local agents renting out places. Then I found one saw the photos online and knew that this was the apartment I wanted. Renting an apartment is like the advanced version of ordering beer: harder but also very rewarding. I got to see the place yesterday and it’s the one! Photos to come. Since it’s still occupied I will be moving in two weeks. Can’t wait!

Another aspect is the obvious question of how to meet people? It’s a city of three million people. Can’t be that hard, can it? Well, my Spanish, or the lack thereof, has been the biggest hurdle. Fortunately there are always the expats that are happy to practice English with you. Following a hint on a website I found *the* expat bar (Shoeless Joe) and got to listen to Nirvana and Guns’n Roses and support the Canadian hockey team winning against the Russians. Meeting a filmmaker and a fashion photographer I found myself the next day at a small house party where I got plenty of advice on how to play the stock market from an older lady from Seattle.

It was interesting to see the variation between all these expats. There was no common thread among them except that they are all in BA now. From the man that married an Argentine woman and moved here five years ago and now has a small son, to the student on exchange excited to get affordable front row VIP seats to Coldplay, to the stock playing divorcee, to the guy who came here three years ago to party and live the good life (and apparently is) but has to yet learn any Spanish, to the Swiss volunteer working in a soup kitchen, they are all here. As a German expat myself I have recently become more interested in these stories and will continue collecting them – though I’d prefer to mingle with the locals and get to know the culture more. Maybe after more Spanish classes.

Which brings me to the next two weeks of pain: I signed up for six hours of Spanish classes every single day (4 group, 2 private) for two weeks. And they start at 9am! I don’t think there was a single week in the last year in which I made it into the office at that ungodly time everyday for a week. And I have to commute for 45min too! And then there are Tango classes at night. So if you don’t hear from me in the next two weeks, assume I was killed by exhaustion. But depending how things are going I’ll try to post more. Especially a food post is way overdue. Hmmm… food… I think I’ll go for some tasty grub. Ciao!

On Process, Part 1

Feb 24th 2010: Thoughts

I will tell you about my carne experience yesterday some other time. Just know it was good. Very good. Very, very good. Right now I want to take a few minutes to start a short series on the photographic creative process. My process to be precise. It’s all about me on this blog. This came in part from a discussion I had a little while ago and that kept me thinking and because I would like to document my process as it is right now for myself, because, as you know, processes change as they have to adapt themselves to new requirements. And this year is going to see some change.

In my mind photography should be broken down into the following, equally important steps:

  1. Taking photos (we call that “shooting”)
  2. Initial edit (we call that “initial edit”)
  3. Work print printing (…erm…)
  4. Final edit
  5. Final printing
  6. Exhibition (we call that “selling out”)

This fundamental division of steps can be applied to other arts as well. By the end of this series I also hope to have you convinced that all steps are equally important and cannot be skipped or half-a**ed. But for today I’ll focus on number one.

Taking Photos

I will skip over the technical aspects of how to take a good photo. There are about a billion blogs and books and classes and flickrers on the topic and whatever I’d tell you would probably not help you anyway. As one of my teachers used to say: “Your technique is always as good as it needs to be,” meaning if something bugs you and you don’t get the photo you want, you’ll figure it out. So go figure! What I find interesting is the mental mode you put yourself in when photographing. This is different for every person. Everyone has their own formula. This has changed a lot for me over the last few years and shall be discussed here.

Subject Oriented Shooting

I started off by looking for certain subjects, content (children, buildings, etc.) and then, once found, would build the image from there. I would also bitch about no earthquake or revolution or something similarly dramatic happening in San Francisco as that would clearly help with my artistic endeavor. How can you take interesting photos if there is nothing interesting to take the photo of? So the photos were subject oriented.

My Funnies series is an example, though I did it at a later point and form had become more important. But I think it gets the point across. Like the image above. Note that for certain types of photography this subject driven approach is critical (like documentary, editorial, and advertisement for example) so there is no value judgement here. But let’s keep focusing on me: I then discovered form and modernism in particular and everything changed.

Brain Driven Modernism

As I learnt about form and shape, I fully embraced modernism and the work of my heroes, such as Andre Kertesz, Saul Leiter, Harry Callahan, Ralph Gibson, and others (I’ll have to do a full post on these guys at some point). The subject of the photo started to move to the background, but not disappear, and I focused on putting images together. Like the photo above from the Chicago series. It obviously is of buildings and some metallic structure (the L if you must know), but the photo is all about the shapes, lines, light, and dark and the space all of them create in the context of the buildings.

I did that for several years, going off on different tangents. I would go out and search for a subject matter like “light and shadow”, “buildings”, etc. and build my image from the shapes and forms I observed. While in this stage I went into a few different directions like more organic vs. inorganic shapes and similar, but I won’t bore you with those. All of my following series were done during this time: Days at Peace, Dream Capture, and Chicago. I call this Brain Driven Modernism, because I still consciously approached my subject matter and consciously put the visual elements together to an image. The Public Affair series became a transitional series into the current phase.

Subconscious Something

This is my current way of working. I don’t have a better description for it as I am still in the middle of it and am still figuring out what it means and how it works. Hindsight is always 20/20. Well, I’m at 20/200 here and need glasses. But here is what I know. And it’s exciting. At the end of last year I started shooting without thinking about the subject matter at all. I would eliminate distractions by turning off my cell phone and putting on my headphones with familiar music blasting, and then slowly walk the city at night. Walk REALLY slowly and you’ll see everything!

I react to the visuals I see. Something in me tells me to take a photo of that, exactly that, and nothing else, and I do it. As I said, I still need glasses and can’t explain it better. But here’s an example: I once walked down a street passing at least 20 cars with 20 more to come. I looked at each of them (remember? I walk slowly) and then one stuck out. To be more precise the hubcap did and wanted to be photographed. I obeyed and it turned into a wonderful photo (above). And that’s how it goes all the time.

You end up taking photos of pretty much anything that appeals. And the crazy thing is that the images, regardless of subject, work together. No longer are the groups of photos of e.g. buildings, or the city, or people on the street, so of a given subject. Now a photo of a guy’s greasy hair is next to an empty store in Chinatown next to something metallic but you don’t even know what it is. It’s not that the subject is not important – the greasy hair guy photo is still also about exactly how nasty greasy the hair gets. But it’s also about an emotional layer I lack the words to explain. The work is held together by that deeper, personal subconscious something that wants to get out (and also by some technical consistency). And for the first time my work is truly important to me. When I saw the first prints I knew immediately that these are the photos I always wanted to take. No joke.

Everything before has lead me to this and I couldn’t have gotten here without the other projects. Before I ramble on and on, because trust me: I could… for a long time…, let me only tell you that I am excited, that this is only the beginning, and that this is why I am taking a year off: because I want to know where this leads. This has been started with my Provoked series.

Oh, and if someone asks what I do (since I was unable to provide clarity in this post), do what I do: shrug your shoulders, say you don’t really know, mumble something about modern abstract photography, and say “but it looks really, really cool.”

If you made it all the way here to the end you are probably either related or a good sport and are either way humoring me. But I hope it was at least somewhat interesting. And you shall be rewarded with a few more Buenos Aires photos below. Boy, I need a serveza now – my mouth is sandpaper dry from all he writing…

Wenn Einer eine Reise tut…

Feb 23rd 2010: Travel

I guess there is usually a lot to talk about in the first few days as everything is still new and exciting. Even though it’s only been two days and I’ve been taking it easy (and have been sleeping a lot), it’s been an exciting couple of days. The initial wtf-was-I-thinking quickly gave way to the I-can-see-myself-living-here-for-a-while. First impressions of Buenos Aires: a lot like Mediterranean Europe (I didn’t really know what that meant until I saw it), everybody hangs out until late in cafes and bars, the buildings are beautiful and even more beautiful at night with lots of mixed lighting going on, you can walk through the whole city, which btw is freaking huge, Palermo Viejo is very beautiful with trees and cobble stone streets and all, food is tasty, beer is cheap and good, from what I can tell people are friendly, and the weather is hot and humid with the occasional thunderstorm – apparently Palermo including the hostel I’m staying in was flooded only a week ago. Global warming has been blamed. The clear highlights of today were getting soaking wet in the storm, being able to buy a cell phone on my own in Spanish (not that different from ordering beer in fact) and finding a copy of “Leccion de fotografia” that just had to be purchased, though not cheap. And I love the new cell phone. It’s a small, red/black Samsung flip phone that’s really just good for calling and sms, though it does sport a tiny VGA still camera. It’s back to basics.

Better Travels

Feb 21st 2010: Travel

I hate to admit it, but the services airlines charge extra for these days are worth it. After having a great experience the first time I started making a point of paying the upgrade to Economy Plus whenever possible. The extra leg room, a standard ten years ago, allows me to stretch my legs and it’s amazing what a tremendous difference that makes on arrival. Instead of being sore, stressed, and exhausted I land relaxed and ready to enjoy the day. Traveling economy-ish never felt so good. And there are additional perks: you are usually in the first boarding zone, the over-head compartments are not as crowded, and on Virgin America you get free snacks and movies (usually paid services).

My suitcase full of rolls of film has freaked me out over the last few days. All those little canisters. That has to look suspicious! Even though already armed with a letter from the TSA justifying why you cannot check undeveloped film and a long rehearsed speech to give to the security guy’s supervisor, I decided to pay for United’s Premier Line security service. The fee was peanuts if you consider the value of all that film. Best airport security experience evaaar! Walking past long lines at the overcrowded security check point I got into a short line where instead of the one overworked security guy five of them were just waiting and ready to help me with anything. And there was no pressure to get through security! No one pushing you. No mother’s with their toddlers giving you the “you better hurry or my baby will eat you” look. No guard bitching at you for not taking off your belt. No “IT” inspiring nightmares. Instead smooth, stress-free sailing. As for the film, it stayed rather long in the x-ray machine but given that at threat level orange there are more important things to worry about, the officer let it pass without any further inspections. Best security experience ever! And worth it. This time at least.

Now I am relaxing in the waiting area with my favorite Peet’s drink and two full hours to spare. And I keep wishing that there was a way to sit by myself in quiet, without the bleach blond, L.A. woman next to me telling her bestest girlfriend in a loud and unflattering voice how many romance novels she has read in the last two weeks alone. Next stop: business class lounge. I wish. Lottery tickets anyone?

Update: made it to BA without any problems. At customs they looked at my suitcase full of film and then recommended I should switch to digital. Haha! Only bummer is that the TSA found my developer in my checked baggage and confiscated it with a nice note telling me I shouldn’t send Hazmat material on the plane. It’s only $100 worth, but I doubt this particular developer can be found here. It’s not even produced anymore. Live and learn.

The Most Important Show Yet

Feb 16th 2010: New Work

This past weekend Jeremy and I had another exhibit which reminded me why I love the Bay Area so much: it is the winter month of February and the sun is shining, it is actually warm, we hang out outside at our show, a grill provides lunch, friends come over with beer, random people pull up with their bicycles to investigate or are dragged in by Otis. A fantastic afternoon. We sat about with the deep feeling on satisfaction of having pulled together yet another show and just enjoyed the day.

After our last show in October Jeremy and I have made considerable progress with our individual work and wanted to take the opportunity to show case that work before I’m taking off next week. As both projects are still evolving, this “Work in Progress” is meant to be a mile marker along the way, a checkpoint, a first accomplishment. And yet, if I dare say so, it’s also has been our most important show yet as this work is already turning into our most interesting, most challenging, most personal work to date. Although I guess that’s true for every show: the latest is, or at least should be, the greatest. Would you like the new and improved model? Of course you would. So keep coming back!

19,000 Blank Canvases

Feb 11th 2010: Travel

This is what pure potential looks like!

The silver grain of 19,000 blank canvases waiting to be exposed to the light, frame by frame, over the next few months. And then waiting to be developed, their emulsion swelling from the liquid, until the unexposed salts are being washed away by the fixer to reveal the final image. Can you feel the film? Can you smell the fixer? Very, VERY exciting.

There can be no more fitting beginning to this blog than showing the “before” image: 500 blank, unexposed rolls of Arista Premium, a wonderful TX400 substitute. They’ll be traveling snuggly tugged away in my carry-on suitcase straight down to Buenos Aires and hopefully won’t raise too much suspicion with the TSA.

During my studies over the last three years I exposed almost 200 rolls of film, where about two thirds of them were shot in the last year alone, usually five rolls a week. Dedicating myself full-time and shipping 500 rolls to BA will allow for 3-4 rolls per day. It’s hard to gauge whether that’s way too much or way too little. At $8 a roll in BA (vs $2.50 in the US) I’m hoping it to be a conservative estimate. Keep in mind that Robert Frank shot 28,000 images for The Americans over a period of 8-9 months and I think I should be set.

The film will easily impose itself to be the biggest component of the traveling camera equipment. Their companions will be one beloved Leica M7, the heart of my equipment and my most precious belonging, two Leica lenses (50mm, 35mm), one light meter, one Canon S90, one laptop, one film development tank, and two litres of Rodinal film developer. Apart from the film, it will be light traveling indeed. Clothing and other secondary items will have to travel with the checked baggage.

These rolls of film are a great example of what I am setting myself up for, providing some indication of magnitude, and represent what I am excited to spend the next year of my life on. But as I generally despise equipment posts, I promise to keep them to an absolute minimum going forward. German beer promise!