Observations on the practice, history, and aesthetics of photography and sundry other matters...
Book Cover for "Chicagoland, Illusions of the Literal", available for sale at Amazon.com cSteve Gubin 2014
“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” -Lucius Annaeus Seneca-
If there was a list ranking photographers by their efforts at shameless self-promotion, I would most likely be somewhere near the bottom of the list. On Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ I often see posts from some of my colleagues urging readers to: “Buy my book!”, “Vote for me in Contest XYZ!”, “Look at my latest photographs!”, “Fund my Kickstart Project!”, etc. My feelings in these cases are an odd mixture of admiration and embarrassment. But as uncomfortable as it makes me when I do it myself, it's a necessary evil if you want even a handful of people to be aware of what you are doing. Such are the realities of the digital age for photographers and, well, damn near anyone who is trying to share their artistic vision with the world at large.
Having recently had a book of my Chicago street photographs published, I started looking back at the journey and decision-making process that brought me to that point. I am far from being famous or exceedingly wise in terms of bringing a photography book to publication, but I offer my humble experiences and realizations to anyone else who may be considering embarking on such a journey.
In August of 2008, I moved from San Diego to Chicago. By that time in my photographic career, my primary area of interest in photography had narrowed down from the very general (photographing anything and everything that caught my eye) to the more specific arena of documentary and street photography. Even more than New York or Paris, what other city has more potential for the grit, energy, mystery, and classic urban atmosphere found in a good street photograph than the Windy City? I had long admired the Chicago work of Harry Callahan, Ray Metzker, and Yasuhiro Ishimoto, and the thought of following in their footsteps through the vast spread of Chicagoland streets was both daunting and exciting.
Between 2008 and 2014, I made walk after walk through the streets of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, slowly gathering more and more photographs. Sometimes I would return home with 2 or 3 photos I really liked. Sometimes I came up completely empty, despite having taken 50 to 200+ photos.
Over this six year period, my equipment choices and techniques went through some modifications. I went from a 43mm prime to a 35mm prime, and on occasion, even a 21mm. (For the gear monkeys out there, I am a Pentax shooter. I started out with a K10D and now utilize a K-5 and a K-5 IIs.) Initially, I always raised the camera to my eye and left the camera on autofocus. Eventually I discovered that in very close or “iffy” situations, the hip shot was desirable for me. This technique took a fair amount of practice and lot of trial and error. Depending on the lighting and the situation, I set my camera to TAv mode, 200-320 shutter speed, f8-f16, auto-ISO topping out at 6400, and pre-set the focal range to cover anywhere from 3 to 6 feet depending on the lens (35mm or 21mm) and how close I plan to get. Currently, I switch between hip shots and using the viewfinder. I don't engage in debates about equipment or techniques because I believe that the only rule in street photography is that there are no rules.
By the summer of 2014, I had nearly filled up my 2TB backup drives with photographs and started toying with the idea of creating a book of my Chicago street photography.
When I finally started putting together the photographs that I wanted to include in the book, it gave me a broad overview of the organic style and approach that I had developed, which in turn brought me to a couple of realizations about the overall nature of my work: I don't do “pretty” and I rarely do “easily accessible”. Considering that those are often two key elements found in popular work, what the hell did I think I was doing? Some important adjuncts to popularity are viewership and sales. If something isn't popular, who is going to look at it, let alone buy it?
Which leads me to the key question I alluded to in the title of this article. Why do you want to publish your photography? If you don't know the answer to that question, you're just going to be spinning your wheels. In my case, I realized that I create the kind of work I do because I am driven to do it, and because I need to present that work in a way which instinctively feels "right" to me. I made the decision to share that work in the form of a book, and honor that instinct regardless of whether or not it brought me fame, money, or popularity. This makes me neither noble nor superior, but it does make me content.
Your own answer to this question can help guide you in the type of approach you need to take. What you present, and how you present it, follows from that answer. Do you want fame and a lot of book sales? Do you want to share your work only with family and friends? Do you want to bring attention to a particular social or political situation? Do you want to express a particular artistic vision? The answer to "why?" helps define your target audience and leads to a host of other questions.
Should you first attempt to build up an audience via social media? Should you seek out a publisher? Should you self-publish? Should you create your own publishing company? How much do you want to sell your book for and how much can you afford to spend? Do you want to get your book accepted into libraries? Do you want your book to be reviewed?
Although I'm happy to share the details of what I did and how I did it (i.e., ISBNs, obtaining a Library of Congress Card Catalog listing, publisher, printer, book size, number of pages, number of photos, book design, getting into libraries, etc.), these details will not pertain to everyone. The important thing is to define why you want to publish so then you can start figuring out what you need to do and how to go about doing it.
The internet is filled with articles and websites that can give you guidance and advice on the many different aspects of creating, publishing, and marketing a photography book. I have provided a few links below that I utilized in my own journey. I don't endorse any of these websites or have any connections to the people who created them. I list them only as examples of websites that I found helpful when I was looking for information on publishing a photography book. Think of them as starting points as you embark on your own publishing journey.
Family at Adams and Wabash, cSteve Gubin 2014
Man in porkpie hat, Chicago 2013 cSteve Gubin 2013
Marilyn, Chicago cSteve Gubin 2011
Subway entrance, Michigan Ave 2011 cSteve Gubin 2011
State St. Bridge, 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Friday night rush hour, Chicago 2013 cSteve Gubin 2013
Books A Million, Chicago 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Winter arrives once more in the Midwest and the Greater Chicagoland area. Except for a brief snowstorm in November of 2014, the weather has been relatively mild. Will the Polar Vortex rear it's ugly head in 2015 and bring sub-zero temperatures and another April snowstorm? Will Chiberia return this year? Or will the weather gods be more merciful and leave us alone?
[UPDATE on current prediction models for the winter of 2015, along with some very rough explanations of the phenomena which will impact the weather.]
Some of the major factors that determine what kind of winter the Chicago area will have are the polar jet stream, the sub-tropical jet stream and either El Nino or La Nina. The jet streams are high altitude currents of wind which normally flow from west to east. When certain weather patterns occur, as in a large low or high pressure system, the jet streams can dip or bend from their "normal" area and have significant impact on the areas into which they intrude. In 2014, for example, the polar jet stream frequently "dipped" below the latitude of Canada and brought with it a strong flow of cold-laden arctic air. This was also combined with a phenomenon in which the Polar Vortex (essentially a large scale cyclone which rotates about the north and south poles) moved from it's normal position about the pole and meandered into more southerly latitudes, bringing with it a Siberian chill of sub-zero temperatures. Hence the term, "Chiberia".
Strangely enough, Chicago weather can also be impacted by ocean currents thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean. Primary among these is the El Nino Southern Oscillation (or "ENSO" as it is referred to by meteorologists and climatologists). I do not claim to be a meteorological expert, but the El Nino effect depends upon whether the ocean current oscillation is warm or cool. An exceptionally cool current creates the Pacific phenomenon known as "La Nina". Roughly, La Nina brings with it much cooler temperatures to certain areas, and a lack of rainfall to others (particularly the southwest), while a strong El Nino brings warmer temperatures and a possible end to drought in certain regions of the US.
Some meteorologists have recently seen signs to indicate that El Nino is strengthening and may make a return in 2015. This could bring a milder and drier winter to the greater Chicago area, and possibly end the drought conditions that have plagued other regions.
The thing to remember is that all of these factors (and, in fact, factors all over our planet, not just in the Pacific or the northern hemisphere), are part of a highly complex and interrelated system. Meteorologists can predict weather changes based upon previously observed data during certain conditions, but we still do not fully understand how they influence each other. What causes a strong or weak El Nino? What, if any, effect does it have upon the Polar Vortex, the polar jet stream, or the subtropical jet stream?
If nothing else, Chicago area residents may be able to realistically hope for a relatively mild winter in 2015. The interpretation of some of the recent data indicates that we can expect much less snowfall than last year, along with milder overall temperatures -- possibly even including some spring-like temperatures in January or February.
On the photographic front, all of this may mean less dramatic photos of Chicago weather this winter. (Remember some of those amazing Polar Vortex shots taken along the Chicago waterfront from last winter? None taken by me, alas, but kudos to the brave souls who ventured out to capture them.) But that is a price I will gladly pay for a milder winter in 2015.
So take heart, my friends, and here's to an early Spring!
Photographs from some early winter wanderings through Chicago and the collar suburbs...
Winter gloves, Michigan Ave, December 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Van Buren and La Salle, December 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Moose, Morton Grove 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Wabash and Van Buren, December 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
77 E Van Buren, December 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
November 2014 snowstorm, Capulina Ave, Morton Grove IL cSteve Gubin 2014
One Way, Wells St, Chicago 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Alleyway in snowstorm, Morton Grove IL cSteve Gubin 2014
December on Van Buren, Chicago 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
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 Friedlander, William Eggleston, or Daido Moriyama. Intellect 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
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
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
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
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
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