Artist Panel Discussion

For something new this week, we have a panel discussion with three accomplished black-and-white photographers. Each displays a documentary style, yet is able to imbue their images with a personality.

Michael Koehler is a New York-based photographer whose images document candid moments that seem to unfold as narratives in the eyes of the viewer. His photos manage to be both sincere and subtly ironic at times, and offer us subjects that have genuine depth.

Melanie McWhorter‘s black-and-white portraits often deal with children, and use the angle of a childs-eye view to draw the viewer in. They capture uninhibited, intimate moments, giving them a spontaneous feel that challenge the strictures of portraiture.

Blake Andrews‘ photographs record the quotidian details of life with the calculated eye of documentary. Oddities and in-between moments create interesting in-roads for the viewer, whether the subject be day-to-day family life or ranging views of personal environs.

  • Alright, so I’ll give the first question to Melanie. Your photographs seem very much like an intrinsic part of daily life. How do you decide what to photograph, or where do you find the inspiration for your shots?
  • Melanie: I do not walk around with the camera. The story that NM has great light is really true. I usually see the light during daily activities and hope that I have film in the camera and whatever the subject is, usually my children, are in the same spot or willing to work with me a little. I started photographing myself some in Dealing with 35 largely for aging issues and because the kids starting running from the camera. I love dramatic lighting and of course photographers like Debbie Caffery, Andrea Modica, and recently Asger Carlsen and rediscovering New Topographics.
  • Melanie McWhorter

    Melanie McWhorter

  • Blake: One of the first things that jumped out at me in your Fraction work was the New Mexico light and the dry surroundings. For me in a wet climate those things really jump out of the picture.
  • Melanie: True. I love to shoot around noon as well for the outdoor landscape work. It makes it all seem so dry.
  • Michael: I keep my camera with me where ever I go, everything is part of the story.
  • Blake: I’m the same. I’m photographing with one hand as I type this.
  • That’s interesting, Michael. I notice that your photos have perhaps a more detached feeling, almost as if you’re seeking out narratives rather than just presenting what you find. Does that seem to fit?
  • Michael: Well I think it’s more intertwined narratives. People have said to me this word before, ‘detached’: it’s more that I learn from the narratives around. They inform my life and my journey. Usually I miss the moment with the camera, meaning I don’t get the picture. But most of the time I do witness the moment and that is the gift and teaches me what to then look for in order to tell the story. The narratives evoke compassion in me and this is the driving force of my photography. I think the ‘detachedness’ is more a comfortable viewing distance, from where I know I won’t interrupt. I like to think that I am subjective and do present what I find, but understand both personally and for the subject that it is all part of the on-going story.
  • That makes sense. Blake, how does this compare to some of your day-to-day shots? I’m thinking particularly of the pictures of your family, which definitely seem to have a lot of feeling infused in them.
  • Blake: I think one of the tensions in photographing your own family is the balance between being detached as an observer and being involved as a human and parent. There is always that tension, which is part of what makes it fun and challenging.
  • That’s very interesting, because your photos seem to be very effective in capturing the sort of in-between moments. One gets the impression that your camera must always be at-the-ready.
  • Blake: For me that issue really gets at the heart of photography in general, the balance between observing and being involved. I’m curious, Melanie, if you feel that photographing your kids. Do they react much to the camera or just ignore it? Do you feel it gets in the way of parenting at all?
  • Melanie: I watched a documentary on Tearney Gearon where she documents her mother and her children and I have heard other mothers (and likely fathers) discuss this line between documenting and being a parent. There is a scene in the documentary on Gearon where she first photographs and then consoles. I am not judging because there have been many occassions where I am sure every photographer is detached because of the relationship of looking through the cube (associations with TV, movies, etc.). I photographed my son crying once and decided not to do it again. I can not remain totally detached from the scene and maybe I have lost some emotionally strong photos in the past.
  • Blake: Makes you wonder how someone like Nachtwey or Salgago can function. How do they remain calm and removed enough to photograph those scenes?
  • Michael: I think observation is being involved very deeply. Some of my deepest felt moments within my family, like my grandfather dying or my son being born, I have had the camera and made pictures. I try to focus on the love and make pictures, and be present and open.
  • Melanie: For Michael, I guess this relates to this question about relationship to your surroundings. It seems that many of Michael’s images are regionally specific projects. Would you mind me asking how long you usually visit a location? I have found that the relationship of a photographer and a place can often define what visual response is in the photos.
  • Blake: Most of my photography is local, so in one sense it is familiar before I photograph it. On the other hand, I always try to locate new areas around town. I have explored just about every street in Portland and about half of Eugene. I usually don’t wait at any scene more than a few minutes. If there isn’t a photo there it wasn’t meant to happen and no amount of waiting will change that. For my way of working anyway.
  • Blake Andrews

    Blake Andrews

  • Michael:It depends on which region, but I usually make multiple vists ranging from five to ten days to a place. In the instance of my Philadelphia work, that is where I grew up, so I go back for one to two day spans all the time. Sometimes I find my relationship to the place is also influenced by where I was coming from. For example, in Philly, I really liked spending time with nature so I would go find the horses. After I was in Belize for two weeks I became really interested in fishing, and still am, so now instead of going into the woods to find the horses, I spend must of the time walking the coast line of Philadelphia and currently New York, being drawn to fishermen and the water. If photographing is going well I feel like I am always working. So, the different regions become the only defining lines because it is the same train of thought brought there. Then, it evolves, and I go somewhere else.
  • Melanie: So in a way you are seeking out narratives, but they often find you and lead you down a different path.
  • Blake, are you familiar with Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the ‘decisive moment’?
  • Blake: Decisive what? Just kidding.
  • Melanie: You know, where you select a great photo from your contact sheet. Just kidding too. Blake certainly knows Winogrand and Friedlander’s work.
  • Blake: It’s actually taken some effort for me to get beyond the Decisive Moment. I’m not sure there is always one “Moment” that crystalizes a scene, as HCB says. I know on my contacts I usually see more of a cyclical rhythm. The frames come in waves, not individual hits.
  • That’s interesting because I think the sort of universal element that binds you all together, why we asked you all to be a part of this, has to do with the idea that you all seem to use photography as a way of making sense of your surroundings. I guess, as a question thrown out to all of you, I’m wondering if you might elaborate on if and how you see photography as a way of ordering your reality, of shaping how you perceive? Not talking about documenting, but more in a broader sense of perception.
  • Blake: The camera is my daily therapist. I carry it with me and it constantly shapes my worldview. Then later the images help me trace my past. They’re a way to make some order of life’s chaos. Or maybe I’m pulling chaos out of life’s order.
  • Melanie: Well, yes. I do not photograph for a living, but for expression–artistic and personal. It was a way for me to deal with having a family, children and the new world in which I live. It also helps with dealing with new life, death, aging…
  • Melanie, does it let you feel like you have a more objective view on these things?
  • Melanie: No, emotions get in the way if it is when taking the photo or when choosing.
  • Michael: My photographs are my teaching moments. They are pictures of something that is informing me about life, something I want to remember because, after it happened, life is not the same. It’s an organization of thoughts that then alters or fuels my perception, and pushes me where I want and need to be pushed. Melanie, that is right: I love getting lost because I know that I can have a perception or of an idea of a place and be after a picture but will miss then what is happening right in front of me. After getting lost I become open to the moment and all pre ideas of the place fade away into the now. This can be a true gift and sometimes a very hard and frustrating way to work (a lot of car time or walking time). My photographs bring me closer to reality and my pictures allow me to hold onto the world outside.
  • Michael Koehler

    Michael Koehler

  • Blake: I think getting truly lost is a valuable experience, but also very difficult in today’s society. Have any of you been really lost recently? Like totally disoriented with no sense of path back?
  • Melanie: Do you mean that the photo world, the larger world or personal experience?
  • Michael: Yes, in Howard beach New York during one of the snow storms this past winter.
  • Blake: I meant just personal experience but could also be applied to the photo world.
  • Michael: I have been lost a lot.
  • That sort of finished off my planned questions. As a last question, I usually ask you to take a look at our Duckrabbit logo and tell me which you see first, a duck or a rabbit?
  • Blake: Duck.
  • Melanie: I see a duck. Is this a personality test?
  • Just an interesting pseudo-study of sorts.
  • Melanie:Maybe because the beak points in a right leading direction and that is the way we are used to reading. Maybe we read images and logos that way too.
  • That could be.
  • Blake: Michael, how did you find your way back? Was it stressful being lost?
  • Melanie: I am excited to see what Michael says too. I love quizzes and board games. There is some personality for you.
  • Michael: I just kept walking away from the water.
  • Melanie: Michael, duck or rabbit? The suspense is killing me.
  • Blake: The water comment should be a giveaway.
  • Michael: I was near freak out, but had a cigar a friend gave me in my camera bag. It was really old and I only had one match but I was able to light it, which calmed my nerves. And yeah I just walked, smoking on that cigar until I found street.
  • Melanie: That sounds like a great story.
  • Blake: I’m guessing rabbit…
  • Michael:Definitely a duck.
  • Melanie: YES!!!
  • Three ducks this time around, eh?
  • Blake: Eugene would be proud.
  • Alright, well that does it from my end. Anybody have anything they’d like to add?
  • Melanie:Thanks, Alex. It was fun. And thanks to Blake and Michael.
  • Blake: Thanks, everyone. I wish we could go a little longer. Felt like we were just getting started.
  • Michael: Thank you Alex. And great talking with Blake and Melanie. Truly a pleasure.

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