Old Guy Ranting

I just looked at my Facebook page and found that I was born, went to college, and then the next thing that happened to me was in 2009.  Now I understand this is only Facebook’s version of history but it bothered me enough to get me to sit down and write, which is how I try to work out things that are bothering me. And I am indeed bothered by the idea that our current obsession with the personal and the immediate will cause us to lose sight of others and of the past. It seems to be a natural extension of the democratization of criticism, which has made peer reviews far more powerful than those of professional critics, but has also enabled an overpowering solipsism that makes everyone the center of his own universe. If you are your world, you have no need of the knowledge that came before. I’m a bit uncomfortable with that.

Rain ©2012 Ron Scherl

I’ve been noodling around with Instagram lately and reading about the power of social media for photographers and I get much of it. I know it’s a new world out there and if I were pursuing a career in photography I would be taking advantage of all these tools. It’s different now than it was for me. Now you don’t build a portfolio piece by piece and haul it around to magazine editors and agency art directors; now you populate your various feeds, build your online audience and parlay that into assignments for which you might even be paid. Some of that really appeals to me.

When I was a young photographer, I would get physically ill (slight exaggeration) at the sight of the Time-Life Building, but would force myself to go there twice a year to visit picture editors and solicit assignments. I had moderate success, but there’s no doubt that my discomfort didn’t encourage people to want to work with me. I got work because I was well trained, skillful and respected the craft. Here’s a tip of the hat to Greg Peterson, who taught me almost everything I know about the craft of photography.

Digital has, of course, made the craft less important, which will no doubt appeal to the arbiters of art, but it’s also bringing the standards of commercial photography much closer to art photography, which has never been concerned with craft.

So now we get kids with iPhones covering large corporate events, posting the images to their Instagram and Twitter feeds and not really expecting to be paid. It’s a great deal for the sponsoring and distribution corporations who don’t have to pay for content, but here’s the kicker, it works because that’s where their target audience is.

In the old model, corporations and their agencies would hire photographers to create pictures promoting their products and services, and then buy space in the media to distribute the images. This would not only allow the commercial photographers to make a living, it would enable the media outlets to hire professional photojournalists to tell the world’s stories. This chain is breaking; it’s not totally gone but we’re headed that way. I remember when stock photo agencies started to introduce royalty-free images; the argument in opposition was that it would turn photographs into a commodity. That certainly proved to be true, but now we’re going beyond that and getting close to a world where all photography is free and, after that, other forms of content.

I understand the argument for free dissemination of information; I just don’t understand how the content creators will be able to put food on the table.

Time for lunch.

 

Visa Pour L’Image 2012

Nice to take a break from the wine business and focus for a while on the rest of the world’s problems.

Visa Pour L’Image runs for two weeks in September and in that time the entire city of Perpignan becomes a gallery. There are exhibits everywhere: in bars, clothing stores, post offices, theaters and restaurants. Makes you want to be a photographer.

Eglise des Dominicains ©2012 Ron Scherl

The major venues are spectacular. I spent several days there trying to absorb the images in small doses. After a little while it becomes overwhelming and you just stop seeing, in the same way people can watch war and suffering on the nightly news and it stops having an impact because you just can’t take anything more to heart. That is, if anyone still watches the nightly news.

Now, of course, we get most of our coverage online, in video and immediately, but this is a chance to probe deeper and reflect on what we’re seeing. We absorb the message in our own time through the power of the still image. We’re seeing one moment in the stream of time, a fraction of an incident that reflects the magnitude of what’s happening and generates a greater intensity and intimacy than video. I know I’m swimming upstream here, but I still revere the still image and its place in the transmission of information and advocacy of a cause.

Couvent des Minimes ©2012 Ron Scherl

There’s an expression in French: Avoir le feu sacré, which is translated as “to have an activity or a passion that allows you to live life fully and to continue to pursue it despite obstacles.” This is Stephanie Sinclair on Child Brides.  We know the marriage of children exists but we usually choose to look away and focus on more immediate problems; Sinclair recognized that there is nothing more immediate to these children than being forced into perpetual sexual slavery.  She uncovers the horror of a nine-year-old girl being sold to her uncle to settle a gambling debt and details how widespread the practice of selling pre-teen girls into marriage has become. And she was not content to record it and go on to the next assignment, but has devoted herself to the story, pushing for multiple publications and enlisting the aid of international organizations to help end the practice. She is determined that her photos will make a difference and she is an example for every journalist working today.

Every time someone brings up paparazzi vultures and royal breasts, I’m going to counter with Stephanie Sinclair.

The other exhibit that really moved me was the Guantanamo portrait project of Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer. This is an unusual group of images, not traditional news photography but carefully posed and impeccably lit formal portraits of prisoners in Guantanamo. These are men who were locked away on suspicion, never charged and eventually released and in these intense and compelling portraits they appear to be clinging to what remains of their dignity and humanity. The studio lighting, limited palette, high resolution images and precise prints establish a neutral tone and allow these sensitive portraits to reveal both the suffering and the strength of the subjects.

There’s much more of course, all the major stories of the year and in-depth looks at places we hardly knew existed, but I need to give a nod to Doug Menuez and his coverage of the birth of the digital revolution in Silicon Valley from 1985-2000. Doug made this story his own and it was a treat to see this work again after so many years.

And finally, in what I hope has become an annual tradition, I had the pleasure of the company of three beautiful and talented photographers. Lucky guy.

Sarah, Helen and Jess ©2012 Ron Scherl

Slump

Do photographers have slumps?

Seems reasonable, but I don’t think there’s a great body of research on the subject.

Last week, I had two appointments with winemakers to do portraits and I felt like Tim Lincecum on the hill without his fastball. I had nothing, not an idea in my head. I couldn’t seem to find a situation that worked; even when I had a decent location I couldn’t find an interesting composition. It wasn’t just the fastball, couldn’t get the curve or slider over either.

What is it, what causes it, and how do you deal with it? At the time I just kept pushing, hoping for a gift that didn’t come. In both cases I kept moving and moving my subjects until I sensed that time was up. If I had a manager, he would have pulled me long before I quit. When I got home I didn’t really need to look at the photos, I knew.

I imagine it’s somewhat akin to writer’s block; it feels like there’s a vacancy where your creativity used to be. It’s one of those dreams where you show up late for school and realize you’re naked. Maybe it’s not enough preparation, not taking it seriously, maybe I was just tired or forgot my medication.

There’s fear too, that maybe I’ve just run out of ideas, have nothing left to give, or maybe I’ve exhausted the subject. Or wait, here’s another, ADD. Just can’t seem to concentrate. Watching Lincecum this year, I thought that was his problem, maybe it’s mine. That might also explain why learning French has been so hard.

That’s enough of that, what I need here is a new approach to portraiture with a consistent style that I can exploit through a body of work. I don’t think we’re talking Avedon white backgrounds, but I’m not sure. The environmental, let’s go out to the vineyards thing just isn’t working anymore.

So send me your suggestions, or prescriptions, I need to get back out on the mound soon.

In the meantime, here’s something I did recently that I do like.

Potter’s Hands ©2012 Ron Scherl

A Dark and Stormy Night

Well it was and I always wanted to write that. And don’t forget I’m a photographer and if I hadn’t made that photo I would have had to come up with a different opening. Thunder and lightning but no rain on Maury. Busy week: business meetings (who would’ve thought), new label for Richard, bottle shots at the Coop, music, aperitifs, dancing at Pichenouille and a lovely winemaker to flirt with at Michel’s dinner. Life is pretty hectic here.

So when I told the folks at the coop that I didn’t like the way their web designer was using my photos they asked me if I could do bottle shots for them. You’re thinking non sequitur, but this conversation was in French and seemed to make sense to me. I said of course and then remembered I have no lights. I spent a day trying to jury rig some soft boxes with my Nikon flash units but never got comfortable, then remembered that I’m not the only photographer in Maury and Jess has some strobes and soft boxes that she was happy to loan me. I gave her a bottle of Marcel’s wine and some tomatoes from Ben’s garden just to introduce her to the barter economy.

Let’s talk about tomatoes for a minute because I’m now on the all-tomato diet. Sure, a little basil, olive oil, salt, sometimes even some pasta, but the star of every dish is the tomato. I’ve even cut down on pork for the summer because the garden tomatoes are just so good I’m not feeling much need for meat. Between Ben, Bardot and Pappi I’m feeling pretty secure and eating well. This is a great neighborhood despite the new renters up the block putting out their garbage on Friday although it won’t be picked up until Monday. The ladies of the Olive Tree Salon were outraged, but that great French shrug of the shoulders seemed to indicate that you really couldn’t expect much from renters. Another week of this kind of behavior and I’ll expect to see the mayor down here to mediate.

The Olive Tree Salon © 2012 Ron Scherl

I’m on a campaign now to change my image. Two weeks ago a young American woman on her way to the sea stopped at the café for dinner, heard us speaking English and made friends. When she asked if there was a campground nearby, I offered her a real bed in her own bedroom and she accepted. The next day came questions about where we went off to (as if there’s anywhere to go but home), and a neighbor passing by averted her eyes when she was leaving in the morning.

Then last week came the two gentlewomen from Gerona for a few nights and we were seen in all the hot spots in town. No more lonely old guy for me.

We move along. Heading into August when the harvest will start and I’ll mark one year of living in Maury. I’ve spent most of my time in town but now it’s time to branch out. I’ll be shooting 21 of the little villages nearby that constitute the Communité de Commune de l’Agly-Fenouillèdes and I’ll also expand the wine focus to provide some counterpoint to the wines of Maury. I want to expand the scope of the photo book and soak up some new grist for the blog, which doesn’t mean I’m feeling the limits of small town life. On the contrary, I think I’m just getting to know this place.

Here’s the complete image.

Dark and Stormy ©2012 Ron Scherl

Breakthrough

I went down the lane beside the house to see Bardot’s garden and received promises of many tomatoes this summer. As I was coming back up I ran into Jean-Roger and Francois coming to pick roses in Jean-Roger’s garden. He offered some and when I asked if he had enough for Marie and his mother he responded that the gesture of giving them to me was important.

Then, I saw Pappi, Marie’s grandfather working in his garden. A few weeks ago I had made a photo of him that I really like and now was a good time to bring it to him. I retrieved it from the house and came back to the garden. I showed Pappi the photo and his face lit up. Then his smile faded and he looked at me and said:

“Pas jeune.”

“Oui, mais full of life”, I responded and he smiled again. My French really is getting better.

Pappi Serge ©2012 Ron Scherl

Genevieve came in to the garden and he showed her the photo and she did the most unexpected thing, she invited me into the house. Genevieve lives next door with Mammi Pierrette and Pappi Serge and while we’re friendly on the street, I’ve never been in their house. Now I was in the kitchen, the muscat came out and a conversation began as Pierrette swept up the dirt tracked in and gently chided Pappi for not changing his shoes.

She looked at the photo and said: “90 years old” and I repeated my full of life phrase. She smiled and said: “Moi, 92”

“Merveilleuse, ma mere is 94”

Pappi went to get a bottle of wine as a gift in kind and promised me many tomatoes and eggplants this summer. This barter thing may work out just fine.

Genevieve: “Are you going to stay in Maury?”

“Oui, but I need to find a house or apartment to rent to be fair to my partners.” I asked if they knew the house next door to the beauty parlor, but they didn’t and suggested I talk to Severine at the Mairie. I said I had and she will let me know if she hears of anything.

We talked about my interest in their family and the history of the village and Genevieve suggested we meet next week for a discussion with Marie and Jean-Roger. I was delighted and hope we can manage to make it happen. I think getting Genevieve involved can help make almost anything happen.

A neighbor came in angrily waving a soggy baguette.

Sympathetic smiles all around and what a shame that the bakery is so bad. Genevieve picked up a loaf from the table and said: “Estagel, bon pain.”

“Oui, et St. Paul,” I said. She agreed and then shook her finger to strongly express disapproval of the Maury bakery, “pas ici.”.

Then she proudly showed the photo of Pappi and explained that I was an American professional photographer and have an exhibit at the Maison du Terroir.

Much nodding of approval.

Madame then changed the subject to our new paint job: “Une jolie nouvelle façade”

Genevieve: Oui, c’est tres bon pour le quartier.

I noticed a glance at the oven, realized it was almost time for lunch and wishing everyone a bon appetit, left thinking how much these little things mean in a village this small.

 

Scherl Boffo at Box Office

I hadn’t even realized how nervous I was until I woke up Saturday morning and didn’t want to get out of bed, then I remembered that for the past week my hands had been shaking when I tried to write, food had been an afterthought and I had totally forgotten how to speak French.

There wasn’t really any reason to be nervous. The photos were printed, framed and hung, invitations were out, posters were posted. My remarks were written and my accent honed. There was nothing left to do except show up. And there, I think is the fear. What if no one came?

©2012 Ron Scherl

Irrational of course, but there’s a part of me that thinks if I hadn’t worried no one would have come.

But they came, more than I expected, they enjoyed the show, bought some prints, and understood and applauded my speech. I talked about how different it was to come to a small town in France after living all my life in large US cities and what a pleasure it is to walk around the village and exchange bonjours with everyone. I talked about how special a place Maury is. I thanked the winemakers for sharing their knowledge and passion with me and thanked the mayor and others for welcoming me into their community. And that welcome was the essence of this day, my real initiation into the village of Maury.

I don’t have any photos of the event, it was the only thing I neglected, but here are a few images of the venue in morning sunlight, followed by a gallery of the exhibit.

©2012 Ron Scherl
©2012 Ron Scherl

Show Time

Exhibition PosterI’ve started printing images for an exhibition to open in April and I’m really pleased with the work. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to say that. I can always find things that I think could have been done better but for the most part, I’m happy. And this output, a 17x 22 inch print is critical, since my analog photo background doesn’t see the image as complete until it’s printed. Of course it really isn’t since the RAW file is just a negative subject to interpretation in the next stage of the process. The only real difference is the lack of nasty chemicals to breathe.

So the shutters are closed, the space heater on full power sits next to my desk and I sit here layered with turtleneck, hooded sweatshirt, sweater, scarf and fleece trying to keep my brain working and my fingers moving. It’s very cold here. If you ask the locals if it’s unusually cold (and I’m now fluent in weather), you’ll get one of three answers: oui, non, or just a shrug, the all-purpose French gesture with multiple meanings. In this case I translate it as beh, it’s the weather, what can you do, a sentiment that applies to everything you can’t find a way to blame on Sarkozy.

While it’s probably not his fault – I think you can make a better case for blaming Ronald Reagan – last summer’s heat and this winter’s cold provide a lot of evidence that our climate is stretching at the edges and the comfort zone is shrinking.

The temperature hovers around 30o Fahrenheit, but the wind keeps blowing through the valley and right through this house, which the renovators never expected to be occupied in the winter. Even with the shutters closed the wind can rattle the windowpanes and you just know the heat is flying right out the windows. I haven’t been this cold since my last night game at Candlestick.

The cold also keeps people indoors and isolated. There’s no real tradition of visiting homes, people greet and chat on the streets, but not now. The town could really use a hospitable place to gather but the café doesn’t seem to work that way. I’m not sure why but it just doesn’t feel welcoming and I’m told that’s especially true for women.

Photo of vineyards in snow
Vineyards in Snow ©2012 Ron Scherl

The exhibit features vineyards in summer heat, autumn color and under snow, and portraits of winemakers. Most of the shooting is done. Last week I photographed the first woman president of the Cave Cooperative leaving two more portraits to do. I’d also like a spring landscape if it arrives in time.

It’s very satisfying to do work that’s enjoyable and personally significant, to do it well and have that recognized. It may be a small pond but it’s a nice place to swim.

Outside/In

I was writing last week about the distancing effect of photography and while there’s some truth to that, it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. Photography can be an effective means of entry into societies that would otherwise have been closed. The issue is what you do with the access.

Looking back, I’m disappointed that I never made more of almost complete access to the San Francisco Opera for twenty years. Several book projects were started, none completed, a portrait series never reached the critical mass necessary for publication or exhibit.

David Hockney ©1982 Ron Scherl

For a long time, I felt I just needed to do my assignments well and the rest would fall into place. But that is not enough, not in a creative profession and probably not in any other. What matters, what defines you, is how far you go beyond the requirements. This may be motivated by ambition, desire for recognition, passion or all three. I don’t think it matters. For career advancement or personal satisfaction, you have to find the drive to do more.

Looking ahead, I don’t intend to make that mistake again. I’ve come here to explore this place, get to know it and produce a work I value. The motivation may be any or all of those above or maybe something else that I’m not even conscious of; again, it doesn’t matter. It’s slow and frustrating, but since that’s how I’d also describe my progress learning French, I’d say there’s a strong possibility the two are related. But there is progress, I finally got Jean-Roger and Marie to sit still for an interview and I’ll keep reminding them of their promise to help with access to their families, my key to the town’s history. The book is taking shape, although a different one than I expected before I came here and the work is good. The writing is better than I anticipated and I think I’m a better photographer now than I’ve ever been. To prove it, I’ve arranged to have an exhibit in the Maison du Terroir in April.

So, to those of you who responded privately to the last post, stop worrying.

In other news, there’s snow on the hills and I still haven’t won at Bingo.

Bingo Photo
Bingo ©2012 Ron Scherl

Outside

©2012 Ron Scherl

I’ve been thinking lately about the role of the outsider, since I’ve chosen to put myself in that position. It’s not the first time. Through the accident of birth and well meaning parents and educators, I found myself at the age of sixteen in a small liberal arts college in the heart of Maine. I did choose the college and I can’t give you a reason other than it looked perfect, exactly as my sixteen-year-old brain thought a college should look. What no one considered, or didn’t discuss with me, was that at sixteen I’d be two years younger than everyone else and while I might be academically capable, I’d be socially inept. Eighteen-year-old girls were very much older than me.

And New York Jews were a tiny minority indeed. I went looking for kinship in the “Jewish fraternity” only to discover the inanity of fraternity life, which sent me back on my own. I drove to San Francisco with two high school friends and decided to stay as they went on. I found a job and an apartment but made no friends. I loved the city, I walked, observed, kept a journal probably much like this one. I went back to college and lived alone, grew a beard, wore black turtlenecks, smoked unfiltered cigarettes. I had friends, but I also had a part to play.

I became a photographer. I was more comfortable with a camera between the world and me. I often photographed performance, documenting the creative efforts of others, but the best jobs came when I was not working alone, when I was part of a creative team, either in the theatre or on a documentary assignment. I loved those jobs but they were rare, there might have been ten in a forty-year career. A photographer is an observer, or to use Geoff Dyer’s word a “noticer.” You look at your subject, you look at the light, you try to make the two work together. If they don’t, you look at something else. It’s necessary to separate in order to observe, get too close and vision blurs.

And now, at a difficult time, I’ve chosen to come to a small village in France to write (a solitary pursuit) about myself and other outsiders (those who came here to make wine). I am of course an outsider here, separated by language, culture and tradition and I often feel lonely. People of the town are very friendly and polite, always saying hello, asking if things are going well (Ça va?), but they very rarely invite you to their homes. I have some friends among the expats, but they’re all much younger than me and their lives are centered on their families. I put myself in a somewhat uncomfortable place because I thought it was necessary to enable me to write this book, or because I wasn’t sure where else to go, but it turns out I’m really in the same place I’ve always been and perhaps I’ll soon learn whether what preceded was preparation or what continues is merely habit.

 

I’ll leave you with a link to an article entitled: “France, the World’s Most Depressed Nation?”

Visa Pour L’Image

Here’s the Place Republique in Perpignan most days:

Market in Perpignan
Market in the Place Republique, Perpignan ©2009 Ron Scherl

Like many great cities, Perpignan provides a lovely public space that serves as meeting place, living room, market and cafe for many people. The market is there most mornings and the square is surrounded by good food shops and cafes. Think of the Plaza Mayor in Madrid or the Piazza San Marco in Venice, now scale it down in size, number of tourists and architectural ambition and you have the Republique in Perpignan, a place appropriate to its setting.

Now take a look at the place in the evening during Visa Pour L’Image:

Photo of Visa crowd
Overflow crowd at Visa Pour L'Image ©2011 Ron Scherl

This is one night in a week of presentations and this is the overflow audience, those who couldn’t get in to the program at the Campo Santo. They’ve filled the plaza to watch the video broadcast of the presentation of the year’s best photojournalism. It’s astonishing to see a crowd like this paying attention to the images and paying homage to those journalists who risk everything to tell a story. I’m in awe of them and very fond of this city that welcomes and honors them.

Incredible Images, great storytelling, courage, a commitment to telling the truth, as we democratize the news and encourage citizen reporting, it’s important to remember the value of professionalism.