Through a Lens, Collectively

Salons, like book clubs for shutterbugs, help photographers stay focused

On a Wednesday evening at the Minnesota Center for Photography (MCP), some 40 men and women wander into a back room (a kitchen, actually, complete with stove, sink, and shelves full of pots and pans). Several sport cameras around their necks; others blink as if they’ve come directly from a darkroom. Though they range in age from their twenties to their sixties, and in dress from suburban pantsuit to urban leather mini, they are all photographers, and they are less tentative with each other than you might expect from people used to hiding behind a viewfinder. After helping themselves to wine, beer, and snacks, they settle into a circle. Into the center steps a man with a salt-and-pepper ponytail and mustache—Tom Arndt, a well-respected photographer who returned to the Twin Cities this summer after years of teaching and photographing in Chicago. Since June, when the MCP initiated this free monthly gathering, Arndt has been the coterie’s low-key host. Called the Camera Workers Group, it’s a cross between a book club and a support group.

Tonight opens with a discussion of a famous photograph, “Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962,” by Diane Arbus, whose striking images of nudists, giants, and other atypical folks straddle the line between art and exploitation. One participant argues that it’s “the natural condition of the artist” to be exploitive. “I think you’re out to thieve and steal at every opportunity,” he says. “Art is amoral—it has nothing to do with whether you have a good heart.” Others suggest Arbus was simply capturing everyone’s inner freak. “What’s normal and what’s not normal?” asks another photographer. “The people in the suburbs—are they normal?” It’s a question of motivation, Arndt suggests. Are war photographers capturing death and agony for their own satisfaction? “Ultimately, the world is better for this”—the work of photographers like Arbus, he concludes. “They make us more aware.”

Photo by Bill Cameron

The second part of the evening is devoted to portfolio review, a critique of photographs taken by participants. First up is a massive black-and-white shot of the Super Dog hot-dog stand at the Minnesota State Fair, taken by Phil Anderson. “My wife says photography is my mistress,” Anderson confesses. “It takes all of my money, my nights, and my attention.” After analyzing the composition, lighting, and subject matter of the image, the group claps and shakes Anderson’s hand. “Congratulations,” says Arndt. It’s good work.

The MCP isn’t the only host of photo salons. Wing Young Huie, a gregarious photographer best known for his shots of life along Lake Street in Minneapolis, recently began hosting salons in his studio every Saturday morning. Limited to 10 people, they’re more intimate than MCP’s gatherings but feature a similar mix of talk and portfolio review. Held amid file cabinets, work tables, and Huie’s life-size images of Lake Street denizens, a recent discussion centered on the legal and ethical ramifications of sneaking photos. Another analyzed how a particular photographer got the shots she did, how she may have used lighting for effect. Attendees range from high school students to professional photographers; all are encouraged to offer advice to each other along with support. Huie says he wants “to get people to think photographically”—that is, to see the photographic possibilities of the world around them and cook up unique methods of capturing them.

Left unshepherded, discussion at both salons often turns to technical talk about cameras and film. One regular at Huie’s salon brought in an old stereo camera—a device that shoots two frames of film simultaneously, which later can be combined to create a 3-D effect. The group marveled at the novelty: artists inspired by new ways of seeing. They might have appreciated a quote Arndt attributed to Diane Arbus at the Camera Workers Group: “I really believe there are things no one would see unless I photographed them.” He bestowed this like a benediction before dismissing the group: go forth and shoot.