Monday, November 23, 2015

Turkey Shoot

With Thanksgiving looming in a few days, I thought it would be fun to share some turkey pictures. The unpublished photographs below were made by Tony O'Shea in Dublin in the early 1990s. Entitled Slouching Toward Bethlehem, they're presented here with Tony's comments. 

For more information or to see the entire set of 50+ photographs, please email Tony. Thanks to Brian Sparks for the tip. Happy T-Day everyone.

I did a lot of work for a newspaper called the Sunday Business Post in the 90s and noughties. One Friday evening just before Christmas some scribe got the brilliant notion that a Christmas picture was needed for page 4 (at about 4 pm, just as dusk was about to fall). Needless to say I wasn't very delighted about the timing as I thought I had already finished my shift. But off I went anyway and that was my first encounter with the Turkey Market.

They used the picture of the woman with glasses walking down the street holding 2 turkeys she had just purchased. I had no knowledge of the event before this but was immediately drawn into it. It felt like a rural invasion of this part of the city. On this street (Mary's, Lane) there used to be a morning fish market held inside a warehouse and there is also a fruit and vegetable market. 

What I found most interesting about it was the improvised and anarchic nature of the display of goods and services, no neat tables or benches, no cellophane wrapping but instead there was an earthiness and an almost ritualistic feeling to things. The traders  were dignified and resourceful people trying to make hay while the sun shone. I went back a few times the following year. I made 4 or 5 visits in total and would have spent a total of 10 hours maximum. Generally speaking people were tolerant and good humoured and it was easy to work there.

I think it closed down the following year. I went up the next year and it was gone. In the 80s Ireland went through a bleak enough  time, serious unemployment and a severe hemorrhage of youth from the country but by the early to mid 90s things had started to pick up a little driven by globalisation and the decision by major international tech companies to set up shop here and use Ireland as a base for European operations. Also there was a whole raft of new regulations from Europe to do with food production etc., so I don't think the market could have survived in its then-state for very long.

The area has been cleaned up a bit and one of the largest fruit importers Fyffe's have their business on Mary's Lane. The car park is tidier and more professional looking but the large blocks of flats still look more or less the same but of course the absence of the Turkey sellers for a few days before Christmas means that the special feeling has evaporated and very few people remember the dynamic chaos of those years when the whole ambiance of those streets changed for a few days.

One project I have been working on for 20 years on and off is a form of dog racing down in the SW of Ireland called Drag Hunting. It happens between May and September each year and the dogs follow a scent made from a mixture of oils and aniseed which is laid down by pulling some rags soaked in this mixture along the ground. It has certain similarities with the market, e.g. the Dramatis Personae are limited, a maximum of 20 families and it is again in a certain way deeply ritualistic and of course redolent with a particular relationship with the land, the weather and some kind of need to venture out with their dogs......a type of Beagle. Very few people ever come to look at them and there is a vaguely primordial feeling so it is quite a lonely feeling.

Friday, November 20, 2015


In the wake of the tragic events in Paris... I've been reading that sentence a lot this week, as I'm sure we all have. I welcome constructive discussions about the attacks. But when the sentence gets attached to mundane personal announcements, it seems silly. 

In the wake of the tragic events in Paris, I need to reschedule the plumber's visit this morning an hour earlier. In the wake of the tragic events in Paris, Joan's class had their first field trip to the natural history museum. In the wake of the tragic events in Paris, has anyone seen any good movies lately that they'd recommend? Photographers are the worst. In the wake of the tragic events in Paris, I'd appreciate feedback on this photo I took of the Louvre 10 years ago. I mean, seriously? Fuck me.

I don't mean to belittle the tragic events in Paris. In the wake of those tragic events in Paris, the events in Paris were tragic. I get it. I sympathize. But, in the wake of the tragic events in Paris, consider the possibility that not every international crisis is about you

But enough geopolitics. This blog is about me. So, in the wake of the tragic events in Paris, I'd like to warn folks about the UFOs. I'm not saying an interstellar invasion is imminent. But, in the wake of the tragic event in Paris, ruling it out at this point would be foolish. Until we locate their base and strike the threat is real. In the wake of the tragic events in Paris, maybe it's time to register the aliens? Or are they presumed to have inalienable rights? 

In the wake of the tragic events in Paris, the first person to claim this print* gets it. (*Sorry, it's been claimed)

Monday, November 16, 2015


Stop me if you've seen this before. Male photographer ventures through a region with a camera, sometimes over the course of several months or years, in search of Americana. The American West is a common target. Or the South. Or the North. Or Appalachia. Or whatever, so long as it has a mix of salt-of-the-earth types willing to stare broodingly into middle distance, forested vistas, access to an airport, and a strong whiff of pathos. Maybe the photographer lives with the locals, or frequents their watering hole, or whatever it takes to develop access. Photographer returns home with a carefully calibrated mix of landscapes, portraits, and interiors shot on color film. Usually the tool is a view camera, although a smaller body is allowed so long as it's a Mamiya 7.  The inkjet results are printed nice and big, mounted in the squared white frame du jour, no matting, with slightly desaturated color palette to match, then sent off on the exhibition circuit, where they present a statement about the place. Or about America. Or a nostalgic nod to the industrial cycle. Or something. 

The landscape/interior/portrait combination is something of an unholy docutrinity in contemporary straight photography. It's the photo two-fer, a way of expressing inner ruminations under the guise of outer world documentation. The photographer takes on the role of scientific explorer. Go out, trap some images, report findings to the photo community in the prescribed mix. 

That it's a formula does not proscribe excellence. Some photographers excel. But I think it's important to call out the style. Just as almost any piece music recorded in 1969 is easily pegged to the date by the mix, vocal arrangement, and instruments of the era —the stuff not generally considered creative content, in other words— when we look back in 30 years at the present era, I think docutrinity will be the visual motif which announces "2015!"

Of course docutrinity didn't begin in 2015. As with so many other current trends, I'm going to lay the blame on Sleeping By The Mississippi. No offense to Soth since I think the causal chain was spurred unwittingly. And maybe he would deflect it one generation back to Sternfeld's American Prospects, or two generations to Evans' American Photographs. But I hold Sleeping By The Mississippi mostly responsible. It was the Velvet Underground of photobooks. It only sold a few thousand copies but everyone who bought one initiated a similar photo project. Explore Americana —or is it the self? Mix cultural landscapes, portraits, and a few interiors, report findings. 

That's my natural bias coming through. I realize the docutrinity mix works for Sleeping By The Mississippi, and maybe it can work for other projects. But it's a very delicate mix, and tough to follow without it seeming formulaic. 

Ben Huff, The Last Road North

Newspace in Portland has established itself as a minor outlet for docutrinity, with shows in recent years by Daniel Shea, Jeff Rich, and Bryan Schutmaat, among others. Ben Huff's current show The Last Road North is the latest example. Huff spent five years photographing the 400 mile haul road connecting Alaska's northern interior to the Arctic Ocean. What did he find up there? About what you might expect. Beautiful scenery, desolate roads, snow, stragglers bearing flannel. The show at Newspace is entertaining and impressive, but I can't say it's very surprising. In Huff's defense, there isn't much cultural material up there to work with. But the onus is still on the photographer. Whatever is encountered, he or she must find a way to show something new, or in a new way. I'm not sure these do. 

Thomas Gardiner's current show at Blue Sky, on the other hand, offers a beautiful twist on the motif. And also more problems. The exhibition combines selections found in Western Canada and the U.S.A. That's plenty of raw material to work with, and Gardiner takes advantage. If Huff's photos recall Soth, Gardiner's model is Uncommon PlacesHis scene selection and camera positioning is exquisite, creating vistas with countless small details jigsawed perfectly into place. For example, look at the way the trash can interacts with truck shadows in this photo:

Thomas Gardiner

The prints are large with plenty of room to pour over. The photos shift as you look at them, with new small discoveries releasing like time-release capsules. This one captured me initially with the bizarre spatial dynamics, not to mention the social commentary. Talk about a boxed in living situation. It was only as I looked for several minutes that I noticed the diaspora of small posts, sticks, windows, and vegetation, each one holding down part of the photo.

Thomas Gardiner

This photo has been a personal favorite since I wrote about it six years ago:

Thomas Gardiner

It was a pleasure to view the full sized print on the wall at Blue Sky, even if the improved altered color palette leans toward the sanitized.

The cultural landscapes are great, and the interiors are interesting. For me there's only one thing holding them back: the portraits. If only Gardiner had followed Shore to the end and eliminated them from the series. But for whatever reason Gardiner's gotten caught up in the docutrinity zeitgeist, to poor effect. The portraits are sluggish, with cinema lighting on subjects staring off-camera. I suppose the subjects are meant to look thoughtful but to me they look bored, and worse, scripted. Instead of natural elements in the scene, they seem like characters or add ons. That's fine if you're Lorca-DiCorcia or Crewdson expounding on a dreamworld. But I'd rather see reality, or at least the impression of it. There are some docutrinity interiors on display as well, including a nice trophy shot, but I'll let those slide for now. Because for me the portraits were the main distraction.

Thomas Gardiner

I know what you're thinking. If a photographer can't combine landscapes, interiors, and portraits what can they shoot? Aren't those subjects the bread-n-butter of documentary tradition? Well, yes. 

Here's what I suggest instead. What if photographers focus their energy on finding tiny toy cars in the landscape? Not just the normal Matchbox ones, which are small, or the slightly smaller Lego cars. I'm talking about teeny teeny tiny automobiles barely large enough to see, on a scale with ants. With patience and a little luck you can find them anywhere, North, South, Appalachia, etc. Now, obviously they will be hard to photograph. But that's the point, right. Because very few people have photographed this world yet. It's wide open for anyone who wants to take a teeny tiny camera, get close enough to smell the tiny exhaust, and aim their tiny lens at all the teeny teeny teeny weeny tiny cars of every color. Present in a teeny tiny white frame, with teeny tiny engine drone soundtrack playing in the corner, and Bingo! You've created something new.