Tag Archives: photography

Study of breaking waves

breaking_wave_1744-webThis study of breaking waves is based on a photo I took on the Mendocino coast a couple years back.

Posted in 2016, latest | Also tagged , |

Searching for Sebald (trade edition)

Searching for Sebald: Photography after W.G. Sebaldlayout from Searching for Sebald

Searching for Sebald (trade edition): $30.00    BUY NOW

Searching for Sebald: Photography After W.G. Sebald is an anthology of original essays and visual projects inspired by the work of one of my favorite writers, the late German novelist W.G. Sebald, author of Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. I served as an Associate Editor on this project as well as the lead designer, in charge of design concept and development. I also contributed an essay entitled “All That Is Beyond Hearing: A Life of Arturo Ott”. It was a mammoth undertaking that took four years to complete, finally being published in 2007 by ICI Press.

Sebald interwove his texts with photographs in a highly idiosyncratic fashion—as seen in the layout above, which compares pages from two different editions of one of his novels. The focus of Searching for Sebald is a re-examination of the relation of photography to text in Sebald’s work and in the work of various modern and contemporary artists. I’m proud of the fact that this project was truly international in scope, featuring essays by European and American writers and artwork by Shimon Attie, Joseph Beuys, Christian Boltanski, Andre Breton, Tacita Dean, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Pablo Helguera, Gerhard Richter, and others. (More about the project here.)

Searching for Sebald is available for purchase through artbook.com ($39.95) or amazon.com ($29.16). At over 600 pages, the anthology is a steal at either price.

Posted in 2010, books | Also tagged , , , |

out with the filler pix

For the last decade or so, slate.com has been one of my semi-regular news sources, largely because I am a fan of Dahlia Lithwick and Emily Bazelon’s excellent Supreme Court coverage. Awhile back the site went through a major redesign that aligned it with what a lot of other news-commentary sites are also doing: it shifted from being dominated by text links, blurbs, and small images to being a ‘big-blocks’ construct of interlocking large images with headlines. If you adhere to a standard modernist aesthetic—a minimal number of elements organized in rectangles along invisible gridlines—the visual aspect of the design is arguably an improvement. But from the point of view of information access and readability, it’s a step backwards. Worse, in its attempt at self-improvement it migrated towards what I consider the current scourge of the internet: the filler pic. Also known as a  ‘stock photograph’, a term I dislike because it has been so normalized that I believe we are insufficiently critical of the role such images play in news websites.

slate-4-27-14-loHere is an example of my issue with filler pix: In the screenshot at left—which is just the top half of the Slate home page for April 27, 2014— there are just six large photographic images visible. Of these, five are completely pointless in information terms, and two of them are duplicates of each other (the desert scene). Make the experiment yourself: replace any of these images with a black box, and you won’t be missing any information you didn’t already have. What Slate reader hasn’t already seen a million pictures of deserts, coffee cups, and Vladimir Putin, not to mention some version of the ubiquitous Chandos portrait that might be Shakespeare? The sole exception is the image accompanying the item on the Spider-Man movie: as a still from a movie then in the theaters, it is probably something many readers had not yet seen.

These photos, in other words, are serving mainly as designer filler. But though they don’t add anything informational to the story, they do tend to reify cultural stereotypes of various kinds, as other critics have observed, including writers at Slate itself. There are the obvious ones: ‘attractive’ women being posed in ways that are supposed to signify broadly about womanhood, or jobs, or family; or a national leader posing as authoritative and commanding. And there are the less obvious ones: the spread of highly styled food photos, for instance, which convey messages about what the food should look like that ‘we’ are supposed to be interested in. There is an overrepresentation of middle-class aspirational values: cleanliness, neatness, good design, unspoiled landscapes, tasteful art, well-furnished interiors. By the hundredth time you see a certain type of image, you stop noticing it consciously, but it continues as a kind of subliminal cultural advertising—what was long ago termed “the new heraldry“—reassuring you that nothing you think really needs to change, no matter what the text says.slate-3-4-09b

And then there are the structural problems these kinds of images create or exacerbate. For one thing, their sheer size banishes a great deal of actual information from the home screen. The comparison screenshot at right from 2009 shows the difference quite clearly. In the 2009 design, there are actually more photos (9 instead of 6, not counting the banner ad), but they are so much smaller that they take up substantially less screen real estate, leaving room for many more items: a complete top menu, two side menus, a central listing of stories, and a most-read/most-emailed section. And all of this is ‘above the fold’, meaning it is visible on a laptop screen without any scrolling. The difference in available choices is stark: 10 or so stories and a couple of links in 2014 versus 18 or so stories and a dozen general links in 2009. As someone who likes to visually skim a collection of stories before deciding what to read, the new Slate is maddeningly skimpy.

slate-hamburgerHere’s what I do when I go to the new Slate: I ignore the entire front page and immediately click on the tiny ‘hamburger’ dropdown menu at upper right, because that is now the only way in to the realm of text links that I value because they can be assessed at high speed. Yes, as far as I am concerned, the only item of importance on the entire Slate front page is an icon taking up—what?—a hundredth of the available screen real estate?

The mobile version of Slate is slightly better because it converts the tiled front page into a stacked list of stories, which is much faster and simpler to navigate. But here, too, I usually only glance at the top three stories before moving over to the hamburger menu for further navigation. slate-4-27-14eAnd the mobile version has its own problem related to filler pix: when you do click over to a story, there is usually a significant pause while the image at the head of the story loads. You can scroll down to pick up the text and start reading, but if you do, you will often get popped back to the top of the screen a time or two as the image loads and lose your place in the story as a result. Waiting for a pointless image to load is pretty much my definition of a complete waste of time.

Here’s a suggestion for all these over-image-laden sites (I’m looking at you, too, Atlantic and New Yorker): banish your stock photos. You could replace them with simple color rectangles. Heck, if you want to get fancy, make yourself a bunch of faux Albers squares. Free mockup at right. You’re welcome.

Or better yet take a long, hard look at longform.org.

Posted in 2014, latest | Also tagged , , , |

Descriptious #1

Descriptious #1

Descriptious #1: softcover, 20 pp, $25


I recently designed a book for my friend, the writer Ruth Coppens. It’s a book of quotations, of an unusual kind, and it is best described in her own words:

“One of author Elmore Leonard’s rules for good writing was: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’ By this he almost certainly meant descriptions, especially of place. Leonard was a fine writer, but this rule ignores a simple fact: some of us love the parts that other people skip… I collect writers who are good at this kind of thing; they can be found in most genres, but what they all have in common is an ability to unite specificity of observation with a strong emotional valence. Here I am sharing some of my favorites among what are loosely termed nature writers.”

She includes in this book extracts by well-known writers like Terry Tempest Williams, Willa Cather, and Aldo Leopold, but for me its real value was in introducing me to obscure or somewhat forgotten writers like Rumer Godden, Henry Beston, and Edward Thomas. The accompanying images are photographs she has collected that resonate with particular descriptions. The perfect gift for a compulsive reader. descriptious-spread

Posted in 2014, books, latest | Also tagged , , |

Silver sand wallpaper

sand studyHere is another free wallpaper for computer desktops. Like the last one I posted, it’s from the Long Beach shoreline. It’s a quieter, more tonally neutral image so it may be a better choice if you keep a lot of stuff on your desktop as I do.

Click here to download the high-rez version (1480×1040).

Posted in 2013, downloads | Also tagged , , |

Beach pebbles wallpaper

Pebbles, Shells, and GlassI often use my own photos as desktop images, but I’ve downloaded enough free images from the web over the years that I thought it was time to offer some wallpaper back. At left is a photo of the Long Beach, California, shoreline; click on the photo to see the high-rez version.

Click here to download the high-rez version (1480 x 1080 pixels).

Posted in 2013, downloads | Also tagged , , |

artistic license

Terra Incognita, 2011

screenshot of "Terra Incognita", 2011

The Institute of Cultural Inquiry—of which I am a longtime Associate—has put up a page of photographs taken ‘in the field’, most in the course of researching their many projects and a few just by the way. Some are captioned, some aren’t, but they do provide a kind of snapshot of the ICI’s persistent interests: trauma, memorials, shrines, and cults; journeying, witnessing, and mapping; obsolete media and personal interventions. A route winding through Berlin, Amsterdam, South Carolina, Buttenhausen, London, New York, Chimayo, Memphis, Sri Lanka, Los Angeles, often halting and doubling back on itself before forking off again. (Many of the projects named on the “Terra Incognita” page are written about in more depth elsewhere on the ICI’s main website.)

(And here I must digress long enough to mention that the ICI’s annual garage sale and fundraiser is tomorrow, Saturday August 27th, 9 am–2 pm, at their headquarters at 1512 S. Robertson, Los Angeles. Stop by if you’re in the area: there’s always something unusual on offer at these events. And if you want to visit the ICI itself and find out more about its projects, a good day to come by will be Saturday, Sept. 10th, 4–6 pm, for the launch of the ICI’s latest publication project.)

Limited Artistic License, 1990

Limited Artistic License, ca. 1990

Since this page includes an image of one of the “Limited Artistic Licenses” I made some years ago, I thought I’d write a little bit about them here. The term ‘artistic license’ generally signifies that one is allowed to do anything, that ordinary constraints (ethical, aesthetic) need not apply. However, the canonical story of western art suggests that each generation took this license cautiously, extending its field of operations only incrementally for the most part. At least until Duchamp changed the game almost overnight by adding—or to be more accurate, trying to add—the entire spectrum of what had been understood as ‘not art’ to the license.

When I made the first of my “Limited Artistic Licenses” in 1990, however, I was thinking about how a small set of restrictions were still in effect on artists’ practice, even post-Duchamp. The biggest area of restriction is forgeries and fakes, about which I’ve written a good deal (see, for example, this article). To this day, something tagged as a forgery cannot be admitted into the canon of western art. Duchamp’s Fountain, ok; anything by Elmyr de Hory, not. It was to pry open this closed door that I founded my Museum of Forgery, which sponsored the “Limited Artistic Licenses” project.

The second area of restriction is what might loosely be called ‘non-signature’ work. That is, once an artist has become well known for a certain kind of work, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to gain recognition (and markets) for work done in other styles and media. Technically, the artist can still do the work, but the psychological barrier to doing so can be formidable. It is for this reason that the “Limited Artistic License” is actually a license not to do certain kinds of work. If you read the fine print, it says:

This certifies that [name of artist] has executed the artwork shown at left and is therefore EXEMPT from ever having to do anything of the kind again, so long as this LAL shall remain in effect.

Yes, I made the license revokable so that the artist truly would have the freedom to do or not do as she chose—and also because it seemed so entirely contrary to the nature of official documents of all kinds to have an erasable signature:

Upon receipt of this LAL, bearer must make some kind of REMOVABLE mark in the space above. This LAL will then take effect and remain in effect SO LONG AS the mark is not removed. Thus, bearer may revoke and renew this LAL at will.

old California fishing licenses

My old California fishing licenses look a lot like these. The newer ones don't have these great stamps.

I’ve always been fascinated by the symbolic arcana of official documents—the numerological codes and blurry stamps, the colored inks and wavy cancellations, the circles and triangles and dadaist jumble of fonts. I designed my license in this spirit of maximal iconography, and I modeled it especially on the fishing licenses that I’ve been collecting for most of my adult life. Hence the otherwise opaque allowance: “Valid in ocean waters and for taking frogs.” (But then, what license doesn’t contain at least one wholly opaque instruction?)

The title “Limited Artistic License” was intended to be contrary to fact, since the entire license was an essentially contrary undertaking. In the years since I made the first—and only—handful of these, the title has become factual in the sense that this is now a de facto limited edition. I imagine the ancient computer file (in what obsolete piece of software?) exists on my backup drives somewhere, but I have no intention of digging it out and trying to restore it to usability in order to make any more of these.

And I will just add this: like any really proper official document, it includes at least two secret ‘internal’ codes parsable only by the bureaucrats in charge of issuing the license. That would be me and N. Fisher. Good luck with your decryption efforts.


Chief Operations Officer, LAL Division, Museum of Forgery

Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , , , , |

The Photographer’s Handbook 1

"The Photographer's Handbook 1"I’ve recently been rephotographing some of my older work, especially pieces that were made abroad or during times of transition when I didn’t have time (or couldn’t be bothered) to do proper documentation. This book was among the first to get reshot, partly because it remains among my favorite projects from the 1990s. I started it in 1993, while I was living in Germany and finished it in New York a couple of years later. I made it as I was experimenting with early desktop publishing software and a black-and-white laser printer, but its creation also involved a good many of the hand construction techniques typical of a traditional artist’s book. It is, as the historians say, ‘of its time’.

The Photographer’s Handbook 1 consists of alternating pages of tipped-in images on heavy paper stock and vellum pages with text printed in a handwriting font. The book is designed such that when a vellum page is open to the right, it displays the caption for the image on the left, and when it is turned to the left, it displays the caption for the image on the right. (Whichever caption is inactive is still visible on the other side of the translucent vellum page but turned backwards and positioned on top of its corresponding image to make it even less noticeable.)"The Photographer's Handbook 1"

The book has 8 pages of images and 5 pages of captions, and it was bound for me in black cloth with silver detailing by the wonderful bookbinder and Rumi translator Zahra Partovi. Its construction happened in a slightly back-to-front manner. I first printed all the vellum text pages and then cut them to the size of the final untrimmed book, along with the blank pages of heavy stock. Zahre bound all the pages and trimmed them to make the semi-finished book, after which I glued in the images individually.

The Photographer's Handbook 1The image plates in The Photographer’s Handbook 1 began life as photographs in old German lifestyle magazines (ca. 1960) that I picked up in a flea market. In each image, I isolated one or more details that were otherwise buried—an informal approach to the punctum, perhaps—and overprinted the rest of the image with one of the default ‘fill’ patterns found in early DTP programs. Lattices, bricks, moirés, and the like, these patterns are all but unusable for most purposes—like faux wood-grain paneling or polka-dotted textiles, they overwhelm everything around them. I was attracted to them for that very reason, and also because they provided a quality of semi-transparency that was otherwise difficult to achieve at that point because of technological issues (principally banding and smearing of ink). I ran a lot of different paper stocks through my laser printer in that period, and the thin, coated magazine stock of these images took laser ink better than most.

The text is a series of aphorisms modeled on the quasi-mathematical advice that fills photographers’ handbooks and which I have never found all that useful—it always turns out that there is some kind of unbridgeable gap between what the manuals say and what conditions in the fields actually are. So I decided to offer an entirely different approach to photographic instruction, with such mantras as:

The importance of any object enlarges in proportion to the remoteness of the eye.

The distance from any plane to any point not on the plane is equal to the distance between your thumb and forefinger.

Parallel lines disparage each other.

This last one arose from the difficulty of getting lines to be truly parallel in the final photograph without hours of measuring and adjusting."The Photographer's Handbook 1"

The font used in the book is named Forger and it’s one I designed using my own handwriting as the starting point. Typefaces in general retain a lot of vestigial traits that arose with the technologies of handwriting and inscription (e.g. serifs), and I wanted to elaborate on this skeuomorphic tradition by rendering my analog handwriting into the mathematical vectors of a digital font. It was also a way of critiquing the artificial division between the hand-made and the computer-made. Creating the Type 1 PostScript font of Forger took several hundred hours of intensive drawing and tweaking, many times what it would have taken to write out the words on the pages ‘by hand’. I produced Forger using the program Fontographer, which I still think is one of the best-designed programs I’ve ever used. (By ‘best designed’ I mean mainly that it had all essential functions, no bloat, and an easy-to-use interface.)

The Photographer’s Handbook 1 has a twin, The Photographer’s Handbook 2, with the same form and text but a different set of images on the tipped-in plates. I don’t want to part with either one, but I did want to share at least one of them here.





Posted in 2011, books | Also tagged , , , , |

Ghost Galleries


All of the above are open-edition digital prints on satin-finish fine-art paper, signed by the artist.

“Ghost Galleries” is an ongoing and recent series of speculative photographs of gallery and museum spaces in which the exhibited art has been erased, leaving a few spectral traces and highlighting the gallery itself as the object of contemplation. The erasure process that I use creates the aura of a computer-generated architectural simulation, exposing yet another ghost: the ideal space that underlies the fetishization of the White Box.

In some of these photographs, such as Ghost Gallery #7 (which was included in the invitational exhibition “Professor Dialogues” at I-5 Gallery in Los Angeles in 2010), the erasures have been carried out in such a way that new elements arise, causing the images to shift into a terrain between photography and painting.

I choose the spaces for this series somewhat by chance, when I find myself more intrigued by the space I am than by the art that fills it. An obvious question: why not just photograph the gallery when it is empty? For one thing, gallery lighting is adjusted for specific arrangements of objects or installations and thus can vary quite radically from that of the empty space. The lighting setup offers a kind of crude reflection of the installed objects and—once the objects are erased in my images—a subtle pointer to their prior existence.

For another thing, empty galleries (like empty houses) have a tabula rasa quality: we take them to be waiting to be filled. And that expectation is in part our way around the haunted quality of these empty spaces, our knowledge of their histories of sequential erasures inflicted in the passage of time. We don’t like to acknowledge that moment when the show is over, the work packed up, the people gone. By focusing the “Ghost Galleries” on the removal of the art—even though an artificial removal—I mean to draw attention back to the tenuous relationship between art and context, object and space, image and presence.

Posted in 2011, prints | Also tagged |

“Western Waters” panoramas

Blythe irrigation canal, 2009

Blythe irrigation canal, 2009

I’ve just added two new open-edition prints to the site. Blythe irrigation canal is a panorama created from a series of photographs I took on a road trip back in 2002, and the page for that print explains the “Western Waters” project in more detail.  Blythe canal diptych is a detail of that panorama spanning 2 of the image’s 5 subsections.

Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , , , , |

Blythe irrigation canal

Blythe irrigation canal, 2009

Blythe irrigation canal, 2009

Blythe irrigation canal, 2009, 5×19″ open-edition digital print on archival paper, signed by the artist: $175

Please inquire if interested in a larger, custom size, up to 36 inches wide.

detail of Blythe irrigation canal, 2002

detail, Blythe irrigation canal, 2009

In 2002, I took a trip through parts of the Southwest—mainly California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado—to photograph bodies of water for a project I was then working on. I was mostly interested in unglamorous water like ditches, small reservoirs, and irrigation canals, as well as creeks and rivers where they passed through urban areas. Almost the entire western part of the United States depends on these unobtrusive waterways, as well as the even less visible systems of pipes and pumps that move fantastic amounts of water from the mountains to the cities.

detail of Blythe irrigation canal, 2002

detail, Blythe irrigation canal, 2009

I photographed every site with the expectation of later stitching the series of images made on that spot into a panorama. I was not interested in creating something seamless and spectacular, so I paid minimal attention to the technology of panoramic photography (the camera’s axis, exposure balance, etc.). I was shooting with an early digital camera so that I could work with my image bank as I went along.

The project I started out on never materialized, but I have slowly been working on the “Western Waters” panoramas in the years since.

detail of Blythe irrigation canal, 2002

detail, Blythe irrigation canal, 2009

As its title suggests, the panorama above was made in the small city of Blythe, which sits on the border of California and Arizona, straddling the Colorado River. It was one of those hot, dry summer days when all life seems to have been sucked away except for a few sparse weeds. While I was photographing this site, I began to feel as if it could never change, and that I too might be there forever, gradually slowing down until I turned to concrete myself.

detail of Blythe irrigation canal, 2002

detail, Blythe irrigation canal, 2009

This panorama was composed of half a dozen individual images, with the black-line dividers placed to punctuate the visual rhythm of the piece and create five smaller images. I colorized and abstracted it as a visual analog of the mental effort I had to make to imagine the site as otherwise than it was then, a composition of austere mauve-browns, gray-greens, and muddy blues. What might it look like at sunset, at dawn, in the winter, under the influence of a fever or some other altered mental state?

This is the first of the panoramas to be completed, and hopefully not the last. I’m also offering, as a self-contained print, the second and third sections of this panorama. You can find the information about that print on its own page.

Posted in 2010, prints | Also tagged , , , , , |

Blythe canal diptych

Blythe canal diptych, 2009

Blythe canal diptych, 2009

Blythe canal diptych, 2009, 13×19″ open-edition digital print on archival paper, signed by the artist: $150

Blythe irrigation canal, 2009

Blythe irrigation canal, 2009

This diptych is the lefthand section of a larger panoramic print entitled Blythe irrigation canal— the details about this project are on another page that you might want to check out. I took the original photos in the late morning, and the diptych projects forwards in time to evening, and backwards in time to early morning.


Detail of the diptych.

Posted in 2010, prints | Also tagged , , , , , |

idea #3775: photoelimination software

txtYears ago, when I was taking a photography class, I dreamed about a world in which taking a photograph actually ‘took’ something away from the world. As a consequence, things that had been frequently photographed, like the Eiffel Tower, were completely gone. Things towards which no one ever turned their lens, like the rocks under a bush, were robust. Everything else fell in between. And this effect of fading away wasn’t just in the images, it was in the world itself. Walking around San Francisco, I saw great gaps among the buildings, an insubstantial fog where the bay had been. People’s backs were more solid than their faces, their strollers more so than their babies.

I was reminded of this dream when I was thinking about the rising popularity of ‘photostitching’ software like Hugin and Autostitch, and in particular their use to create panoramas like these. The panorama speaks to our need for completeness, the idea of mapping the three-dimensional world completely into a 2D image, even if the result leads to the entertaining distortions of panoramas created using  stereographic projections.

So my idea #3775 is for a photostitching software—let’s call it PhotoEliminator—that would realize the concept of my dream: in stitching together hundreds of different photos of a site, it would drop out precisely those elements that most recurred, and keep those that were least common. In most cases, I think, this would tend to produce photographs of ephemera, of weeds and clouds and trash and passersby. The stuff we see without noticing because it’s so ordinary, because it hasn’t been flagged as noteworthy.

And I don’t even think it would be all that difficult to code.

Note: this is one of an occasional series of posts about raw ideas, offered here because many of the ideas I come up with I know I’ll never get around to working with, or are outside my areas of expertise. Perhaps they can be useful to someone else, as I have drawn on other people’s ideas from time to time. However, I make no claim that any of these ideas are actually good or practical, let alone original. They are offered as is, without warranty. You’ll find other such posts by searching on the keyword ‘idea’.


Posted in 2010, ideas, latest | Also tagged , , |

Searching for Sebald (special editions)

In addition to the trade edition, three unique special editions of Searching for Sebald were produced by the Institute of Cultural Inquiry:

  • the Artist’s Edition, a limited edition of 100 housed in a unique vintage suitcase containing artworks by 20 contemporary artists ($1000; buy here);
  • the Collector’s Edition, housed in a black clamshell box with a drawer containing study documents, a magnifying glass and a stereoviewer ($200; buy here); and
  • the Reader’s Edition housed in a silver cardboard sleeve with study documents ($40, buy here)

For the Artist’s and Collector’s Editions, I produced limited edition artist’s projects. The Artist’s Edition has a set of small, sealed memory cases entitled no longer not yet. Some of these enclose photographs (the ‘no longer’ of the title) and a handful of wildflower seeds (the ‘not yet’), while others enclose dirt, sand, salt, raw pigments, and botanical materials including seeds.  In the second group, salt introduces a destructive (‘no longer’) potential into the  dormant (‘not yet’) miniature ecosystems. Each unique box thus is both an abstract landscape in the representational sense, and an actual low-relief landscape in the physical sense.

For the Collector’s Edition I created a single-sheet ‘study document’ that relates to the research I did for my essay in Searching for Sebald about a reclusive collector named Arturo Ott. Surrounding a closeup photograph of a page from one of Ott’s albums are 5 comparison images found in a related group of albums, with red lines connecting the pairs of similar images. The purpose of this visual comparison was an attempt to uncover the workings of Ott’s mind.

All of these editions can be ordered directly through the Institute of Cultural Inquiry at the links above (Paypal accepted).

Posted in 2010, books | Also tagged , , |