Musings on Photography

Books

Posted in books by Paul Butzi on July 1, 2008

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I’ve spent time with two photo books recently, and as it happens, those two books have reinforced my notion of photography as a way of figuring things out.

The first book is Fred Herzog’s excellent book of Fred Herzog Vancouver Photography. Mmm, nice. I got the tip at Mike Johnstons TOP, and on the strength of Mike’s recommendation and what I could see of Herzog’s stuff at Amazon.ca, I ordered up a copy for myself. It was worth it. It’s not street photography. It’s not urban landscape. It’s an ongoing portrait of the city of Vancouver, done over a long period of time and with great understanding. It’s photographs made as the photographer went on long, meandering walks after work and on weekends.

The photography, done in color, was done when color wasn’t fine art. So this art wasn’t done, I think, as part of some deliberate scheme to get recognized in the art world. Instead it has a very personal feel. I could write more, but it’s all my subjective impressions and probably not worth the time to write it, let alone your time to read it.

But if you’ve often looked at street photography or urban landscape photography and felt like the photographer was getting at things but something was missing, then this might well be the book for you. To me it very much seems like photographs done by Herzog primarily to come to grips with the place he was living.

The second book, quite different in both form and content from that one, is Kyle Cassidy’s Armed America – Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes. What got me to take the time to order this book from the library and give it several thorough viewings was getting somehow to Cassidy’s website for the book. And in turn, what caught my eye once I was there was going through some of the interviews with Cassidy about his experiences making the photographs. (this one, for instance)

And in turn, what caught my attention was that I got a very strong impression that Cassidy had, by and large, been very successful at tackling a very fraught subject without pursuing an agenda. His focus was, by and large, on making photographs of people who owned guns, and not on making statements about those people. He just lined up the times with these people, and photographed them in their homes, and let the photographs speak for themselves.

As Cassidy puts it in the book

Whether it’s 39% or 50% of Americans, it’s still an awful lot of people. I stared wondering just who they were, what they looked like, and how they lived. And there, somewhere between the main course and desert[sic], was the genesis of this project. When I first started, I was photographing people in my studio with very careful attention to lighting and detail. After a few months of intermittent work, I had a series of really nicely lit shots that all looked the same and, ultimately, left us none the wiser about why so many people had so many guns. I knew I was no closer to my goal and that if I really wanted anything substantial I’d have to start over.

Few things tell our stories as quickly and succinctly as our homes – our living spaces, our books, our movies, our pets, and our teapot collections. The things that we surround ourselves with and the way we place them are reflections of our inner selves and a window into our truth. It dawned on my that what I really needed was to photograph people in their homes.

I made two decisions early on: First I would photograph anyone who was willing, owned a gun, and whom I could physically get to: I didn’t want the temptation of starting to cherry pick people for their opinions or because they had some huge gun collection. Secondly, I decided I wouldn’t threat these subjects any differently than I would if I were photographing portraits of lottery winners – I didn’t want to rely on the crutch of controversy to prop my images up. I wanted a good portrait first.

The photos are, perhaps, not high art, although they’re all more than competent and all interesting. But the result is a book that, although it’s treating a topic that is extremely charged politically, has drawn reviews which say things like

” … highly political, even polemical. The question is, in which direction? Each picture in Armed America could be a pro-gun advertisement — or an anti-gun poster. That’s what makes the book so riveting.”

— Alan Cooperman
The Washington Post
7/29/2007

That review, in fact, was one of the things that drove my interest in the book. Here’s an approach, I thought, to making progress in understanding a subject that’s hard to tackle otherwise because it’s so hard to discuss without triggering people’s agenda driven reactions. It’s a way to do an end run around the hurdles that our preconceptions throw up in our way.

6 Responses

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  1. Ed Richards said, on July 1, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    I suspect ones view of this depends a lot on where you live. To me, these are just my neighbors.

  2. Sean said, on July 1, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    I would agree with Ed, but from the other side. I was looking through the book a few days ago in a shop down Oxford Street and found many of the families in the book rather strange with their guns: gun ownership is not a big thing in the UK. Nor does it seem to be in Australia, where I am currently living.

    In regard to a political stand-point – I found it pro-gun, in that it sought to normalise such ownership. But again, this goes back to the point Ed made: it depends alot on where you live.

    Best, Sean.

  3. Paul Butzi said, on July 1, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    Ed writes
    I suspect ones view of this depends a lot on where you live. To me, these are just my neighbors.

    and Sean writes
    In regard to a political stand-point – I found it pro-gun, in that it sought to normalise such ownership.

    The part that I find interesting is that (if you believe the photographer, and I do) the book was done not with some agenda, but with the intent to try to puzzle things out.

    So if there’s an agenda, it’s in the eye of the beholder. More on this in the next post.

  4. Sean said, on July 1, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    Its big topic Paul! Looking forward to the post.

    Best, Sean.

  5. Bryan Willman said, on July 3, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    This is one of those topics that is often “shrill”, with at least some parties on both sides of any debate demonizing the other.
    (Abortion, gay marriage, various issues about school structures, suffer similar fates.)

    So perhaps the claim to fame of this book is that it’s not so shrill?

  6. Jordan said, on July 26, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    Is this the same Kyle Cassidy who had a crazy Leica fan site with funny articles? There was some good practical info on that site.


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