Virgil Dibiase – One Man

Virgil Dibiase

1 Man

“You should not learn your lines, you should not hit your mark, and you should never follow your light. Find your light — that’s my opinion.” — Joaquin Phoenix (actor)

“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.” — Henry Chinaski (barfly)


We’ve seen these men. We’ve seen them as we pass through dilapidated downtowns, probably within a few blocks of the bus station where transients congregate; hard lean men, cigarettes hanging from their lips, maybe a half pint in their back pocket. We’ve seen them under a bridge or pushing a shopping cart filled with meagre possessions through the trash-strewn vacant lots that pollute the urban landscape. The sight of these men makes us feel discomforted, nervous, maybe a little scared. If we have a camera, we are probably tempted to use it on them, if we think we can get away with it.

What do we find so attractive about these men that we want to capture their image? Photographers are overwhelmingly middle class, probably upper-middle class, if not trust-funded children of great wealth; as are most gallery owners, museum curators, publishers, editors and audience for high-end photography. Yet somehow we are hopelessly attracted to images of these gritty “others,” especially when they are framed by staggering poverty. The result is far too many photos that say, in essence, “Look ma, poor people!” Or black people, foreign people, disabled people, mentally disturbed people, and so on. The rough is more pleasing than the smooth. The face with the stubble more attractive than the clean-shaven. Dark skin more pleasing than the light. The unruly hair more interesting than the well-coifed. We want images of people with some kind, any kind, of problem or difference that sets them apart from, if not below, our comfortable middle class existence.

We tell ourselves and anyone else who will listen that we photograph these men to draw attention to their plight, to help them though the publicity the photos provide. Suffice it to say, I’m skeptical, both about the purity of the motive and the likelihood that any help will be forthcoming. Some no doubt see these kinds of images as a career opportunity, a chance for self-aggrandizement. For most, taking these kinds of photos will end up, at best, as a learning experience. Of course there’s rarely a single motive for our actions. But whatever the differing motives for photographing these men; whatever the differing opinions about how they have become what they have become; whatever any of us may think should be done about it; just about all of us share one thing in common: These men should not be as they are. We think something is wrong.

At this late stage in photo history, it’s nearly impossible to make photographs of men like these, or have any kind of photographic vision about them that has not been done before. To shoot the subjects that everyone wants to shoot, the ones that have been done the most, it becomes ever more difficult to produce original work. See what I mean. And it’s not just that the photos we are likely to make of these men are clichés. Much more often than not, the photographers who take them become clichés. Go out and take a picture of a sleeping bum and tell me you don’t feel at least a little embarrassed.

Given all that, when I saw the first photo in Virgil DiBiase’s series “1 Man,” my first thought was “oh no, more pictures of bums.”

But as the slideshow progressed, I couldn’t help noticing the eyes of these men.

Against expectations, the photos did not seem to show men who had lost everything. They were not about men who had become what they had become. They were about men being who they Are. They showed men who had found something. Men who had found freedom. You could see it in their eyes.

And I realized those eyes said something about the photographer as well. These men were not objects of pity. They were objects of esteem. They had found freedom. The photographer was seeking it. Again, you could see it in their eyes.

Their freedom is much more than simple freedom from dull jobs, asshole bosses and office politics; of soul deadening social obligations and the bills that everyone else finds stuffed in their mailboxes every day. These men seem free of regrets, guilt or any kind of embarrassment about their situation, unlike most the rest of us who are, at best, free only to the extent we can choose our own prison. These men, rather than choose prison, choose the open sky. That their faces mirror the trashed out dwellings of the urban landscape through which they roam tells us the price of that freedom was steep. Their eyes tell us it was worth it.

I know Virgil would like me to end this right there. “1 Man” is  about the photographs, not about the photographer. But since I’ve opined at such length about other photographers’ motives, I feel I should tell you something about his.

He didn’t set out to make a photo project of homeless men or drifters, much less to photograph any nebulous abstraction such as freedom in the eyes of “others.” He sought a friend of his who had become mentally ill and disappeared. He made many trips looking for that friend and over many years got to know the seedy downtowns, vacant lots, bridges and underpasses throughout the urban American landscape. Sometimes he found his friend, sometimes he didn’t. Along the way he met a lot of similar people, saw something special in them, and photographed what he saw. That’s the story behind the story. Those are the facts.

Those facts are interesting, but only as a footnote or sidebar. I think they partially explain the success of the work. Only by having no interest in photographing street people, of actually being hostile to the general idea, could he so successfully photograph street people. But that is not central to the story, or even necessary. It’s the realities and fictions we see in these men’s faces and in their eyes that are the tale. That, and how we see, or fail to see, something about ourselves in them. Facts have nothing to do with it.

— Michael Webster


“How many hypocrites are there in America? How many trembling lambs, fearful of discovery? What authority have we set up over ourselves that we are not as we Are?” — Allen Ginsberg (poet)

“What goes through my heart and soul as I meet these guys is my longing for the freedom they seem to have. On the surface we all are so quick to judge. Wouldn’t it be nice to be the rich guy with a house and car. Or how sad to be homeless with no shoes. Neither is true. So we are all on this personal journey to find freedom. Truth is, all we need to do is choose freedom. Anywhere. Anytime.” — Virgil DiBiase (photographer)




Virgil DiBiase is a photographer living in northwest Indiana.


Related links

Virgil DiBiase

Virgil DiBiase was a student in the Miami 2012 workshop. Some of these photographs were taken during the workshop.


98 Responses to “Virgil Dibiase – One Man”

  • Yawn. Wonder how much that “work” tattoo cost?

  • Rugged, harsh, coarse… but still somehow tender. Last photo especially.

    Very nice Virgil.

  • Strong and powerful and yet remarkably tender and loving portraits of men, or rather a trip along the scale of the transfigurative beauty. How remarkable the human face is in all its unboxable variety and power.

    It is a very short presentation and (once again) my only lament is in its length and exclusion of age. There are 2 younger men amid the 11 older men, so I just wish the series had more younger faces, in that dance something wider emerges…

    but the real Exaltation lay in the eyes….not from the focus on downtroddenness or sorrow or weary or fissured faces, but from that which alights in all, and which most often flights so easily and homes itself in the one place for certain we should notice but often, especially in lives such as these, rarely look toward, and those are the eyes, from which too many of us avert, whether strangers or loved ones…

    I’m not sure about the whole ‘finding freedom’ wrap at all (that’s overly romanticized) but may i suggest, at least as conveyed in these portraits, it is something else: acceptance and from that comes dignity, acceptance of one’s self and one’s plight and life. And maybe that acceptances is the freedom about which Michael has written and Virgil has attuned to.

    Fear is no match for acceptance.

    Love-filled attention and love-filled openness and work. I just want more pics and more younger men and maybe expand the subject’s social milieu, etc…

    Congratulations Virgil.

    And Michael, beautifully and intelligently written statement. So nice to read strong, lean and whipping prose. One of the best I’ve read here since…ummmm, you last statement ;). Such a pleasure to read.

    Congratulations to you both.


  • Well, thanks Bob! I mean I was trying to say that… oh wait… you were talking about Webster weren’t you? ;^}

  • hahahahah ;)))…well, both you and Webster are good cats, so yea, both of you ;))

  • Virgil!

    So awesome to see your work here! really…what a pleasure!
    You just go out and do your thing….all action, no talk….best way to do things.
    Great to see Iggy Pop made it to the edit ;-)))

    Very nice written essay by MW so nothing much to say that has not been said already.
    Best of all….your work speaks for itself.
    CONGRATS and a BIG hug from Miami!

  • Great to see this powerful images here .. they leave an indelible impact!

  • Virgil, the ancient Roman poet. How fitting a description for my friend, confidant & fellow traveler. From the first image I witnessed from his rangefinder, a Thanksgiving scene of his family some years ago, the immediacy and transparency of the complex dynamics of an extended family and the willingness to look at things straight on, was clear as day. His keen eye and extraordinary intelligence set the story, but it’s the empathic nature of Virgil that drives him. What these frames allow is a portal to Virgil’s sense of himself. Straight up, as humanly & humbly as possible.

    The work speaks for itself. This is NOT about the homeless, the drifters, the outcasts, the downtrodden…. It matters little if the subject is a dog, a man, a woman. This is about Virgil. Straight Up.

  • Strange that I should see this today as I ready myself to take photos at the local tent city in the church parking lot. That I do this for a federal funding package submission and thereby the direct benefit of the residents is only some small balm for the burning feeling that it’s exploitive, cliche and just wrong. It’s something that I would otherwise never do. Not a good head space for success.

    But I don’t get those negative feelings from these. There is a certain dignity in most of them, and human dignity is where the focus should lie. Certainly the backstory helps. That they are portraits only without attendant and expected contextual squalor raises them up as well. Michael’s introduction is wonderfully done and the first frame, in particular, is excellent. I would encourage then photographer to collect individual stories as well as photos and package them together (if he has not already) to further the journey.

  • “Virgil DiBiase was a student in the Miami 2012 workshop. Some of these photographs were taken during the workshop.”

    Virgil is a student no more, he has become a master.

  • “Facts aren’t interesting” or so the saying goes. Here we have an amazing set of questions–the subjects themselves are mute but enigmatic. It would be great to see more use of wide-angle context given the rich visual language that the masters such as Richards and Davidson have created. While telling to much can detract a little bit more in the way of facts would make the social landscape and the questions pop.

  • Great to see your work here Virgil ! I have always loved your photography and will take some more time with this essay when I get out of the 9-5 ..

    We still need to Hang out soon in Chicago .


  • Powerful images, as are the men in them. Well shot, and well written.

  • I’m with Jim Powers on this one. In fact, I don’t think this series of 13 images could stand on their own without the written description. Sure there are some good portraits amongst them but I don’t see freedom in all of their eyes (plus I would have never looked for it if I wasn’t prompted to.) I also find the reason for the photographer taking these images (and the first half of the narrative) almost like an excuse for making these portraits. I would have been much more interested in him documenting that journey of looking for his friend with mental illness who disappeared then portraits of “free” men.

  • Just curious CS why would it be necessary or good for a set to stand on its own without words? Words and images together create something images alone cannot. No picture has “narrative ability” as others have said.

  • For example–in my humble opinion the gold standard for this kind of project is “Below the Line”–and the book works specifically because very powerful shots are combined with a lot of text, the words of the subjects themselves. Photos alone have limitations.

  • @m.avina I don’t think it’s necessary or even a good thing for a set to stand on its own without words. Words obviously add a lot of context to images (sometimes too much). My issue here is that you should be able to sense a story or honest intention from the images alone, before you read the words. So for example, the series Midwest Dirt, which is prior to this one, screams that there is a story, a deeper meaning than what’s on the surface. You want to read the words. Then when you do, it all comes full circle and helps strengthen and support the work without giving too much away – and then you are still looking at the images for story lines and subplots either depicted or connotative.

    This essay doesn’t have any of that and the fact it starts off talking about how portraits of street people are a dime a dozen doesn’t help its case.

    I’ll have to check out Below the Line as I am not familiar with it. Thanks for the tip!

  • “These men seem free of regrets, guilt or any kind of embarrassment about their situation, unlike most the rest of us who are, at best, free only to the extent we can choose our own prison. These men, rather than choose prison, choose the open sky. That their faces mirror the trashed out dwellings of the urban landscape through which they roam tells us the price of that freedom was steep. Their eyes tell us it was worth it.”

    Michael, I believe the above quotation is the meat of your argument. I’ve gone over the photos several times now, and with the exception of #6 and #9, I’d venture the remainder appear to be the opposite of your observation. These men seem to be full – in their eyes – of regret, guilt and embarrassment. One could argue that #1 and #3 could go either way, leading me to think that indeed, in this particular essay, the viewer takes from it that which he puts into it. Opposing views will spring forth; that I see the almost polar opposite of what you do can be considered the great strength of this essay.

    Virgil, I always appreciate the use of flash in photography, and have a total lack of discrimination for how it’s done. Your work is no exception. I’d agree with M.Avina that for most essays there should be a mixing of wide and narrow shots, but there is an exception with this work. Getting in close for all of these men was a good call; whether we agree on what the eyes say doesn’t matter – it’s the eyes that make the story. Just wondering why you chose to shoot everything horizontally, though…

  • Well, if this set of protraits could not stand on its own, then I have seen few – very, very, very, few – that could. This is one hell of a powerful set of portraits. Oh, to have a mind so dulled and jaded as to look at them and yawn!

    And Mike – excellent piece of writing! I, too, think you may exaggerate the freedom as goal aspect a bit. It may be true for a few but I suspect if they easily could, most of the subjects would undo the chain of circumstance that put them in this position – but maybe not to live a standard middle class, suburban life. I can sure understand why some might prefer the street to that. But on the whole I believe circumstance, in some cases of their own doing, other cases beyond their control, often a mix of both, have trapped them in this situation and being trapped is not freedom.

    Yet, perhaps a few… a very, a very, few of these men sincerely do feel free, love the place where they are at in life and would not want to trade it for luxury, caviar, wine and a yacht prowled by scantily clad women.

    But I am just as impressed as all hell with this piece of writing…

    As I am with the photographs. Virgil, these are amazing and, free or trapped, they go deep beneath the superficial surface of street people pursued by so many photographers, largely I think for the very reasons Mike has stated.

    Bob, I disagree about the need for more younger faces. It is a study based on years and years of experience in the street and more young faces would dilute the impact of that study. Two is just enough to create a bit of curiosity as to what they will look when they are the age of the others, or if they will reach that age at all.

    Well done – Virgil and Mike.

  • In the eyes of others, we see what we see. Who we are, where we’re from, our emotional and psychological makeup, tells us what we see. Some see guilt and regret, some see a certain kind of freedom and pride.

    I didn’t come away from Michael’s piece thinking these guys happily chose a life on the street over a life in a suburban split-level. I came away thinking Michael just saw something in their eyes. Virgil knows these dudes. Spent time with them. Photographed them. He ultimately says “choose freedom.” I’m with him.

  • Exploitation is still exploitation, no matter how many pretty words you attach to it. These pretty words say the dreaded, “I know most consider this exploitation, but…”

  • I want to thank you DAH for allowing me the opportunity to show this work. And for all that you do.

    And Michael Webster, a huge thanks for your eloquent essay. And for simply “getting it”.

    Jim Powers-thanks for your honesty. I understand this work to you is boring and exploitative. Boring I can accept. But exploitative never entered my consciousness. I can only say that never would I make a single photo if I felt I was exploiting any thing, any place, any one. To be exploitative (in my mind) would require me to feel separate. To feel distant from the subject. To be on the outside looking in. And in my work I feel quite the opposite. I feel and am very close to my subjects. Physically, emotionally, psychologically. Hence the title, 1 Man.

    Michael Kircher-thanks. When MW first viewed my images he saw men who had found something. It is how he experienced this series. And it jived with mine. “We see what we see” based on who we are deep inside. I do spend quite a lot of time with these guys. I get to know them well before photographing them. And the notion of “freedom” is what I experience…not necessarily what they or others feel.

    Bob Black-always a pleasure to read your words. Thank you. Yes, I have mad images of a broader selection…women, men, young, old. For the purposes of this series day suggested this edit. And I think we are aligned in a way…”acceptance of one’s self” “one’s life” is freedom. Inner freedom.

    Carlo, Gerhard-thank you both. Such a pleasure hanging with you guys in Miami. The next beer is on me:)

    Ben (roguewave)-you know how much you have inspired me over the years. The pleasure is all mine.

    Tom Hyde-yes, individual stories, quotes from these guys would add depth. This did not start out as a photo project…I wish I would have collected quotes and stories. The are in my head…but a bit scrambled. I will be more organized in the future.

    Chairman–thank you sir.

    M.Avina-thank you for commenting. Valid point regarding including more context. But in this series it was the eyes I was after. And I have made plenty of images with a 24mm lens…but for this series they felt too distant.

    Andrew and Roger–thanks. Yes Andrew…let’s keep trying:)

    csuspect-point taken. The notion of “freedom” is abstract. As Michael K said, “we see what we see”. But I need no excuses to make these images. These are people I’ve met in my life. People I’ve formed relationships with…some brief, some life long. I didn’t search out individuals to photograph in order to show freedom in the eyes of others. This was not a prospective study. But I agree my series is nothing like Nathan’s Midwest Dirt. His is a true essay. With a rich story. And I did not write my intro. The intro is MWs interpretation of my work. It was not meant to guide or clarify in any way. This is what I wanted to avoid…and why I did not write my own statement. But I do appreciate your thoughts.

    Jeff–thanks. “opposing views will spring forth”–yes indeed! BTW, for kicks I went through a few of my contact sheets…looks like I shoot vertically about 35% of the time. Somehow this edit was all horiz. Just happened that way.

    Frostfrog-I have enjoyed reading your comments over the years and I thank you for chiming in. Your last paragraph sums it up.

  • Virgil, of course it is exploitive. Who stands to gain from this slide show appearing on Burn? Certainly not the subjects. The rest is just rationalization.

  • Being close to your subjects and being exploitative are not mutually exclusive. Saying that exploitation never entered your mind is a red flag, to me, not at all an argument that you aren’t exploiting these people.

    I do like the series, although I would take out 7, 8 and 11 for lack of consistency with the rest. I appreciated how the people personality and humanity come out in the portraits.

    The best, I’d say, are portraits. Not portraits of homeless people, but portraits. They may exploit the subjects. In that case, I think it’s important to answer why they need to exist and if you have the right to make the decision. Face the question. There is no way to take great photographs of people and the human condition and avoid exploiting people. But you’ve got to think about these things, not just feel it’s okay because you’re so close. And the answer can’t always be what you want it to be either.

  • Jim: if you begin with the TRUTH that all LOOKING is exploitive, in the sense that EVERYONE feeds of senses, looking, tasting, touching to make sense, not of others’ life, but our own, we’re all one big exploitive plantation…and that’s the truth of life…but exploitive this, in the end, is not, because we must, in both our dna and our existential truth, feed upon life, we try, ache after ache, to garner meaning, or senselessness, from the waking word and by staring by listening by telling. your stuff is just as exploitive (using your sense of the world) if you begin to qualify one’s attempt to harness what they saw and felt and was inspired by in other as a means of reckoning life…

    Virgil is not ‘using’ these men for ‘personal gain’ but to not only help himself understand his own place in the world (as all do) but also to obviously celebrate and share the beauty and the acceptance that surely he found in them as a way to offer something else for both himself and his viewers and by that extol the power and virtue he saw and was feed by….

    awareness and the celebration…

    and i’m damn sure he told these men exactly what he was doing, what he was working on….and i’m also certain that these men were not only happy to meet him and to talk with him and to join his own celebration, no matter how short-lived, but to be seen as something more than most of the averted eyes….

    sometimes Jim, i wonder about you….on good days, i just want to drink your ass silly and have a chat over Rye and laugh…on other days, you make me feel sad….

    not for your honesty, but for your inability to be viewed as anything other than Jim Powers in your viewing, hermano

    drinks on me

  • Just want to echo Virgil’s point that my intro is in no way an official guide to the work. All the observations in the intro are my own and come from reading the photos. I wrote the piece before having any conversation with Virgil about his thoughts on the work.

    Over several years of looking at essays here on burn and on the occasions when I’ve published my own work, I’ve thought a lot about how text can best accompany a photo essay and concluded that something akin to a book intro is a good approach. I checked out all the books on my shelves and found that the best intros are typically about how something in the work resonated with or influenced the writer; or that the work provided an opportunity for the writer to flog some personal dead horse related to the subject; not some kind of artist approved re-statement of the artist’s intentions. Charles Bowden’s intro to Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion” is a good example. Eduardo Galeano’s introduction to Salgado’s “An Uncertain Grace” and afterward to Bowden’s “Juárez: The Laboratory of Our Future” are excellent examples as well. That’s the kind of model I was thinking of when I asked Edroso to write the intro to “New York” and I very much appreciate Virgil giving me the opportunity to put the theory into practice with “1 Man”. The goal of this kind of intro, in addition to being entertaining, is not for the writer to think deeply about a work and tell the reader what the work is about. It’s more to show that the work merits deep thinking and encourage the reader to think deeply about it. The work speaks for the artist. The intro is just related conversation that may or may not be relevant to the artist’s intentions.

  • Bob, “looking” and shooting photos is not the same. Looking is an extremely personal act, a one to one transaction with the person seen. Photos, placed in a slide show on Burn, for example, strip away the photographers part of the transaction and expose only the subject, isolated from context by the frame. The subject often doesn’t really understand that reality.

    Regardless of the original intent of the photographer, the photo will be reinterpreted by each viewer, perhaps with respect, perhaps with ridicule; but, certainly without benefit of the original transaction. The photographer’s soul isn’t exposed…only the subject’s.

  • I’m not saying we should not take the photo. That is, after all, how most of us interpret the world for ourselves. Sometimes, though, that transaction should remain one to one.

  • With Nathan’s “midwest dirt” the photographer and his story seems to be on show here it is the subject

  • should be …….With Nathan’s “midwest dirt” the photographer and “this” essay seems to be on show here it is the subject

  • no it should be

    …..With Nathan’s “midwest dirt” the photographer and his narrative is on show….. in this essay it seems to be the subject only.

    My ipad deleting and editing skills suck….. fingers have better uses than touching only

  • Love the MW essay, especially the first 2/3, asking us all to be honest about our motivations – thoughts that we should always be returning to and re-examining.

    M.Avina – Your statement “No picture has “narrative ability” as others have said…” is one which I definitely take exception to. Think Bresson’s Decisive moment, think Salgado’s mine workers, think E. Richards, E. Bazan, A. Modica – the list goes on and on. There was a time where photo books were not ‘projects’ – they were a collection of visual ideas that read like poems, and exposed us to the photographer’s psychology and vision. To be honest, I wish more wordless series were published today, in a time where seemingly concept is as important, if not sometimes moreso than the images themselves.

    Jim Powers – “The photographer’s soul isn’t exposed…only the subject’s.” So many photographers work refutes this idea. B. Davidson, E. 100th St, again Gene Richards… countless others. You cannot gain access to certain situations to photograph without bearing a certain countenance, and the world around, photographic subjects respond most to the photographer’s presence and body language. The result is a marriage of subject’s persona and photographer’s vibe. Just saw a great piece on Milton Rogovin – another perfect example of this.

    Only criticism of the images is the repetition of subject centered, horizontal frames…. And I think with images 9,10,11,12, we are losing something by not seeing these men’s hands, which as we all know are often as telling, if not more telling, about a man’s life. Definitely some strong portraits in there otherwise…

    Best, BB

  • J. Powers: “Regardless of the original intent of the photographer, the photo will be reinterpreted by each viewer, perhaps with respect, perhaps with ridicule; but, certainly without benefit of the original transaction. The photographer’s soul isn’t exposed…only the subject’s.”

    J. Powers’s first comment: “Yawn. Wonder how much that “work” tattoo cost?”

    Looks as though DiBiase’s pictures expose the subject’s soul, the photographer’s, and the viewer’s, as well. I’d call that artistic success.

  • “Jim Powers – “The photographer’s soul isn’t exposed…only the subject’s.” So many photographers work refutes this idea. B. Davidson, E. 100th St, again Gene Richards… countless others.”

    I would have agreed with you 30 years ago. But the social context of photography has changed completely, the transaction between photographer and subject has changed completely. Bruce Davidson and Eugene Richards worked in a social context very different than today’s. I don’t think a lot of contemporary photographers understand how fundamentally different that context is now. People respond to having a camera pointed at them very differently.

    Everything has changed.

  • No, Jim. Only you’ve changed. That’s all. Your outlook has changed. You’ve been left behind, as you constantly remind us every time you comment. You cling to/long for a golden past that never actually existed.

  • “Bruce Davidson and Eugene Richards worked in a social context very different than today’s” – still working aren’t they?

  • JP – “People respond to having a camera pointed at them very differently.”

    This may be true to a certain extent depending on where you are in the world. The internet age has seemingly brought to the medium questions about the photographer’s intent that didn’t exist previously – “What are you going to do with the photo, who will be seeing it, will you be profiting…” etc.

    What has not changed is the intimate relationship between a photographer and his or her subjects, especially when that photographer takes it upon themselves to become invested emotionally and time-wise in their project, as Davidson did with E 100th St. His returning time after time, bearing prints, is what opened doors, and allowed his subjects to see the transparency, and humanity of his intent.

    The subject chosen to photograph in and of itself is revealing about the photographer (and their soul, if you will), as is the moment at which he/she chooses to depress the shutter button, as is the affect of the subject. Gilden’s NYC street work might be an example of this is in a very different direction from Davidson…

  • I find nothing interesting in these images, whatsoever.
    Photographically, emotionally or even conceptually they are lost on me.

  • I think we will try to do more pieces combining writer and photographer…generally, photographers should probably not write too much about their own work except perhaps to state brief motive….or experience shared with the subjects….in this case, my feeling is that the text by Michael gave an interesting insight and matched yet did not “caption” Virgil’s fine portraits…

    Both Parr and Gilden have been accused repeatedly of exploitation of their subjects…i can imagine some critics making a pretty good case against both …however, exploitation of these men never crossed my mind…and i would be very surprised if these men portrayed here would feel exploited at all if they saw the work….my guess is that most would say something like “damn, am i that ugly!!” then laugh feeling flattered that someone had taken the time and used their vision to make them into something special…

    There is nothing on the planet quite so endlessly fascinating as the human face…we cannot get enough of simply looking at faces…sidewalk cafe’s are designed more for looking at faces, than for anything else…the face is a map of the soul….whatever is inside is most often mirrored in the face….you cannot hide from your own face….paraphrasing, but who said “you end up with the face you deserve”? or something like that…

    This is one essay that could go on endlessly and i would be bet my basketball sneakers that nobody would ever stop clicking forward to the next..

    We simply just cannot stop looking at each other….hmmm, i think i need a shave….

    cheers, david

  • David, I thought Michael’s essay was an excellent example of the new Burn submission process, that is, one person vouching for another person’s essay. In any event it is a good piece of writing. Doug

  • Thanks for chiming in David.

    I totally agree with you on all points. Fine, fascinating, sensitive, genuine, portraits. Exploitive? never occurred to me.

    A bunch of street people and down and outers?,,geez, these folks look like a bunch of my friends, you and I would fit right in.

    Congratulations Virgil, good stuff.

    Cheers y’all

  • Virgil…

    I suppose one of the reasons landscape photography is such a popular subject in photography is because in many ways it’s easy. Easy compared to going up to a stranger and asking them out of the blue if they don’t mind if you take a photo of them. Pine trees and beautiful waterfalls don’t usually tell you to fuck off or look at you like a weirdo. So I have a lot of respect for those who have the guts to attempt this kind of photography. I’m attempting the same stuff with miserable success or at least the people I choose are far from being understanding towards my photography.
    As usual DAH shone some light on what we should appreciate in your essay and I must admit I was looking too deep and complicated when it was all sitting right in front of my nose. Simple, subtle and OK I was expecting a whole load more of photos, this essay is way to short for me.
    BTW did you ever find your friend?


    I really enjoyed your text, perhaps way too much. This text should be saved for the book if Virgil ever decides to publish it. Maybe it promised too much and some parts were more about your views than Virgil’s but hey good work is always about oneself and there’s no doubt you found the whole idea of writing this text a thrill.

  • These images are easy to click through without a moment of pause. There are tens of thousands of images like these on Flickr and part of me thinks Mr. Webster waxed poetic the way that he did about the work in order to compensate. And now together, the images with the text come across to me as forgettable imagery and extremely enthusiastic back slapping and intellectual wanking. I’m very confused as to why this is even on here. It didn’t used to matter if I liked an essay or not; I was always able to understand why the work posted here on Burn could be informative, inspiring, or at least entertaining. But this… what the hell?

    And then this quote at the end…

    “What goes through my heart and soul as I meet these guys is my longing for the freedom they seem to have. On the surface we all are so quick to judge. Wouldn’t it be nice to be the rich guy with a house and car. Or how sad to be homeless with no shoes. Neither is true. So we are all on this personal journey to find freedom. Truth is, all we need to do is choose freedom. Anywhere. Anytime.” — Virgil DiBiase (photographer)

    Shouldn’t all grown ups know that it isn’t just one or the other? Homeless with no shoes, or rich guy with a house and a car? I’m pretty sure those aren’t the only options. Does the Burn community consist of the kind of people who need to have that explained to them? Do we need to be told that there are a lot of adults out there living in their own purgatory? It’s not a profound talking point anymore.

    This photo/text pair had no heart, and very little brain; although I think the brain did consider itself to be quite big.

    I just wish this wasn’t here, not on Burn. I’ve always come to this website because I trusted in the judgement of the editor/editors. But now I’m starting to cross my fingers before clicking the bookmark.

  • I do sort of agree with you Robert, the series is more about a technique of post processing that creates these portraits into “objects” “things”.I could never figure the text image relationship here other than that the two participants had a few discussions about the work and fed each other. But it does belong on burn as burn is about showcasing what is around the traps even it be an exert from Flickr.
    I too would like to see the bar set higher in terms of innovation,the narrative is well represented here on burn.

    Midwest Dirt communicates to the audience and is fluid in nature, this is stodgy and static.

  • Imants, yes… Midwest Dirt had heart. I felt a little connected to the man after viewing it. Most of these essays do have a little magic something. But some have none at all. I’ve seen more of these empty ones lately than in the past and it bugs me.

  • “I’ve seen more of these empty ones lately than in the past and it bugs me.” Just shows how difficult editing as job is and trying to give a diverse number of photographers a chance to show their work on.

  • Robert, Imants:

    I’ve always felt whenever there was an essay here that went way over my head due to its unapproachability, it was my duty to consider slowly and deeply the reasons why the collective brain trust of the BURN editors decided on its inclusion. It’s easy to see why “One Man” is here in a forum for emerging photographers. Virgil is after all, very much emerging; the essay began as a workshop project from earlier this year with David. If you view Virgil’s website, you’ll see he was in Derby, England last year. I’m assuming he was in another workshop there, as well. The Derby Photography Festival was devoted to street photography…leading me to believe Virgil’s photographic passions lay in that field.

    An important historical aspect of the street photography genre is the want to get in close to the subject. It goes from Robert Capa’s “If the image isn’t good enough, then you’re not close enough” to (Maestro) Bruce Gilden’s “The older I get, the closer I get” to Gerry Winogrand’s surprising and insightful notion, “Getting in close is too easy”. It is up to the student of street photography to figure out where he stands, both figuratively and literally, in that phenomonlogical continuum. This is not to say that one must get in close in order to make an excellent photograph; there are personality or character considerations that prevent the possibility. It’s just that if the photographer is one of those rare birds lucky enough to push through the discomfort of proximity, then the vista of opportunity is fairly well infinite. Virgil shows us this easily; his essay is full of emotional depth and mystery. Just like the gunslingers of the American West, waiting until they saw the “whites of their eyes”, the essay is about what we see, in the eyes, of Virgil’s subjects.

    My hat is off to Virgil in respect, and I think his future work bears watching. In a way this essay’s inclusion on a website devoted to the emerging photographer could be viewed as one of the most important lessons for us. If one can photograph as Virgil did, then one can photograph just about anything.

  • “If one can photograph as Virgil did, then one can photograph just about anything.”

    You know, I hear this old saw a lot, but it doesn’t make sense on its face (bad pun intended). All you need to do to get a photographer to move in close is to give them permission. It has worked time and again in workshops I’ve done with even new amateurs. It’s almost too easy to get a strong photo if you move in close. I’m not arguing that most photographer’s photos would be stronger if they are closer, only that getting in close doesn’t translate into good photography in general.

    Getting in close and the resulting much stronger photo is often the easier route. Backing up and shooting complex, multilayered photos as Alex Webb does, for example, is hard.

  • Jim, very interesting point. That’s why I like Winogrand’s comment so much; sometimes getting in close is too easy. What’s really fascinating is that I had this same conversation with Maestro during Look3. I was just a little less than impressed with Webb’s signature multiple layers because his distant approach eventually becomes predictable. Bruce defended Webb qute passionately…but was silenced (uncharacteristically!) when I pointed out Maestro’s examples of close-in, multi-layered, multi-leveled, and multi-planed work contained even greater complexity through compression. Pulling back to get multiple planes is easier to accomplish relative to the close-in shot, the multi-plane structure being equal. Consider Carravagio’s “Deposition of Christ” versus Picasso’s “Guernica” as a visualization of what I’m getting at.

  • Sure, it’s easier to make soulless imitations of Bruce Gilden or Gary Winograd than it is to make soulless imitations of Alex Webb or Cartier-Bresson, but in the end you’re still left with just soulless imitations. Motive and vision are what separate the great photographers, not technique. Wanting to look like someone else or simply using a technique for technique’s sake are not motives that are likely to result in great work. Seeing something that others don’t see, or don’t know they see, and capturing it is what makes great work possible. If the motives are right and the vision is keen then technique can definitely help and the result will not be soulless. imo

  • A shtik is a shtik. I think using the phrase “one trick pony” might be a little too harsh, since I really do enjoy Webb’s work, but as I look through his images –or the images of any photographer who is known for a very specific look (or focal length)– like Jeff said… it becomes predictable. I think the best photographers are the ones who tell a thorough story clearly. This whole thing about good images asking questions is very short-sighted.

    I don’t like these images because they don’t tell me ANYTHING about the individuals that I couldn’t figure out from simply walking past them. You can interpret their eyes any way you want; the photographer did not take the time to investigate the true story behind the eyes and share it with us.

    Yes he is “emerging”. But aren’t most of us? There are so many talented “emerging” photographers out there who go beyond simply aiming their camera at a face and then snapping away. Plus the corny post processing.

    I’m not going to view an essay and then meditate on the motivations of the Burn editors to include it; trying to find some way to appreciate it through their eyes. Overall I respect their judgement. But I think this post was of poor quality.

    I’m tired of the same old photographer names being dropped. It’s not about being close, or complex, or whatever. What’s important is quality of depth, no matter the approach. This just seemed like narcism.

    If you can, take a look at the work of another “emerging” photographer. Jennifer Kacczmarek has been documenting the life of a disabled child named Alyssa. But the pictures are not about her, as it was in Virgil’s case. It’s about Alyssa. To try and do more, Jennifer also started a non-profit to help assist Alyssa and other children with similar disabilities. Quality of depth, not just depth.

    Of course there are other “emerging” photographers out there as well who also try to do right by their subjects and dig deeper into the story, not just into themselves. We all know those people are out there, which is why I feel a little pissed off that a series like this is even on anyone’s radar.

  • There is nothing wrong with taking non-contextual, non-environmental photographs of people. They are called portraits. For an emerging photographer Virgil is off to an excellent start.

    “My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph.”
    —Richard Avedon

  • And of course if that doesn’t work out, there is always Haiti.

  • Tom – Excellent sarcasm! But none the less, yes, that is true. There is always Haiti.

  • I would love to read the responses of any women following this thread. Such a boys club!

  • ….not sure if any of the guys photographed would make the cover of ….. but with different photo shopping process direction they may just make it.

  • The animosity for the this essay feels more and more like an unwarranted screed that has little to do with the merits of the work itself and more to do with something else, we can’t be sure what–thing is I don’t really care.

  • ahhhh …… aaa the same pp school

  • Some times pimped photos of homeless guys are just pimped photos of homeless guys. It’s just that we really don’t need any more photos of homeless guys.

    If you want to shoot ’em, keep ’em to yourself.

  • Sometimes these days I think we photographers are doing nothing more than staring in our own tragic production of “Waiting for Godot.” It’s the last of the second act.

  • I think the critiscm in general on this essay is going way over the top…

  • While I realize DAH can only choose among those essays that are submitted, I think people expect to see the very best photography here. I know I do. There are plenty of “emerging” photographers photos all over the web. Millions of them. If Burn is just a place to see more “average” photos, then what’s the point?

  • Jim,

    Please feel free to submit links to work/photographers that you expect to see on Burn.


  • Eva, it’s not my blog. Nobody would visit a blog with photos curated by Jim Powers.

    Look, it’s David’s blog and he can post anything he wants here. I just don’t think he really has the time to take care of Burn, but just doesn’t want to let it go. Just my opinion. That and $1.29 will get you a cup of coffee at McDonalds.

  • Jim,

    It’s not about having a blog curated by Jim Powers (or anybody else), but for looking at work that might slip by otherwise. Submitting a link does not mean that the work will be featured, but that we will at least look at it.. Tom Hyde for example sent us a link to an essay by Kenneth O Halloran, which gave us the possibility to look through his body of work and publish an essay (which wasn’t the one suggested by Tom, btw.).. makes sense?

  • Jim…

    Give the kid a break!

  • This link is thanks to Jeff Hladum…
    Brilliant advice..

  • Paul, hahaha!

    Credit where credit is due: I stumbled upon this after viewing M.Avina’s photosite. The image below will explain:

    All part of the BURN dialectic, I guess…

  • Jeff…

    Thanks for linking to M. Avina’s site, never seen his work. Great stuff and I’ve bookmarked it for later on after going out shooting a little.
    BTW just in case if you hadn’t see it…

  • JIM

    for sure there are emerging photographers all over the web….and? …well we cannot publish all of them, and for sure we will miss some of the best of them…and we will also get a hold of some of the best as well….yet Jim when i am with a large group of young photographers as i have been the last few days at the NatGeo annual seminar, and i hear so many comments from THEM about how they look to Burn to at least be a place where they can see what others are doing…

    no essay is published here with intent of saying to Burn readers “this is the best essay ever published”…we do not say that…you are forgetting that 90% of the readers here may not know all that you know….and need a place to land and to see how different photographers are doing different things…hopefully this leads them back ..back into the history of photography where many these days are totally deficient…

    the “difficulty” of going in close or stepping back, especially with regard to composition, is kind of a silly discussion imo…anything done really well is “difficult”…these kinds of discussions are generally had by armchair bloggers who do not shoot themselves…..Alex Webb’s brilliant compositions made by stepping back eliminate any emotional context with the subject and yet can be appreciated simply for their complexity…Avedon in American West surely was in close physically and emotionally with his very “simple” b&w portraits…i would view both photographers with admiration any time….

    if i am doing my own work, i have less time for Burn comments than i would otherwise…i spend an incredible amount of time working on Burn, just do not have time to hang out here in comments much…..and for sure there is an ebb and flow of my attention here…yet working on Burn and responding to comments on Burn is two totally different things imo..

    i think you will see soonest some essays that i have gone out and found that are not out there on the web anywhere else…you are also about to see our archive nicely displayed with thumbnails to all essays, many thanks to Eva and Haik…and the new rules for applying to the EPF will make that grant even stronger…

    it is sort of strange that you have always had a very negative view of Burn from the beginning even as we have garnered honors on every front…the view of Burn by the “outside” world is definitely different than is yours…at the same time i have always welcomed your “devils advocate” role..yet you overdo it a bit imo….when one never compliments , but only has a negative view, the view becomes well “oh it’s Jim again”….you would have more cred here i think if you at least occasionally recognized the good things that have happened to us…

    i will let Burn go the minute i do not think we can make improvements or have a place to grow….it is not my nature to hang on to something that is not working at all…Burn is for sure a hard thing to maintain because it is a train that never stops…so it is not like finishing a book or whatever where you can finally lay it down on the table…so Burn will be better on some days than it is on others…the very nature of publishing a periodical…

    by the way McDonalds has a pretty good cup of coffee these days..i mean way better than when i worked there….coffee in America was always pretty embarrassing….that watered down colored water so prevalent 15 yrs ago or so is at least improving because of the gourmet outlets…

    cheers, david

  • David, I’ve complemented both essays here and burn in general. If anything, my expectations for Burn have probably been unrealistically high.

    I don’t put much stock in awards and recognition, but I’m sure Burned has earned those it has garnered.

    The photographic pasture has become choked with weeds. Just hoping somebody will cut a little trail to walk through.

  • David: Not sure your Alex Webb comment was your own or that of a fictional armchair blogger (apologies) but I would like to say (or reiterate) that even from the distance he shoots I never get the feeling he is not emotionally connected with the people in his frame. That strong consistency is what initially drew me to his work.

  • David, I’m afraid you lost me at ” McDonalds has a pretty good…” Unless you were going to follow “good” with bathroom you can use for free in an emergency, I can’t imagine what could possibly be good about Macdonald’s. I haven’t eaten there since 1978 and have never taken my kids there either. To them, hopefully, it will always be yucky donald’s, though I understand how that kind of thing can backfire.

    Anyhoo, regarding Virgil’s essay, I pretty much said what I had to say, and at great length at that, and I don’t want to repeat myself, but I will add that the guy who wrote the intro did over-emphasize the drifter nature of the overall work. Although that’s what originally caught my eye and that’s what I mostly addressed, it should be acknowledged that not all of the subjects are bums/homeless/mentally ill/drifter types. There’s much more to the story than that. I didn’t mean to limit it as such. Of course we should also keep in mind that the intro is not any kind of official explanation of the work, nor any kind of burn sanctioned blessing, but simply one person’s idiosyncratic take with the intention of spurring further thought not defining it.


    as y’all know, i’ve been a tireless promoter of Young photographers and for the last 4 years have again and again been a kind of scout for BURN…much to my joy, many of the young photographers I’ve alerted BURN too have shown up here :))..(jukka, maki, aaron, ian, etc)….so, again, i will do you guys (and ummmm, Jim Powers, a favor)…

    check your email. I’ve just send you guys a link to a young Chinese photographer (woman) whose work is fucking extraordinary…..she just moved to London from Beijing….

    her work, will appease the old man from texas with the jaded eyes and heart, as well as cynics like Robert L, etc….

    big hugs

  • Well, Bob, my wife says that like Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance novels, I have hourglass eyes.

  • “Jim…

    Give the kid a break!”

    Paul he is not a kid he is a Leica touting neurologist and photography is not a fleeting activity.

  • JIM

    thanks for your reply….i never entered any contests or awards in my entire career (others have always done it and i did not even know) and don’t put much stock in awards per se either EXCEPT for the often nice effect it has for the team effort…that’s all…any awards i received personally over the years were in boxes in the closet or attic….

    however, for Burn i feel a bit different….again, for the collaboration we have had…and for some of the rather extraordinary honors we have had that in fact i do not even mention here and perhaps you do not even know about….at the same time, for sure i always want to improve this magazine…and you will see one super improvement coming very shortly…a really visible archive….in any case, Burn is a collaboration and not a dah only effort…

    i am sure we will never quite live up to your expectations, nor ours either…still i must say that all of us who do put time in here are doing it with as much nobility as i think you can find people doing….we do this because we care…we are not doing this as an income producing “job”…

    in any case, a pleasure to have you here Jim…and again, as always, agreeing or not, i support your right to say whatever the hell you want….

    cheers, david

  • That archive should make all the difference especially as a reference and seeing how holistic burn is

  • Hey Imants, if you knew me you would know full well I’m just a kid.

  • Nah more goat than kid

  • Imants, yep, a Leica touting goat:)

  • Virgil
    Some of your images are getting too hard, yes I know it is a style but with the people you are photographing softness is also needed. I feel there is too much emphasis in the highly structured harsh mid tones that you are producing at the cost of some nice blacks and subtle white tones. Your PP work seems to undo what those great Leica lenses can produce.

  • Hey Virgil,

    Are you really a Leica-touting dude, or merely a Leica-toting one?

    Your inquiring photographic blog public demands to know!

  • MW

    sometimes i do find myself at McDonalds…when driving …and they do have a new gourmet coffee menu that is not like the old stuff…still far from perfect, yet not so horrible either….

  • I look forward to the archive module, but wish to state how much I’m missing the “Dialogue” at the bottom of the homepage. As this particular page shows (McDonalds coffee?), while it is possible to make some associations with Virgil’s essay, these typical and beneficial digressions tend to take the spotlight away from, and the respect deserving, the essay published.



    oh i am sure you will never find any magazine where you go and find everything perfect to your own personal taste every time…fact is, we publish essays here for many different reasons…and as you can read, what you dislike ,others like…and for sure i cannot be the editor of this magazine and try to figure out what everyone will like because that is impossible and not my goal anyway……however, you may not want to stay away too long…if you know me at all, you will know something totally different is coming…i tend to publish two or three of a certain genre at once, and then move in another direction…as you will soon see if you are still here….

    cheers, david

  • JEFF

    the intent of Road Trips was to replace how we did Dialogue posts on the “front page”…but yes i guess that extra click somehow makes this not happen…let me think about that one….OR i just need to do the old Dialogue style posts over on Road Trips…let me try that first…if that does not work maybe we come back to the way we did it before….mostly the comments on this thread have dealt with the essay at hand and i think has been a pretty good discussion overall…

  • Thank you all for your comments and insights. Good, bad and ugly I appreciate them all. The honest criticism is refreshing.
    Carlo, Niel Young was my first musical hero. And that video I’ve never seen. Thanks.
    Bob B, love love love the frank ocean piece. Thanks.
    Paul, great clip, even greater advice.
    Imants, I’ve thanked you already via email.
    David, thank you for having me here.

  • “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
    Martha Graham

  • Leica toting goats and work that is fucking extraordinary without knowing that extraordinary has the clap. You know, sometimes this place reads like a Bunuel movie.

  • Virgil – you will go far in this business with your attitude about the criticism. Best of luck.

    My hat’s off to my former colleague, Dave Harvey, for being so civil in his running of the comments section. You, sir, are a fine teacher and a true professional.

    “We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there. We have been conditioned to expect…. but, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs.” – Aaron Siskind


    perhaps “emotional involvement” is the wrong term….i am a huge fan of Alex Webb, and of HCB, and of many photographers who make compelling people photographs but who i do not think “meet” the people they photograph…however, this does not mean they are not emotionally involved of course….

  • David: Of course I’ll still be here. I wouldn’t have had such strong feelings if I didn’t give a damn. If I give a damn, it will take a lot more than that to loose me.

  • We were talking about the habit of being critical—discussing a person we both knew who was caustically critical (and often entertainingly insulting) about everything. She said she didn’t quite approve of that attitude, because it was so safe.

    I was surprised by that word, and asked her what she meant, and she said—more or less—that hating or criticizing everything was safe because it meant you don’t have to take a stand. Liking something means you are opening yourself up; if nothing is good enough for you it’s another way of saying you’re superior to everything. Very smug, very snug. Being insulting and critical is actually a position of retreat.

    -Mike Johnston, Cheap Criticism

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