Category Archives: photography

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At some point in the past decade or so, McCurry’s work has lost all the context in which it was originally made.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.

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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.

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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.

 

A Strange and Fearful Interest

They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.

—from Chickamauga by Ambrose Bierce

Andrew J. Russell. . Behind Stone Wall, Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg, Virginia, May 3, 1863.

Andrew J. Russell.
Behind Stone Wall, Marye’s Heights, Fredericksburg, Virginia, May 3, 1863.

Timothy H. O'Sullivan Battle-Field of Gettysburg. View on the Field after Fight of First Day., July 4, 1863

Timothy H. O’Sullivan.
Battle-Field of Gettysburg. View on the Field after Fight of First Day., July 4, 1863

Andrew J. Russell. Soldiers' Burying Ground, Alexandria, Virginia, May 1863

Andrew J. Russell.
Soldiers’ Burying Ground, Alexandria, Virginia, May 1863

While I was looking at War is Beautiful I couldn’t help but think about the iconic, well-known photos from Vietnam or World War 2. Those images are the beginning of what has become the cinematic language of war photography. They’re what the movies reference and are part of our common understanding of what war photography is supposed to look like.

Instead of looking at those images though, I got Jennifer Watts’s A Strange and Fearful Interest off the shelf and decided to look at Civil War photographs. Looking at the Civil War photography shows the beginnings of our current visual culture. We can see the beginnings of personal image sharing as well as the ability for images of “real life” to become larger than life. At the same time, we’re seeing other directions or standards that could’ve been taken.

The Civil War reflects photography’s first big maturation in terms of both how we understand what we’re looking at and in terms of figuring out what practices actually work for documenting and disseminating images. There were no set rules or perspectives to copy, the field photographers had to figure things out on their own. Nor were there guidelines about what’s ethically acceptable with regards to subject matter or staging a scene. The photos of dead soldiers*—and the way those bodies were often moved by the photographers—are so wrong in terms of the current rules of photography.

*Specifically noted in the book with the Antietam photos but applicable to Gettysburg and many other battlefields too.

Where the Vietnam and World War 2 images are still familiar to us, the Civil War photographs are more abstract. Their look—the staging, motion blur, toning, edge effects, etc.—reads as romance and nostalgia rather than documentation. They don’t look real to us anymore even though their existence fundamentally changed our understanding of both warfare and death.

But the photos themselves did say a lot about the war and the nature of violent death which, while people obviously knew,* were not images which were disseminated. There’s something about seeing the images of the bodies in the battlefields which drives home the cost of it all. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that we created National Cemeteries as a response to the Civil War. Our collective sense of war and its outcomes changed during the Civil War—in large part due to having a new medium with which to share and remember these things.

*Warfare, and in particular the Civil War, being something which touched a much larger percentage of the population then than it does now.

Notes

George N. Barnard. Rebel Works in Front of Atlanta, Ga., No. 1, 1864

George N. Barnard.
Rebel Works in Front of Atlanta, Ga., No. 1, 1864

Jay Dearborn Edwards. Scrapbook 2, page 2 - Photographs by J.D. Edwards depicting Confederate soldiers drilling and at rest near Pensacola, Florida, and environs, c. 1861.

Jay Dearborn Edwards.
Scrapbook 2, page 2 – Photographs by J.D. Edwards depicting Confederate soldiers drilling and at rest near Pensacola, Florida, and environs, c. 1861.

It was not just images of war which were suddenly being disseminated across the US. Tintypes and ambrotypes allowed for soldiers to both send images back home and keep images of home with them on the front. While still very much a portrait/sitter arrangement, this was a much more democratic* product in how it opened up the ability for this kind of personal connection to many more people.

*Reminding me of the creation vs consumption debate a few years ago. While I still agree that the Brownie opened up the true democratic floodgates, tintypes, ambrotypes, and cartes de visite did create a massive change in how we treated and understood images too.

Since Confederate photographers all but disappeared after—if not during—the war, J.D. Edwards is the only Confederate photographer featured in the book. This explicitly calls attention to how our visual understanding of the Civil War is almost exclusively the Union point of view. And as much as I hadn’t realized this before, it reminded me how most of my conception of war photography is aligned with the point of view of the US or the west.

I really like George N. Barnard’s landscapes of Sherman in Georgia. Barnard kept taking landscape photographs—very much in the style of O’Sullivan or Watkins—where the view is what’s important. In Barnard’s case though, rather than the promise of taming unspoiled nature, we see the architecture and landscapes of war.

The book also goes into the Lincoln assassination and how Alexander Gardner’s mugshots—well, proto-mugshots since the mugshot hadn’t been invented yet—as well as his photographs of the hangings get right at the intimate relationship that photography has with death. And then there’s his Lewis Powell image which, among all the retro-nostalgic photographs in the book, leaps off the page as being, still, strikingly modern.

War is Beautiful

Eco believes that hyperreality shows itself in America’s portrayal of history, art and architecture, entertainment, and nature. Eco believes that Americans want everything in a more entertaining way (including entertainment), so we have intertwined hyperreality into our lives.

Umberto Eco on Hyperreality

GAZA CITY, -: A Palestinian youth stands in front of a burning vehicle during clashes between rival Fatah and Hamas in Gaza City, 14 May 2007. Two Palestinians were killed in fresh fighting between rival Fatah and Hamas gunmen today despite a truce aimed at ending the worst factional violence since a unity government took office. MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images — A Palestinian youth stands in front of a burning vehicle during clashes between rival Fatah and Hamas in Gaza City, 14 May 2007. Two Palestinians were killed in fresh fighting between rival Fatah and Hamas gunmen today despite a truce aimed at ending the worst factional violence since a unity government took office.

FILE -- A severe sandstorm blanketed a convoy from the Headquarters Battalion of the 1st Marine Division north of the Euphrates River in Iraq, on March 25, 2003. President Barack Obama announced Oct. 21, 2011, that the United States had fulfilled its commitment in Iraq and would bring all U.S. troops home by the end of the year. Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times — A severe sandstorm blanketed a convoy from the Headquarters Battalion of the 1st Marine Division north of the Euphrates River in Iraq, on March 25, 2003. President Barack Obama announced Oct. 21, 2011, that the United States had fulfilled its commitment in Iraq and would bring all U.S. troops home by the end of the year

The other day, I had a chance to sit down in the library with David Shields’s War is Beautiful. Given how I’ve mentioned previously how appealing the idea of a photographic Aarne–Thompson is, it was a lot of fun to page through a book which did exactly that with the New York Times’ front page War on Terror photographs. I like and tend to agree with Shield’s choice of tropes. I also found it interesting to be forced to question what it means to aestheticize war and the ethics of making beautiful images of ugly horrible things.

These are not new thoughts but it’s worthwhile to be periodically reminded to think about them.

In the case of these images—especially when you see them page after page after page—it’s not the fact that so many of them are pretty or even beautiful* which concerns me, it’s that so many of them look like movie stills. It says a lot about how realistic movies have gotten than this is the case. But it also says bad things about photography if what we consider good, meaningful, impactful photography appears to be influenced by the cinema.

*Despite the notes about how photographers hated the flat light in Iraq.

The news photographs aren’t faked or staged but they’re looking for certain compositions and perspectives.* This is a problem.** The movie look allows for a certain level of glorification which capitalizes on our expectations for the form. We “know” what the “bad guys” look like. We know who’s supposed to be the “hero.” We even have prejudices about the terrain and the buildings. The photographs are less about telling the story and making us think and are instead more about setting the mood for the story using our pre-existing biases.

*A reminder again that perspective is a disease of the eye.

**Also a reminder that Errol Morris’s It Was All Started by a Mouse essay on another war photography trope is very much worth reading here.

A lot of this reminds me of William Gibson’s Zero History where the military and military contractors—specifically in the fashion realm—are dealing with the inversion of the traditional military to civilian workflow. For decades, fashion flowed out of the military setting and became streetwear after it had acquired a level of authenticity and coolness through military use. Zero History explores what happens when military-inspired streetwear has evolved into its own thing and its designs are both influencing military designs and making military designs seem inadequate and uncool.

It’s also worth looking at the video game realm where the comparison between how the military uses video games to recruit people with how those recruits are then trained shows a similar difference. The recruiting game America’s Army is very much in line with mass-market video games. Lots of action to compete with the latest first-person shooters accompanied with a very cinematic look. The training games meanwhile look awful. Lots of waiting around and hoping that there’s no action at all. Lots of uncertainty about what to do. But very realistic since they’re intended to train soldiers on what to actually expect. They just don’t look like what I, as a civilian, would expect based on how war is portrayed in mass media.

And that’s what current war photography is doing. It’s riffing off of the existing cinematic language of hyperreal military settings—suggesting that the real stories might not be eye-catching enough to be told anymore. Movies—and movie photography and cinematography—are our common language in many things. They’ve become our references and touchstones for what real life should look like. And it’s scary when real life can no longer compete with the expectations.

Notes

WarIsBeautiful

While I enjoy the trope categorizations, the best part of the book may be the rear endpapers which show thumbnails of all the New York Times front pages. The Edward Tufte style small multiples makes the point about how the Times has presented the war in a way that looking through the book is unable to convey. Rather than seeing the details in the images, it becomes more apparent how these images are chosen for their graphic (in the sense of graphic design) impact and sense of warness.

Tripod Holes 10

Same location as #6. Another year and a half of shooting there.

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Tripod Holes 9

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Tripod Holes 8

From the Harrison Street bridge over Lake Carnegie.

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