Finding the Right Photo Book Company

•March 4, 2011 • Leave a Comment

As some of my close photographer friends know, I experimented a few years ago (late 2007) with publishing a collection of my photography, Ineffable Light, using Blurb’s photo editing and design software. While the results weren’t disastrous, they weren’t very satisfying, either. As a photographer who works exclusively in black and white capture and darkroom output, it was already a little frustrating to see grain turned into pixels. But what I wasn’t prepared for–after more than 100 hours spent on adjustments to my color profile (for black and white!), my gamma setting, and various other monitor and software concerns–was that I ended up with a book filled with images that were substantially darker than their originals, often digitally banded, and scarred by a very faint magenta hue. In spite of hundreds of dollars invested in the project, I put it on hold indefinitely, until I could find a digital publisher I and those interested in my work could be satisfied with AND afford.

Now that the insanity of the past year is finally settling down, I’m revisiting Ineffable Light and reconsidering the publisher question. Blurb has gone through several major updates, and countless reviews of late seem to reassure me that many of the problems I encountered three years ago have now been solved. In doing my research, however, I stumbled upon an outstanding, side-by-side review of POD publishers that fellow photographers might find helpful. The review dates to April 2010 but has been updated as of February 2011.

(The cover from the original, unpublished version of Ineffable Light)

So where does that leave me now? I was relieved to read that many of Blurb’s old problems didn’t surface for this guy, which echoed much of what I’ve read lately in other forums. I was also happy to learn that there’s a reliable, high-quality alternative in Inkubook, but I have to say that the pricing scheme would make my 110+ page book ridiculously expensive. So, Blurb, you’re going to get another shot from me.

Don’t screw it up this time.

For those who are keeping track, the revised version of Ineffable Light, which I hope to finish and FINALLY publish by summer, will include all images from the following series: “Eleusis,” “But One Man Alone…,” “Echoes of Narcissus,” “Eros” and “Aletheia,” and “Into the Dark.” Stay tuned….


The Restoration, CONSTANCE: A Review

•February 20, 2011 • 6 Comments

(Image courtesy of The Restoration)

When my wife first told me about a year ago that we were going that night to West Columbia’s New Brookland Tavern to hear what a friend had described (inaccurately) as “a retro-Confederate band” known as The Restoration, I nearly laughed out loud. I anticipated a bunch of 20-something hipsters dressed up in well-worn reenactment scrubs, playing washboards, jugs, and mouth harps, and lamenting the Lost Cause. I imagined lyrics filled with a tortured and twisted sense of nineteenth-century history sung by ill-educated young men who couldn’t find a history book in the Carolina Room at the local library.

Man, was I wrong. The crowd that night at New Brookland (and the rest of the bill, for that matter) did The Restoration no favors, but what I saw absolutely blew me away. After hearing a half dozen cuts from their then-forthcoming album Constance, I realized that something far too big and bold for Columbia was happening. At the time, I knew little about The Restoration’s grand vision, but I also knew that what lay behind these songs was a complex universe that combines local and regional history, a remarkably sophisticated amalgam of nineteenth- and twentieth-century musical styles, and a rich throughline of a story that could break the heart of the most hardened cynic.

For the past few months, the full album of Constance (which was finally unleashed upon the South last April) has played nearly non-stop in our Virginia household. The album recounts the story of Constance Owen, a white Lexington County, South Carolina, native who is both blessed and cursed with the music that “is in my mind—Every moment, all the time,” a “gift from God” whose “visions and melodies follow me into my dreams.” In 1895, while still a young woman, Constance meets a mixed-race Chicago transplant named Aaron Vale, whose musical sensibilities are much like her own. They marry in spite of local social conventions and are soon blessed with a son, Thomas. But local hatred is too much for Aaron, whose employers, the Palmers, literally work him to death, then rob his family of their due. Years later, that racial hatred “all comes back ‘round again,” when Thomas tries, with only partial success, to exact his long-overdue revenge.

Constructed from multiple narratives and points of view, Constance tells us precisely what we need to know and nothing more, which is exactly as it should be in an album. For those who want more, however, there is The Constance Compendium, a separately available booklet that contains the full lyrics and “John Gilead Palmer,” a contextualizing short story by Daniel Machado, the creative genius behind The Restoration. Punctuated with stunning photography by Amber Machado, the compendium satisfies the craving that anyone with ears to hear will have after indulging in Constance’s many rich layers. And for a historian who is easily irritated by the reckless ignorance with which so many storytellers handle the details of our past, I was impressed with Machado’s attention to such matters and the ease with which he blends such details into his lyrics without diminishing their emotional clout or the power of his music.

Take, for instance, “August 1895,” in which Constance recounts the degree to which she has fallen for Aaron, marking her book with an asterisk for each of their encounters, all of which must end achingly as “I leave you in the trees again.” Backed by violin (Lauren Garner) and country timpani (Stephen Russ), Machado beats out Constance’s loving lament with an acoustic guitar and the shoes on his feet, daring you not to swoon, yet never once veering into the cloying insipidness that most love songs bring to mind. Or consider Aaron’s plea to “Constance” two tracks later, begging her, “Don’t let my music die with me. Don’t let it go into the ground with me.” Here the simplicity of “August 1895” is traded for something bordering on the orchestral, with Machado on acoustic guitar, banjo, and violin, backed by Garner on violin, Adam Corbett on bass, Sharon Gnanashekar on piano, Eddie Lord on drums, Russ on country timpani, tambourine, and cymbal, Collin Derrick on Wurlitzer organ, Kathryn Pollock on cello, and Joshua Williams on saxophone. The album builds to Thomas Vale’s account of “Drowning Mr. and Mrs. Palmer,” a track on which Machado’s eerie string arrangement serves as precursor to the anger—and horror—of Thomas’s effort to “wash you off this earth with all the evil things you’ve done in the name of Jesus.” As the Palmers sleep with “snores that shake two lazy chins and flabby jaws that two fat necks consume,” Thomas notes that “the cricket-buzz grows to a frenzy as I bring the levee down.” Even more horrific than this is the realization that Thomas got it only half right, and that whatever frustrations his neighbors might share with Thomas about the Palmers, Thomas’s racial background trumps any such concerns, as he and Constance both are reminded in the album’s final, blistering, and terrifying track, “The Lynching.”

Masterpiece is not a term I ever use lightly, but Constance is the real McCoy. My wife maintains a theory that artists get one big moment of brilliance, and everything that follows is a vain attempt to get back there again. I am more optimistic, although I will caution Machado and his band mates that the bar is now immeasurably higher for whatever will come next. My wife also says Constance is “like reading East of Eden or Light in August, except I get to turn it up really fuckin’ loud,” a sentiment that I completely understand. Constance is indeed a ribsticker. It has been so long since an album seeped into my consciousness in the silent moments of my life in the way that Constance has, still carrying me away when I am absent from its sound. Listen for yourself, and see if you are not changed by the experience.

The Restoration – Drowning Mr. & Mrs. Palmer – Live Studio Performance from The Restoration on Vimeo.


•January 25, 2011 • 2 Comments

Albert Camus once wrote that “Life is a sum of all your choices,” and while I’ve never been much of a Camus fan, Blue Valentine kept making me think about the inexorable forces put into motion at the instant when we begin to love someone. There is a great responsibility in that moment, one that requires us to choose again and again whether we will keep loving that someone. This is what we are taught, anyway, but Blue Valentine also reminded me that we too often dwell on this responsibility we have to the other, rather than on the responsibility we have to the “us” or even to ourselves.

Director Derek Cianfrance, whose past work has consisted primarily of documentaries and short films, throws Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain and Shutter Island) and Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson and Lars and the Real Girl) into a situation that has chosen Cindy and Dean far more than the other way around. Love—at least the kind that most of us live, rather than the kind Hollywood typically likes to peddle us—is usually like that. Cindy is a nurse who desperately wants to be a doctor, even though her job and her family and her baggage seem always to be in the way. Dean is a high school dropout who flits from one job to another with a carefree demeanor that masks his malaise and his need to drink before he shows up on the job. At first glance, one might not think to put these two disparate people together, and yet it is the first glance that does exactly that. For Dean, she is the “nutty-cuckoo crazy” pretty girl he swears he has known before, even though they have never met. For Cindy, he is an escape from disaster and profound unhappiness, and perhaps the only man who has ever really cared about her for her own sake.

I don’t mean to suggest here that you should look to their faults to determine who bears responsibility for what their lives become. Perhaps that’s the mastery of this story and these characters—there are no good guys and no bad guys in this relationship, just people who don’t know how they got here from there, with a daughter named Frankie trapped between them, in spite of their best and most noble intentions. It’s a rare accomplishment in movies like this to allow the audience to still love them both, even as the people around them appear to choose sides. “’Don’t let him brainwash you’?” Dean asks incredulously after a coworker warns Cindy, and the moment is as devastating to Cindy and the viewer as it is to Dean. We know with a visceral agony what each thinks in that instant, but we also know that they cannot possibly understand each other just then.

As subtle as it is immersed in the raw beauty of hand-held jaggedness, Blue Valentine moves us effortlessly between Cindy and Dean’s life together now and the moments after they met six years earlier, all without ever giving us title cards or awkward scene fades to let us know that we are changing places and times. Smart movies do this, of course, but the effect here is something like stepping into the drunken fever dream of the characters, who endure the disorientation of standing outside themselves and watching helplessly as their lives unravel, even as they replay the past, searching for the wrong turn. Cianfrance has been quoted as saying that even he does not know what went awry between them, and there is no better example of this confusion than two embraces—one in a moment of great trial near the beginning of their relationship, the other as they ponder in the film’s last moments what to do next. Dean comforts Cindy in exactly the same manner both times, and she responds physically and emotionally to him in precisely the same way, and yet something is inexplicably different. That these actors can capture so exquisitely what their director cannot explain is even greater testament to their craft. Williams’s ever-shifting facial expressions in Cindy and Dean’s first real conversation on a city bus—from timidity to anger to relief and back to guardedness, all in the space of a few seconds—are Oscar-worthy all their own.

This kind of care with the camera and the actors screams volumes about Cianfrance’s vision. Borrowing a page from Kieslowski, Blue Valentine is infused throughout with symbolic color even as its washed-out tones make Scranton look even more bleak than the real Scranton. Likewise, the film’s score—which features music by Grizzly Bear and Ryan Gosling himself—is at its best when it mimics the terrible sounds we hear in our own heads as things spin out of control. One roaring, ringing tone in particular so pervades our senses that even our vision seems impeded by its presence, and yet not for an instant is that tone obtrusive or otherwise distracting from what unfolds on the screen. Who needs 3D effects or overtly ominous soundtracks when a director can give us this and cut us to the core in the process?

To call Cianfrance’s film a love story, as the trailers all seem to imply, does it a gross disservice. When his story finishes with you without actually ending, you may find yourself questioning every small, careless moment of your own present relationship, pondering the damage you have done and hoping it’s not as grave as you fear. No, you should not expect happy endings here, because this film is not about the outcome of Cindy and Dean’s relationship but rather about the subtleties of small moments, actions, words, and even the margins between those words. “Don’t say it!” Dean screams at one point. “Don’t say something you can’t take back!” But the devastation of that scene lies not in what Cindy says but rather in what she does not say, or at least will not reveal. Much like Cindy’s reticence cripples Dean, Blue Valentine will haunt you with implication and press you to promise, as Dean does repeatedly, to be better.

5 stars out of 5

Eric Plaag Is Relocating!

•November 6, 2010 • Leave a Comment

After eight years in South Carolina, I will be officially relocating my full-time historical consulting and art photography businesses to Northern Virginia, effective January 1, 2011. In spite of this transition, I will continue to maintain a consulting presence in the Southeast and remain available for projects in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia for the foreseeable future.

I am eager to make new connections in Virginia and to reconnect with many old friends and colleagues, as I am originally from Springfield, VA, lived for many years in Williamsburg, and worked for an additional five years in Fairfax. In many respects then, this change is sort of like returning home for me, although Northern Virginia is a very different place from the countryside I grew up in during the 1970s and 1980s.

Please feel free to follow regular updates in this space and on my main website at regarding the transition back to life in Virginia and the new projects I will be pursuing and initiating there and elsewhere in the country during the coming year. Big things are in the works, and I imagine you will find them exciting when they’re finally unveiled.


The Illusion of Truth

•September 9, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The “Illusion of Truth” show at Vista Studios Gallery 80808 turned out to be a HUGE success. Thank you so much to the throng–full of old friends, family, and new acquaintances–who came out to see the work and, in some instances, purchase some of it.

In case you missed the exhibition (or in the event you’d like to revisit it!), I have uploaded all of the digitized images of my work from that show, along with the placard text and the artist statement that accompanied it, in the “Illusion of Truth” page over there. =======>

Meanwhile, here are some photos from opening night:

The Illusion of Truth: Three Photographers on Implicit Memory

•May 23, 2010 • 2 Comments

Photographs often substitute for ‘real’ memories. Many of my long gone acquaintances are remembered through photographs of them and their times. I don’t remember what I was like when I was ten but I have photos of me at that age. When I look at them I see what my life was like eons ago. I get glimpses of memory.
Gene M., photographer, 2009

Appearing at Vista Studios Gallery 80808 in Columbia from August 19 to 24, “The Illusion of Truth: Three Photographers on Implicit Memory” features work by Eric Plaag, Marshall Hodge, and Tricia Hatfield.

Implicit memory is built on repeated past experiences that allow us to perform certain tasks without consciously thinking about them. Most of us might think of rote behaviors–driving to familiar destinations, tying our shoes, getting dressed–as examples of implicit memory, but this phenomenon is also present through sensory experience. One of the most studied examples of implicit memory, in fact, is the repetition of certain messages and their ability to create an “illusion-of-truth” effect. In other words, simply because we hear (or say) something repeatedly, we have a tendency to believe it, regardless of its objective truth value. Likewise, implicit memories can sometimes lead to the formation of odd associations, such as an aversion to certain foods because they were once ingested at the same time as an illness, or a deep dislike of a person or a song simply because they were present when something unpleasant occurred.

For this exhibit, Marshall, Tricia, and I explore the influence of implicit memories on the lives of our subjects, seeking out the illusory understanding of truth that has been constructed in each instance and thus reframing the meaning of experience.

Those of you who have seen my previous work know that I often explore deeply personal topics through classical themes. This time out, my work is divided into two parallel series–one on the evolution of artistic confidence (entitled Aletheia, the ancient Greek term for truth as the coming forth of a thing’s essence), the other on the nature of what romantic love should be (Eros, defined by Socrates as the wholeness achieved between man and woman through the desire to be creative in the face of beauty). By following the associative geography of my illusions of truth, I revisited my past to create new images that will serve as the framework for new associations and new understandings of both love and art and my relationship to each. Unlike some of my past work, however, which has incorporated deeply personal text into the artistic image, these two series offer only brief narrative glimpses of the past on separate text panels, strictly for the sake of context, thus allowing my new images to stand apart and for themselves, divorced of and reimagined from their past associations.

The opening reception for our exhibit will take place on Thursday, August 19, from 6:00 to 8:00pm. We will also hold a gallery talk on Monday, August 23, at 7:00pm, during which we will more extensively discuss our work and invite our guests to ask questions about the show. The gallery will also be open for additional hours during the exhibition to allow folks to visit and contemplate the work at their own pace.

Examples of my images (please note that these are digitally scanned approximations of the silver gelatin prints that will be displayed):

Aletheia, No. 1: Grand Illumination

“I’m working at a motel, one of my lifelong fantasies (I’m serious about that–don’t laugh). It’s given me the insight to start my second novel. Something about some crazy guy in a motel–wonder who that might be?…I’m also working on another one (obviously the first novel), and I’m pretty far through it. More on this later (I know you’re thrilled by it).”
–EP to JM, May 27, 1985

Eros, No. 3: Penance

“Whatever we say about her, I think she did one thing right–she knew that being friends with me would only be painful to both of us; we couldn’t have stayed ‘broken up’ if our lives depended upon it, because every time we spent time together after the break-up, we ended up fooling around. So, she did the smart thing; she severed ALL ties. She is probably a much stronger person for having done so.”
–EP to DB, February 28, 1996

Aletheia, No. 3: Surrender, Dorothy

“Is artistic starvation and general malaise what I have to look forward to when I leave the world of insurance to pursue my ‘calling’? Is this all there is? Some artsy chairs and a mural and the general sense that nothing real is being accomplished? No, I think this period passes. You mention equal shares of failure, success, and fear, and I think you are right. We are taught not to pursue or succeed at artistic endeavors (“It’s great that you like latch hook, Bobby, but you need to work for a living!”), only to enjoy them as “avocations.” But what if we succeed? Why, then, we have broken the rules and done something not possible. And having broken the rules–even though our artistic living is legal and stimulating and financially rewarding and makes us good, balanced individuals and makes the world think and generally enhances the quality of life on this planet–well, it is seen as somehow suspect and dirty and immoral (or at least amoral) and cheap and the perfect example of what communism will do, or some such other nonsense to point out why creative endeavor is only folly and so much waste of paper, paint, clay, and canvas.”
–EP to JM, July 11, 1993

Eros, No. 8: Ballad of the Sad Cafe

“A very dear friend recently urged me to read Carson McCullers’s ‘The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.’ There’s a moment when the narrator writes, ‘And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.’ We quarreled over this part, my friend and I, as I tried to point out to her that while it can be this way between two people, it does not have to be. She eventually agreed, although she pointed out that this description of love is only true for oneself when one is the beloved. Her rejoinder saddens me and makes me wonder if the lover and the beloved can ever find peace….After all, as long as the beloved maintains such a view, anything the lover does is by definition a sin in the beloved’s eyes, whether the lover remains attentive, attempts to be respectfully distant, or becomes altogether indifferent.”
–EP to IM, April 25, 2008

Aletheia, No. 5: Telesterion

‘While I understand your disdain for recklessness, I also hope you don’t ever confuse that recklessness with the calculated risk-taking that’s necessary for us to accomplish anything truly great with our lives. If your efforts in Winnsboro are any indication, I suspect you won’t. But as someone who shares with you the flaw of taking on too many things and always being pressed to get them done, I urge you NOT to stop being that way. The curiosity and confidence and courage that inform that headstrong desire to do so much are our lifeblood. A long time ago, I let someone break my confidence, and I played it safe for about ten years. It was a terrible mistake, and it took me a long time to make things right. If I can impart any wisdom, I’d ask you to always live by the mantra that’s now engraved on the back of my watch: ‘Be brave. Jump.’ Life is way too short to do otherwise.”
–EP to MP, November 9, 2004

(All images and text are ©Eric Plaag, 1985-2010 and may not be reproduced under any circumstances or in any venue or medium without written authorization from Eric Plaag.)

Works on Display, Spring 2010

•May 2, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It’s been a busy spring for many reasons, but I’ve been able to multitask fairly efficiently and get some work into a couple of upcoming exhibitions.

The first is the Contemporaries Artist of the Year Soiree and Auction on Thursday, May 13, 2010, at 7:00pm at the Columbia Museum of Art. My sepia-toned silver gelatin print “My Story Will Tell You All You Need to Know” (2009) will be featured, along with 125 other works by nearly 60 artists, including Kirill Simin, Dre Lopez, Huy Chu, Amanda Ladymon, and Peggy Nunn. A full list of artists can be found by clicking on “Art” at the link above.

Eleusis, No. 2: Initiation

Eleusis, No. 3: Kephisos

The second group of images is from my “Eleusis” series, which was taken along the Hadrian’s Wall Path in 2007. These will be on display as part of McKissick Museum’s annual invitational Gala Art Fundraiser, this year entitled “Summertime and the Art is Good Lookin’,” featuring artwork from artists throughout the state. Works will be exhibited from May 22 to August 20, 2010. The Gala event and sales reception will be held on August 20. Gala tickets may be obtained from McKissick at (803) 777-2876.

***PLEASE accept my apologies for the quality of the images displayed in this post. These are very low-resolution digital snapshots of the actual framed/prepared work, photographed under less than ideal lighting conditions, and not the digital scans of the original negatives you may be accustomed to seeing here. I recently experienced a major crash of the back-up hard drive on which the usual digital scans were stored, and I have not yet been able to recover this data, so these will have to suffice for now. I promise they look good in real life, though. Honest.