Down the Rhein II


Since the 1st Century BC, when it formed the border of the Roman Empire, the Rhine River has been a vital waterway that allows for the transport of goods in and out of much of landlocked Europe. It’s a region deeply scarred by disagreement, conflict, industry, and war. Currently, it’s home to the largest inland port in the world, and a dense industrial network of manufacturing. BASF, the largest chemical company in the world, built its fortune on the synthesis of indigo dye in the 1800’s. The company is headquartered in its original location of Ludwigshafen, on the banks of the Rhine.

French forces under Louis XIV cross the Rhine into the Netherlands in 1672.

French forces under Louis XIV cross the Rhine into the Netherlands in 1672.

Soldiers of the US 89th Infantry Division cross the Rhine in assault boats under German fire on 24 March 1945.

Soldiers of the US 89th Infantry Division cross the Rhine in assault boats under German fire on 24 March 1945.

BASF in Ludwigshafen, 1881.

BASF in Ludwigshafen, 1881.

An early ad for BASF indigo.

An early ad for BASF indigo.

The Rhine is also the subject of one of the most expensive photographs ever sold. That photograph, Rhein II by Andreas Gursky, was also formative for me as a younger photographer. It’s a minimal (but heavily retouched) composition. I remember seeing the huge print in person at the SFMOMA. I was struck by the crispness of its lines, the cleanliness of the composition, and the general feeling of sterile German emptiness. It looked like an image that should be devoid of meaning, but somehow it still managed to get lodged in the front of my mind. Something mysterious in that image spoke to me.

In commenting on Rhein II, Gursky states, “I wasn’t interested in an unusual, possibly picturesque view of the Rhine, but in the most contemporary possible view of it. Paradoxically, this view of the Rhine cannot be obtained in situ; a fictitious construction was required to provide an accurate image of a modern river…In the end I decided to digitalise the pictures and leave out the elements that bothered me.” He did, however, decide to leave the sidewalk in the foreground. Apparently it didn’t bother him enough.

Andreas Gursky,  Rhein II

Andreas Gursky, Rhein II

Rhein II , before Gursky.

Rhein II, before Gursky.

In May, I boarded a river boat in Basel, Switzerland, that would take a week to float downstream to Amsterdam. Having studied the complex history of the area, the ideas of conflict, civilization, and consumption were on my mind as I floated and photographed my way toward the Atlantic, descending through a series of heavily engineered locks. We passed old crumbling castles, gleaming new power plants, steeply terraced hillsides, and sprawling chemical factories, (many of which were owned by BASF).

The Rhine is locked in an ongoing battle with the humans that build on its banks, sculpt the surrounding hillsides, pollute its waters, and motor heavy barges loaded with industrial goods up and down stream. It may take a really (really) long time, but the outcome of this battle will ultimately be decided by the laws of nature. Which means that man will eventually lose. But for now, and until humans are extinct, the Rhine will continue to exist in a dark place.

Using photographs I shot between Basel and Amsterdam, I made five images about a river in conflict, starting with an image of a BASF factory, and the color indigo:


Pier 24 + The Apocalypse


Having lived in San Francisco for 10 years, I always love going back. Even though I haven’t lived there in over a decade, I still feel a strong spiritual connection to that city. One of my favorite rituals when I go back is to stop in at Pier 24.

It’s hard to describe the place to people that haven’t been there. Simply put it’s one of the best photo galleries in the world. Every year or so, they organize a world class show with world class artists in a world class space. And they limit the number of people they admit, so it’s always quiet. And it’s always beautifully laid out and lit, and it’s just one of my favorite places on earth. And it’s free!

The current show, titled This Land, is one portrait of America. Not surprisingly, a lot of it is dark: Foreclosed homes, police brutality, racism, abandoned shopping malls, and a general sense of apocalyptic doom pervade the show.

It’s heavy. Which is probably why I was drawn to the light. In this case Alec Soth (above) provided a break from the doom and gloom. His work is also dark, but there is also a humor and a humanity to it that makes it feel different.

My favorite piece by far was an hour-long video by James Nares, titled Street. Scored by Thurston Moore. I mean, come on. I watched the whole thing and loved every perfect minute.

Here are a few minutes:

Oh, and while I was there I saw Lee Friedlander. No big deal.

[All] Art Can Help


I just finished Robert Adams’ latest book, Art Can Help — a collection of short essays that are a call to action. In the current economic, environmental, and political climate, he thinks that artists have an inherent responsibility to make work that is positive, engaging, and inspirational. Adams refers to Koons' and Hirst's work as empty, and “born of cynicism and predictive of nihilism.” 

In the book, Adams starts by laying down Edward Hopper as an inspiration to his own work, and using it as a measuring stick for future work. While I’m fairly familiar with Hopper’s work, and even had a poster of “Early Sunday Morning” in my college dorm room,


I was happy to be introduced to another work of his, Rooms by the Sea, which I’d never seen. Painted in 1951, it was certainly ahead of it’s time. It's an odd painting. It also oozes compositional balance and visual depth. I can look at stuff like this all day:


Adams cherry picks a bunch of photographers whose work he admires, and comments on a few of each of their images. Much of the work I found flat and uninspiring. Much of it is “good” work in what I’d call the classical sense, the work is smart and well composed and meticulously printed (who even works with printmakers anymore?), but it doesn’t resonate with energy and freshness the way other work does. For me. They just feel sort of old, meaning not new. Like this one by William Wylie:


The book is beautifully written, which is typical for Adams. He's an awesome writer. One issue I have with this book is that Adams attempts to draw a line between what is art and what is not art: “There is, however, consolation to be found…in the reassurance of some stories, in the inexplicable rightness of some music, and it the witness of some pictures.” Some pictures.

Inexplicable rightness is something I certainly believe in, but it’s not something I’d try to use to draw a line in the sand. I’m more inclined to side with John Baldessari, who says that “if the artist calls it art, then it’s art” and Joseph Beuys, who claimed that everyone is an artist.  So while I can certainly appreciate Adams’ point of view, and his desire for artists to step up and use their skills for the common good, I don't think that art making is exclusive. 

The Limits of Control


Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my all time favorite directors. So when I heard that Phantom Thread was the film that ultimately made Daniel Day Lewis quit acting, I had to see it.

By the time I got around to seeing the film, it was only showing at 10:15am. I don’t think I’ve ever been to the theater before noon. Of course Black Panther was playing in two theaters at 23 different showtimes. 

It’s sad. It appears that from here on out, Daniel Plainview and Reynolds Woodcock are no match for Captain America and Wonder Woman. And I get it. Big budget movies are about making as much money as possible, and there are a lot of Marvel fans out there. Not to mention an endless stockpile of comics from which to mine more stories about superheroes in goofy outfits. 

Anyway, Phantom Thread is awesome. DD Lewis is a twelfth degree black belt ninja at the peak of his craft. So is PT Anderson. And he’s only 46 -- my age, which is crazy to consider. Apparently he directed and also manned the camera for much of this shoot, which was also cool to see.


It’s an achingly beautiful film about the need to control, and how people react when they lose that control. It’s also about making art, and the sacrifices that can require. I could certainly relate to the breakfast scenes, being annoyed by loud chewing / crunching / clanking that goes unnoticed by my wife and daughters. At several points I laughed out loud, mostly because Woodcock’s need to control his surroundings is something that I can definitely relate to.

If I’m stressed or anxious, which is usually when I’m feeling overloaded with work / family / money worries, I get hyper sensitive to sound. Furthermore, as a photographer, I’m constantly trying to make order out of the natural visual chaos that exists all around me, all the time. It’s like I’m always taking pictures with my eyes instead of a camera, and it is really hard to turn that off, which can be exhausting. I’m getting better at recognizing this, and working on it through meditation and self care. A lot of the work has to do with letting go.

Woodcock is an asshole to most of the people that surround him. And in that way I don’t think I’m like him. At least I hope not. But I get it. I understand him. And as the film eventually reveals — sometimes the way to truly control everything is to understand that you have to let go of controlling everything.

Surf Is Where You Find It

Gerry Lopez grew up in Hawaii, where he spent lots of time barefoot, surfing empty breaks with his friends and family, and communing with the ocean.

I just finished his book, Surf is Where you Find It, a collection of surf-related stories from throughout his life. I was struck by the ease with which Gerry floats through life, taking the various winds, currents, ripples, and waves as they come. As far as I can tell, he has zero enemies, is genuinely loved and respected throughout surf culture, and still loves surfing and the ocean as much as he did as a barefoot grom on the rollers of Waikiki. 

His life is one of singular focus coupled with a divine ability to read and adapt to his environment. Lopez is wholly aware of his surroundings, whether it’s surviving dangerous surf, making business decisions, or navigating the complex landscape of celebrity.


This sort of focus/vision is something that I aspire to. It’s a skill that seems so straightforward — just keep your eyes (and ears) open and pay attention. Listen closely. Being a surfer, I know that 90% of surfing is just paying attention and being able to read the ocean. But in surf, as in life, there are always distractions that cloud our vision and muffle our hearing — social and cultural filters that we are born with or pick up inadvertently along the way. As Lopez says, “Don't talk in the lineup unless you want to get caught inside.”

Gerry has spent much of his life as a waterman, a businessman, an adventurer, a pioneer, and an ambassador of not just surf, but all around Aloha coolness. But above all, he is an artist, fully committed to a life with a singular focus. 

However, artists with this sort of singular focus are often faced with difficult life decisions that require them to be either selfless or selfish. Do I chase waves around the world or stay home with my family? Do I work late or go home to have dinner with my family? Do I even get married, have kids, and start a family?  Somehow, Lopez seems to have found a way to duck dive under this wave as well — which is a true testament to his ability to see.


At the end of the book, he lists five rules that he has created for himself:

1. Surf to surf tomorrow, never surf like there's no tomorrow.
2. Pace yourself.
3. Don't talk in the lineup unless you want to get caught inside.
4. Never, ever, take the first wave of the set.
5. The best surfer in the water is the guy having the most fun.

I couldn't agree more. Thanks G-Lo!

Stop motion

Having spent a good portion of my childhood making stop motion films in the basement using modeling clay, legos, a Super 8 camera, and lots of time. I loved this one.

My Funeral

Last year at Anderson Ranch, I was talking with Tom Sachs about ways to progress what I do. First, he suggested that I take advantage of the resources available for commercial jobs to make personal work, but in a very subversive way — which was a super interesting, but sort of scary idea. Then he suggested that I make a “commercial” to advertise me and my work. Of course I’ve done plenty of marketing and promos over the years, and while a well crafted print piece can be a nice visual-tactile experience, I can never get over the feeling that I'm just printing and mailing expensive filler straight into the recycling bins of the ad world. The thought of creating a video promo was appealing, especially given the amount of directing and DP’ing that I’m doing.

So I spent some time thinking about what this commercial might say. At first I thought it would be funny to stage my death as an elaborate hoax, complete with fake news, photos, and a proper obituary -- to play with the idea that artists only become famous once they're dead. I kicked this idea around for a while, along with some other ideas based on common stereotypes involving artists.

Shortly afterward, I was installing a piece of my art in a friend’s house. At the time, he was an Art Director at CP+B, so I mentioned the idea. He told me about his high school art teacher, Mr. Williams, who used to joke with his students that “the artist’s best career move is death.”  It was perfect. And I had my creative brief. Thanks Nic.

After discussing Mr. Williams' words with my friend and creative partner Evan Fry, we came up with the idea of recreating my funeral. I wrote a script and made some notes on the look and feel of the film, including the complex camera move that required a dolly/jib/gimbal/follow focus rig and four super-skilled operators. Evan wrote the VO:

The artist exists to create,
But the judgements of his creations are subjective.
And this is a profound truth.
Just as another profound truth is that,
The artist’s best career move is death.
And with these truths at the core of the artist’s life,
A question is begged:
What is the artist to do?

Finished script in hand, I met with Denver-based production house Postmodern to make this happen. They would source the casket, locate the funeral chapel, book the cameral rig (Arri Alexa for those that care) with the four super-skilled operators, and pull everything together for our shoot day. Evan directed while I lay in the casket, caked in makeup, trying to look as dead as possible.

We did 32 takes, where each take produced a small, incremental improvement. It was a complex, organic camera move that required great touch. My eyes were closed for most of the shoot. The last take was the best. Postmodern did the edit, color, and sound. With Evan's help, I did my best to make the VO not suck. Paul Spaeth composed an original score. And we were done.

And I don't have to worry about this promo getting tossed into the recycling bin. 


Executive Producer -- Ben Seymour / Postmodern`
Producer -- Krisi Olivero / Postmodern
Director -- Evan Fry
Director of Photography -- Jon Firestone
1st AC -- Carl Otto
Grip -- Dylan Rumney / Light Factory
Gaffer -- Jason Tahara / Light Factory
Still Photographer -- Jon Rose 
Editor -- Bandera Cruse / Postmodern
Audio Engineer -- Mike Cramp / Postmodern
Colorist -- David Baud / Postmodern
Music -- Paul Spaeth
Production Assistant -- Eva Weinberg
Make-Up -- Michael Long / Fairmount Cemetery