Wednesday, September 1st, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

© Melanie Bonajo

It’s the rentré here in France – everyone’s getting back from vacations and jump straight into work.  So, back to the blog.

I wasn’t completely idle over the summer, though. I manage to write a short essay for Le Bal (WHICH OPENS SEPTEMBER 18th, BY THE WAY) on the New Weird.  I urge you to read it:

Obviously, this kind of work has long had a history in the art world – Art world critics, curators, and collectors have long had a much easier time with a work as an independent expression of an idea than has the photography world. The photo world has always had an implicit belief in the photograph as an authentic document that, though not necessarily a conveyer of truth, is the medium for authentic communication between creator and viewer. New Weird photography frequently claims to be nothing more than an assembly of symbols and juxtapositions and that it can be nothing more than some king of photographic Rorschach ink blot to the viewer’s predispositions and prejudices.

More here. This essay, in its current form, is unfinished – I’m interested in expanding upon it, so any comments or input is appreciated.

Others were also not idle – which I’ll get to as I catch up on my linkage.  To start, though, here’s a call for entries from 3/3.  12th Press will be submitting;  You should too.

Little big press  exhibition aims to survey the tendencies that, during the last few years, changed thoroughly the world of photobook publishings.

A more and more increasing vitality is directing photobook evolution towards an independent, self published and scale reduced position, giving life to independent photobooks or fanzines, while small publishing houses are becoming more and more active and prolific all around the world.

Apply at

UPDATE: I posted the entire essay below.

We, as photographers, are still working through the effects of the digital revolution.  I suspect that this will be the case for yet a few years to come as we come to grips with how new technologies like digital cameras and digital distribution have changed how we view, approach, and create photography.  But, some of these effects have already become evident – one clear example is how you, a distant reader, have found this blog and this essay and connected to a community of photography enthusiasts interested in working through some of the problematics of the documentary image: Our project here at Le Bal.

This interconnectedness has led to interesting conglomerations of photographers and photography styles, connected only by the tenuous links of a common approach and the streams of data travelling over the internet.  A common approach to a medium is by no means nothing new – It has happened at many different moments throughout art history and finding and identifying the causes of these brief moments of synchronicity are one of the prime occupations of art historians.  But I would argue that the internet is increasing the frequency and scale of this, by its very property of making work and information widely distributed all over the world to your desktop computer.

A good contemporary example is the category of photographic work dubbed ‘New Weird‘ or, in previous writing by me, techno-spiritualist photography.  Characterized, in the most general sense, by an approach that emphasizes the visually surreal or weird in the banalities of contemporary life and a strong concern with the construction of the photographic image, New Weird photography exploded on the internet several years ago with the introduction of the blog i heart photography.  Since then it has made its way into the the most exalted of contemporary art institutions and its influence can be found, either directly or indirectly, in huge swathes of the fine-art photographic landscape.

i heart photography (which is still active) was created because Laurel Ptak, its founder, « was just seeing the same work in the same style of photography over and over again, in galleries, on the pages of magazines, everywhere in the established art world, and I just knew there was more going on than that.»  [via] Determined to find an outlet for the type of work that she enjoyed, and taking advantage of the possibilities afforded by an internet environment (which was really just starting to see huge numbers of photographers posting their own work on their personal sites), Ptak began posting on photographers that shared common concerns with her; a do-it-yourself ethos coupled with a post-modern interrogation of the nature of photography through approaches such as collagearchiving, and neo-surrealist work.

If one has to identify only one element that runs through all of this work, it was that none of it fits into the thread of photography that starts with the photojournalists of the 30s, through Cartier-BressonFrank, and WinograndArbusGoldin, etc.; so-called ‘Straight Photography.’  It has none of the faith in the socially transformative power of photography, or even in the narrative abilities of photography.  Instead, it seeks to put a question mark against the entire idea that the visual document can tell anything beyond that with which the viewer originally approaches it with.

Obviously, this kind of work has long had a history in the art world – Art world critics, curators, and collectors have long had a much easier time with a work as an independent expression of an idea than has the photography world. The photo world has always had an implicit belief in the photograph as an authentic document that, though not necessarily a conveyer of truth, is the medium for authentic communication between creator and viewer. New Weird photography frequently claims to be nothing more than an assembly of symbols and juxtapositions and that it can be nothing more than some king of photographic Rorschach ink blot to the viewer’s predispositions and prejudices.

It must be noted at this point how heavily much of New Weird photography is influenced by Surrealist photography. But Surrealism never doubted the photographic document, using it instead to suggest other meanings through association as opposed to suggesting that there may be no meaning or, at the very least, meaning is relative. For example, much of the darkness drawing its roots from the symbols of Freudian psychotherapy present in a lot of surrealist photography has been neutered in its contemporary incarnations.  We don’t really get the sense of danger and perverseness in, say, Melanie Bonajo’s ‘Furniture Bondage‘ as we do in Hans Bellmer’s ‘La Poupée‘.

New Weird photography is a direct product of the internet – a collective unconscious, sanitized and behind a screen, and frequently an easy commodity, arriving on our screens and then clicked through to the next image.  In alot of ways, it mirrors the image factory of the internet itself.  Sites like ffffound and the so-called ’surf clubs,’ results of many collective users trolling the internet for interesting images to share, are frequently eerily similar to the sites of artists who have instead created their work.  That isn’t, of course, to say that the work isn’t without merit, or even to take out the intentionality of the artist. This is instead an acknowledgement of how of-a-certain-time-and-place New Weird photography is.

Seeing colors

Monday, June 7th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

From the phenomenal site Information is Beautiful.  Click for full size.

Reading the gem of a text that Photography Prison dug up from a Lester Morrison interview on 5b4 that I somehow missed…

In my sophomore year I started doing psychedelics in a rather serious way. Some friends got hold of a bunch of Sandoz tabs. Sandoz was the only pharmaceutical outfit ever to produce pure lysergic acid diethylamide-25 and ergotamine in a form that looked like Pop-Rocks. Ergotamine comes from a fungal rust that grows on certain cereal grains. In high doses can cause vascular stasis, thrombosis and gangrene. That’s how my buddy Ben lost his foot and resulted in me having extreme panic attacks that forced me to drop out of school. Well, that and the foul cholera episode. When it isn’t turning you into a leper, the ergotamine slots so perfectly into the complex serotonin metabolism of the primate cortex. Brings about some random stochastic happenstance, some entropic slippage where – although you have the taste of cat piss in your mouth – you also find yourself trying to poke out the eyes of god. The morning after my first trip, I finally understood colors.

… Brings to mind the color wheel you see above and also Albert Kahn.

In other news, I’m currently engaged in a book project with a photographer who learned to shoot in the 60s – It’s in b+w, but it really gives me a tremendous idea of how printing preferences have shifted over the years.  That is to say that, to a certain extent, you can judge when an image was printed by the particular balance of contrast and density that seems to shift through the decades as printing fashions (!) ebb and flow…

Photography and Art

Friday, April 9th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

So here’s a question that I think gets at what is essential in photography – is photography fundamentally ‘different’ from other forms of representation or is the fact that there is a ‘photography world’ and, for example, this is a ‘photography blog’ just a unique consequence of historical and market forces?

I don’t mean to jump into the debate set off by the Paul Graham essay that recently made the rounds which is essentially arguing for greater photographic inclusion in the art economy. I mean to ask whether there is a reason why we’re all working in, arguing about, and obsessed by this one specific medium and not any other beyond the fact that we happen to find ourselves in it.

Is photography special?

This ancient post
Christopher Rauschenburg on Concientious
Blake Andrews on La Pura Vida
Eyecurious’ take
And, like, the history of writings on photography. People seem to forget this, but Barthes’ and Sontag’s writings on photography were and are still important because their core arguments are that things represented in photography are fundamentally different than things represented in other medias. Does this still ring true, now, when photography is much less an exceptional machine made representation and more part of a general media landscape characterized mostly by its accessibility to anyone regardless of their tools and rather seamless distinctions between mediums?

Also, tangential but unrelated: When are we gonna see an iPad photobook? Will it still count as a photobook?

Also: iPad magazine aps.


Wednesday, March 24th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

‘4 x 2 + 4,’ from

I recently came across the blog AAnonymes – it’s all found photographs with a focus on the odd, accompanied by sometimes witty, sometimes mysterious titles.

Strictly speaking, it’s not actually a blog, but rather an ‘online exhibition’ by curator Romaric Tisserand. He’s showing 365 found photographs in 365 days, proposing a type of alternate reality in photographs. From his statement in English (available in the sidebar): shows “abandoned” photographs, antiquities of a reality that has ceased to exist in its original state, images which, like every other photograph ever taken, have contributed to the creation of a photographically modified reality. The very images which Jean Baudrillard regarded as the prime instrument of the lack of reality, pictures of a contemporary world in which images are already pictures, in which everything has been fiction since Nicéphore Nièpce’s first heliograph…

Take a look at


Thursday, February 4th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

I just had a conversation with an aunt who used to own a consumer photography store – her business died with the rise of digital cameras, but she mentioned that some of her employees had entirely changed their focus from photography to film…

Perhaps the rise of the 5d and 7d cameras that also do hi-res film marks a turning point in the industry…  The lines have been blurred between photography and film, allowing people like me to work in a medium that previously required tons of additional equipment and experience…  And the drain of advertising from print to the internet has meant that still photography just doesn’t pay as much as it previously did.  Film and video, though, continues to be a moneymaker, even on the internet.  Photographers now have the tools to emigrate entirely to the moving image.  Perhaps what we’re witnessing is the end of a golden age of photography; perhaps it marks the beginning of a renaissance for film and video.  Buying a lens, recently, for my Canon, the clerk asked if I was a videographer.  When I replied, “no,” he went on to explain that most of his high-end lenses were being sold to video guys because of the technical abilities of the 5d and because they have (what seems to photographers to be) unlimited budgets…

Or perhaps the tablet PCs which now look inevitably to be coming (whether or not the iPad succeeds) mean a light at the end of the tunnel…. when pictures on the internet will finally become worth something…


Tuesday, October 27th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Markus AmmMarkus Amm, untitled photograms.

I’ll get to this soon, I hope, but for now the best response I can give to commenter Ari Din is to point them towards the following related-but not-exaclty review of a series of abstract photography shows, by Martha Schwendener and found in the Voice:

The question of why certain practices thrive at particular moments feels like the art world equivalent of asking why honeybee populations have collapsed in the last decades or mussels have started growing in the Hudson. Why, for instance, are contemporary photographers—or, if you like, artists working with photography—obsessed with abstraction, materiality, and process?

To which she begins to answer herself:

Several theories are offered in Words Without Pictures, the recently published record of a year-long forum on photography sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the essays and discussions, there’s a suggestion that, while formalism might be an exhausted term for critics and historians, it could, as Kevin Moore argues, be “an anxious attempt” among artists to make something new and yet familiar in a moment when technology, politics, and culture are rapidly shifting. Others suggest abstraction as a response to the current global crisis—a kind of causal fragmentation/disintegration scenario—while editor Alex Klein warns that, while materiality and abstraction might have political implications for some artists, there are clearly others for whom it’s “trendy, market-savvy, and scarcely disguised by a veneer of easily digestible theory.”

I wonder which artists Klein was referring to…

Anyways, this answer is, at best, limited and, at worst, an outright hostile one.

As far as the original question of a definition of “techo-spiritualist new weird” photography, I’ll try and think through it a bit more – definitions are clearly in order.  I think a good place to start would be to try and put a finger on where, exactly it’s boundaries lay…

If any of you think of work (in photography or writing) that you think I definitely have to cover, leave a note in the comments.

Photography and Forgetting

Saturday, October 10th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Still from Chris Marker’s ‘Sans Soleil’

A big subject.  Some resources in a specific order:

1. “We describe the course of our “false-memory implantation” research, and review recent work showing that photographs can sometimes increase—while other times decrease—false memories.” Source here.  More here. And here. And here. Or just hit the search button on “Photography false memory“.

2. Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil.  See the entire thing here if you speak French or Spanish.  Or buy the Criterion diskIncredible.

3. Taryn Simon’s TED talk.

4. Eidetic memory

(Also, I stumbled across this…)


Wednesday, October 7th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Paul Nougé
Paul Nougé, ‘La Jongleuse,’ 1929

This past Sunday I spent quite a few pleasant hours at the Centre Pompidou‘s new show ‘La Subversion des Images.’  It’s a collection and exploration of Surrealism‘s use of photography and film.  And, in a word, it’s really really good.

There are, of course, the usual suspects that one would expect; Hans Bellmer’s doll photos, Un Chien Andalou, lots of Man Ray.  But I was pleasantly surprised how well they were used.  The Bellmer work, which are usually the only representative for photography in broader Surrealism surveys, take up one and a half small walls, covered in various permutations of the doll photos.  It works well this way; they are touched on and acknowledged, but they don’t overwhelm the other work, alot of which I found unknown and alot of which is usually presented alone and not so much in dialogue with other contemporaneous work.

A good example of the latter strategy is the work of Brassaï.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen Brassaï work in anything other than solo shows or galleries, which in retrospective is really a shame as it works really really well here, peppered as it is throughout the show in various guises.  Paris by Night, for example, is his masterwork, and is usually presented as a formal leap forward, but in this context seems less radical and more of a logical extension into the picture frame of alot of the Surrealists ideas of the city being an ideal arena to view unexpected juxtapositions and clashes.  One particularly memorable photo is one of a statue taken in the Paris fog with only the words ‘Hotel’ in neon peeping through in the background with no other context.

One unexpected thought I walked away from this show with, is how strikingly modern so much of this work feels – So much work I’ve seen recently would seem to slot so easily into the work seen in this exhibition, and vice versa (for examples, see here, here, and here).  If you strip away some of the postmodern jargon surrounding alot of the work in the ‘techno-spiritualist‘ (my term) strain of contemporary photography and replace it with descriptions of dreams and psychoanalysis, and you’ve got alot of work covering the same grounds…

(I don’t think that last statement is entirely fair, but I do wonder what separates the works then and now? They certainly share some commonalities, so I guess the question is whether the fact that the discourse is different is enough to reset the work for a different era?)

Check out the show, up until January 11th. Definitely worth it.

Related: Hiroshi Sugimoto‘s new lightning field work, Brought to Light (more here and here), Ghost photography, William Hope, these incredibly cool videos of animals breathing, a classic Mrs. Deane post.


Friday, September 25th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Merging Boundaries
Ian Teh/Panos Pictures

We seem to be awash in an ever-present pining for the glory days, when pictures had a moral authority and weight, and when lots and lots and lots of photographers were able to make a living shooting socially concerned black and white documentary work.

Unfortunately, those days are gone.  The economics of journalism in general have fundamentally changed in ways so well documented I won’t bother bringing them up here.  And the moral authority of images has been undermined by what I would consider a good thing: People’s increasing visual sophistication.  The average person is much less likely to look at a newspaper or magazine and expect to know the whole truth from one shocking picture.

Still, though, much photojournalism is caught in a self regarding loop, photographing the same subjects in a style that borrows heavily from Christian art of the renaissance – pietas, madonnas, crucifixions, moral stories of suffering and redemption, the whole deal.

Now none of what I just said is particularly new or original – it pops up again and again, but we seem to be having the same discussions over and over again.  Witness the latest flare-up in what seems to be an annual event – the arguments over World Press Photo.  This year it’s Stephen Mayes, the outgoing WPP Secretary, who’s provoked the firestorm (witness the comments!), as noted over on Colin Pantall‘s blog.

Colin goes through an interesting discussion of why we all photograph the same things.  His general point is that we seem to be photographing similarly because we are trying to shoot for others expectations of the world and not, to use the cliche, being true to our own vision:

If we do that, we might as well go and work in a call centre or flip burgers because there is more passion and feeling and depth in that than replicating someone else’s work and vision, than doing something we have no real involvement with.

The replication is the thing though. Why do we all replicate other people’s work? Perhaps one of the reasons is this is what we are told we should do – by newspapers, magazines, our professors and lecturers (they have to do something to keep their students minds of the fact that 90% of them aren’t going to make a penny from what they have studied for 3 years), the blogosphere and things like portfolio reviews.

I think some of this may be true, but a bigger question for me is why photographers seem to be so backwards looking in general – why does photojournalism seem to be such a redoubt of the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality? Why are art photographers so obsessed with replicating various styles of painting?  Why, as Stephen Mays points out and Colin Pantall widens, does photography “…investigate a very limited series of tropes in a very limited series of visual approaches, becoming a self replicating machine that churns of copies of itself in perpetual motion,” and, more to the point, why is asking Nan Goldin to speak, an artists who last contributed something original to photography 20 years ago, still considered a provocative act?

I dunno.  I’ve been reading about this stuff in a specifically photojournalism context for too long this afternoon.  Start sifting through the following list if you’re feeling like being bewildered…

The World Press Photo winners this year
Stephen Mayes speech excerpts
and full length audio
Foto8 World Press Photo report of the same event
Bromberg and Chanarin’s firestorm from last year and in pdf form. Look at the comments here, too.
Foto8 tries to deal with the criticism of that essay. And again, repetitively.
Tim Hetherington, a WPP winner and excellent photog, takes some of this on. It’s also where the 10-90 ratio comes from.
Concientious’ take in one and two and three parts, last year. I hate that Alec Soth can post his comment and no one else can.
Clearly fault for the current state of photojournalism is widely shared. There are structural problems too, duh.
Yeah, I know it’s not easy. But still.
Check out the discussions section on BURN magazine. Some interesting things there…
Some new directions? Here’s a great list of where to start.

Natascha Libbert

Friday, August 28th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Natascha Libbert
Natascha Libbert, from “Men and Orchids”

Her work has popped up all over the place (see her news page for where, exactly), but I stumbled across the site of Natascha Libbert while searching for something else.  Go check it out.  A project I especially like is Men and Orchids which I find to be an almost sarcastic treatment of the male gaze in photography…