Sunday, May 6, 2012

In the company of giants

From back to front: James Mollison, Martin Bell, Mary Ellen Mark, Greg Gorman, Peter Gerdehag
The ground did not shake when they walked, nor did they speak in loud, thunderous voices. They were not even big, scary looking or intimidating. Yet, they are giants. Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to walk, talk and eat in the company of some legends in the field of photography.

I spent three days at the Nordic Light photo festival, held annually in Kristiansund on the west coast of Norway. Kristiansund is not objectively a beautiful small town. The old fishing village was first bombed then burnt to the ground by the Germans in the 1940s. The architecture reflects that it was rebuilt in a hurry shortly after the war, a time when Norway was still very poor and aesthetics were not high on the list of anybody's priorities. The surroundings make up for any beauty the town may lack. Perched on the North Sea and nestled amongst snow clad mountains, it has become an important link during the last two decades in the supply and caring of the Norwegian oil-making machine.

The festival is a small, intimate affair that attracts a wonderful cast of photographers old and new. I was invited to muse about photography through a lens of technology, a decidedly minority perspective at this event. My talk titled "In the future pictures will tell their own stories" was about the future of photography, digital storytelling and the rapid evolution of the medium.
  • Ubiquity is changing the nature of photography. Everyone carries a camera in our pocket - our mobile phones - and that changes our relationship to photography.
  • The camera app model has emerged. The ability to develop "camera apps" on the mobile phone platforms has unleashed an exciting long-tail of innovation. Previously innovation was constrained to what a handful of camera (hardware) manufacturers could accomplish with proprietary, closed firmware in their cameras. Not any more.
  • The connected camera - again enabled with the smart phone - has made photography a social activity. Instant gratification has come to photography. Every picture can instantly be beautified (Instagram), shared and "liked" (Facebook).
  • Rich context makes the photograph a new medium. Digital photos are increasingly captured together with information about where they are, what direction the camera is pointing, who is in the picture and much more. With all this information it becomes possible to "ask the picture questions" such as "what is that building?", "who is that person?", "was it cold that day?", and much, much more. This is increasingly having an effect on how people view photographs and photography.
  • Referencing research by the UC Berkeley Sociologist Nancy Van House, I summarized the four key motivators for why people take pictures: 1) Constructing a narrative of our lives. 2) Establishing and maintaining relationships. People are using photographs for communication. 3) Self representation. We use photos to project and image of who we are. 4) Self expression. Photography as art and as pure joy.
  • Finally, we are on the cusp of computational photography becoming a reality evidenced by recent developments such as the new Nokia Pureview 808, a mobile phone with a 41mega pixel sensor and Lytro, the first consumer camera based on light field technology. Soon cameras will no longer be recording pixels - rows and columns of colored dots - but rather they will record data (light fields) and render photos in real time from that data. Lytro demonstrates the ability to focus an image after it has been taken. This is one of many exciting opportunities that will emerge from the field of computational photography.
But this festival was not about technology and all the wiz bang things it can do with digital images. It was primarily – and refreshingly for me – about the art and expression, past and present, of photography.
Photo by Mikkel Aaland. Yours truly with a Nokia Pureview 808 in my hand, in hallway conversation with Bruce Davidson
It’s Friday afternoon and the conversation turns to Ansel and Minor. Yes, that would be Ansel Adams and Minor White. Abe Frajndlich is telling stories about the first time he met Ansel Adams and the year he lived with Minor White during the end of White’s life. Abe also gave a colorful presentation about his book Lives I've never lived, a portrait of Minor White.

Friday morning Farzana Wahidy a young Afghani woman showed pictures she has made of women “behind the veil” and inside the privacy of their homes in Afghanistan. Farzana shows us a different Afghanistan than the image we see in the west, so often defined only by war and violence. She tells of women, repressed since the Taliban took control, and their stories through striking images. She shows pictures that speak of the same desires, wants and needs that women have throughout the world. A desire to be seen for who they are and to simply “let their hair down”. She said that even now when it is possible for women to go out in public without a burkha, many women have come to feel more safe wearing it. Hiding. Exposed if they don’t. She speaks of the continuing challenges for women in Afghanistan and her fears that the small steps forward that have been made will be erased by more conflict and chaos as the foreign troops withdraw. She tells openly and with a matter of fact tone about her own fears of being attacked, even killed for the stories she is telling.

Later we hear Greg Gorman telling stories about photographing celebrities, reminiscing about how he and Michael (Jackson) would just hang out in the early days or how he shot Tom (Cruise) shortly after risky business in the bleachers of a local baseball field without an entourage of handlers and with nobody bothering them. He speaks of how the days are over, where celebrities were accessible as people and it was possible get close to them and capture intimate personal portraits.

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Bruce Davidson with a young student who won the "rising star" competition at the festival.

Bruce Davidson spoke about some of the pictures he has made during a lifetime of street photography. Wonderful photographs of the streets of New York, a Brooklyn Gang and circus performers from the 50s, the civil rights movement in the sixties and seminal events during each decade till the present. A remembrance of the lives of real people in their every day and during pivotal moments for over a half century, frozen by his lens and captured as if in time capsules.

Calling the pictures displayed by the photographers and at the exhibits dotting the town of Kristiansund stunning would be an understatement. Yet ironically, the beauty of Nordic Light at the end of the day turned out to be as much about the dialogue as the photographs. 

What made Nordic Light extra special was listening to Mary Ellen Mark in conversation with Bruce Davidson. Greg Gorman bantering with the hot Norwegian photographer Bjørn Opsahl. The conversation I had over dinner with Robert Pledge the founder of Contact Press Images in 1976 with David Burnett, Annie Leibovitz and other legends. Robert spoke about the the classic photographic image as being "flat, still and silent". He emphasized the importance of the "flat, still and silent" image as a means of expression, perhaps the very opposite of the insta-hipsta-like-share mode that drives so much of today's thinking and attention as the art-form evolves.
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Robert Pledge and Mollison Jr.
This forum and others like it are important. Nordic Light is a wonderful event and a reminder that we need more dialogue across boundaries of traditional disciplines and art forms. I love photography as art and expression, with its rich history and established genres. At the same time photography is rapidly evolving. I cannot wait to see how the next generation photographers will (re-)invent the medium. Being in the company of great photographers who have dedicated their lives to capturing history, telling stories or simply making art, was a wonderful treat. I wish that more of the innovators in imaging technology and the new voices in the art and expression of photography would attend, participate in the dialogue and challenge each other as we define and refine the future of the medium. How do we make that happen? How do we broaden the dialogue? I'd love to hear thoughts and ideas.
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Sunday morning: outing to the small island of Grip. More great dialogue and opportunity to build lasting connections.