Accidental Homage to Larry Towell

Okay folks I’m really glad this happened.

This image is from my recent trip to Panama, dusk near the outskirts of Panama City. I’m calling this the “Accidental homage to Larry Towell,” so if you don’t know what I’m talking about then this post is SPECIFICALLY for you and comes with REQUIRED homework.

Larry Towell. Look him up. LARRY TOWELL

Mr. Towell is what I would classify as a classic documentary photographer. He does things that would be considered more modern, recording sound, making movies, etc, but the CORE of Mr. Towell is a really, really good study of the human condition.

I’ve noticed a fair number of wedding photographers following me here on the blog, and I feel it my MISSION in life to broaden the perspective of the modern wedding photographer. Remember, we are first and foremost photographers, and ONLY secondarily are we wedding photographers.

Towell is a master of shooting documentary work, work that can and should teach you LOADS about how to make pictures at a wedding. If this seems puzzling to you, that’s okay, send me a note or post a question in the community and I’ll learn you best I can.

And for those of you in Southern California, you might be too late, but Towell is speaking at the Annenberg in LA in the coming weeks. Send them a note, beg them, do whatever you have to do to check out the lecture. And if you are asking, “What is the Annenberg?” Well, I’m not sure how to answer that. Don’t make me come over there.

So my homage is a reference to a SPECIFIC picture Towell made. Can you describe it? Can ya? Here is the homework I’m talking about. Find it, learn it, live it and report back to me.

And on a parting note, in my humble opinion, Towell’s Mennonites work is perhaps one of the best essays I’ve ever seen. I feel this work really sets the bar for what all documentary photographers are striving to do. Today, this very day, I had a conversation with a photographer consultant in LA, someone who works with fine-art photographers, commercial photographers and advertising photographers and we each gushed like prom dates about how great the Mennonite work really is. We also spoke about how few people are really doing this work anymore because of the time required and the difficulty involved.
And finally, Towell released a book last year, “The World From My Front Porch,” which is a MUST have if you are collecting books. Yes I have it. Oh, speaking of that, I’ve got to give my copy to a friend to have it signed at the Annenberg. I want take a second to thank myself for reminding myself. Man I’m cool.

Wow, I Just Noticed Something

Writing a comment on The Melcher System, and getting a copy of Larry Towell’s book made me come to a realization…

There seems to be a real lack of straight documentary work being done. What I mean by straight documentary work is Larry Towell’s work on the Mennonites. I think Paul is right in the assessment that so much of what we see from the photojournalism world is death and dying. I think this work wins awards, gets printed, etc, and is a very exotic lifestyle.

But man, have you seen the Mennonite work? It’s not like this work is new, it’s not, but it is simply incredible, and the perfect representation of straight documentary work. It would seem like this work, which is not only beautiful, but historical and anthropological, would be running all the time.

But, this work takes TIME, years perhaps, to complete, and I just don’t think young photographers want to devote that kind of time to getting their work out. Everything about our lives now is about fast, the quick, the now, the instant, and none of this helps when you are working on long-term projects.

I’ve never met Mr. Towell, so I have no idea how he did this work, how long it took, but I can’t imagine him posting images everyday and creating online galleries every week. It appears to me like this work took a long time to produce, and might not have been seen until things were complete. Every minute you spend on your phone, on your laptop, editing, creating presentations, is a minute you are NOT spending with the people you are photographing.

Perhaps documentary work, and photojournalism are drifting further apart? What I see today is a profound change in what is considered documentary work. Fading away is the Mennonite style work, and slamming in is the medium to large format color portrait series, or urban landscape series(void of people) as documentary work. This work has been widely embraced by the art world and is also widely embraced by the young photography crowd and is now considered documentary.

A color portrait series can be made in very short order, a few days, sometimes less, so a person can create an entire body of work in no time at all. This fits perfectly with the timeline of modern documentary. Who has the time to connect with people? Get it, get out and start selling the work.

An example you ask?

Sure, I did a series a year or so ago titled, “The Thoughts of Strangers,” where I looked for people I had never met, asked them to photograph them and also asked them what they were thinking about the second before I approached.

48 hours. I was done. An entire body of work in two days. Now for me, this was more of an exercise than a project I wanted to try to sell. But I tell you what, based on what I see in the documentary/photojournalism/art world of today, I bet I could sell it. I think it would be far easier to sell than my straight projects, which typically take several years to produce, and might not contain a flashy concept or ideal.

I also printed these portraits along with their corresponding contact sheet, which in itself was somewhat interesting. Low and behold, the actual photographs became less important in a way. Now, if I printed these six feet tall…I’m on my way.

When I see work like the Mennonites, I am literally frozen. I told you I was freaked out when I got this book. I react this way because I know what it takes to get images like this. I’m not saying I get those images, maybe one every few years, but I do know what it takes. It isn’t something that can be learned overnight, and has nothing to do with speed. This work is about a level of connection and trust that takes a long time.

This work is also black and white and reflects real moments, which in the industry, or art world, etc, just isn’t what is hot. Hot now is staged, controlled and massive in size. I think this, like all things, will change rapidly, but for the young photographer it has to be difficult to not chase the market.

Book Review: Larry Towell, The World From My Front Porch

Now this is a book. From publisher Chris Boot and photographer Larry Towell, comes one of the best books I’ve seen.

The paper is different, the look is different, the layout is different, the cover, the fonts, etc, My head is spinning.

I’ve picked this book up three times and found three different books, and I’m sure if I go back for a fourth time, I’ll find another.

Towell, for those of you who don’t know him, is a Magnum photographer from, I believe, Canada. I’m sure when I read the book I’ll figure this out, but I think that is where he comes from.

A farmer. Perhaps an unlikely photographer?

His work is stunning, and I don’t use this word lightly. You can literally feel his life in these images. You can feel his roots, his ties to the land, history and place.

There is a powerful simplicity in these images, a closeness, but coupled with a complex point of view, and knowledge of light and printing. Kids, dogs, land, moments, structures, etc, etc, all there.

The back of the book, a catalog of his editorial spreads from El Salvador and other places. Just look at the work on the Mennonites. Just look at that one spread, on it’s own, as it displays before you page after page of best reportage you will ever see. Really, it’s that good.

Occasionally a book comes along that freaks me out and this one fits that mold.

I can’t wait to really sit down with it, but a part of me is little afraid of it. Like Salgado’s Africa. There are many more but I believe Salgado’s was the last book to freak me out.

I highly recommend this book. Here is the link THE WORLD FROM MY FRONT PORCH

Sorry for the scattered, buckshot review, but like I said, it freaked me out.