Group Exhibition: The Shadowood Collective's Betwixt & Between the Monsters we Dream by Neal Auch

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I'm crazy excited to announce that I'll be taking part in the upcoming The Shadowood Collective group exhibition, titled Betwixt and Between the Monsters we Dream.  I'm honoured to be having my work featured alongside a whole shit-load of fantastically talented artists, including  Allen Williams, Troy Brooks, and Anita Kunz.  The opening night gala is Tuesday Feb 6 at The Arts Project gallery (203 Dundas Street in London ON).  Tickets can be purchased here.  I'll be hanging out that evening, as will many of the other artists.  If you live in the GTA please come on out!

A Year in Review: 2017 by Neal Auch

So...  2017 has come and gone and the sacred rules of blogging now demand that I write up a summary post.  So let the summarizing begin!  

Creative Output

While I tend to avoid talking about my personal life in any detail in this space, the truth is that my photo output has decreased a bit over the last year since so much of my time and energy has gone into raising my baby from a helpless blank slate of an infant into a mobile little beast that toddles about my home leaving chaos in their wake and making dinosaur noises.  That's been fun an amazing and inspiring, but it's not really the focus of this page, so let's talk about photos of dead stuff, shall we?

My portrait of model Oscar James grace with the severed head of a pig.

My portrait of model Oscar James grace with the severed head of a pig.

I kicked off 2017 with a portraiture session with Oscar James Grace, a wonderfully talented model, and a close friend, who is based out of Toronto.  I thought it would be funny to submit one of the shots we did to the delightful Tumblr page CritiqueMyDickPic.  Oscar and I got an A for our effort (!) and I had a delightful time reading the comments, which were a nice mix of folks who were very angry, folks who were kind of angry, folks who wanted to fuck Oscar, and folks who thought I was trying to make an unsubtle jab at David Cameron.

A pair of skulls, marked with graffiti, in the Catacombs of Paris.

A pair of skulls, marked with graffiti, in the Catacombs of Paris.

After a wonderful trip to Europe with the spouse I added an entire new gallery to my site -- Empire of Death -- which catalogues my portraits of the dead in the Catacombs of Paris.  While I have a number of projects in the pipeline that do not involve photographing dead animals, this was the first such project to come to completion.

A close-up view of the eye of a pig, with the skin peeled off.

A close-up view of the eye of a pig, with the skin peeled off.

And...  Finally, of course, my work with meat and dead animals is also ongoing, and I added a bunch of shots to my gallery Inside quite recently.  (See this post for a summary.)

Art Shows

I had a surprisingly productive year in terms of selling art.  When the weather is decent I generally try to do as many Art Crawls as possible, this year I managed to make it out to three events and I met lots of awesome and interesting folks. 

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This was my first year participating in the Bazaar of the Bizarre, which was super fun and awesome.  I did two events, one in Toronto (for Halloween) and one in Hamilton, and both were fantastic and fun and I am endlessly grateful to all the lovely people who stopped by my booth to chat and buy prints and also to the organizers who let me show my wares and who put in all the hard work to make awesome events like this happen.  You are all awesome!

Press & Media

Still life arrangement of cow foot, chicken feet, duck gizzards, pig intestines, dead flowers, and tea set.

Still life arrangement of cow foot, chicken feet, duck gizzards, pig intestines, dead flowers, and tea set.

I was very honoured to have my still life work featured in Float Magazine, and also to be interviewed on the blog The Phoblographer.  The latter interview led to a lively (and sometimes hilarious) series of emails and comments which prompted me to write up a bunch of posts clarifying my thoughts about the ethics of eating animals.

The Future

I have two pieces of very exciting news for Feb.  Neither is quite ready to be shared in public but stay tuned!  In addition to these super-secret mysteries I am also hard at work on a couple of new (non-meat related) photo projects which I hope will be ready to share before 2019. 

Happy new year to all!

 

New Marco Photography: Pig Head & Black Chicken by Neal Auch

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I've added some new close-up images to my gallery Inside!  First off, I had a chance to revisit the weird double-toe of the black chicken, pictured above.  I've shot black chicken parts several times before, and I think that this is probably the most technically challenging subject I've considered for this project.  Of course, there are all the usual complications of macro photography (shallow depth of field, stabilization, focus stacking, etc) but the most difficult obstacle to overcome here is the colour of the subject.  The skin of Silkie chicken of very nearly pure black and I wanted to shoot a low key dark image against black background.  It is extremely tricky to figure out how to light a black subject on a black background and still end up with an image that's clear and coherent.  It also doesn't help that the camera's light meter is pretty much useless in a situation like this; the camera wants to expose everything to mid-tone grey, which would mean drastically overexposing an image like this one.

Next I turned my attention to the eye of the pig.  This is my second time working with pig head, but my first time doing close-up work on that particular subject.  I find that there's something eerily human about pig eyes.  I don't know if it's the skin tone or the colour of the iris or what, but to me that first image looks oddly human.  For the second shot I peeled the pig's face off, revealing the muscle and flesh below, for a shot that feels (to me at least) much less human.

Finally I did some work with the pig's teeth.  The first image is the pig's molars; these reminded me a bit of a mountain range, so I opted for a 16:9 crop to emphasize that panoramic landscape-y feel.  The second shot is the front teeth of the pig, less majestic so I opted for the 2:3 aspect ratio that's pretty much the norm for my close-up work.

I have some exciting news and also more images of the pig's head are coming soon!  In the meantime, enjoy!  

Hamilton Bazaar of the Bizarre: Thank you! by Neal Auch

I had a great time at the Bazaar of the Bizarre yesterday. Thanks so much to the organizers and also everybody who came out to chat or buy stuff or just look at all the fun creepy wares on display! It really means a lot to small indie arty weirdo like me to have so many cool people come out. Your support -- both moral and financial -- is what keeps folks like me in the business of photographing corpses and taking severed pig's head dic pics. You're all amaze-balls! 

I can't emphasize enough how great it was to see so many people out! I was honestly stunned at the crowd. Although Hamilton is smaller by about an order of magnitude, I'd guess that crowd yesterday was comparable to what we had at the Halloween Bazaar in Toronto. (Certainly my sales yesterday were comparable, if that's any metric.) So... To my mind this constitutes rigorous mathematical proof that Hamilton is 10 times more artsy than Toronto. Science!

This was likely my last show of the season; from December on it gets a bit cold to be out Art-Crawling. I will, of course, be back doing shows starting next spring at which point I should have some new stuff ready that I'm excited about. In the meantime, I'm of course still selling prints through my website so send me an email (neal.auch@gmail.com) or reach out via social media if you're interested in anything.

Thanks again, you're all awesome Hamilton!

Hamilton Bazaar of the Bizarre by Neal Auch

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Dear friends in Hamilton: I'll be at the Bazaar of the Bizarre on Sunday Nov 12 at 1221 Hughson St N, near James St N and Cannon.   If you're in the area please come on out! There will be lots of cool weirdo vendors selling all manner of cool weirdo stuff. As always, I'll be selling framed prints and, as always, I carry stuff ranging from very small (4X6, 8X10, etc) up to very large (16X20, etc) so I usually have something that can accommodate most budgets. Come on out!

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!

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 Tobermory, 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!

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.

"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.

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.

Hamilton Art Crawl: Friday June 9 on James St N by Neal Auch

Friends in Hamilton and the GTA: barring unforeseen circumstances, I'm planning to be out Art-Crawling this Friday June 9 on James St N. (I'll update with my exact location on that date.)

I'll be selling prints, of course. For this kind of event I tend to focus on smaller sized prints (4X6, 8X10, etc) so that it's not too cumbersome to carry around and also to keep the price point down, but I will have a few larger pieces and, of course, I'm happy to make large format custom prints if that's what you're looking for.

If you're in the area please feel free to swing by and say hello!

Dead Rabbit by Neal Auch

While hiking I happened upon my favourite subject matter out in the woods and managed to snap a few shots.  I normally don't have my macro gear with me when I'm out hiking, but this time I happened to have the right lenses in my bag to get some close-ups of the gore.  Enjoy!