Photographer: Hunter, Shopper and Thief

30 01 2011

Eckert Power Station, Lansing, MI, © Michael Maurer Smith 2011

Photography is an act of collecting and consumption. It is therefore in keeping with the zeitgeist of our times—particularly here in the United States.

As a nation we are dedicated to the production and acquisition of material goods. Our personal and national success and status is measured by what we can acquire, accumulate and show. We value nearly everything using economic measures. Everything, including reality, as exemplified by so-called “reality television,” is priced and offered for sale.

So it is we consume and value images as physical stand-ins for the desired object—the poster of the Ferrari or some other object of desire.

The photographer anticipates, observes, stalks, selects and takes the pictures, much like the hunter, shopper or the thief. Likewise, the photographer exists at the edge, outside the action even when in the midst of it. The photographer is by self-selection a voyeur, commentator, and the witting or unwitting shaper of propaganda. It is nearly impossible for the photographer to make a photograph that is not in some way a political statement—the tangible evidence of personal and cultural values made manifest and fixed.

Painters and writers also observe and collect but their art generates from interpretation and expression spread over time—multiple paint strokes, mixing, word changes, edits and erasures until finally the work is declared finished. This kind of expression is very different than using a mechanical device (the camera) to record the appearance of something in a moment of time.

The painter of necessity is immersed in the act—he or she is doing the painting and it will go whatever way the painter takes it. The photographer, by contrast, is separated from the action by the tool and technology—she or he cannot photograph the boxing match and be one of the boxers.

So one may say that photography is the (sometimes creative) act of exploiting and trafficking in arrested development. The photograph is a selective extraction from the flow of life that is presented and represented as a product that then may be collected and consumed.

© Michael Maurer Smith 2011


Eldorado’s Ghost

12 12 2010

The Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau  encourages every Lansing resident to, be a tourist in your own town. This is a laudable sentiment and indeed Lansing offers wonderful things to see and do. However, there are things every resident should see that will never be shown in a tourism brochure.

I visited such a place this November (2010). It is the former site of the General Motors Craft Centre.

Originally built in 1919, as a General Motors foundry it was eventually used to produce Chevrolet Cavaliers, Cadillac Eldorados, Pontiac Sunfires and Buick Reattas. It was closed in 2006.

Today, General Motors is making a comeback. However, throughout Lansing and other Michigan cities there remain many reminders, like this one, of the cost of that recovery.

Here are few images of what remains of the Craft Centre. A word of warning. This is private property. It is fenced off and marked “no trespassing,” and that should be respected. The images shown here were accessible without violating the no trespassing signs and were taken from outside of the fenced off areas.

All images are © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith, all rights reserved.

GM Craft Centre site, Lansing, MI. © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith


GM Craft Center site, Lansing, MI, © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

GM Craft Centre site, Lansing, MI, © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

GM Craft Centre site, Lansing, MI, © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

The Humanitarian Photographer

12 06 2010

There is a genre of photography known as “humanitarian photojournalism.” It seems a laudable practice and most of the photographers who do it are dedicated to the causes and organizations they photograph for. However, it is also a commercial practice, and where money changes hands expectations and obligations are present and they will shade the results.

I have recently been listening to podcast interviews (Depth of Field with Matt Brandon) with some of the most accomplished humanitarian photographers. They all tell compelling stories. They talk about what they pack for their trips and the difficulties and unexpected encounters in their travel. They tell about what gear works, what doesn’t and why. They give tips on lighting and how to work with the native populations and conditions—all of which is fascinating and useful to other photographers. Likewise, they all speak of the real needs and suffering of their subjects from around the world.

But missing in most of this discussion is a larger perspective—one in which bigger questions are raised and wrestled with.

Every one of these photographers claim it is a privilege for them to inform the rest of the world about what’s really going on in places like the Sudan, Haiti, Afghanistan and the Amazon rain forest. So they report on the work being done by the major Non Governmental Organizations and many relief agencies—their clients and employers. And they do it well because they are professionals.

The result is yet more images in a media saturated world—images targeted at people living far from the source of those images—affluent, well educated, socially committed readers of magazines and buyers of photo books and joiners of groups dedicated to helping causes—the pool from which the NGOs and relief organizations seek their support. So the humanitarian photograph must be compelling though not repellent. It must not tip the balance politically, culturally or aesthetically in any way that might offend the targeted potential donor.

It is this need for balance that pushes the humanitarian photojournalist more and more into the realms of marketing, advertising and public relations. And to the extent humanitarian photography is a business both the photographer and those who hire him or her have a vested interest in the continuation of their subject’s abject conditions.

It is notable that many of the humanitarian photojournalists routinely leave their own countries (mostly developed nations) to travel on paid assignment to remote locations, there to record and report on their subject’s pain, poverty and suffering. But surely pain, poverty and suffering exist in the photographer’s own home country and community? There is plenty of it here in the United States and it probably exists in places like France, Canada, Germany, Britain and Australia too! Surely it must be more environmentally, morally and economically defensible to address the problems of pain, poverty and suffering at home before trying to right the wrongs in places thousands and thousands of miles away.

Humanitarian photographers should ask themselves how much what they do is really done in service of humanity—really makes a difference—and how much of it is done to expiate guilt (theirs and that of their clients) for being able to live a life of privilege and choice not enjoyed by those they photograph.

The people devastated by the earthquake in Haiti, and those left impoverished if not homeless and demoralized by Katrina and more recently by the incompetence of British Petroleum in the Gulf are not now flying to Santa Fe, Palm Beach or Shaker Heights to photograph the plight of the wealthy—are they?

What are your thoughts?

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

The New Magazine Photographer

1 06 2010

I recently listened to an excellent interview with noted photographer Nevada Wier on Matt Brandon’s podcast Depth of Field. In that interview Ms. Wier asserted that magazines are no longer as important as they once were as a proving ground for the aspiring professional photographer.

Magazines were in ascendance from the 1930’s through the 1950s having reached their peak in the 1960’s and 70’s. But with the arrival of television and now the Internet, the magazine lost its prominence. And with the rising costs of production, printing and distribution more and more print publications have failed, are failing, or are migrating to the web.

However, Ms. Wier may need to reconsider the importance of magazine work for the photographer. As the iPad, Kindle, Nook and similar electronic tablets and readers gain popularity people are actually reading full-length books on these devices, and asking for more. And what they are reading is often illustrated with photographs—still photograph and photo essays. In fact more than 30% of the books sold this last year by Amazon, were for its Kindle reader! This is significant because these electronic books and periodicals are not free. The reader must purchase the book or pay for a subscription to the periodical. And this means an economic model may be emerging that will make it possible to  pay for photography, illustration, reporting and writing at rates that are fair and reasonable and thereby make it possible for the photographer (artist) to make a decent living. If this occurs, it will mean that magazines (online) may again become an important starting point, proving ground and source of income for the professional photographer. I sure hope this happens and soon.

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

Photojournalism: Truth and Titillation

9 05 2010

Photography of the effects and carnage of war, natural disaster and criminal behavior began with the invention of photography itself. Then as now the commonly given explanation for photographing the hideous, heinous and horrible was that, “showing the public such things may prevent them from happening again.”

After more than 150 years of photography—of millions of photographs showing humans shredded, burned, drilled by bullets, eviscerated, or hacked to pieces, we must now acknowledge that murder, genocide, slaughter and natural disaster continue undeterred by the witness of photographers and photojournalists.

Words may reveal the mind of the victim or the perpetrator and thereby teach us something, but never the photograph. It can only re-present that which was visible. You will not get blood on your fingers by dragging them across the photograph of a dead soldier or accident victim. You will not hear the victim’s dying screams or last words. You will not smell the stench of the body’s decay. Still photographs remain still—odorless artifacts.

Most of the photographs of war and suffering are made to sell—not just to teach, witness, document or chastise. The photojournalists who make these pictures expect to be paid for taking the risk. And the news agencies expect to be paid for the use of the images.

Such photography panders to the viewer/reader’s anxiety and need to feel safe. It is expected they will find comfort in knowing they have been spared the horror shown in the photograph. But is this real journalism? Does it truly educate and serve any noble or practical purpose? Or does it principally titillate, stir fear and fan prejudice?

Eddie Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon. This picture helped turn American sentiment against the Vietnam War and hasten its end. However, it has done little to prevent America’s involvement in subsequent wars. Likewise, the highly publicized photographs of the My Lai massacre, of more than 347 unarmed men, women and children, by U.S. troops, on 16 March 1968, has done little to prevent subsequent mass murders and genocides from happening around the world.

Photojournalism’s demonstrated failure to prevent or end wars, genocides and disaster makes it cynical if not immoral for photojournalists, news agencies and publishers to continue profiting from the photography of people’s suffering, pain and tragedy—photographs that are sold and peddled as a commodity to be consumed like coffee at breakfast. Is this what it means to be civilized? Is this being informed or simply inflamed? Who really benefits?

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

More Than Meets the Eye

18 04 2010

Where to now? © 2009 Michael Maurer Smith


“The final strength in really great photographs is that they suggest more than just what they show literally.”
Robert Adams (Art in the 21st Century – PBS season 4)    

“If it doesn’t have ambiguity don’t bother to take it. I love that aspect of photography, the mendacity of photography.”
Sally Mann (Art in the 21st Century – PBS season 2)    

Simplicity and clarity are difficult to achieve. Leave out too much and the picture fails. Include too much and it becomes confused. Picasso is to have said that “art is a lie that tells the truth.” I agree.    

How do you achieve truthfulness and clarity in your work? What is truthfulness and clarity in Art?   

NOTE: The photograph shown in this post, “Where to now?” has not been altered in any way except for the compression of depth that comes with using a telephoto lens.

Picturing Luck

17 04 2010

plastic wrapped firebricks © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

Luck, as the saying goes, is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. It also feeds on a good diet of, “what ifs and why nots?

I saw this gift-wrapped beauty—it’s a beauty to my eyes anyway—on one of my recent photo hunts. I often visit a junk heap used by university art students as a source of materials and inspiration for their sculptures, assemblages and paintings. It is a place that offers the ready eye and mind much challenge, opportunity and delight.

On this particular visit I struggled to discern something new and interesting in the visual chaos when by chance I noticed sunlight glinting on some firebricks wrapped in plastic. I instantly knew I had found my subject du jour.

How about you? Do you have a special place you can go where you will always find visual challenge, opportunity and delight—a place that will make you say “why not” and “what if?” If not I encourage you to find one and be prepared for the opportunities it offers.

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith