I get a lot of questions about the photography business and for any answers that are more involved I refer people to my list of photography consultants. I’ve always been curious what the process of working with a consultant is like so I asked Suzanne Sease to tell us about it. She interviewed a handful of her colleagues to get a broad perspective on the practice. I can assure you, after a few times consulting with photographers myself, that these people are really good at what they do.
Working with a consultant 101
You have done what you think is right for your business. You edited your images for your website, portfolio and promotional materials but still nothing is happening. To get another valued opinion, you have made a big decision to work with a creative consultant to help take your career to the next level or jumpstart it. There are a lot of consultants out there so it is hard to decide who is best for you. This article is to help you make the best decision for your business.
I reached out to several veterans whom I respect because of their experience before they chose to be consultants. I asked them the best way to maximize working with a consultant. The resulting checklist is designed to help you make the best decision for you if you want to work with a creative consultant. For this article, I interviewed Amanda Sosa Stone, Jennifer Kilberg, Leslie Burns, Katherine Hennessy, Mary Virginia Swanson and included my own thoughts from my experiences as a consultant since 1999.
It is best to e-mail several consultants to check their availability and a time to talk about your work. Please understand that we get a lot of e-mails each day so it may take a day or two to get back to you. Be focused about what you are looking for and what you would like to achieve. Make sure you clearly articulate your needs and expectations regarding your hope of working with a consultant. Most consultants will review your website before they talk with you. Leslie says she looks at a potential client’s website before returning a call or e-mail to gain more information about their level of creativity or sign of it. Katherine and I do that as well. We look at your website as we want to see how you are presenting yourself on your website. If your website is not organized with a clear vision, it makes a buyer confused. Jennifer, Amanda, and I all agree that you need to ask what it is that you are currently doing that is not working and where you want to go. Mary Virginia Swanson has created a page on her website on “how we work together”, and requires potential clients to fill out a “client fact sheet”. Amanda has the philosophy that she wants her clients to hire her because she is the perfect match for them. Katherine feels like you need to be able to have open dialogue and set reasonable expectations regarding where you are and the expected outcome. Mary Virginia adds “Not every photographer is open to constructive criticism when it comes to their work and their business model(s) currently in practice. I encourage those investing in consultations to anticipate a tough review and the suggestion of investigation into new markets.”
The Editing Process:
Before a consultant can begin the process, the photographer needs to take the time to edit the images that they want to represent them. Jennifer asks for 250-500 images per market. She says having clients send her everything and anything does not benefit her client and is a waste of her time. I couldn’t agree more. Amanda and I both prefer about 1,000 images in one folder and not separated into categories. I have received thousands of images before and after selecting great images, the photographer says “ I have never liked that image”. You must not be emotionally attached to images and you need to remember that a photographer carries baggage about imagery – you need to look at working with the consultant as an independent force that will help you cull the best, not getting bogged down by your perspective and past perceptions. As Amanda says “ You should go into the consult completely open (in your head and in your calendar- meaning you have time to do the work you want to do).” Most consultants like to work with digital images that are sent to them and are editing in Aperture, Lightroom and other software. Amanda, Jennifer, Katherine and I like to create contact sheets of the images in the order they should appear in the website galleries. A portfolio is also created for the client to use on an iPad as well as a printed portfolio. Leslie likes to work on the backend of someone’s website or with jpegs. But for the printed portfolio she requires prints to play with. Since Mary Virginia works primarily with artists on their personal projects, many of her clients send physical prints so she can gain a sense of their craft, project edits and publication layouts utilizing on-line editing tools.
Discussing the Editing:
Each of the consultants in this article spend the time discussing the edits that have been tailored to their client. The edits are created to your vision and the markets it should target. Amanda and I both agree that the discussion needs to honest and about the photographer’s strengths. Weaknesses can be indentified, discussed and pushed aside for the strengths to shine. Each of the consultants discusses where you want to grow and their edits are a reflection of that. As Leslie says, “ Be open, be willing to listen and learn, and have some faith in her/himself in the process.” Mary Virginia helps her clients gain awareness of today’s diverse marketplace and where their work/skills are most likely to fit and teach them the necessary research skills aimed at targeting those most likely to respond to their work. Katherine, Amanda and I like to use our previous skills as an art buyer to look at your images as to what they sell- either a product or an emotion. In advertising and graphic design, your images have to stop the viewer to look at what is being advertised. In editorial, your image has to entice the viewer to read the article or want to buy the products featured, cook a meal or decorate a room. I look at the production value to your images. If your images look like you stumbled upon something, you got lucky. If your images look like you created a scenario and knew how to shoot within it, I know you have talent.
You have done all your work with your edits, you have uploaded the images on to your site, designed your portfolio from the edit, and have a selection of images for your marketing. At this point, we look at your marketing plan and discuss how it is best to approach your target. For Mary Virginia she enjoys seeing her long-term clients achieve their goals of exhibitions, gallery representation, publications and/or creative commissions in the style of their personal work. For the commercial side of consulting, you need to decide how you are willing to spend your marketing dollars. But you HAVE to market. Each of these consultants will work with you on your target market. The best way is to purchase the rights to use a database. Agency Access has merged the research from Adbase to create an excellent researched database of companies, contacts and brands. Each consultant knows how to create lists for you on your account and will select images for your e-promo materials and direct mail. Katherine adds “Direct Mail cannot be discounted in this technological world. It is an avenue that should still be pursued.” I like my clients to create personalized e-mails complimenting the work a buyer has done showing they have done their research on a case by case basis. It is encouraged that you go on the road and show your portfolio. I have clients send out personalized notecards telling potential buyers that you would like to meet with them and then giving them a call to set up a meeting. One of my clients said it perfectly “ I came to realize when I did all my marketing virtually, that client didn’t want to hire a virtual photographer.” But if folks are unable to meet, create a virtual portfolio that is an extension of your website. A PDF portfolio is usually too large to send to buyers (2MB can crash a buyers computer even at large companies). A good virtual portfolio company is www.issuu.com.
The Lessons Learned:
Each of the consultants agree with what Amanda wrote so perfectly:
My wish for all my clients is that once we show them the path – they learn to trust themselves and listen to their gut instincts.
The lessons I have learned from clients who hired another consultant and then hired me to fix what the first consultant didn’t do the first time (which I know happens to the best of us):
- Sometimes it wasn’t the consultant who didn’t do the work, sometimes the client didn’t communicate they weren’t happy and felt bad and didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the consultant.
- As a consultant you have to edit without an ego – you can’t please everyone and if you can’t, you better hope they speak up so you can fix the problem.
- It’s a two way street – you have to be respectful of each other’s time and feelings, but still be honest about the process, the work and the state of one’s business.
- Spending a lot of money doesn’t mean you are getting the best, it just means someone charges more than another (same with designers).
- Listen to the work. Sometimes, the consultant is given a verbal direction by the photographer, but the works demands another direction, which might be out of the artist’s comfort zone (i.e. you want to shoot fashion, but your best work is portraits). In the end, the artist may not be ready to take their work to the next level or that direction, in which case the artists needs to clearly communicate this to the consultant. If they do not, they will have wasted their money by not communicating their needs.
Mary Virginia says “Not every photographer is open to constructive criticism when it comes to their work and their business model(s) currently in practice. I encourage those investing in consultations to anticipate a tough review and the suggestion of investigation into new markets.”
Jennifer says “When hiring a consultant you need to make sure you are a strong communicator and have expressed your expectations up front. A good consultant will help you figure out your goals and help you prioritize where your focus should be. We can help build a strong foundation to get you out the door, but you still need to do the work.”
Katherine would add “You need to come with focused goals, but also be realistic with your expectations, acknowledging the industry and the economic situation. There is work out there, but our relationship and business partnership will not be the crystal ball answer. It’s simply one step in the process.”
And Leslie sums it up “ I draw the map, they have to drive the route.”
Most of the consultants are available ala carte or for packages. Check out their websites for more information. Mary Virginia doesn’t offer packages and bills for time spent on working with her clients.
The contributors to this article are:
Amanda Sosa Stone- www.sosastone.com, She has over 12 years experience as a former art buyer for FCB/Draft, rep/producer for over 27 photographers and photo editor. Amanda was the photo editor for Elyse Weisberg’s book. Co-author with Suzanne Sease on The Photographers Survivor’s Guide. Currently, Amanda is the in-house consultant for Agency Access.
Jennifer Kilberg- www.fluidvisioninc.com. She has over 15 years experience as a former photo editor for SciFi Channel, NYC Kodak, American PHOTO, professor at Parsons (NYC), current professor at Creative Circus and The Portfolio Center (GA), and producer for clients like American Airlines.
Leslie Burns, Esq.- www.burnsautoparts.com and burnstheattorney.com. She has worked for clients and commercial photographers since the 1990s, including being a photographers’ rep and adjunct prof at CCAD: A consultant for over 10 years, she is the author of 2 books and a frequent speaker. She recently passed the California Bar and can help with copyright and legal issues, too.
Mary Virginia Swanson- www.mvswanson.com is established in the fine art and quality fine art stock world. She maintains a popular blog “Marketing Photos” that showcases upcoming opportunities for photographers. Swanson contributes to many industry publications, lectures frequently, participates at portfolio review events such as FotoFest and Review Santa Fe, and earlier this year coauthored Publish Your Photography Book with Darius Himes (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). Her next publication “Finding Your Audience: An Introduction to Marketing Your Photographs” is due early 2012. Swanson is based in Tucson and NYC.
Katherine Hennessy- www.kate-company.com Katherine has over 20 years experience in the business. She managed the art buying department at Arnold Worldwide- Boston, prior to that, was a buyer in NYC with McCann Erickson and Scali, McCabe, Sloves. Currently, in addition to consultations, Katherine is a photographers’ agent with her business, Kate & Company.
And me, Suzanne Sease- www.suzannesease.com I have over 25 years experience. I established the art buying department at The Martin Agency and when I left I had the opportunity to work at Kaplan Thaler, Capital One, Best Buy and many small agencies. I co-authored the book with Amanda Sosa Stone “The Photographer’s Survival Guide: How to Build and Grow a Succesful Business.” I am a contributor to blogs here on APE as well as Agency Access’s The Lab.
The best advice I could possibly give you, and forgive me if this seems glib, is to work. Work. Work. Work. Every day. At the same time every day. For as long as you can take it every day, work, work, work. Understand? Talent is for shit. I’ve taught school for nearly thirty years and never met a student who did not have some talent. It is as common as house dust or kudzu vine in Alabama and is just about as valuable. Nothing is as valuable as the habit of work, and work has to become a habit.
Jonathan Blaustein: I was in New York this past week, and I was able to see both of your exhibitions that are currently on display at Bryce Wolkowitz and Howard Greenberg. It’s such a great lead in to our conversation, and I definitely want to ask some questions about those shows. To give you a bit of backstory, I come to this process as an artist, not a journalist or a professional. I’m one of those people who seems to be faking it until I make it. The goal will be to try to provide some information for the audience, and get a sense of where your head is at, because I think, realistically, everybody who reads the interview will be familiar with your work. So let me just jump right in. I have a lot of specific questions, but from a standpoint of my personal curiosity, I was hoping to start with something really broad. I wanted to know if you could talk a little bit about why you do what you do?
Edward Burtynsky: I have no idea what else I would do. Creating ideas and objects, and being involved in art making, whether it’s in the form of photography, or something else is part of my being. The creative urge feels as if it’s in my DNA. If I’m not creating something, then I feel as if I’m having a slow death.
The “why” of what I do is fairly straightforward, it’s why all artists are compelled to do their work. Most of the artists I know who are successful don’t have a lot of choice. It’s something they simply need to do. That’s as close as I can come to why I do it. I’ve always made things. I’ve always been involved in the arts.
JB: Kandinsky had a great phrase for it that I picked up in grad school. He called it “Inner Necessity.” When I get asked the question, I give a similar answer, but given that you’re so accomplished at what you do, I was curious to hear your take. Anyway, because I got to hear you lecture for 40 minutes at the Art+Environment Conference in Reno, and because I got to see two of your exhibitions in the last four days, my questions are kind of focused on what you’re doing now. We also got to chat in Reno a bit as well, and you mentioned that in 2011, you are now working with “drone helicopters.”
We continued our conversation, but that phrase kind of stuck in my mind. When I mentioned it to other people, everyone had the same reaction, which is, “What? How? Why?” I was hoping you might share a bit about how that process works?
EB: We call them “drones” but I guess it’s kind of a misleading term.
JB: You can see why I got curious. We all have visions of toy airplanes firing guided missiles at bearded dudes in the hinterlands of Pakistan, so I had to ask.
EB: I refer to them as “RC-copters”, remote control helicopters. I’ve always been interested in being able to position my camera at an optimal viewpoint in order to take a good picture.
My response to a subject determines the appropriate distance, angle and time of year. I’ve been working – and scratching my head – in China for almost a decade now. China has no civil aviation. It’s mostly, if you want to get up in the air, you either have to deal with industry, or you’ll have to deal with the military.
For instance, the hydro-electric projects. Up in the regions where they’re putting the dams in, the Chinese use huge Sikorsky helicopters to shuttle men in and out of building sites. These overkill choppers can carry a dozen men and their gear. You can rent one but it’s ridiculously expensive. The only other way to use airspace by helicopter in China is through the military. Getting them on side is a major hassle and again you’re paying buckets of money to use their craft, at their convenience, and it means you’ve got to go right to Beijing and talk to them. The beaurocracy is staggering.
One of the workarounds we were sorting out was to try getting my Hasselblad up in a helicopter without me. The whole process started from the question “How can I stand where I want to stand and shoot from where I want to shoot, in a place where I can’t get up in the air? If I want to take pictures from a lofty perspective in China, or in India – where it’s equally challenging to get chopper space in remote areas – how do I accomplish that?”
With the small RC helicopter I’m able to shoot in isolated areas utilizing the same opportunities that a regular helicopter provides, without having a full-on rig and related expenses. We’ve been successfully doing aerial tests, shooting with the Hasselblad at about 700-800 ft. We can shoot down rock-steady and control the point of view—totally remote.
JB: Do you have a live video feed to tell you when you want to click the shutter? Are you seeing it in real-time?
EB: Yes. I’m watching in real-time, so I have a camera in the eyepiece of the Hasselblad. I have three-way positioning on the camera, so I have all the movements of a tripod head. I’m working with a helicopter operator to say “Freeze it in that spot.” Then I’m working with a guy on the head, and I hold the shutter release. So I’m getting live video feed as I compose from the camera.
EB: You can fly as far away from base to the point where you lose visual contact, which is a bad idea with a remote, because you want to be sure to get it back. It’s a lot of expensive equipment.
JB: No doubt. When everyone reads that, they’re going to be mentally tabulating the bill on that equipment. That’s insane. I’m really not a tech-obsessed guy, but that concept, especially with the contemporary context of remote control warfare, I had to ask.
JB: I just saw your two shows in New York. I was fortunate to get a preview of the Dryland Farming series in Reno, but seeing the prints of the new work on the wall at Wolkowitz was kind of astonishing.
I hope you won’t assume flattery here, but I’ve seen a lot of your work through the years. Part of being an artist is just being aware of what’s going on. And I thought the new work was absolutely fantastic. I think people my age are often afraid of the tendency to do your best work early on, and then kind of slowly crater. Seeing something that awesome and invigorating was inspiring. The prints were extraordinary, and hopefully we’ll get this interview up in time for people to go see the show. But they are somewhere in the range of 40″ x 60″, just gigantic images, and they are abstract to the point where they were almost vibrating. The fingers of the Spanish landscape reminded me of little alien fetuses. People familiar with your work will recognize the thumbprint, and yet they were kind of a new aesthetic to me, particularly the color palette. The photographs looked like digital capture to me, as opposed film.
JB: I was wondering if I interpreted that correctly, or if it was just the palette you were using. Have you shifted your process at all to make that work?
EB: They are now shot digitally.
JB: They are…
EB: Yes. I’ve tried every way I can, and film isn’t capable of that quality in aerial work. When I first started shooting from the air in 2003 I took a large format film camera up. I was using my Linhof 4×5 with a rangefinder on it, and ran into a host of problems. One is, because you are in motion, and there’s vibration, so you’re trying to get high shutter speeds. You have to expose at one five-hundredth of a second or better, even with a gyro and a copter pilot trying to steady the craft as best he can. That’s pretty much the fastest speed on the older shutters. To get that speed, you’ve got to expose wide open, and most large format lenses don’t render optimally wide open. In my case F5.6 is wide open, and it’s hard to get the picture sharp at the corners. They really need to be at F16, or better at F22.
JB: These are technical reasons. But the color palette, the aesthetic, certainly on those large prints, it reads as Hyperreal. Which to me kind of grounds it in the 21st Century, and makes them even better. The non-linearity of the land was just shocking, the way the water movement shapes the parcels for farming. Was that a project that you’ve always wanted to do, or was it the kind of thing where you were in Spain, you saw something, and it triggered an idea in your mind?
EB: All my work is research driven. When I started doing this Dryland Farming series, I was already working on the idea of water. I had just finished my Oil project, having spent twelve years, exploring that; at different times I’d go back to it, then do something else, take a year off, think about it, research some more, and go back to it.
I often work in chunks: research and then implementation. When I started looking at water, one of the key things staring me in the face was that, well, I’m not necessarily interested in water as Water per se, because that’s one big subject. We have oceans that cover two-thirds of the planet, and I’m not so interested in that part of the story, but I am interested in human intervention. How do we interact with water, and how do we re-shape and synthesize water into what we want it to be, into the various things that we need it to be.
When I started researching from that perspective things get fascinating, 70% of human water usage is in agriculture. So agriculture becomes a dominant theme within the research, to ask “where is agriculture done in conceptually and visually interesting ways? Where can I find that?”
So I started researching agriculture subjects, working with researchers here at my studio. We’ve looked at everything from California’s Imperial Valley, where they are using the Colorado River with aqueducts; to Dryland farming in the Monegros, Spain, a natural usage of available winter rainwater, where there’s no irrigation at all, so it’s one crop per year. And I was recently photographing near where you live; driving through New Mexico into the Texas panhandle, then flying over and photographing gigantic pivot agriculture systems that are drying out the aquifers.
These are examples of the very different ways in which humans intervene with water, but again, it’s all research driven. I’m looking to find the visual representation of various ideas in the landscape, and then allowing the ideas to push me to the place that needs to be photographed. I’m trying to find the form which best suits an aspect of the research, and for the most part, the best visual description of what we do with water cries for elevation. I need to get up above it to see it from a great height, because it’s often such a vast thing I’m looking for, that the point of view has to be from a bird’s eye view. That’s basically the way I’m developing the project.
JB: It leads to my next question. You talk about oil, you talk about water, you talk about research and planning, and yet sometimes a disaster can make an idea, or the intersection of two ideas, suddenly achievable. At the Howard Greenberg gallery, you had a few images, super-large scale, of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. There was a particular image, I think it was titled “Riptide,” where you could literally see the line between the encroaching Oil/Water, and what was presumably the water not yet polluted, which had a different color. They’re aerial, using copters or planes. One thing I was curious about was, certainly within the photo community, there’s this sense that with each new disaster, there’s a crew of guys, a slew of people sprinting there as fast as they can to be the first to document that particular scenario. That’s not the way you typically work. I wondered what that was like for you on the scene? Did you see any competition of photographers trying to get up in the air first? What it was like for you as an artist to witness the journalistic practice?
EB: I wasn’t necessarily separated, but I wasn’t trying to get my work out in AP or anything like that. That wasn’t my intention.
JB: Clearly. When you see the work, it was almost like it had to be. It fit so perfectly within the through-line of your work.
EB: You’re quite right to pick up on that. I had a foot in both worlds. I just finished up doing a twelve-year project about oil, which is traveling the world until 2013. And I’m three and a half years into a project on water. Almost two years ago, when the Gulf oil spill happened, both of these themes were present in one place. I don’t generally follow disasters or current events in that way. If I am photographing a disaster, it’s a slow, intentional incremental one. It’s not typically where a natural disaster kicked out, or one where something went horribly wrong. In the Macondo well, something went horribly wrong. I generally don’t go after that kind of subject, but in this case it involved the two liquids that we, as humans, engage with on a massive scale, and both were present. That’s something I rarely have a chance to witness, as an image-maker, where two big themes that I’m working with are suddenly come together in one landscape.
“Riptide,” the image you’re talking about, is actually where the water goes out, about eighty miles beyond the Mississippi, where the water streams into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s silted, so there’s a certain opaque tonality to the Mississippi water. The Gulf of Mexico is a clearer, and has an aquamarine-blue appearance. It’s where brackish water meets the salty ocean water of the Gulf. That particular intersection in the photograph is where these two different types of water are actually coalescing and blending together. The oil had found its path into that water too, so it was caught into the confluence of these two waters. The oil is being held in that tide, and that is one of the few places where I was actually able to see the oil. Mostly, no one was seeing it for days and days, because they were using dispersant. Deep down, something like 4000 feet down somewhere, they had a pipe that was blowing dispersant over the oil as it came up, and it was atomizing it. So the oil itself was never surfacing. This was one of the places where an oil mass made it to the surface.
JB: I had a really interesting reaction, standing in front of the print. As much as the world relies on jpegs, there’s really no substitute for the physical experience of being in front of a 40″x 60″ like that. It was one of the most disturbing, beautiful photographs I’d ever seen. It was so luscious and gorgeous, that for the first time as a viewer, I actually felt guilty about appreciating the magnificence of the photograph. It’s not subtle, why you’re seeing what you’re seeing, between the title and the visual. I felt like you took it to the outer edge of how to use the seductive power of beauty to get people paying attention. I don’t know if there’s a question in there, but obviously, you use aesthetics to draw people’s attention to these environmental disasters…
EB: What I’ve often said is that it follows, very much, a state of mind, collectively, that we’re all in. If I had to put a psychological term, on it, it’s that we’re all in a state of cognitive dissonance. In other words, we all know that the collective impacts the earth. You’d have to be pretty out of it to not have some sense that as a species, we’re having a profound effect on our planetary systems, water systems, air systems, the forest, life in the oceans. Everywhere you turn, humans are doing things on a large scale, and Nature is really getting the brunt of it, is being pushed back. So many of us know that this is happening. It’s getting harder to simply enjoy life, and go on, buy another car, fill your tank up with gas, take your favorite vacation down South in the Winter. Whatever it is you do.
Everything now is almost a guilty pleasure. Everything we do has consequence. So we live with the desire on one hand, to live a full life, and the consequence that we’re all having in that collective expression of Capitalism, and Democracy. These are two irreconcilable things. “
Cognitive dissonance” is when you tend to deny anything that contradicts what you want life to be. It’s also called “myside bias.” We accept any information that supports living life as usual, and not having to change our behavior is embraced, and anything that sounds like “Oh, I have to change my behavior if I want to be a good citizen,” we tend to shun. There is a kind of attraction/repulsion, but rather than deal with the repulsion, we tend to try to close it off. I think it’s societal, so in terms of a psychological state, it’s happening on a very big scale.
I think the work itself, that I do, also mirrors that dissonance. On one hand, we’re attracted to the image. The aesthetics are equivalent to the desire that we feel, the beauty we long for, yet once we come to terms with the fact of its subject matter, the content then puts us into a state of realization…”What’s that telling me?” It’s hard to feel good about what you’re seeing, because you know this is a disaster. It’s tragic.
JB: It’s great to hear you say that. I know I stumbled to even formulate a question there, but I’ve seen a lot of photographs in my day, and that sensibility really came across in your work. The use of structural metaphor in your practice, I think, is probably a big part of why you’ve achieved what you have. You used the word mirror, which is a great segue, because I had a question about that. There was some new work up at the Greenberg gallery that I’d never seen before, and I’m assuming most people haven’t seen it either.
You had a mini-exhibition within the gallery called the “Pentimento” portfolio, which were damaged, beaten up, aged-looking, black and white prints from the Bangladesh series. (The project where you photographed the ship yards where they deconstruct aging oil tankers.) I’ve seen those images in color, but these were black and white chromagenic prints, which left me curious.
It seemed like another case of structural metaphor, where the destruction in the print mirrored the destruction of the ships, which are taken apart by hand, piece by piece. Which is then a mirror for the destruction of the environment, with all the oil that seeps back into the water. Given that you’d gone so far out of your way to make a statement with your process, I thought that maybe you could talk about that for a moment. Did you intentionally trash those prints? Was it a digital manipulation?
EB: No, it wasn’t done intentionally, and it wasn’t done with the computer. This was in 2000-2001, so twelve years ago. Basically, what happened in that situation is that I usually shot Polaroid Type 55s to proof, and then colour neg. I was shooting 4×5 and I had to work quickly out there. I did have 8×10 along, but most of my work in Bangladesh was shot on 4×5. I could work faster using my Linhof. I could easily find infinite focus, it was a real extension of my way of seeing, and have the shot done quickly. To ensure that I had the image, I would always shoot a Type 55, and then I would inspect the negative for sharpness to make sure it could go up to 40×50 or 50×60 size. You have inspect those proofing negatives on site with a 10x magnifying loupe if you want to be sure that you’re going to be able to produce the prints back in the lab at home.
I was used to working with 10x loupes and 4×5 negatives, but in Bangladesh, I decided for the first time that I wanted to keep the black and white Polaroid negatives. The one’s just before I shot the final images. You have to place them on site in the sodium sulfite bath until you get back to the hotel at night, then wash them, and then hang them to dry, which I did, religiously every night during that entire shoot. I went there twice, and spent almost a month in that location. And then I went and did all the color negative work, and released the work. But all the Polaroids were in boxes, and I stored them where I keep all my negatives, in a safe at my lab in Toronto. I opened the boxes up three years later, and they were all fused together as a block. Basically because the moisture differential…
JB: The humidity in the air…
EB: Right, the humidity in Bangladesh was so high that they never really dried out, until they were in the safe and then they stuck together. So I kind of ripped them apart, and said, “Yikes, well that went wrong!” At the time I had an intern working for me and asked him to “make contact prints, because they’re kind of interesting. Let’s see what I got.” So contacts were made, and there were about a dozen that I found quite interesting.
When I made the black and white contacts, it seemed like these images were coming from a bygone age. When I was in the field in Bangladesh, I felt like I was getting the vision that Charles Dickens had at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, or Blake’s reference to Satanic Mills, a dark workplace where everyone was in harm’s way. Environmentally, the place was a disaster, and a dangerous. It seemed like I was looking at what Industry might have been like 100 or 150 years ago, before safety regulations were in place, before human life was ever considered as something precious. Back then, if you got killed on a job too bad, you weren’t being careful enough, but that’s exactly how it was there in Bangladesh only ten years ago. If you didn’t survive the day, well, that was your own bad luck.
Ultimately, the actual tears were where one emulsion was transferred to the other emulsion. What you’re seeing is a black hole in the negative is where it’s emulsion came off, and a white area is the emulsion from another negative stuck to it. It was like clarity and resistance, in terms of light. To me, here was the distressed look of the negative of a distressed situation, distressed for the workers, distressed for the environment. The pictures seemed like they were made at beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So for all those reasons, I felt that there was enough aesthetic resonance in those images to release them as a suite—as a small portfolio of ten images with a book.
As for the title of this project Pentimento, it’s a term used painting. Basically, what it means is… let’s say you’re a court painter in the 17th Century, and you, or your patron didn’t like the person to the left side of the composition, or no longer wanted the dog in the foreground, or something like that. The artist would then hide it. It was still there, but painted over. They’ve actually been able to recover paintings under paintings, with technology today, with X-rays and all that. They can see the layering. For me, these photos were very much the image as it existed the minute before I took the final image that I released into the world. These were the images just behind the final rendering. So the idea of the pentimento is the idea of underpainting. The image just on the other side. If you see the book, you’ll see the image that I did, the Type 55 black and white Polaroid field proof, and then flip the page, and you see the colour image that ended up being released into the world—that was based on the field proof.
JB: We started the question with that idea of structural metaphor, and it does come through, the connection between destruction and destruction. When we talk about Climate Change, I went and visited the Greenberg exhibition in the middle of the eye-tooth of Saturday’s Nor’easter in New York. The October 30th snowstorm. It was madness.
Anyway, I recognize that I’ve probably gotten more of your time than I deserve, but I do have a question that I want to ask, because the article I wrote about my experience in Reno was just published today. I know that we discussed it a little bit when we met, but one of the really powerful things for me, as an artist, coming out of that conference, was the sense that we, the artists, the intellectuals, the intelligentsia, call us what you will, were all talking to each other in this modernist fishbowl, while the insanity of Reno, Nevada surrounded us. We keep hearing all this talk, from a political and economic standpoint about the 1% this and the 1% that, and I came away from the experience wondering how we, as artists, might try to expand the tent. To kind of grow the pool of people who do interact with contemporary art, who see what we make. As opposed to just preaching to ourselves.
You’ve worked in film, with “Manufactured Landscapes,” and you mentioned that you’re working on a new one. I know film can often have an audience that transcends. You’re a guy who has put your money where your mouth is for decades, working on political issues. I think many artists of my generation try to stay away from politics whenever possible. (little p) So I suppose the question is, do you often think about expanding the artist’s reach beyond the gallery and museum?
EB: I do try, by virtue of doing films, and I do a fair amount of interview and media work, radio and television, which gets it outside of the museum thing. But I try not to couch it in a political way. I think, particularly in America, politics has become terribly polarized. You’re either left or you’re right. The centralist is kind of dying out.
JB: Binary politics for a binary world. Zeroes and ones.
EB: That division seems to have become entrenched, quite negatively entrenched, because no one is listening to the other side anymore. I think both sides have valid points, but when people stop listening to each other, then it doesn’t lead to the proper outcomes and solutions that we need to have through policies and government actions, and through collective human actions.
That being said, I’m a firm believer that what we do with our environment is ultimately our habitat, and this is what provides us the conditions for life. When things go wrong with the water, when things go wrong with the air, it doesn’t select the left or the right, you know? When consequence comes home to roost, it doesn’t respect religion or politics. It hits us all equally, for the rich and the poor.
I don’t think it’s a political question. It’s more of a human, moral, ethical question. With the knowledge that we have today of what the human impact is, what are we doing about it? Whether you’re left or right, to me, is irrelevant. Do you believe that we’re having an impact? That’s question number one. If you don’t, then obviously you’re not looking at the data properly, because if you look at the data we’re clearly doing something big.
So the first thing is to accept that there’s a problem of collective human action on the planet. As an artist, helping to bring people to at least a point of accepting through visual evidence, of accepting that we can’t help but be having a collective impact on the natural resources of the planet. It’s undeniable that 90% of the large predatory fish have now been fished out of the ocean—the tunas and the sharks. This isn’t hypothetical, this is real. It’s not hypothetical that, like clockwork, we’re adding more carbon dioxide every year. It makes sense. Look at how much fossil fuel we’re burning every year. It can’t not have an effect.
At this point, with the amount of information that’s now in front of us, the whole notion of this issue being a debate is almost laughable. As artists, we can help visually, and intellectually make people understand that, at some point, we have to accept that it is our collective impact that is putting the whole planet in jeopardy. If you have children, how you feel about that problem is really a good place to start. Do you feel robbing your children of a future is something that is ethically and morally acceptable in present day society, with what we know?
JB: I couldn’t agree more. But I was just back in the suburbs of New Jersey, where I was raised, and I had a disturbing conversation with a family member, whom I love very much, but who’s pretty conservative. He admitted that there was no amount of information I could provide, there was no Harvard-backed study, there was no way I would change his mind about Climate Change. There was no information that anyone could present that would counterbalance the information that he gets from Fox News. He admitted that it didn’t matter what I said, it didn’t matter how many scientists believe X or Y or Z. So I love what you said, because I’m coming to believe that myself. That as artists, we have a facility with visual communication.
We have an understanding of metaphor and symbolic language. If we use our skill sets, and we try to present what we believe, and then we try to expand our audience beyond the black-clad gallery-goers in every major urban area… it’s almost incumbent upon us to try.
That was what I came away from Reno with. The consensus in the presentations and the visual evidence of destruction were there. So the next question that I had, and I didn’t hear a lot about this was, what do we do with this knowledge? We, the next generation of artists. So to be able to print your answer to my previous question is really powerful. It’s a question I have, and I hope other artists do as well. Clearly the line between art and propaganda…people have discussed it to death and we don’t want to cross that line. But I think that putting our beliefs and our passions and our knowledge into a visual structure is the very least that we can do. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but we’re presenting this interview for others to read. I’m kind of hoping perhaps to inspire some people to take some risks, and make work that has a higher reach for it’s potential impact.
OK, enough of my blather. This whole time we were speaking, I was addressing you as if you were an American, which you’re not. You’re Canadian. I feel like sometimes Americans, myself included, have a trouble seeing the distinction, other than knowing that every one of you guys lives North of us. I would imagine that someone at your level of success could be based wherever you choose, and you still live in Toronto. So I thought maybe you could talk a bit about the Toronto art scene, and why you’re based there?
EB: I was born in Canada, in St. Catharines, an hour away from here. I think 85% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the American border. We all cluster because it’s warmer. Most of Canada, if you think about it, we have more of a North-South relationship than an East-West trading relationship. We’re the largest trading partners on the planet. Generally speaking, we give you guys a lot of raw natural resources, and you process them, finish them, and sell them back to us at a markup.
JB: Gotta love it. Profit margin makes the world go around.
EB: (laughing) So that’s been our relationship in terms of Economics. But also culturally, American culture seeps over. Another commonwealth country is Australia, but it’s been able to keep a larger self-identity intact, because it’s way out there in the Pacific. But we’re kind of joined at the hip, so we’re always America-watching because as someone once pointed out, when you guys catch a cold, we get pneumonia. In today’s economy, it’s just the reverse. You guys got pneumonia and we just got a cold in terms of our banking systems and the collapse of the real estate market. Our real estate market is actually fine. But as to Toronto, it’s a great staging place. I have family here, and it’s an hour to New York, it’s an hour and twenty minutes to Chicago. I’m into the States at least once a month, sometimes twice. In October, I spent three weeks in the states and one week in Toronto. We know a lot more about the United States than the United States cares to know about us.
JB: I think we all assume that. So tell us what it’s really like? Do you guys have a hopping art scene? Should we encourage all those Northeast Americans to come check out Toronto? For me, it’s an abstraction.
I assume it’s a super-cool city, but I’ve never set foot there.
EB: Oh, I think Toronto has a killer art scene. We have the largest photo festival in the world, called CONTACT. It happens in the month of May. We just put together a Canadian photo prize with Scotiabank, one of the five big banks in Canada. It is for Canadian artists working with photography, and they win $50,000 cash, and they get a Steidl book, and an exhibition produced and shown during the CONTACT festival, and possibly travel as well. It’s a major award that we’ve now developed, and we’re into our second year involved with the bank.
There’s the Toronto International Film Festival, North America’s most popular, and second largest in the world. We also have a sizeable annual International Art Fair in Toronto, which has been a huge success. We’ve got galleries from 15 countries showing there. In terms of selling my photography, Toronto is by far my largest art market in the country, and always has been, for 25-30 years. Whatever I sell here is usually equivalent to all global sales of my work. So there’s a really enthusiastic collector market, and a very enthusiastic art market. And we just rebuilt the Art Gallery of Ontario. Frank Gehry did a whole new renovation on it. I’d say we’ve got a thriving scene here.
JB: I’m glad I asked. And as far as that prize goes, if I start saying “Eh” all the time and profess a love for hockey, can I qualify? Or do I need to show paperwork?
EB: You’re gonna have to show some paperwork.
JB: Damn. Well listen, I had one question that I forgot to ask, so I’ll just say it, but in the NY Times Sunday Magazine a week or so ago, they had an interview with the world’s foremost private submersible designer. These high-end, private, multi-million dollar submarines that are designed like airplanes. As the world’s resources run out, as a submarine designer, he was predicting a mad rush into the seas. Into that 70% of the Earth, for minerals and resources. In the future, everyone’s going to start hacking away at the seabed. So I had visions of you kind of working like that. It would be a natural extension for you to get underwater and start using these fancy toys.
EB: (smiling) I’m familiar with that, and the guys who are innovating all of that. It’s on my radar.
by Jess Dudley, Wonderful Machine Producer
Recently, an ad agency contacted one of our photographers about an estimate to shoot a series of still photographs for a campaign for a popular sporting goods manufacturer. A year earlier, the photographer had quoted on a similar project for the same agency, but the two of them couldn’t come to terms on it (the photographer wasn’t comfortable delivering extensive licensing on so many pictures for what he thought was a low fee). But his diplomacy, patience and professionalism were rewarded when the agency came back to him with another project. Knowing that the client was cost-sensitive he wanted to make every effort to deliver a reasonable proposal. But just as he knew the client’s sensitivity to price, the client knew his and came back to him anyway. They were interested in the photographer not just because of his style of shooting, but also because of his post-processing technique.
The shoot was to take place on one day at a factory half-way across the country. The project required making portraits and candid photos of employees at work, as well still life pictures of the final product. The shoot would require only minimal pre-production. All of the elements in the pictures (the people, the location, the props) were already in place, and the photographer’s (mostly) ambient light style of shooting would allow him to get his pictures with minimal equipment or disruption to the operation.
The photographer had gotten the initial details from the agency (including a shot list) and then asked me to talk to them. After reviewing the concept and approach with the photographer, I prepared a list of questions for the art buyer:
- Do you want the photographer to use his signature available light shooting and post-processing style? Yes.
- Do you want the photographer to work with the people and process as it is, or dress it up in any way? As is, but of course filtered through the photographer’s unique style.
- Would all of the elements of the manufacturing process be available to shoot at any time of day, or would we have to work on a certain schedule? Each step of the production process was going on all the time. The shot list broke the shoot up into four situations within the facility, with loose guidelines for each.
- Does the whole manufacturing process take place in one facility or will we have to move from one location to another during the day? Everything was contained in one big facility.
- Do you want all of the pictures (including the still life pictures) to maintain the same ambient light look (even though the photographer may add light here and there)? Yes.
- How many final images do need? 18
- What licensing do you need for those pictures? Worldwide print advertising use (in sport publications only), web advertising use, point of purchase, collateral (print and web) for 2 years.
- Are there other photographers bidding on the job? None (at this point). I also found that the agency was pushing hard to use this photographer because his past work and unique style was the actual inspiration for the concept.
- Do you have a set budget? No.
- Are you going to want to approve the pictures as they’re being made? No. (Normally, on an ad shoot, a photographer is going to want the client to sign off on each picture before moving on to the next one. The photographer and I decided that his project required a more fluid approach. If he was going to get 18 final images in one shoot day, there would be no time to stop and get approval every 20 minutes. And since the approach was more one of discovery rather than replicating a comp, he didn’t want to lose momentum by stopping frequently.)
With all that in mind, I got to work on the first version of the estimate.
Fee. While the licensing was pretty extensive, there were limitations to consider. The print ad use was limited to sport publications and it was unlikely the agency would be using all 18 images in ads simultaneously. To determine the fee, we looked at the number of situations outlined in the shot list, rather than the actual number of shots. The images within a situation amounted to a hero shot and variety of detail shots. Based on the number of situations (4), licensing, style and sophistication of the production, we decided to set the fee for the first situation at 9000.00 and each additional situation at 3000.00. We checked our pricing against a few other sources. BlinkBid’s bid consultant suggested a range of 5950.00-8500.00 per image per year, which is a great starting point. Corbis was in the same ballpark, 8500.00 per image per year and FotoQuote was slightly lower at about 5000.00-6500.00. What these pricing calculators can’t take into account are the sophistication of the production, similarities between the images or caliber of the client/product/agency.
Assistant. Since the shoot was going to be pretty low-tech, the photographer decided to just have one assistant and to have him look after the photo equipment as well as manage the digital files. The photographer and the client were comfortable reviewing images on the fly in order to keep moving quickly (mostly seeing them on the back of the camera with a few breaks during the day to see them on a laptop). Against my better judgement, I went along with the idea of one assistant. For the small additional cost, I think it’s worth having a second assistant on just about any shoot. And when working out of town, I’ll normally book a local second assistant who will know where to go when the photographer needs something in a pinch.
Equipment Rental. The photographer didn’t need to rent that much gear for this low production, available light project. We budgeted for 3 rental days of a 5d mk II @ 200/day, a 24-70 @ 35.00/day, a 50 1.2 @ 35/day and a 7d body for backup.
Digital Capture Fee. For most editorial and corporate shoots, I charge a capture fee for each shoot day (which pays for the time to create and post a web gallery) plus either a file prep fee (when the processing is straight-forward) or a retouching fee (when it’s more elaborate). For most advertising projects, it makes sense to have a digital tech on hand to help the client view the pictures as they’re being made as well as organize, rename and run any galleries necessary. But we chose the run-and-gun approach for this shoot
Retouching hours. The treatment the photographer gives to his final images is somewhat unique and time consuming, so we billed accordingly.
Scouting and Travel Days. Since the locations (and the action at each location) were fixed, the scouting would be relatively brief. We decided it could be combined with the travel day. The photographer would need to figure out where he was going to stage his equipment and review all the areas on the shot list. This allowed me to bundle the scouting with the travel day. The photographer planned to fly in the day before the shoot, scout that afternoon, shoot the next day, and return home the following morning.
Airfare & Baggage. I estimated for airfare for the photographer and his assistant. Since they wouldn’t have to bring a lot of gear, we only had to account for 2 checked bags each way per person @ 25.00 each. The tickets were 337.00 per person and baggage fees would total 100.00. I rounded up a dollar and made it a point to remind the art buyer that this fee would increase the closer we got to the shoot, so making a decision sooner rather than later was most cost-effective.
Car Rental. We looked up rates for a two-day SUV rental. Enterprise had cars available for about 100.00/day. I also included the full insurance coverage at 20.00/day and 40.00 in gas to refill the tank.
Lodging. The photographer and assistant would each have their own room for two nights. I found rooms at a Residence Inn for 120.00 per room per night, including taxes.
Catering. We estimated catering for 8, including the photographer, his assistant and 6 others from the agency and client. We typically estimate 35.00 per person for a light breakfast, normal lunch and snacks throughout the day.
Miles, Parking, Tolls, Meals, Misc. This item covers miles the photographer has to drive to the airport from his home/studio, any parking, tolls, meals that he pays for on the travel or shoot days (excluding catering), and any miscellaneous expenses that may pop up at the last minute.
Location, talent. We wanted to make sure that we clearly stated what the agency and client will be providing if the photographer wasn’t providing it. Every necessary component of a shoot should be addressed in the estimate.
Advance. We normally ask for 50% of the estimated costs so that the photographer can pay their vendors in a timely fashion and buy/rent what they need for the shoot. Some agencies have rules about paying out a certain percentage of the expenses and a certain percentage of the fee, which we are usually fine with as long as the photographer has enough to cover out-of-pocket expenses.
Here is the first estimate:
The art buyer ran it by her colleagues as well as the client and got back to me the next day. Not surprisingly, a budget had materialized. She told me that they would like to keep the estimate below 25k because it’s their policy that if an estimate exceeds that amount, they’re obligated to consider three vendors and run the estimate through a cost consultant. This is not the first time I’d heard about the “keep it under 25k rule.” So the give and take began.
The fastest way to cut costs is to reduce the licensing terms or number of images licensed. The client was very specific about the licensing they needed, so it seemed our only option was to limit the number of images. Even though we priced this based on the number of scenarios, we decided to trim the amount of shots down to 15 and prorate the fee on a per-image basis. Had we needed to reduce the number of images by more than three, we would have reevaluated the cost per image. This adjustment also reduced cost of the file preps and brought the bottom line down to 24,225.00.
Here is the second estimate:
The art buyer ran the second estimate by her colleagues and the client. Now they decided that they wanted 20 images from the shoot (two more than initially requested). So we bumped the fee up accordingly and resubmitted the estimate.
Here is the third and final estimate we sent to the agency, which the client approved. Apparently, the AB can skirt the cost consultants by issuing 2 POs if the estimate comes in just over 25k:
About a month after the shoot, the agency contacted the photographer and asked to license an additional image from the shoot to be used in a single spot on television as well as online for up to one year. We gave them a price of 3000.00 and they agreed.
If you have any questions, or if you need help estimating or producing one of your projects, you can reach Jess at email@example.com
In every interview Im asked whats the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. Now matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.
via The 99 Percent.
Getty announced pay cuts for editorial contributors and when PDN asked them if that was because they needed to lower their prices (here):
Asked whether Getty has found itself unable to compete for low-priced business without asking for concessions from suppliers, agency spokesperson Jodi Einhorn said, “No….[W]e are developing new ways for customers to use more of our content and as a result, new ways to pay contributors must be created in these situations.”
And exactly how will contributors benefit?
Getty is “making changes and improvements around how we share and license our content, which will benefit our photographers,” by providing more exposure and more potential for sales of their images.
Potential sales and exposure… photographers love that.
I don’t want to beat a dead horse over here… there’s a long thread of comments over on the PDN Pulse blog, but last time I brought up the Getty contract changes photographers found the discussion useful.
There’s no doubt that Getty has found a sweet spot in sales with their subscription model, unfortunately that means contributors are seeing lots of images sold for $5. I often get asked why someone doesn’t step in and create an agency with a better cut for photographers. Truth is, the higher priced sales are very labor intensive and require insurance. Given the choice between selling a handful of images for a million dollars and a million photos for a dollar, stock agencies will take the latter, because it can be done by a computer at no cost and no hassle.
Almost every big contemporary gallery is funded by the blue-chip old works they sell out of the back room, while Goodman almost never sells works that her artists haven’t made. “It’s all front room,” says Tate director Nicholas Serota. “It’s an achievement to build a gallery on those terms.” Where other major galleries seem to have a supermarket approach, with something to feed any billionaire’s habit, most Goodman artists conform to one vision. “There’s an ethos in the gallery that you don’t find in many others,” says Serota. Goodman spots good work by young artists who seem likely to matter—the Jeff Walls of this world—and then sticks by it.
We’re not always great with shades of gray, in America. Take Thanksgiving. Most, (but certainly not all) Americans are thrilled at the chance to get a few days off from work, gorge on over-stuffed Turkey and over-salted stuffing, watch a lot of football, and try not to get in a raging fight with their suddenly re-surfaced siblings. Rarely do we invoke the Pilgrims, and our ceremonial celebration of their feast with the Native people of the continent. More rarely, still, do we contemplate the fact that our cause for revelry, while important to us, coincides with the genocide of the formerly plentiful residents of what is now the United States.
Interestingly enough, we photographers worship a particular vision of America, one captured in celluloid by a Swiss guy 50+ years ago. We love the beatnik sensibility, the jaded diner waitresses, the honkey-tonk jukeboxes, the crosses and flags. So much, do we love “The Americans,” that it spawned an army of wandering shutterbugs, metaphorical Jews, investigating other places, bringing the critical eye of a foreigner to each exchange.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up during the Reagan 80’s, read lots of spy fiction about the Evil Empire, and then watched it Fall. The following decade, without a counter-balance to our consumptive power, we grew rich and cocky. We were destined to rule forever, with our democracy, our free markets, and our muscle cars. Made in Michigan.
Pontiac is a town in Michigan. It’s also the name of a GM car brand that was recently disbanded, the result of the manufacturer’s brush with implosion at the height of the Economic collapse a few years ago. The very same collapse, of course, that razed the dreams of a long-lived American Empire. And now, perhaps, our vaunted American Dream itself. From endless horizons to Chinese envy in ten short years. I suppose that’s how it works.
“Pontiac” is also the name of a perfect, tan, hard-cover book recently published by Mack in London, in conjunction with the GunGallery in Stockholm. Ah, the Swedes. Famous for their lack of sun, gloomy stoicism, and now for the sexual violence of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Serious stuff. Gerry Johannson, the photographer behind the project, plays the role of the stranger from distant shores, who seems to have washed up in Pontiac in April of 2010. The book opens with an austere page of statistics, illuminating the slow leak of air that has escaped the balloon. 7% Unemployment in 2000 vs. 31% today. 4,715 vacant housing units. It ends with the ominous phrase, “Demolition means progress, Cities of Promise, MSHDA.”
There is no essay here. No token statement by someone purported to be famous, of whom you haven’t heard. Just a series of small, square, black and white images, flanked below by a title that refers to the street on which they were taken. Bleak. Clean. Quiet. Truth be told, it starts a little slow. You think of Robert Adams, Henry Wessel, a bit of Freidlander in the compositional style, and of course the aforementioned Swiss Hipster, whom I don’t need to name. So slow, in fact, that I actually flipped to the back and worked my way from there. (It’s a strange habit that I have, mostly with magazines.)
Soon enough, the book seduced me like a Reno hooker sipping Vodka at the bar. (Just a simile. Never happened.) First, I was moved by the mood, the ugly beauty, the sweet scent of the decrepit. We are all suckers for an abandoned building, or in this case many. Then, I began to notice that Johansson often photographed the same intersection from two angles. East and West? North and South? Who knows, unless you live in Pontiac. He also included diptychs; in one case, double images of the same church. Further, then closer. As to the use of Black and White, the use of the square? Perfect.
I worked my way from back to front, and the barrage of empty streets, not subtle, took on the pacing of an old Blues song. Turn the pages, hear the words. I didn’t expect to see many people, though there are a few images, from a distance, of small humans towards the front. Just when I thought it was safe to judge the book as a lyrical, very well-made elegy to our collective despair, it started to get a bit weird. First, there was a photograph of a student center with a row of trees outside, but upon closer inspection, they’re not trees. I don’t know what they are. They look like fat, eyeless, hooded Klan members in washed out gray uniforms. Then I got to an image, titled “Joslyn Road,” that had a small sign in the lower right hand corner. I struggled to recognized the characters, which looked like hieroglyphs. As I stared, confused, slowly my eyes refocused, and I could read the cut-off words “Great Cros.” (Short for Great Lakes Crossing) I flipped away and back again, just to make sure I wasn’t crazy. Happened again. (I admit, it was pretty early in the morning.)
The next page, having switched again to front to back, was another photo, also titled “Joslyn Road.” In an overgrown field of weeds and Evergreen trees, looming in the background, we see a big white Orb, with a line of oval lights emanating from within. It looks, for all the world, like a spaceship sitting behind the trees. What is it? I have no idea. It’s so fantastic, I’m staring at it right now, eyes away from the keyboard. WTF? Inexplicable Sci-Fi in a meditation on the decline and Fall of the American Empire? Wow.
Mr. Johannson develops a rhythm to this book, and a symbol set of shadows, little houses, cars, bars, and lots of trees. It’s the trees that take back the abandoned neighborhoods, you know. The overgrowth of Nature that results from an out-flux of people. Sure, they might knock down some houses, and make a few new parks. Sounds nice. And maybe the United States will find it’s footing, and begin to make things again. I don’t know, and neither do you.
Bottom Line: Perfect