Tuesday, February 20, 2018

All art is somehow obsessive but many photographers take it to extremes (where most of the best pictures are): extremes of place, extremes of climate, extremes of consciousness. In this blog, we are investigating those obsessions, i.e. the extremes photographers will go to make a point.


There are those who would say that art is by its very nature obsessive. Many artistic projects can start as simple ideas but others are ambitious. What begins with a singular concept can with time become something quite different. Maintaining the same point-of-view for days, months, years has a lot to do with luck & what you learn along the way. Time changes everything & that goes for photography too. Also, a simple idea can become boring. An ambitious one can become too complex. It takes a certain type to see it through to ridiculous limits.

Edward Curtis

In 1906, the American financier, JP Morgan, provided Edward Curtis with funds to photograph Native Americans. Eventually, Curtis saw his goal to not only photograph but to document as much traditional Native American way of life as possible, before it disappeared. The project extended to over thirty years. Curtis took more than 40 thousand images of over 80 tribes along with motion picture film & sound recordings of language & music. Much of this material exists as the only recorded history. The New York Herald hailed it as “the most ambitious enterprise in publishing since the production of the King James Bible.”

Nick Nixon 

Photographer, teacher Nick Nixon has taken a portrait of his wife Bebe & her three siblings, The Brown Sisters, every year since 1974, making us confront the passing of time, family ties & our own mortality. The series is a testament to the cumulative power of what began as a simple idea done out of boredom. Nixon utilizes a large format camera & poses the four women in the same position every year. It has been widely exhibited in galleries & museums such as MoMA.

Karl Baden

Self portrait daily for 40+ years
Teacher/photographer, Karl Baden, has been doing “selfies” since before that term was coined. Using the same 35mm camera, tripod, backdrop & lighting, the Cambridge resident has photographed himself in the same exact position to the best of his abilities since February 23, 1987. Besides mortality, Baden says the project touches on the notions of obsession, incremental change, and perfection.


Of course, the final product is the driving force for many artistic projects that become obsessions. The pursuit of a single or series of images may force a photographer to follow a nonlinear course of action. They are seeking a vision that proves elusive or out of reach. The obsession comes from not being dissuaded until that vision is realized. Perfection is difficult or impossible even but the artist persists. That advances human knowledge & visual literacy. Art teaches us not just to see but to see better.


Guy Walks Across America

This video of a man trekking from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge was a viral sensation on YouTube. The video is popular not just because it's a trek past American landmarks both major and minor, but because of a unique visual effect created by a combination of stop-motion and time-lapse video. The finished project consists of 2,770 still frames shot over 14 days. The filmmakers actually traveled cross-country in an RV, "living on the Gatorade diet" and stopping at scenic places along the way to do their shoots.

Daguerreotype of the moon 

US Naval Observatory in Washington DC

Sounds simple enough but the story of two teams 130+ years apart accomplishing scientific legerdemain is a classic obsession. Jan Herman, curator at the US Naval Observatory, & his team thought mounting a large daguerreotype camera to a celestial telescope to duplicate the feat of photographing the moon in 1851 would be interesting & easy. It took the original scientist, George Bond, eight months to figure out how to compensate for the movement of the earth, the wavelengths of light not focusing at the same point through a refracting telescope & ASA of ancient daguerreotype technique being approximately .08.
After a humiliating first attempt, it took the modern crew almost a year to recreate Bond’s efforts. But seeing images of the craters of Tycho & Copernicus appear in the developer was both historical, beautiful & worth the science.

Murray Fredericks/SALT

In his search for "somewhere I could point my camera into pure space," award-winning photographer Murray Fredericks began making annual solo camping trips to remote Lake Eyre and its salt flats in South Australia. These trips have yielded remarkable photos of a boundless, desolate yet beautiful environment where sky, water, and land merge. The large format photographs are sometimes a video diary with time-lapse sequences to create the liberating and disorienting experience of being thrown into an infinite dimension of mind and spirit.
The photographs are accompanied by a 28-minute documentary film also shot over many years. It follows the journey(s) of the photographer, who made over fifteen, often month-long journeys, to the center of the Lake to produce the "Salt" photographic series.

Timothy H O’Sullivan & William Henry Jackson & George Gardner

From 1867 to 1869, Timothy H O’Sullivan was the official photographer on the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. His job was to photograph the West to attract settlers. In so doing, he became one of the pioneers in the field of geophotography. O'Sullivan's pictures were among the first to record prehistoric ruins, Navajo weavers, and pueblo villages of the Southwest. The subject matter he focused on was a new concept. It involved taking pictures of nature as an untamed, pre-industrialized land without the use of landscape painting conventions. O'Sullivan combined science and art, making exact records of extraordinary beauty.
William Henry Jackson was a Civil War photographer who worked for Matthew Brady. Along with a geologist, cartographer, geographer, cavalry, etc. & traveling in horsedrawn wagons equipped with glass plate negative darkrooms, he surveyed unknown territories & subjects similar to O’Sullivan, west of the Mississippi. Their outputs are in the Library of Congress & eventually were used to establish the US Park Service.

Mark Klett & JoAnne Verburg

In 1976 two young photographers, Mark Klett and JoAnn Verburg, and a photo-historian named Ellen Manchester came together with an idea to locate & rephotograph sites in the American West that had originally been documented by the great government survey photographers such as William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan in the late nineteenth century. By the spring of 1977 and with the support of various organizations they began a project that spanned the next three years and would eventually become known as the Rephotographic Survey Project (RSP).

The photographers took great care in reconstructing topographically exact replicas. They researched & attempted to use the same cameras & lenses, same tripod locations, same seasons & time of year to mimic the light & other conditions. This project raises important questions about our relationship to this historic archive.


Many great artists are known obsessive-compulsives. Obsession by its nature is not always good. It has a dark side too. Much of art is personal, painful, dark, negative. It must be to reflect our world. We have talked about extremes but often they become dangerous. Photographers cover wars, precarious events that put them into perilous situations. Some may consider this exciting, cool, adventurous. This is misplaced bravado. But to risk life & limb for art is not a good idea. History only rewards those who get there, record it AND return.

Rooftopping Casualties

The 26 year old Wu Yengning had become a social media sensation in China with the daredevil activity called “ rooftopping”. In this fairly new trend, young people have been trespassing & illegally climbing to the tops of buildings & skyscrapers & radio towers & posting “selfies” of the dangerous feats. Yengning had become quite adept & was chasing a $15000 prize to scale a 62-storey building in Changsha, China. This controversial practice has led to the deaths of many youths around the world & recently Wu fell to his death with the entire episode videotaped. His death is a direct result of promoting this strange & highly maligned new photographic obsession where the risk factors really have no justification.


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About This Blog

blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.