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Archive for the ‘Photographic Criticism’ Category

Border Insecurity: Why big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren’t Making Us Safer. by Sylvia Longmire. Palgrave/MacMillan. 2014. 250 pp.

Since traveling and living in the deep Southwest, I’ve often been stunned by the front and center role border issues occupy here. No mere distant possibility, close encounters of the border kind happen here with startling regularity. Our first sighting was in Imperial County where Interstate 8 dips almost to touch the border. There, in the late 90s, we watched as a old white beater Yugo pulled into the break down lane where someone scrambled from the drainage ditch into the back seat and off they went. Another time while in a Nogales, Sonora border crossing line I watched a teenager climb over the steel fence into Nogales Arizona. In the local Safeway parking lot I saw men handcuffed then pushed into the back of a Border Patrol van. This spring, again on I-8, off the roadside we saw five camouflage-clad men carrying assault weapons crouched and running through a boulder field. Just last monthBorder Patrol agents shot dead an alleged drug smuggler on a local golf course after he fled his SUV containing about 500 pounds of baled marijuana. Right now over 1000 illegal minors are being warehoused in Nogales about 30 miles south.

Border Insecurity CoverSo I was led to this brand new book, Border Insecurity for some  on-the-ground information.

Tucsonian, border security expert and consultant Sylvia Longmire does an admirable job of bringing readers up-to-date on the current situation at the border. Dense with facts, light on rant or jargon, Longmire’s book offers a cogent, non-partisan contribution to the ongoing conversation on border issues. Longmire divides illegal border crossers into three general types: drug smugglers and the drug cartels behind them; potential terrorists; and those seeking work. Recently Mexican drug cartels have taken over “coyote” operations and now use economic migrants as “mules”— slaves forced to carry drugs over the border or else. And as cartels become increasing violent, spillover effects plague Arizona’s border, placing additional burdens on already overstretched state, county and local law enforcement as well as the 5000+ Border Patrol agents who now cover the Tucson and Yuma Districts.

Topics range from the border “fence” (real and virtual) and other technical fixes, to dogs trained to sniff out drugs in cars, to the barbaric actions often involved in crossing, to money laundering, to what’s happening at the Canadian border.

Her major conclusion is that tough decisions must be made to develop realistic Federal policies, plans and benchmarks, rather than having a frustrated Congress impose strict but unrealistic legislative metrics to measure border control “success”, for example the pie-in-the-sky 95% reduction in illegal crossings currently proposed. Since the vast majority are crossing for jobs she posits they do not pose a direct threat and should be dealt with separately from the obvious homeland security risks posed by lawless drug cartels and potential terrorists. She also recommends closer scrutiny of the real value of costly high tech “solutions”—now deployed or dreamed of. It’s an eye-opening synopsis of our current situation which also offers some hope for the future.

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In mid-September an early autumn storm loaded with copious moisture from a Pacific typhoon roared over the Oregon Coast. Rain was heavy, five to ten inches, with 70 mph winds on the capes, dangerous seas worthy of Winslow Homer, and 23′ breakers.

Often the most impressive displays of oceanic fury follow shortly after Pacific storms move eastward. As the cold front passed, we headed for Shore Acres State Park, near Coos Bay. Shore Acres is the place for storm watchers on the south and central Oregon Coast, and that is our destination, our pilgrimage to see the salty essence of oceanic power.

At the park, a trail leads through sitka spruce towards the grassy cliff and to numerous viewing angles. We first hear the bombardment, water thundering shoreward before reaching the cliff. A few steps further, and we see a great plume of water climbing 50′ vertically, rising almost to the cliff top in a powerful crescendo, until gravity brings down a  frothy white plume that splashes the roiling surf below and coats my camera lens with salt spray.

The surf  for a few moments is quiet. A momentary lull. But a new wave of big breakers then rolls in from the deep ocean, breaking near shore or against the cliffs, one after another, five or ten in a row, roaring like a cannonade, reverberating across the headlands, only finally muffled by the silence of the deep forest.

My photographs taken that day give only a few dimensions of the reality. The camera clicked and clicked, slowing as the computer tried to process so much intense light. Many wave pictures are now taken with a slow shutter, thus blurring and smoothing what is really wild and chaotic action. The fast shutter of these pictures emphasizes that wildness and chaos. But it’s the viewer who must anticipate the almost terrifying audible dimension of crashing water, the taste of salt spray, the smell of brine and damp forest, in fact all the senses and emotions when confronting such spellbinding nature as a Pacific storm. A photograph can only suggest.  SRE

SHORE ACRES STATE PARK

AFTER THE STORM

all images © SR Euston

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The following selection of photographs has at least in the photographer’s mind a kind logic. Situated somewhere in the interstices between architectural, abstract and urban landscape photography, there pictures represent a kind of personal record of  everyday objects or structures  (most without artistic pretentions) whose geometry “says something”—arcs, angles, lines and circles all mixed together whose random juxtaposition creates everyday scenes that have an abstract intrinsic order, sometimes even subliminal overtones that hint at a sort of beauty in the mundane world of the mass produced built environment. SRE

PLAIN GEOMETRY

(all photos copyright SR Euston)

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It is said rather obviously that the photographer works creatively with light.  After all, exposure meters measure light, film chemicals and pixels respond to light. The “quality of light” that attracted and still does attract so many fine photographers to the southwest, particularly those working in black and white, has created a sort of mystique around qualities of natural light scattered and reflected off of adobe, mesas, distant ranges, badlands, thunderheads.

Of course, it can equally be said that photography is as much about the absence of light. No shadows, no picture. Southwest landscape, for instance, is all about strong shadows, as well as the subtlest shadow gradations from faintest light to darkest dark. Hence, the yin and yang of expressive picture taking—sol e sombra, light and dark, the day and the intimations of night.

Shadows can be extraordinarily expressive, and sometimes become the real subject of the shot (for me, this is oftentimes). Shadows often convey a feeling of the hidden behind the obvious, of a question mark. This is the evasive, emotion-laden impact of shadows, so expressively demonstrated in some still and motion picture photography of the mid-twentieth century. Shadows can also emphasize bright, crisp architectural geometry, intricate organic traceries of nature, complex abstract design and a hundred other esthetic and emotional states and qualities.

Of course, muddy or totally black shadows can ruin a picture. That is, in emphasizing shadows and given expressive intent, exposure is the great leveler. And if my experience is at all common, always will be the great challenge!

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It’s about a four hour drive from our place on the southern Oregon coast to Eureka, California, where our daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren (Boys 14, 11 and 8) live with a dog, a cat, five chickens and a duck, all on a kind of urban farm. We are spending Thanksgiving in Eureka this year, a “To Grandmother’s house we go” in reverse. As we leave on Wednesday, the weather in Oregon has just opened up after a storm. By the time we reach our daughter’s place in Eureka the skies have cleared. This holiday weekend has materialized the kind of weather residents of the wet and green northwest coast  take solace in.  Afternoons in the 60s, the evenings a bit chilly but the air full of remembrances of harbor and sea and winds and douglas fir and redwood forest. This wonderful weather imparts a holidayish patina, a warm autumnal mood  as we sit down to fresh turkey, fresh cranberries from our own Curry County,  and about ninety accoutrements of a good Thanksgiving feast.

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This slide show is a sort of travel log of this Thanksgiving weekend,  beginning with shots of the rugged Curry County coast, then down Highway 101, the Redwood Highway, to Eureka. It includes a few family pictures, but features lots of photos of a picture packed place called the “North Jetty”.

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The Humboldt South and North jetties, massive linear rock filled projections into the ocean,  protect vessels entering Humboldt Bay from notoriously dangerous Pacific storms. But more to the point for our son-in-law Tim, the North Jetty is a favorite surfing destination, and rolling long period waves are out the afternoon of our visit, as were wet-suited surfers out for a sporting chance at some pretty decent waves, peaking at 15′ or more. Tim has brought us here to find what we will.

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The North Jetty is an a photographic puzzle.  Several other photographers were out, kneeling, craning necks, searching for a certain angle. But many who were carrying cameras seemed uninspired. For me, it  was my first real opportunity to shoot large waves from a side angle, as opposed from straight on from shore, opening up possibilities especially for B/W, emphasizing  the sinuous, emergent power of the long period swells. But equally interesting is the jetty itself. To exploit this subject, one must like geometry.

Contrasted with the oceanic rolls and swells and wave crashes, the jetty is one solid piece of Corps of Engineers construction, including seemingly randomly placed hulking concrete structures looking a bit like giant jacks—like the kind kids once and maybe still do play with. The camera sees shapes and forms and lines and mass in all this. And that is just the beginning, because all this solidity frames a churning kinetic sea.

On our return trip, we stopped in Arcata, and while Ann and Dawn shopped, I came across a couple of urban shots that ratcheted down the drama of waves into in a quiet mood of a dwindling late November day.   SR Euston  All Photos Copyrighted

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Llano Estacado: An Island in the Sky edited by Stephen Bogener and William Tydeman. Texas Tech Press, Lubbock, TX. 2011.

No matter where we go, one of our very first stops is the local library. Here at the Joyner-Green Valley branch of Arizona’s Pima County library system, I picked up a very slick publication called southwest BOOKS of the year 2011, an annual culling and “best of” list—22 in 2011—chosen by a distinguished panel of regional writers and readers and awarded by the Pima County Library. One of the award books, Llano Estacado, from Lubbock’s Texas Tech, had this description: “ this stunning coffee table book is a compendium of photography commissioned to record the Llano, with complementary essays by authors knowledgeable about the region.”

As a New Mexico llano lover I was anxious to take a look.

It certainly is a coffee table book: large format, black and white photos accompanied by appropriately long essays. The library’s award description points out that neither the photographers nor the essayists were given much direction. True enough. Some of the essayists tried to link to the photos; others used only one. For others just the thought of the llano served as a launch pad to say whatever he or she wanted to say about: Lubbock, conservative cowboy culture, old friends, childhood memories, or aquifer depletion in an arid area where cotton and cattle join oil as extractive industries.

New Mexico is rarely mentioned; the Llano seems a West Texas phenomenon. Interestingly, of the fifty-plus photos only two show the Llano as it intrigues me—without humanity and our desolating impacts, glorying in its sheer raw nature. Both are from eastern New Mexico.

Many of the essays hit literary high notes and maybe that’s what the nature part of nature writing inspires. Still, I often was left wondering “huh?” or “why?”

The final essay which takes the book’s second title “An Island in the Sky” is a great introduction to the history of the llano.  I wonder if it might have served better as the first essay to set the stage. And I really could have used a clear simple map. The book’s map which spreads across the cover, front inner to back outer, is overly detailed and very difficult to read, especially for anyone who sees it library-style, with its dust jacket tightly taped down.

I have included an extended excerpt from the Rick Bass’ essay “Waiting.” For me it crystallizes being human on the llano. And as a life-long wanderer, I really resonated with this idea from Sandra Scofield’s essay “Readings”: “Home…isn’t where I live. Home is what feels familiar even if I’m out of place.”

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From Rick Bass, Waiting, an essay in Llano Estacado. An Island in the Sky, edited by Stephen Bogener and William Tydeman. Volume 6 in the series, Voices in the American West published by Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas. 2011:

“Again and again (maybe we don’t always see what we want to see; maybe we can be instructed, or re-instructed, yet, to see things differently), I witness in these photos not the scrappy pride of yore nor the calm content of relative (or perceived) self-sufficiency in the subjects, but instead the outer edges of despair. I do not want to see despair or confusion, nor passivity or waiting, but there it is, again and again….

Doubt is a bitter, weakening thing, as debilitating, I think, as regret. I want to believe I am not seeing what I think I am seeing….

About those landscape photos: they strip away my childhood memories of a more spacious and vibrant and resilient relationship—the town and communities of the Llano, at the healthy edge of further, farther, less-managed landscapes—and reveal, like a surprising glance in the mirror for the first time at a lined face and graybeard stubble—how can this be?—a land stretched very very thin. And upon that living canvas, that fabric, our species has made mistakes; unremarkable, uncomplicated mistakes, generally involving overreaching, often but not always tinged with greed, or at the very least a lack of respect for anything beyond ourselves, and then, fairly quickly, as things sagged or went away, a lack of respect even for ourselves. Simple mistakes and assumptions made on a large canvas repeatedly across time, out in the wide-open, in a land not of bounty but, more often than not, relative paucity. Mistakes made not in the remote backcountry of the West, nor paved and chromed over by the glitter of urban dreams and desires, nor masked by the vegetative uproar and foliated disguise and clamor of either the Northeast or the deep South, but instead mistakes made out in the clear wide-open, illuminated by a brilliant aridity that is, in the end, less forgiving than other landscapes, and I fear, less resilient….

I am not judging. Maybe there wasn’t time. I am not suggesting any of us would have done any differently. I am just looking at the evidence, or what seems like evidence, in these photos….

I am not by nature a pessimist, but the further and farther we go on this journey, the more irritated I become with false or reflexive hope, as opposed to the more difficult brand of earned hope. I hope that someone, somewhere, somehow, will rescue us from this jackpot we seem to have suddenly gotten into. But it seems disrespectful, as well as foolish, to bank on it, and to simply wait. If my heart knows anything, it is that the road does not necessarily go on forever, and that some parties do finally end.”

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The structure, the form is the thing. The genius of the arch? I’m still in awe how engineering of the soaring arcs, meeting at the keystone, holds up the mass of Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals, or even more humbly, rough hewn, adobe brick Spanish mission porticos. Even more remarkable, this elemental architectural and engineering form, going back to Roman times and before, has a symmetry of restful gracefulness, yet in cases—like in bridges—also power and boldness.

The architectural arch has been copied and recopied, oftentimes as a decoration, aka fake. It flourished especially in the California mission style of the first half the last century, only to remerge in subdivision McMansions, east and west, in an odd pastiche of styles. But if one is not a purist, even modern decorative arches I think can present  photographic possibilities of formal power.

Below are photo interpretations of mostly developer-designed modern mission style architectural arches from southern Arizona, some used for structural support, some as mere decoration. Also included are two bridges of very different design from coastal Oregon, and arch forms from historic, much photographed Mission San Xavier de Bac, south of Tucson, and crumbling arch ruins from Tumacacori Mission near Nogales. Here is authentic architecture straight from the Spanish-Mexican period.

I though about, but buried immediately, the idea of including a shot of the golden arches at the nearest McDonalds.The sacred and the profane so to speak. It could have been open to a lot of pseudo-philosophical interpretations, maybe even landing in a museum exhibit.  SRE

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The trip was to Nogales, Sonora. For dental work. (It went fine.) I had some time available while Ann was having a lengthy procedure, and decided to explore the older downtown area of Nogales, Arizona—twin cities here, divided in the middle by the ominous, forbidding looking, steel wall.

Camera in hand, off I go, not knowing what to expect in this modest sized border town, which frankly doesn’t give the casual visitor a great first impression. Well, first off I spot an imposing building on a commanding hill, which is the old courthouse. Its columns and grand stairway are impressive. Structurally weighty, architectonic in impression. A real surprise.

Later, I climb a steep road near the old courthouse leading to what looks like a park. And it is, a little shaded gem of twisted drought-tolerant trees, a few benches, and an incongruous Japanese lantern. Around this little square park are situated a charming group of apparently historic homes, virtually everyone of a different architectural style from California stucco Italianate to 1930s craftsman. Another surprise! So I take a few pictures of this tiny, almost hidden pocket of Nogales, Arizona.

On the way down the hill, I walk through what is I’m sure a largely Hispanic neighborhood. I pass a fine mural. In the distance, sighted over stucco and metal houses, looms the darkling, ominous wall.  SRE

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Call it found art.

Walking along the Coos Bay, Oregon waterfront recently, under an unusually bright coastal sun, I walked past a run-down industrial building just off the main drag. A rather dingy white wall was glaring at me. What caught my eye was an exhaust pipe of some kind, jutting from the wall, a few feet from the sidewalk. It had an enticing feel of volume. The afternoon light gave a glow to the edges of this plain old pipe. I admit to thinking of pictures by pioneer photographer Paul Strand. The stucco wall itself held some visual interest. Though stained by the ages of Coos Bay history, the north coast light slanted off the rough surface, providing some subtle shadowing.

I took the picture, feeling pretty certain it would reveal about what I saw in this old pipe and wall. I’m finding design secrets all the time in some very plain utilitarian stuff. Stuff not designed by big name architects, mostly just the unassuming vernacular buildings, some of recent design. In New Mexico, an indigenous old adobe, or a lonely malt shop; in Utah, ancient ruins with a noble simplicity; at home, a plain sink; in Arizona a lamp-post; in California a fountain; in Oregon, delighfully imitative 1920’s design, refurbished.  Plain design is found pretty much anywhere one looks.

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All Photos and Text Copyright  S.R. Euston

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What’s the relation between photography and great music (I’m here referring to “classical” music)? Well, I’m really not sure. But that hasn’t kept me from experimenting on my own. I heard the “Damnation of Faust” first with the New Mexico Symphony and Chorus. Then, as luck would have it, the Met produced it and featured it in their wonderful HD simulcast series, shown in local movie theaters. Finally, I found a fine rendition on a CD (Deutsche Grammophon album 453-500 with the Philharmonia Orchestra). It’s a long, two disc piece, with two choruses, large orchestra, and soloists. In the Met production, the staging was exciting, transforming a traditionally static production into something close to opera.

Goethe’s “Faust” inspired Berlioz, but he used the French translation, and put his own stamp on even that. In the Berlioz version, Faust, in the depths of depression about the futility of life is approached by the devil. (Faust is no Woody Allen. Only an 19th century drama could pull this off with a straight face.) He is promised bliss and joy. That bliss is in the form of innocent Marguerite, whom Faust seduces. The devil happily awaits the tragic consequences. Marguerite’s mother becomes suspicious. Faust gives Marguerite a sleeping potion, to use on mother during trysts.  Mistakenly, poor Marguerite administers a bit too much of the potion, and mother dies. To save Marguerite (from jail or hell, or both) the devil demands Faust sign a document, condemning the tragic anti-hero to everlasting hell. The riveting, almost earsplitting climax of the music depicts the rushing of Faust and the devil on galloping demon horses riding to the burning fires of hell: ” I can see the earth/Writhe before us / I hear the thunder / Roll beneath our feet.”

Finally,  “A frightful mystery/ Was performed.” Faust, a melancholy depressive who seemingly just wants a chance for happiness, is condemned forever to brimstone and God knows what. But for Marguerite, she enters Heaven “Hope on/ Smile on your blessings / Come, Marguerite.”  Redemption is for Marguerite. The redemption for the listener is, of course, the music.

One’s reaction to great music is a very personal affair. In the case at hand, both lyrics and music combine to create moods, moods that shift from tender to demonic. Photographs have their own moods and emotional impact. Interpreting the one into the other is an interesting exercise in what might be called “emotional visualization.” In terms of the history of photography, this might seem like a reversion to long maligned “pictorialism”, the use of blurry images in sepia, romantic and sentimental. The pioneering realist Edward Weston began a successful photographic career in just this manner. Early Stieglitz pictures are masterpieces of this now forgotten genre. Music can’t help but create moods, and photographs can’t either. To me, whether this is pictorialism or not is beside the point. Whether that transposition of moods works or not, that’s an altogether different matter!     Stanley Euston

The steady rustle of plants and streams (scene 1)

Of wandering, dreamlike/Through the green meadows (scene 5)

A lovely girl follows./Faust, she will love you (scene 7)

There, songs for joy/ echo from the bank ( scene 7)

What have I seen?/What heavenly vision,what angel/with mortal continence?  (scene 08)

Crash down, you rocks, torrents, hurl/ Headlong your waters (scene 16)

I can see the earth / Writhe before us/ I hear the thunder (Scene 18, Ride to the Abyss)

About us see that endless line/ Of skeletons dancing (scene 18)

Then hell fell silent/Only the dreadful bubbling/ Of its great lakes of fire (scene 20)

 Come Marguerite. Hope on/And smile on your blessings  (scene 20)

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