Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Zoe Strauss Problem

I've never been a big fan of Zoe Strauss. I've always found it more engaging to criticize Strauss' work than to look to it for what is magical. I have a colleague that is obsessively jealous of Zoe's success. Nary has a conversation gone by about the state of creating work and the market for photography that her name hasn’t come up. Certainly her career has been kind of like the character of Pecker in the eponymous movie by John Waters, where a kid from an eccentric family with no formal training (Does Strauss have a college degree even?) in a gritty working class enclave picks up a cheap 35mm Canonet rangefinder camera (sometimes called a “poor man’s Leica” and one of my favorite cameras) and within months has a show at Cheim and Reid. Art diverges from life in that Strauss' rise to stardom was much slower, taking years (and assuredly much hard work) and built by cultivating a huge following via her public art project--exhibiting her yearly work under the I-95 underpass for a full decade.

Those unfamiliar with her work can find it here:

My obsessed colleague is a fine black and white printer and his work is crisp, precisely composed; the images pop and jump; they are labors of loving perfection in the service of visual beauty, much like abstract paintings that one enjoys simply for what they do for your retinas and soul. Viewing the pieces is akin to walking into a grand cathedral even if you are not religious; you are uplifted by the grandeur. What is primarily captured is the photographer’s affection and dedication to working in the medium: photography about photography. The subject matter and the artist largely disappear. Such work inhabits the realm of the connoisseur. It's a very hard sell, especially in Philadelphia, perhaps anywhere, and requires a kind of appreciation that has to be sought out in the way one searches for four-leafed clovers. Strauss, on the other hand could have her work printed at the Walgreens down the block and people would still be clambering for it. She is not what you would call a "photographer's photographer." It's not the honing of the photographic qualities of her work that "make" the shots. She uses a DSLR set on "full-auto"-basically point-and-shoot. I don't believe she does anything but relatively basic editing and corrections in Photoshop and is not an obsessive perfectionist when it comes to the printmaking; the photos verge on snapshots.

David Shields coined the phrase "reality hunger" to describe the state of modern society. That is, we experience very little reality in our daily lives; therefore artists are consistently trying to sneak more and more reality or the impression of it into their oeuvre. In photography, the world hankers for images that take the viewer into places wherein only a solitary soul has been able to gain access, be this physical, temporal, spiritual or emotional. If the work fails, it's because it fits the ever-heard exclamation: "Been there, done that!" The ingenuity, the artfulness of Strauss's work is that she knows how to squeeze her self and her lens into that impossibly tight cranny or, more likely, give the impression that she has. By doing this she cuts to the chase concerning the core underpinnings of much contemporary photography. Journalists love to talk about her South Philly neighborhood, the characters, etc, but the truth is, everyone lives some place weird. The world is utterly surreal. It's Strauss's ability to throw her self into that bizarre world and still come up for air that makes it all tick. The mystery, and the thing to be envied as someone who too wants to succeed and navigate the snark-infested waters of the art world, is not her popular appeal but her uncanny ability, to do a kind of voodoo-like magic: the combination of internal and outward transformations necessary to make her striking images, and to do it smack in the middle of rough streets.

I've been thinking about this, of course, because of my own work much of which is more synthetic and connected to the process of photographic printmaking. As I sit at my part-time job, I have visions of hitting the streets, maybe with a Leica a la Cartier-Bresson or Gary Winogrand. I feel pulled to the work of the great street photographers and can't help but think "Yeh, this is what IT is about." Yet as I move away from daydreams and take stock of who I am, I've come to realize that a great deal of the work I’ve done up to now succeeds (I hope) because I've been able to gain access to a unique interior space within myself. As my work has progressed over the years, I'd like to believe I've become more frank and open about letting people view that landscape, as well as becoming more adept at making what is essentially invisible, visible, and therefore "real." I thrive on solitude and working with models in intimate, controlled settings, or trekking the urban landscape with a camera. So, a dilemma has arisen for me, certainly a good one and to be considered as well as acted upon. "I should grab my camera, get an unlimited pass on Greyhound, land where I may and just jump around the country taking photos," my aforementioned colleague said to me a few summers ago. I thought it was a great idea and being one that knows the future is always uncertain, encouraged him to do it NOW, to just go and ramble; take the chance. His instincts had figured out something primary long before his conscious mind had.

Photo: RA Friedman, "Broad and Tasker"

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In the footsteps of the magic lantern show:

15 December 2010

Figurative artist RA Friedman is once again bringing his unique craft directly to his audience with a series of old school 35mm slide shows planned for 2011 to be presented in Philadelphia and New York City. Friedman, who is often seen behind a lumbering, antique reflex camera, has been shooting vintage-style portraits at various events since 2005. The project became Tsirkus Fotografika in 2008 and currently shuttles between Philadelphia and New York city shooting at everything from animal shelter fundraisers to jazz-age events, to all-night warehouse parties.

The half-hour presentation, containing some of Tsirkus’s most memorable and intriguing images from an archive of nearly five-hundred portraits, will trace the evolution of the project and its vision from humble and accidental beginnings to its current position: that of maintaining a very busy shooting schedule, an archive website, plus planning a launch of a new public arts project in 2011 RA will also discuss his highly unorthodox photo methodology informed by his fine arts background, which involves creating mysterious, and often haunting images from the usually thrown-away instant film negatives.

RA Friedman's work was recently featured in New York Magazine. He is currently working on an artist's fellowship with The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Project. He lives and works in his studio in the South Square neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Photo by Frank Siciliano of Steamed Punk Labs

Monday, December 13, 2010

2011 Plans

Tsirkus is now going into it's third year. The project first flew the banner as a sponsored non-profit project in October 2008 at The Brooklyn Indie Market. 2011 promises to be an exciting year with some big plans in the works.

I've been experimenting with pinhole imaging and painting with light to create complex multi-figure works in fairly large interior spaces.I haven't posted these in any official place as yet, mostly because I want to hold off until the project is really underway and possibly offer a "secret link."

I'm gratified that people have actually found this blog up to now without any prompting. My plan is to do a fundraiser on Kickstarter, an online resource for raising money for creative projects. Currently I have 162 "fans" on the Tsirkus Facebook page. When we reach the tentative goal of 500, I'll launch the fundraiser.

The Internet is not magic. Money does not just fall into one's lap, which is why I'm doing the homework--networking, talking to people, bringing them the test prints to look at (if you're in Philly or get to NYC, I'm happy to do so), but most of all working hard in the studio to make images that are unique and worth the viewer's time.

With that being said, tell your friends!

RA Friedman, Principal Photographer

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Richard Avedon

I believe in maniacs. I believe in type As. I believe that you’ve got to love your work so much that it is all you want to do. I believe you must betray your mistress for your work, you betray your wife for your work; I believe that she must betray you for her work. I believe that work is the one thing in the world that never betrays you, that lasts. If I were going to be a politician, if I were going to be a scientist, I would do it every day. I wouldn’t wait for Monday. I don’t believe in weekends. If you’re headed for a life that’s only involved with making money and that you hope for satisfaction somewhere else, you’re headed for a lot of trouble. And whatever replaces vodka when you’re 45 is what you’re going to be doing. - Richard Avedon - 1988

Friday, October 29, 2010

"Aha" Moments

(Painting: RA Friedman, 1994 "Little Girl Lost," acrylic on canvas paper, approx 14" x 11", whereabouts unknown.)

Recently, Brainard Carey, an artist who also does career development asked the question about peoples' "Aha" moments for a book on which he is working. I was thinking about this question and also a statement that I've seen at least from a few well-known artists: "When I first saw a work by "X," it was like coming home"--an immediate sense of visual recognition that seems to run through the history of modern painting.

I never had that. Instead, I perceived, or more likely, felt there was something about the lives of creative people that I yearned to have for myself. I believed they were on to and tuned into something. I wanted to belong to "the club." In large measure my conception was highly romanticized and in many ways untrue. I saw only the gemutlichkeit and not the struggles and pains. The greatest internal pull was exercised by my undergraduate drawing teacher, Charles Eldred, which almost anyone who studied with him will attest to. When I entered both his physical and psychological space, I knew "This is what I want to do."

The odd part is (and perhaps this is my "aha" moment for today) is I was not particularly skilled and though I looked at a lot of visual art, did not "get it" either visually or conceptually. Drawing was a kind of therapy for me. My ideas did not translate well into pencil and paint but rather came forth in small, fortuitous moments which were enough to muddle me through via sheer hard work. I never really figured out how to evolve a powerful overall statement that was hand-made. Ironically, within the last year or so, now that I'm working in another media (photography), I can approach a piece of paper as an overall visual field, rather than starting with atomized pieces or ideas that I then struggle (and fail to) unite. I might even make some paintings this year.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Upcoming Shoots!

Just a quick note to keep everyone updated!

Tsirkus will be at Brooklyn Indie Market's Steampunk III, Sunday, Oct 24 and at Masquerade Macabre from Gemini and Scorpio on Oct. 30/31 (all night party).

Monday, July 19, 2010

Jazz Age Lawn Party 07/17 and 07/18/10

It seems as if the weather rarely cooperates for outside shoots, so one must be ready for just about anything. In this case it was extreme heat. On the second day, I drank approximately five liters of fluid (mostly just plain water). Luckily the shoot was on Governors Island, an oasis out in the middle of NY harbor that is about a twenty minute ferry ride from lower Manhattan. Being away from all the cars and the buildings helped a lot. There is also a cool ocean-like breeze.

I decided this time I absolutely had to something to mediate between me and the elements. I bought a very light dining fly at I. Goldberg for this trip. I did at least open the thing up before I left, but I was not able to set it up. When I got to Governors Island, I realized the design of the thing was just wrong. There was nothing to keep the support poles vertically attached to the top. It really needed an extra set of supports. So, I cut the shock cords and made two long poles and created a kind of improvised curved shell with one end securely staked to the ground. This also obviated the need for a backdrop and holder.

The second day, I really got things down adding some breasting lines as well. I was quite pleased at how clean it looked and it also provided a fair amount of sun protection for most of the day.

Both days of shooting were quite good. The first day was brisk, picking up in the late afternoon. Evelyn Kriete styled and assisted. G.D. Falksen also tagged along and helped with the finishing of the images. Sunday, I was on my own and it was slow up until the very end when a flurry of shooting rounded out the day. I made the 6:00 ferry and hit lower Manhattan with all my gear and a bag full of wet instant film negatives by about 6:20.

I then proceeded up to my cousin's place near 60th and Broadway over land. The whole rig was too large to even think about putting on the subway alone and the taxi fare for a 6.35 mile (I checked this on Mapquest) would have killed any profit I might have made; but moreover, I hate adding to the burning of fossil fuels if there is an alternative. It was decent day for summer and the temperature had dropped to a cool 86F, so I hoofed it. Foolishly, I just followed Broadway, going through some very dense areas: Soho, Union Square, Herald Square, Times Square and Columbus Circle. The whole trip took about two hours, which is about average for human locomotion--three miles per hour.

So many people out! Many tourists and I did my best to be tolerant of them slow-poking along. I also needed to be sure I didn't nail anyone in the shins with my wide load. I did surprising well. As I traveled, especially in the Times Square area, I saw so many artists on the street just trying to scrape out a few pennies. I imagined their workday--sitting there in the hellish heat, uninvited, in a largely uncontrolled and indifferent environment and probably having to scrounge for a badly needed bathroom and having to wait undue time for relief in the waiting line.

A cool apartment with my own room and bath was awaiting me the end of the day. Sometimes we don't realize how lucky and privileged we are. My cousin, who has become a kind of "angel" to my undertakings insisted I take a cab to the bus station on the final return, which I did, but I again went over the streets on the Philadelphia end, about two miles.

Portrait pics to follow in the next few days on

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Craig's Post and Reply

The Craig's Post:

"I am looking for a photographer (professional or not) that can teach me a thing or two. I have a nice DSLR camera and can work my way around it but there is much I still have to learn and I constantly have questions. I'm not looking to pay anyone for this but if you are someone that is eager to pass on some of your wisdom and come along side me to teach me a few things - I would greatly appreciate it. I have an eye for photography and I prefer outdoor photography but I really need to learn more about indoor photography so I don't shy away from opportunities to shoot indoors.

Hope to hear from you!"


The Reply:


Here are my thoughts:

Create a list of your questions, then research them for a week or two or three and see how many you can knock off your list. Most tech. information is out there
either in books or online. I've spent time in Barnes and Nobles just perusing what they have lapping up free knowledge. Also, a lot of camera shops, like Calumet will answer tech. questions.

Once you have a kind of "hot list"--those quandaries that nobody seems to have the answers to, post it! You might try the artist's forum on Craig's since there are a lot
of photographers in that pool. Pro's are generally amenable to answering something specific.

My guess is, you'll find the tough questions, nobody really has the answers to, or the answer varies from job to job or photographer to photographer. There is no "right" answer only what works for your own work. This is the difficult and also the exciting part about photography--there is no "royal road" and each photographer really has to find their own path, do their own experiments, and find out what works. It may be that to really answer these issues it may take years of work and practice. That is, they are just a starting point.

Ultimately, photography is really about dealing with yourself and your subject matter and how you position yourself in that mix. The really successful photographers have a strong bond with what they photograph, they know it intimately, perhaps are even obsessed. The photography is just a tool and often a lonely road that can be one of the most fulfilling experiences as well. Enjoy!



Thursday, March 25, 2010

Christiane Baumgartner

Charles Eldred, one of my undergraduate teachers said: "One day you will make a piece that will make all the others that came before it look bad. Is that a good day or a bad day?" My surmise now is it has to be "good" for just like writing, one puts what is inside to the outside as a way of clearing the way and moving ahead. I have often joked that graduate school was a good investment because it allowed me to make all the bad paintings I needed to do so I would never do them again. Essentially this is true: artists don't just pop out of the creative womb as finished entities. We stumble around a lot, especially at the outset and the tuition is long, or certainly longer, I believe than most people realize. But then, what happens when you're stumbling around and you find someone else, far off your artistic radar has been following similar issues and has not only explored some of your ideas, they have realized them brilliantly and garnered great acclaim?

My own work has pulled together a lot in the last two years, but it was both humbling, difficult, and I also believe, ultimately important, that I stumbled upon Baumgartner's work only to realize what I'm doing is art that is only just emerging. The lecture I attended last night with the artist and Julien Robson from PAFA really drove home the idea that if I could level one BIG criticism at graduate school, it is that it fundamentally lacked the power of experiences such as observing first hand the interaction between an artist at the top of her game and a curator who is brilliantly insightful. The blame does not rest squarely on the purveyors of my advanced degree. Looking back, probably all of us, were not ready to consider such critical ideas; we were too wrapped up in our own issues--many simply still struggling with the raw materials of our craft, painting. Perhaps too, many of us were just too overwhelmed or too self-involved so that the mental conduits needed to re-shape our thinking were just not open.

Much as Baumgartner's work exquisitely melds form and concept (including notions that relate to my own work) and visually embodies many of the characteristics I want my own pieces to possess, one must believe there is always room for one's own unique voice, one's own way of working. To feel more than a momentary pang of jealousy for the success of another is to deny the uniqueness and value of one's own experience and vision, to suffer a kind of spiritual death. There is a folktale entitled Tree of Sorrows where all the town's people, hang their woes for a day like fruit so that they may pick and chose what cross they will bear. Naturally, in the end, they chose their own. The experience, the moving through time via creation-- the giving of vital force and concrete and lasting form to that which is inside myself, that which is ever-growing, dying, and bedeviling me, that is what matters; that is what will let me find repose. What I'm going through now, even as I sort out my thoughts concerning the events of the last day, will ultimately inform what I will make tomorrow . I really would have it no other way. The joy is the transcendence that I will only find through unraveling my own riddle.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What If A Portrait Studio From 1920 Suddenly Appeared In Your 'hood ?

Whether it's creativity or not, something happens when I start making images that feels like I'm tuning into something. Unfortunately, I'm my own worst enemy when it comes down to focusing in (no pun intended) and proposing projects to be funded. My imagination packs its trunk and takes a holiday in Diluth. Luckily, I have a lot of great people around me who can see things a bit more from the outside.

I met with Amie Potsic yesterday. She's the director of The Center for Emerging Visual Artists here in Philadelphia. We talked about grants, looked at work and discussed what I really wanted to do. I went in feeling rather diffuse, but left with the germ of an idea that I just have to follow: a real, live 1920's style photo studio, albeit a temporary one. Most likely the portraits would be free.

The notion dovetails perfectly with the type of photography I've been doing. It too fits perfectly the idea of making a real community connection. I'll actually be IN the neighborhood and become a working part of it. The prospect of having a creative space with props, accessories, costumes and backdrops at my disposal, rather than having to shlep eighty pounds of gear and be limited by what I can physically carry, is vastly appealing; but moreover it should allow a very different, more meaningful and sophisticated body of work to emerge.

The idea of a pop-up storefront studio has been done before by others, but never as a long-term project. I'm hoping to be in-residence for four to six months. It really all depends on economics. 7th Street in deep South Philadelphia, where I hope to continue my community-based art, had once been a nexus of Jewish immigrants and Jewish-owned stores. None remain today. So, there is an added poignancy in my doing this, an additional eccentric circle drawn in the sands of history.

Now the real work begins.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Steampunk Photography: Reinventing the Mechanical Image.

Steampunk World's Fair, May 14, Piscataway, NJ.

Forget that point-n-shoot and cookbook methods for making sepia images in Photoshop, and definitely DO try this at home!

Join alchemical photographic wizard RA Friedman, founder of Tsirkus Fotografika, for a rollicking old-school visual presentation as he discusses his unique DIY analog/digital methodology; one that has defined the forefront of Steampunk Photography. Highlights from the large archive of retro-futurists Friedman and crew have photographed will be shown, as well as studio images. Caution: contains artistic, but sometimes graphic nudity. A brief no-holds-barred Q&A will follow.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

So You or Your Kid Want to Be a Photographer?

I recently received a missive from someone whose daughter, a high school senior was interested in becoming a photographer and looking to apprentice or intern. I've edited and expanded a bit.


Many commercial photographers are not artists. Many are just good technicians who know how to make competent work that pleases the customers, which is really not all that challenging. Many make a good living and enjoy it. There are exceptions to the rule, but they appear to be few and far between.

The commercial photographer I worked for inspired me, but in a very indirect way. It was clear that the guy was a repressed poet, but he never tried to express himself even with his photography. Instead, he read Jung, Ouspensky and the like, went to all kinds of esoteric groups and had discussions that to many, including my dad, an engineer, were incomprehensible. I loved listening to him as we worked together in the darkroom, endless hours of classical music (mostly Chopin) playing int he background on a Sony reel-to-reel recorder.

Since we were photographing paintings, prints and sculpture (his specialty) the pieces themselves intrigued me, opening up worlds I didn't know existed. In terms of photography, the methodology we used was pretty stock and didn't change much. He was very skillful and had a great eye, which is not to be discounted.* I learned too from him that simple tools can give great results when used properly. As an assistant, I could almost go on auto-pilot. I continued working for him, because I liked him and his wife and it got me out of my parents' house and into NYC occasionally to work. I could leave school early, which was an added bonus.

The best education for a photographer who really wants to create is art school. The technical part can be learned from books, the Internet, or other photographers. Finding a way "in" to your work, or as one of my drawing teachers used to say "finding you work" is the main thing. I never took a single photography class, You really don't need to pay for a college course to learn to develop film. Printing, I taught myself. Even digital is really not rocket science. The hard part is the conceptual piece; positioning yourself to actually work. Ay, there's the rub.

If I had not spent years drawing and drawing, I would not be able to do what I do now. I continue to draw and still find new things in it.

I never worked for free. When I started out as an apprentice, it was 1974 or 5 (no, I'm not ancient, I was barely more than a kid) and I got $1.50 an hour. Working for free implies one's labor is not valued and there is no commitment from either end. Avoid.

The fine art photography world is pretty much like the art world. Only a handful of people are making their living off of making prints. Most are teaching, shooting weddings and babies, giving seminars, have a fall-back job or a wealthy spouse. This is not to say "don't do it," but unless one is truly obsessed, there are way easier methods to survive and make a living. The advent of digital photography has totally diluted the market and now everyone and no one is a photographer. The competition for even routine work is fierce with people even offering to do it for free (bad move). Part of why I founded Tsirkus was to find a niche and it was a natural outgrowth of my own interests. But let me say too, Tsirkus has never really made a profit. It has gotten me other gigs (like the Pew Fellowship I'm now working under) and a few other paid jobs, but it is not a complete living. I still have to do other things to make a go of it, and I'm still living in near-poverty.

Lastly,Treat all photographic chemicals as if they were cyanide. Developers are the most dangerous; luckily they are safer now than when I was first working. I know of so many traditional photographers that are now ill in their older years with Parkinson's or nerve issues, including the photographer with which I apprenticed.

RA Friedman, Principal Photographer

Photo by Man Ray, one of the pieces we photographed "back in the day." I was shocked to find it recently sold for nearly $300K.

*Some 30,000 negatives by this man, shot from 1960 to the mid 1990's are soon to be on deposit at The Library of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.