An Interview with David Bram, Fraction Magazine

© Brian Ulrich, as seen in Fraction Magazine, Issue 11.

David Bram is editor, curator, and founder of the popular and influential Fraction Magazine, now in its eleventh issue.  Based in Albuquerque, NM, David keeps an active Facebook and Twitter presence and will be lecturing at FotoFest on the use of online media and photography on March 16.  We recently had the privilege of asking him a few questions:

How does the online delivery of images differ from delivery with printed media (books, magazines, etc.)?  And beyond the financial realities of publishing a physical magazine, could you talk about the decision to remain exclusively online?

The main difference between online and physical media is the way it is delivered. We are able to see much more work online than we ever would in a book store or magazine stand. Whether getting RSS feeds or following Twitter and Facebook, the amount of work being put online and sent around is huge.  Doesn’t Flickr have two billion photos on its site?  As for me,  I probably look at 75-100 websites a day along with a few dozen submissions.  This would be incredibly difficult without the internet.  The decision to keep Fraction strictly online is a financial one but also having minimal overhead allows me to make each issue as big or as small as I desire.  I am now considering a bi-annual magazine that will be produced via Magcloud or something similar.  Also, I am reaching about 5000 people per week.  I could never do this with a paper product.

There are a variety of photography magazines available on the market. What is the photographic niche Fraction Magazine aspires to interest or what sorts of readers is Fraction seeking?

Fraction is trying to be the site you visit to see the work of new artists who have yet to get exposure they deserve as well as very established artists who are showing off new projects.  I try to show work that fits together and work that is both strong in concept as well as execution.  I am looking for and publishing work that has yet to have great exposure to the world.  As for readership, I am looking for those who are looking for more than just pretty pictures.  They are looking for work that makes them think about what the photographer has created.

What sorts of criteria (personal or otherwise) are used to select the photographic work you publish in the magazine?

First and foremost, the work must be strong and somewhat provocative.  I don’t necessarily want it to “push buttons” but I do want it to be thought provoking. I also consider how much exposure the artist and the work have gotten.  If the work has been shown around a lot and has been on more than two or three sites, I probably won’t show it.  Mostly, I am looking for a portfolio that is thematically tight and technically perfect.  I am fortunate enough to have created something that artists like David Maisel and Phil Toledano want to be a part of.

One of Fraction’s stated goals is “to provide an alternative to the fixed gallery, and to continually examine the role that photography plays in society.”  As Fraction comes to its 10th issue, what new roles do you see photography playing in society, and which artists exemplify those roles?

With the advent of digital photography and the internet, photography is able to reach audiences that it could not only 15 years ago, if not 10 years ago.  We are able to see images from the war in Iraq or the destruction of Haiti almost immediately and completely uncensored.  Today, almost everyone has some sort of camera with them, whether it be a little point and shoot or a camera phone, pictures make it to the internet very quickly.  Ever notice how the local TV news asks you for your newsworthy photographs?

In Issue 10, which primarily is about people, I chose artists whose work showed various parts of our culture, from Jake Mendel’s Short Track series about auto racing, to Phil Toledano‘s The New Kind of Beauty which showed people who have extremely altered their physical appearance.  Both bodies of work showed people in a very caring, non-judgmental kind of way.

What reoccurring themes in photography do you notice from work submitted to Fraction Magazine.  And are those the themes most frequently published in Fraction Magazine or are there less common themes you prefer to consider?

The work that is submitted to Fraction varies in content.  Sometimes it is obvious that the person submitting the work has not looked at past issues and is submitting work that will never be included in Fraction.  As for reoccurring themes, it is very apparent that artists like Alec Soth have had a great influence on up and coming artists and well as some very established artists.   The ‘vacant landscape’ as well as what I like to call “the dude in the road” photograph is often included in contemporary work.  I feel that Brad Moore and Dave Jordano have had a bit of influence as well.  If you don’t think so, check out their work.  Also be sure to check out the original New Topographics photographers.  The ground breaking show that was the New Topographics (1975) has had more of an influence than people think.

I also see a lot of work that comes from an artist who think they have “hit it” because they are using a large format camera and a certain type of film.  As any art critic or college professor will tell you, the camera has nothing to do with what you are doing.  It might help you get to the conclusion you are looking for but it is merely a tool.  It took me a long time to realize this.

As for what themes I publish; I publish what I like and find the most interesting.  I only use a theme to coordinate an issue.

We notice that Fraction previously published book reviews and articles, but now only publishes images of photographic work.  How have you arrived at the decision not to include essays, reviews, exegetic works, texts or other parallel discourse?

Honestly, we stopped publishing reviews for two reasons: First, it was getting hard to get people to write reviews and keep to deadlines, and two, I personally hate writing reviews.  Issue 11 has a review of the show Versus, by Mary Goodwin, who is the Associate Director of Light Work.  She is an amazing person, writer and artist and someone who truly understands and appreciates what I am doing.  Also, Issue 10 had a group show about Lishui Photo Festival in China that was text heavy.  In the future, we plan to have more reviews and essays.  It’s just a matter of getting reviewers who can keep to deadlines and are willing to do some work for almost no payment.  Know anyone?

In addition to the submissions you receive, how do you stay current with what is happening in photography right now?

I follow about 50 blogs and I have been doing portfolio reviews where I get to see a lot of work. At each review, I see at least 25 portfolios on a one to one basis and then meet and see a lot of photographers during the course of the event.  Luckily, people respect what I am doing and want to show me their work.  Twitter and Facebook also play a part in keeping me in the know.  I use them both to make announcements and to drive traffic to my website and blog.  I almost never post important topics to Facebook or any other place.

With your vast experience as a reviewer in Review LA, a partner with Center on their yearly competitions, and a portfolio reviewer to FotoFest, in addition to other projects, who are the contemporary photographers, and what are the movements or ideas about which you are especially excited right now?

I love the new urban landscape photography that I am seeing more and more of.   Contrary to popular belief, I think there is a lot of really good work being posted to Flickr right now. Once you get past all of the crap, and search a bit, you can find some really original and edgy work on Flickr.  Fraction now has a Flickr group and I am searching for some work that I might not otherwise include in an issue.  But I do have plans for a Flickr group show that will debut in April. Unfortunately I am not sure there is a singular movement right now that is exciting me other than the one where artists are moving back to using film.  I seem to be reading a lot lately that for more and more personal work, photographers are choosing to shoot film and usually in the larger formats.  This is a good thing.

Many thanks to David for taking the time to answer our questions.  Be sure to visit Fraction and let us know if you get to meet or hear him at FotoFest (We will be there, but on a different week…)

An Interview with Christa Bowden

Untitled (moth study), 8 x 8", platinum palladium print, 2008.

Christa Bowden’s exhibition, Still Flight, opens Monday, January 11, and runs through February 14.  We are delighted to be showing this work and recently asked Christa a few questions:

How does your choice to use contemporary photographic processes (scanners, digital files, and archival inkjet printing) in conjunction with 19th century processes inform your work?

I have been using the flatbed scanner as my primary camera since 1999, when I was in graduate school at the University of Georgia. My early explorations with the scanner were primarily figurative, juxtaposing sections of the human body with natural objects. The human body has slowly worked its way out of the imagery, but the natural objects have remained. It was not a clean break between different bodies of work, but rather a natural progression. I think that this leads me to look at my current work not strictly as still life, but rather as constructed (as opposed to found) imagery. This is a common factor with all scanography, since the artist must always define how the subject is placed within the rectangle of the scanner. Although the moths are visually different from my earlier figurative work, the process has remained much the same.

In terms of 19th century processes, I began incorporating these into my work in 2007. The college where I teach, Washington and Lee University, has a short spring term. When I needed to develop a photography course that would fit within a 6-week format, an alternative process course was an obvious choice. I never thought that the course would influence my own work, but I found through teaching that I loved the hands-on nature and limited predictability of the processes. It was such a stark contrast to the years that I had spent making work with Photoshop and inkjet printers. Getting a perfect print with an inkjet printer is relatively easy for me. Getting a perfect platinum print is a challenge for me, and therefore substantially more rewarding when I make a good one. No two prints are ever exactly the same, and I find this interesting as well. This is especially true with ambrotypes, which are one-of-a-kind. This concept was entirely new to me as a photographer, where all of my ideas about my work had previously been built upon the notion of repeatability.

Since you work in so many different photographic processes, in which ways do different photographic outputs (inkjet, platinum-palladium print, or ambrotype) affect the intended contents of your work? And do you consider some more effective than others?

I don’t know that I view any one process as more effective than the other, they are just different, and I love each process for different reasons. I appreciate inkjet prints for their precision, detail, and flexibility of scale. I appreciate platinum & palladium prints for the range of tone, and the nature of the chemistry to sink into and become a part of the substrate on which it is printed. Unlike an inkjet print, where the image seems to sit on top of the paper, the image and paper become one in a platinum & palladium print. I appreciate ambrotypes because they can make any subject mysterious and seemingly fluid, as if floating upon the glass. I also love the preciousness, one-of-a-kind, and sculptural qualities that ambrotypes have.

There are also purely pragmatic reasons for using one process or another for an image. For example, I have yet to find a translucent vellum paper that is compatible with archival Epson pigment inks. For this reason, I began making platinum and palladium prints on vellum. It was Christopher James who suggested to me that I print some of the moths on vellum, to add more dimensionality to the subject, and create a relationship between the paper and the moth wings. I found that layering a platinum & palladium print on vellum over a pigmented inkjet print created a level of depth and dimensionality that I simply could not achieve with either a single inkjet print or a single platinum & palladium print. I love the idea that I can take a 19th century process and a 21st century process and incorporate them together to achieve my desired effect.

What advice do you have for those wishing to begin working with the ambrotype process, and are there any specific books or workshops you recommend?

I was fortunate enough to learn wet plate collodion from a friend who had taken a workshop with Mark and France Scully Osterman. The Ostermans are masters of this process, and I would suggest that anyone who is interested in making ambrotypes take a workshop with them. Mark Osterman also wrote an excellent reference book, The Wet Plate Process, A Working Guide, which is available on their web site.

For artists working in alternative photographic processes, a network of peers is essential. The f295 organization is a group of alt process artists, and their symposiums and workshops are great. I would suggest that anyone who is interested in any kind of alternative photography join this organization.

And of course, anyone interested in alternative processes should own Christopher James’ The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes. This is essentially the bible of alt process technique, and is very detailed yet easy to read. I have been able to teach myself a number of processes straight from his book. Christopher also teaches several beginning and advanced workshops each year, and his workshops are very intensive, yet a lot of fun. Christopher is a true scholar of this area of photography, and is not the least bit proprietary about his research and discoveries.

From the series: Roots & Nests

Other artists such as Jayne Hinds Bidaut, Joseph Scheer or Mike & Doug Starn have made work with moths that resembles yours in many ways (media used or subjects photographed).  Which artists or ideas or others would you say have influenced your work?

The Starns are a huge influence for me, and two of my favorite artists. I do not presume that I will ever achieve their level of artistry. Every new project that they undertake seems to blow my mind. I couldn’t possibly list all of the ways that they have influenced me, but most have nothing to do with moths as a subject. I adore their experimental approach to photography. They have done so much to move the medium beyond the idea of a matted and framed flat print on a wall. Their exploration of transparency, depth, and multiple layers of imagery is incredible.

I love the work of Jayne Hinds Bidaut. Her tintypes are stunning. I feel that I have something in common with her, in that she utilizes a 19th century process to reinvent and add mystery to the visual appearance of natural subjects. I feel that I have less in common with Joseph Scheer, who takes a more realistic, color, and specimen-based approach to photographing moths.

Perhaps a less obvious influence for me is the work of Michael Kenna. His simplicity and perfection of composition, minimalism, and juxtaposition of light and dark tones have all been a big influence on me. His work has taught me the importance of a simple line in a photograph, and how to use negative space as a critical component of the image.

There is a rich history of photographing moths and other insects.  In what ways does your work extend this dialog or venture in other directions?

Many subjects have been photographed again and again, despite the relatively short history of photography relative to other mediums in art. It is one of the toughest challenges for a photographer to take these well-tread paths and figure out how to do something that is not too derivative or redundant. Much attention has been given to these subjects for good reason: they are visually very interesting. The best that an artist can do is to educate themselves on what has been done before, and attempt to evaluate a subject in a new way without being too derivative. I do not know if I always achieve this goal, but I certainly try.

Specific to my Still Flight body of work, one of the goals of the project is to explore and evaluate where photography is today, versus where it was shortly after its beginning. I am fascinated by how process and scale can affect a particular subject. Looking at a moth in a tiny, precious 7 ¼ x 7 ¼” ambrotype, and then looking at the same moth in a huge 40 x 40” inkjet print from a scan, will provide two vastly different experiences with the same subject. I want to challenge viewers looking at my work to think about whether a contemporary digital interpretation of a subject is superior to an antique interpretation. Is bigger and sharper always better? How can a process transform a subject? I hope that people looking at my work will ask these questions, and if not, simply appreciate the beauty and difference that each process brings to the subjects.

Personally, I think that photography is in a wonderful and exciting place right now. With the resurgence and scholarship occurring in antique photographic processes, combined with the constant advancements in digital imaging, photographic artists have an incredible set of tools at their disposal.

Many thanks to Christa for taking the time to answer our questions.  Be sure to come by and see the rich combination of ambrotypes, pigmented inkjet prints, and platinum and palladium prints, layered over pigment prints.  They need to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

Artist Spotlight: Elisabeth Tonnard

© Elisabeth Tonnard© Elisabeth Tonnard, part of the Looking for the Light series.

Elisabeth Tonnard (exhibiting at SRO March 22 – April 17, 2010) has been receiving quite a bit of attention recently.  Her artist’s book In this Dark Wood was recently featured on 5B4, a great blog on photography and books.  She has also recently appeared on i heart photograph.  Take a moment to go through her website and you’ll be rewarded with a rich variety of work.  Also of note is the reviews and interviews page.

Iconoclast, 50 x 48.5 cm, lambda print on matte paper, mounted on dibond, 2009.

Iconoclast, 50 x 48.5 cm, lambda print on matte paper, mounted on dibond, 2009.

We are very much looking forward to exhibiting The Man of the Crowd this spring.

An Interview with Frank Hamrick

The Game, 10 x 10", selenium toned gelatin silver print, 2007. The Game, 10 x 10″, selenium toned gelatin silver print, 2007.

Frank Hamrick’s
exhibition is up and runs through December 12, 2009.  We are excited to be showing his work and recently asked him a few questions:

You have chosen to photograph in black and white with a (4×5? 8×10?) view camera.  What photographic issues or ideas does this allow you to specifically address?

I actually use a variety of cameras in my work. These photographs being shown at Texas Tech were created using a 4×5 view camera, a 2 ¼ Hasselblad, a Mamiya 7 and a Polaroid 600SE camera that uses 3 ¼ x 4 ¼ positive/negative film. Sometimes I consciously choose a specific camera when making a photograph. Other times I simply use what is available. There are other photographs from this series made using color film and digital cameras. They just aren’t part of this particular exhibit

A few years ago I began my job at Louisiana Tech University. Some of the equipment was new to me. I had used medium and large format cameras before, but not these particular models. So I would bring a camera home from school to make some photographs around the house. This allowed me to become comfortable with the equipment so I would feel more confident explaining to students how these cameras work and what kind of images they create.

A friend gave me the Polaroid camera in trade for one of my photographs. My dad bought the Mamiya 7 for me as a graduation present when I received my BFA.

The thing I have learned and now try to pass on to my students is the understanding that each camera has its own capabilities and limitations. They have characteristics they project upon the final image. The same thing goes with various films and papers. Digital tools and materials are the same as well.

Different cameras affect how a photographer approaches a subject and also affect how the model interacts with the camera and photographer. I know I’m going to create a different photograph with a waist level medium format camera strapped around my neck in comparison to a view camera mounted on a tripod.

Often I will photograph the same subject with multiple cameras knowing each camera will force me to approach the subject in a different way.

One of my goals is for an ambiguity of time to exist in my photographs. I’m not trying to make them look old. I just don’t want someone to look at my photographs and say, “Wow, he really captured the essence of 2005 with that photograph.” I consciously avoid fads in my imagery. Photographing in black & white helps dodge that trap whereas color can in time look dated.

Black and white photographs and view cameras have existed as long as photography has and they will continue to exist. Viewers can look at my images and think they were made fifty years ago or last week. Hopefully ten years from now they will still be seen as having that vagueness, “Was this photograph made in 1977 or 2019?”

With so many photographic artists increasingly using digital printing for their photographic images, could you tell us some of the reasons you continue to print in selenium toned gelatin silver?

I want the work to last, to be archival. That’s one reason. Time has shown that these kinds of prints are stable.

I have done some digital printing, but my best-known images tend to be traditional selenium toned gelatin silver prints. The software, printers, inks and papers used in digital printing are continuing to improve, but I still get a certain feeling of instability in digital printing. By instability I mean advancements are constantly being made. Inks and papers evolve. It is great and I take what I need from it when I need it, but I don’t care for my work to be a guinea pig right now. There’s a saying that the cutting edge of technology is also the bleeding edge. I realize darkroom printing is not the latest thing, but that is not what I’m after. Making work that holds up conceptually and physically are my goals.

I worked in a library for a few years. The archivist there showed us the difference between the 18th century books made from rag paper and the 20th century books made from wood pulp. The paperback books were falling apart because of cheap glue and newsprint.

I get a great deal of satisfaction out of making these traditional prints especially when so many people are now making digital prints or sending their files off to a lab to be printed by someone else. Each print I make is exposed and processed individually in the darkroom. The photographs are precious because each individual print represents a portion of my life.

Coke Bottles, 3 x 4", selenium toned gelatin silver print, 2008.

Coke Bottles, 3 x 4", selenium toned gelatin silver print, 2008.

Your photographs are beautifully lit and composed and you speak of your work from a romantic viewpoint.  How do ideas of beauty influence your work?

Romantic… hmmm… that’s interesting. I’ve never thought of it that way or heard anyone else describe it like that.

Personally, I believe I recognize the beauty in people, places and objects that many others might not think of if I asked someone to imagine a beautiful house or a beautiful flower.

This year a friend gave me a book about the Japanese concept Wabi Sabi, which basically identifies itself as imperfect, impermanent things that are seen as aesthetically pleasing. Your favorite pair of jeans or a well-worn t-shirt that you choose first from the closet could be examples of Wabi Sabi. This philosophy fits the way I see things and what I choose to photograph.

Perfect can be boring. I gravitate to the scarred and twisted trees. I focus on individuality. I prefer to photograph things as they are naturally, which includes using natural lighting.

These images conjure up thoughts of survival and natural selection, along with the idea of an individual finding one’s place in history. Could you talk about your personal connection to land and place that is being addressed by these images?

I grew up in a rural part of Georgia where there was a dairy farm half a mile to the north, another dairy half a mile to the south and a ranch right next door to the west. I did not have cable television or a Nintendo to suck away my youth. So my time after school was spent picking blackberries on the side of the road and wandering in the woods with a number of dogs. In the summers I would drill water wells with my grandfather and my uncles. During college I briefly worked on a small organic farm. Then I started growing my own organic garden.

This background has given me a deep connection to the land. I know first hand that our resources come from the land. I don’t grow all of my vegetables, but the food I do grow gives me a greater appreciation for the food I buy at the store or in a restaurant. I understand the time and effort that goes into its creation, so I respect it more and try not to waste any of it.

Growing a garden here in Louisiana has created a connection for me with this land that I previously did not have. I feel connected to the food I harvest. It means a lot to me to invite friends over and feed them with the food I grew in the yard. It also means a lot to photograph these plants that I have been involved with. I’m not buying carrots at the store to photograph. I’m planting seeds and patiently waiting months to harvest and use them as my subject matter.

I don’t want to buy everything I consume. I want to be able to produce some of the things I need. People are often referred to as consumers. I want to be seen as a producer. My artwork along with my teaching are my contributions back to society.

I speak with my students about the difference between being a consumer and a producer. They have to decide how they want to be remembered, for making thought provoking pieces of artwork or for playing a lot of video games.

Our culture is becoming increasingly impersonal. We don’t know where our food comes from or what is in it. We have friends online that we never actually meet. Our daily activities are becoming more virtual through devices and technology like camera phones and text messages. They make life more efficient but we don’t know how to deal with real objects or how to interact with people face to face.

So the quality connections we make with each other are becoming more meaningful because we have less of that in our everyday life. Getting a hand written letter these days takes on a significance and value it never had before.

In many ways, these images are aesthetically and conceptually similar to those of Keith Carter.  Are there specific artists working in similar ways that you with whom you identify?

Joy Christiansen-Erb and I worked together for a year. One of the things I picked up from her was the concept of a photographic family. For Joy, Jon Yamashiro, her undergraduate professor, was her photography dad, and Susan kae Grant, her graduate professor was her photography mother.

I identify with that concept and feel that other photographers and artists in other media can also be members of my creative family. I think of Joy as one of my photo sisters and my students are my photo children.

I’d like to think of Keith Carter as some distant uncle I discovered when I was in grad school. We have since connected with each other in the past couple of years. I have one of his postcards on my office wall and he has one of mine on his wall. Keith has been supportive of my work. This past year he selected my Standing Broom photograph to be in a show he juried and gave it an honorable mention.

Both Keith and I are photographers who grew up and continue to work in the south. I believe we both find subject matter in this region that is important to us and important to others once one of us holds it up for others to see. Although I realize more people pay attention when he holds up something for others to view.

I believe artists see what others might not otherwise notice and find ways to say things that everyone feels but can’t find the right way to express it.

In college I looked up to photographers like Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Guys who wandered the streets photographing in every city they passed through. Now I identify with artists that have a personal connection with their subject matter. Abelardo Morell, Emmet Gowin, and Sally Mann are photographers that immediately come to mind as artists with whom I identify.

Artists in other mediums that are important to me include the songwriter Sam Beam from the band Iron & Wine, Jim Sherraden the printmaker who manages Hatch Show Print in Nashville and David Clark, the writer from Cochran, Georgia.

Could you share with us some insights you have gained through this project on ways that your home functions?

I have realized home is not a place. Home is my attitude towards a place. It’s less about how my home functions and more about how I function in a location, how familiar I feel with a place.

Many thanks to Frank for his thoughtful answers.  Be sure to come see the show before we break for the holidays.