for all that San Francisco has to offer, it has always been a challenge to photograph. there is much unique to San Francisco that is not offered in other prominent cities, but to "see" has been a little harder. I have been familiar with San Francisco for many years, and lived in it only for a few. I always viewed it as very photogenic, yet, in how I see photography functioning at this point, I am at a loss on how to photograph San Francisco.


most unexpectedly, viewing the city through a sliver in the prism of New Topographics, which is neither about how photogenic the city is, nor is it about how I see and experience the city, seems to offer some hope. 

the issue with this approach concerns its lack of intuition. meaning, it is an approach that I can "toy with", but it is not intuitive present on how to photograph it. this is very obvious when I look at the photographs, and then I am stumped on how to process them to represent the mood — which is what the intuition should be feeding at the moment of taking the photo.

it is also the case that it is too much of examples from Lewis Baltz and Paul Strand, in the way that I see them. Mr. Baltz is the sliver to New Topographics, but not in his vision of it, and the Mr. Strand is in bringing a visceral/intuitive and mono no aware** aspect to the photographs. yet, because they remain separate, it fails at its purpose: a cohesive view of San Francisco.


the Presidio and other corners

the Presidio grounds, while they are going corporate-gentrification, and other improvements, remains a photographic haven. it may be tempting to put the Golden Gate Bridge in some small detail, but like with the speech at the beginning of a flight: "the nearest exit may be behind you." that is, the appeal of the Presidio lies within itself, behind one's view of the bridge, and not as a foreground to the it.

these are all part of the mobile photography approach, with photos processed in Snapseed and CameraBag2.


** I am wondering: what would be the term for this in photography?

that time in which Paul Strand backs me up

in the previous entry, I closed with this aphorism:

« quite simply: the idea of the photographs is not to tell a story of the scene, as most people like to praise a photo by such an accolade, but for the photographs to tell a story of how the photographer sees the world. »
— KX

and in the documentary by John Walker Paul Strand: Under the Dark Cloth [ link ], he quotes Paul Strand as saying:

« you have to have to say something about the world. »
Paul Strand

which is a one way to look at why one wants to take a (series of) photograph(s). this also calls for a selfishness which may not suit a social-photo site's best use.

however, there was another comment in the documentary about Strand's photos in Taos, New Mexico. the photos were about the New Mexico light. principal among the photographs from Taos from Strand is the church wall, which I consider among his best and most inspiring.

© Aperture Foundation, Inc., The Paul Strand Archive, Millerton, NY  (via  PRweb )

© Aperture Foundation, Inc., The Paul Strand Archive, Millerton, NY (via PRweb)

Lewis Baltz   © Orange County, 1970   From the series The Prototype Works   Vintage gelatin silver print   (via )

Lewis Baltz
© Orange County, 1970
From the series The Prototype Works
Vintage gelatin silver print

the Taos church photograph has some relation to some of the photos presented within the New Topographics genre. many examples can be found within Lewis Baltz's work, in which New Topographics propels the photographer(s) to say something about the world — perhaps in a collective quasi-anonymous sense. the work from Bernd and Hilla Becher also promotes a composition similar to the Strand photo. 

it strikes me that, by looking at many photos in the New Topographics style, that "the light" is not of great concern, and that more commonly, the photo is very bright and shuns the presence of dark shadows, with some shadow welcomed to highlight the geometries present. (examples can be viewed in this tumblr blog
[ link ] .)

the contrast of Strand's "typographic" work to anything similar from New Topographic has been a question that has propelled me to find a way to photograph in that style. particular to their respective styles, Strand's are more emotive — in the same way that Orson Wells and Gregg Toland brought composition to Citizen Kane — while New Topographics are very cold and not engaging, with a heavier emphasis on information.

"mobile photography" was/is a great means to bring out the intuitive ideas, by thinking of disposability and constant access to a camera to enable new styles and ways of seeing the world. while this was done with many phone-snapped photographs.

it was not until a few days in Kyoto (and Tokyo), in which this way of looking at city topographies: combining the idea of the compound of time by manmade, and/or arranged, objects and the proper distance/magnification that a consistent result was to come of it. while mobile photography is meant to be prompt and mobile in its creation, there is also a need to revisit the work after some time, and with greater care. still, the idea is not to linger too much in the processing, and to that end, I used VSCO Film set of presets to carry most of the weight in finishing the work within a short amount of time.

to that end, the photos at VSCO's Grid [ link ] present the mobile-platform work, while the photos with greater consideration are shown at Dunked [ link ]. 

the title for this latter collection Impermanence comes from a Wabi-Sabi notion, and what is seen in the photos. further to this concept of impermanence, it is an attempt to voice the play of this impermanence as it interacts with the surroundings: be they objects or "panels" which co-exists with the main focal object/panel. like with Strand's work, the hope is that the impermanence of the object(s) bring about an "pathos of things" to the viewer.

in the context of Strand's suggestion of "having something to say", this series is not designed to say something about impermanence before they were taken, but rather, like Wabi-Sabi, it is about finding more concises/known terms that describe how I have been seeing things all along and are converging into something more intuitive and innate.

[ ps ] a newer post delves into the work on Impermanence [ link ]

that idea that all photos have already been taken

 the democratization of photography via digital cameras is not quite finished, as people move from compacts into dSLRs and/or phone cameras — for example. it would not be a stretch to think that most people in this wave, myself included, did not do a formal training in photography. nor its history.

when I started, at the end of the last century, there was no easy way to view a vast amount of photographs. (books! but you know, I am busy learning the gadget I just bought.) actually, I did not start looking at photographers until the later part of the last decade. yes, some photos are famous beyond the art, but I could not name photographers, let alone know about styles and famous photographers. to this day, this is a big gap in all things photography for me.

while I took photos at the beginning of the last decade, I would post some photos in Livejournal, and then I made the move to flickr in early 2005. when I got to flickr, it was a huge shock in two ways: I could see what others were doing in vast amounts of photo being served, and what I thought was my not-too-common way of viewing the world was quite clichéd. I mean, the raindrops on glass, and so many others. with time, flickr was a teaching tool that was missing... on what not to do.

people wanted to "develop a style", and have unique photographs. but it is rather obvious that photographs are hardly unique when it comes to some styles. long exposure minimalism? New Topographics? overly-yellowed portraits in an open field? most famously: wide open ƒ1.4 lenses bokeh photos. photographs to be enjoyed, but hard to escape them on the site.

it was hard not to imagine that all photos were taken already. so what to photograph?

 by  Lewis Baltz  (via  Art Tattler International )

 by Lewis Baltz (via Art Tattler International)

except, that is the wrong view. the problem is not repeating photographs, but immersing oneself in anonymity. whoa! how can that happen? one can look to New Topographics, and the minimalist long exposures, to see that, for the most part, it is very difficult to discern who took the photo. that is, the implied rules/aesthetics of the styles govern the photo's composition and printing/processing that it is (generally) difficult to discern between photographers immersed in that style. in some instances, one can discerns the photographer if one is presented with a series, but a single photograph makes it difficult — unless one recognizes quirks about the photographer. in some ways, I think I can discern some photos by Lewis Baltz [ link ].

 by  Michael Kenna  [ ]

 by Michael Kenna [ ]

these two photo styles can be readily "plagiarised" with some equipment knowledge and placing the camera in the another photographer's "tripod holes". there was the case of David Burdeny versus Sze Tsung Leong a few years ago. (many links to PDN and other sites are now 404 Errors.) is this a problem? I do not think so, as it is more indicative that photos are not unique, and some styles more than others are susceptible to "plagiarism." the market/internet will deal with how acceptable plagiarism is tolerated.

aspiring photographers would become popular on flickr by servicing a consistent style. to me, this was not a style that was presented, but a persistent photograph and/or post-processing and/or theme — something new for the internet age in terms of frequency and almost industrialization of the results. flickr users seem to love that consistency and flock to the account to provide (mostly) platitude comments — which rarely exceeds three words — and rack up the fave/like count.  this social currency is quite effective to move into a commercial realm of photography, so it is not to be dismissed. now we can see the same behaviour in Instagram and 500px. in the latter, the "style" is pervasive through the entire site, casting a sort of anonymity to the entire site.

ok, so we take photos others have taken... and?

the refuge for others is to take the photos that we want, and realize that what is missing from most of these trends in photography is an indelible mark that, after some time, makes an impression on the viewer of who the photographer is. this is not unreasonable, as we can consider that if we converse with someone, we need to speak for some time before the other person gets a sense of who we are. 

quite simply: the idea of the photographs is not to tell a story of the scene, as most people like to praise a photo by such an accolade, but for the photographs to tell a story of how the photographer sees the world. to some extent, some photographers in long exposure minimalism and New Topographics achieve this mantra.


mobile photography: “don’t you worry, I will photograph my way out”

the quote is from Harry Callahan, and it is in the context of working within limitations. in his case,

« the diminution of the silver content in the paper made for, in most peoples’ mind, less beautiful prints — the darks just weren’t there. knowing this, Harry started to making pictures that would exploit the diminished values of the papers commonly available. [ ... ] the point is that when there were limitations, Harry worked right through them. as he said, “don’t you worry, I’ll photograph my way out.” » — Peter MacGill. [1]

in terms of searching for creativity, photographers may seek limitations as a way to notice scenes differently, and thus, promoting a direction to take from their current status: either drastic, or ever so subtle. one can think of instant film as a limiting medium: if one considers the aspect ratio, and colour shifts inherent in instant film, and in some cases the overall softness.

a modern take on these limitations is “phoneography”. by restricting the recording and processing to be within a phone, and a (false) sense of urgency to share a photo, then phoneography definitely can alter a photographer’s way of looking at scenes or moments. while digital, there are the limitations of lighting, dynamic range, long depth of field, and a fixed (typically) 28mm-e focal length. in a way, the phone became one “complete camera,” the way that Polaroid was, and unlike an SLR that requires the uploading of photos to a computer for processing. other advantages for finer work presentation are available with this SLR approach.

while on a recent trip, the narrow streets and the expansive canvas of what I seeing — regardless of camera — translated into an increased frustration with the phone’s camera. the lines were distorted, as the usual way of working with a square-frame restriction was not a good aspect ratio, and working with the more sensible (for these photographs) 16:9 aspect ratio meant that the lines were very distorted. 

the “style” to be pressed upon all that I was seeing was a sense of panels, either geometrically flat, or “3D”. the phone camera became woefully inept at acquiring the proper detail and angles I was seeking. 

however, I still wanted to retain the small-camera size/weight — as I could return later with other cameras to retake the photos — and I wanted to get to the envisioned result with the least amount of hassle. for this, it was still very much appealing to process the photos with the phone and/or tablet. also, the vast number of apps for processing photos was pretty much reduced to two: Snapseed and VSCOcam.

that’s it: I photographed my way out... to what mobile photography should be for me. photograph with a compact — which I had never purchased before — and a sensible speed to sharing results online. though more importantly, a quick route to results that help me consider a more “serious” return to the scene for re-shooting. (it must be said that, by the very nature of the city's layout, and other factors, it was impossible to find my way back to some locations, or they had an ephemeral element to them.)

consequently, two series (so far) stemmed from this pursuit/rework. mainly, the Lines of Japan, which has a result that would have never been possible (for me) from a camera phone like this first photo below...

kyoto, japan

kyoto, japan

and night photography, which otherwise would be riddled with bad results from a camera phone, such as the second photo below. this second photograph is based on a pre-conceived observation that was borne by the constraints of camera phones: New Topographics, in particular, the work from Lewis Baltz [ link ]. these other photos are collected in an on-going project called Topographies of Japan.

Gion District, Kyoto, Japan

Gion District, Kyoto, Japan

another consequence is a shift from 1:1 aspect ratio with camera phones to a predominant 16:9 with this new style of mobile photography.


[1] Harry Callahan Retrospective, Kehrer Verlag, 2013, pg. 13. 
[2] Lines in Japan, mobile photography by Kodiak Xyza [ link to project ]
[3] Topographies of Japan, mobile photography by Kodiak Xyza [ link to project ]

[4] New Topographics photos from Lewis Baltz [ link to image web search ]