On Fuzzy Photographs

Despite raving about Chistroprudov Dimitri’s very clear and beautiful nightime cityscapes a few days ago, I remain an unrepentant fan of fuzzy photographs. I don’t like fuzzy for the sake of fuzzy, but sometimes fuzzy adds to the narrative of a photograph. Other times it’s purely a matter of aesthetics (which is, arguably, part of the narrative).

There are many reasons why I like fuzzy photographs, and at the core of it all is my high tolerance for ambiguity. I don’t need for things to always be explained clearly, or for strictly Cartesian rules to be used when judging “quality” or effectiveness. I could write a whole book about that, but why bother, it’s been done many times.

Here’s an example: below is a fuzzy photograph I took of The Mini one day when I was trying out my (then) new and (since) woefully underused Holga. The Holga, as you may know, is a cheap plastic camera made in China and introduced in the early 1980s. It’s so bad it’s good, and it piggybacks on the cult following of the even cheaper Hong-Kong made Diana camera from the 1960s. The photo makes no sense at all from a technical perspective, but I really like it anyway:

There are a couple of reasons why I’m telling you about this. First, my From the Hip — Montreal photo blog got props today in the cultural newsweekly Hour. Yay me. Yay appreciation for street photography that doesn’t make any sense in the traditional way. Yay for appreciating photographs that are tilted at odd angles and in many cases quite fuzzy. The fuzziest in the photo blog (so far) is this long-time favorite of mine:

…which you really need to see bigger to appreciate.

The ultimate victory for my fuzzy photographs has nothing to do with the From the Hip — Montreal photo blog. An extremely fuzzy photograph of mine was chosen to be used as the cover illustration for a book published by Les Presses de l’Université Laval. The book, Les Politiques Publiques au Canada: Pouvoir, conflits et idéologies (Public policy in Canada: Power, Conflicts, and Ideologies) edited by Dimitrios Karmis and Linda Cardinal, is a survey of exactly those things expressed in the title. The editors (disclosure: Dimitri and Martine are friends) wanted an image that was very “Canadian” but not iconic in a self-serving way. I think they were looking for something that reflected ideologies and conflicts, as discussed in the book, and perhaps was a bit ironic.

Dimitri found my image “Saturday Night in Canada” on my Monday Morning Photo Blog. He liked it and asked if he could use it, to which I agreed, for a reasonable fee (as usual).

I was very pleased with his choice, because I really like the image. However, when I first posted it on the Monday Morning Photo Blog back in 2006, I fully expected it to be the least viewed image there. It simply looks like a mistake; an error, the kind of photo you delete before it even leaves the camera.

But look at the narrative. What do you think of when you think “Saturday Night in Canada?” Specifically, I’m thinking “small town Canada.” If you’ve lived as many small town Canadian Saturday nights as I have, you’ll realize that gas stations, Tim Horton’s, and being a bit drunk and fuzzy-minded is exactly what comes to mind.

It certainly is an unusual choice for a book cover, but I applaud the editors for not letting convention get in the way of their choice.

Stay tuned for more! With these affirmations I’m beginning to think I’m not insane after all, that not everyone is a pixel-peeping literalist. From the Hip — Montreal will continue to feature fuzzy and tilted views of my world, and the Monday Morning Photo Blog — which is a mixed bag that has no particular theme or direction — will occasionally feature fuzziness when the images speak that way.

(What, you want another fuzzy one? Arite arite…)

Post-racial America

Mixed in with all the recent news about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates are a lot of references to “post-racial America.” Many of those references imply that Barack Obama’s presidency is already a failure because racial and racist events still take place in the United States.

Um. Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but President Obama has only been in office for six months. Six months! You don’t “undo” 400 years of racial and racist culture in six months.

“Post-racializing” is a long and slow process marked by bumps, leaps, and zig-zags. It started with the Emancipation Proclamation. Its wheels were greased with the “mainstreaming” of “colored music” in the 1950s by the likes of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. It took a big leap forward during the civil rights movement. It hit some serious bumps with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the  Rodney King debacle. (Rodney King’s simple comment “why can’t we all just get along?” should be up there with Dr. King’s “I have a dream” in the canon of anti-racist quotables.)

The election of Barak Obama to the office of President is a huge and elegant capriole across an enormous chasm. But it won’t end the racial and racist culture in the United States. Furthermore, Barack Obama is not personally responsible for — nor capable of — ending racialism and racism all by himself.

It’s coming, but it’ll be a long time coming. It’s a matter of generations, not months or years before the U.S. is truly “post-racial.” That doesn’t mean you should give up your Barack Obama-inspired hope (although it would do to let go of the Hope™.) Embrace your hope, and mix it up with positive action, good intentions, and realistic expectations. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all going to go away, overnight, because of some magical election in 2008.

I love the Web, I hate the Web

One of the things I love about the Web is that it brings so much good stuff to so many people. Blah blah blah, you all know the drill. Today I’m all agape over some photographs by Russian photographer Chistroprudov Dimitri, who apparently specializes in night-time cityscapes of Moscow, taken from various rooftops around the city.

This is no mild amusement on Flickr. Dimitri has a large body of work, and each image takes considerable effort to conceive and execute. And they really work. This is outstanding urban photography, by any measure.

I found them, via a Twitter post from Vanou, on English Russia — a fascinating Web site dedicated to bringing images and stories of contemporary Russia to English speaking readers and viewers. (Warning: if you click that link you’d better have a high-speed connection because the page loads about 80 photographs, all larger than the reduced and compressed versions I’ve included in this post.)

I love cities and I love urban photography, so I’m really glad to have found these photos.

So what do I hate about the Web? I hate the way the Web tends to reduce serious photographic work down to the level of a quick diversion. Go to the English Russia link above (right click and choose “Open link in new tab” and let it load in the background while you finish reading this post). What will you do there? You’ll look at the first few and say “wow.” Look at a few more. More “wows.” Pretty soon you’ll be scrolling through faster and faster, spending on average about 1.5 seconds on each image.

This is largely due to the design of English Russia and its editorial position (putting 80 images on a single page is a “dump” of the images, and clearly not a thoughtfully considered curatorial decision). Regardless, that’s what you generally get on the Web. Even if English Russia put the images into some kind of album that played with a nice soundtrack, 80 images is still too much. So yes, in a way I’m barking up the wrong tree, so to speak.

But even if they culled it down to a more manageable 25 or 30 images, most of us would still just blast through them, nodding, and then forget all about it. At best we’d make a link on Twitter or Facebook, and then move on.

Compare that with the old school approach; print them up and hang them in a room. A gallery (not virtual). What would you do then? If you did visit the gallery, and if you liked the images, you would probably spend a lot more time with them. You’d walk around the room, pausing on the ones you liked best, move along to another. Come back to the ones you liked. Maybe you’d sit down (if benches were provided) and ponder them from a greater distance.

In other words, you’d spend more time with the images (plus you would get to see them in a larger and more detailed format). So which is better: having a hundred or so people really see your photos, or having thousands scan through them without paying much attention? As a photographer, I think I prefer the former.

You could argue that one does not exclude the possibility of the other; that putting them on the Web could in fact lead to more people showing up at the gallery to see the prints. That sounds good in theory, and for many artists it’s likely true. But for many people (myself included), the Web is the main venue for their work.

So what exactly am I saying? Well, three things, actually:

  • People who put their photographic work up on the Web should make an effort to curate it properly. That means choosing well, presenting nicely, and not overwhelming the viewer with too many images.
  • People who look at photographic work on the Web would be doing the photographers a big favor by slowing down and really looking at some of the images. Not necessarily all, but some. And leave a comment if the site allows it. Nobody wants their photographs to exist in a vacuum.
  • Chistroprudov Dimitri’s photographs of Moscow are really awesome. Go spend some time with them.

(Note: despite the watermark on the photographs, Christoprudov Dimitri does not seem to have a Livejournal page.)

The Queen, Queen, and Me

According to my research, Queen Elizabeth II was 49 years old when Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” came out.

That’s how old I am now.

This terrifies me because the Queen has always seemed like an old lady to me. Part of what makes it feel so weird is that BoRhap — like the Queen — has never really gone away. It (not she) is constantly reprised (or should I say “revived”) on “rock” radio stations and on American Idol, so it doesn’t seem all that dated. Unlike, for example, any given Elvis song, which would invariably sound like it came from 1000 years ago.

But here’s the kicker — I’ve always hated “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I was a young teenager when it came out, all wrapped up in big-haired guitar music from Kiss, BTO, and the less subtle strains of Led Zeppelin. I couldn’t understand how the kind of highfalutin orchestration we hear in BoRhap was supposed to be cool. To my angry and unrefined ears it sounded like a cross between a Broadway show tune and the snooty music that tea-sipping ladies enjoyed — with a bit of unmelodious guitar banging thrown in at the end for good measure.

Queen!The worst part was the dancing. You cannot dance to Bohemian Rhapsody. At least you couldn’t according to the strict dancing codes we adhered to in the time and place of my youth. (In brief, you shuffled around, more or less in time with the music, being careful not to appear very good at it or to be having much fun, lest the banner of “fag” descend upon you.) Regardless, girls loved BoRhap. They’d want to dance to it so badly they’d even grab me — surly me, crunched up in a corner conspicuously despising everything — and drag me to the dance floor. I had no choice but to comply or my odds of necking with one of them would be reduced from a high of 1% to absolute zero.

So there I’d be, stumbling through the first part of BoRhap, which is too slow and theatrical to dance to. I’d awkwardly rock from side to side while the girl ignored me and twittered (in the old fashioned sense) with her friends who in turn were subjecting various other males to this torture. Then the tempo would pick up. In our current age — that of So You Think You Can Dance and its variations and offshoots — kids would start busting moves left and right. But back then all you could do was flail around a bit more, hoping she wasn’t really looking.

On it went, for what seemed like hours. When it was finally ending I’d pray for some kind of pop song, something that I would obviously despise but at least I could pick up a beat and maybe redeem myself just a little. There was no point in hoping for a slow dance, even though nothing could have been finer than for my virginal hands to encircle the body (the body!) of a nubile classmate of the female persuasion, and to actually touch (touch!) the fabric of her blouse and to smell the faint aroma of Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo from her hair. No, BoRhap got the girls too revved up for slow dancing so no DJ would make that kind of segue.

I’d invariably get my damned pop song, but then the girl would run off to giggle with her gaggle and I’d be left there, both tortured and humiliated.

Thanks a lot, Queen.