urban photography
June 27, 2005 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Harlan Erskine Photography The catalogue for Walker Evans's exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, prepared by John Szarkowski in 1971, opened with a quotation from Walt Whitman: "I do not doubt but the majesty and beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world ...I do not doubt there is far more in trivialities, insects, vulgar persons, slaves, dwarfs, weeds, rejected refuse, than I have supposed..." This passage has been quoted countless times in the context of photography with good reason. It allows us to sum up the difference between photographing flowers and photographing a milk bottle on a tenement fire escape. Erskine says he tends to gravitate to photographing the milk bottle and not the flower.
posted by Francesnash (27 comments total)
So he specializes in non-interesting subjects shot in non-interesting ways? I don't care if he shoots 35mm or large format, but Ten Convenience Stores and Affordable Houses does nothing for me, and reflections in all-glass architecture is the new "pretty sunset" pictures. A milk bottle on a tenement fire escape might have at least been interesting.
posted by spock at 10:08 AM on June 27, 2005

When art, such as Harlan Erskine's, opens one's eyes in new ways to the world, it is empowering and enriching. I love that his "travel" photography includes pics taken on an escalator and of a subway. Yes, that is traveling too. Thank you also for including the uplifting Whitman quotation, "the majesty and beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world".
posted by nickyskye at 10:11 AM on June 27, 2005

It may be that half of the fascination with Walker Evans photos are the unfamiliarity of the ephemera from 70-so years ago that are depicted in his shots. And maybe in 70 years, these photos will have the same interest. As they are now, in my opinion, these photos are poorly exposed and a bit on the dull side. Walker Evans this guy is not.
posted by crunchland at 10:18 AM on June 27, 2005

Photos are merely OK, resume is rather small - but I wish I had a name like "Harlan Erskine." That's a kickass name.
posted by fungible at 10:34 AM on June 27, 2005

no no! you people are missing it! click on each of the images and it zooms in on a specific area that he finds interesting...

very cool!
posted by stratastar at 11:06 AM on June 27, 2005

Well, I'd have to really get out the liberal arts degree golden shovel to find a reason why any of these pics should be considered anything but snapshots. I'd probably start by setting up some theory that convenience stores are the temples of the modern age, blah blah blah, but really, the composition is boring, the development is lame and I don't see a single thing interesting in any of these pics. But that's just me. More power to him if he can make a living as a photographer, it's hard enough - I'm not going to pee in his rice crispies. But I get nothing from what I'm seeing on the site.
posted by spicynuts at 11:25 AM on June 27, 2005

When it comes to art, everyone has an opinion. Esp. concerning photography, which many find "easy." The comments on this post (aside from sounding uneducated and mean-spirited...i.e. "I don't get anything")...illustrate this point.
posted by Thayer-P at 11:33 AM on June 27, 2005

So saying "I dont get anything from this" is mean-spirited and uneducated? What, I'm supposed to be blown away by every single piece of art I see? I'm an amateur photographer. I like photography. I don't consider it easy. I know what goes into getting a print even to the point this guy has. But apparantly not getting a vibe from something makes one uneducated. So be it.
posted by spicynuts at 11:37 AM on June 27, 2005

The tone of your reply says it all. Not to mention the "amateur photographer" bit.
posted by Thayer-P at 11:39 AM on June 27, 2005

I admit I missed the "click to zoom" feature of this site before. I am still not persuaded, despide Thayer P's pompousity.
posted by crunchland at 11:42 AM on June 27, 2005

When it comes to art, everyone has an opinion. Esp. concerning photography, which many find "easy." The comments on this post (aside from sounding uneducated and mean-spirited...i.e. "I don't get anything")...illustrate this point.

So because a comment is critical or indifferent you feel confident enough to state that its uneducated or mean spirited?! Well this is a critical forum, and your statements are as judgmental as those your finding fault with.

My take? I found Francesnash comments more insightful and well prepared that the works themselves. In a nutshell is work is trite, and no greater than a vast majority of MFA finalists out there. (Actually, I think this a metapromotion vs MeFi link)

Humbly yours.
posted by Mr Bluesky at 11:44 AM on June 27, 2005

pompous is the name of the game here...since nobody is saying anything of substance.
posted by Thayer-P at 11:45 AM on June 27, 2005

I am a photographer. I generally suck, but I've been trying to get better over the last 10 years. Not better technically -- that's easy, anyone with a brain and half-way decent gear can make a technically perfect picture. I mean better artistically.

Making a picture of the mundane worth looking at is really, really hard. This guy doesn't have it. I know, because I don't have it either, and his pictures look like mine.

There are maybe two or three really interesting shots on his website. His "projects" section is all drek: it may be interesting social commentary, but it isn't interesting photography. His portraiture is completely uninspired and amatuerish.

I'm not trying to be mean, and I'm not dissing the post. I never mind looking at a new (to me) photographer's photos. But a Cartier-Bresson this guy is not. At least not now. If he gets honest criticism, though, he might be one day.
posted by teece at 11:50 AM on June 27, 2005

Bluesky, I was quoting from the web site (not my words!)

When I posted, I was hoping for a discussion on contemporary photography--not "I like/dislike" opinion statements. So far, you guys have let me down.
posted by Francesnash at 11:52 AM on June 27, 2005

I suggest that if you were looking for a conversation on contemporary photography, you let us all down by merely linking to one guy's mediocre work.
posted by crunchland at 12:04 PM on June 27, 2005

I was hoping for a discussion on contemporary photography

In what way? Hint: lead the reader that way in the FPP if that's what you wanted. I like the idea to take pictures of the non-beautiful or whatever you want to call it, as this guy advocates. I also absolutely love Whitman's poetry.

The most exciting thing about photography to me these days is that the barrier for entry is very low, the tools for creative expression are abundant and cheap-ish (I know from experience: film, processing, and prints are a lot more expensive than one realizes at first. Digital has eliminated the need for all three, in many fields). If you hang out on pro photo forums, complaints about Joe Random with a digital SLR selling photos for cheap (or giving them away) are common, and the pro's feel their business model threatened.

But with that, there comes a giant pool of people trying out photography, and once in a while one of these accidental photographers is brilliant. I think that is really exciting.

There are many shooters making pictures of the mundane out there on the popular photo sharing sites, and some of it is really good (<5%, maybe, but non-zero). But that is part of why I was critical of this guy: I've seen complete amateurs that give their stuff away for free with better portfolios up on Flickr.
posted by teece at 12:08 PM on June 27, 2005

You aren't going to inspire a discussion on contemporary photography with a single link to a mediocre photographer. It's a good discussion topic, but you haven't given us enough meat as it were.

As far as this photographer goes, it's nothing special, uninteresting composition, bad lighting, and boring subjects.

Oh, and crunchland: JINX!
posted by splatta at 12:08 PM on June 27, 2005

When I posted, I was hoping for a discussion on contemporary photography--not "I like/dislike" opinion statements. So far, you guys have let me down.

But your title doesn't reflect that, it merely links to one site. Perhaps pulling in others may have opened up the discussion, so in honor of that, here are a couple. Dan Graham, Hannah Collins, and Claude Cahun

But thanks for getting the subject started.
posted by Mr Bluesky at 12:09 PM on June 27, 2005

FrancesNash: I give you bonus points just for not informing us that this was your first FPP, but I agree that your post doesn't naturally lead to a discussion of the broader subject of contemporary photography.

There are all sorts of levels of elitism in all disciplines. In photography there is the color faction vs the purely black & white faction, the film faction vs the digital faction, the format factions (tending to the belief that the bigger the piece of film, the better the photographer/photography) ect.

How about some "contemporary photographers" in the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Photography.
posted by spock at 12:42 PM on June 27, 2005

very average photography. particularly the MUSIC section.
posted by veryape at 2:07 PM on June 27, 2005

LOL, it looks like my opinion about Harlan's pics is in the minority. I like blunt visual details of urban bleakness, delivered without high drama or entertainment factor that convey the strangeness of modern life.

FrancesNash's pics on his own website of blue and orange land crabs are interesting.

Looking up what Erskine had to say about himself:
"harlan erskine - ten convient stores

artist's statement:
This project on the convenience store is concerned with the consumer culture of immediacy, 24-hour availability, information overload, and the loss of local identity. The images were made after midnight and photographed with a 4"x5" view camera in a straight-on objective style. I was influenced in equal parts by the German photographic team of Bernd and Hilla Becher's straight shoots of industrial landscapes and Ed Ruscha's 1963 book Twenty Six Gasoline Stations."
posted by nickyskye at 2:55 PM on June 27, 2005

hmmmmmmm. interesting for one second.
posted by tarantula at 2:56 PM on June 27, 2005

I'm guessing this is an emporer-has-no-clothes sort of put-on, fancy website with weak shots all taken within the last month. We're supposed to believe this is a real person working as a real photographer and the joke's on us, no?

The shots were all taken in p&s style, meaning:

There is no depth of field control, everything is either in or out of focus, all are from standing eye-level, focal lengths are all 'normal', there is no apparent attempt to control or utilize the available light in any organized way, there are no other particular lighting effects used, the camera is never even used in portrait orientation, they're all landscape, none of the photos have been post processed in any detectable way, they look like they were just sent to a regular mall processor straight out of the camera. There is no consistency of style or approach.

Now, all this might not matter if the subjects were somehow unique, interesting, or meaningful but no:

There only four portraits from two shooting sessions since (allegedly) 1998? Any pro or even hobbyist in the world would typically have hundreds of people shots on tap to choose from for something like this. The three from '98 look like the shots any college freshman with a few beers under his belt might come up with wandering around a dorm on a saturday night. There is one 'commissioned' offering in seven years?

Consider the 'Party Culture' gallery. What cultural aspects are being revealed, what can we learn from these pics about party culture? All I see is a few random kids looking high, dancing, and generally hanging about. Anyone with a p&s could walk into any bar or party any weekend, point the thing at a few people, and return with the same material.
posted by scheptech at 5:50 PM on June 27, 2005

which many find "easy."

Many find it easy because many have already done it and yet still haven't received their phone call for a MoMA exhibit. This kind of reminds me of the Japanese photographer who spends hours upon hours contemplating and then setting up the perfect boring scene (forget his name).

Being a great photographer isn't about having the best publicist.

This guy doesn't have it. I know, because I don't have it either, and his pictures look like mine.

posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:55 PM on June 27, 2005


So much for intellectual discussion. Or constructive comments, for that matter.

Ever hear of Bernd and Hilla Becher's work? Didn't think so. Their work--like these--is called conceptual art--not simply "photography," which everyone seems to know so much about...

I'd rather read Artblog.
posted by Francesnash at 9:34 PM on June 27, 2005

My 2 cents - These pictures don't do anything for me. I don't find them interesting based on content, aesthetics or technique. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but there must be some merit to all the negative reviews directed at these photos?
posted by derekislost at 6:12 AM on June 28, 2005

The Becher's work is technically perfect photographs, well lit, and exposed. This guy's aren't.

And they aren't as obscure as you think, many, many people appreciate their work.
posted by splatta at 6:52 AM on July 1, 2005

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