Artist’s Talk || The Stranger’s Path

On April 29, 2017 in association with the Soho Arts Network and the Soho Photo Gallery, I presented an artist’s talk about “The Stranger’s Path”. The following was written in preparation for that talk. It is not a very polished bit of writing, but this provided me with all of the notes need to make my presentation.

You can view the work by clicking here.

Welcome to Soho Photo.

And, thank you all for coming.

I don’t know how many artist’s talks you may have heard, but from my experience, broadly speaking, there are two kinds.

One is when the artist says — hey — Yahoo!! I’m a great artist, look at my work! Typically, with this kind of talk the artist presents their trajectory. The second type of artist’s talk is when the artist wants the audience to understand certain core concepts and ideas … Things that might be helpful for the audience to learn and know about.

This presentation is a kind of hybrid. Because – Yahoo! — I think this is a pretty great piece of art … but I’m not going to review in any detail the trajectory of my work that lead up to this piece.

But rather, I’m going to focus on this picture; “The Stranger’s Path” – and talking about the underlying ideas that motivated me to make it.

When looking at a work of art, the process of interrogating the viewing experience can be deconstructed or broken down into components. With visual arts, words are an intermediary translation and with all translations, using words to discuss a visual work of art is an imperfect process … but an artist’s talk … is indeed talk.

When interrogating a work the key components are the AFFECT; the material and technical process; the social or cultural message; a personal relationship – between the viewer and the work or the artist and the work; the art historical context and potentially other theoretical, philosophical or mythical components.

These various attributes can be prioritized and placed in a hierarchy. AFFECT being the most important and the technical process or materiality the least.

The intent of this talk is to hopefully provide you with enough words for you to translate the work for yourself — so you can have a deeper understand and feeling for this work.

Before moving into the specific subject matter and ideas behind The Stranger’s Path, I would like to discuss the history of this form — the panorama.

The word “panorama” is derived from two Greek roots, pan [all] and horama [view], and it is comparable to other modern words like “telephone,” and “automobile.”

The panorama painting was invented by the self-taught English painter, Robert Barker and he coined the term “panorama”. He applied for a patent for his invention in 1787.

The earliest form of a true “panorama” was a very large painting, around 100 feet in diameter and 45 to 50 feet high, but some were larger and there were many derivative styles – some smaller, some not a full 360 degrees and some on huge rolls – over 2000 feet long – that were mechanically rotated and presented with a narrator.

Panoramas were an early form of visual mass media and more-or-less from 1790 to 1910 panoramas where a big business. Entrepreneurs built large round buildings – rotundas – to show these large paintings and they charged an admissions fee. This was a break-out circumstance in the arts, since prior to the presentation of panoramas to a paying audience, art was supported principally by the aristocracy or the church.

At first art critics of the day thought they were awful, but as the public clamored for more — and as they were revolutionary at a time of great change, the critical response became much more supportive.

We all know that the 19th-century in the Western world was a time of cultural and social change – it was the time when capitalism, globalization and the industrial revolution really took off. Panoramas were invented to provide a kind of entertainment – and an art experience – for a growing urban population. As people migrated to urban centers to do labor for pay there was an expanding bourgeois class. People who had some extra time and money wanted to be entertained and they wanted to feel some identity with the aristocracy – so they wanted to appreciate art – like their much wealthier compatriots.

These large paintings appeared in all of the major European cities and in particular: London, Paris & Berlin, but they also traveled to smaller places throughout Western Europe and the Eastern Seaboard of United States.

The subject matter was also a break from the traditional “idealized landscape” that proceeded the panorama. There were no classical or allegorical scenes, that only educated connoisseurs could appreciate, but rather these monster paintings showed famous contemporary battle scenes, high angle overviews of major cities, like London and Paris … and views of other exotic places – like the holy city of Jerusalem.

And, since these pictures presented real places and real events — the panorama artists strove for and promoted the technical accuracy of their work. Accuracy and detail was super-important – and if something was painted incorrectly – there would be press reports about the errors.

It’s interesting to also think about how the panorama imitated the experience of travel to a great variety of exotic locales. Many newspaper articles quoted enthusiastic spectators’ sensation of being transported to distant places “in the twinkling of an eye” and “as if in a dream.” And the trips they could take while looking at a panorama was not only faster and more comfortable, but above all a lot cheaper.

Again, regarding the aristocracy – before the panorama, under the academy rules, landscapes showed a view with a central perspective with about a 45 degrees angle of view. The central perspective assumed the viewer’s eye would be at a fixed and prescribed place. This means that only one person at a time could stand and look at the painting correctly … one privileged person. The panorama could be looked at by many at the same time — and is likely one reason it became so popular.

This democratization of perspective led in turn to two innovations; First, in contrast to private or royal collections, panoramas were open (only!) to the public, to anyone willing to pay the price of admission. And secondly, as I noted earlier – the subject matter shifted from mythological and allegorical scenes to realistic cityscapes and recent political events, like battles or sieges, that would be of interest to the average newspaper reader.

It is rather interesting to me, that Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the first popularized photographic process – the Daguerreotype – began his career working as an assistant to Pierre Prevost, a prominent Paris based panorama painter …

Making a panorama was a labor intensive activity. Teams of artists would be deployed for up to a year to sketch a particular place … and then those sketches would be converted into the very large paintings, sometimes taking a team of 10 or more people a year to complete. A photographic approach would certainly make this business leaner and I hypothesize that this might be part of the reason Daguerre was so focused on discovering a photographic process that worked!

Parenthetically, prior to inventing the Daguerreotype process, Daguerre invented and patented the Diorama, all of which included panoramic paintings.

There are a number of other people, that most would not necessarily associate with the panorama – like Robert Fulton, the steamboat entrepreneur. He was the first person to bring panoramas to Paris.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who is best know as a neo-classical architect responsible for many buildings in Berlin which significantly raised the profile of Berlin as a major European city. But, what’s not commonly know is that he began his career as a panorama painter.

The great uncle of the modernist, Walter Gropius, who started the Bauhaus was Wilhelm Ernst Gropius. He was the founder of the Gropius dynasty of entrepreneurs, scene painters, scholars, and architects. He also started his career painting miniature panoramas.

The first panorama rotunda in the United States was built in 1804 just down the block from here – at the corner of Broadway and Reade Street. It opened showing Robert Ker Porter’s Battle of Alexandria, which had been presented with great financial success in London in 1802. A couple of years later, in 1807, what is considered the first museum in New York City, opened to show a panorama of Rome. In 1812 a panorama of Paris, was exhibited in a building at the corner of Broadway and White Street, literally 2-blocks from here.

The well known American neoclassical painter, John Vanderlyn invested heavily in building out a second rotunda in New York City for showing panoramas, which opened in 1818 with his fabulous picture; the Palace and Gardens of Versailles. This 12 by 165 foot pan can be seen today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is likely that while in Paris, Vanderlyn studied with Pierre Prevost, the same artist who employed Daguerre and was promoted by Fulton. We do know that Vanderlyn and Fulton were friends.

Throughout the 19th-century the panorama went through a variety of technical changes and innovations. There was Daguerre’s diorama and then the double-effect diorama, there were moving panoramas, cosmoramas, Europoramas, myrioramas, georamas and others … ‘orama’ had became a hugely successful marketing phrase.

The Universal Exposition of 1889 in Paris might be considered the high point for this movement. Seven panoramas were created and presented during this fair. By 1910 the panorama in Western Europe was pretty much a dead medium – replaced by the movies – an even more captivating mass media.

However, in the Soviet Union, artists continued to be commissioned to make big panoramic paintings until the USSR collapsed. In China today, panoramas are still being painted.

————

So, now let’s talk about The Stranger’s Path. I had promised that I would not review the trajectory of my work, but allow me to say that I’ve been interested in maps, landscape art and what people build for a long time. My earlier landscapes were mostly very tightly composed, with a focus on color, detail and texture – and usually no people. These are in a style of picture making that has been popular in photography since its earliest days. And, this earlier work was very much informed by the mid-1970’s New Topographics movement in photography.

As I was making that work a couple of things happened. First, occasionally people began to appear in the pictures and I decided that I wanted to go wider and to some extend looser with the edge of my frame.

In today’s artistic world, a major buzz word is: “research” … This can be simply going out and finding or making photographs to consider, but it also includes reading histories, philosophy and/or literature. Research is all about looking for what other people have said or written that might inform the work you’re making. I have read on my areas of interest – to gain a better understanding of maps, landscape art and the built environment, which lead me to reading the works of a number of geographers.

Geography is broadly broken into two fields of study: There is Physical Geography, which in the simplest manner is expressed through cartography and Human Geography, sometimes also called Cultural Geography. I read, Carl O. Sauer who was a prominent American human geographer from around 1915 until the late 1950s. He was a professor at Berkley and created what was called the Berkley School of Geography which focused on corology. That’s C-O-R-O-L-O-G-Y — it is from the Greek ; kh?ros which means “place or space” … So corology is the study of the interactions between nature – between geographical phenomena – and how people change that place by what they build – in an iterative process. Sauer also coined or rather translated to English the term: cultural landscape. To quote Sauer, “The cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape is the result.”

We now live in the anthropocene … an epoch were most of our planets natural world is directly and continuously impacted by people. So, in a sense — everywhere we look there is a ‘cultural landscape’ – the place where people and nature interact. This omnipresence is a conundrum. I guess, one can take photographs of everything – everywhere – and considering the billions of photographs flowing on the Internet, maybe that is happening in a collective way.

At this juncture, I’ve decided to limit my photographic subjects to areas that have the greatest social import and interest to me. Those being the impact of globalization, travel, and landscapes related in some manner to our electrical grid. But recently I started a project about the American trucking industry which is taking me in a somewhat different direction.

I have done a fair amount of reading about the ‘tourist’s gaze’ and the relationship between a person making photographs while traveling in a foreign land. I’m not going to dive deeply into that topic, except to acknowledge to you that I’m very aware and sensitive to the cross-cultural opportunities as well as the mishaps, blunders and globalizing aspects of the mediascape.

Traveling as a tourist can be great fun and deeply rewarding, but I have always preferred living in a place for a while – rather than passing through a place as a tourist. One of the major advantages to an living abroad, rather than traveling as a tourist – is that you can return to a location to ‘get it right’ …

Last year, I had the privilege of being able to stay in Berlin, Germany for 9-weeks. In this picture the sun backlights the people, so on a clear day the people are in deep shadows. I closely tracked the weather and photographed this location five times before getting this one.

Anyhow, from 1951 until 1968 the renown American geographer, J.B. Jackson, published a quarterly magazine called, “Landscape, Human Geography of the Southwest.” This periodical and Jackson’s writings influenced the famous land artist, Robert Smithson, the landscape painter, Rackstraw Downes, the early work of the pop artist, Ed Ruscha, many others artists and me.

Jackson wrote widely about human geography and was particularly interested in the vernacular or commonplace everyday landscape.

In 1956, he wrote an essay, called The Stranger’s Path. In it he describes the circumstances that a stranger would experience when traveling to any mid-size American city. The stranger or traveler has a common experience when they arrive in a city like Pittsburgh or Minneapolis. The traveler would first arrive at the bus or train station. The architecture, the layouts, and the feeling of these transit points would be pretty much the same – irrespective of which city they arrived in. And, then the kinds of business and activity that surround bus stations — everywhere — are similar. They are typically ringed by fast, cheap restaurants, bars, tourist shops and bordellos. As the traveler moves further away from the bus station, there are also commonalities of experience. There are the financial/business sections which have little street traffic at night or on weekends … and the places on ‘the other side of the tracks’ – that have industrial zones and/or communities of less privileged people.

I was fascinated by this idea — the idea that irrespective of who you are — or where you are coming from — or where you are going — that when you arrive someplace new there are certain common experiences.

Things have certainly changed in 60 years since JP Jackson wrote The Stranger’s Path – like airports are more dominate transit points than bus stations … but in some ways things have not changed that much.

Marc Auge’ – a contemporary French anthropologist has written philosophically about what he has coined “non-places” … Auge argues that there are two extremes – “non-places” and “anthropological places”, the later are inscribed with local cultural characteristics. Being post-modern, he doesn’t consider non-places/anthropoligal places to be absolutes — but rather they present a continuum between places that are clearly of a local culture and places that aren’t. Non-places are typically places that surround transient activities, like train stations, airports, hotel lobbies and the edges of highways. Non-Places are places where many different people from many different cultures interact while experiencing a common function. And, hence are having a common experience with common feelings.

When I went to Germany last year — these two perspectives on the commonality of experience people have as they travel — were top of mind. And, the result is this picture – honoring JB Jackson through the title.

Here is the airport – a primary example of a non-place in our contemporary globalized world — and here is the train station — the urban transit hub — again a place that is a non-place … a place with out a specific local culture and one that is remembered only generically – they are remembered as airports and train stations, but not necessarily ‘German.’

There are a couple of other aspects of this picture that might raise questions for you. For example, why the multiples of the people? Well – yes – this is intentional! First, I find it interesting to ‘break’ certain photographic conventions. A primary one being that traditionally – a photograph is always “of a moment” – the fraction of time that the exposure is made. This was canonized by Cartier Bresson when he described his work with the phrase, “The Decisive Moment” … In this picture — there are indecisive moments — multiple moments in transition.

There are certain things I do when I travel and I expect you might do the same — that being — to sit at a cafe or in a park or in front of a historic site and watch people go by. It provides a kind of non-stop entertainment. The composer John Cage and his partner, the choreographer Merce Cunningham where major experimentalists in the post-war avant garde. A fundamental aspect of their work was to try to wake people up to the fact that art is everywhere. That music and dance are omnipresent, if only you were awake enough and conscious enough to see it. The idea that if you simply pay attention the entire experience of watching others – is a way of watching a rather beautifully intuitive impromptu choreographed ballet. And, by me showing you multiples of a person moving through space, I’m hoping that you can see this — this ballet that is happening during the mundane and ordinary process of moving to and from an airport and a train station.

For some time, artists have been experiment with trying to find different ways to express motion in still photographs or paintings. Some of my favorites include the fabulous motions studies by Eadweard Muybridge and Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”. But there are many many other examples.

As I noted, I’m interested in exploring visual representations of travel – which of course requires motion … and non-places are typically transient places – with people moving. So, my inclusion of these multiple figures continues the experiments of trying to represent motion in an otherwise still picture.

And, frankly — the multiples are fun … it can be a kind of “where’s waldo” game you play with yourself as you look…. Do I see that person again? Have they changed? Who are they? What are they thinking. Why is this figure repeated and this other one not? All in all – it becomes a visual engagement tool – you spend more time looking and considering the work. I value that.

Finally, there is a common assumption that a photograph is truthful in some manner. It’s curious that the earliest landscape painters — the Dutch guys that invented the Western landscape art movement in the 17th-century would move things around in their paintings. In Holland, a nation already fighting against a rising sea, artists would move important landmarks in their paintings from where they actually stood — to higher and safer ground.

Landscape art can be enigmatic – they are an interpretation, a mysterious representation of a place – or a non-place. So although some people might think that a photograph is “real” or at least represents a real place – in fact they are artificial and enigmatic. It is my hope that when seeing the repeating figures you will have an uncanny feeling that will push you to see and wonder about this artificially represented place.

Then there is the accompanying soundscape – what’s the intent. And again there are layers. First audio produces a much different emotional response in people. It is a linear temporal medium that forces you to spend a few more minutes with my piece. The soundscape is also another small nod to the great panoramas of the 19th-century – which were created to entertain the viewer and were sometimes accompanied by an orchestra or a narration. As I noted, I’m interest in exploring the common experience people have when they travel through non-places. I want you the viewer to get closer to having that same experience. The soundscape provides a more immerse experience of walking through this tunnel. The soundscape helps place you as a subject in the picture.

The final topic I’d like to discuss is one that is integral to the photographic process. That’s editing. Editing takes place at a number of stages, but it starts when the picture is made — by deciding what to include or exclude in the frame. This picture is not a true panorama, since formally and by definition at least, a panorama represents a 360 degree view. This picture is a partial panorama at about 210 degrees. Well why? First, I have no particular compulsion to do ‘true’ 360 degree panoramas – although I’m thinking about that in a future project … but I do care about where the frame starts and ends.

When making big pans, it is very difficult to be precise with the edge of the frame in the field, so I usually shoot wider than I think I want with the intent of cropping or editing the picture later. The left side is purposely cropped to not include the full name of the airport. The idea is that if this is a non-place – identifying the location with a specific name and one that in this case is very German – it would distract you from one of the underlying concepts. And, on the right side, I wanted to include the train station as a non-place destination, but beyond it was a huge parking lot, which I just didn’t think would add to the picture.

And, so — there we are. The Stranger’s Path.

———-

The Technical
Many people, when looking at this picture, want to know – “how did you make this?” – “what was the technical process?”

I’m not sure how many of you would be interested in this least important aspect of this picture. Would you like me to continue and outline how it was made?

Through out the history of photography, photographers and viewers have been amazed and intrigued by the ‘black box’ … the technology that made it possible to make a picture with a camera.

The primary ingredient in every photograph is light. Like many street photographers, I make all of my photographs outdoors with natural light – just the sun and my camera. And, I generally prefer clear blue sky weather, although as you can see, I’m not entirely wedded to that look.

This picture was made with a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera; specifically a Nikon D800e with a 120mm lens. I generally take pictures with the smallest possible aperture to get the greatest amount of depth of field, so the core triad was an ISO of 250 at f11 at 250th of a second.

This is a stitched panorama and you get the best results with this process by not changing the exposure – particularly the f-stop – and by not changing the focus. So, after figuring out the best exposure, the camera is set to manual mode.

The camera was mounted on a tripod with a GigaPan head, which is a motorized contraption that has a bit of software control for making multiple, overlapped exposures. To operate the GigaPan, you set the top left corner of the frame and the bottom right corner of the frame and the GigaPan head will then proceed to automatically move the camera and expose the pictures. This picture is composed of 4 rows and 18 columns of frames. So, the core background is made up of 72 pictures.

When shooting a panorama that will be stitched, it’s important that the nodal point of the lens be positioned precisely over the center point of the rotation. The GigaPan head is designed so you can move the camera — to align the nodal point of the lens. This eliminates parallax issues with the overlapping frames. An easy way to understand parallax is to close one eye and hold your finger out in front of you. Align your finger with some spot in the background and then move your head. When you do that the relationship between your finger and the spot in the background changes. If you were a Cyclops with one eye — in the center of your head — this shift between the foreground and the background would not happen.

When making a stitched panorama, you want to mitigate this parallax shift and if you don’t there will be stitching errors that will impossible to fix.

After the core background is photographed, I stick around — without moving the location, the exposure, focus or the mount of the camera – sometimes for several hours – making additional pictures.

Those additional frames capture all the additional action. I may re-photograph the sky if the clouds are moving — and then each person or group of people are photographed — sometimes multiple times.

All of these photographs – as RAW files – get processed in an identical manner and exported as TIFF files. Those TIFF files are then loaded into a sophisticated bit of stitching software called PTGui which aligns all of the frames. PTGui then allows you to export the stitched picture into Photoshop with all of the pictures layered and properly registered.

Because the sky was still much brighter than the people, I built the pan with a second round of TIFF files developed to be darker, so the sky had more detail. This darker sky portion was layered on the earlier version and painted in. This is a kind of artificial HDR or high dynamic range technique that can give you a dynamic range in the picture that cannot be captured with a single exposure.

This picture has about 120 picture layers, not including the additional sky layers and the base file was about 40Gigabites. That is BIG! The file is about 82,000 pixels long x 9,500 pixels wide. Now, my smart phone has what some consider to be the best smart phone camera. It has 12.3 megapixels. This picture has 776 megapixels.

In Photoshop, I go through each picture layer — painting in or painting out the people I want to include or exclude … and fixing any stitching errors, which can require moving a frame and/or making a brightness adjustment on a picture by picture basis.

When the painting is finished, the large file is flattened and saved. I then I burn and dodge and make all of the necessary contrast & color adjustments. This file is then flattened again for final re-touching and sharpening.

The file is re-sized for the print being made — and printed. In this case, the original file is capable of an output approximately 30% larger than this print!

I decided to make this print look very ‘photographic’ — so I used Canson Baryta paper, which has this beautiful and photographically traditional “F” finish.

Because working at this scale was new to me … it took about 200 hours of Photoshop time. I can work somewhat faster today, but each pan still requires a lot of labor to complete.

Today is the final day of this show — but we have a few minutes for questions, before I roll up this print.

I would prefer not to discuss in any greater depth the technical process, but do you have any questions?

—–
Notes:
Daguerre’s double-effect diorama was a response to the need of the public for instant, effortlessly consumable “art.” The most successful diorama ever exhibited by Daguerre was a double panorama of the interior of the Church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, in Paris.

… And for every new variation the exhibitors invented a high-sounding name: the “mechanico-optical cabinet,” “panopticon,” “Theatrum Mundi,” “optical transparent illusion,” “physical-picturesque views,” “voyage in a room.” Forms ending in -orama were especially popular, naturally: There were “cosmoramas,” “vitroramas,” “cyporamas,” “delloramas,’ “Europoramas,” “diaphanoramas,” and so on. All these fantastic titles were intended to suggest some resemblance to the panorama, and in fact most of them were offshoots of the original in one way or another.

Cosmorama or Europorama (landscape scenes, painted in watercolors on strips of paper 18-20 feet long and up to 3.5 feet height. They were then mounted to for a semicircle and enclosed in a case. To view them, visitors stepped up to a matching semicircle of magnifying lenses set in the front of the case. The point of using lenses was not primarily magnification, although they did enlarge the scene about three times. Rather it was the sense of plasticity and greater distance they created between painting and observer.

Myriorama – A usually fanciful and exotic landscape is painted on a long strip of paper and then cut into sections of equal width. The horizon lines match at two edges of each “card,” so that they can now be laid in any order (figure 1.17). The variations are almost infinite; for example, the possible combinations for a myriorama consisting of twenty-four cards are in the sextillions (1,686,553,615,927,324,187,720 to be exact).
Cinerama
Pansereoramas (presented in relief rather than on painted surface)
Georama (globe shaped)
Panopticum (round institutional building – like a prison where guards can see every cell from one location in the middle)

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