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Monday, 21 December 2009


Especially interesting are Christmas decorations in predominately non-Christian countries. Singapore does a fairly over-the-top secular Christmas on Orchard Road. It's been a little subdued recently (recession, you know) but its still very sparkly. Search around on flickr.

Sorry to side with Ebenezer S. on this one, but the above seems to me to be a celebration of tasteless tat that encapsulates brilliantly how our über-consumer society spoils everything it touches. Garish, over the top, expensive and, of course hugely wasteful of energy for no greater purpose than to advertise the utter absence of humility of those celebrating the fact that they Can.

Actually, I may be siding more with JC on this one.

"prismacolor poetry jam"

this phrase alone has truly made my day;
it helped me see suburbia is a better light.

Good tidings indeed. Cheers!

As an Australian who has lived in nth America for 20 hrs, and presently in snowy Madison, it still doesn't feel like Xmas. Xmas should be a barbie at the beach.


For me it's not the big garish displays that are most interesting, but rather the modest understated expressions of festive spirit. There's something particularly poignant about an isolated stip of lights above an unremarkable doorway, or a small, modestly illuminated tree behind a window in an otherwise grey and neglected property.

Now I finally get what often strikes me as odd about Ctein's writing. He has the broadest most democratic, most discrimination-free definition of "art." I would call it "craft," but hey, it's all good.

When I was young I well recall that some Chicago neighborhoods had a long tradition of over-the-top home decoration displays. Many blocks were so outrageous that there would be traffic jams to just drive down the streets. I've not visited those neighborhoods in many years. While I'm sure that some may still have bright spots I suspect that most of the original family decorators have long since died and their successors have little interest in extending the tradition.

I believe that the reality compass would point somewhere between Ctein's belief that such decorations are "...about the enjoyment, they are about the party, they are about having fun and a good time." and James's pitch-black, ultra-depressing opinion that it's "...tasteless tat that encapsulates brilliantly how our über-consumer society spoils everything it touches."

Personally, I believe that the needle generally points much closer to Ctein's point of view. Consider the balcony decorators of Chicago's just-opened residential behemoth Aqua. They're just offering their tiny dots of holiday cheer into the otherwise gloomy urban winter landscape.

I love your Christmas in California series !

So, once a year someone's inner artist and inner joy
can be freely expressed without regard to the 'critics'....
and why not ?

I find it gorgeous, wild-n-crazee and thoroughly enjoyable.
Scrooge, go drape some little lights around a tree !!

Everyone on this blog who just got lambasted by the recent Nor'easter should send Ctein a few pounds of snow! Maybe we could get enough to fill his front yard.

James McDermott, did you mean John Camp? ;)
(I don't mean to offend anyone. Just being flippant.)

Ctein -

I have never thought to seriously photograph Christmas decorations, nor have I ever admitted that I liked them. But I like the photos both in a documentary way and as a form of art. (I had never before thought of them as art). These decorations have been part of my culture and environment all my life; they are comforting even in the absence of any religious meaning, and I like them. Nice post.


A bit off topic: I just wrote a post for a friend over at VelikaBritanija.net, listing mostly British church carols. You see, I am fed up with jingling bells and Santa Clauses who're coming to town. You won't understand the text because it's in Croatian, but you can see YouTube videos of each song, sung by choirs and individuals. (The site is absolutely free, btw.)

I agree with the sentiment that the California displays are quite kitschy and wasteful.

But they do make for pretty photos. And when you want kitschy, then you should go to the hilt. Like this... :)

Wizards in Winter

Rock'n'roll, bay-by! :)

Very nice, Ctein. I like number 3 best. Indeed these displays are modern folk art.

Driving home late last night I passed the end of Stony Stratford High Street, here in England. The town Christmas lights were up. A a glance I could see that the street was almost free of cars, as the pubs had long since shut for the evening. Snow was on the ground, the lights receded into the distance along the straight road. Lovely!

I was tired, it was below freezing and I had an early start in the morning, but I talked myself into turned back.

I parked the car, found a spot and set up the camera and tripod. I took just one shot, looked at it and the histogram and decided to bracket. I looked up at the scene. it had turned Midnight and all the lights had switched off. Aaaargh!

I'm going back tonight.

Nice pictures Ctein!

Happy Holidays to you!

Dear James,

A perusal of randomly-selected photos on Flickr or interminable sessions sitting thru Uncle Ernie and Aunt Mabel's vacation slides will produce precisely the same reactions.

So clearly, there is no art or purpose to be found in photography-- it's all just about a tasteless display of entitled wealth and excessive consumption.

Three of the four subjects shown here fail to meet any of your criteria. You're not looking before reacting.

pax / Ctein

Oh...Christmas music...Christmas music.... I made my dentist turn it off the other day while I was having a cavity filled. One form of torture at a time is quite enough, thank you very much.

It's a good thing Bing Crosby is already dead, because if he weren't, I might have to kill him. And Paul McCartney is going to go to at least the third level of hell for "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time." If you take his best accomplishments with the Beatles on the one hand and that horrible piece of sh*t on the other, they more or less cancel each other out. I'd rather have my teeth drilled.

And don't get me started on Burl Ives...if I ever encounter a magical genie in a bottle, three things will happen: TOP will start to offer extravagant annual prizes to help support deserving photographers, I'll be married to Tiger's ex, and the entire human race will lose all memory and every last trace of "Holly Jolly Christmas"....


Ozzie Sweet liked red as well. All year around.


And a Happy Holidays to you, too!

And everyone else as well!



Dear Jeff and Ken,

This quickly devolves to the good, old discussion of "What is art?" So I will just insert my canned spiel here and be done with it:

Photography is not art.

Neither, for that matter are writing, drawing, painting, or (I suppose I should now add) Christmas decorations.

None of these things are art.

What they are are merely media of communication: tools which one could use to convey thoughts, feelings, ideas, and sentiments.

Most of those expressions of mental state are reportage with no intention that they be anything more. Almost all photographs... and writings... and drawings... and etc. are not art.

But some of them are. I do not concern myself with the ons that aren't.

This business of craft versus art is hardly a new one. While I find the term "folk art" problematical in many ways (since it is set up in contrast to "high art"), it at least opens the door to taking work seriously. Craft is how people damn work that they don't want to take seriously. It took a long time for fabric art of any kind become acceptable, because people disparaged all as mere knitting and quilting (of the mundane "I need a bed covering" category).

I find it especially bothersome when photographers engage in the same partitioning, because we have been regularly damned as never producing anything worthy of the name "art." Photography has been the democratic craft ever since George Eastman ruined it for us artistes [s]. It has certainly been the premier folk art form of the 20th century as well as the premier example of craft. And consequently it has taken us forever to get taken seriously.

And if you think the whole question of whether photography is art is dead and gone and buried, I can point you at a mind-numbingly stupid thread on another website that's less than a year old on just this subject.

The unfortunate fact is that we photographers still get discriminated against for engaging in mere craft (and I use discrimination very precisely here: as being the victims of irrational, unreasoning, unreasonable, and exclusionary prejudice).

One would hope that photographers would be a little more careful in casually invoking distinctions that are still being used to dismiss us.

Be that as it may, I feel that most of what is done in the way of Christmas decoration is no more artistic than most of the writing in this online magazine. It communicates a thought or a sentiment, to be sure, but it doesn't rise above that and doesn't attempt to. I would find it ludicrous to call it art, folk or otherwise; it barely rises to the level of craft. But that's not the work I'm interested in documenting.


Ken, nifty photo!

Jeff, just for the record, I am nowhere near close to democratic in my tastes or attitudes. I am an elitist. I am proud to be an elitist. I have an extremely low opinion of the hoi polloi and I think even less of the "common man" than they think of us "eggheads."

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear Mike,

In the interests of full disclosure and honesty, I think I need to let you know that what has been keeping me sane in the long hours printing in the darkroom this year, and kept me sane all through the dye transfer printing last year, was having the radio tuned to the 24-hour all-Christmas music station, which starts playing Christmas music in the middle of November and doesn't let up until 26 December.

Of course I must entertain the possibility that your definition of "sane" might not be the same as mine...

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

PS: RE: Burl Ives: when THAT song comes on, I turn off the radio. Ick.

Dear James

Three of the four subjects shown here fail to meet any of your criteria. You're not looking before reacting.

pax / Ctein


As we all know, you Americans have ruggedly individualistic ideas on energy consumption and Xmas decor, but all the above - to me - are sub-station-draining exercises in how to electrocute the Christmas message. I'm an old mulligrub, I know, but this stuff, and the aural assault of which Mike so piquantly complains, makes Twelfth Night my Holy Day of choice.

Peace on Earth (we'd be so lucky)

The question is, are the Christmas decorations a form of folk art executed by the home owners, which Ctein documents with fairly simple photography? Or a "celebration of tasteless tat," which Ctein, through selection, cropping, etc., turns into art? This question is so profound that it makes my feet sweat, which always happens in the presence of intellectual conundrums.

(The other, taller, one.)

I believe the location of the third photo is about two blocks from my office. (I work at City Hall in Daly City)

As a transplanted Midwesterner, it did take me some time to warm up to the holiday decorations around here, but now every December I look forward to seeing the local homes done up in kitschy goodness.

A local (easy listening) radio station goes 24x7 Christmas music *before Thanksgiving* ! I cringe when "seek" finds it. A week and a half ago after picking up something or other for Christmas, I finally felt like I was getting into the Christmas mood so I turned on that station when I got in the car. I made it to the first traffic light. But within about a week of Christmas, I'm ready. I can deal with Burl Ives. I'll skip McCartney. "Grandma got run over..." is about as obnoxious as you can get, but fortunately doesn't get played much. The one that makes me grit my teeth is "Feliz Navidad". And most any remake of a song that was best done 20 years ago being sung by some up and coming singer pouring their heart and soul (think Celine Dion) into every verse.

Oh yeah ... in case you didn't hear:

Oh by golly have a holly jolly Christmas this year !

- Dennis

The craze for masses of Christmas lights (and worse) has unfortunately caught on the UK too. At best (and usually when restrained), it can look attractive and I suppose "folk art". At worst it looks a garish, unpleasant mess. Why is it necessary to have everything flashing on and off, for example?

I remember when there was the odd roadside nativity or string of lights in an outdoor tree. That was fine, but unfortunately it now seems to be a case of more, MORE!, MORE!!! I'm surprised we haven't passed a law against it on the grounds that it distracts drivers/ aeroplanes/ passing UFOs.

Funnily enough I think it often looks better in photographs than in real life.

I doubt my Christmas Display will ever win any "tasteful" awards with stuff such as Three Wise Men of Elmo, SpongeBob, and Homer Simpson - D'OH! ;-)

Some pictures here and here are the three live webcams with X10 Controls to turn 'em on and off.

However, it's a ton of fun for the kids! ;-)

And photographically speaking, it's also been fun taking pictures - for instance, the time window when the ambient light balances with the christmas lights is pretty narrow.

For me, the question comes down to motivation. If the folks are decorating their homes with lights and plastic statuary with the goal being to make them pretty for Christmas it's not art but pure kitsch. If they are decorating their homes with the goal of making a statement on the human condition in this capitalistic society and in observance of the downtrodden, then, it's art.

I get to decide which is which.

Couldn't agree more with your Burl Ives sentiment. Ditto for packs of dogs barking 'Jingle Bells', whoever created it, and anyone who plays it. And I find I like Alvin and the Chipmunks more than I like Paul McCartney when it comes to Xmas tunes.

But is your sense of torture invoked by ALL Xmas music, or just the boring, bland, repetitive, obnoxious variety that permeates the malls, dentist offices, and radio airwaves? In particular, I'm thinking of the likes of Dexter Gordon's version of Mel Torme's 'The Christmas Song', the Heath Brothers version of 'Our Little Town' ('Little Town of Bethlehem'), Herbie Hancock's take on 'Deck the Halls', Paquito D'Rivera doing 'God Rest Ye Merry', 'We Free Kings' by Roland Kirk, as well as entire albums such as 'A Dave Brubeck Christmas' (sublime!), 'An Oscar Peterson Christmas', Kenny Burrell's 'Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas', and even (believe it or not) 'The Jethro Tull Christmas Album' (mostly Ian Anderson originals, and with spot-on liner notes regarding the meaning of Xmas, also by Ian).

Like Ctein, I start playing this stuff in mid-November (in the car, while working, etc.), and keep it going until the season is over. Perhaps he and I share a similar definition of sane. Scary thought, that.


When it comes to yard Christmas decorations, it ain't done til its overdone!

Man we are diving into the is the art the thing itself or the framing or re-contextualization of the found text rabbit hole.

If these were photographs of luminescent worms or the folk art of an exotic indigenous culture but looked exactly the same I wonder how would the discussion change.

I was half asleep this morning when I read "Dear Jeff and Ken" as Dear Jeff Koons. Talk about re-contextualization of the found text, or re-contextualization of talking about context.

Meanwhile it's North American Comatic Aberration Awareness Week, gotta go take pictures of those xmas lights.

Okay, made me laugh.

Can I hire you to write a regular column called "Dear Jeff Koons"?

I'd read that.


Dear Andy,


Logically, I shouldn't be amazed; on a random, throwing darts at the board, basis there should be 3-6 TOP readers living in Daly City. Nonetheless, I am.

As best as I can recall, the reindeer photo was indeed made in the Broadmoor/Daly City area.

For that matter, the first photograph was made off of Vista Grande, across from the BART station, so it's only a few blocks further away from you. Blue Christmas was photographed somewhere up Skyline Drive from my house, or on one of the adjacent side streets.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Dear GKF,

Our definition of "sane" is entirely reasonable and satisfactory. Everyone else is weird.

With very few exceptions, what will do in a Christmas song for me is overexposure. On very, very rare occasion, one of my favorites will be everyone else's favorite, but what usually happens is that a song that sounds perfectly OK the first two or three times becomes unbearable when it becomes a hit. Indeed, that's what happened to Feliz Navidad and Little Drummer Boy for me. Hearing them now is like water torture. I'm not that there's anything objectively wrong with them; I just say they're spinach and I say to hell with them.

I am not yet tired, though, of Eartha Kitt singing "Santa, Baby" or anybody singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Two of my favorites.

My all-time favorite Christmas music, though, never gets any airplay at all: it's Michael Frank's "Watching The Snow" album. I can listen to that over and over and over and over.

That and The Boss's version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Jersey rockers really, well... ROCK!

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

I wonder if it was one of these Ctein Christmas in California prints that was very obliquely referenced in the Virtual Five and Dime discussion thread.

Dear bigscrooge,

Ummm, now you sent me scrambling, because, well, err, I never read Mr Squid's column. Looked at it, decided it would require too much thinking on my part - it was one of those kinds of days.

Well, I'll be damned. You're right-- there *is* a very oblique reference to me. Truthfully, if you hadn't alerted me to look for it, I'd have missed it.

I doubt it refers to the C-in-C series, though, because I've sold almost none of that work online and it's all relatively recent work.

pax / Ctein

Correct, Ctein, it wasn't. It was Plate 13 of chasing the sun, and I reckon you've sold a number of those.

- squid

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