Soul Rebel: David Burnett

Went to the David Burnett opening last night at Mr. Musichead Gallery in Los Angeles. Drove up with long time photographer friend and Wisconsin cheese-eating native Paul Gero who happens to be a friend of Burnett. I’d never been to this particular gallery before, and I’m glad I made the trip. In addition to Burnett’s work, which was centered on a project about Jamaican superstar Bob Marley, the gallery had a range of other imagery and artwork. There was a Hunter Thompson piece by Al Satterwhite that I was lusting after.

But I digress. For anyone who out there who loves documentary photography, editorial photography, political photography or photojournalism, David Burnett is a name you MUST know. A friend recently described him as “The Michael Jordan of photojournalism,” which I think is a accurate description. Burnett is a good photographer and has been good for a long, long while. Constantly reinventing himself, his genre, he continues to produce work that actually influences not only those around him but the actual industry in which he works. Not many folks I can say this about. Plus, he is just a cool guy. Always a smile, always a joke.

The project being exhibited, “Soul Rebel” depicts an intimate look at reggae superstar Marley. This project reflects what time, access and someone with a point of view can accomplish when given the chance. Living as close to Hollywood as I do, and knowing a fair number of photographers who cover the entertainment world, I wish I could take this book around to all of them, and their agents, and agencies and magazine editors and art directors and say “Look at this.” “This is what is possible with time and access.” The book, which I bought for my brother and nephew(a secret but neither read my blog), depicts a relaxed and mercurial Marley, at home and seemingly at peace. The work feels personal, very personal, and reminds me of other bodies of rock and roll work by the likes of Claxton and “back in the day” photographers that had relationships with these music stars, as opposed to the modern method of the five-minute portrait. When I see Burnett’s images I feel like I begin to know what the real Bob Marley was like. Quiet, reflective, lover of weed and soccer. I see Marley with his guard down, relaxing with friends in Kingston, on the road with the band and performing, dreadlocks backlit and glowing, face twisted in lyric.

When I see these images it feels to me like I’m being given a look at a secret world, but I’m being given this look by someone considered a friend to those in the images. I can’t tell you how important this is, and how critical this is to getting images that are a true reflection of someone, something or somewhere. I could tell you more about Burnett, the “Photographer of the Year” award, the “Robert Capa” award, the co-founder of Contact Press and the years he covered Vietnam, but I’m going to stop there. I want you to work at this and go discover him on your own. Trust me, it’s worth it.

There Has To Be More

A few years ago, the World Press Photo organization placed their traveling show of contest winners in the mall in Santa Monica.

In the preceding years, this same exhibition was held at a museum in Los Angeles. It was a nice museum, and one I will continue to frequent, but I have to say, when this mall shift happened, I didn’t really know what to expect.

But it worked.

It really worked.

Suddenly, this body of work was in front of the masses of people. You can’t compare a crowd that will attend an evening gallery/museum affair, with a crowd at the food court on a Saturday at 3pm. It’s not to say that one crowd is better than another, but what I’ve learned is that the art world attracts one, very slim type of audience, while the mall is more like the United Nations of gathering places.

Over the past few months I’ve been looking at a lot work in galleries and museums, and I have say, I’m thinking that the future might be in other places. Galleries and museums serve their purpose, probably always will, but depending on the type of work you do, and depending on your goals, these places considered the pinnacle for artists and photographers, just might be the last place the work needs to be.

This might sound crazy. Or maybe not.

Two weeks ago I saw two exhibitions of the same work, on two separate continents. After viewing the second version of the work I realize I was not really being pulled in to what this body of work was about. In fact, I was being driven away. I was being driven away by the absolute silence of the exhibition. I was being driven away by the “cover charge” of getting in. I was being driven away by the security person sitting on their chair ten feet away, reminding me that photographs were not allowed.

God forbid anyone take a photo of a photo exhibition.

I was being driven away by the absurdity of the entire idea of what the idea of an exhibition had become. Outside the exhibit walls an entire mega-city was at hand, and chances are, less than one percent of the population would see this show.

I wondered what the photographer must have been thinking. A feather in his cap, “I’m in the such and such and such and such museums.” But in the end, this makes less and less sense. The work was about everyday folks, just the type who will never seen the exhibition. The work was about reality, about life, not about sterile atmospheres and status of the artist. Certainly you can’t hang your hat on this when you are actually making the images, interacting with the people IN the photographs, because frankly, many of them might not have ever heard of these museums or care of their existence.

I think we all have to question our motives. And man, sometimes this can be a crippling blow when you are honest with yourself. Are you shooting to win contests? To win fame? To win money? To fuel your ego? And if you are, is that wrong?

I’ve been lambasted in the past for suggesting that photographers consider their audience once in a while. I suggested this after seeing magazine after magazine running “arty” snaps for a audience that is waiting for meat and potatoes. I would look at images and think, “Who besides the photographer or photo editor is going to even begin to understand that picture?” And then the magazine acts shocked when the subscription rate goes down.

It’s not to say these images shouldn’t be made or that pictures should not end up in museums and galleries, but I think we are at a time when we need to realize there is far, far more out there.

Realize too that many of the people attending gallery openings, museum openings spend more time looking at other people than the art itself. And also remember that the average time people spend looking at art in museums has dropped dramatically in recent years. And, lastly, people spend more time reading the caption/ desription than they do looking at the actual piece.

On a wicked little side note, I’d bet the first two crowds of people to back me on this would be gallery and museum people. They know they can only feature a minute amount of work, and if you hear between the lines, they are saying the same thing. Look elsewhere.

You see where I’m going with this. It’s time to reinvent. And multimedia/web is NOT where I’m heading. I know all the suave industry studs are saying this is where we are all going or we minions face extinction, but I heard this same thing with digital ten years ago, and the best photographers, in my mind, are still shooting film. The web is NOT a great space for viewing images. Yes, you heard that right. I don’t believe the web has any soul whatsoever. It’s great for information needs, and for being able to see something quickly, but please, can you taste it? Feel it? Wear it? Nope. In the end your just staring into a box of light. Nothing more. There is so much information on the web, and our attention spans are so short, that no matter how great a piece is, a photo is, typically, it is forgotten within minutes after being viewed. How many bookmarks do you have? How many times have you said, “Oh man, I’m bookmarking this and am going back to it over and over,” only to never see that page again?”

This post is a beacon of light. Sounds impressive right? I’m not saying there is a higher power making my fingers move on these keys. What I’m saying is that the door is open. The only thing limiting us with the exposure of our work is US. It’s US!

We gotta forget about what we are “supposed” to do, and do what we can FIND to do. Let’s do what we can dream up and start acting like creative people once again.

And now to end this agonizingly long post with more hyper-specific information to back my claim I will relate this entire idea to a recent motion picture scenario. A few weeks ago the summer blockbuster Transformers came to life on the big screen. I think it might be the second movie in the series. I did not see the first, probably wont’ see this either, but I can’t remember the last time I went to see a movie at the theatre. So this thing comes out and all I hear about his how the “critics” pan it as not only being a terrible movie, but one of the worst things to ever come down the pike.

In the first weekend it grossed something like 400 million.

This is my point people. It might be safe to say there is a complete detachment from what the critics (maybe gallery and museum) relate to a body of work, and what the public (400 million) have to say about the same piece of “art.”

A photograph can mean different things to different people at different points in time, and might have no influence on the critic due to market forces, personal taste, etc, but at the same moment, to more open minded audience can be profound.

Okay, I lied, I’ve got one more story to relate. I have one body of work I’ve shown around more than any other. In this group of images, there is a single image of a man carrying a dead sheep. This picture gets as many questions from “every day folk” than any image in the entire body of work. What is going on? What is he doing? Why does he have that? What does this mean?

When I show the same work, the same image, to the more refined, photo community person, I’ve had more than one person voice their disgust at the image, the idea of what is happening in the image, the savage nature of an animal being killed, only to stop looking at the rest of the work entirely! Boom, done, over. The book is closed, faces are made and the review ends abruptly. The first time this happened I was surprised. Now I wait for it.

I think there is a vast middle ground that most of us have yet to even begin to explore when it comes to showing our work. This is a good thing.

Who said, “I have not yet begun to fight.” Think about it that way. There is so much out there, so many choices, so many ways of doing things that we haven’t done yet, and all that is h
olding us, well okay ME back, is MY limited thinking.

I was on an island before, at least it feels that way at times, and now I feel like the island broke free from the sea floor and is drifting further out to sea. But I have to say, the view is incredible.