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February 23, 2004

Emerging Photographers and the Pursuit of Glory Pt 1

My apologies for being offline a little longer than I would have liked...apart from being busy with some unanticipated things, I've been trying to set up a wireless network at home with multiple operating systems...a bit of challenge for me which, needless to say, makes photography seem like a walk in the park by comparison...

Anyway, when I wasn't online reading various tutorials and tech support documents, or spending time on the phone with a tech support person, I was jumping around between various online and offline sources of photographic creativity, commercial and artistic. The theme that suggested itself after a few hours (and days) of frequently interrupted browsing was that of prolific creativity (raw and polished) and passionate personal projects... coming from "emerging" photographers out there shooting fashion, advertising, photojournalism, fine art, or just shooting for themselves. But the balance between nurturing that creativity and making a buck and a name for yourself seems a pretty tenuous balance, and it doesn't seem to favor the photographer too much...at least not financially nor in terms of fame.

I'm not even talking about the photographers regularly linked to by my esteemed online blogging colleagues at Conscientious, flux+mutability, pretty serendipities or defocused...many of the photographers featured on these sites have sophisticated web sites built with flash, representation with a gallery, and several big commercial shoots under their belt for multinational corporations. Though they may not be household names in the US or globally (few photographers are), they've reached a certain tier or level that gets their name and work circulated widely (or at least they market themselves effectively to appear that way).

But there seems to be a considerably larger subculture of photographers that plug along with personal projects and yes, quality commercial work too...but don't necessarily have the cachet of some of the trendier names of the moment. Or they've had their moment in the sun (a big gallery show, features in several magazines, a limited run book, etc), and are trying to get back in the limelight. Or they have a more country-specific or region-specific appeal, or fill some other aesthetic/commercial niche. These names don't show up when we're browsing through photography, fashion, and news magazines, or when we take a trip to museums and galleries, or even when we pick up a specialist photography magazine...or if they do, their stay is very brief, and they leave our memory quickly.

Of course, one could argue that this is the case for most artists, but photography is particularly fascinating because it's a medium where significant bodies of work can be generated more rapidly, and are ostensibly generated in greater quantities and for different commercial and artistic purposes...there are boatloads of anonymous sculptors and painters out there as well, but probably many more photographers with stacks of images pursuing multiple worthwhile projects.

Would a better comparison would be the endless variety of musicians out there cranking out songs and albums in anonymity, just as talented photographers crank out the images? Maybe, maybe not. Music, whether classical, jazz or pop, is an art form, but it's also a consumer object and commodity that lends itself better to sampling, to widespread distribution and to quick aesthetic appreciation than photography...in short, it's a better consumer object and fetish object around which significant subcultures can be built, relative to photography, even though the web benefits both art forms in providing access to a wider range of work.

The increasing digitization of images renders them equal to music in terms of audience access, hypothetically speaking, but many aspects of photography suffer from the translation to the web (most especially fine arts black and white images and almost anything done in large format). And of course, the fear of piracy that's plagued the music business renders many photographers and agencies equally unwilling to share their images in anything more than a thumbnail view online...though this is changing, and gradually younger photographers are becoming more comfortable with the web as a medium for displaying their work. But still, the gallery, the photography book, and the (well produced) glossy magazine are the best venues for appreciating quality photography...which leaves out of view a large range of potentially interesting photographers who can't crack these venues.

I reflect on all this as I perused a couple of thick, expensive, glossy but far from mainstream print magazines in Doingbird Magazine and Pictured Magazine. Pictured Magazine is a British publication with a commercial focus that aims to showcase creativity from photography professionals around the world. You can see a sampling of images from their most recent issue on their website, but what distinguishes this magazine (besides its intelligent selection of worthwhile commercial images) is its writing and features.


Articles of note in the current magazine are a feature on the commercial German photography market and a feature on Nadav Kander, one of the more interesting commercial and fine art photographers out there. (There's also a short piece on the cult of Lomo photography, though perhaps it's just as well it's not online, as it casts a skeptical eye on the Lomo aesthetic).

I find Pictured fascinating and a good survey of what's going on with photography from a commercial perspective, but I also find it frustrating because it reduces many good photographers to their latest commercial projects... a few serviceable images reproduced in their accounting of a Diesel, New Balance or other advertiser campaign. Only the feature on Kander has space to put his fine arts work and commercial work in some sort of perspective, and provides the right amount of quality imagery to get a sense of the photographer and the artist.

And when I want to find out more about what some of the other featured photographers are doing on their own? Well, ideally, the web comes to the rescue here, and in the case of some of the more well-known artists in the latest issue of Pictured (Sam Taylor-Wood, Craig McDean), there are reasonable online resources (it helps if you've shot Madonna, like McDean has). But for interesting photographers I'd never encountered before, like Leonora Hamill or Thirza Schaap, it can be frustrating to find little to nothing...when I checked Hamill's page, all the image links were broken. Hamill's work intrigues me, as it features large format color portraits of people (subtly staged) and their favorite novels.


Color portrait by Leonora Hamill.

Hamill is part of a worthwhile "Underexposed" series in the center of Pictured magazine, which also features the emotional landscapes of Spencer Murphy, who views much of his work as self-portraits of a sort. He at least has done well with his website (particularly the "Landscapes" section), even though the images are a bit on the small side, and don't project their air of mystery online nearly as well as they do on the printed page.

Then you have Doingbird magazine, an Australian fashion magazine that is nearly 300 pages of fashion portfolios from a wide variety of photographers, some with cachet (notably Terry Richardson) and many I'd never heard of. I admit it could be my US-centric myopia that makes these names unfamiliar to me, but a search online didn't dig up much more information on many of the interesting contributors.

Doingbird's 7th issue is a fabulous survey of current fashion photography, and it is much more adventurous than the vast majority of magazines out there, for better or worse. A lot of the photography featured contains beautiful subjects but is far from conventionally "beautiful"...there's grain, weird color, off-kilter compositions, blur, and a complete absence of models or people in general in some of the images. Among the highlights are Rachael Cassells' almost retro use of pushed color film to produce atmospheric grain in her nighttime images, Christophe Cufos' very flatly toned sepia fashion model portraits, and Coppi Barbieri's use of hypersaturated color to juxtapose macros of bugs with fashion model detail (no kidding)...here's an example of a layout:


Coppi Barbieri layout, from Doingbird #7.

Both Barbieri and Keetja Allard, another interesting contributor, have their entire Doingbird portfolios online, and though they're diminished from the high quality printing of the magazine (especially Barbieri's), they're still worth checking out. (Allard does have one of the slicker flash websites around, along with a nice background music mix...but of course this has nothing to do with good photography, though it doesn't hurt)

Finally, the latest issue of Doingbird gave me the chance to gain a new appreciation for the work of Collier Schorr, a more hyped photographer in the New York art circuit who's even featured on PBS' Art in the 21st century series. Her most notable projects have profiled German soldiers (photographing them in the German landscape), and currently she has an exhibition at New York's 303 Gallery featuring images of high school wrestlers.

Schorr's portraits of soldiers and wrestlers seem noble enough at first glance (if a little pro forma), but her Doingbird fashion spread, which features one pretty young preppy Caucasian male after another, dressed in Calvin Klein, Prada, Hilfiger and other designer labels, perversely converted me to her way of seeing...and believe me, preppy fashion spreads are no favorites of mine generally. But she's got a way of bathing these pretty boys in romantic light and oddly saturated Egglestonian color that puts them on an peculiarly distanced pedestal for worship...she has a way of fetishizing masculinity yet inviting questions about it at the same time.


Collier Schorr, Overhead (cornfield) from Forests and Fields

I'm not sure how compelling Schorr's wrestling images will be, based on the limited online view, but she's someone I'm going to pay more attention to. At least she has the benefit of the hype. There seem to be many more photographers, though, who have nothing more than talent and ambition, and who warrant attention. All one can do, I guess, is look out online and offline for their work, and hope these photographers can make increasingly creative use of the online medium to show off their projects and their artistry, limitations of the web be damned. This is a discussion that has many more dimensions to it...and I'll continue the discussion and revisit some of these themes in future posts.

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Hi just wanted to say thanks for the review in your emerging photographers... section. It's nice to get a mention. As far as the images on the website are concerned I will eventually update this so you can view them on a larger scale (exactly my thoughts).
It's a real shame pictured is no more, I'm not sure what's left for people with little or no success to get there pictures out there?
Anyway thanks for the mention.
All the best,

Posted by: Spencer Murphy at May 26, 2004 5:12:08 AM

Good eye for noticing the jaggered love fest that is Doingbird. I am a good friend of Max and Malcolm, who craft these books with passion. And believe me, they have proclaimers and lovers of their work all over town, but unfortunately people in this town don't like too many rebels unless they get taken along for the ride.

Enough from me, for I am just a figment of the dust within my eyes who only highlights the love I feel for my friends who are struggling to stay alive, survive while somehow keeping it real.


Posted by: Frank Unsworth at Sep 5, 2005 11:52:34 PM

All the pics on this site are good i have to say but the one color portrait of the women reading her book and is facing the camera, really took me by suprise. It caught my eye, it goes right to the woman's face because of her makeup and her facial expression in the pic looks really good like she doesn't mind being there.

Posted by: Jordyn Gray at Oct 15, 2008 8:32:01 PM

All the pics on this site are good i have to say but the one color portrait of the women reading her book and is facing the camera, really took me by suprise. It caught my eye, it goes right to the woman's face because of her makeup and her facial expression in the pic looks really good like she doesn't mind being there.

Posted by: Jordyn Gray at Oct 15, 2008 8:32:05 PM