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June 29, 2004

Street and Platinum Portfolios from Canada, and Consumer Culture In A Sickly Light

Time seems to be generous to even the most basic of documentary or street photographs from years past, and gives them the ability to catch our attention and even make us gasp, decades after the images have been captured...especially given how relentlessly corporate expansion has homogenized street life, city architecture, and retail spaces in the last 20 to 30 years. The most memorable images seem to come from grand stages like the streets of New York in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, which provided the setting for thousands of memorable photographs taken by the likes of Weegee, Garry Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, and countless others.

But there are many pleasures to be found in ways of life documented in streets and communities outside of the glamor and grit of Weegee and Winogrand's New York or Cartier-Bresson's Paris or even Eggleston's Memphis. One modest discovery I came across recently was Ian MacEachern, a Canadian photographer whose street and documentary B&W photographs from over 30 years ago are a pleasure to view for their humor, timing and quiet insight into a different world.

MacEachern has his own website where one can view multiple portfolios thoughtfully arranged around different themes (including an interesting set of images of a Velvet Underground performance in Canada from 1966), but the most comprehensive and best looking selection may be at (of all places) photo.net, where he has assembled an outstanding set of portfolios...apart from the large and broad "Single Images" folder, "Asylum" and "St. John's" are also excellent. (It wouldn't be photo.net, of course, without a few random and irrelevant pieces of "constructive" criticism regarding suggested crops and distracting elements, but these are thankfully minimal). A short interview with MacEachern regarding his St. John images can be found here.


"New Society" Ian MacEachern image


"Splash" Ian MacEachern image

* Also from Canada, Elizabeth Siegfried is a photographer specializing in platinum prints with a series of portfolios mining some familiar themes (familiar especially to the alt-process crowd) -- self, imagined narratives around psyche, aging and decay, and nudes. Platinum prints tend to display poorly online, so Siegfried has done the smart thing and kept the images small, but has organized and presented them well within a site that has the appropriate look and feel for the themes she explores (and the processes she employs). The portfolios that I liked were A Sense of Place (where the use of historical images effectively combines with the self-portraits to illuminate the broader themes of modernity encroaching on family and place), and Lifelines (an intelligently sequenced series of self-portraits, still lifes and landscapes). (Note: The portfolios as a whole are slightly confusing to navigate in that some images repeat themselves several times across portfolios).

* Fast forward to the present, where Chicago-based Brian Ulrich's Not if But When is a more contemporary depiction of crises of self, the encroachment of modernity, and the lamentable replacement of street life with mall culture. This is heavily trod ground, but Ulrich's amazing use of the dehumanizing white light of shopping spaces and his flair for composition and found moments make for an arresting (and weirdly addictive) critique of consumer culture. (The 43 image Copia portfolio, in particular, is a tour-de-force). From Ulrich's artist's statement:

" ...post 9-11, citizens were admonished to take to the malls to boost our economy through shopping. My photographs of excessive, corporate, and sometimes hyper-real spaces document the everyday activities of consumption. By scrutinizing these rituals -- ones we often take for granted -- I hope to help us evaluate the increasing complexities of our everyday world. As world events grow beyond our control, is this how we will cope?"


Brian Ulrich image

Ulrich's use of rather unflattering indoor ambient light is a striking contrast to what a large number of commercial (and quite a few fine art) photographers are doing, which is using flash or strobes to provide a particular type of artifice to contemporary photographs. A recent post from Kevin at Botzblog talks about this -- about the flattering and interestingly "unnatural" possibilities of strobe as practiced by accomplished contemporary photographers like Brian Finke and (I would add) Nathaniel Welch. This speaks to a point that Kevin didn't make directly, but could be inferred -- that such "unnatural" light has interesting creative possibilities, as it can both highlight and subtly critique the subjects and phenomena captured (in Hinke's case, cheerleaders and football players, in Welch's case, spring break party animals).

While I acknowledge the talent of both Welch and Finke, I think Ulrich is more effective with the "ugly" available light of department stores and malls, despite his more overtly didactic approach, simply because he's found a way to use his compositions along with the light to find a quiet but highly effective and damning way to make his points...Ulrich probably didn't have a choice to use flash in most cases, but I'm struck by how much I like what he's done with what he had to work with.

With both Welch and Finke, on the other hand, (who granted, are shooting rather different subjects, but are addressing some of the same themes), it's sometimes difficult to tell whether they're applauding what they're photographing or criticizing it, and when there is an attempt to convey absurdity or provide a critique, the way the artificial light is used serves to broadcast the critique with a bit too much volume. Like it or not, the frequent use of such strobe techniques in editorial and advertising photography -- for generally "positive" subject matter and themes -- also tends to reduce the power and nuance of such techniques when applied in more personal work, because of the overwhelming prominence of the style of the commercial images in people's minds. Both photographers still capture some amazing moments, but there's a more uneasy mix of irony, cheap laughs, and affection on display.

Nevertheless, all three photographers provide an interesting window into various aspects of modern American (and increasingly global) society...I wonder how these images will look to people 20 to 30 years from now.

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In your last post, you showed us photos from the 1970s that look quaintly dated. I think in 20 or 30 years, we'll think the same about those three photographers you just mentioned.

Posted by: Joerg at Jun 29, 2004 9:48:58 AM

Good point, Joerg...but honestly, if Ulrich's photos look "quaint" in 20 years, I don't even want to think about what consumer culture and the shopping experience will be like then. But then again, the way commerce and retail spaces evolve never ceases to amaze me.

It would be interesting to see whether the retail displays and corporations (Wal-Mart specifically) in Ulrich's photos eventually become signposts for failure the way the corporate entities in the film Blade Runner (Atari, Pan-Am, etc) did.

Posted by: Robert at Jun 29, 2004 10:10:37 AM

Interesting point. - What I meant was a bit different, though. Maybe I mis-used the English language a little bit - being a non-native speaker. I tried to use "quaint" as a modifier for "dated". Just saying the photos might look dated sounded too negative for me. Instead, I wanted to express the kind of feelings we get when looking at older periods that are still kind of near, yet far away and weird. Like the 70s. To me, photos from the 1970s look quaintly dated.

Posted by: Joerg at Jun 29, 2004 6:17:57 PM

Thanks for the pointer to Ian MacEachern's work, some truly great photos in there. Using the sense of "dated" that I know, I highly doubt these will look dated in 20 years time, quaintly or not, to say nothing of looking that way now.

You're right, the photo.net gallery is probably the best entry point, not only are the photos on his site a tad too small for my liking, but the site is slow as molasses for me (on ADSL no less). With photo.net, the nice thing is one needn't scroll down to view the oft-trite commentary, and even on the "medium" setting the sizes of most are quite satisfying.

Posted by: Kurt at Jun 30, 2004 12:30:10 PM

your photo blog inspired me to start my own.....
i'm looking forward to being part of a photo-blogger community

Posted by: Mia at Aug 6, 2004 8:00:11 PM