Observations on the practice, history, and aesthetics of photography and sundry other matters...

Fact, Fiction, and Feeling in Street Photography

October 25, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

 

Joe in the park, Des Plaines IL     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

"...the black-and-white photograph is flat, monochromatic, motionless, contained within a frame, and descriptive only of a single point of view.  In fact, the medium so radically alters the world that the photographic image may be understood to have more in common with fictional descriptions than with tangible facts."

-Jonathan Green, American Photography, (1984)-

 

A street or documentary photograph is paradoxically both a fact and a fiction. It purports to be a literal record of a singular moment, but the reduction to only two dimensions, and the stripping away of the periphery by the act of framing, transmutes the image into something else. It is a fiction, yet also a reality unto itself, possessed of its own rules and potential consequences, imparting its own essence and truth. 

While none of this is particularly new, and has been expressed in the past via both words and imagery (most notably by John Szarkowski and Garry Winogrand in the 1960's), it seems not to have sunk into the popular imagination.  If the general populace even conceives of a photograph as being both a fact and a fiction, the metrics of popularity used on various social media sites ("likes", "+1's", "favorites", "follows" "love", etc.) distinctly point to a preference for photographic facts and fictions that are portrayed in as pleasant and colorful a fashion as possible.  "Eye Candy" is the term sometimes used to categorize populist photographic sensibilities.  Why bother plumbing the murky depths of Rosalind Solomon or Larry Clark when the crystalline shallows of the latest social media wunderkinds are so inviting and close at hand?  If Szarkowski thought he could pry the world away from the easily accessible optimism of The Family of Man, the photographic landscape of much of the internet says otherwise.      

Although popular taste has rarely made much aesthetic impact upon the art world -- unless it was served with a healthy dollop of irony, or as a form of social commentary -- the duality of fact and fiction still remains problematic for some.  Such expenditure of angst by so many photographers over showing what they "saw", over capturing "the truth"!  For some, it is the importance of "not disturbing the scene".  For others, the fact exists in intentionally engaging a subject (or subjects) and thereby allowing the essence, "the truth" of the subject, to willingly blossom before the lens.  Some may practice both methods, and every imaginable shade and variation in between.  And, of course, there is the opposing view which posits that no photograph shows the truth, that they are all lies, deceptions, and fictions.  But seeking truth and facts, or even lies and deceptions, in a two-dimensional simulacrum is a fool's errand until you come to the realization that the photograph is the fact.  A fact separate from whatever reality it is that the photographer thought they were capturing.     

But how are these facts discerned?  And who are they discerned by?  It is not a question of accurate color, or zone system, or histograms, or resolution.  That is the province of the technician....and leads right back to popular taste.    

It is the feeling.  The feeling the photographer experienced while they took the photograph, the feeling derived from the surroundings, and quite frequently, the feeling that was not revealed until the editing process took place (hours, weeks, or  even years after the image was taken).  It is the feeling the viewer derives from looking at the image.  And that feeling may or may not be similar to the one experienced by the photographer.  It almost doesn't matter.  What matters is that the reality of the feeling transforms the fiction of the photograph into a new "fact", a transcendent accuracy that reaches beyond empirical reality.  In theory, this can hold equally true for "eye candy" and "popular" photography, but it rarely applies because the popularity of such photos exists primarily in their easy accessibility, in their being exactly as what they appear to be (whether they are "true" or staged in a studio).  It is the more difficult photographs (possessed of ironic banality, deceptive simplicity, fantastical constructs, the seemingly mundane, the anti-decisive moment, etc.) whose significance requires feeling, accompanied by thought, to be revealed.  It is this method, the application of feeling to arrive at the "fact" of the photograph itself, that causes certain vernacular photographs to be recognized for a brilliance never intended or dreamed of by the person who took them. 

It is not something that everyone is comfortable with, because it is hard to grasp, hard to put accurately into words, and almost impossible to quantify.  And that is very nearly a sin in a world largely obsessed with the need to quantify everything and assign objective metrics as a measurement of value.  (Now there's a fiction for you...)  But it is important that this methodology, whereby feeling is utilized to guide and assist conscious analysis, is not construed as an all-forgiving relativism whereby anything goes and anything is significant.

As examples, it is the underpinning of feeling which gives strength to the more challenging photos, say, of Lee FriedlanderWilliam Eggleston, or Daido MoriyamaIntellect alone, discerning formal visual arrangements, or reading and assigning statements of social significance, are not enough to grasp the "why!?" of photographs like these.  (Compare this to the much touted and misunderstood "decisive moment" which, by itself, renders an image as nothing more than a one trick pony.  If that is all a photograph has to offer, then it descends nearly to the level of a cheap parlor trick.)  Much relies on the ability of the photograph itself (and thereby the intuitive and innate talents of the photographer) to convey the feeling, mood, or atmosphere wherein the "fact" of the image exists.  And it often requires a corresponding talent on the part of the viewer to ferret it out.  If good photographers are "born not made", then the same may be said for a gifted viewer, curator, collector, or critic.  Sometimes, the act of understanding requires as much effort as the act of creating.      

 

El Platform, Adams and Wabash, Chicago 2014     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

 

Waiting for the train, Millenium Station, Chicago 2014     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Woman and man, Foster Ave Beach, Chicago     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

S. Wabash Ave, Chicago     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Interior of an Irving Park duplex, Chicago     cSteve Gubin 2012

 

Family under the El tracks at Wabash and Adams, Chicago     cSteve Gubin 2014

 


On Crowded Isolation

September 20, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

West Loop Ephemera, "Forgive Yourself", Chicago 2014     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Poem beginning with a line from Santayana

It is not urged against cuticles that they are not hearts
which venture forth in search of toenail clippings lost.
You and I seek no forgiveness for the masks we leave behind
like breadcrumbs leading back to where our rootless bodies wait
in crowded isolation.

Blindly, our private desires stretch forth public tentacles
to probe the lacunae of history:
Theirs. Mine. Yours. The yet unwritten and
the lost.

Gutter angels leer from street corners
on the periphery of our vision.
Unrecognized. Mistaken for passing demons
of no consequence, we hurry past
lest consequence occur.

They mind not, nor do we mind
the blurring of the line between now and
forever,
between mask and flesh
root and rootlessness.
Too late we see there is no line,
only an eternal quest for the face we wore
before our mothers were born.

cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Woman on Adams III, Chicago 2014     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Sunday on Michigan Ave, Chicago 2012     cSteve Gubin 2012

 

Man reading newspaper, Wabash and Adams 2012     cSteve Gubin 2012

 

Waiting for the Metra, Millenium Station 2013     cSteve Gubin 2013

 

Outside the Blackhawks Store, 325 N Michigan Ave, 2012     cSteve Gubin 2012

 

Ephemera from The Loop, "We Can't Stand You", Chicago 2011     cSteve Gubin 2011


Urban Beach Life on the Coast of Chicago

August 12, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Couple on the beach, Chicago 2014      cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Anyone who has lived in Chicago for a fair amount of time knows the feeling of those bleak, gray, snow-filled days of January and February when it seems as if winter will never end.  Everyone has their favorite season, but I'd wager that for most Chicagoans, summer is the most longed for season.  There's fishing, barbecues, trips to Wisconsin, long hot nights, and the siren call of the coast of Lake Michigan.

Here are a few glimpses into the urban beach life found along the sandy shores of this city.

 

Two boys playing in the surf, Foster Ave Beach, Chicago     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Woman under beach umbrella, Chicago 2014     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Boy with string, Foster Ave Beach, Chicago 2014     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Mother and daughter, Lake Michigan, Chicago     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Children at play, Lake Michigan, Chicago     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Three twenty-somethings, Foster Ave Beach, Chicago     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Three women with Tommy Bahama gear, Foster Ave Beach, Chicago     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Woman reading, Foster Ave Beach, Chicago     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Sisyphus, Foster Ave Beach, Chicago 2014     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Forbidden Tower, Chicago 2014     cSteve Gubin 2014

 

Gulls and Beach Crowd, Chicago 2014     cSteve Gubin 2014

 


Thank you, Chicago Blackhawks!

June 08, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Chicago Blackhawks fans cheering at the Stanley Cup Parade, June 28, 2013.  Can the Hawks bring the Cup back in 2015?

(Photo: cSteve Gubin 2014)

What a difference a year makes.  Exactly one year ago today, on June 8, 2013, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Los Angeles Kings in double overtime to win the Western Conference series and make their second trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in four years.

Today, Hawks fans and players can only sit on the sidelines to watch this year's Cup Final unfold between the Kings and the New York Rangers.  After falling behind 3 games to 1 in the Western Conference Finals, the Blackhawks came back to force the Kings to a Game 7.  After allowing Los Angeles to tie the final game with 9 minutes left in the third period, the unthinkable happened in overtime:  a Los Angeles shot bounced off a shoulder and tumbled into the net behind Corey Crawford.  On our turf.  With only a single goal standing between the Hawks and a second consecutive trip to the Cup Finals.  Alas, the old Blackhawks magic was not meant to be this year and we could only watch in stunned silence as the curtain came down upon our hopes.

If we care at all about the Cup Final, we can grouse about the way the officials robbed the Rangers in last night's Game 2 by awarding a goal to the Kings when they clearly interfered with New York goalie, Henrik Lundqvist.  We can rage at the numerous penalties that NHL officials seem reluctant to call on the Kings, rant against the announcers who seem to waste no opportunity to tout L.A. as "tenacious",  and watch in disgust as the media fawn all over them as this years Darlings of Destiny.  It's like a script has been written by the networks and the NHL and that script demands an ending that shows the Kings hoisting the Stanley Cup.  Sour grapes?  Partly.  But even impartial observers have remarked upon the poor officiating and media bias that seems to work in favor of the Los Angeles Kings. 

But I'm not really here to complain about media bias and poor officiating...I'm here to praise and thank the Chicago Blackhawks for yet another exciting season, regardless of how painful its ending may have been. 

From the banner raising at the United Center, through the Stadium series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a raging snowstorm, to the late season struggle when we seemed unable to finish off opponents or win in shootouts, and through the playoffs when we fought back to come within a hair's breadth of making it to the Finals -- there can be no doubting of the talent, the drive, or the special chemistry of one of the greatest hockey teams the NHL has ever seen.  From management, to coaching staff, to players, to support crew, to announcer Gene Honda and vocalist Jim Cornelison, this Chicago Blackhawks team is a team for the ages. 

Being realistic, however, even the most ardent Hawks fan has to recognize that Chicago is still a work in progress and there are some areas we need to improve upon when we go into the 2015 season.  In the 2014 playoffs we saw tougher repeat opponents in both the Minnesota Wild and the Los Angeles Kings.  Our opponents aren't standing still and the playoffs revealed the need to shore up some problem areas.  If we are going to make a serious Cup run in 2015, here's my brief wish list for key areas to improve:

1.)  Another talented Center -- We only got to see Teuvo Teravainen play 3 games with the Blackhawks last season, but if he lives up to the promise he's shown with Jokerit Helsinki and the Rockford Icehogs he could be another Jonathan Toews.

2.)  A dependable backup goalie for Corey Crawford -- I know there's a lot of Crawford haters out there, but I don't even want to go down that road.  If a Stanley Cup win and a second trip to the Conference Finals isn't enough to convince the haters of Crawford's talent, then nothing will.  In the playoffs I saw more goals that could be attributed to a defensive breakdown during chaotic net scrambles than could be blamed as truly "soft" goals allowed by Crawford.  Crow needs better support from the defense, but he also needs a solid backup like he had in Ray Emery in 2013.  Whether or not Antti Raanta can fill that role remains to be seen.  And as much I appreciated Khabibulin in his 2006-2009 stint with the Hawks, he's just too long in the tooth to be the answer to the backup question.

3.)  Bring back the defense -- I'm not sure what happened this year, but Keith and Seabrook in particular among our defensemen, seemed a bit off their usual game at critical times this year.  It's easy for me to criticize when I don't have to be out there playing the game.  But I saw a certain slowness and a tendency toward mental and positional mistakes that are not characteristic of the Hawks defensive players.  Maybe there were injuries we weren't told about, but I'd sure like to see these guys return to playing the game we know they're capable of.  I'm going to roll up my desire for a return to improved penalty killing into this same category.

4.)  Increased physicality -- The current Chicago Blackhawks are known for their speed and finesse style of play, but I think they still need to bring an increased level of physicality to their game.  Chicago doesn't need to change to a bruising style of play, but they do need to do a better job of consistently finishing their checks...at least in close games with physical teams where the speed and finesse style does not seem to be working.  In the series against the Kings, I watched Los Angeles players check Chicago players off the puck time and time again.  I don't know what Quenneville told his players in Game 6, but in the third period of that game I noticed Chicago players started finishing their checks and knocking the Kings off the puck.  I don't think it was a coincidence that we won that game. 

5.) Net presence -- One of the most popular Chicago Blackhawks in the recent past was Dustin Byfuglien.  Who can forget "Big Buff" planting himself in front of opposing goalies and driving them crazy?  I didn't see near as much of this kind of net presence in this playoff year as I did in the past.  Brian Bickell would be a prime candidate to fill this type of position when called for and we need to see the Hawks bring more of it in 2015.

I have enough faith in the abilities of Blackhawks management to not even have to mention the necessity of a smart draft, good salary cap management, and the need to renew the contracts for Toews and Kane.       

So, thank you Chicago Blackhawks for another amazing season.  We'll be there cheering you on again when next season starts. Let's show the media what the word "tenacious" really means when we come roaring back to secure the Stanley Cup in 2015.   

The Chicago Blackhawks raise the Stanley Cup banner at the opening game at the United Center, October 1, 2013.

 

Blackhawks vocalist Jim Cornelison sings the National Anthem during a snowstorm at Soldier Field.  The Hawks beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1 at this Stadium Series game held on March 1, 2014.

 

Left to right, Ken Ratajczyk, Frank Brinskelle, and Steve Gubin at The Madhouse on Madison, January 26, 2014.  The Blackhawks lost to the Winnipeg Jets, 3-1. (I don't know who the kid is at far right, but it cracked me up the way he photobombed this shot!)   cSteve Gubin 2014

 

The Blackhawks warming up at the United Center, January 2014.   cSteve Gubin 2014

 

John McDonough hoists the Stanley Cup at Brooks Park, August 3, 2013.  I was able to touch the Stanley Cup that day.  Let's hope John gets to bring it back again in 2015!     cSteve Gubin 2013

 

 


The Chicagoland Coastline and Free Public Access

June 07, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Gull and Wave, Foster Ave Beach, Chicago   cSteve Gubin 2013

Let the summer of 2014 commence! 

Although I was born in Chicago, I grew up in Los Angeles and San Diego and spent many years surfing the Southern California coastline.   Sadly, there are rarely surfable waves to be found on Lake Michigan.  But I still enjoy going to the beach.  The beaches of Chicago are free (good luck with the parking in the summertime), but as a North Sider, the beaches of Evanston are a slightly shorter drive with more accessible parking. 

When I moved back to the Chicago area in 2008, I was stunned to find out that between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Evanston, and certain other North Shore suburbs, require a fee for beach use.  I was further shocked to come across beaches that are considered “private property”.  That is a concept that would engender riots in California, where the beaches are free and everything below the mean high tide line is considered public property.  The shores of all the Great Lakes could benefit from the kind of pro-public coastal activism of the Surfrider Foundation and the California Coastal Commission.

The north side Chicago suburbs of Evanston, Winnetka, and Highland Park are small, though affluent, communities and the reasons given for a beach access fee usually involve the costs of maintenance, clean up, and lifeguard salaries.  All understandable, but one can't help but wonder if these communities also would prefer to keep out "undesirable elements".  Snobbery, a display of materialism, and exclusivity are not unique to the North Side suburbs of Chicago -- think of Palos Verdes, Malibu, and Santa Barbara along the California coast -- but the latter communities of the Pacific have no choice in the matter of public access due to the California Coastal Act. 

Beach access, of course, is a First World problem, and there are many more urgent matters that need addressing.  However, one wonders if the time hasn't come for Lake Michigan, and the Great Lakes in general, to consider a more democratic, and all encompassing law regarding who actually owns the coastline, who gets to charge for access to it, and who gets to prohibit access to it altogether.    

 

 Elliott Park Shoreline, Evanston IL  cSteve Gubin 2012

 

 Summertime, Foster Ave Beach looking north    cSteve Gubin 2013

 

 Foster Avenue Beach, looking south toward Chicago skyline from lighthouse quay   cSteve Gubin 2013

 

 Lee Street Beach, Elliott Park, Evanston IL   cSteve Gubin 2014

 

 A small right hand wave at Foster Ave Beach    cSteve Gubin 2013

 

 A gull rests in the calm waters of South Foster Ave Beach on an early summer morning    cSteve Gubin 2013