Duchenne de Boulogne

Thursday, October 7th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

This is not new work, clearly, so I’m always a bit shocked (pun!) when I bring this stuff up and no one knows about it. But this happens consistently enough for me to be posting about it here:

Anyways, Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne was a French doctor and photographer of the 19th century. He comes up here, of course, due to his photographic work, though it was a direct result of his actually quite important scientific research.

Duchenne was a solitary ‘mariner-like’ figure in the Paris of his time, concerned exclusively with medical research and the treatment of people of all social classes (somewhat to the detriment of his career). He developed many pioneering techniques in neurology and medecine in general, but one of his most lasting contributions was his work on muscular contraction and facial expressions. This became widely known to the international scientific community through Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, and was originally published with a suite of scientific images (some of the first uses of photography for this purpose) of Duchenne or his assistants applying localized electrical charges to the face of an old man (who, luckily, had zero sensation in his face) in order to induce different expressions.

Duchenne was heavily influenced by physiognomy: He believed that these facial expressions were a window to the soul. In a weird way (one he probably wouldn’t have recognized) he was right: The images he produced have this weird grotesquely unselfconscious power to them. And though their goal was scientific illustration, some of them stray quite far from anything we would recognize as such.

Google images is a good place to start if you’d like to see more of his work… Though the National Media Museum has a pretty good set of them too.


Wednesday, March 24th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

‘4 x 2 + 4,’ from AAnonymes.org

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):

AAnonymes.org 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 AAnonymes.org.

The Visual Telling of Stories

Sunday, February 21st, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

From Fortune magazine, November 1947, art direction Will Burtin

So, I stumbled across this website because it popped up in a Google search for Ezra Stoller images.  It seems to be a storehouse of images related to it’s title, ‘The Visual Telling of Stories’, assembled by Chris Mullen, a former professor at the University of Brighton.  When entering via the URL, you get a limited advertising archive, but if you enter here, you get a massive archive of all kinds of visual stories, including some spreads of classic art direction from Fortune magazine (like this visual study of American advertising culture or this one on astrophysics) that I’ve recently developed an interest in through studying up on Walker Evans, whose work, conveniently, he has a decent archive of, available here

Seriously, this is well worth spending a couple hours rummaging through.

Check out ‘The Visual Telling of Stories’ here, with the bulk accessible through the back end here.

Victorian Photocollage

Thursday, February 18th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, ‘Butterfly’

If you’re in New York before May 9th, be sure to check out the Met‘s show, ‘Playing With Pictures.’  It focuses on Victorian photocollage, practiced by upper class women including Lady Georgiana Berkeley (who I’ve blogged about before) and others.  There’s a NYTimes review here (with a slide show), more info on the Met site (with the same images), and a bit on the site from the Art Institute of Chicago, where the show originated, as well as a video interview with the curator at Truthful Enthusiasm

Old Books

Monday, December 21st, 2009 - admin

Alexey Brodovitch

I hate deadlines – keeps me from blogging.

Anyways, I disappear from the internet for just a couple of days and Larry Sultan goes and passes away.  I never had the fortune to meet him, but he was and will remain to be one of the few photographers who I like without condition.

Also, check out this Blake Andrews post regarding his publishing of the original show catalog for New Topographics.  George Eastman House contacted him about taking it down (in a respectful and sincere way, it must be said), which just highlights the problems to having some kind of online resources to look at alot of books like this.  I’m fortunate to live in a city that has a phenomenal photobook library (with a terrible, terrible website) accessible to all, but it’s a shame not to be able to share books long out of print that we’d all be dying to pass on and/or see.  In that spirit, you’ll find below all the spreads that I had the good fortune to photograph a few years ago from Alexey Brodovitch’s Ballet (note: it’s not the complete book – I didn’t shoot all the spreads).  It’ll be up indefinitely (I hope) as I can’t even seem to find who owns the copyright: the book was self-published (as I understood it), Brodovitch himself is long gone, and the estate, as it, is doesn’t really exist.  So why not?


Friday, November 13th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

from The Past Tense of Pictures
Two memento mori from The Past Tense of Pictures

So, clearly I’ve been busy or otherwise I’d have been on here writing more. More soon, but to hold your attention a brief post pointing you towards The Past Tense of Pictures, a site by Jack and Beverly Wilgus (maybe the most adorable photo couple I’ve come across) that somehow found it’s way to my folder of links long enough ago that I forgot where I first saw it. It appears to be a private collection of daguerreotypes and other old photographs that functions as a low-tech stock photo site, and there are some real gems in there. Also, I really love the weird site design and unattractive brown borders – it seems to oddly fit the subject matter…

Check out also Bright Bytes, the mother site of past tense of pictures, that also has links to other strange photo related sites, like Not to Scale and A Collection of Collections.

Paris Projects

Monday, September 7th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Georg Parthen
Georg Parthen
, from his project ‘Beaugrenelle‘ and submitted to the mus-mus ‘@Paris’ project.

The mus-mus@Paris project has debuted on their site – go have a look if you haven’t already.  The project has been fairly well reported around the photo-blogosphere, and the list of photographers contains some familiar names; Alec Soth, Stephen Shore, Sylvia Plachy, Bertien van Manen, Simon Roberts, Linus Bill, Richard Renaldi, Vincent Debanne, etc.  Closer to home (the internet), Hester Keijser and Norman Beierle (Mrs. Deane), Shane Lavalette, and yours truly all participated.

The @Paris project was, if you recall, a call for pictures of Paris from photographers from all parts of the world.  From the call for submissions:

It is fitting that Paris, lovingly called “The City of Light” should have been one of the first and most thoroughly photographic and photographed places on earth. The list of Paris’ photographers runs from Daguerre and Nadar to Brassai, Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and from Atget to Man Ray, Kertez and Klein and many more, a remarkable number of photography’s greatest artists made their mark ‘a travers’ Paris. Their photographs and publications have fixed in our mind’s eye a vision of Paris that is beautiful, often as edgy as elegant, and always complex.

The results, as you can see for yourself, are impressive.  But as Marc Feustel, another expat based in Paris, writes on eyecurious:

I did find a lot of interesting material (Céline Clanet’s image above is a favourite), but overall I felt slightly frustrated. Paris has become a difficult city to photograph because of its past, but for me, as a group, these photographs did not sufficiently get under the skin of the city.

I certainly struggled with this when I first moved here (it took me about 6 months after arriving before I could even pick up a camera again in this city), but having resumed photographing again, I frequently ask myself how would one best depict this city?  Paris is a city of mythology, more so than New York.  New York is a lived-in myth whereas much of Paris’ mythology derives from the past or from a fantastical view of the city that never really existed (see Amelie Poulain).  Indeed, every year there are groups of tourists who so idealize the city that when confronted with the actual city they go into shock, a phenomenon known as Paris Syndrome.

I think one must be sly about shooting in this city: You have to acknowledge the history, but at the same time completely ignore it when actually working.  If you don’t, you run the risk of sliding right past what’s directly in front of you and instead capturing only the surface of metropolis as least as complex as any other.  Paris work should always be more than just an archaeology of objects, architecture, and types, more than the reflection of the allure of the city…

How Big?

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Early this month DLK Collection wrote a post estimating the approximate number of serious photography collectors there are in the world:

So let’s begin with photography fair attendance numbers. All of the estimates coming up are made with a mind to make the numbers as large as possible, to estimate on the outer edge of what the number might really be. I’ve got three data points from the most recent versions of each fair: AIPAD New York 2009: 8000 visitors, Paris Photo 2008: 35000 visitors, Les Rencontres D’Arles 2008: 60000 visitors. AIPAD is I believe a collector heavy show. So while there are clearly curators, professionals, artists, press and general photo enthusiasts in the crowd, a good portion are real buyers. My estimate is approximately half might fit into the $5000+ category (4000 people), and perhaps three quarters in the $1000+ group (6000 people). The two shows in France have a much larger portion of local photo enthusiasts in the crowd. For Paris Photo, let’s go with as much as 15% of the attendees in the $5000+ group (5250 people), and 25% in the $1000+ group (8750 people). Since Arles is mostly expositions, the percentages need to be even lower: at most 10% for the $5000+ crowd (6000 people) and 15% for the $1000+ crowd (9000 people).

They come up with around 5000-10000 collectors worldwide with a collector defined as spending $1000+ in a calendar year.  These numbers strike me as really really vague (and are acknowledged as such) and necessarily inaccurate, but they’re a good place to start on a bigger question: how big is the serious photography world in general?

That is to say, how many people are seriously interested in contemporary art photography?  That excludes the occasional dabblers and those that go to the blockbuster shows and little else; and, of course, having a Robert Doisneau poster up in your dorm room does not necessarily qualify you. This then, is all of us actively reading the photo-blogosphere, the photogs, the gallerists and collectors, the museum departments and critics, and those passionate about and otherwise engaged in what’s happening in photography now.  To how many people, then, does photography really matter?  How big is our potential audience?  How many people are paying attention? What audience would always be there if the art-market all of a sudden unceremoniously dumped photography?

Given that everyone I’ve ever met in the photography world seems to be separated from me by, at most, two degrees, my gut feeling is that it’s not very large.  Informal conversations with other photographers and bloggers regularly turn up numbers in the tens of thousands – 20,000.  30,000. At most, 50,000.  Which would be in line, I think, with DLK’s numbers, which included both contemporary and vintage collectors, and which represents a subset defined by ability to spend and desire to collect.

Some other figures that might help define this number – Subscription (and sales) numbers from Schaden and Dashwood‘s e-mail newsletters; average attendance numbers for Jeu de Paume‘s contemporary photography shows (Alec Soth, Martin Parr, Sophie Ristelhueber, etc.); MFA’s awarded in photography every year; reader numbers for some of the more widely read photoblogs and online showcases; Print run and selling numbers for the Badger/Parr Photobook book;  some real numbers for some of the estimates tossed around in the comments here.

Incidentally, my research on this subject dug up an estimation of $144 million for the size of the photography print market in 2006 as well as a fascinating article on the development of these markets, all available for francophones here.

Photography and Film

Friday, August 14th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott


Robert Wright, it being August and sort of quiet, has posted a long article on the end of photography.  I urge you to head to his site and read it as it deals with alot of the things that we’re trying to confront over here:

Photography is dead. Slowly dying since the 70’s, on life support the last decade or so, I think you will see motion film (video) in many of the applications where the still was used formerly. And I believe the internet is the natural home of the video as print was to the still image. Stills on the internet are not as compelling as motion is. Bandwidth is the only obstacle, otherwise we’d be there now. With youtube, we mostly are there.

The first counter-argument that comes to me is that photography is visually and aurally silent – Text is still the quickest way to absorb large amounts of information, and this becomes increasingly hard if a video is vying for your attention.  It’s one thing to go to a Youtube page and see one video playing, but imagine if every ad you saw on the internet was animated.  I think my head would explode.

And I do think that it’s in that silence that photography draws it’s strength.  It doesn’t demand attention like moving images do, but instead waits patiently for the viewer to come to it.  “Photography,” as someone recently said to me, comparing photography and film, “is concerned with subtleties.” It is hard, as a photographer, not to envy the emotional power of film, with swelling chorus, linear (if occasionally disjointed) story, and characters who develop and change over time.  Film and video is a medium of grand sweeps, but photography one of details

Still, though, I think the grand point, that last century was photography’s century, may still be valid.  It’s hard to imagine photography alone bringing information to the world like it has.  Indeed, it’s telling that the last major world event (the Iranian elections) was represented almost equally in images and film, but it was a film (don’t click through if you don’t want to watch it again!) that became iconic.

A Roadmap Of Sorts

Monday, April 13th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

The first digital camera, courtesy of Kodak’s PluggedIn blog


It took 23 seconds to record the digitized image to the cassette.  The image was viewed by removing the cassette from the camera and placing it in a custom playback device.  This playback device incorporated a cassette reader and a specially built frame store.  This custom frame store received the data from the tape, interpolated the 100 captured lines to 400 lines, and generated a standard NTSC video signal, which was then sent to a television set.

The irony, of course, is that the company that first developed this technology has been almost entirely unable to capitalize on it.  Steve Sasson, the engineer who helped develop the camera, apparently titled the internal demonstration “Film-less Photography,” which seems apt, but probably didn’t go a long way to convincing managers at Kodak to push forward with the ideas.  The patent is publicly viewable, btw: U.S. patent #4,131,919.

What seems at first to be an interesting side note, but what is in fact quite central, is that upon completion of the camera, the engineering team snapped a picture of a female lab assistant who, the story goes, did not like the picture at all.  And so, the first digital picture ever was promptly deleted, becoming the precursor to the trillions of images that now follow it into the digital ether, making room on cassettes, cards, whatever for the trillions more that followed.

Still, though, digital photography is not so very distant to film – to quote a recent interview with Paul Graham, who explains it quite nicely:

I find this a tedious issue. People make way too much out of the digital versus film. The challenges in photography—focus, crop, shutter, aperture, and of course the biggest ones of all, the ones that really matter: what you actually point the camera at, and with what intelligence you use it… are all still there, completely unchanged. So quite whether that camera records the information with a piece of celluloid or a piece of silicon is of little significance. Get over it. I doubt anyone can go to the MoMA exhibition and tell me 100 percent correctly which images are digital and which are film.

The inherent elements haven’t changed at all, but more importantly the way that the are distributed and our way of experiencing them is completely different (see here for an overview):  A change that we as artists, are only now starting to take advantage of.  There have been some examples – End Commercial, for one, which sought to theorize the urban environment visually, a process only possible with the billions of images digitally produced.  Interestingly, Photosynth is constructing worlds the same way that end commercial was trying to deconstruct them and reveal their underlying architecture.

As deeply unserious as they may initially seem, street style sites like The Sartorialist or its more youthful counterpart Face Hunter are almost ideal examples of the type of photography unleashed by digital.  Why try and sum something up in as few pictures as possible when there is an endless exhibition space online, with almost no cost associated with it whatsoever?  They are online indices, each of a certain style, more complete than any book on the topic could ever be.

And yes, I suppose photo-a-day blogs are another example of what digital distribution has rendered not only possible but almost imperative.  However, in their very attempts at artfullness, they present a contradiction – traditionally photography is as much about what you take out (editing, framing, etc) than it is what you leave in a picture – why limit yourself to one photo a day when you could post a billion that describe every detail that passes in front of you; or, conversely, why describe every day of your existence when you could pick 10 that sum up everything essential about it?

These are two reactions to the digital world; a grand picture or pictures which sums up something essential, like a Gursky or a Wall, or an avalanche of images shot quickly and with apparent lack of artfulness, like the prolific outputs of Terry Richardson and the contemporary snapshot aesthetic, and the billion kids with cameras taking ‘party photos.’  There is, too, an interesting techno-spirituality showing up in art online, but that I’ll save for another post.

Oh, and I will just say that this post and others like it are an attempt to formulate some kind of an understanding of how, exactly, photography is changed by its place online.  I highly encourage you to argue with me, vehemently, if you so desire.