Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Northern California Fires

We're all familiar by now with the cluster of fires which have ravaged parts of Northern California over the last 10 days. 

Like most people, I have a feeling of futility about the damage that has been caused, since the manner in which the media usually portrays such events, seems intended to create in the viewing public either a sense of hand-wringing empathy, or pointless indignation over causes and mitigations. 

I have three observations about the event. What I'm saying here doesn't in any way suggest that I do not have sympathy for those whose lives or livelihoods have been hurt or affected by tragedy. On the contrary, it's because I DO care that I make these observations. 

One: I think it's irresponsible to assume, as nearly everyone has apparently, that these fires, which began, suddenly, all at once, on Sunday the 8th of October, were the result of electrical accidents. I believe it's much more likely that some, if not all of the fires, were the work of arson, set by a mentally deranged individual, driving quickly from location to location, and igniting them in sequence. Though the "investigations" into the causes will likely take months to complete, I think the likelihood of their having occurred all at the same time, in the same general region, goes well beyond chance or accident. We'll know eventually whether my surmise is correct.

Two: Most of the fires that occur outside of large forested regions (and a few that happen inside them) usually begin close to roads or contact points. In other words, they don't begin "naturally"--they begin as a result of human error, or deliberate mischief. All such fires begin small, and grow bigger. Typically, the response time for sudden, unexpected fire events is relatively slow. Our response to such fires is scaled to the "immediate" threat they pose. Inevitably, it often seems, such small blazes "quickly" spread, engulfing hundreds of thousands of acres. By the time they've grown, they have become enormous events, requiring the coordinated action of different jurisdictions, and the probable loss of flora, property, and even peoples' lives. 

We hear a great deal about how courageous and hard-working and sacrificing our fire fighters are, about the vast resources marshaled to deal with these huge fire events. What we don't seem to hear about is how efficient such responses are in preventing small fires into larger ones. What, to be very direct, would be the value of responding with greater efficiency and force to new small fires BEFORE they were allowed to grow into large ones? A small grass fire which starts beside a well-traveled road in a semi-rural area seems a small matter, perhaps involving only an acre or two. But left alone, untended, such a fire can eventually turn into a major disaster, simply for lack of attention. What if our fire authorities descended on such "small" fires with greater speed, and resources, BEFORE they became unmanageable? The crucial point of intervention is EARLY in the process, NOT later when things have gotten completely out of hand.  


Three: A lot has been made of the destruction of a large neighborhood in Santa Rosa (see above). And without a doubt, for those affected, this is an unmitigated tragedy. The loss of homes, cars, possessions, and even of livelihoods. And a very expensive loss it will continue to be, as federal, state and local jurisdictions and charities spend and spend to provide the social safety net everyone agrees is needed.

California has been on a steep upward growth pattern for a hundred years. As the urban centers burgeon outward, through suburban sprawl, and infill, land that once was either used for agriculture, or was simply ubiquitous "open space" is covered over by housing and paving. As this continues, the intersection between development and "wild" land--the "edge"--becomes a crucial line, where conflict between nature--in the form of undomesticated animals and natural events--and human habitation comes into focus. 

In such areas--often referred to nowadays as "Mediterranean" climates or regions--where areas of foliage dry up in the Summer, the risk of fire is much greater. Farmers and ranchers have known for centuries what this risk represents. Leaving large areas of "tinder" poses risks to anyone living or working within such a region. In some parts of the world, such areas burn "naturally"--or "controlled burns" are conducted. Deliberately ignoring the fire risk posed by such vulnerable regions, through complacent urban/suburban planning, or insufficient disaster response, leads inevitably to crises of the kind we have seen. It's just a given, a simple matter of time.

The population of Santa Rosa has literally exploded over the last several decades. It's one of the fastest growing areas in the country. It isn't a "city" in the urban sense, with high density housing within a confined area. It's a huge, sprawling suburban mass, pushing out into the countryside. Both "tract" development, into the immediate surrounding jurisdictions, and more remote "custom" housing out into the outback, have been allowed to proceed, without regard either to environmental consequences, or to the risks involved in living cheek-by-jowl to dry wooded and grassy landscape. 

Those who choose to live in such places, must accept the risk that comes with exposing their lives and property to calamities they can't foresee, and which society can't (and shouldn't be expected to) control. California's growth has been posited on cheap open space, a thriving economy, and presumptions about resources that are not unlimited. This growth paradigm has gotten completely out of hand. Its manifestations are everywhere, and hardly need to be reiterated here. Suffice it to say that the "answer" isn't higher density urban centers, or easier pathways to new construction.  

These disasters are but another reminder that California has grown too big, and can no longer support these mindless expansions. Humans were never intended to live in the desert. They were never intended to live underwater, or on snowy mountain tops. Despite the engineering "miracles" we've accomplished to bring food and water and space to millions, we can't keep drawing against nature's equity forever. Why allow people to build and live in homes that are next to huge fire traps? If people choose to do so, against advice, then they need to accept the probable risk. Ultimately, we need to stop breeding like insects, and husband what resources and space still exist on the planet.   

Does this sound hard-hearted? Not if you compare it to the ruthless alternative. Mother Nature takes no prisoners.  

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Kaepernick - Hero or Victim?

I have been a fan of the 49ers, off and on, for over 60 years. My stepfather, Harry Faville, had followed the team from its inception in the late 1940's, and by the time television arrived in the mid-1950's, he'd become a confirmed armchair athlete. As a boy, I dreamed of becoming a star receiver or defensive back, but I wasn't built physically to be a football player, and that idea quickly dissolved by the time I was in junior high school. In those days, people didn't worry about the fate of professional athletes. They might be injured from time to time, but it wasn't a concern. Similarly, the political opinions of professional athletes was never something fans or the media paid any attention to. In those days (the 1950's) public figures such as athletes, Hollywood actors, artists, or national heroes might have personal beliefs and sentiments, but they weren't considered important to the general public. Fame itself wasn't a credential. 

All that has changed, of course, over the last half century. 

Today, in our media-drenched world, everyone is supposed to have an opinion about everything, and what celebrities, and private citizens think or feel about any issue, is presumed to be newsworthy and important. 

If Y.A. Tittle or Joe Perry had had opinions about Senate races or race relations, the media in those days would certainly not have considered it worth reporting, and hardly anyone would have cared if they had been. We didn't expect celebrities or high profile athletes to advise us about politics and public relations issues. 

Today, we expect Barbara Streisand and Sean Penn and Meryl Streep to tell us what they think about political candidates, and important public issues. They have a lot of capital, and they can make an impact not just with their pocketbooks, but with their public personas. Today, professional athletes may presume to offer their opinions on any subject, and we're expected to listen seriously to them, as if their fame, and their accomplishments on the field of play, made them qualified to speak with authority.     

Colin Kaepernick came to the 49ers as a rookie in 2011. In very short order, he established himself as the team's star quarterback, leading the team to a Super Bowl berth in 2012 (which he missed winning by a whisker on the last play of the game), and to a 12-4 record (and a play-off appearance) in 2013. Kaepernick was tall, strong, fast and presented defenses with the quandary of having to cover his runs as much as his passing. Following the 2014 season, team management ushered head coach Jim Harbaugh out the door, in what must be one of the stupidest moves in the history of sport. 

After two stellar seasons, Kaepernick was faced with having his role redefined by an unqualified line coach who understood nothing about guiding an NFL offense. As the team tanked under Tomsula (in 2015) and Kelly (in 2016), Kaepernick was blamed for much of the team's lack of success. 

Kaepernick was not designed to be a traditional pocket passer. Harbaugh understood that, and used him in such a way as to maximize his gifts. The frustration which hung over the team the last two years, came increasingly to be focused on his shortcomings, rather than on management's failures to find a suitable coach. Owners who blame good players for their teams' poor performance, are scapegoating, and that's exactly what happened to Kaepernick. 

Some of the frustration of the team during the 2015-16 seasons inevitably rubbed off on the players. It can't have been easy for Kaepernick, who had basked in the limelight of a Super Bowl appearance at the age of 25, after only two years in the league, to deal with the negative publicity aimed at him and his team.  In 2016, he began "taking a knee" during the National Anthem played before games. 

I have mixed feelings about the purpose and importance of our National Anthem. On the one hand, I resented having to parrot the "under God" clause in the Pledge of Allegiance. My stepfather Harry, once said that he felt playing the Anthem before every professional sports event, actually diminished its value and weight. Does playing it in this way--over and over (162 times for each game in a major league baseball season!)--really reenforce patriotic feeling and commitment, or is it just a distraction and cliché, going through the motions for the sake of appearance? 

Patriotism is a mixed bag. In any democracy, we have the right and obligation to form our separate, various opinions about issues, and to be suspicious and skeptical about what is expressed or advocated in the name or spirit of patriotism. In wartime, patriotism serves to unite and reenforce our devotion to the nation's cause. In peacetime, it may have other purposes. 

The idea that a protest of social or political conditions should be directed at the government, and its symbols (including the flag, or the National Anthem, or the Pledge of Allegiance) is a hotly debated topic. Context is very important. If Arabs burn an American flag in the streets of Cairo, that is a very different thing than kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem during a sports event. 

Public sporting events are not underwritten by our government, and they aren't by any stretch of the imagination an expression of patriotic feeling. They're entertainment, presented for the enjoyment of their audience(s), and for the sake of profit. The National Football League is a private league, a collection of very rich men and women who invest in teams and facilities as a pastime to generate financial gain. The same is true of the players, who are paid handsomely for their service. 

But why should we think that star players such as Colin Kaepernick, or Tom Brady, or Steve Young should be any more skilled or qualified to advise the general public about important political or social issues than anyone else? Does their ability to play a game well suggest that such figures deserve to be regarded as experts? Though most of the players in the NFL went to college, no one would suggest with any seriousness that as a class they have anything interesting or persuasive to offer about important issues. 

When Colin Kaepernick first began to be seen in public as the face of the 49ers franchise, he didn't even look to me to be African American. With his short haircut, and typical midwestern speech, he seemed a well-balanced fellow, neither excessively vain nor modest. But over time, he began to change. He grew big "Afro" hair, and had an air of resentment which was obvious on the field, and in front of the microphone. As the team's fortunes declined, he seem to want to transform his persona from one of talented athlete to that of a rebellious malcontent, as if to compensate for the decay of his reputation. 

Personal resentment can sometimes get mixed up with a false sense of entitlement. Kaepernick never struck me as particularly intelligent, so his increasingly "politicized" stance seemed to me to express an unfortunate confusion of opportunity. He ought to have let his commitment to his job, and his success on the field, be his statement. To use his celebrity and visibility to harangue the sports audience with his personal protest, was impertinent. 

If Kaepernick and other professional sports figures want to express their opinions about politics, they should do so in print, or in other venues. While I'm not personally invested in the notion of the public display of patriotism, I'm also inclined to view the opportunistic expression of personal opinions in sporting events as grossly inappropriate. 

Kaepernick's behavior was stupid.

Since professional sports franchises are business ventures, there is no legitimate appeal to the league for personnel decisions. If owners want to sign some players, and not others, that's their choice. If they wish to express their political or social opinions through their running of their franchises, that's their right. Owners are not required to hire or fire according to racial quotas, or to fulfill some idea of social justice. 

Personally, though I abhor Kaepernick's political antics, I think he's a very good player, and deserves to play. But he's responsible for his behavior. He may have the right to kneel during the National Anthem, assuming his boss(es), the team owners and management allow him to do so, but that doesn't in itself entitle him to be hired to play on the field. And it doesn't suggest to me that he's due some extraordinary esteem or admiration. 

Kaepernick has made a choice, one which you may or may not admire. But that doesn't suggest that any owner is obligated to hire him to play quarterback in the NFL. Kaepernick may eventually come to regret his career choices. There's a risk in taking controversial positions in public.  

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Giants in 2017 - Surveying the Devastation

At this moment, the San Francisco Giants are 60-93, dead last in their division, with the worst record in both leagues. In 2016, the team went 87-75, and made it all the way to the second round of the play-offs, losing 3 games to 1 to the Cubs, who went on to win the World Series. 

How did this happen?

The odds-makers had put the 2017 Giants in the middle of the play-off picture, picked to win 90 games. From contender to dead last in just a single year! 

There were signs of course. After a great first half in 2016, they had a dreadful second half. 

Entering 2017, the team was essentially the same as it had been the previous year, with a few minor tweaks, though those proved to be crucial.

Comparing the position player line-ups for 2016 --

1B Brandon Belt
2B Joe Panik
3B Matt Duffy / Eduardo Nunez
SS Brandon Crawford
LF Angel Pagan
CF Denard Span
RF Hunter Pence
C Buster Posey

-- to those in 2017 --

1B Brandon Belt
2B Joe Panik
3B Nunez / Sandoval
SS Brandon Crawford
LF Hernandez / Parker
CF Denard Span
RF Hunter Pence
C Buster Posey

-- you wouldn't have had the feeling this line-up could underperform to the degree it has. 

On the analytical side, it's a line-up structured around Pac Bell Park's dimensions. In exchange for fewer home runs, you hope for a lot of doubles and triples, good defense and excellent pitching. And indeed, the championship teams of 2010, 2012 and 2014 were built around excellent starting pitching,  with good set-up men and a brilliant closer. 

Since the departure of Barry Bonds after the 2007 season, management has consistently emphasized pitching and defense over power. Historically, success can be achieved with either formula. Some great teams of the 20th Century, the Yankees of the 1920's or '50's, for instance, were built around power. However given the legal reconfiguration of major league baseball, free-agency and salary caps, it's difficult for any team, no matter how well-heeled, to hold onto a squad of expensive stars. 

With respect to the dimensions of Pac Bell, a good argument can be made in favor of a team with speed and agility--stealing bases and hitting lots of doubles and triples on offense, while covering the big outfield with speed and savvy--counting on good pitching to throttle opponents' power. But any team plays only half its games at home; playing in another park with shorter dimensions can put you at a serious disadvantage if you're playing pepper while the other guys are hitting dingers. In an ideal world, you have it all, power and speed, good run production and great defense, dependable starting pitching and great closers. But maintaining this kind of balance, year in and year out, even if you can somehow bring it together temporarily, is nearly impossible. Teams form and reform, stars rise and fall, older players drop out while young ones rise. Players have good years and bad, but they seldom have them all together at the same time, with the same team. And then there are the injuries. 

This year, we lost our ace, Madison Bumgarner, to a freak accident at the beginning of the season. Had he not gone down, he was expected to win 14-18 games. That didn't happen. Samardzija, a good journeyman starter, was exposed for what he essentially is, a very talented player who will never rise to the first rank of performers. Matt Moore, a reconstruction project picked up last year for the stretch run, had a horrible time. Matt Cain, nearing the end of his career, was a shadow of his former self, while Johnny Cueto was lost for much of the year with nagging little injuries. Ty Blach, in his first full season in the bigs, showed signs of promise. Mark Melancon, signed in the off-season to replace the departed Casilla, went down with injury, too, forcing the team to use alternatives (hello, Sam Dyson). 

It's hard not to think that when Bumgarner went down, much of the rest of the team didn't fall into an emotional nose-dive, especially when none of the other starters stepped up. Belt, Crawford and Pence all have had off-years, hitting well below their usual average(s). Left field--as everyone has come to characterize it--became the "black hole" which the team seemed unable to cover. Gorky Hernandez (Gorkys Hernandez??) in left field? Jarrett Parker, apparently the heir apparent, went down to injury too, so it's still unclear whether he has the stuff to be a real regular. 

Once the season went south, management appeared to have given up too. On July 26th, in the middle of the season, they traded Eduardo Nunez, our starting 3rd baseman, to the Red Sox for minor leaguers. Christian Arroyo, another rookie at 3rd, gave hints of a possible future, then was injured. Throughout the second half, the team has cycled in a long list of minor leaguers, has-beens and also rans--Ryder Jones, Pablo Sandoval, Austin Slater, Conor Gillaspie, Aaron Hill, Mac Williamson, Justin Ruggiano, Orlando Calixte, Mike Morse, Drew Stubbs, Tim Federowicz, Derek Law, Kyle Crick, Steven Overt, Albert Suarez, etc.--none of whom seems likely to be with any major league team two years from now. It has looked a little like desperation. 

Who now on the team deserves to stay next year, and become a part of a better team?

Posey seems solid, as does Panik. We'd be stupid to let either of these stars depart. Crawford's still a great fielder, and he still leads the team in RBI's, despite having an off year at the bat. Belt's been a puzzle, throughout his career. On paper, he seems intriguing, but watching him play everyday, you have the feeling he doesn't quite realize is talent. He should be hitting 25-30 homers a year, and at least .275. He also rarely performs in the clutch. Surrounded by a great team, he looks fine, but it's hard to justify his presence here, given our power vacuum. Pence is a quandary too. When he first came here, fans were overjoyed. His enthusiasm, his hustle, his combination of speed AND power, seemed perfect. But he's become injury-prone, and he seems frequently clueless at the plate, swinging at bad balls, over-anxious. Is 2016 an anomaly, or is his career on a decline? Hard to say. I like him in right field. On balance, I feel he would be hard to replace. 

The weak spots on this team are --

Third base
Left field
First base

In the past, I've recommended the team seek to improve its power, and that's my recommendation now. Traditionally, you want production from the corner positions. 1st and 3rd should give you homers and RBI's. Ditto with left fielders. We'd like a right handed power hitter (25-30 homers, 85 RBI's) at third and in left field. 

As Posey's career enters its second phase, it would be prudent to move him to 1st, at least on a regular part-time basis, to extend his career and reduce the wear and tear on his body. With luck, he could play until he's 40, and be productive throughout his 30's. He already has Hall of Fame numbers. 

On the mound, Bumgarner's the ace. He looks durable, and there's no reason to think he won't bounce back next year. Cueto's contract status is up in the air at the moment. If he elects to stay, we could expect him to put in more good years (he's only 31). Samardzija's no favorite of mine, unless you figure him for a fourth or fifth in the rotation; if he left, I wouldn't miss him. At this point, I want no more of Moore, or Cain. Melancon may or may not be as good as his rep, but Dyson is welcome to replace him, if he can. 

So we need one more good starter, and we need a good set-up man or two. No one the team has used this year looks good enough to stay. Gearrin, Strickland, Osich, Law, Suarez, Overt--a mediocre list at best.

Once upon a time, the Giants farm system was among the best, but in recent decades, there hasn't been the same quality. My own theory is that major league baseball has too many teams, and that there's been a watering down of overall talent. Broadcasters today will talk casually about "prospects" in the minor leagues: "Then there's this fellow at Pawtucket, pretty good stuff, ERA of 5.43, a 2-5 record and impressive fast ball at 89 mph." I can remember when that kind of "performance" at Triple A wouldn't have landed you a job at the local hardware store. 

When I first started following major league baseball, in 1958, there were 16 teams, 8 in each league. Today there are 30. Imagine how much better teams would be today, if the best players of those 30 teams had to be winnowed down to fill just 16. Most of the marginal contributors would either be in the minor leagues, or out of professional ball completely. Players like Belt, Hernandez, Tomlinson, Moore, Strickland would probably be struggling in Double A. 

Is the general level of play better or worse than it was half a century ago? It's an interesting question. Can mere statistics tell the whole story? 

In 2018, the Giants will have to play better, and they will certainly need to make some changes. Can the team afford to bring in some sluggers, another quality starter, and some decent set-up hurlers? On paper, you'd think it would be possible. But does the management have the will? Is it a matter of money, or are there other factors? Just this week, Giants management opined that star hitters would be hard to convince to come play for the team, given its "difficult" ball park, and California tax rates. But these problems don't seem to have hurt the Dodgers, who have one of the most feared line-ups of all, and will win our division title for the fifth year in a row.  

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

John Ashbery [1927-2017]

When we remember someone we've known, who has died, we may choose, voluntarily or not, to recall them at a certain age in their life. We are all oldest at the point we depart life, but who we were in a larger sense, encompasses the full breadth of our lives, not just the oldest version. Few people are famous as children, or achieve fame at an early enough age that we think of them always as young, immature, and familiar. Perhaps people remember Judy Garland, or Shirley Temple in a perpetual childhood state, as if their having grown up were an afterthought to the larger-than-life quality they projected at the height of their being. 

John Ashbery was precocious from an early age, but developed as a writer somewhat more slowly, reaching an impressive degree of fame in his forties, with the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror [1975]. His earlier work had been somewhat notoriously "difficult"--a quality routinely remarked about his work. 

As a young aspiring poet in the 1960's and '70's, I encountered Ashbury's work first by finding a copy of his Tennis Court Oath [Wesleyan University Press, 1962] in a student bookstore while a student at Berkeley in 1968. I wasn't sure what to make of it, but its impressionistic, synesthetic qualities I found intriguing, despite my inability (or unwillingness?) to understand the narrative structure of his poems. It would be later that I would find out about his Dada, Surrealist sources of inspiration, which took some of the mystery (and intrigue) out of my earlier apprehension. When you are young, you may impute mysterious qualities to things simply because of your own innocence or ignorance. 


Ashbery's career unfolded in an odd way. The first two books, Some Trees and Tennis Court, were challenging and unapproachable for the general reader. Rivers and Mountains [1966] was a bit more apprehensible, and the camp The Double Dream of Spring [1970] seemed fully formed, mature work. Three Poems [1972] was like meditative prose-poetry, almost a kind of philosophical tract. So when Self-Portrait appeared, its meditative flow struck just the right note, and won all the prizes. Had Ashbery finally crossed over from hermetic abstruseness to fully realized accessibility? 

As time wore on, Ashbery's productivity increased, turning out almost a book every two years over the next three decades. Rather than becoming clearer and more sensible, his work became difficult again. After Self-Portrait, I tended to lose interest in his poetry, which struck me as repetitive and playful in a frustrating way. Whereas Tennis Court had been innovative and experimental, Self Portrait had been a triumph, a synthesis of organization combined with unusual insights. His later work became increasingly camp and nonsensical, as if these qualities mattered most. 

I have thought over the last 30 years, that Ashbery had written too much, a feeling I tended to have about other writers, such as John Updike, and W.S. Merwin. It seemed to me that Ashbery had become so facile, that he could turn out a poem at any time, with his characteristically elusive elaboration, without the least provocation. Nearly all of his work is filled with fascinating observations, reports of feeling and concept--but these aspects don't necessarily cohere into unified works of art. The point Ashbery seemed to be making was that they didn't need to. He had "done that" before, so why write it again? 

Ashbery's long denouement will have to await the judgment of history, but for me, his career's apex is Self-Portrait, followed by a series of extended footnotes. 

I had two interactions with him. The first was when he generously agreed to give me poems for a little magazine I was editing in the mid-70's--which, unfortunately, I was never able to use. The second was when I discovered a book that had belonged to him back when he was a graduate student in the early 1950's. I wrote a two-part blog about my speculations regarding the influence of this text on his work, and he wrote me about it. In both instances, he was cordial and not in the least difficult or condescending. 

Ashbery was among the handful of writers who were important to me in my writing life. Sophisticated to a fault, deeply intelligent, open-minded, mischievous, ambitious and tireless. The photo above would be from about the time he would have been writing Self Portrait, I think. It shows a young man, casual and relaxed, with an intense curiosity and determination--qualities that you can sense in his work. Ashbery lived a very long life, and was totally redeemed by his successful writing. When someone lives for that long (aged 90) there is little to mourn, because nothing is wasted. He used it all up, a self-consuming artifact of time. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Self-Critique III

Can anyone be a fair judge of their own artistic effort? Writers and artists run the spectrum of attitude, from vain boastfulness and pride, to quiet modesty and tact. Courtesy suggests any artist must refrain from indulging in too much self-promotion; whereas a real confidence may express itself as passive acceptance of the judgment of history and the marketplace. A jury of your peers has a nice ring, but we know that fairness and justice are seldom the driving forces of prizes and grants and praise. I've never been shy about offering my aesthetic opinions. Some people believe, apparently, that artistic endeavor is already so difficult, that negative criticism should be avoided, to protect the tender sensibilities of those who might be unable to handle rejection. 

Any honest craftsman welcomes criticism, which may help to define meaning and effect, and guide further development. But trying to see your own work, objectively, requires a special kind of disinterestedness. Am I willing to subject myself to the same standard that I set for others? Can I apply a higher standard to myself than I maybe aspired to? Am I willing to admit to myself that my standards weren't high enough, or that I fell short simply because I lacked the inherent talent from the beginning? These are uncomfortable questions which any artist or writer faces, even if they never discuss them in public. Ultimately, any serious critic must insist that merely trying is not enough, and that failure must be a possibility in art, as it is in life. In the arts, "A for effort" can't be on the menu. 

My photographs clearly belong to a tradition of "straight" image making that has its origins in the 19th Century--Timothy H. O'Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, Edward S. Curtis, Darius Kinsey, Robert Adamson, David Octavius Hill, etc.--which then evolves fully in the 1930's via the f64 Group, which included Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, Cunningham, Van Dyke, Lavenson, etc. For a time at the turn of the 20th Century, so-called "soft image" work was favored, partly out of deference to the "artistic" qualities of painting, which was ironically undergoing its own formal crisis in reaction to the invention of photography. Just as straight depiction in painting was beginning to disintegrate, photography was finally throwing off its painterly preoccupations and declaring accuracy and vividness as its chief values. If photography could achieve the verisimilitude of "reality," painting could be free to explore other spheres of expression. 

By the time I'd entered the field in 1985, serious large format photography--primarily black and white, but moving inexorably forward with color as well--had been accepted as a valid art form. The high art values achieved by Strand, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams in the 1940's/'50's and after, were commonly accepted, and all the major museums in the Western World now mount photographic exhibitions right alongside the plastic media. 


For many years, there was a debate about the value of photographic prints. In theory, any photographic negative may be endlessly reproduced (printed). In fact, it's nearly impossible to make so-called "identical" prints through individual exposure and development, even assuming that materials (paper, chemicals, etc., which may be proprietary or privately concocted) are uniform to begin with. The simple fact is that producing more than a handful of superior prints is difficult. In addition, any successful photographer knows that control of an edition is part of the process of controlling the value, particularly with very popular images. Once a photographer closes a print run, or dies, the number is fixed. 

As I have mentioned, my own working methods were determined in part by my expectation. I never imagined that my work would ever be shown in galleries, and I could see no particular reason to have multiple prints (mounted or not) of images. Once I had achieved a print that satisfied me, I stopped working on it. Usually, I ended up with only 1-3 prints of a satisfactory image. I never expected my prints to "sell" anywhere, so there seemed no point in have additional ones. Was this an expression of my artistic "modesty" or simple pragmatic efficiency? Perhaps laziness had something to do with it. 

Ansel Adams once said, acting as the promulgator of his medium, that "the specter of the hobby is always lurking" behind every amateur photographer, by which he meant, if I read him right, that most people stop short of realizing their full potential photographers, simply by shirking the challenge, excusing their reluctance by calling it a pastime (or a "hobby") instead of the art it can be. It's like a conscience call. 

By moving up to larger and larger negative formats, I believed that I could achieve greater accuracy and tonal scale in my work. It was also upping the ante, a commitment which the larger and more demanding (and expensive) equipment would enable. Could I have achieved my goals with smaller formats? Probably not. I had seen how even a 2 1/2 square negative would blur even at 8x10 dimension. "Blow ups" were fine, as long as you didn't get too ambitious. But I was ambitious! I'd seen what Adams and Weston could do with 8x10, and that's the potential I wanted to test in my own work. I didn't exactly want to make photographs just like theirs, but I knew that this was a journey I wanted to take, even if it resulted in failure. 

Photography is forgiving enough, that if you use the very best equipment, and the best materials, the odds are that you'll make work that may impress people. 

In truth, I was more than willing to let the large format images I knew I could achieve, stand in the beginning for what I wanted. Standing on the rim of Canyon de Chelly and blasting away at the canyon walls below may have been like shooting fish in a barrel, but I couldn't resist the lure of the iconic. And the really big 11x14 negatives I could make, would guarantee that my contact prints would be at least as impressive as any smaller format versions. The greater challenge, naturally, was in finding compositions that were completely original, and not just later examples of the same subjects. 

Harry Callahan said that a good photographer was never more than 10 feet away from a great picture. But accepting that as an aesthetic axiom does not necessarily imply that one should be limited to that range of possibility. There are landscape photographers who wander the world restlessly for any kind of exotic picture, even hiring bush pilots and helicopters to get them into the right position or remote location. Both extremes--resisting the exotic, or embracing it--seem unnecessary to me. I think it's possible to construct compelling photos out of arrangements of objects in a room. But that doesn't imply that hiking around the Alabama Hills on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada isn't also a fruitful approach. 


Serious landscape photographers may think of themselves as pioneers, in much the same way that Timothy O'Sullivan was, in the 19th Century. Though the rigors of the outback are nothing like they were in his time, with mule-teams to carry his baggage, there is still the excitement and pleasure of being outdoors, away from "civilization," on the hunt for the wild, untamed, unspoiled natural wonders. That may sound like a cliché, unless you've hiked five miles with a 30lb. view camera on your back, carrying a 12 lb. wooden tripod up a steep trail to a promising overlook. 


Though many of my photographs are of classic subject matter--compositions that others have essayed, with greater or lesser success, I think that most of them deserve to be appreciated. My images all have a strong sense of organization, a sensitivity to context, as well as a respect for traditional pictorial values. They aren't humorous. They aren't kooky. They don't strain for effect. 

As a conservationist, I have a preservationist's concern for the environment. Some photographers are willing to allow their art to reflect the devastation man has caused on the earth. Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz. There is pain in their photographs, and disgust, and outrage. Even hopelessness. Is it apposite to use your art to make deliberate political statements with your camera? No doubt. But the choice to do so will subtract from the opportunity to appreciate what we most value. Probably the best expression of preservation for a fisherman is not to fish at all, and to insist that no one else does either. As a fly fisherman, I am sensitive to the use I make of fresh water habitat, but the point is to live, not refrain from experience, either as a protest or as a sacrifice. 


For me, no photograph could be "merely" pretty and be truly compelling. There must be an underlying mystery, a quality of power or eccentric design which keeps us looking, keeps us coming back, to attempt to unravel what's intriguing to our eye. Though oil storage tanks--big cylinders full of raw or refined petroleum--aren't pretty, I thought that the message implied here by the oddly named company logo, with the criss-crossing grid lines unintentionally setting out an ironic pattern of mathematical meaning, told me something about the world. This photograph was taken with an 8x10 view camera. It could obviously have been snapped with a 35 millimeter hand-held, and the resulting "content" would be the same. But for me, the importance of the "message" of the picture was enhanced by the clarity and crispness of the accuracy of the lens. People who wander about with little hand held cameras, snapping away happily, are missing something. 

One of the best aspects about large format cameras, is the methodical routine you go through to set up for a shot. It involves a sequence of decisions. Nothing worth doing in the arts is really easy, and much of the inconvenience of large format photography is really an imposed discipline. It forces you to think about depth of field, about vantage, and about the ambient conditions. Though there may be occasions when time is of the essence--when the available light or transient shadows are fleeting--in general the best photographs occur under conditions of calm pursuit, allowing the unfolding process to dictate what your desire can realize. And then there's luck!

You have to be ready to experience the unexpected. Interesting photographs often become possible under changing conditions, and these may occur under unusual or hazardous conditions. One of my best photographs was taken during a dreary rainy morning in Tilden Park, when the light was drab, and my equipment and I were getting wet. I almost had no idea what would come of this picture, and for some years afterwards, I was uncertain about whether it was a good photograph, or not. But people I showed the image to, told me it fascinated them. The tree trunks almost seemed to be translucent! 


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Self-Critique II

Reflexivity in self-regard presents difficulties. Is regarding oneself critically an exercise in myopic delusion? Can anyone be truly objective about the products of one's own imagination? One's own craft? 

Like many people who pursue photography seriously, I began in admiration and idolatry, moved on to imitation, and eventually found myself in the uncharted territory of original exploration. Imitation will take you only so far in any artistic medium. Eventually, you have to ask yourself whether what you're doing has any purpose beyond reprocessing others' work. 

In deciding to pursue landscape photography seriously, there were several aspects to consider. There's the investment in equipment, the opportunity to explore remote locations, access to a suitable work-space, and the purpose toward which all that expenditure and time spent leads. Harry Callahan remarked once that the one thing he knew for certain, what kept him going, was the certainty that the one thing he wanted, at the start of each day, was to photograph. It was a reliable compulsion. And that's pretty much what I felt when I began; I knew I wanted to make pictures. And as I became more familiar with it, the more I liked it. 

There are many kinds of photography, many approaches to subject matter. I admire many of these different kinds of work, though not all. There are things that photography can do well, while some others seem to work directly against the advantage of image-making. Deliberately making blurry images, for instance, seems to me a distortion of the meaning of photography. It's many times harder to make a precise depiction of a real scene, than it is to do with a camera. This would suggest that whatever potential lies in the direction of that precision is closer to the soul of photography. 


One of the first things you notice about serious landscape photography is the tendency to portray "big scenes"--and I was typical in my initial fascination with the heroic images that the great landscape photographers--Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Michael Kenna, and dozens of others--had made. But I also have a strong reductivist tendency in my nature. I like the closely seen detail, presented with intense concentration. And I also love "abstraction" as a genre, the interest in surfaces or spaces that are not about what they are, but what they may mean as pure form, or texture, or metaphorical suggestiveness. 

Ultimately, the best landscape photography isn't about the celebration of place, but about the transcendence of place (and name). Beyond referentiality, there's a purer appreciation of any scene than the simply referential can summon. Most photographs are recognizable images, but it's how they are seen, arranged, portrayed, that makes interesting work. Any tourist can perch on the edge of the Grand Canyon, or at the margin of the Pacific Ocean, and snap away, probably in color. The sense of inspiration people feel before awesome natural scenes is rarely interpreted by their cameras, because they don't understand how to translate the feeling into a compelling composition. All sunsets are equally a subset of "sunset" but all are different, and it's that difference, made into photographs, that makes all the difference

If all landscape photographers are aspiring towards the same goal, in what sense may they actually define themselves, to set themselves apart? Many of the images in my book are of subjects that all landscape photographers pursue: Dunes, mountains, waves, trees, flowers, canyons, cars, buildings. So it can't just be that the choice of subject matter determines the quality of your work. Obviously, no one can "own" a place simply by having successfully photographed it, though the way one great image has been made, or done, may close the door permanently on all future versions of that scene. Anyone trying to re-do Adams's Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite, will merely end up in slavish imitation. But no one would suggest that Yosemite Valley has "been done" once and for all. There are always more images, more points of vantage, more variations of light, atmosphere and condition to be explored and exploited. 

Ideally, I always wanted to do several kinds of photographs, but you have to follow your nose to the places that inspire you. Landscape photography sometimes may seem like a pantheon of shrines, familiar spots on the planet nearly everyone is drawn to. As you approach them, you do so with respect, and awe. They are magical places, which may yield up their beauty or mystery to your lens, or not. Sometimes it's all about luck. There's an old saying in photography, that photographers don't "take" photographs; photographs "take them."  Paul Caponigro has said that the process by which a photographer makes an image is an entirely mysterious one, in which a number of elements of opportunity and chance converge. This "moment" may be fleeting, or voiceless, or may seem invisible to the untrained eye. One is, in this sense, "given" to complete certain image, chosen by fate or some higher power to be allowed to perform it. It's like a gift. 


I'm not ordinarily a mystical guy. Not religious. Not interested in superstition. But I think there really is something to the notion that one is given to have certain images. It's a combination of desire, accident, timing, unconscious intuition, and perhaps divine intervention (though I'd not be willing to emphasize the divine part). I remember trying to set up this image taken at Death Valley Dunes. The heavy wood tripod I was using kept sinking deeper and deeper into the sand, changing the composition each time I looked through the ground glass to focus. Every so often the wind would blow little bits of sand off the crest of the wave. Standing as still as I could, with the shutter in my hand, using the dark-slide to shield the lens from the sun's rays. And I had no idea whether the negative would develop in the manner I had planned. All these ponderable issues can build up and overwhelm the most inspired visions!


I've talked around the issue of value, but I realize that the point of criticism isn't merely descriptive. Great critics teach you more than they cut you down to size. That was true of Edmund Wilson, or Hugh Kenner. But there are few serious critics of art photography, and few of those spend much effort in attacking what they don't like. 

In the final post, I'll try to estimate the value of what I have published in this book, without being either too easy, or too hard on myself. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Self-Critique I

Coffee table books. Somehow, the phrase suggests decadence, frivolity, perhaps self-indulgence. There's by now a long tradition, over the last century, of books designed to exist as a kind of furniture, as appurtenances of upper-middle-class ostentation, created to be seen or experienced as tasteful extravagances on living-room tables. Early in the 20th Century, photography joined art, travel and architecture as one of the proper subjects for such containers. As the technology of printing progressed, it has become more and more possible to produce printed photo-books that could rival original photographic prints from which they were derived; and with the arrival of the digital revolution, it has finally become possible to make printed images which are just about equal in quality to originals.   

When I first took up large formate photography seriously in the mid-1980's, it was in large measure in response to the imagery I had seen in books. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Caponigro, William Clift, Imogene Cunningham. Though my original impulse had been documentary--to create color images of Japan, where we were living in 1985--I quickly realized that the real challenge, the true seduction (if you will) was in making carefully controlled and produced black and white compositions that left nothing to chance. Mastering the technique of making large negatives and transferring them to fully realized prints would require some materials, and some trial and error, but with devotion, and a little luck, I soon became capable of doing so. 

I'm not sure today, over thirty years later, what my initial expectations were, but clearly I wasn't expecting to enter the competitive world of galleries and workshops and fine monographs. Then what was I thinking? I suppose, given that I've always been a "book person," I was unconsciously imagining that my work would one day find its way into a book. Producing prints for gallery walls is a daunting proposition. Typically, when I worked on a print, I would stop when I'd made a single print that I found satisfying. The idea of replicating that target print with a run, say, of 20 or 50 or a hundred copies, seemed absurd, since I had no audience, and no gallery owner to market them for me.  I've never enjoyed the schmoozing and self-promotion that most "serious" photographers have to engage in, either as the subject of my own campaign, or as a "camp follower." I suppose this is partly an ego thing: I don't want to pretend that I think my work is better than it is on the one hand, and I don't like genuflecting to someone who is presumably higher than I am on the pyramid. I don't like vying inside the aesthetic class system--it's a distraction and a bore. 

Nevertheless, the idea of having a book of my images was always there in the back of my mind, and by the end of the first decade of the new century, I was finally able to consider underwriting such a publication all by myself. I'm not bothered by the vanity charge; indeed, anyone who has had to submit to the machine of publication by a typical publisher, understands the compromises that go along with it. Except for a handful of household names, hardly anyone can claim to have marketable photographic material in any medium whatsoever. In order for any art to exist on its own terms, without relying on the organs of culture, it must either be entirely free of obligation, or be so carefully husbanded that it's untouchable. Without having gone to the trouble of promoting my work through galleries and workshops, I could hardly expect any "reputable" publisher to consider doing a book of my work. Art book publishing is risky enough, even with established artists and photographers.   

With the advent of increasingly precise digital printing, it finally became possible in the last decade or so, to transfer large flat-print images into digital files that could be fed into digital laser-printing machines, which in turn could be made into astonishingly impressive physical pages, even as the organic chemical processes of the old technology were rapidly being supplanted by digital projection media. At some point, I realized that producing a collection of my images in a book was really the ultimate fulfillment of my interest. A book allows you to choose and sequence your images, and to control the parameters of the presentation, in a way you really can't in a gallery. Though a book is certainly a commercial object, in the sense that it may be sold on the open market, it's much less dependent upon sales, than the way a gallery depends upon the purchases of prints. Some galleries use exhibition monographs to promote sales, as if books were just selling tools. But for me, the book is an end in itself, what I'd always imagined as the sublimation of the process, from pre-visioning to darkroom printing to collection.    

This year, I finally decided that the time had come to explore making a book from the prints I had stored in my darkroom. Did I have enough good work to fill a book? Was I certain enough of my accomplishment to risk making a fool out of myself?    

If you haunt the bookstalls of new or used book dealers, you know that every year there are thousands of poorly conceived photo-books. Many of them are in color, and most of them are artistically drab and careless. Though available digital technology would allow finer productions, few publishers seem willing to spend more on quality, and even fewer seem capable of conceiving tasteful presentations. Many follow ephemeral trends, trying to cash in on temporary aesthetic fads. Every year, there seems to be another "exploitation" book on Ansel Adams, with blurry reproductions, intended to capitalize on his reputation. 

And of course, much of the work that finds its way into books doesn't rise to a level of quality that really deserves wide dissemination. So the question remains: Is the work good enough to justify spending the resources to summarize it in the synthesis of a material text? Each artist must answer that question for him/herself. I've always believed that I was my own best critic, that I was really the only one qualified to answer that question, at least with respect to my own work. In a sense, I don't care what other people think. If people dislike your work, you can't control that. There are artists who try to placate their audience, who depend upon others to define their sense of themselves and their work. Ultimately, that kind of obsequiousness doesn't interest me. I'm not looking to "please" people, particularly when it comes to confirming my own worth or vision. If people like your work, great. But if they don't, you can't rely on that as the measure of your own commitment. 


Most art books exist within the confluence of art and the market. But art isn't just a marketplace. And there's the simple pleasure of presenting something you've made, with effort and pride, to the world at large. For me, there are few things in life as exciting as making an object--a poem, a drawing, a photograph, a landscape design--out of your own inspiration, bringing it into being. "Did I really do that?" Wow. And your confidence in doing so will be reflected in the quality of your product, not in the sense of a marketable product, but as a child of your creativity. You wouldn't put your own child up for sale or auction; so why would you think your art could be treated like any kind of commodity? 

I know of few things that are as gratifying as launching an artifact into the world, so that it acquires an independent existence, with its own integrity. In a sense, artistic vanity and ambition fall away from a valid object, in such a way as to honor the act, and not the individual person. My ambiguity with respect to the artifact may seem unusual, but in the end we're all just custodians--not just of the things we produce or own during our lives, but of the insights and records and residue we leave behind. Posterity will decide what to do with our efforts. That part is out of our hands. 


In the next part of this blog, I'll address some of the contextual and critical implications of my work. The art book as material object. The meaning and scope of the images (content). 

End Part I