sunday salon, redux

I’ve been noodling around with cameras since I was in my teens. The mechanics of photography — all of that aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, ISO business — have been second nature to me for years; I rarely need to think about them.

But nine years ago I realized I was almost entirely ignorant about the medium itself. I’m talking about photography as history and culture. I was familiar with the names of a few of the photographic big hats — Ansel Adams, Cartier-Bresson, August Sander — and I could recognize some of their more well-known images, but basically I had no understanding at all of what had been done in photography, or who had done it, or what they were thinking when they did it.

I was the Jon Snow of photographic culture. I knew nothing.

New York City #1, 1976 (Joel Sternfeld)

(Joel Sternfeld)

Homer Page? Never heard of him. Ralph Meatyard? No idea. Mike Brodie, Ara Güler? Hadn’t a clue. Tina Barney, Tony Ray Jones, Lewis Baltz? All cyphers. Guy Bourdin, Helen Levitt, Anders Petersen, O. Winston Link, Milt Rogovin? Meant nothing at all to me.

So I set out to correct that. I decided to educate myself. I’d pick a photographer’s name and do some research. I also decided to share what I’d learned (or thought I’d learned) with the members of Utata, a Flickr group of smart, creative, funny, curious people who enjoyed photography and discussion in equal measure. I’d write a short essay on the photographer, include an example or two of the photographer’s work, and we’d chat about it. Or debate it. Or argue about it.

(John Vachon)

(John Vachon)

It was fun. Everything about it was fun — the research, the discussion. At first, I did them every week. I’d publish them on Sunday and we’d discuss them all week. I took a very catholic approach to selecting the subjects. Street photographers, portrait photographers, fine arts photographers, fashion photographers, sports photographers — there was something to learn from all of them. I looked at the usual dead white guy photographers, at little-known contemporary photographers, at cult and niche photographers, at niche photographers, at photographic curiosities. I ran through the alphabet, from Berenice Abbot to Guillaume Zuili.

(Guillaume Zuili)

(Guillaume Zuili)

The salons, I admit, weren’t always well-written. And there have been a few embarrassing mistakes in research. Some of the more controversial salons led to a harsh arguments. But it was fun. At first.

As the discussions became more informed and intelligent, I felt the need to spend more time doing research. The essays became longer, and included more examples of the photographer’s work. The extra research meant I could no longer keep up the once-a-week schedule. I began doing them every other week.

(Lu Guang)

(Lu Guang)

After a few years of this, it became a chore. A pleasant chore, for the most part, but still a chore. I stopped doing them every other week and began publishing the Sunday Salon at irregular intervals. A month might pass between salons. Maybe five or six weeks. I posted fifteen salons in 2010. Only four in 2011. Seven in 2012, and only three in 2013 — and two of them were on the same photographer.

And then I stopped.

I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I continued to read about photographers, but the idea of writing an essay about them was simply too much unpaid work. And I was okay with not writing them anymore.

(Lillian Bassman)

(Lillian Bassman)

Until I re-watched Paris, Texas a couple of weeks ago. Wim Wenders, that man knows how to frame a shot. Then coincidentally, Wenders re-released his photography book Written in the West, with a few new photographs. The photos were mostly shot when Wenders was scouting locations for Paris, Texas. So I started to read about Wenders.

And the Sunday Salons were reborn. It had been two years since I’d written one. I believe I’ll start writing them again, though not on any schedule.

(Wim Wenders)

(Wim Wenders)

So here’s the Sunday Salon on Wim Wenders. And here’s a list of the published Sunday Salons. I don’t know how many there are — somewhere between 150 and 200, I suspect. Some of them — especially the earlier ones — may look a wee bit wonky; Utata shifted publishing platforms a few years back, and not everything translated easily to the new platform. But they’re there if you’re interested.

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4 thoughts on “sunday salon, redux

  1. I might have to watch Paris, Texas again. I recall that it was an abysmal piece of cinema. Now, you’ve got me wondering if I’m thinking of something else or that I totally missed something.

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    • I suppose it all depends on what you’re looking for in a movie. The plot is, I think, predictable once you understand the situation. But the cinematography is precise and powerfully evocative. I’m also impressed by the way Harry Dean Stanton (who’s been in about a million movies) is able to portray intelligence masked behind emotional withdrawal. There’s a real element of Mad Sweeney in his character — and maybe that’s the appeal to me.

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