Category Archives: Film & Visual Arts

Kevin Scott’s “Behind the Tech”

In his photographic project “Behind the Tech,” Kevin Scott portrays the “relatively unknown” technologists who “make our modern lives possible.” “The Behind the Tech project’s singular purpose is to acknowledge the makers of technology and what they do.”

What is the genesis of your project? I read that you started by photographing a number of women with whom you have worked over the years? What was the seed? How has the project expanded?

With Behind the Tech, I had been thinking for a while about how important role models are for us as we imagine what we could be in the future. Role models have always been important to me. Just seeing someone who at some point was like me, who could do something I thought was hard or impossible, always gives me hope that I could do that thing too. For little kids in particular, technology can be this very abstract thing, but showing them that there are folks who look like them, who make the technology that they use, I think is a very powerful thing. But when you think about the people in tech who we celebrate, whose faces are well known, they are interesting, but not representative of the faces actually behind the technology. I wanted to do something that showed the diverse faces, and that shared the diverse stories of the folks who I see on a day-to-day basis trying to make the world a little bit better with technology. And by doing so, I hope that I can help a few people find role models, inspiration, and their own path to a better future.

I started Behind the Tech in July of 2016. I had a free chunk of time for the first time in a decade, and I decided that I was going to start by asking a bunch of folks I knew if they would sit for a portrait for this project. I then asked the AnitaB.org Institute, which runs the Grace Hopper Celebration, if I could set up a temporary portrait studio on the GHC exhibition floor to do some portrait sittings for conference attendees. After that I had a pretty long list of folks to photograph. I contracted with a recent Stanford Classics Ph.D. graduate to help write some of the profiles. Now that we’ve got a bunch of interesting content, we’re starting to try to promote the project a bit.

How did you decide on your lens and lighting choices for this project? Why did you choose to shoot it in black and white? Are there any photographers from whom you got inspiration for those choices? How would you say it differs from your usual shooting choices?

There are a bunch of portrait photographers I admire. Arnold Newman, Peter Lindbergh, and Platon might be my three favorites. I love how Newman was able to use environment in this incredibly graphical way in his portraits. Lindbergh is a genius at getting people to relax, and I love how organic and natural all of his portraits seem. And Platon is my favorite photographer. He uses the face and the human body in such strikingly graphical ways.

I think that a lot of my shooting choices are influenced by these three. I always shoot black and white to accentuate the graphical nature of face and form. I tend to favor lighting and processing that creates contrast, again to try to give portraits a graphical quality. But I also try really hard to capture the subject as they are, not an idea of who they should be, which means no hair and makeup, no major retouching, and spending a lot of time getting the subject comfortable before and during shooting.

These photos were shot with a 120mm macro lens on a Phase One Medium format camera. It’s a brilliantly sharp lens that allows for close focus, and a comfortable space between me and the subject. I had a couple of lighting setups, although I almost always try to shoot with one light. The setup I used most often was an Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octa modifier positioned above and angled down toward the subject, just out of the shot.

You are said to speak to your subjects as you photograph them. How much of that is your interest in them as technologists, and how much of that is your way of working as a photographer (making them feel at ease)?

It’s both. I always chat with my subjects as I’m photographing them to try to capture glimpses of their real selves, not a conception of how I think they should look. When I set up I’ll frame the subject, then move out from behind the camera, and chat with them while I’m firing shots with a remote trigger. Every 10 frames or so I’ll recheck framing and focus and continue this way until I think we’re done with whatever conversation that we’re having. Keeping them focused on me rather than the camera has made my portraiture a lot better, IMO. And on top of that, I’m genuinely interested in everyone I photograph. I wouldn’t photograph them if I weren’t interested in learning more about them.

What kind of technical training have you had as a photographer, and what have you taught yourself along the way?

I’ve done some workshops [Ralph Gibson] and online courses over the years, but most of what I’ve learned has been through reading, talking with photographers when I get the chance, looking at a lot of photography and trying to imagine how photographers made the images that I admired, and then a lot of trial and error.

Which documentaries have been influential on you?

In terms of documentaries, the Salgado biopic “Salt of the Earth” was really influential, as was “Finding Vivian Maier,” “Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light,” and “Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens.”

It is interesting that one of your motivations to do “Behind the Tech” is because you wanted to highlight people in technology whom you believe deserve more attention, especially when Platon, of your inspirations, is known for a project like “Power: Portraits of World Leaders.” Platon has said that one of the reasons why he chooses the lighting he does is due to the limits of time he has with his subjects. Similarly, you have had short periods of time with some of your subjects, for instance, when you caught some of them during the Grace Hopper Celebration. Beyond that practical consideration, though, why do you like, what you called the “strikingly graphical” approach of Platon?

I really admire Platon for a bunch of reasons. The portraits themselves are striking: the contrast; the posing; the interesting use of perspective; the things that he does with hands. I’m a big fan of the work that he does with Human Rights Watch and in furtherance of human rights in general. The work that he’s done with Dr. Denis Mukwege and Panzi Hospital in the Congo is heartbreaking and a powerful call to action for all of us.

On lighting, I wonder if Platon’s choices were of necessity in the beginning, and are now his preference because of the simple beauty of single-light setups. In the Netflix documentary of his work, Abstract: The Art of Design, he was shooting a portrait of Colin Powell in his studio in New York City, where he could have used any setup he liked, and was using the same black backdrop and overhead, shoot-through umbrella keylight that he seems to use so often. I definitely feel that affinity with my single-light setup, even when I am in the studio with every tool imaginable at my disposal it’s the thing I most often go to.

Platon and Lindbergh both often seem to work fairly tightly in their portraiture, choosing to focus on face and posture to convey character. Lindbergh backs out sometimes to show some scene, though it often seems to be as a way of accenting the person he is portraying rather than conveying anything thematically. However, you said you also like the way that Arnold Newman uses the environments of his subjects when he portrays them. Any favorite Newman works? And in what ways might we see the influence of Newman’s approach in this project, or in your future work?

Newman’s portrait of Stravinsky at his piano is one of my absolute favorite pieces of art. I don’t know that I’m so much influenced by Newman as inspired by him. I’ve tried to shoot environmental portraits before and can’t even begin to approach his genius in getting subject and environment to reinforce and complement one other. Whenever I try, the background invariably distracts from the individual. But I’m going to keep trying. I love this idea that a portrait can be a bit of a self-contained biography of a subject, and that subject accompanied by environment might make you ask a different set of questions about an image.

Besides your motivation to do this “Behind the Tech” project, how else has your background in technology [Scott is the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft] informed and colored your choices as a photographer? In what ways, if any, for instance, does it make you a more technically-inclined photographer, and how has that both helped and hindered your photography? You mentioned that you like to shoot subjects whom you like or admire, but how else do you make sure to overcome the “gadget (camera) freak” mentality of some technologists to properly focus on your subjects?

I think that having a background in math and physics and engineering has helped with thinking about the tools and technical bits of photography as a system, and for me at least has made it quick to ramp up on new things and understand how things work. Which is great because honestly I want all of the technical bits to disappear into the background and to be able to focus my attention on the subject. One of the reasons that I do photography is for the conversation with the subject, thinking about a composition, visualizing the image I would like to capture without having my eye at a viewfinder, all of that is like a release from the technical stuff that I do for my day job.

I haven’t always been this zen. Focusing too much on gadgets and gear has definitely been a distraction in the past. I still enjoy the tools of photography. But, I was in a workshop with Ralph Gibson once and just blown away by what he was able to do with a Leica M, a 50mm lens, natural light, and his eye. And if you look at the amazing images that my three photography heroes make, it’s not because they are shooting with peak technology and complex setups. I think that for some folks, perhaps especially techies, it’s hard getting to the point where you understand that you, not your gear, is the most significant factor in making an image. In a way it makes you very vulnerable. But if you can’t get past it, you will always be focused on the wrong thing. (No pun intended.)

Why are you drawn to portraiture?

Among Arnold Newman, Peter Lindbergh, and Platon’s works, are there specific images that stand out for as inspirations and/or for your admiration and why?

Newman’s Stravinsky portraits, his portrait of Kurt Goedel, and the one of Leonard Bernstein I think are really amazing. The Stravinsky and Goedel portraits are spare, beautifully composed, with both of these geniuses sitting with the instrument of their art: Stravinsky at the piano where he would compose; Goedel in front of a literal blank slate where he might prove his next great theorem. The Bernstein portrait begs so many questions. What is Bernstein thinking? He’s perhaps known most for his conducting, but it’s just him, a score, and empty orchestra in the image. Is that a reflection on his disappointment that he wasn’t better known for his work as a composer? It just seems to capture something about Bernstein’s inner conflict that we know from the historical record was a real thing.

I love so much of Peter Lindbergh’s work. His 2017 Pirelli Calendar is really great in my opinion. I’m not a huge fan of the Pirelli Calendar in general, but Lindbergh’s 2017 I think is really powerful, and shows these rare glimpses of these celebrated women with little or no makeup, no retouching, no ridiculous wardrobe. They are just themselves, and for many of them, who have been photographed countless times, these are my favorite portrayals of them in portraiture.

I’ve already talked a bit about Platon, but some of my specific favorite portraits are the one of Willie Nelson hugging his guitar, the one of the mother at the grave of her son, a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq, the one of Jon Snowden with the US Flag, and the one of Sylvester Stallone smoking the cigar. The images of the grieving mother and of Snowden with the flag are just extremely well-done images of the juxtaposition of extremely emotional elements, and are obviously intended to provoke a strong emotion in the viewer. The other two are harder to explain, but both in addition to their technical qualities which I think are remarkable, also convey this sense of raw emotion.

 

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Sally Mann on the Thrill of Photography

In her memoir Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs“>Hold Still, Sally Mann writes about the thrill she gets from photography.

There is nothing better than the thrill of holding a great negative, wet with fixer, up to the light. And here’s the important thing: it doesn’t even have to be a great negative. You get the same thrill with any negative, with art, as someone once said, most of what you have to do is show up. The hardest part is setting the camera on the tripod, or making the decision to bring the camera out of the car, or just raising the camera to your face, believing,  by those actions, that whatever you find before you, whatever you find there, is going to be good.

And, when you get whatever you get, even if it’s a fluky product of that slipping-glimpser vision that de Konning celebrated, you have made something. Maybe you’ve made something mediocre–there’s plenty of that in any artist’s cabinets–but something mediocre is better than nothing, and often the near misses, as I call them, are the beckoning hands that bring you to perfection just around the blind corner.

U-Ram Choe’s kinetic sculptures

Juxtapoz features Korean artist U-Ram Choe, who creates extraordinary kinetic sculptures, “charting a path between art, science and cybernetic technologies.  Finely engineered stainless steel, aluminium, and acrylic ‘bones’ provide the skeletal scaffolding for the ‘brains and muscles’ – CPUs and motors – which are assembled into captivating forms reminiscent of otherworldly flora and fauna.” (Hat tip: Gizmodo.)

Mario Testino: your camera phone is good enough

The New York Times asked fashion photographer Mario Testino what camera he uses for personal shots when he travels.

NYT: What advice do you have for travelers who want to make sure they get the best pictures from their trip? Are good shots about having the right camera?

Mario Testino: You don’t need a fancy camera to be able to capture anything. The one on your phone is good enough; that’s what I use when I’m not working. Getting the right pictures is about opening your eyes to see what’s magical about a place. I just photographed the city from a window on this floor and saw all these buildings lit in a beautiful way, which is so New York. But the magic is different depending on where you are. It could be the people, the landscape, the animals or even the candle in the room. You just have to be curious, and you’ll find it.

Fixing Stuff, Repairing the World

Alice Rawsthorn talks about the “art of repair” in her review of the Tokyo exhibit Fab Mind.

As odd as it is to see an exquisite 17th-century Japanese bowl in a contemporary design exhibition, it seems odder still to discover that it is there not because of the finesse with which it was originally made, but the skill with which it was repaired during the late 1800s.

Tsukuroi, or the art of repair, is so revered in Japan that it is believed to create a new form of beauty, as the bowl demonstrates. In “The Fab Mind: Hints of the Future in a Shifting World,” an exhibition here, the bowl acts as a prelude to a display of work by the Fixperts. This international network of contemporary designers and makers experiments with recently developed digital tools and ancient craft techniques to customize new objects and repair damaged ones, just as the artisan who fixed the broken bowl did so deftly over a century ago.

Through a Lens Sharply

Dominque Browning says she was late to fall in love with photography.

That’s why people take their own pictures when they travel. But I never did — I was intimidated by the equipment — and now it is one of my life’s regrets. Then, a couple of years ago, a friend stuck a camera in my hands, and told me to lose my fear. Today, I cannot leave my house without my simple, no-nonsense Canon point-and-shoot, small enough to fit in an evening bag. And I cannot begin to count the ways in which this little miracle of memory has changed the way I travel.

 

 

The Big Picture Strikes Back

A.O. Scott wonders how video convergence is impacting film’s distinctiveness from TV and other video media.

Equally hard to refute is the idea that we are approaching a horizon of video convergence, in which all those screens will be equal and interchangeable and the distinctions between the stuff that’s shown on each one won’t seem as consequential as it does now. We still tend to take for granted that a cable drama, a network sitcom, a feature film, a web video and a first-person combat game are fundamentally different creatures, but they might really be diverse species within a single genus, their variations ultimately less important than what they have in common. They are all moving pictures, after all, and as our means of access to them proliferate and recombine, those old categories are likely to feel increasingly arbitrary and obsolete. The infrastructure of a multiplatform future is before us, and resistance to it can look like an especially tiresome kind of sentimentality. Cinephilia is nostalgia. We might keep going to the movies out of habit, or because it’s sometimes nice to leave the house, but we are losing the old, sustaining belief that this is a special and exalted cultural activity, the supreme mode of participation in the popular arts.