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Friday, May 04, 2007

Random Excellence

Roark Johnson, Sailor from Great Lakes Naval Base visiting his family from Ohio in Chicago

Roark Johnson's "Stranger A Day 2007."

Great stuff—well worth a look. I hope it's going to continue.

(Just as an aside, this may be one project that might easier to do with a view camera than a digital one. It might be easier to persuade strangers to pose for a big, non-moving, serious-looking camera on a tripod than it would be to enlist their cooperation with a dinky digicam.)

Roark Johnson is a commercial and editorial photographer from Chicago. You can see more of his work at his website, including lots o' shiny happy commercial portraits and a nice series of school kids.

And finally, if you don't already know (I'm apparently one of the last people on Earth to find out about this project), here's a link to the original Stranger A Day.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, with thanks to Charlie D. and to Kathryn


Blogger Adam McAnaney said...

Awesome. Just absolutely awesome. He has a great eye for when to go for a close-up straight-ahead portrait, vs. when to provide some environmental context.

As an aside, his best caption has to be "New Zealander visiting potential girlfriend in Chicago."

Runner-up: "Young woman with guy who predicts he'll be her boyfriend."

2nd Runner-up: "Undercover Walmart shopper en route to see his girlfriend in Chicago."

3:14 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Just a thought: I'm thinking of retitling the "Random Excellence" series "Excellence in Passing." What do you think?

I mean, there's nothing random about some of this stuff. Looking at A Stranger A Day 2004 makes me feel the same way I feel when I see other people jogging: tired just thinking about it.


3:26 PM  
Blogger dasmb said...

"Excellence in Passing" has an aire of fatalism. Why not just "Uncovered Excellence?"

Keep it up though. The web is full of beautiful images, some measured and intentional, some completely accidental -- I've seen great talent hidden in Myspace snapshots, fer crying out loud. Unfortunately, few of us have the energy to wade through the volumes of crud to find them.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Richard Sintchak said...

I think "Random Excellence" is fine. I agree that "Excellence in Passing" sounds like someone died, or I just read the paper on the john for a good 30 minutes...

8:02 PM  
Blogger hugo solo said...

Great,the Diane Arbus style.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Is it only me or is there something very basic lacking from these photographs-?

the first comment listed three captions as winners, note-not pictures-

try looking at the pictures, and I am calling them pictures for a reason, and not read the captions-
a funny thing happens, many of them cease to be "pictures"-and by pictures I mean what you get if you make a successful photograph.

I think what I am missing is the photographer. I have no sense of the encounter between the subject and the photographer. There is very little emotional exchange. He is there in some, but a very few. Mostly there is just the acceptance of being photographed. Which is not a "picture".

What the caption is doing is telling you about the part that is not in the picture that would have been a good picture in that Paul Harvey way, if somehow the photographer could have envisioned a way to do that pictorially. But he didn't-and there is no emotional resonance between the missing info in the caption and what we see to connect the two halves.

I think this is what happens when you have a "project" but not "pictures." A project does not automatically equal pictures. But that is a separate issue.

but I'm not getting it. And I like subtle, certainly.

It is an interesting proposition, I know there is always the temptation to do what Sander did, to be encyclopedic, and at that time, photography was regarded as a real scientific tool in sociology. People even believed photography could be diagnostic of illness. We don't think that any more, obviously, but really part of the difference is how we as individuals hold ourselves "up" in photographs now. We are much more conscious of it. You could not make a group of photographs like Disfarmer did, for example, peoples awareness of the language and utility of photographs is completetly different.

So all i am saying is I am challenging the response to this well meaning work, what does it actually say, and has the photographer succeeded in making pictures. Remember, Evans was not a "documentary" photographer, he was a photographer first who made pictures, in a documentary style.

..let 'er rip....

11:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sense of encounter is definitely there it is just subtle, a complete contrast to the image which is very much there right smack in front and has a real presence. The story unfolds slowly, no need to read the captions................... it all arrives at its own pace

4:28 AM  
Blogger Apprentice said...

Random excellence is fine.

I agree with Robert: there's no engagement here. And there's definitely something Arbus-esque about it, as though these people are exhibits in a travelling freak show.

By contrast, for engaged stranger photography, have you seen the work of Your Waitress, aka Valerie J Cochrane? There's a warmth here, and a coldness only where there's coldness in the engagement. This, for example:

She uses a Canon AE, mostly.

4:33 AM  
Blogger MHV said...

There are some very nice portraits there, and obvious photographic skill, but am I the only one getting a bit tired of the blasted "deadpan" aesthetic? Everyone doing large-format portrait these days strives for no expression, full-length environmental portraits, with straight shoulders. It makes everyone look like soldiers, and granted, it does work well with soldiers.

I find the portraits where people show some reaction more interesting, the picture of the man being tatooed for example, the used car salesman, etc. Deadpan is all about breaking the mold of the cheery portrait, but eventually it gets tiring.

August Sander's or Diane Arbus's deadpan portraits are perhaps the mightiest fine examples of the genre because they're about something else than someone not having an expression. Even Arbus's subjects (cf. the Twins or the Teenage Couple) have some very slight, but important expression in their face. In Sander's portraits it's all about body language, positions, and relationship to the environment.

Sometimes it's too often the photographer just telling the subject "DON'T SAY CHEESE!"

8:00 AM  
Blogger RichardK said...

This is a fine group of portraits. In their directness and lack of irony or editorializing, they remind me of August Sanders' great portraits of German citizens during the period between the wars.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Yes, the kids' pictures are good.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Chris Sheppard said...

"Random Excellence" is fine to me. Although dasmb's suggestion of "Uncovered Excellence" soudns quite nice.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Off topic, but Robert said: "People even believed photography could be diagnostic of illness." I know somebody whose research was attempting to use facial recognition software to diagnose illness. I haven't talked to her for a while, I don't know what its status is.

5:03 AM  
Blogger Iskandar Ab. Rashid said...

Wow! The Sailor from Great Lakes Naval Base is awesome!

7:58 AM  

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