This article is going to be a little bit different than most — it’s not going to be all about me. Mostly about me? Of course! But all about me? Nope.
Ostensibly it’s an article about Littlefields Photography Magazine, which is edited and published by my friend Jim Clinefelter in Portland, Oregon. But it’s also about photography as a whole — and about how we view and consume photography in today’s digital, web-centric world.
For many of us, a “magazine” is something that contains a hundred or so pages of shiny, ridiculously thin paper bound together like a book, and sold at newsstands or at the corner market. We might think of Vogue, National Geographic or Sports Illustrated. Or, more apropos, we might think of Popular Photography, Photo District News or Aperture.
In reality, this is a very limited and restrictive definition of the word “magazine.” Historically, a magazine is defined simply as a container for a related collection of objects. As tablet users know, magazines don’t necessarily need to be bound like books, nor even printed. To an iPad owner, a “magazine” is a collection of articles, photos, videos and advertisements bundled together within a single digital download. For a gun aficionado, the word “magazine” takes on an entirely different context — as something that holds a collection of bullets.
So when I tell you that each issue of Littlefields Photography Magazine is actually a collection of ten unbound 4×6 prints housed in a hand-made envelope ensconced within a custom-made sleeve, you shouldn’t be surprised. It might not bear much resemblance to that five-year-old issue of People Magazine in your dentist’s waiting room, but that doesn’t make it any less of a magazine.
Further challenging the popular definition of “magazine” is the fact that the ten unbound photos within my issue of Littlefields might be completely different than the ten unbound photos contained within your issue. That’s because Jim doesn’t just assemble 10 photos for each issue — he assembles 20. Or 40. Or 60. Each magazine is therefor a random collection of 10 photos drawn from a larger pool of photographs, all designed to play upon a particular theme. Based on the laws of probability, this means each issue is likely unique from every other issue (or at least rarely duplicated).
So what sort of photos are in each issue? That depends on the issue. Right now, I’m looking at Issue Number 7, which is called “Oregon III” and features photos taken by Jim himself. The photos appear to mostly depict the quirky assemblage of buildings, houses, vehicles, structures and storefronts that populate the equally quirky town of Portland, Oregon. There’s a healthy dose of Eggleston to this particular collection, mixed with a dash of New Topography, and topped with a fresh dollop of whimsy. Because the photos are unbound, you can view them in any order you choose — and the order you choose seems to affect the meanings you extract from each photo (as well as from the collection). I like this aspect of Littlefields, since it speaks somewhat to the techniques I explored in creating my “Masquerade” vBook, which I discussed in the Reject Intent article.
Other issues of Littlefields address other topics, and several issues feature the works of photographers other than Jim. Some photos may appeal to your aesthetics, and some may challenge them — but all are intriguing. And each image reveals more of itself through repeated views, just as each collection reveals more connections with each reshuffling of the deck.
The first question most people ask when they hear of a product like Littlefields is, “Why would I want to pay to see a periodically published, curated collection of ten printed photographs when I can look at ten million uncurated photos on Flickr every day for free?”
To me, the answer is obvious — and the fact that such a question needs to be addressed sits at the root of what’s wrong with the way we consume photography in this second decade of the 21st century. Essentially, it’s a topic I’ve poked at in at least 50 different ULTRAsomething articles throughout the years. So in the interest of (relative) brevity, the following two sections will illuminate just two of the many reason why we need publications like Littlefields.
A Song Is Not a Gallery of Pretty Notes
Photography is more than a visual medium — it’s a language. It’s poetry. It’s music. Looking at a sampling of photos on the web is like reading randomly selected words from the dictionary and calling it a novel. It’s like listening to individual musical notes without the context of harmony, counterpoint or rhythm.
As I once discussed in More Poe than Van Gogh, one of the greatest disservices to photography is that it’s more closely associated with painting than with poetry. I believe photography is at its most powerful when it’s sequenced and assembled into collections. I believe its true potential is revealed when we establish connections between photos and that, like poetry, it’s most enjoyable when these connections are tentative, malleable and open to interpretation.
A collection of photos chosen for their connections and implications can be so much more powerful than a collection of photos chosen in isolation. Choosing two “lesser” photos may, in fact, provide greater impact than choosing one “better” photo. Photo editors and curators understand this. They know how to let photographs “breathe.” They know that when different types of photos come together and juxtapose, they create new emotions and a different energy level than would be achieved by a single image, or by a lump sum of miscellaneous “best” photos uploaded to an online gallery.
Consider this: If every member of a symphony orchestra played a “C” note, it would sound quite nice — a rich and beautiful note. If every member of the symphony orchestra played an “Eb,” it would sound equally rich and beautiful. Yet neither performance would elicit much of an emotional response. The orchestra could play a “D#” or it could play an “E.” The result would be the same, and the audience would quickly grow bored.
But what happens when the orchestra combines notes? What happens when half the orchestra plays a “C” while the other half plays an “Eb?” Suddenly, the listener might feel some kind of emotion — perhaps a sense of melancholy (since minor thirds are often used to suggest ‘sadness’ in music). If half the orchestra plays a “C” while the other half plays a “Db,” the listener might suddenly become irritated or edgy since these two notes create a harmonic dissonance. If half the orchestra then played a “C” while the other half played an “E,” the listener might feel a sudden sense of relief, since the tension between the previous two notes had been resolved, and the resulting major-third interval is a ‘happy’ sounding interval.
The combining of notes — along with their sequencing and pacing — are how composers create music with emotional impact. And it’s no different with photography. It’s why photos need to be edited, curated and sequenced. I believe that viewing a random selection of photos in an online gallery is no more soul-satisfying than listening to someone play a random note on a piano once every beat. And it doesn’t make any difference if that random selection of photos is of the highest quality or not — it won’t make their emotional impact any stronger. If you use a $175,000 Bosendorfer Imperial Grand to play a single, random note once every beat, it’s not going to sound nearly as good as a $900 tattered old Baldwin spinet piano on which someone plays a collection of sequenced notes curated by, say, Bach.
Photography Demands Tactility
Historically, a photograph has always been a THING — an object you hold in your hand, hang on a wall, or bind into a book. Only recently has photography become DATA — something you view on a computer screen. I assert, plain and simple, that this is the absolute least satisfying way to view a photograph.
Clever readers may think I’ve written myself into a paradox. After all, I argue that photography is best approached as a form of poetry or music, yet an appreciation of poetry doesn’t require that it be read on a printed page. Nor does an appreciation of music demand that it stream forth from a vinyl album or CD. So how can I possibly assert that a photograph needs to be printed in order for it to be fully appreciated?
And my answer is this: looking at a photograph is a more interactive experience than these other endeavours. Photos change appearance under different lighting conditions — something which does not occur with a backlit computer screen. Similarly, the texture and characteristics of the paper on which a photo is printed will greatly affect the mood and emotion of a photograph (much like the choice of musical instrument changes the feeling of the tune that’s played). The very touch of the paper on which it’s printed can alter one’s perception of a photograph, as can the printing method one chooses. Printed photographs have far greater resolution than those viewed on a computer monitor — even those printed digitally. For example, an 8×12 print made on my Epson 3880 has 360 dots per inch, meaning there are 12.5 million pixels defining that image. That same photo, displayed at the same 8×12 size on a computer monitor, is made up of only a half-million pixels — a mere 1/25th the resolution of the print (and fraught with all the downsampling artifacts and issues inherent with removing 96% of the image detail from a photo).
Computer monitors and tablets are very rigid in how one must interact with the content they display. For example, most photographers exhibit their images in online galleries — but only the most dedicated of viewers will likely see every image in the gallery. If a photographer chooses images so that their juxtapositions tell stories and create emotions, their efforts are lost on anyone and everyone who randomly clicks on only a few of the photos. It’s no different than if someone reads only a line or two of a poem, or listens to a few seconds here-and-there of a symphony. Even if someone does manage to sit through every image in an online slide show, the image sequencing is static and the timing is rigid. Pacing and rhythm (a key element in poetry, music and photography) is lost. This is the reason why, when I do publish a collection of my own photos online, I now try to do it in my new vBook format (as shown in the earlier link to the article about Masquerade, or in 47 Photos of Rain).
Also, when viewing an online gallery, people are often distracted by something else — an email coming in; a friend’s Facebook post; a link they saw on the gallery web page. Viewing printed photos is a committed act, and commitment yields satisfaction — particularly if we really do consider photography as a form of poetry, where time and effort are needed to absorb what the images mean to you and how they make you feel.
Hope For the Future
Like a morbidly obese glutton who consumes food so rapidly that he neither tastes it nor enjoys it, so too does our society gobble up online imagery. With a flick of the finger, an image appears on our smart phone. And with another flick it’s gone. Forever. Consumed and disposed. A vapid snack of hollow calories. Like a piece of candy. Eye candy. Anti-nourishment for an atrophied brain.
Publishing a small, independent photography magazine within our culture of visual superfluousness is, perhaps, one of the most radical acts a photographer could take — yet it’s an act rooted firmly in tradition. In fact, Littlefields is pretty darn similar to the model Alfred Stieglitz used when he edited and published Camera Work Magazine between 1903 and 1917. Camera Work is an icon — a photo classic and an artistic statement that continues to inspire, influence and divide photographers 100 years later. I’m not creative enough to imagine a world in which a photographer — who only uploads photos to an online gallery — will be held in similarly high esteem 100 years from now. And that’s because I can’t imagine a world in which the ephemeral nature of the internet will allow these photos to survive, much less register any sort of lasting impact.
Three years ago, I began to work on the concept of creating a photography magazine of my own. Two years ago, I designed the magazine, defined its purpose and created a maquette. Today, it remains an unrealized dream — a project I hope to undertake “if the world ever changes.” Well, guess what? The world isn’t going to change unless people like you and I help it to change. Jim Clinefelter’s already started. His Littlefields Magazine (and others of its ilk) fill me with hope for the future of photography, and with the inspiration I need to finally begin publishing that photography magazine of my own.
Of course, having now announced my intentions in writing, there can be only one of two possible outcomes: Either 1) I’ll be forced to make good on my plan to begin self-publishing a photography magazine, or 2) that same internet ephemeralness — the one that will render us all irrelevant in a few years — will also dictate that everyone who reads of my intentions will completely forget I ever wrote them…
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: Although the photographs of Littlefields Magazine were all shot by me, I claim no responsibility for the content depicted. That’s because all of it — the design; the handmade sleeve; the calligraphy on the cover of Issue 7; the photos themselves — are all the creation of Jim Clinefelter.
ABOUT LITTLEFIELDS: I am not affiliated with Littlefields in any way, nor do I receive any ‘kickbacks.’ I just happen to admire photographers who go their own way — particularly when they’re going the same way I hope to go. Littlefields subscription rates are as follows:
5 issues for USD$60.00 (North America); USD$80.00 (Europe and Asia).
Individual issues are USD$15.00 (North America); USD$20.00 (Europe and Asia).
Payment can be made via Paypal. Anyone wishing to purchase copies (or seeking further information) should send an email to “littlefieldsmagazine at gmail.com”
If you find these photos enjoyable or the articles beneficial, please consider making a DONATION to this site’s continuing evolution. As you’ve likely realized, ULTRAsomething is not an aggregator site — serious time and effort go into developing the original content contained within these virtual walls.