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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Watkins image

Carleton Watkins was one of the first to photograph the western landscape, working with large plate glass negatives, making large albumen prints for sale to tourists.

I have seen many Watkins photographs in galleries and museums over the years, and for years was fascinated by the colors achieved in the prints—a rich maroon in the shadows, a glowing gold in the highlights—together making an image that seems to offer more information than a straight silver print.  For about a decade, I used “split toning” to try to replicate the color pallet of the old images—with some limited success.

I stumbled across a “cabinet card” sized Watkins for sale on e-bay recently—I have to admit that I never really looked for Watkins prints—the ones I’ve seen in galleries have been priced well beyond my collecting budget—but this one was priced in range, so I bid a modest increment over the minimum, and, to my surprise, won the auction.

The image apparently was made in the field with camera larger than the print I purchased—it is included as Plate 25 in “Carleton Watkins:  the art of perception”, published by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1999—a publication notable for how well the printing reproduces the difficult colors of the old albumen prints (one photographer once noted that another, a less successful attempt “looked like someone pissed on the prints”).  The information indicates a 15.5 x 20.625 inch print size—much larger than the print I purchased—which is only 4×6 inches—and cropped slightly differently.  I assume that the image was made in the field with a large plate camera, and a smaller copy negative was made for the smaller print size, which was then used to make the albumen print (a contact printing process).

Watkins was photographing in Yosemite in the 1860’s, more than half a century before Ansel Adams made his first exposure.  Although the materials available for Watkins to work with were crude by modern standards, the images he made still resonate—ethereal light, mythical mountains, and filled with stillness.

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When I went to China, now just over two years ago, one of the things I experienced for the first time was the Chinese political speech.  These speeches were shouted from written scripts, one word at a time, as loudly as possible.  During the conference (which I and nine other American photographers participated in), many of the speeches were simultaneously translated into English for us foreigners.   I don’t remember much of what was said—I’m not sure if this is because the speeches seemed so trite when translated into English, or if the translation into English stripped all speech of subtlety, but either way, sitting through the speeches was moderately annoying, though the tea they served was very good, and the speeches ended soon enough.

Houston, 2008

Houston, 2008

I think all of the English speakers were somewhat concerned about how what we had to say might be translated into Chinese—one of my first moments after meeting my host at the airport was being asked if I would like any snakes—I politely refused—I’m not especially fond of snakes, and being offered them in plural form after 30 hours in airplanes and airports is not what I expected–but the offer was repeated until finally I understood that what was being offered was, in fact, snacks…

And one of my favorite moments in the conference was when one of my fellow conference attendees made a comment in his talk in which he stated that “the landscape is my mistress”, which another, more experienced international traveler, noted was probably translated as “I fuck the earth”.

Whatever.   I’ve had enough conversations with Chinese friends to appreciate the difficulties in translation.  What we say and think in English may or may not translate into Chinese or the Chinese mind…

But one thing I do remember from the speeches—the Chinese repeatedly referred to “great Chinese photographic theoreticians”.   In America, I’ve never heard of any photographic theoreticians, let alone a great one. We have ph0tographers, we have curators, we have gallery directors, we have photo editors, we have photographic critics–but none of these positions correspond with “photographic theoretician”.   It apparently is a title that offers neither salary nor tenure, at least outside of China.  I always assumed that photography was an empirical enterprise, defined by observation rather than by theory.

But, of course, just because there is no official title does not mean that we are lacking in photographic theoreticians.  In the short lecture I was expected to give, I referred to Robert Adams as a “great American photographic theoretician”, a title that I’m sure he would object to with vigor, but one I hoped would translate into whatever status was given to the Chinese photographic authorities.    I can think of no better discussion about the meaning of photographs and their importance to our lives than his wonderful essays.

Houston, 2008

Houston, 2008

I once studied Physics (let me be clear—I am not a Physicist—I once referred to myself and several other students as “Physicists” in front of one of my professors—he corrected me to point out that we were, in fact, not Physicists—I asked him what made someone “a Physicist”—he stated that it was when one had actually “done some Physics”—I asked him how one knew that they had “done some Physics”—he told me that someone would tell me when I had “done some Physics”—something that I can state with certainty has never happened—so I am not “a Physicist”—but I once was student of the discipline)—where theoreticians were many and experimentalists were few (due at least in part to the huge cost of experiments in high energy particle physics)…

But I know there are photographers that are working with photographic theories that I don’t understand.  Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Timothy O’Sullivan, and, of course, Eugene Atget have all made photographs using formulas beyond my comprehension.  But I do sometimes try to replicate their results…