Hamilton Art Crawl: Friday the 13th! by Neal Auch

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Hello friends!  

Tomorrow is the last Art Crawl before Halloween and it's also Friday the 13th!  So you can bet your ass that I'll be out on James St N Art Crawling my little heart out.  I'll be selling framed prints, as always, and will bring lots of pictures from my recent project Empire of Death, having see from the Bazaar how popular those particular images are.

If you're in the area please feel free to come on out and say hello and look at pictures of dead stuff.  Hope to see you all there!

Bazaar of the Bizarre Update: Thanks so much! by Neal Auch

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You're amazing Toronto! Thanks so much to everybody who came out to the Toronto Halloween edition of the Bazaar of the Bizarre yesterday! I had a wonderful time meeting all of you. Thanks so much to the organizers for putting on this wonderful event, thanks to the other vendors who were all lovely and kind, and thanks especially to everybody who came out to support local artists. It really means a lot to see so many people at events like this, and your support (both financial and moral) is what keeps artistic weirdos like me in the business of creating weird idiosyncratic art. I'm so grateful to all of you!

Events like this are always a bit of a gamble; going in one doesn't necessarily have a clear idea of how many prints to prepare and which images (if any) will sell. I decided to be optimistic and framed significantly more images that I figured I'd be able to sell, reasoning that I'd probably clear the surplus at the next couple of shows I have this fall. But, holy shit Toronto, y'all came through and bought considerably more than I anticipated! It feels wonderful to be able to walk away with my boxes lighter than when I arrived. Thank you so much! I apparently underestimated the popularity of the smaller format skulls prints. Lesson for next time: bring lots 4X6 and 8X10 prints of skulls in the catacombs. I am already at work printing more skull shots for my next show.

One last point in this rambling post of gratitude: if you wanted a print but didn't manage to grab one at the Bazaar, feel free to reach out to me by email (neal.auch@gmail.com or via the contact form) or on social media. There are loads on images on my website and I'm always happy to make custom prints, even for smaller pieces.

Thanks again! You're all fantastic. 

Bazaar of the Bizarre, Halloween 2017, Toronto Edition by Neal Auch

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Friends in Toronto and the GTA,

I'm happy as shit to be participating in the Halloween edition of this year's Bazaar of the Bizarre in Toronto.  

What: Not your average craft show - The Bazaar of the Bizarre : a marketplace for all things, different, interesting and macabre... 

When: Sunday October 8th, open to the public from 11am - 8pm 

Where: 6 Noble St, Toronto, ON (Pia Bouman School)

I will be selling frame fine art prints ranging from very inexpensive small format options (4X6, 5X7, 8X10, etc) to larger wall pieces (16X20, etc), so I should have some options available that can work with most budgets.  For the first time, I'll also be selling 4X6 folded cards featuring imagery from my latest project Empire of Death.

Check out the official Facebook event page to RSVP and get a tease of what's to come.  If you're in the area be sure to stop by, there will be lots of cool artists selling lots of great creepy stuff.  I hope to see you there!

Book Review: Kathe Koja's The Cipher by Neal Auch

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Kathe Koja's 1991 debut, The Cipher, is a wonderfully mean spirited novel that concerns the misadventures of protagonist Nicholas and his kinda-sorta girlfriend Nakota when they discover a mysterious supernatural black hole -- dubbed the "Funhole" by our heroes -- in a storage closet in Nicholas' apartment complex.

The first act of this novel plays out more-or-less along standard genre lines: Nakota and Nicholas explore the Funhole (dropping animals and video cameras into its murky depths) and creepy things happen (the animals comes back re-arranged in nasty ways, the camcorder records a strange creepy video that appears different for different viewers and changes every time you view it).  Koja's voice is unique, particularly for this kind of paperback genre stuff, and these early pages do an admirable job of pulling the reader into the narrative.  

Koja wisely never explains the meaning of the Funhole.  The last few pages step a little too closely to spelling out the metaphor for my tastes, but for the most part she leaves the focal point of the novel vague enough that it can serve more than one symbolic purpose.  Probably the most obvious reading of the Funhole is that it represents evil the way Dante would have conceived it: evil as an absence of light, as the negation of good.  (This is why the denizens of the lowest circle of hell in The Inferno are frozen into inaction.)  The Funhole is described as an emptiness, an absence of light, and Nicholas' character almost perfectly embodies the evil of inaction.  Nicholas is a complete wastrel.  He is an aspiring poet who works at a video store and managed to avoid the "struggling" part of being a "struggling artist" by giving up before he had really tried to accomplish anything.  Much of the novel revolves around Nicholas' complete paralysis in the face of the drama around him.  He gave up on his artistic career without ever trying.  He never bothers to try to mend his dysfunctional relationship with Nakota, nor does he ever finds the courage to confront her and simply kick her out of his life and move on.  He gives up on a suicide attempt partway through the novel, only to return to the situation that drove him to consider suicide in the first place.  When weirdos that he hates start to congregate around his apartment and the Funhole, Nicholas again is completely unable to banish them from the premises, instead relegating himself to bitter quips.  Towards the end of the novel Nicholas locks himself with his notepad in the creepy storage closet, presumably imagining that the mysterious Funhole might inspire him to create art (as it has for several of the other wastrel artists in his orbit), but still he is completely unable to do much of anything at all.  This kind of apathy and inaction is presumably central to Koja's point here, but it also makes for a somewhat infuriating read because the narrator is just so goddamn annoying.

The second act of the novel is a bit of a tonal shift, and initially this portion of the book lead to me having some reservations about this novel.  In the second act Koja more-or-less stalls the plotline of investigating the mysteries of the Funhole and instead chooses to introduce an ever widening cast of unpleasant characters, mostly more wastrel artist types.  I think that what Koja is going for here is to try and meditate on her central theme -- the Funhole as an embodiment of evil -- by bringing various characters into its orbit and letting them interpret the metaphor for us.  It's a trick that Don Delillo also uses in his wonderful novel The Names, and it allows him to explore a deeply abstract concept (language) in a rather concrete way; using a diverse cast of interesting people who all have different relationships with language to do most of the talking.  The issue here is that Koja's writing lacks the poetry of Delillo's and, unlike The Names, the characters in The Cipher are neither interesting, nor likeable.  So the second act of the novel mostly just involves shitty people being shitty to each other and bickering over trivial things.  While this creative choice certainly serves Koja's point, it also makes for a somewhat unpleasant read.  Fortunately this section of the novel never drags on long enough to derail the narrative (in my opinion at least), but it does kind of fuck with the pacing of the story.  That being said, I have to admire Koja for taking a chance here and breaking with genre conventions to pursue her vision with clarity.  

The third and final act of the novel concerns Nicholas' inevitable communion with the Funhole and is really the highlight of the book.  Here Koja revels in filling the story with menace, and the creepy imagery is fantastic.  I struggle to think of another genre book which contains so many genuinely unnerving and surreal images.  It's great stuff that makes the slog of the second act worthwhile.

Before wrapping up here, I do feel obligated to comment on Nakota, our protagonist's kinda-sorta girlfriend.  Basically every other reviewer of this book felt the need to comment on how nasty Nakota is, usually using rather gendered language to do so.  It's tempting to chalk up to misogyny this tendency to single out Nakota -- the only well developed female -- from a cast of equally deplorable characters.  To be fair, Nakota is hardly a person I'd want to spend my life with.  However, I would argue that she's probably the least shitty character in the novel.  Nakota, unlike Nicholas, has goals and drive.  Her goals aren't exactly noble, but at least she aspires to do something with her life.  Without question Nakota is the only person in this novel with the courage of her convictions.  By contrast, I have a hard time feeling sorry for Nicholas, who is very much the author of his own misery.  Nicholas could solve all his problems by just walking away.  Indeed, he does just that at one point, only to come crawling back to the source of all his woes with no obvious motivation beyond a desire to sabotage Nakota.  By the end of the novel Nicholas' entire raison d'etre is to act as an impediment to Nakota.  Nicholas comes to define his existence by being a barrier; this is the reason the door to the storage closet cannot be opened even after the lock is removed.  This brings us to a parallel interpretation of the Funhole as a metaphor for rotting heart of Nicholas and Nakota's dysfunctional love.  To my mind Nicholas' approach to the relationship, especially in the third act, seems at least as abusive as Nakota's.  That was my takeaway, at least, and I felt like I couldn't leave this review without mentioning Nakota.

Tips for Photographing the Catacombs of Paris by Neal Auch

I recently added a new gallery to my website cataloguing my portraits of the dead buried in the catacombs of Paris.  It occurred to me that it might be useful to write up a short post with advice for other photographers who are hoping to shoot in the catacombs, since you might not necessarily know exactly what to expect when you get there.  If that's you then I hope you can find something helpful here.  Happy shooting!

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Buy your tickets in advance.

Before visiting the catacombs I would strongly recommend that purchase your tickets in advance.  (You can buy tickets online here.  I wasn't able to find an English version of that page, but even if you don't speak French the fields are pretty straightforward to interpret.)  Purchasing advanced tickets will allow you to skip most of the queue, which is a huge advantage.  When I visited the line of people snaked around several blocks, and I understand that typical wait times without advanced tickets are at least several hours.  

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Don't be an asshole.

While I was in the catacombs I saw many skulls that had been tagged with graffiti.  I saw tourists handling the bones and rearranging them.  I saw people eating junk food (why anybody would want to snack next to a wall of corpses is beyond me).  Don't be that asshole.  I realize that the catacombs is a tourist destination, but it's also a fucking grave site filled with human remains.  Try to show a little respect for the dead.

More specific to photographers: flash is not permitted, nor is the use of tripods.  This means that light will be a challenge (more on this later) and your job as a photographer is to rise to that challenge, not to be an asshole and break the rules.  During my visit I saw a number of people shooting with flash.  Again: don't be that asshole.  It's worth noting that every person I saw using flash was using the little pop-up flash that comes with the camera body.  There is almost no scenario where using the pop-up flash without a modifier is going to improve your photo.  The light from the pop-up flash is harsh and unflattering, not to mention the fact that lighting the subject along the same axis as the camera's line of sight will produce flat, boring, shitty images.  If you turn off the pop-up flash then you will not only get a better picture, but you will also be doing your part to help preserve the catacombs for future generations.  

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It is very dark down there.

The catacombs is a very low light environment and, as I mentioned above, you are not allowed to use a flash or any other lighting rig.  To get decent shots you're going to want to use the fastest lens you own, and you will probably find yourself shooting mostly with the aperture wide open. 

Tripods are not permitted, so you will need to shoot handheld.  That means you need to keep your shutter speed fast enough to get shots that don't suffer from motion blur.  The standard bit of advice here is the reciprocal rule: when shooting handheld you want to set your shutter speed to at least as fast as the inverse of your focal length.  This means that, for example, if you're using a 50mm lens then you want the shutter speed to be 1/50 seconds, or faster.  (Dear fellow math nerds: yes I'm aware of the abuse of units that's going on here, but this way of stating the "rule" is conventional amongst photographers.)  Many cameras have an auto ISO setting that allows you to set a minimum shutter speed; I'd suggest using that feature if you have it.  Also, know that the reciprocal rule is really a rough guideline and you might be able to get away with slightly slower shutter speeds if your hands are very steady, or you might require faster if your hands tremble.  If you haven't already done so, experiment with different minimum shutter speeds to see what works for you.  

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Pay attention to the available light.

Of course this is advice that could apply equally well to any photo shoot, but it's particularly salient in the catacombs.  Not only is the available lighting dim, it's also harsh and unflattering.  This is a very constrained situation, the only way to move the light relative to your subject is by adjusting your angle.  So pay careful attention to your line of site and keep an eye out for scenes where the light is interesting.  You will also want to pay  special attention to photographically interesting scenes that are as close as possible to a light source.  Remember the standard rule of photography: the closer you bring the light to the subject, the softer the light, the better the image.

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Consider bringing a grey card.

The available lights in the catacombs are not only dim and harsh, they also have a rather odd hue.  If you set your camera to auto white balance the images will come out very yellow.  You might want to bring a grey card to calibrate the white balance, assuming if you're hoping to get realistic-looking colours in post production.  Personally I seldom have much interest in getting the white balance "correct"; I view colour temperature as a creative choice.  But even if you're planning to opt for non-realistic colours at the end of the day you might still find it helpful to have calibrated the white balance before you start editing.  

Here I am, obviously, assuming that you're planning to go for colour images.  If you prefer black & white, then you probably don't care about white balance at all.  Indeed, black & white might be a very natural choice given that the lights are dim (so you can hide ISO noise under grain) and harsh (monochrome processing tends to be more forgiving of harsh light).  I opted for colour images for a number of creative reason, but I suspect that many photographers would have made a different choice.

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Pack lightly.

You are not permitted to take large bulky bags into the catacombs, and the smaller knapsacks that are allowed are supposed to be either carried at your side or else worn over the chest.  (I presume this rule is supposed to keep people from accidentally bumping the fragile skeletal remains with their packs.)  This means that you probably cannot carry very much gear.  I'd suggest sticking to just one or two lenses.  I opted to shoot entirely on a 35mm prime and was generally pretty happy with the perspective I got, but obviously focal length is a creative choice that is quite personal, and there's certainly no "correct" lens to opt for when shooting a scene like this.

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It's a fairly cramped environment; you may want to pack a wider lens.

As I just mentioned, lens choice of subjective and personal.  That being said, you should know that the tunnels are pretty narrow (maybe 2-3 meters wide at most).  If you want to be able to shoot larger structures (like the crosses made of skulls) then you might want to opt for a wide-ish lens.  I found it slightly tight getting some of those shots on a 35mm; if I made the trip again I'd definitely pack something a bit wider.

 

Portraits of the Dead: Photographing The Catacombs of Paris by Neal Auch

 

During a recent trip to Europe I had the great pleasure of visiting and photographing the catacombs, Paris' infamous underground ossuary.  You can have a look at my favourite images from the trip in the slideshow above; there are many more in my new gallery Empire of Death.

 If you're unfamiliar with the catacombs, then perhaps a little history is in order:  The catacombs began as a network of old caves, quarries, and tunnels that stretch for hundreds of miles far beneath the bustling streets of Paris.  In 1786 they were blessed and consecrated by the church, and used to house corpses from the overpopulated and overflowing Parisian cemetery Les Innocents, many of which had been improperly buried in open graves leading to concerns over the strong odour of rotting flesh and the spread of disease.  In 1810 the catacombs were renovated to the form they take today: monumental tablets and archways were added, and the skulls and femurs of the dead where stacked along the walls into various decorative patterns.

This new project is a departure from my previous work along several directions.  Firstly the obvious: this is my first time featuring work on my website that isn't about the ethics of eating animals.  This is perhaps an overdue addition.  It had never been my intention to make the page entirely devoted to meat photography and, indeed, I have a couple more non-meat projects in the pipeline, but these are logistically complicated and are taking somewhat longer to complete than I had expected.  

Initially I had planned on making my new gallery Empire of Death rather more succinct than it ended up.  My plan was to display only 10-15 of my favourite shots from the trip; generally I tend to prefer a "less is more" approach to displaying my work, trying to emphasize only the best shots and avoid too much repetition.  But the more I worked on the images, the more I came to realize that this gallery is conceptually distinct from my studio work and calls for a different approach.  The repetition of similar imagery in this gallery serves to convey the enormous scale of the catacombs, something I had not really been prepared for when I visited.  But, more to the point, it was only during the editing process that I came to really see these shots for what they really are: portraiture of the dead.  Every femur and every skull is different; one would no more argue that the repetition of these images is monotonous than one would argue that a series of head-shots of different models becomes monotonous.

From a technical perspective this gallery is also a bit of a departure for me.  This is my first time featuring work on my website that is shot in available light, as opposed my studio work where I always to have complete control over the lighting.  Photographing the catacombs of Paris is a technical challenge for several reasons, but the most salient point here is the fact that the catacombs are a very low light environment.  I found myself shooting almost exclusively with the aperture wide open.  This is a technical choice that I almost never make in my studio work; for aesthetic reasons I tend not to love the shallow depth of field effect that so many other photographers are enamoured with.  Initially I had mixed feelings about this choice; however, while editing these shots I came to find that the softness of the backgrounds/foregrounds adds a sense of mystery to the images that grew on me.

In future blog posts I intend to discuss this project in a bit more detail.  In particular, I'm planning to write in more depth about the technical aspects of shooting in the catacombs and also I'd like to write a short post about my thoughts on colour vs monochrome for imagery like this.  In the meantime, please enjoy the new gallery!

The Idea is Everything: Thoughts on Justine Varga's Maternal Line by Neal Auch

Justine Varga and judge Dr Shaune Lakin standing by her award winning piece Maternal Line.

Justine Varga and judge Dr Shaune Lakin standing by her award winning piece Maternal Line.

The 2017 Olive Cotton Award -- which I gather is some kind of prestigious photo contest in Australia -- was recently awarded to artist Justine Varga for her wonderful work Maternal Line.  (Go here for an article on petapixel.)  In her artist statement Varga explains the piece as follows:

One day, not so long ago, I came upon my maternal grandmother hunched over a table, vigorously testing a series of pens by scribbling with each of them in turn on a piece of paper. Captivated by this busy repetition of gestures, so reminiscent of her character, I asked her to continue her task, but on a piece of 4 x 5 inch negative film. Having left these traces of her hand on this light-sensitive surface, she also, at my request, rubbed some of her saliva on the film, doubling her bodily inscription there. I then processed the film and printed it at large scale. A collaboration across generations, with her born in Hungary and me in Australia, the resulting image looks abstract but couldn’t be more realist; no perspectival artifice mediates her portrayal of herself or our genetic link, with both now manifested in the form of a photograph.

I wanted to talk about this work, and the ensuing controversy, because it speaks to a point I have made somewhat tangentially several times before on this blog: the idea is everything.  Varga's beautifully written artist statement is what elevates Maternal Line from a bunch of scribbles to a thought-provoking and moving piece of art.  It's the idea that makes this a portrait, which is something the judge understood and wisely rewarded.  (It's worth mentioning that the contest came with a $20,000 prize.  So congrats on the prize and the lovely work Justine!)   I have said it before but I'll repeat myself here: regular people who view photography want to see images that speak to them, that are about something, that strike an emotional chord.  The viewer doesn't care about the technical stuff at all, insofar as that stuff doesn't interfere with the meaning of the image.  That stuff only matters to gear-obsessed pro photography nerds.  This truth seems well understood by artists working in other mediums (film, painting, sculpture, music, etc) but somehow the point is utterly lost on a large and vocal segment of the photography community.

In a turn as predictable as it is depressing, certain "pro photog" denizens of the interwebs have taken great exception to Varga's award and have been sending hate mail, both to her and to the judge who selected the piece (Dr Shaune Lakin).  It seems that, in some eyes at least, Varga's work has committed the cardinal sin of photography: this photograph was produce without even using a camera!  However are we to then proceed to critique her choice of lighting modifier!?  However are we to have long protracted debates in the comment section weighing the pros and cons of digital vs analogue!?  Dear god won't somebody please talk about ISO noise, preferably with charts and graphs!?

Of course, complaining that Maternal Line isn't really a photograph completely misses the point.  The piece is about questioning the meaning of what constitutes a photograph.  The fact that folks are arguing in comment sections about whether or not this is technically a portrait speaks to how successful Maternal Line is as an art piece; fuelling this kind of self-reflection and intellectual debate is certainly no cause for criticism.  Note also that the fact that Varga has chosen her grandmother as a subject is telling, since the piece is about not only her own genetic blood line, but also about the artistic lineage and the history of photography that has led up to this work.

At the heart of this "controversy" is the tedious debate about whether photography is an art or a craft.  I've always been baffled by the animus certain "pro photog" types have toward the idea that we're artists.  These same narrow minded folks tend to take great exception to art, like Varga's work, that seeks to push the boundaries of the medium.  It seems to me that this is precisely the kind of exercise artists like us should be engaged in.  Do painters have this kind of argument?  After all, painting is also a technically demanding task that requires a considerable amount of skill and craft, but I'm unaware of any painters who scoff at the idea of making paintings that are about something, or that speak to the human condition.  Perhaps design would be a better analogy, since there is an explicitly practical aim in mind when one creates an iPod or a wine glass or a sports car?  But, rather often, those kinds of utilitarian objects have a certain beauty in their form that is hardly accidental.  Indeed, I know several designers and none of them seems perturbed by recognizing the artistic component of what they do.  

It seems to me completely trivial and without question that photography is art.  Of course it's art, anything can be art.  Art is about intentions and ideas and creativity, it's not about the medium and it's not about the technical stuff.  Getting angry in internet forums and sending hate mail to talented and successful artists won't change that fact.

 

 

Dunk's Bay Cemetery in Toberymory, ON by Neal Auch

I recently got home from a family vacation near Tobermory, ON.  At one point during the trip I more-or-less accidentally stumbled into Dunk's Bay Cemetery, located just meters away from a surprisingly diminutive public beach.  I've wandered about my share of these sorts of small country graveyards, and they tend to all blur together after a while.  But there was something surprisingly idiosyncratic about Dunk's Bay Cemetery.  Many of the graves were adorned with lawn ornaments (like the plastic gargoyle in the first shot in the slideshow above) and garden flag stands that were hung with various trinkets and religious items (5th image in the slideshow).  Maybe these kind of grave decorations are commonplace, but this is the first time I've ever seen such a thing in a cemetery before.  Certainly the most moving grave I stumbled across belonged to a  7 year old child, and was adorned with toys and little ceramic angles.  The 3rd and 4th images in the slideshow above are detail shots from that particular grave.  I've visited a number of cemeteries in my travels, many of them far older and more picturesque than Dunk's Bay Cemetery, but most of those visits were less affecting, for whatever reason.  The place felt haunted.  Enjoy!

Book Review: Steven Dunn's Potted Meat by Neal Auch

It's thanks to this book that I now know that Potted Meat Food Product is a thing that exists.  It's a kind of canned meat, similar to Spam, I guess.  Potted Meat is a blend of a variety of animals and organs; the typical ingredient list involves beef tripe, pig skin, "partially defatted cooked pork fatty tissue", and "mechanically separated chicken".  This last ingredient, in case you were wondering, is "a paste-like product made by forcing crushed bone and tissue through a sieve to separate bone from tissue".  Yet another reason I'm happy I don't eat meat...

Anyway, enough about Potted Meat the "food product", which sounds fucking horrible, and on to Potted Meat the book by Steven Dunn, which is absolutely fucking fantastic.   Potted Meat is a kind of coming of age story that follows a teenager in a dying town in West Virginia through a troubled adolescence that is marked by poverty, domestic abuse, racism, crime, alcoholism, and lack of opportunity.  The story is told in short fragments, each one a small snapshot of a difficult life.  There are moments of brutal violence, there are moments of hope, there are moments of crushing disappointment.  It's amazing to see how much emotional power Dunn manages to squeeze into these short narrative fragments; most are only a few pages long and yet several of these little snippets seem to take the breath away.  (Indeed, the whole book is really more of a novella than a novel, it's only about 100 pages long and yet it never feels incomplete.  Some reviewers on Amazon seemed unhappy about the how short the book is, although this didn't bother me.  Frankly I think that if this narrative were drawn out over several hundred more pages the story would likely be far too emotionally draining for most readers.)

At times I was reminded of a novel by Katherine Dunn (no relation, the shared last names are a coincidence as far as I know).  Katherine Dunn's Truck is a wonderful novel that is vastly underrated, perhaps because most reviewers feel compelled to compare it to her career-defining masterpiece, Geek Love.  In any case: both books describe rather unconventional coming of age stories, both employ somewhat unorthodox narrative structures in places, and both authors share an admirable gift for conveying a deep and dirty physicality with their prose.  Some of the most squirm inducing scenes in Potted Meat involve descriptions of food, or uncleanliness, or bodily function.  These are often nearly as upsetting as the descriptions of violence and child abuse.  On learning the definition of "mechanically separated chicken" from Wikipedia I found myself musing on the analogy between the preparation of this commercial product, and the long, gruelling process by which the narrator of Potted Meat extracts himself from his home town.  I don't know if this kind of analogy is what Steven Dunn intended with his choice of title, but it certainly struck a chord with me. 

Finally, I can't help but mention the cover art by Angel Whisenant.  Obviously this is the kind of thing I can't help but love.  I mean, fuck me, just look at that cover.  Beautiful.

 

Book Review: Maurice Blanchot's Death Sentence by Neal Auch

Maurice Blanchot's Death Sentence is a wonderfully enigmatic novel.  The book has a reputation for being confusing and inaccessible, and this reputation is arguably well deserved.  The first half of the book consists of a fairly straightforward account of the final days of a terminally ill woman.  These are recounted by our narrator in some detail.  On the surface the narrative feels mostly banal and uneventful, but these early pages are filled with anxiety and dread.  Port of this atmosphere comes from the obvious fact that we are watching a woman die, but this isn't really what makes the book fascinating.  Indeed, the reader knows very little about this woman other than the fact that she's ill; we are not particularly invested in her or any other characters in the story.  Rather, the disquieting feel of the book seems to stem from the narrator's oddly detached approach to the situation (he remarks at one point that illness has made this woman more beautiful) and from the sense of something almost like a supernatural horror looming behind the scenes.  This sense of looming horror is subtle and difficult to pinpoint, but it persists throughout the novel.  There is a wonderful moment, for example, when the dying woman's eyes seem to follow something invisible through the room.  There is a mysterious "treatment" that has been administered to the woman by a shady doctor.  There is a strange insistence by our narrator that his blood chemistry has been altered in some way, and his curiously inconsistent perception of temperature.  The narrator frequently reassures us that he is going to be honest and tell the truth about events, but we are frequently left with the exact opposite impression.

The second half of the novel is rather less straightforward than the first.  The "plot" here mostly concerns our narrator's relationship with another woman.  Again, very little happens and, again, the book feels strangely unnerving.  There is a moment that initially seems like a hallucination (or an encounter with an undead apparition) but is, ultimately, quite banal and easily explained.  The "climax" of the narrative is similarly at once empty and somehow also feels filled with a sense of looming dread of death.  The fun of this book lies in its inscrutability, so perhaps there's little point in trying to dissect the "meaning" behind all this.  My best guess is that the second half of the novel -- focused mostly on the mundane relationships and daily grind of the narrator -- is the true titular "Death Sentence".  Perhaps the point of all this looming menace that haunts the banality of the narrative is simply this: Blanchot wants to remind us that, from the moment of birth, we have all been issued a death sentence.

FAQ: Common Meat Eater Objections by Neal Auch

I'm an artist who doesn't consume any animal products (a dietary vegan, as the kids may or may not say) but makes lampshades out of raw rotting animal stomach and encourages nude models to breast feed dead fowl.  So, it's perhaps unsurprising that I periodically have people objecting to my work, both vegans and meat-eaters.  Obviously the standard rules of engagement for dealing with art one finds offensive apply trivially here: viewers who are upset by the images on this website are more than welcome to not view those images.  However, in this post I did want to address some of the most common arguments that come up.  I've already addressed the most common objections I get from vegans in some detail in a previous post.  So for this post I'm instead going to focus on the most common complaints I get from meat eaters.  I had been putting off writing this post for some time, mostly because I was worried about seeming biased or looking like I'm making fun of meat-eating folks as a group.  The issue is this: while most of the objections I get from vegans are perfectly sensible and well-reasoned reasonable ethical concerns that I happen to disagree with, most of the objections I get from meat-eaters tend to be... well... less so.  With all that being said, I will proceed to throw caution to the wind, and do my best to address these issues.  The reader is urged to take note that none of the points below were cherry-picked to make meat-eating people look silly.  I have nothing against people who eat meat.  Some of my best friends eat meat.  These argument are genuinely the most common objections that seem to come up when real meat-eating folks really make when they see my work and feel the need to object.

Your work didn't make me become vegan therefore you have failed!  

I'm an artist, not an activist, which is something I also discussed in several previous posts.  First and foremost I aim to produce compelling visual imagery.  My work on the commodification of suffering is about presenting something we all interact with daily in a new and unfamiliar context.  I hope this encourages thought and reflection and discussion, but I am obviously not possessed of the notion that every meat lover who looks at my portfolio will instantly become vegan.  I mean...  That would be a pretty silly goal, no?

I'm eating meat even as I look at your portfolio!  Ha ha ha!  Take that!  Doesn't this shock your delicate vegan sensibilities!  

Yeah....  No.  

I'm the guy who reupholsters furniture with fetid goat innards and repurposes severed pig heads as flower pots.  I spend much of my photo shoots literally elbow deep in viscera.  It stands to reason that my vegan sensibilities aren't quite so delicate that I can't handle the image of a person eating a cheeseburger.

You vegans want people to stop eating food!  

I have gotten this comment many times but, for the life of me, I cannot make any sense of the argument that is being made here.  First off: I frankly don't care at all about what some random bro on the internet eats for dinner.  Why would I?  But there's something even more perplexing about this comment.  Namely: people know that there are edible things that don't come from animals, right?  I mean, people do know this, don't they?  For the record: legumes, nuts, fruit, grains, and vegetables are all food.  Real people really eat this stuff all the time.  True story.

Your work is hurting farmers / legitimate business! 

First off let's dispense with the painfully obvious: vegans don't eat less food than meat eaters, they eat different food.  The money that I don't spend on hot dogs does get spent on black beans or lentils or chickpeas or soy beans; all of those things are produced by farmers who run legitimate businesses.

But there's a subtext to this kind of complaint that's deeply weird and is worth pointing out.  The assumption here seems to be that if an industry employs good people and makes up a significant part of the economy, then we should all be expected to purchase its products, regardless of personal ethical objections.  This idea seems borne of a perverse sort of capitalist thinking where, as a culture, we are supposed to put corporate profits before individual consumer freedom in all circumstances.  I disagree with this sentiment.

I want to argue with you about whether vegan diets are healthy / whether it's possible to get protein on a vegan diet / whether eating vegan is a hippy fad / whether eating vegan is elitist / whether eating meat is "natural" / the minutia of contemporary farming practices / the minutia of how slaughterhouses are run / something something something bacon / etc!

This webpage is a place to showcase my photography; it's not meant as a veganism 101 educational tool.  There are plenty of places you can go on the internet to learn about the basics of vegan diets and the reality of how the meat industry works, but this really isn't the place for that.

If comments of this type were being made in good faith, then I'd be happy to link to some useful educational resources.  But, let's be honest here, this kind of comment is almost never intended sincerely.  Most of the time someone raises this sort of objection it's because they're hoping to get into a yelling match with a stranger on the internet.  Arguing with faceless strangers on the internet is an activity that is almost never productive and does not interest me at all.  Life is way too short to spend time having pointless and repetitive arguments in Facebook comment threads.

You and all vegans are terrible hypocrites because plants can suffer just like animals!  I saw a link to an article on Facebook one time that totally explained how scientists have totally proved that plants have feelings using way complicated science stuff!

Nope.

Tips to Become a Better Fine Art Photographer by Neal Auch

The internet is full of "how to be a better photographer for beginners" listicles.  For the most part, these fall into two broad categories: (1) technical tips, and (2) inspirational suggestions.  In the first category we have stuff like advice about how to use your camera, soft vs hard light, the rule of thirds, etc.  The latter category tends to be a bit more vague and artsy, offering suggestions like "focus your attention, not just your lens".  I have nothing whatsoever against either type of article; both can be very helpful for particular audiences and I have certainly consumed my share of this kind of media.  However,  I feel like there's a middle ground between these two extremes that might be worth exploring.  I want to focus on non-technical stuff, so I'm aiming this article at readers who already know about light and understand what F-stop means.  However, I want to be as practical as possible.  The issue with advice like "focus your attention" is that it's rather vague and probably works best for photographers who already "get it" on some level.  This kind of tip can be very useful for inspiration/motivation, but it's often not so simple for beginners to know where to start with actually implementing that kind of advice.  So that's the challenge I've decided to try and tackle with this post: I'm going to attempt to distill down some non-technical tips for folks getting started in fine art photography, but I'm going to try and limit myself to suggestions that are as concrete as possible and straightforward to implement.  

Okay, with that out of the way...  Here goes!

Invest most of your time / energy / money into putting more interesting stuff in front of your camera lens.

I've rambled on about this previously but it bears repeating: the most important part of taking an interesting photograph is having something interesting in front of the lens.  Standing in front of something interesting before you fire the shutter is more important than your choice of F-stop, or your lighting technique, or your post-processing skills.  Not only is this the most important part of photography, it's also the most challenging part.  Taking a good exposure is easy.  Doing the leg work to make sure there was an interesting scene in front of your camera, less so.  And this fact is precisely why too many photographers end up spending their careers taking technically sound shots of boring subjects. 

Let's consider a concrete example.  Suppose you're an aspiring landscape photographer with a tight budget.  You can spend your limited funds on Canon 5D Mark iii and outfit your fancy new camera with the finest quality wide angle lens and the best tripod in the world and a whole array of neutral density filters, and you can use this gear to shoot technically brilliant shots of the park near your house at high noon.  Or, on the other hand, you can buy an entry-level DSLR and shoot on the kit lens, investing the money you've saved on a plane ticket to someplace with amazing vistas.  If your goal is to wow audiences with your photography, then you will almost certainly end up with a more impressive portfolio in the latter scenario.  Note, as anticipated earlier, that the second option here is not only more interesting, it also requires more effort.  It requires taking a long flight, researching locations, dealing with jet lag, navigating an unfamiliar location, and spending your vacation hiking around some remote and possibly rugged terrain in the pre-dawn hours in order to stand in front of a beautiful landscape at sunrise.  This kind of effort is what makes a great landscape photograph.  Almost any aspiring photographer can put their camera on a tripod and stop down to F22 and slap on a neutral density filter and make sure there's a foreground element and put the horizon line in the upper (or lower) third of the frame and fire the shutter.  That stuff's easy.  Editing a landscape shot in Photoshop/Lightroom is only marginally more difficult.  Getting to an interesting landscape in the first place, that's what takes the effort and that's what makes the photograph.

This advice rings true for nearly all genres of photography.  Ours in an art-form where the key challenge faced is not getting the technical stuff down -- almost anybody can take a good exposure and compose using the rule of thirds.  The real challenge is getting an interesting or unusual or compelling subject matter in front of the lens before you take the shot.

Try to show the audience something they don't see every day.  

 Everybody is a photographer and the internet is overflowing with technically competent, well-processed images of the same handful of subjects that we've all seen over and over and over again.  There is no shortage of macro flower shots that needs to be addressed.  What's comparatively much more rare are photographs that reveal something that we don't see every day.  When choosing a subject matter try avoid re-iterating the same images that everybody else is doing.  Your job as a fine art photographer is to aim for something new and unique and interesting, whatever that may mean to you.

Remember that most of your audience are regular people, not professional photographers.  Pay attention to what kinds of images strike a deep emotional chord with most folks; regular people care much more about what the image is about than any of the technical stuff.  Regular people don't give a shit about high ISO noise or small-aperture diffraction or chromatic aberration or lens distortion.  Nobody in the world has ever looked at Kevin Carter's famous photograph of the little Sudanese girl being stalked by a vulture and thought: "Was this shot on a cropped sensor, or with a full frame camera?"  Audiences want to see something they haven't already seen a hundred times before.

The truth of the matter -- a truth many professional photographers don't want to admit -- is that the technical part of photography (composition, lighting, F-stop, etc) really isn't very hard.  It may take years to become a true master, but a person who's never used a DSLR in their lives can pick one up and easily nail these skills down "good enough" with a little effort and dedicated practice.  (Here "good enough" means the vast majority of regular viewers will consider your shots indistinguishable from the work of a professional.)  

The technical stuff is easy.  The idea is everything.

Study serious art.

New ideas are not born in the vacuum, they arise from the synthesis of lots of pre-existing sources.  The creative engine works by mashing lots of old ideas together until they coalesce into something new.  To facilitate this, you want to be surrounded by new ideas and inspiration all the time.  

To that end: Look at paintings and sculptures.  Go to museums and galleries.  Buy photography books by important photographers and study the images that speak to you.  (Don't spend all your time looking around on Flickr or Instagram.  Those site are great and serve a very useful purpose, but you want to be inspired by the masters, not by the hive-mind of some social media outlet.  You're aspiring to greatness, so study the greats.)  Read books.  Read poetry.  Listen to interesting podcasts.  Listen to challenging music.  Watch foreign films.  Etc, etc, etc...

Nurture your interests outside of photography.

Think about photography as a skill that you bring to bear on your interests, rather than as an interest in and of itself.  This approach makes it easy to find photography subjects that you are passionate about, and your genuine passion will come through in your images.  So pursue your interests outside of photography, whatever they may be.  Every subject you're passionate about is potentially a great subject to make into art.  Great sports photographers love the sport they're shooting.  Great landscape photographers enjoy nature.  Great concert photographers love music.  Etc, etc, etc...

Are you passionate about helping Syrian refugees find homes and employment in Canada?  Awesome!  Shoot a photo essay that reveals their day-to-day struggles.  

Are you passionate about animals rights activism?  Awesome!  Sneak into a slaughter house or a factory farm; show the world the ugliness that the meat industry would rather remain hidden.  

Are you passionate about the indie punk music scene in the city where you live?  Awesome!  Go to basement shows and capture a kind of concert photography that rarely receives such a loving treatment.  

Do you love going to the drag shows at your neighbourhood gay bar?  Awesome!  Make friends with the organizers and get permission to shoot some behind-the-scenes images.

Etc, etc, etc...

Use only gear you need to get the shot.

It's easy to get caught up in the rat race of thinking you need more and better gear to make better images.  Avoid this way of thinking.  Figure out what gear you need for the project at hand, and purchase only that gear.  Buying more and more gear is a money sink, and that money is better spent getting interesting things in front of the camera.  Buying new gear is also a time sink; each new gadget you buy will require that you spend some time figuring out how to use it.  Again: that time is better spent figuring out how to get interesting things in front of your camera.

Modern camera are very sophisticated.  With a few notable exceptions, entry level gear is more than good enough to shoot professional quality images, providing you know how to use it.  Owning too much gear -- or excessively complicated gear -- can be a trap.  Always remember that you're shooting to make an audience of regular people feel something; you're not trying to impress those tedious "pro photog" types in internet forums.

Learn how to recognize a bad image.

This sounds like it should be obvious, but recognizing a bad shot is a skill that takes practice.  The definition of a "bad" shot is, obviously, highly subjective.  There are no hard and fast rules, but there are some common "mistakes" that run through all genres of photography.  Remember that you're welcome break the rules all you want, but it's important to know what rule you're breaking, and why. 

To start to develop a feel for what makes a bad image I'd suggestion you watch KelbyOne's The Grid Blind Critique episodes.  (Go HERE to watch for free on youtube.)  These will give a rough sense of some common "errors" that beginner photographers make and, better yet, the hosts often show you how to fix those issues in Lightroom/Photoshop.  (Note that I am not being sponsored by KelbyOne; I honestly doubt that Scott Kelby would want his brand associated with my work in any way.)  Start by watching the older episodes with Matt Kloskowski and RC Conception first; the newer episodes are light on critique and waste a lot of time with Scott reading comments from viewers who are in the live chat.  Watch enough blind critique episodes until you can anticipate what the critiques are going to be.  At this stage, stop watching and ignore everything the hosts say.  You've learned the rules, now you are free to break them.  

Note that The Grid blind critique episodes tend to avoid fine art photography and emphasize genres like landscape/travel/sports/etc, so sometimes the advice may feel a little bit prescriptive.  Of course fine art photography is less constrained than commercial photography, and it's worth bearing this distinction in mind while you watch the critiques.  However, I still think that aspiring fine art photographers will learn a lot by watching these episodes, especially early into their career.

Once you've found your voice as an artist, stick to that voice.  Trying new things is great, but try to keep a consistent "feel", at least within any given project.

When you're just starting out in photography (or any art form) the goal is to find your "voice".  Experiment, try different post-processing techniques, shoot different subjects, play around with lens choices, lighting rigs, etc.  See what works for you as an artist.  But once you've found a "look" that works for you, you will generally be best off not straying too far from that territory.  You want the audience to be able to look at your images and say "oh, that's a shot by So-And-So".  Think about the greats of photography: Ansel Adams is known for shooting landscapes in black and white and his work has a specific look where all the mid-tones are represented.  Diane Arbus is known for shooting outcast members of society in black and white.  Anders Petersen also shot black and white and his work shares a similar subject matter with Arbus, but there's a gritty grainy character to his images and a candid vulnerability to his subjects that makes his work instantly distinguishable from hers.  Joel Peter Witkin's best-known images all share his signature "scratched negative" look.  Having a consistent "feel" to their images helps these artists have a clear and easily recognized voice.  Audiences want to know what to expect from you.  (This discussion of "voice" is really the artist equivalent of branding, if you like.)

Think about this in the context of any other art form.  When people purchase the latest album by their favourite band, they have an expectation about what the music will sound like.  This is not to say that a musician can't evolve their sound.  Take Autechre as an example: their career has been marked by constant evolution and experimentation, but their music always sounds like Autechre.  It is possible to experiment too much: if the latest Autechre record was entirely acoustic folk music, the fans would be understandably annoyed.  When audiences go see a David Cronenberg film, they have an expectation about what kind of themes will be explored and how the movie will look.  When you purchase the latest Don Delillo novel, you have a reasonable expectation that the prose style and dialogue will conform to his signature style.  You want to find the thing that works for you as an artist, and you want to become known for that thing.

I want to be absolutely clear that I'm not saying one shouldn't try new things.  Experiment, try new stuff, be adventurous, etc.  What I'm saying is that you're (generally) going to be better off when that experimentation fits within the context of your pre-established voice.  You want to be evolving as an artist, rather than jumping haphazardly from one thing to the next.

Set your camera to spot metering and single point autofocus mode.

I realize that this sounds like a technical suggestion -- something that I promised I wouldn't do at the start of this article -- but it really isn't.  This is a conceptual point.  By setting your camera to single point autofocus and spot metering you are forcing yourself to choose a single subject in the image.  Wherever you place the focus square, that's the spot that's going to be in focus and that's the spot that's going to be properly exposed.  The rest of the image might be soft (depending on your F-stop) or it might be blown-out / clipped (depending on the contrast of the scene).  When you set your camera this way you are forcing yourself to choose a single point in the scene that is of penultimate importance.  Before firing the shutter you are forcing yourself to decide what the subject of the image is; on some level you are forcing yourself to decide what the image is about.  

Now, I get that for some readers this might sound like a trivial point, but for a lot of beginners it isn't.  Often beginning / amateur photographers will take a shot because intuitively they feel like there's something interesting about the scene, but they may not be able to articulate what exactly it is that's capturing their interest.  Setting your camera up like this is one way of forcing yourself to make that decision explicitly.

Shoot RAW and learn Lightroom / Photoshop (or some equivalent editing software).

I'm including this tip only because there are a surprising number of folks on the interwebs who seem to think that post-processing your images is "cheating" somehow.  In the most extreme cases I've even seen folks arguing that even cropping an image shouldn't be "allowed" because reasons.  The folks making this kind of argument are not serious people.  The truth is that post-processing accounts for a significant amount of what makes a professional shot look professional.  (If you're new to the game I suggest you watch some youtube videos showing start-to-finish edits in Lightroom so you can appreciate how big an impact a little toning and/or dodging & burning goes to making the "look" of the final product.  Serge Ramelli has a handful of youtube videos of this type, but he's certainly not the only photographer out there who's willing to show how the sausage gets made.)

Also, know that there's no special award for getting it right in camera or always shooting fully manual; audiences don't care, it doesn't influence your print sales, and there's no coherent reason that you (as a photographer) should care about this kind of silliness.  Don't fall into that silly trap of thinking that if you use the clone stamp tool or the spot healing brush you've somehow broken some golden rule of photography.  This way of thinking is silly and out of touch with the modern world.

Share your work with people, both in real life and online.  Social media is great, but you want to own your own platform.  

Don't be afraid to share your work with others.  A part of the creative act is making yourself vulnerable: when you share your work you are opening yourself up to criticism, or mockery, or derision.  Don't be put off by that fear.  Being an artist means being vulnerable, embrace it.  (If/when the mockery does come, it's useful to keep in mind that this is almost always coming from a place of cowardice; taking a shit on somebody else's art is usually an excuse that cowards use to justify the fact that they create nothing of value.  David Wong wrote a rather cogent article about this over at Cracked, of all places, skim down to the last item in that list to read the content I'm referring to.)

Share your stuff on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or Flickr or 500px or ETSY or whatever site you like.  Those are all great websites.  But you want to have a homepage that belongs only to you.  You want to own your own domain name.  This is a part of branding yourself, and it's crucial to being taken seriously as an artist.  If you aspire to be a successful Instagrammer then that's awesome, I have nothing against that.  But know that a photographer with their own website is generally going to be taken more seriously as an artist, rightly or wrongly.  

If you don't want to learn Wordpress then that's fine, you don't need to.  It's easy as all shit to set up a website on Squarespace or Smugmug or some similar platform, and those sites usually look quite professional.  Even if you're not tech savvy at all, you can probably set up a professional looking website in an afternoon using templates.

Have fun!

Enjoy yourself.  Make images you'd want to hang in your own home.  Meet interesting people.  Have interesting conversations about your own work and about art in general.  Follow your passion.  I'm guessing you didn't go into fine art photography to get rich quick (if you did know that very few people are making a shit-load of money just from selling fine art photography prints) so you may as well enjoy yourself.  Making art is about doing something personal and idiosyncratic, so do that and enjoy it.

Book Review: Don DeLillo's Zero K by Neal Auch

Death has long been a favourite theme for Don Delillo.  Sometimes he comes at this theme somewhat orthogonally but in Zero K -- a novel that feels very much in dialogue with Delillo's classic work White Noise -- the topic is placed on centre stage.  

The plot of this novel concerns a young man who accompanies his estranged billionaire father and terminally ill stepmother to The Convergence, a high tech cryogenics facility buried deep below the desert landscape of  Kyrgyzstan.  The set-up borders on goofy science fiction territory, but the book never descents into that space.  Instead, because this is a Delillo novel, the scientists who run The Convergence speak in long, beautifully poetic quasi-religious, quasi-philosophical monologues and the cryogenics facility itself is decorated with cryptic modern art installations.  The facility and its denizens feel like a mix between a death cult, a successful Silicone Valley start-up, and a modern art museum.  Much of the novel is spent with our narrator wandering the austere halls of this facility, contemplating these strange art installations, contemplating mortality, contemplating the strange journey his mother in law will embark upon.  The narrative is full of space: empty hallways, empty rooms, long periods of waiting.  Even when we leave the cryogenic facility and return to the city the novel is still haunted by a feeling of vastness, of emptiness.  The characters often speak past each other in cryptic fragments of poetry.  This is pure Delillo.  It's the kind of stuff that I gather some readers can't stand but, personally, I love the ever loving fuck out of it.  It's also the kind of stuff that defies conventional review.  Delillo is best read like Beckett or Kafka, both of whom this novel recalls at points.   The reader is best off focusing on the poetry of the prose and mood and atmosphere.  There's a quote from Harold Hobson that I've always liked.  Hobson was speaking about Beckett, but his words might apply just as well here (and to Delillo's career writ large): "Beckett is a poet; and the business of a poet is not to clarify, but to suggest, to imply, to employ words with auras of association, with a reaching out towards a vision, a probing down into an emotion, beyond the compass of explicit definition. "

Zero K is Delillo's 16-th novel.  At this stage in his career his voice is so polished that he makes writing like this seem effortless.  I'm endlessly impressed by how much meaning Delillo can pack into a single sentence or a single image.  Near the beginning of the book our protagonist's father is wearing sunglasses indoors, which Delillo describes as "bringing the night inside".  In this single line we have a wonderful metaphor for the cryogenic experiment this man will later embark on: "bringing the night inside" here suggests an attempt to take control of the vast and mysterious darkness that surrounds us all.  The promise of cryogenics is an attempt to domesticate death, in some sense.  These kinds of gems are scattered throughout Zero K.  The novel ends on yet another wonderful metaphor.  I won't spoil it, but the final passage is painfully beautiful and does an impressive job of summing up Delillo's central thesis about death in a way that is at once both infinitely clear and infinitely open ended.

"Why are you doing this?" by Neal Auch

When I started this project my intention was to present the images without context or explanation.  This is more-or-less the norm for photography websites and, after all, I reasoned that the work should stand on its own and be left entirely for the viewer to parse.  What I learned rather quickly was that it's almost impossible to present this particular kind of work without simultaneously being called upon to explain it; the question "Why are you doing this?" came up so frequently that adding an elevator pitch explanation in my About page became necessary if for no other reason than to save me the time of repeating the same statements over and over.

For an artist, explaining your intentions in this way can be a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, I see no reason to obfuscate my own motivations in making this work and, moreover, I feel rather strongly that providing context to an art project can often deepen the work.  For example: consider Rose-Lynn Fisher's delightful work The Topography of Tears.  It's Fisher's explanation of the work -- left sidebar of that link -- that gives the project its sense of poetry; absent this and most viewers would think they're just looking at figures from a science textbook.  (Another example: just think of how much more enjoyable the modern art section of a museum becomes when you take the time to read the little placards.)  But the downside of including an explanation is that you risk alienating viewers who may not share your sentiments and/or would prefer to engage with the work on a purely aesthetic level.

In my case, my impression is that the majority of viewers who enjoy my work do so because they like the creepy horror-movie aesthetic, but they do not necessarily share my concerns about the ethics of eating animals.  And that's awesome!  I like horror movies and creepy stuff too, and this is absolutely a completely valid way to engage with this kind of art.  I have touched on this issue somewhat orthogonally elsewhere, but perhaps it bears repeating: I'm a visual artist first and foremost, and a vegan second.   My aim with this work is to present something that we interact with daily in a new and unfamiliar context and, perhaps, to inspire thought or conversation about contemporary animal farming practice.  Obviously I do not expect that any meat-lover who stumbles across my portfolio is going to trade in his bacon cheese burger for a PETA membership.

The concern of alienating the audience by contextualizing art is rather more salient in my case for one simple reason: the word "vegan" comes pre-loaded with certain political and rhetorical baggage, which is why I avoid using it in my About page.  There are certain folks out there who, as soon as this word comes up, assume that I am the kind of guy who would be joining these folks shrieking at patrons in a steak restaurant.  (For the record: while I'm sympathetic to their concerns, I find those particular "protesters" about as annoying as I imagine most meat eaters do.  I also think that their approach is counter productive in that it reveals nothing new; asking a meat-eater why they don't eat dog will just elicit the response "dogs are pets, not food", it doesn't strike at the core of the underlying carnism in any deep or thought-provoking way.)  

Fundamentally I think what's going on here is that any mention of ethical concerns over the factory farming of livestock primes a certain subset of viewers in such a way that they engage with the work as though it were activism, rather than art.  While this way of engaging is not what I had in mind when I took the photos, I suppose that it's somewhat unavoidable.  (On balance: this seems to be a minority of viewers, and it's likely that such folks are not the types who would enjoy my photography anyway, with our without the vegan context.)  Of course, at the end of the day I think that once an artist's work is out in the world viewers are entitled to interpret it as they see fit; the intentions of the artist may be of some interest but they do not override all other interpretations.

Book Review: Thomas Ligotti's My Work is Not Yet Done by Neal Auch

I love H.P. Lovecraft as much as the next creepy fellow out there and yet I do not share the interest many of my fellow horror nerds have with endlessly re-imagining and re-visiting his ideas/mythos/style/whatever.  To my mind I feel like that ground has been adequately covered, and I am much more interested in reading something that carves out new territory in this particular genre.  

So my interest was certainly piqued when I learned that "corporate horror" is apparently a thing that exists.  Thomas Ligotti's My Work is Not Yet Done is a collection of 3 tales (the titular novella, along with 2 short stories) that interweave demonic/supernatural horror with the drudgery of faceless corporatism, office gossip, and terrible bosses.  Think Franz Kafka meets Stephen King meets a Dilbert comic.  The result is a lot of fun, indeed.  Ligotti has a self-assured style, a distinctive voice, and displays a considerable amount of creativity in these 3 short works.  While the centrepiece of this collection is plainly intended to be the novella My Work is Not Yet Done, I was struck at how much fun the appended short stories were.  My impression was that, freed from the constraints of a longer narrative, Ligotti was able to let loose and get a bit more experimental/surreal with his writing.  This was my first exposure to Ligotti, but I am definitely planning to seek out more of his short stories.

Hamilton Art Crawl Tonight! by Neal Auch

Hello friends in Hamilton and the GTA!  Just a friendly reminder that I'll be at the Art Crawl tonight on James St N.  If you are in the area please swing by and say hello!

Update: I had a great time Art-Crawling!  Thanks for the support, Hamilton, it was great chatting with everybody and thanks so much to everybody who bought pieces.  By the end of the night I sold more prints than I took back home with me, which was fucking awesome.  You rule, Hamilton!

Anders Petersen and Coping with Harsh Light by Neal Auch

In my last blog post I used Diane Arbus as a jumping off point for illustrating the importance of subject matter in photography.  I might just as well have used the Anders Petersen; he shares Arbus' eye for compelling subject matter in portraiture.  But rather than re-tread ground that I've already covered, I'd like to use Petersen as a case study in clever ways to deal with hard light.

Anders Petersen is perhaps best known for his work Cafe Lehmitz, a series of candid portraits of the denizens of a dive bar in Hamburg's Reeperbahn.   In that work, and throughout much of his career, Petersen works with available light; no doubt carrying around cumbersome speedlight rigs would spoil the raw emotion and spontaneity that make his shots so compelling.  

I want to use the images above to ground a semi-technical discussion on how Petersen often uses unflattering available light to great effect.  First off the obvious: he's shooting in black & white.  It's hardly a new observation that harsh light usually looks better in monochrome and, moreover, one has a lot more latitude with dodging and burning in post-processing.  

The second interesting feature of these images is that Petersen lets the highlights blow out.  He's presumably exposing for the shadows, which are still dark but have a richness of detail and texture.  (In the first image above compare the skin detail on the left side of the woman's face with the right.)  I think this missing information provides a sense of mystery to the images, but it's interesting that Petersen wants to leave the mystery in the brightest parts of the image, not in the darkness, which is rich with detail and on full display.  Perhaps Petersen intends a visual metaphor here?  Too pretentious?

Finally, the last interesting thing I wanted to note about these images is the way Petersen uses the harsh light as a design element.  In the first image note how the single line of line of light (presumably from blinds that are slightly ajar) slices the woman's figure in two.  In the second image note how the slivers of light (presumably from venetian blinds) creates an interesting pattern on the subject's face.  Of course this option isn't always available, but when possible it can be used to great effect, as Petersen has shown us here.  Great stuff.

Diane Arbus' Untitled and the Importance of Subject Matter by Neal Auch

The internet is full of listicles with titles like "10 tips for becoming a better photographer" or "5 tips to make your photographs more compelling", usually focusing the discussion on technical stuff like depth of field, hard vs soft light, the rule of thirds, the importance of having a clean background, etc.  This is all great stuff and I have nothing against articles of this type, but here I wanted to emphasize something that's often omitted (or perhaps left implicit) in these discussions: subject matter.  The most important part of making a compelling image is putting something interesting in front of the camera.  I sometimes think about this in terms of a (decidedly non-vegan) culinary analogy: the subject matter is like the steak, post-processing is like the seasoning, composition/lighting/F-stop/etc are like the cooking process.  If you have a garbage cut of meat then it may well be possible to make a tasty meal, as long as the chef is brilliant and the seasonings are incredible.  However, as a general rule, your dinner is going to end up a lot better if you started with a good steak.  It's the same with photography.  While a great artist can perhaps make interesting imagery out of some completely banal quotidian subject matter, most viewers would probably rather look at a poorly executed shot of something they've never seen before.  Given the choice between a brilliantly composed, well lighted, gorgeously retouched image of a fire hydrant, and a cell phone snapshot of a 6 legged tiger, I'm probably going to ponder over the latter for quite a while longer.

This is certainly not a profound point that I'm making, but I'm often surprised at how often articles about how to create more compelling photographs seem to omit the fact that the most important part of the process has nothing to do with the camera or editing or lighting.  This is the reason that great fashion photographers hire professional models, rather than just shooting their friends and family.  This is the reason that great landscape photographers hike out to amazing vistas, rather than just shooting at the park down the street from their house.  It's no different for fine art photography.

Diane Arbus was a brilliant photographer and her book Untitled makes for a fantastic case study in the importance of subject matter.  This was Arbus' final project: a series of intimate candid portraits taken at residences for the mentally handicapped between 1969 and 1971.  There's a legitimate discussion one could have about whether this work is exploitative, how/if consent was obtained for these shots, and the ethics of photographing the most vulnerable members of society in order to make an art book.  But here I'm going to side-step that discussion and treat the images on their own merits.  (For what it's worth I personally find Arbus' Untitled to be tender and humane and raw, not exploitative, but I am aware that not all viewers will come away with this impression.)

Here are a few images from the book to ground the discussion:

I think there can be little question that these shots are compelling.  And yet, it's easy to nit-pick and find technical "faults" here.  All these images are shot in harsh midday sun, the backgrounds are often messy and distracting, the horizon lines are often crooked, in some cases the subjects are dead centre in the frame, feet and shoulders are cropped out, ...  But I would guess that 99% of viewers don't notice or (like me) don't care about these things because every one of those images is absolutely affecting.  This wasn't a camera setting, and it wasn't something Arbus did in the darkroom, and it's not a trick of composition.  Those portraits are fascinating because Arbus put something fascinating in front of the camera before she fired the shutter.

Book Review: Blake Butler's There is no Year by Neal Auch

A while back I decided to try an experiment with crowd-sourcing my reading list to social media.  I got lots of great suggestions and discovered a bunch of awesome new authors, but I think it's fair to say that Blake Butler's There is No Year has been one of the true highlight of this little experiment. This novel is a truly delightful exercise in weirdness that I probably never would have stumbled across on my own.

I would strongly recommend There is no Year to anybody who enjoyed House of Leaves; both books share the "family in a creepy house where things aren't quite right" setting, and both are stylistically innovative, although Butler's writing feels less like a puzzle to be solved and more like a hallucinogenic experience. Comparisons with David Lynch films abound in reviews of this book, and that's certainly the vibe that Butler has captured here. Personally this book reminded me a lot of Eugene Ionesco's plays (especially the Bald Soprano), in that there is no plot in the conventional sense, but nevertheless the book seems to have a 3 act structure where the narrative progresses by gradually becoming more and more absurd. Admittedly Ionesco is usually thought of as a comedy writer whereas Butler is going for horror, so there's that distinction. But I think that distinction isn't really so substantive.  For one thing: I belong to a minority of readers who consider Ionesco's plays to be horror stories, so for me the analogy is apt.  And, for another thing: while the overall vide of There is no Year is certainly creepy, there is a lot of humour in here. 

It's difficult to articulate exactly why Butler's prose is so compelling, but I think a part of the appeal is how wonderfully visual this book is.  Butler is endlessly imaginative and the reader is propelled along but on ongoing stream of delightfully strange set pieces.  I really can't recommend this book strongly enough.

Book Review: J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition by Neal Auch

J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition is a book that reads like an art exhibit.  

This book is devoid of most of the ingredients that normally comprise literature.  The bulk of the novel is divided into individually titled paragraphs; these function rather like the individual pieces that comprise an art exhibition in that these fragments are thematically connected, but do not comprise a linear narrative in any sense.  Rather, the reader's eyes are allowed to meander about the page, focusing on fragments that attract her attention, ignoring others, darting back and forth throughout the book as desired.  It's difficult to give a sense of what the individual "pieces" that comprise this novel are like.  Here I've quoted one paragraph in its entirety to give a sense:

Go, No-Go Detector.  These deaths preoccupied Tavers.  Malcolm X: the death of terminal fibrillation, as elegant as the trembling of hands in tabes dosalis; Jayne Mansfield: the death of the erotic function, the polite section of the lower mammary curvature by the glass guillotine of the windshield assembly; Marilyn Monroe: the death of her moist loins; the falling temperature of her rectum described in the first marriage of the cold perineum and the white rectilinear walls of the twentieth-century apartment; Jaqueline Kennedy: the notional death, defined by the exquisite eroticism of her mouth and the insane logic of her leg stance; Buddy Holly: the capped teeth of the dead pop singer, like the melancholy dolmens of the Brittany coastline, were globes of milk, condensations of his sleeping mind.

The book carries on in this spectacular fashion for some 100 pages, or so.  (The final few chapters abandon this structure for reasons that are not clear to me...)

The effect of The Atrocity Exhibition is remarkably like the feeling of wandering about an art museum.  Indeed, not only is this book structured like an art exhibition, the emotional impact of each "piece" on me was similar to the effect of consuming visual art.  I found myself lingering over the more compelling fragments for much longer than I would spend on a paragraph in a conventional novel.  It seems that without the drive of a plot to carry one forward, the mind tends to drift into introspection and abstraction.  I have read this book several times now and find myself returning to it from time to time as a source of inspiration.