Category Archives: essays

Jeff’s Corvair Ranch

Jeff’s Corvair Ranch, just outside Gettysburg, PA, is a little hard to describe. In short, it’s a sprawling yard of carcasses awaiting reanimation by the so-named Corvair master Jeff & crew. Yet “yard” doesn’t really describe it, as the car (and van, and airplane) hulks and scattered greasy car-lumps are by no means constrained to a single plane; the masterful and eccentric proprietor has allowed Corvair and Corvair-ness to pervade not only the yard in front of his garage, but also adjacent fields and boxcars and rooms of the house he shares with an evidently patient spouse.

And lest you worry that Jeff only trades in the car that Nader killed, fear not, as the Ranch also holds a number of Corvair Ultravans – monstrous, faintly ridiculous, rounded vans built with aircraft technology to conserve weight; I hope to return to photograph them – and bicycles, and other sundry automobiles, and actual aircraft awaiting a miracle of Wrightly proportions to save them from an inevitable creeping into the fey fallow of Jeff’s field.

I was there with my own eternally patient s.o. (and my stepfather as guide and Jeff translator) to help her investigate a ’67 Corvair four-door being sold by the Ranch for $700. Now, true, unrestored classic cars are cheap; but not seven hundred bucks cheap, and we were curious to see how much bang for buck an old air-cooled engine could offer.

The car was inimitable; I regret not photographing it. The color was best described as somewhere between “seafoam” and “Loch Ness.” It had great bumper stickers.

Having a few minutes to ourselves while waiting for Jeff to appear, we popped the hood and looked at the belly of the beast. No battery; no gas. (Not unexpected, as the car had been sitting for years, judging by the quantity of leaves nestled around the engine.) We moved around to the front (air-cooled… engine’s in the back) and sat inside the car. While figuring out which of the car’s essential safety mechanisms were missing, a few clanks and thuds from behind us belied the manifestation of Jeff himself. He ducked up to the driver’s side window.

Go ahead and start it, if you want, he said. “But it seems to need a ba–”

“Not anymore!”

The car was a piece of crap. Broken windshield, rusted-out floorboard, moldy interior. One of the two carburetors wasn’t firing, so metal-pedaling offered a wan 30 MPH. Jeff, driving at this point, stopped the car in the road and applied the handbrake; he pulled on greasy workgloves and then proceeded to tinker with the choke of the still-running engine as we sat, stupefied. (It’s a hell of a thing, hearing an old engine roar to life as you watch the accelerator pedal push itself to the floor.)

Despite Jeff’s best resurrection attempts, we didn’t end up buying it. I hope you don’t blame us.

A quick tour of some of the finer automobiles on the Ranch, most with as many cylinders as I’ve summers, and we were on our way…


Plagiarism in photography

Peter Bialobrzeski, Shanghai, 2001 (#57). Bottom: H. & D. Zielske, Nanpu Bridge, Shanghai, 2002. Screen grab from Slate.
Top: Peter Bialobrzeski, Shanghai, 2001 (#57). Bottom: H. & D. Zielske, Nanpu Bridge, Shanghai, 2002. Screen grab from Slate.

In the article “Can Photographers Be Plagiarists: The Case of the Nanpu Bridge,” writer David Segal raises the question of whether photographers can plagiarize. He shows and describes two very similar photographs of a bridge at night, and attributes them similarity based on their “luminous, Blade Runner-like glow” – or in less adorned English, their long exposure – and proceeds to highlight other, past cases of accused plagiarism in photography. Worth a look.

Walter Benjamin traversed this ground.

The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law.

Fragments of what? Reality, in Benjamin’s writing; but “reality” in our perception is not composed merely of that before us.

Reality as a concept is not objective or naïve; it is coalesced memory applied to our immediate surroundings. Without the aid of our past experiences, “reality” would be a worthless concept. I see a cactus; I remember having been stung by it. I see a bridge; I wonder what it would look like at night.

Consider for a moment the colloquial use of “realistic” – “Let’s be realistic.” The speaker is not asking you to analyze the objective nature of the things being discussed; he is asking you to apply the cynicism of collective experience to your idealistic proposal.

Realism is subjective. How, then, can it be judged by an objective ruler? How can one photographer’s capture of “reality” be more true, or more original, than another’s?

(Or, to take a veer into deconstruction: if you consider reality objective, then how can two photographs of the same constant be differing values?)

Yes, the argument could be made that one photograph came before the other, and is thus more worthy of praise. Little is new under the sun. Only the briefest window exists in which a photograph of something has never been made.

Writing in Harper’s, Jonathan Lethem voiced a reasoned critique of copyright in an article entitled “The Ecstasy of Influence”:

Is an intellectual or creative offering truly novel, or have we just forgotten a worthy precursor?

He covers most facets of the issue – including “cryptomnesia,” a term to describe the tendency of authors throughout time to read a book and then unconsciously regurgitate its theme or ideas in new format, without conscious plagiarism; the human mind rarely forgets on a permanent basis, but blends and chops and amalgamates past experiences into seemingly new ideas.

The real question, to my mind – why would you want to consciously copy someone’s photograph? Unless you are more able or willing to fiscally exploit the photograph than its creator, as with Koons/dogs, you don’t stand to gain much of anything. If you found an Eggleston photograph in a book, it’s pretty damned likely that your audience will recognize any particularly skillful reproduction of it. And only so many photographers can be “commenting on the nature of originality” – Sherry Levine did it, folks.

Little is new under the sun.

The real challenge of photography is in being unique. How many art students majored in photography? How many Flickr users are there? How many Americans go home after work and take macro photographs of ladybugs on the lawn?

Plagiarism in photography: not if, or how – but why?

It’s been voiced – and if I can remember by whom, or when, a link will be forthcoming by Mike Johnston – that photographers have two stages of development. In the first: you strive to emulate other photographers. The second: you strive to differentiate yourself from other photographers.

The Zielskes were misguided. Photographic plagiarism is pointless, particularly now.

(Thanks to Mike Johnston for the Slate link, too.)