Category Archives: books

This is the American Earth

This, as citizens, we all inherit. This is ours, to love and live upon, and use wisely down all the generations of the future.

—Nancy Newhall

Ansel Adams. Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine.

Ansel Adams. Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine.

Margaret Bourke-White. Contour Plowing.

Margaret Bourke-White. Contour Plowing.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

Ansel Adams. Burnt Stump and New Grass, Sierra Nevada.

Ansel Adams. Burnt Stump and New Grass, Sierra Nevada.

Ansel Adams. Lake Tenaya, Yosemite.

Ansel Adams. Lake Tenaya, Yosemite.

Eliot Porter. Tern in Flight.

Eliot Porter. Tern in Flight.

Ansel Adams. Aspens, New Mexico.

Ansel Adams. Aspens, New Mexico.

And to what shabby hells of our own making do we rush? A poisoned, gutted planet, rolling through noxious air?

—Nancy Newhall

I’ll probably write this in every post of this series but one of the best parts of revisiting the photobooks I grew up with is finally reading the text. When I was a kid, photobooks were for looking at the photos and, maybe, reading the captions. Longer text that goes with the photos? No way. Which is a shame since all of the photobooks I grew up with were inherently political and had things to say beyond just the photos.

This is the American Earth is distinct among my parents’ photobooks because it’s the only one which I remember looking at for PHOTOGRAPHY™ reasons. Ansel Adams was definitely the first brand name photographer I learned of* and I seem to recall not only ignoring the text but also all the non-Adams photos in the book.

*One of the reasons I suspect that so many photographers profess to no longer like Ansel’s work is due to how he’s typically the first famous photographer people learn of and so is a distinctly obvious choice.

This meant that I missed out on a much of the best parts of the book. Adams, for being the “featured” photographer cedes a lot of space to other artists in order to flesh out the argument for conservation and demonstrate the different ways we use and experience the land.* And Newhall’s text is a wonderful short history of human civilization as explained by ruins and despoiling.

*While I skipped the text I apparently couldn’t fully-ignore the photos. I may not have studied them like I did the Adams images yet many of them (e.g. Eliot Porter’s  Terns or Margaret Bourke White’s Contour Plowing) are deeply familiar to me in and “oh THAT’S where I saw that” kind of way.

Reading that text one month into the Trump administration is still a shock even though I know and agree with what it’s saying. This book is almost sixty years old. 60. Yet its warning and advocacy are as important and relevant as ever. Our history of ruins. Our history of despoiling. The idea that we only know what we’re losing now that it’s almost gone. The call to action.

Part of it feels as inspiring as it must’ve felt in 1960. The idea that we can do something. The idea that we were smart enough to create National Parks. That we can obviously do more. And I know that we did make a lot of progress in these areas. When I was a kid, acid rain was a thing, air quality was awful, we were dumping trash in the ocean, and everyone was worried we’d run out of landfill space. None of those are issues my kids have to learn about because we’ve made changes in how we live.

Despite everything though, we never made a dent in the climate change disaster we’re about to endure. Plus we’re in the midst of trying to roll back the past six decades of advances. While I know that it’s short-term “pro-business” thinking doing the pushing, but there’s more to it that that. Like much of the backlash against the social progress we’ve made since the 1960s, I think that we’ve been almost too successful in making the changes and so we’ve forgotten what the alternatives are.

We’re now used to beautiful unspoiled landscapes. We live with them as our computer wallpapers. We see friends post them on social media. Meanwhile we’ve now forgotten that the images in This is the American Earth images existed effectively in parallel with Documerica. And yes, we have photos of ruined and wasted landscapes now too, but they don’t have the same sense of next door that Documerica does. We no longer see the pollution and, after a cold winter, even a disturbingly early spring feels like a blessing instead of a portent.

So the other, stronger reaction I have to the book now is reading it as an epitaph for America—if not humanity. A last hurrah of hope and change before everything melted away. I thought of Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures and how its point of view involved both contemplation of humanity’s impact on the Earth with the hope and promise of new experiences and new generations.

Except where Paglen is looking into the future and designed an object to outlast us all, Adams and Newhall have given us a book which will remind us of what could’ve been had we been less selfish and afraid.

There’s still hope in here, but it’s less in the beautiful photos of unspoiled wilderness and more in the photos which show how we’re using the land. As long as we’re invested in use—farming, housing, water, etc.—there’s an incentive to keep the land sustainable. These photos depict infrastructure that we’re still familiar with and understand the necessity of. They explicitly remind us how humans and the Earth are intertwined.

Meanwhile, the wilderness photos—especially the number which depict regrowth or new growth—suggest that no matter what humans do, Earth will survive. Many beautiful things and places will be lost but nature’s capacity to reclaim what we’ve despoiled is much stronger than we give it credit.

Magcloud

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Continuing my magazine experiments, this time I figured I’d give Magcloud a whirl. I was happy with Blurb’s magazines but I wanted to try smaller formats and experiment with saddlestitching. Magcloud’s 5.25″×8.25″ format looked ideal since it’s a decent size for vertical photos and the saddlestitch format is much more forgiving for crossovers so I can use similar-sized horizontal or square photos as well.

I’m pretty happy with the results. Magcloud uses very-good toner-based printing technology and the results are about as good as I’d expect from that. They do still show the typical telltale heavy-gloss in high-coverage areas* though so the overall result doesn’t feel as high quality to me as Blurb’s printing. But the print quality itself—screening, color, etc.—is plenty good.

*This is admittedly something I’m sensitive to and it only shows up in certain lighting situations anyway.

The only other thing which caught my attention is that Magcloud’s bindery operation is pretty loose. They want an eighth of an inch for bleeds and they mean it. I had a few photos where I could only spare a sixteenth of an inch for bleed and that wasn’t nearly enough, Magcloud needs the full eighth of an inch. Similarly, while the crossovers are mostly satisfactory, there’s a decent amount of play—over a sixteenth of an inch again—in terms of where the center fold is.

These aren’t complaints as the price is more than fair and the results are still fine. But they‘re worth keeping in mind so I don‘t expect anything better than that and treat these as the mini-projects/project dummies that they are. I don’t expect any of my magazines to be the final form of the projects, they’re just waypoints which scratch my urge to get things printed and which I can live with and look through until I’m ready to take the next step.

The magazines I made are all working through a bunch of small projects which I’m not sure what to do with yet. There are two which are photos from Powwow—one of the Aztec dancers, the other of the powwow itself.

There are two which are photos from Obon—one of San José Taiko, the other of the obon odori.

And there’s one which consists of photos from all the bounce house birthday parties I’ve been to.

Some of those projects I don’t expect to be adding to. Others might get a photo here or there each summer but I’m reaching the point where I’ll want to replace existing photos rather than add to the project overall. In all cases though I expect I’ll be heading back to Magcloud to do some more small projects and see how they work together.

Universe of Maps

After spending time at the Cantor Center, I wandered over to Green Library to check out the Universe of Maps exhibition. The Rumsey Map Center is a wonderful resource and I’ve long enjoyed exploring davidrumsey.com. Being able to see highlights from the collection in person was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

The exhibition is really a greatest-hits kind of show. No overarching theme, just case after case of cool shit. So I’ll just go down my notes and write about what jumped out at me.

Coloney & Fairchild's Patent Ribbon Maps ... Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters. Coloney, Fairchild & Co. St. Louis: 1866

Coloney & Fairchild’s Patent Ribbon Maps … Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters. Coloney, Fairchild & Co. St. Louis: 1866

The Colony & Fairchild ribbon map of the Mississippi is impressive as both a map and an artifact. It’s an eleven-foot-long tape measure of a map which seems utterly unusable since you have to unspool it completely in order to see the headwaters. At the same time it’s a wonderful way of looking at the river and perfectly demonstrates how it functions foremost as a transportation route. What’s most important on this map is what you encounter as you go up or downstream as towns and tributaries function the way you’d expect train stations to show up on a modern transport map.

The process of straightening out the river—but not too much—is one which I’d love to learn more about too. They very clearly had to get the river to fit in a straight line but there’s still a lot of meander detail visible. I don’t know the river well enough to gauge whether or not it’s done well but I love how this map keeps a sense of riverness in the abstraction.

The Road from London to Aberistwith, in Britannia, Volume the First. Or an Illustration of the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales. John Ogilby. London: 1675

The Road from London to Aberistwith, in Britannia, Volume the First. Or an Illustration of the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales. John Ogilby. London: 1675

Similarly, the London to Aberistwith wayfinding map interested me because it’s another map built around a specific use case. As with the Mississippi map, this one is very clearly a navigational map which takes a traveler from one point to another.

These kind of maps are also interesting because while the intent of these kinds of maps is to help inexperienced travelers, they also end up describing the journey and the territory covered. Where my kids like to trace on their maps the exact route of their journey, this would be like giving them a straight-line map showing them only what they encountered.

Photo-auto maps–Albany to New York. No. 745,744, 743, and 742, in Photo-Auto Maps. Photographs of Every Turn, Together with a Topographical Outline of Road Showing Railroad Crossings, Bridges, School Houses and All Landmarks with Accurate Distances Between. Gardner S. Chapin; Rand McNally and Company; Arthur H. Schumacher. Chicago: 1907

Photo-auto maps–Albany to New York. No. 745,744, 743, and 742, in Photo-Auto Maps. Photographs of Every Turn, Together with a Topographical Outline of Road Showing Railroad Crossings, Bridges, School Houses and All Landmarks with Accurate Distances Between. Gardner S. Chapin; Rand McNally and Company; Arthur H. Schumacher. Chicago: 1907

Seeing the Aberwistwith map paired with the Photo-auto “map” was fantastic. While I have a hard time calling this a “map” I also don’t know what else to call it. It very clearly serves the same navigational use-case as a map does. It’s probably even easier than a map for some people to use as it mimics the kind of verbal instructions that people create. When we tell people where to go we highlight waypoints and tell them what to look for. Yes, street names and cardinal directions are also helpful, but it’s really things like “second left after the gas station” which make directions useful.

This also reminded me of Google Streetview and GPS-based navigation. Very useful when you can’t get verbal directions from someone but also no sense of the overall journey. While I am grateful for step-by-step directions, I’m never satisfied unless I can also figure out how they fit in to the general area.

A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America, in An Historical Atlas; in a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Different Periods; Constructed upon an Uniform Scale, and Coloured According to the Political Changes of Each Period … Edward Quin. London: 1830

A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America, in An Historical Atlas; in a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Different Periods; Constructed upon an Uniform Scale, and Coloured According to the Political Changes of Each Period … Edward Quin. London: 1830

The historical atlas with fog-of-war to give a sense of what hasn’t been explored yet was very striking. I love the idea of “what we don’t know yet” being an integral part of the design. Instead of zooming out to reveal more of the world, it’s very obvious that there’s a lot of world out there which is unknown.

I also enjoyed how this depiction reminded me of the fog-of-war feature in Warcraft and Starcraft. As with the Street View navigation photos, it’s fun to see how old ideas have been rediscovered today.

Maine, in Atlas of the United States, Printed for the Use of the Blind. Samuel Gridley Howe; Samuel P. Ruggles. Boston: 1837

Maine, in Atlas of the United States, Printed for the Use of the Blind. Samuel Gridley Howe; Samuel P. Ruggles. Boston: 1837

I don’t have much to say about the atlas for blind except to note that I was impressed that it was raised relief text rather than Braille.* It’s also just a neat artifact to see since we rarely see things like this in any museum. Even in the design exhibitions at dedicated art museums I can’t think of any pieces of accessibility design.

*That this was published the same year that Braille was developed is a nice coincidence.

Underground, in Map of London's Underground Railways. Underground. A New Design for an Old Map. Henry Charles Beck; London Transport. London: 1933

Underground, in Map of London’s Underground Railways. Underground. A New Design for an Old Map. Henry Charles Beck; London Transport. London: 1933

It’s always lovely to see a classic in the flesh. The Beck map is one of those landmarks of design. I can’t imagine the world without it as we’ve absorbed its lessons so thoroughly that this is what all subway and transport maps have as their reference now.

As is often the case with landmarks of design, I was surprised by how small this was. I know I know, of course it’s small, it’s a subway map. But because of its prominence in the history of design, I had imagined it as something bigger.

Panorama of the Seat of War. Birds Eye View (from) Virginia (to) Florida. John Bachmann. New York: 1861

Panorama of the Seat of War. Birds Eye View (from) Virginia (to) Florida. John Bachmann. New York: 1861

What I like most about Bachmann’s Panorama of the East Coast of The Confederacy is that it’s a view looking West from the Atlantic ocean. In addition to not being a standard view, it also ends up being a specifically political view. Orienting the map this way makes it represent the point of view of the Union blockaders. It’s not just the seat of war it’s an “us versus them” view of that seat.

A Map and History of Peiping (Beijing). Frank Dorn. Tientsin-Peiping: 1936

A Map and History of Peiping (Beijing). Frank Dorn. Tientsin-Peiping: 1936

Frank Dorn pictorial history of Beijing was just a lot of fun. It’s a reminder of how maps aren’t just about super-accurate roads and locations, they’re also a way of depicting and remembering a place. When I was a kid, these kind of pictorial maps—typically a gimmick for local advertising—where what sucked me into being interested in maps in general. The Dorn map is a much older example which is about memory instead of advertising.

This map has also gotten me thinking about trying to draw my own pictorial maps of my youth. As I’ve come to be more of a tourist in my hometown, I’ve been finding myself filling in my childhood memories and connecting where everything used to be. I’d like to be able to share these with my kids rather than be one of those dads pointing out the window while driving past where something used to be decades ago.

Emmett

It caught me by surprise at how much Emmett Mann’s death affected me. I don’t know him. Or even claim to know him. I only have a book with many many photos of him. But his image and his youth have had a deep and lasting impact on me as a photographer.

As a student, Immediate Family was one of those works which taught us how to look better and really think about how photography works. How family photographs work. How the simplest, purest motive for taking photos has room for some of the most amazing art—without having to do anything “arty” in order to get there.

Yes Mann’s photos aren’t “snaps” but neither are most family photos.

The photos of Emmett were especially poignant. He’s captured during his pre-teen transition from being innocent and unaware of how people saw him to thinking and considering his self-presentation. Because he’s my age, many of the clothing details* are the same small details I remember from my youth. While Mann’s work has never felt like a either new or dated—I can’t imagine photography without it—that I also see explicit examples from my youth in the photos does make them even more meaningful.

*Friendship bracelets!

Now as a parent of two boys, re-looking at Immediate Family brings a whole new level of recognition and understanding. As wonderful as it is as an project to introduce to young photographers, its best attribute is how it rewards my own maturation both as a photographer and as a man. I’m no longer just seeing myself in the photos and relating to the images on that level, I’m seeing them as a photographer and a parent.

It’s not just the seeing and realizing that family photos can be art. Or that they should be art. It’s the encouragement to see and notice and record those quiet moments of natural grace and beauty which my sons’ just have whether they’re engrossed in some minutia in the dirt or running around the house without their clothes on. I don’t always have the willingness or skill to tell them to stop and hold a pose but my brain is recording them. Hopefully I’ll remember a few of the moments I don’t photograph.

But Mann’s vision is there in the back of my mind the entire time. Nudging me. Encouraging me. Reminding me. Which means that Emmett is always there in the back of my mind. Just as he no doubt lives in the backs of so many other photographers’ minds.

Norton Juster

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So a month or so ago I had a chance to attend a conversation with Norton Juster.* There wasn’t much new information or anything if you’ve already read the Annotated Phantom Tollbooth but it was still wonderful. 2016 has been a rough year for everyone’s heroes. I’m very happy that I got to see, meet, and thank one of mine.

*It’s available on podcast now.

My favorite part of the talk was Juster’s response to the “which of the characters is your favorite” question. While mentioning the Tollbooth demons in general is funny enough, zeroing in on the bird and taking things “out of context” is the perfect answer. It also reminded me, again, how much context matters and how aggressive changing the context can be. And while Juster does this with wordplay, I know that much of my photo consumption—heck, this entire blog—is really just about context.

There are too many posts on here to link to all of them but they range from taking photos out of the context in which they were originally made to questioning the context in which art is displayed and labelled to playing with my own photographs and the contexts in which I display them. Again and again though, Juster’s point about questioning and being willing to change the context is key. And while the Phantom Tollbooth isn’t why I think like this, I’m grateful that I grew up with kids books which encouraged that thinking.

By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent

Part of an occasional series of posts where I revisit books which I grew up with.

Steve McCurry Railway between Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan

Steve McCurry
Railway between Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan

My earliest memories of just looking at photos all involve National Geographic. My parents had a subscription and I looked forward to the day each month when a thick magazine slipcovered in brown-paper arrived in our mailbox. I was too young to read the articles but I devoured the photos (and the maps of course) for at least the following week. I also would go through our magazine files and pull out my favorite past issues—reading the spines until I found the one with the feature I wanted—and revisit the photos all over again.

June 1984 was my favorite issue. By far. I paged through Paul Theroux’s By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent repeatedly as I was captivated by Steve McCurry’s photographs. It wasn’t anything specific about the quality of the photos which got me. I just, like many grade-school boys, loved trains and these were like no trains I’d ever seen. Instead of the commuter train pulled by diesel engines which took people up and down the peninsula between San Francisco and San José, these were steam trains which wound through mountains and countrysides, were packed with people—including riders on the outsides of the cars—and had dining cars to accommodate multi-day journeys.

The recent McCurry pile-on which started with Teju Cole’s A Too-Perfect Picture coupled with some photoshop disasters encouraged me to both revisit McCurry’s train photos—the first set of photos I can remember loving—as well as to finally read the text which they accompany.

At some point in the past decade or so, McCurry’s work has lost all the context in which it was originally made. He has indeed gone full White Guy Photography, peddling a mythical third-world exotic beauty via photos that function as desktop backgrounds or hotel art.* Teju Cole says they’re boring. Paroma Mukherjee points out that the ethics behind these photos are dangerous. As McCurry packages them now I completely agree. They don’t tell us anything beyond confirming our stereotypes of the region and suggesting that modernization will ruin the “real” soul of the place.**

*A use case I actually witnessed at The Tech Awards.

**As stated in Image on Paper’s Jimmy Nelson Post: “It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant.”

While I would be a bit worried about looking through all the 30-year-old National Geographics and seeing what I grew up with, this particular article is thankfully not too bad. Rather than being concerned with any sort of “authenticity,” it’s unabashedly a travelog and photos—most of which do not look like what has become the McCurry brand.

Travelogs, when they’re about the author’s trip and don’t claim to be speaking for the country,* are great. The same goes with travel photos. The more specific and personal the topic is, the more likely I am to like them. And I still like these.

*Or in this case, the entire subcontinent.

The railroad is a wonderful thread to anchor the entire trip. It grounds the narrative and allows for historical diversions where the infrastructure is older than the political boundaries which it crosses. It also offers glimpses at a large range of the people in India. While Theroux is mostly riding first class, he and McCurry are also interacting and talking with the locals crowded in second class, the people riding on the roof, the white tourists in the separate better-than-first-class tourist cars, and the service workers and public workers who run the trains and the stations.

That I still love trains, and train photography, doesn’t hurt. But there is something distinct about the rail travel and the way it filters how you see both the countryside it cuts through and the built environments which have grown up around it. It’s simultaneously part of the landscape while completely imposing itself on that landscape. And it waits for no one. If one of the chief tenets of photography is taking your time and thinking and picking the right moment, the way the train keeps moving introduces a variable which is out of the photographer’s control.

Steve McCurry Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Steve McCurry
Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Seeing McCurry’s work in this context also serves as a reminder of why he became an acknowledged master. There’s maybe only one of those McCurry™ Portraits and all of his colors are more subdued by the necessity of having to stick with the railway itself. But the photos are great. Strongly composed and timed with a sense of place—and on occasion the photographer’s presence—they illustrate the text so well that I have no use for the captions except when they offer a bit of additional story where McCurry’s experiences differ from Theroux’s.

Even the photo of the train at the Taj Mahal—which out of this context becomes about the men and “how well they work as types”—is instead a perfect “holy crap you can see this from the train” photo.

Despite completely agreeing with the critiques being heaped on McCurry now, I’m still glad that these were some of the formative photos of my youth. I’ve kind of grown out of him but I’m happy that I had access to these. It’s always good to be reminded of both my own growth, and what it means if an artist doesn’t grow.

Magazines

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While I’ve continued making family albums through Blurb, I’ve also taken the plunge and started to finally put some of my photos together into projects. Or, well, mini-projects. I’m nowhere near ready to put a book together—heck, I’m not even sure it has to be a book—but I’ve got a lot of smaller sets of photos that I’ve wanted to see as some sort of printed collection.

Blurb’s magazine format is in many ways the perfect way to do this. It’s much less of a financial commitment than their photobooks but the printing and paper is also a lot nicer than their trade books. The magazine format also encourages small projects of 32–48 pages or so—making it very easy to just put something together relatively quickly.

So instead of working on and biting the bullet for purchasing an expensive one-off book, I can make a bunch of magazines for a fraction of the price and experiment a lot more.

I even set everything up for sale on Blurb’s site since Blurb’s book preview interface is pretty slick and makes for a nice way to look at the projects. I’m not promoting these anywhere* but I do enjoy flipping through them online. I’m not sure I can recommend buying them anyway since Blurb’s shipping prices are designed with books in mind and so feel a bit exorbitant if you’re purchasing a batch of small magazines instead of a stack of heavy books.

*This is the first time I’ve even linked to them.

birds

vintage

bsides

bay

mornings

trail

detail

Most of the magazines are a new iteration of the photos which are in my portfolio at vossbrink.net. So ~90% the same edit but some photos have been moved around or deleted. One magazine per section on my site, plus the B-Sides.* I’m still intending to eventually put everything together as a book but I’ll sit with the magazines for a while and see how I feel about them.

*The B-Sides concept is one I’m going to keep in mind for any future book projects too.

These were pretty quick to make since most of the editing was already done. Since I didn’t want to spend a lot of time doing the typesetting and text/cover design, I kept things super simple and did everything in my default text settings rather than mess around with fonts and design something specific for each project. I actually like the family-like sameness of the end result but I think I’ll have to consider a different approach with the entire project.

tripod1

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I also threw together a few small projects that have been marinating on this blog. One of them is of the Tripod Holes series of posts I’ve been making. It’s actually much much different to see it in print rather than on the blog. I’m looking forward to doing a second Tripod Holes magazine with new blog posts as well as putting together a full-size book at some point.

The other project I worked on was of my Pow Wow photos. One of the sad things about being on the East Coast is admitting that I will probably not make it to another Stanford Pow Wow for a long time. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the photos I took there but for the time being I have a small magazine of them which will make me homesick every Mothers Day.

Shipping issues aside, I’m super pleased with the way everything turned out and am thinking about what other small projects I’ll want to make while I sit with these.