Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

Category Archives: Quips

Brown Bag Lecture at the Doug Adams Gallery

I will be delivering an informal lecture on Friday, November 4, 2016 at the Doug Adams Gallery on the campus of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.  The lecture begins at noon and will be focused on aesthetic iconography and its relationship to death in contemporary artworks, and in particular the exhibition by Anne Tait that I reviewed last year.  Hope you can make it.



“The Papyrus in the Crocodile: 150 Years of Exploration, Excavation, Collection & Stewardship at Berkeley”

The year-long course I have been a student in at UC Berkeley is having its curated exhibition open next Thursday, May 5. Subject areas ranging from Ancient Egypt to Asia to the Americas and the Western Natural landscape are featured in our exhibition that will be on display until July 29 at the Bancroft Gallery on the UC campus.

Here is a link to some information about it on UC Berkeley’s website.


2015 CARE Writing Prize awarded to Jim Sienkiewicz

I was recently notified that an exhibition review I wrote was awarded the CARE (Center for Arts, Religion & Education) writing prize for Fall 2015. Here is the link to my discussion of artist Anne Tait and her work on view at the Doug Adams Gallery at the Graduate Theological Union.


The Historical Inaccuracy of Fredric Miller

Fredric Miller

Perhaps you have seen the commercials for “Ancestry.com”, a website designed to help people trace their family tree and unearth details about their ancestors and their accomplishments. One of the company’s most recent television spots features Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in 1863 with the advertisement depicting the president delivering his speech in front of a large crowd. All the while the camera pans across the scene before fixing on the figure of a photographer who is documenting the event. The individual later identified as Fredric Miller is shown working underneath the dark cloth of his 8 x 10″ view camera and then repositioning to remove the lens cap in advance of taking a picture of Lincoln and the assembly. While there are in fact two known photographs of the address being delivered, there are a few problems with the accuracy of the fictitious photographer presented to us by Ancestry.

Here is a link to the spot: http://www.ispot.tv/share/7ryD

First off the available light is all wrong. In this mid-nineteenth century era of wet-plate collodion photography even midday exposures would have necessitated an average of 3 seconds for sharp pictures, with subjects needing to remain deathly still during the process. This fact would cause the non-posed people in the commercial to undoubtedly be rendered as blurred in any resulting photograph. The artificial reality of the weak backlighting from the November sunset is also something that would have increased the capture time dramatically and additionally led to no figure appearing crisp in the final picture. Look closely when Miller is under the dark cloth behind the camera. What is he doing? He certainly isn’t loading the film holder and if he is focusing the image on the ground glass then how come the lens cap is on? No matter what the circumstances, once the photographer emerges from his shadowed chamber he proceeds to free the lens of its felted encumbrance, but to what end? He hasn’t pulled the slide out of the holder and therefore there is no possibility of creating an image.

I know, I know. This might seem picayune and trivial, but if physicists like Neil Degrasse Tyson can deconstruct the scientific errors in films such as Gravity then I feel justified in doing the same in the case of Ancestry.com. Similar to Dr. Tyson who enjoyed the film he picked apart, I also liked the Ancestry commercial and its focus on a historical type of picture-making. The ad is shot wonderfully and the music is quite lovely as well.

For an idea of what one of the authentic photographs of Lincoln’s address looks like consult the picture at the end of this writing. This image was made at high noon with the fastest possible exposure time and still the figures appear extremely soft. Even the president who is visible two heads left of the gentleman with the top hat in the center of the frame is noticeably fuzzy in depiction.

unknown photographer, "Gettsyburg Address", 1863

unknown photographer, “Gettysburg Address”, 1863

Lumen Prints

These are Lumen Prints, a photographic process that generates a unique and experimental image created entirely through “solar development”. An object is placed on gelatin-silver photographic paper for an extended period of time and then placed in fixer in the darkroom. The color is unpredictable and immediately changes once the image touches the fix. (This can be witnessed in the color variation in the image of the laurel leaves versus its eventual final result.) All of these prints were exposed to the sun between 45 and 90 minutes. Enjoy!

P.S. I am hoping to feature more darkroom processes on this blog in the future with this being one of the first besides the traditional black & white prints I have previously posted.

Stream Violet

Sword Fern


Lumen Print technique

Reminiscing about Arizona

Alicia and I will be off to Arizona in a few weeks and a recent print in the darkroom has me anxiously awaiting a return to the desert. I made this picture a few years ago but only recently printed it this past month. I used to always drive back to visit my father in AZ, but alas this coming trip will be via air. Still, while we may get there quicker, there is something to be said about the call of the open road and sights less seen.


Recent Prints

Here are some of the recent prints I have been making in my darkroom.


Alicia, Eel River

Waterfall, Yelapa, Mexico

Two Bullriders, Bakersfield Rodeo

Cabin Creek

This is some footage of the creek on our property up here in the redwoods. The creek is normally dry but after five days (and counting) of heavy rain the stream is now going full force. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.


The Benefit of the Book

Felicitaciones de Mexico. As I sit here overlooking this beautiful tropical landscape on the Pacific I feel the need to share some thoughts stemming from my most latest re-reading of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. As you may know there is a new biography on the author who passed away a few years ago and some recent radio interviews regarding the author and his work sparked my interest in returning to his iconic novel.

Besides the many private and undisclosed details of Salinger’s life, I find it fascinating that he repeatedly refused to allow a film adaptation of his most famous book to be produced despite numerous offers over the later decades of his life. There are several reasons for this rationale, but one is the ownership he took over the character of Holden Caulfield and how his perfectionist streak could not envision anyone other than himself being able to play the role of this angst-ridden youth. Now, here is the main point of this unfolding dialogue: Thank God we have not had to see a movie version of this book up to this point! As someone actively engaged in visual culture (the arts, not what passes as “culture” in these days of the intellectual demi-monde), it does not bother me in the slightest that there is as of yet no cinematic realization of this wonderful piece of American literature, just as I am equally pleased that I have not had to view scores of others of my favorite reads as overly-simplified, watered-down caricatures of themselves as translations from the written word to the pictorial image. This is not to say that film or movies are not works of art or valuable pieces of culture, just that some narratives and characters are better left to the page and not the screen.

Most of us have had the experience of having read a book only after it has been adapted to cinema, and often there is the unfortunate occurrence of not being able to picture the events or persons described on our own terms, but rather as they have already been presented to us by a theatrical visualization. This is precisely why I have avoided watching some of my favorite novels as films (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Child of God serve as prime examples), because once you have had that personal mental image supplanted by that which is provided to you on the screen, you can never get it back. This seems inconsequential to the non-reader I realize, but when an author transcribes their words to the page and you read those same pieces of text directly off of said page, there is an intimate relationship thus created. The writer is now speaking to you alone, and no matter how many millions of copies a book might go on to sell or how popular it already is, there is a connection between the two of you that accounts for just one of the multitudes of reasons that reading can be magical. So, even if you aren’t overly-concerned that your favorite book will soon be turned into the next vapid Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay monstrosity, heed these words: don’t see the movie.

Annie Leibovitz-more pictures of famous people(‘s stuff)

June 6, 2013 through September 8, 2013
San Jose Museum of Art

Let’s get this out of the way: I do have respect for Annie Leibovitz and the contributions she has made to editorial and commercial photography over several decades. She is an everyman’s photographer in that her name is recognizable to almost anyone, especially those who can name no other photographers besides herself and Ansel Adams. (As an undergraduate at Arizona State I was welcomed into the fold by graduate students who proclaimed that any real artists in the program should hate Adams by Photo II and the same could be said about Leibovitz’s equally acclaimed status in popular culture.) While I would not consider myself a fan of Leibovitz, I have come to accept and even appreciate her work slowly over time. This has been a winding road to say the least beginning with a show entitled “Women” that I viewed at the Phoenix Art Museum back in the early 2000’s. The work was competent and well-framed, but other than that just kind of blasé. (It should be noted that at no point am I declaring that Annie does not have a good eye or isn’t a legitimate photographer, just that her status as an “artist” can be disputed.) The great majority of the individuals featured in the exhibition were famous. Celebrities, politicians and all of the standard personas that Leibovitz is renowned for photographing were on display and unless you had arrived at the show as a ready admirer of fame or were an established acolyte of the photographer, you left rather unimpressed. The question was really who would care about the work if it didn’t depict famous people? In a culture that has since even gone more absurdly over the edge with who it values purely for their cause célèbre, do these picture really merit being exhibited in an art museum? (If you are looking for high volumes of attendence, of course the answer is yes.)

Flash forward a decade and you will find my position softening after having seen “A Photorapher’s Life” and having read “At Work”, both of which document and memoir Leibovitz’s career as a celebrity portraitist. I would recommend viewing the film and reading the book as they did start to win me over to the photographer. I would never question her dedication or continuing evolution and I enjoy how she looks back at her oeuvre and seems to place greatest value on the relationships she has established with these iconic subjects over repeated experiences. Remember though, this is about “ART” and while it may sound and probably is snobbish (hell, its snobbish) to say that Leibovitz does not produce art photography, well that is the case. This is not the same condition of commissioned portraiture that existed throughout art history: the budgets, locations and access are all a matter of commercial art and do not ultimately carry the same significance as the images referenced in that previous category. Although I do sincerely believe however that many Leibovitz pictures will always stay with us, such as the John & Yoko “Rolling Stone” cover that was taken mere hours before the singer’s death, one must take into account however that the ambiguous categories and genres that photographs are by necessity allowed to float around in often creates the illusion that we can deem any image “high art”. A similar case would be the “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” portfolio that Steven Klein completed as an editorial for “W” magazaine which Larry Gagosion later shamelessly renamed and exhibited as a fine art body of work in New York that same year. Would anyone even care about these pictures if the depicted individuals weren’t two of the most famous people in the world? No, and while the photography is top notch as usual with Klein, the case remains that public fascination with the celebrity is enough to justify anything being thrown under the banner of fine art.

A look at the current Leibovitz exposition in San Jose is one and the same with all of her famous celebrity portraiture. It rallies under the guise that it is about her vision and the overall message, but if you look below the surface you will note that all of the locations photographed are the environs of yes, you guessed it, famous people!!! If these small point and shoot images blown up to large sizes were not photographed by perhaps the most famous image-maker in the world, again, who would pause to consider them for even 3 seconds? But of course, our love of the celebrity and of the celebrity artist (thank you Warhol, you were right) is truly the basis of any of this show’s appeal. Look deeper, expect more, desire for your art to be of value. We must transcend the cult of celebrity and learn that an image is the only viable means these people have of expressing themselves. Art is beyond the literal and superficial visage that you will encounter in the likes of celebrity photography!

Annie Leibovitz-Elvis’s 1957 Harley-Davidson Hydra Glide motorcycle, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, 2011
Annie Leibovitz-Emily Dickinson's Only Surviving Dress-2010
Annie Leibovitz-Ansel Adams’s darkroom, Carmel, California2010