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Discussions Concerning Contemporary Photographic Art

Category — Highlights

An Interview with David Bram, Fraction Magazine

© Brian Ulrich, as seen in Fraction Magazine, Issue 11.

David Bram is editor, curator, and founder of the popular and influential Fraction Magazine, now in its eleventh issue.  Based in Albuquerque, NM, David keeps an active Facebook and Twitter presence and will be lecturing at FotoFest on the use of online media and photography on March 16.  We recently had the privilege of asking him a few questions:

How does the online delivery of images differ from delivery with printed media (books, magazines, etc.)?  And beyond the financial realities of publishing a physical magazine, could you talk about the decision to remain exclusively online?

The main difference between online and physical media is the way it is delivered. We are able to see much more work online than we ever would in a book store or magazine stand. Whether getting RSS feeds or following Twitter and Facebook, the amount of work being put online and sent around is huge.  Doesn’t Flickr have two billion photos on its site?  As for me,  I probably look at 75-100 websites a day along with a few dozen submissions.  This would be incredibly difficult without the internet.  The decision to keep Fraction strictly online is a financial one but also having minimal overhead allows me to make each issue as big or as small as I desire.  I am now considering a bi-annual magazine that will be produced via Magcloud or something similar.  Also, I am reaching about 5000 people per week.  I could never do this with a paper product.

There are a variety of photography magazines available on the market. What is the photographic niche Fraction Magazine aspires to interest or what sorts of readers is Fraction seeking?

Fraction is trying to be the site you visit to see the work of new artists who have yet to get exposure they deserve as well as very established artists who are showing off new projects.  I try to show work that fits together and work that is both strong in concept as well as execution.  I am looking for and publishing work that has yet to have great exposure to the world.  As for readership, I am looking for those who are looking for more than just pretty pictures.  They are looking for work that makes them think about what the photographer has created.

What sorts of criteria (personal or otherwise) are used to select the photographic work you publish in the magazine?

First and foremost, the work must be strong and somewhat provocative.  I don’t necessarily want it to “push buttons” but I do want it to be thought provoking. I also consider how much exposure the artist and the work have gotten.  If the work has been shown around a lot and has been on more than two or three sites, I probably won’t show it.  Mostly, I am looking for a portfolio that is thematically tight and technically perfect.  I am fortunate enough to have created something that artists like David Maisel and Phil Toledano want to be a part of.

One of Fraction’s stated goals is “to provide an alternative to the fixed gallery, and to continually examine the role that photography plays in society.”  As Fraction comes to its 10th issue, what new roles do you see photography playing in society, and which artists exemplify those roles?

With the advent of digital photography and the internet, photography is able to reach audiences that it could not only 15 years ago, if not 10 years ago.  We are able to see images from the war in Iraq or the destruction of Haiti almost immediately and completely uncensored.  Today, almost everyone has some sort of camera with them, whether it be a little point and shoot or a camera phone, pictures make it to the internet very quickly.  Ever notice how the local TV news asks you for your newsworthy photographs?

In Issue 10, which primarily is about people, I chose artists whose work showed various parts of our culture, from Jake Mendel’s Short Track series about auto racing, to Phil Toledano‘s The New Kind of Beauty which showed people who have extremely altered their physical appearance.  Both bodies of work showed people in a very caring, non-judgmental kind of way.

What reoccurring themes in photography do you notice from work submitted to Fraction Magazine.  And are those the themes most frequently published in Fraction Magazine or are there less common themes you prefer to consider?

The work that is submitted to Fraction varies in content.  Sometimes it is obvious that the person submitting the work has not looked at past issues and is submitting work that will never be included in Fraction.  As for reoccurring themes, it is very apparent that artists like Alec Soth have had a great influence on up and coming artists and well as some very established artists.   The ‘vacant landscape’ as well as what I like to call “the dude in the road” photograph is often included in contemporary work.  I feel that Brad Moore and Dave Jordano have had a bit of influence as well.  If you don’t think so, check out their work.  Also be sure to check out the original New Topographics photographers.  The ground breaking show that was the New Topographics (1975) has had more of an influence than people think.

I also see a lot of work that comes from an artist who think they have “hit it” because they are using a large format camera and a certain type of film.  As any art critic or college professor will tell you, the camera has nothing to do with what you are doing.  It might help you get to the conclusion you are looking for but it is merely a tool.  It took me a long time to realize this.

As for what themes I publish; I publish what I like and find the most interesting.  I only use a theme to coordinate an issue.

We notice that Fraction previously published book reviews and articles, but now only publishes images of photographic work.  How have you arrived at the decision not to include essays, reviews, exegetic works, texts or other parallel discourse?

Honestly, we stopped publishing reviews for two reasons: First, it was getting hard to get people to write reviews and keep to deadlines, and two, I personally hate writing reviews.  Issue 11 has a review of the show Versus, by Mary Goodwin, who is the Associate Director of Light Work.  She is an amazing person, writer and artist and someone who truly understands and appreciates what I am doing.  Also, Issue 10 had a group show about Lishui Photo Festival in China that was text heavy.  In the future, we plan to have more reviews and essays.  It’s just a matter of getting reviewers who can keep to deadlines and are willing to do some work for almost no payment.  Know anyone?

In addition to the submissions you receive, how do you stay current with what is happening in photography right now?

I follow about 50 blogs and I have been doing portfolio reviews where I get to see a lot of work. At each review, I see at least 25 portfolios on a one to one basis and then meet and see a lot of photographers during the course of the event.  Luckily, people respect what I am doing and want to show me their work.  Twitter and Facebook also play a part in keeping me in the know.  I use them both to make announcements and to drive traffic to my website and blog.  I almost never post important topics to Facebook or any other place.

With your vast experience as a reviewer in Review LA, a partner with Center on their yearly competitions, and a portfolio reviewer to FotoFest, in addition to other projects, who are the contemporary photographers, and what are the movements or ideas about which you are especially excited right now?

I love the new urban landscape photography that I am seeing more and more of.   Contrary to popular belief, I think there is a lot of really good work being posted to Flickr right now. Once you get past all of the crap, and search a bit, you can find some really original and edgy work on Flickr.  Fraction now has a Flickr group and I am searching for some work that I might not otherwise include in an issue.  But I do have plans for a Flickr group show that will debut in April. Unfortunately I am not sure there is a singular movement right now that is exciting me other than the one where artists are moving back to using film.  I seem to be reading a lot lately that for more and more personal work, photographers are choosing to shoot film and usually in the larger formats.  This is a good thing.

Many thanks to David for taking the time to answer our questions.  Be sure to visit Fraction and let us know if you get to meet or hear him at FotoFest (We will be there, but on a different week…)

February 25, 2010   No Comments

An Interview with Dr. James Elkins

The School of Art will be hosting Dr. James Elkins as part of the Ryla T. and John F. Lott Endowment Funded Program on November 16 & 17.  Last semester, our graduate photography class read his book Photography Theory and “Camera Dolorosa” is included in this semester’s readings.  Dr. Elkins has been gracious enough to answer a few of our questions about the current discourse on photography:

Reading Photography Theory, one notices that most of the participants in the Art Seminar discussion, as well as those who commented afterwards, were theorists, not practicing photographic artists.  In which ways do you feel that this might have skewed the conversation?

Well, in unpredictable ways. I’ll say in my defense that the people who could make it to Ireland for that conversation were limited; and we did invite a number of artists to contribute assessments, but few did — and some of those were more artists’ statements than responses to the discussion.

This theme is a bit outside your immediate interest, but I’m editing a new series of books, following on the Art Seminar, and it has the same sort of format; again I’m having difficulty finding artists who are (a) willing to take time from their careers and work, and (b) willing to write responses to theoretical positions. It’s a difficult problem: there are limited, even vanishing, rewards for artists to take the time to come to terms with theoretical positions: the artworld doesn’t usually operate that way. (The normal way artists get into print is in interviews, like this one!)

But to your question: I imagine few photographs care as much about the index as certain scholars; and there were also excluded discourses, like Flusser and Bourdieu,  so that artists who work from those positions would have found it difficult to write assessments that responded in any comprehensible or direct way to the seminars.

Which concepts touched upon in the Photography Theory discussions would you consider especially relevant (or essential) for practicing photographic artists?

The conceptual chaos itself is significant. To a degree it means that there need not be any concern for theoretical discourse unless something in the work persistently reminds viewers of specific theoretical positions.

The Art Seminar portion of Photography Theory took place in 2005 and the book was published in 2007.  In what ways have your thoughts on the medium changed or been reinforced since then?

I have become less interested in academic debates! I’m mainly interested in the disarray of the debates than in the conclusions or positions themselves. I’ve written about this in the postscript to the series (it’s in vol. 7, Re-Enchantment).

After reading Photography Theory, and any number of the other photo theory books which have been published recently, one is left with the impression that the discourse around photographic theories has not evolved much in the last 30 years since Barthes’ Camera Lucida and consists of a rehashing of old ideas (e.g., indexicality, the punctum, medium specificity, and that there might be an ontology to photography).  What are your thoughts on why this might be and where photographic theory might be headed?

Well, of course I completely agree! When we held the panel discussion in Photography Theory, I told the panelists about my project on Barthes; and one of the panelists said, “Barthes! I thought we’d finished with him ages ago.” But as you’ve seen from my opening anecdote in the “Camera dolorosa” piece (the anecdote about Sunil Manghani, and how everyone at his conference was talking about Barthes), I don’t think we’ve moved forward. And as a PS: did you know Michael Naas is coming out with a book of Derrida’s writings on photography? About 6 essays, most (or all) previously published; but in a year or two there will also be a “revival” of his interests.

Photography theory is headed in a different direction. The people who exemplify it are scholars like Margaret Olin (her forthcoming book, Touching Photographs) and Shawn Michelle Smith (who writes on 19th c. photography). Both are sociologically-minded art historians, and are interested in the reception of photographs in particular social situations.

In what ways do you think Michael Fried is opening up the discussion about photography and why it matters as art with his recent book?

Really nothing. I have followed his work very closely for decades, so I say that without meaning it as a critique of his book: he is not connected to the great majority of writing on photography. His only connections are to some of the superstar photographers, and especially to Jeff Wall, whose theorizing has always been done within the existing discourse of art history.  Fried has always raised the bar on rational argumentation in art history, criticism, and theory; but here the question is who he is speaking to. I think his public will be, as it has been, a small circle of academic art historians, who can use and develop the positions he outlines. (I have an essay in Critical Inquiry responding to part of Fried’s book.)

Who are some of the photographic artists working today that you find most interesting, and who are some of the most noteworthy critics or theorists writing about them?

I like Marco Breuer! See the account in Six Stories from the End of Representation, my new book, which has a chapter on photography.

Many thanks to Dr. Elkins for taking the time to answer our questions.  His lecture, “The Place of Language in Visual Art” will take place at Texas Tech on Tuesday, November 17 at 7:00PM in English 106.

November 10, 2009   No Comments

An Interview with Chris Pichler, Nazraeli Press

Nakazora, Masao Yamamoto, Nazraeli Press.

Nakazora, Masao Yamamoto, Nazraeli Press, Tuscon (2002).

Based in Portland, Oregon, Nazraeli Press publishes books specializing in contemporary photography.  Nazraeli is highly regarded as one of the premier photo book publishers, offering a variety of specialized formats, as well as offering original artworks in their “One Picture Book”, and special editions, that are often signed by the artist and/or include original artwork, in a clamshell box.  Showcasing artists from around the world, they are a beloved destination for many wanting to know what is happening in the photographic world.  Chris Pichler, founder and publisher of Nazraeli Press, kindly granted us an e-interview recently.

You have published photographic artists from all over the world, which strikes us as taking a bit of ambition and gumption.  How did you become involved in everything instead of specializing in a specific country or type of photographic work?

For the first 8 years of its existence, Nazraeli was a European company. As I grew up in the United States, however, and knew a lot of artists here, it was natural to work with artists from several different countries from the very beginning. Over the years, Asia – particularly Japan, as my wife is Japanese – has become a place I love to visit, and of course is home to many wonderful and prolific artists. That is reflected in the great number of books we have published with Asian artists.

I’ve never been good at specializing in things. As with most people, my interests change and sometimes grow as I live my life, and that is reflected in the kinds of books I’m interested in publishing. It’s normal to want to share with others, things that you find fascinating. When I became interested in gardening, for example – and that’s an interest that has grown stronger with each year – we started publishing more books about trees and flowers and landscapes. It’s fun to be able to draw on one passion to feed another.

How would you characterize or describe aesthetic criteria you use in selecting artists for publication?

As with subject matter or nationalities, I prefer to rely on chance in terms of what I find, and a hopefully open mind, when it comes to aesthetics, rather than a pre-conceived idea of what is right. Two artists we regularly publish, Michael Kenna and Joseph Mills, have a sense of aesthetics that couldn’t be further apart. But the way each one photographs is so perfect for the things they are drawn to, that both feel exactly right for their respective subjects, even though the two are very different from one another. And they are both ways that resonate strongly with me, and that I feel a powerful desire to publish and therefore share.

We have seen and read elsewhere that you often follow artists through their career, publishing several books of their work.  In the case of Yamamoto Masao you have published specialized books, such as the Omizuao pillow book and the Nakazora scroll.  How did these projects come about?  And are their other artists you are currently working with on specially realized projects?

Sometimes I come across work that I know I want to publish, but that doesn’t seem to fit into a traditional book format. Whether the answer lies in presenting the work as a scroll – which made sense with the Japanese artist Yamamoto – or as a set of loose cards in a box, which beg to be shuffled into random sequences – as was the case with the two publications we made with the late surrealist Frederick Sommer – is really up to the work itself. It’s not that I think of an unusual format and then look for the work to put into it, but rather that the work itself dictates how it is best presented. And more often than not, photographs seem happiest in a very traditional book format. It’s the  exceptions that people seem to notice, but the vast majority of Nazraeli books are straightforward, hardcover books using fairly utilitarian materials. If the book format or materials overshadow the work itself, it is an unsuccessful design. The purpose of a book, after all, is to show the work.

Nakazora, Masao Yamamoto, Nazraeli Press.

Nakazora, Masao Yamamoto, Nazraeli Press, Tuscon (2002).

The One Picture Books published by Nazraeli strike us as unique, as we have not seen other publishers using a similar format.  How did you arrive at this project?

We were, of course, not the first to publish small, inexpensive books, nor was it a new idea to include original prints inside of a printed book. The idea of the One Picture Books was to combine these two seemingly mutually-exclusive ideas into one: to produce a series of highly collectible books that practically anyone could afford. It turns out people liked that idea!

Nazraeli Press is highly regarded for its books specializing in contemporary photography.  Could you talk about any trends you see developing in photo books and photography and how they interrelate?

This is a great time for independent publishing. I’m especially happy to see the enthusiasm surrounding “zines”, because they represent the kind of underground, low-budget publishing that got me interested in this field in the first place, twenty years ago. I love the fact that, at the same time so many “artist’s books” are being made digitally, and so many big publishers are trying to survive by playing to the mainstream, there is this resurgence of interest in making books or brochures by hand, using very cheap materials, for a relatively small but very enthusiastic audience. I don’t know if this represents a backlash against electronic books – which I think also have their place – or simply joy in getting back to the basics, but the playfulness and creativity are really exciting to watch.

What upcoming projects do you have that you are especially excited about?

We’ve just published “Greater Atlanta”, the third part of Mark Steinmetz’s powerful trilogy, which has been one of my favorite long-term projects. We’re also working on Todd Hido’s new book of landscape photographs, “A Road Divided”, and Alessandra Sanguinetti’s “The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams” which not only wins the best title award, but is a truly epic body of work. Michael Kenna and Dick Arentz both have books on Italy coming out in the next few months, which must have some kind of enigmatic meaning as well!

Many thanks to Chris for taking the time to answer our questions.  Go to Nazraeli Press’s website and be sure to look through their amazing list of artists and books.  Also, as a side note, this Raymond Meeks One Picture Book looks like it would be worth every penny.

October 30, 2009   2 Comments

An Interview with Meggan Gould

Blackboard #36, 16 x 20", 2006.

Blackboard #36, 16 x 20", silver gelatin print, 2006.

We recently had the privilege of asking Meggan Gould a few questions about her artwork.  Exhibiting internationally and currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Art at Bowdoin College, Meggan takes a critical look at the way photographs are used to visualize the world.

Your website offers up seven separate series you have been working on.  While they are quite different in visual terms, they all seem to wrestle with the idea of what a photograph is and how they are used to visualize the world.  Could you discuss any over-arching idea(s) which might be informing these projects?

You have touched on it in your question – I am interested in probing the idea of what a photograph is and the relationship of the photographic image to vision. I have continually been struck by the relatively limited way in which we habitually approach the photograph. This began, in my earlier work, by questioning the idea of how we hold the camera and frame images – the association between the eye and the camera – and trying to incorporate more corporeal freedom into the photographic act; can a photograph differentiate between the visual qualities of attention and distraction, for example? The contemporary context of visual upheaval has continued to inform and push these questions – the act of physical engagement with the camera and the image formed therein has shifted, as has our interaction with the resultant image (physical vs. virtual). Much of my most recent work has struggled more with the latter issue, with how photographs themselves function in the world at large, as physical objects or as pixels.

Could you talk about the decision to show your “verso” series as photographs of the backs of photographs, as opposed to showing the actual objects with their backs facing the viewer?

I never considered framing and presenting the objects themselves as an option with this group of work. The act of photographing the photographs – the photographic act of attention afforded to the (ostensibly non-photogenic) surface of the back of the photograph – is a critical part of this series for me. I want these surfaces to emerge as picture spaces in and of themselves, and in order for that to happen they needed to succumb to the same act of mechanical reproduction that generally renders scenes/objects “photo-worthy.” This also permits me, of course, to present these photographs slightly larger than scale; making such mundane objects larger-than-life allows me to (hopefully) provoke a new visual interaction with them.

Also, the “verso” series contains markings that hint at (and your statement affirms) their belonging to family photo albums or being personal mementos.  These are very specific types of photographs.  Could you talk about that decision and in what ways using these types of images influences the work?

In the broad collection that I have amassed of these images, there are very few that are not from the context of personal mementos – a few press photos, military photos, etc., but mostly I am interested in looking at how photographs are customarily used, touched, written upon, folded, cherished, torn… in how photographs live in the world. These have come from collections lent to me, from my own family’s albums and boxes, and from flea markets galore. I have not deliberately excluded categories of photographic imagery, in fact, but have certainly gravitated towards sifting through collections that are distinctly personal because, I believe, of the way that the marks, stains, and text on the photographs point to or hint at the lives that these photographs have led as objects in the world. Surprising connections have emerged – the number of interpersonal, letter-like messages, for example, in text snippets scrawled on the photo backs, the ways in which text points to “correct” interpretations of the silver gelatin information, the common use of humor, and the interplay between public/private notations.

These are often not photographs that were ever intended to be seen outside of a very specific context and yet, decades later in a flea market, they retain no knowable context. I have always been fascinated by our persistent desire to know exactly what is depicted in a photograph – the eternal “but… what is it?” question that surrounds photographic looking, the gesture of flipping the photograph over in this quest to decipher. The photographs I have chosen are, overall, so divorced from their original context that they are entirely unknowable, and we are left only with our own visual pleasure therewith.

You often use found imagery (“verso”, “go ogle”) and your blog notes a personal fascination with found photographs.  In which ways does recontextualizing found imagery affect your work?

As I mentioned above, a lot of this boils down to not wanting the original context of a photograph to matter – not wanting to be so overwhelmed by decoding the who-is-it or what-is-it representational factor that we forget to experience visual pleasure. Found photographs are profoundly unknowable, leaving us, as viewers, fully in control of how we read them. We are so used to specific caption explanations, titles, etc. that very precisely direct our readings of photographs; I love the unadulterated moment with a context-less photograph.

Some of my work has played with recontextualizing found photographs via caption/title information, however. The “Go Ogle” series plays on this idea of text/image relationship, but only in a computer-generated association. A found image of a dog, for example, might come up during a Google Image Search for “cat,” for example, due to how the search algorithm works; no human sifts through all internet-based imagery assigning representational value to specific jpegs. This series of work played off of that, using 100+ found images for any specific search to distill out a visual essence, via a mathematical averaging process, of text/image association.

Verso #62, 19 x 13", 2008.

Verso #62, 19 x 13", archival pigment print, 2008.

Are the “blackboard” and “verso” series ever shown together, since they both present subjects in transition?

They have not been shown together to date, but I would very much love for that connection to happen.

You utilize and focus on old (blackboards and printed photographs) and new (Google and computer screens) technology in your images. Could you talk about the role of technology in your work?

I can’t seem to avoid this obsession with how we live with and create photographs, and technology is an unavoidable part of it. I suppose that for me it is not about technologies per se but rather about how and what we look at, and how and what we decide is worthy of capturing photographically, through whichever technology we happen to be using.

I don’t necessarily make a distinct division between old vs. new, and in an odd way it seems to have boiled down to how we use mutable, generally rectangular surfaces in our lives: backs of photographs, computer screens, blackboards, camera view-finders. I tend to see each as a framed picture space in and of itself, and am fascinated by how the pictures that form on these surfaces shift over time, and how rarely these moments are rendered as photographic images. These are surfaces habitually viewed only in the context of specific information (text on the palimpsest of a blackboard, notes on the back of a photograph, mouse action on a computer desktop); the technology itself is irrelevant to the moment of visual cohesion that I am looking for within each framed space. Whatever the technology, can I use the photographic image to delve further into habits of looking, and habits of over-looking?

Do you have any upcoming projects or works in progress that you are especially excited about?

I will be part of a group show at Colby-Sawyer College in January-February 2010, and I will have a solo show at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art from March to June 2010 – the latter will be the first time that a number of different series of my work will be shown together, and I am excited for some of the connections that you asked about to be visually manifest in one exhibition space. I am working on a new body of work that hasn’t quite made it to the website yet, but which continues to probe issues of my physical relationship with the act of photographing, as well as with screen culture.

Many thanks to Meggan for taking the time to answer our questions.  Be sure to take a look at her website and check out her upcoming exhibitions.

October 22, 2009   No Comments