Tuesday, January 28, 2020

James Cockroft

Here's a guy who is wildly underrated, in my opinion. He does different things, but the one I am most interested in is his review of photobooks. He buys a lot of them, does unboxing videos — in which you get to watch as he leafs through the book, which is often very nice — and writes straightforward reviews. His reviews are far less pretentious than mine, and thus arguably a lot better.

Indeed, James is a man almost entirely without pretensions, as near as I can tell. His lack of pretension makes it easy to dismiss him as unserious, or un-useful, but both of those things are wrong. I don't attend to his work enough, and I hope to fix that.

Here's a link to James' Photobook Reviews which is a deep archive of very useful reviews and videos. Recommended.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

A Whacky Idea

I just had a thought.

Photographers are often rather fond of "critique" (especially of giving it, but there is also massive social pressure to seek it out and accept it with groveling thanks.) They love to get together and go through other people's portfolios and talk about whatever shit they learned about yesterday, whether that be white balance, or artistic intent.

I, uh, I don't seek out feedback in this way. I find it largely useless. I can see the white balance just fine, thanks, and I know the thing is out of focus. I have been doing this for a while. In general, some mook offering suggestions is going to have zero impact on me, I kinda know where I am going and to the extent that I don't, I'm going to have to find my own way.

What is useful is trying to explain a project to someone. By trying to articulate what I am attemping, I force myself to organize and clarify my thoughts.

This would be true whether I was attempting to explain it to Martin Parr or a passed out drunk. In fact, this very blog is as much about explaining my work as it is about anything else, and I don't know on any given day if anyone is reading it, or who. It doesn't matter. My thoughts organize or not the same whether you read 'em or not.

Which leads me to the whacky idea.

If you're struggling with something, why not explain it, out loud, to an empty room? Why not simply imagine an audience, and articulate, with your actual voice, what you're trying to do? It's essentially what I am doing with this stupid blog, but perhaps more convenient, and by speaking out loud potentially more effective? Or effective in different ways, at any rate.

Thursday, January 23, 2020


I have a little project I've been idly plotting.

In the Bellingham schools they try to integrate kids who have a variety of challenges into the schools as far as possible. Kids with autism, kids with various disorders of various kinds. Some of the kids in these "Life Skills" classes are really really sensitive to some kinds of stimuli. In particular, some of them SCREAM AND RUN FOR IT when a flash goes off.

This makes the standard school photo routine kind of impractical. In the USA there is one dominant vendor for school photos, Lifetouch, and as near as I can tell they offer no service that does not include flash. I made calls and various inquiries and got a lot of non-responses, and one "no we definitely don't" response.

So I have been half trying to locate an alternate vendor who might have advanced into this century, and half pondering setting up to just do it myself with LED lighting. I was gonna go buy some moderately expensive Godox things that Kirk Tuck recommends, but they I remembered I had a thing with an E26 base and a cord, a thing that can be clamped onto a light stand etc. That just means a thing where you can screw in a standard light bulb. So off I went to buy one (1) inexpensive light stand, one (1) silver lined brolly, and one (1) 120W equivalent PAR38 daylight balanced bulb.

That bulb is basically just a standard "spotlight" style bulb you might use in an exterior security light fixture thing. Nothing major.

Then I plopped the kid down next to a wall for a reflector, put my ghetto-ass light up, and shot this.

Ok, so the CRIs-things of my lightbulb are garbage, which means I think that the color of the light is not guaranteed? Or wrong? Or something? Plus the "reflector" wall is blue. So the color is probably all fucked up and terrible? But, I dunno. I twitched the white balance thing around a little, and that's pretty much what she looks like.

I feel like I can at least hang with the horrible work Lifetouch does. I am still debating how hard I want to try to actually sign myself up for this, like, job. But I feel like someone oughta and I can't find anyone else to step up.

Art History III(a)

The question I posed in the previous remark comes, I think, maybe in two parts.

There is an era of jazz, specifically the era when Art Tatum burst upon the scene, in which the history has a remarkable number of stories like this: so and so was an up and coming jazz pianist, with real grit and talent, until he heard Art play, and then he went on to become one of the great jazz ... clarinetists, saxophonists, anything-but-pianists.

In something of the same way, in the mid-1800s there are any number of leading photographers who had been painters. Sometimes not very good painters. Seeing photography, one assumes they recognized it as an alternative road to the very thing they had been trying to do. These were some of the great boosters and performers of the medium in the day, without them it's not clear what path history would have taken.

I rather think that an artist working in his traditional form in, I don't know, let's say India, would see a photograph and recognize it certainly as a thing, and an interesting thing at that, but not the very thing he's been trying to do. To take up photography would be rather more a job of switching horses, than it would be for the dodgy painter in Europe.

Secondly, there is the issue of visual culture, which takes something of the same path. The non-artist in India would again recognize the photograph as something, but something not quite as familiar as the European might. The photo, while recognizable and possessed of some interesting properties, might be less immediately appealing to such a viewer.

But perhaps here I overstate it? How familiar would the average bloke in London be with the tropes and tics of Renaissance Painting, after all? Can we call the engravings that appeared in the newspaper close enough, or are those generally so lousy that the man on the street in both Paris and Bombay would have had much the same experience of the photograph?

In any case, it appears to me that the impetus behind photography got some little boosts in Europe and the Americas, which it lacked in other parts of the world with different traditions of visual art.

Perhaps the answer is "yes, and the uptake of photography was therefore correspondingly slower and more shallow in those areas." Perhaps alternatively the answer is "sure, but the appeal of that true first-person perspective is so immediate, so powerful, that the standing visual traditions were irrelevant." Or, really, any number of other possibilities.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Art History III

This is a question I would very much like to know the answer to:

Why did some cultures with no particular tradition of perspective drawing embrace the camera?

For Europe and the white colonies, the embrace is obvious. The camera allows us to easily make "a proper picture." I am not convinced that this same argument applies in, say, India, China, or Japan.

Monday, January 20, 2020


JHC, I dunno if Colberg started it or if he was just following along, but in the wake of his idiotic "beyond social media" post apparently everyone in "photoland" is starting a newsletter. All ten of them.

I have to admit that I am deeply, deeply, allergic to anything that shoves content at me. I go to where the content is, on my schedule, it does not come to me. As far as I can, I adhere to the rule that if you're not interesting enough for me to go to the trouble to come to you, then you're not worth my time. No offense.

Anyways, there are many bits that are fun here. The first is that the overall conceit is that they're reverting to the Olden Dayes of the web, at precisely the moment that there are like a half-dozen venture-funded shithead firms building platforms for newsletters. It must be a coincidence.

Next up, newsletters are all about freeing ourselves from The Algorithm. This is a way of saying I'm not getting enough attention on my instagram or blog or whatever, and I think it's someone's fault. The great thing is that they're all using one of the venture-funded platforms, which will track their subscribers to within an inch of their lives, and attempt to monetize this a bunch of ways. It may not be The Algorithm, but it's jolly well Another Algorithm.

These platforms will track, at least: your subscription itself, when you open a newsletter, when you click a link in the newsletter, and where you are located, roughly, for every one of those events. This will all be squirrelled away, with context. They will know what your interests are, and how interested you are in them. Do you like Roland Barthes, or nudes? How much? All this will be associated with your email address and at some point in the future (when google buys them, or hackers steal their database, or some shit) that profile of you will be attached, by way of your email address, to some larger profile of you.

The fact that you're interested in Roland Barthes at work during the day, but mysteriously become interested in nude photos when on holiday, or after 2am, will eventually become known by someone you'd prefer not know that.

Perhaps when you unsubscribe all these data will be deleted. Or, perhaps not. Guess! Ha ha! Of course it will never, ever, be deleted. That data is money.

All this is doubly hilarious because every email application ever made has had some ability to send email to some sort of list of email addresses. You don't need to sign up with substack or buttondown, you can just figure out how aliases work in gmail. Then you.. just send email. And it goes out to everyone on the list. This probably stops working at a couple hundred addresses, but let's get real here.

Finally, nobody involved has an actual plan. Are they going to ditch the blog to focus on the newletter, or are they going to half-ass both of them, going forward? Is the blog going to drive traffic to the newsletter? Is the instagram going to drive traffic to the blog, and then to the newsletter? Where, exactly, do I go to find your fucking jewels of wisdom? Why are they all over the goddamned place? Oh look, here's your blog. DING! I have mail! Look, a newsletter. With a link to your instagram! You're like a damned one man Facebook, sucking my time and my life force! Well, you would be except you're boring and I stop pretty fast, unlike Facebook which uses a battalion of dudes with PhDs in holding my interest to, you know, hold my interest.

This is basic social media marketing: all your social media effort, whatever it is, pushes people to one (1) place, and that is where you put the good stuff. It doesn't matter if you're selling jet airplanes, yoga lessons, or just your own ego. A newsletter is either 1. The actual thing you do, 2. A device for directing people to the actual thing you do, or 3. A distraction. Usually, it is a distraction.

I predict that Jörg and a few others who are seen as influential will get a little wad of subscribers who will read the first couple. Then the newsletter writers will watch sadly as the beautifully rendered graph of "opens" in their Dashboard page on tinyletter.com droops lower and lower. Nobody will unsub, because they hope Jörg is going to get them a book deal which will cost them $20,000 and gain them nothing. The non-influential people will get a dozen subscribers who will also not read the newsletters.

Generally speaking, of course. There might be a couple of these folks who really start pulling something together. They'll dump their blog, if they have one, and use instagram and TikTok or whateverthefuck to direct people to their newsletters, and if they have really interesting and compelling content they will gain a loyal band of readers. That'll be cool. It'll be like a blog, except with much more thorough tracking of the readers, less convenient to read, and thrust upon the readers periodically rather than waiting patiently for them to come back.

I might subscribe to a couple. I have a couple burner emails lying around.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Art History and Photography II

This is a followup to this little essay here.

As a commenter noted, there were efforts to escape the trap of pseudo-painting that Photography found itself in at the beginning of the 20th century. Mainly the Europeans did a bunch of stuff with abstraction, multiple exposures, forced perspective, mirrors, light painting, long exposures, collage, and on and on. They were doing more than simply trying to ditch perspective, but whatever they were doing, they sought to break the barriers imposed by the camera.

It all seems to have fizzled out around WWII. Some of that crowd continued to make work into the 1970s or so, but the movement as a whole thing didn't really go anywhere that I can see.

To be fair, there does continue to be some of the same techniques deployed even today, but the aim seems to be kind of random, or non-existent. People use these methods and more because they results look cool, and that seems to be about it. There's just a "cool!" reaction followed by "what if I do the same thing, but twice as hard?" and then after a few days, or weeks, or months, the photographer moves on and buys a drone.

In the USA in that same period everyone was too concerned with replacing excessively painterly Pictorialism with slightly less painterly Straight Photography and missed the whole show in the process. We are now in a world, globally, where we have what are essentially neo-Modernists arguing with neo-Pictorialists over just how much Photoshop is acceptable. Which, honestly, is pretty much to completely miss the point. Over in the corner we have some MFAs doing God Alone knows what, but it's a mess.

I like me some Hannah Hoch as much as the next guy, but none of the "tricks" of the early 20th century really float my boat. There's a bunch of in-camera stuff you can do, there's a bunch of post-process stuff you can do, and it all strikes me as betraying the essentials of photography.

What I want is to escape the box while remaining in the box.

As I see it, the essential characteristic of a photograph is that it witnesses truly: this is what it actually looked like, in this instant, from this viewpoint.

Man Ray, Hannah Hoch, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and a bunch of others tended to discard one or more of these important traits of the photograph in pursuit of what we might as a kind of shorthand think of as showing us not what it looks like, but rather what is is. Now, I'm all in favor of showing what something is but not necessarily at the expense of ditching what it looks like.

To show what a thing, or event, or person, is, is to traverse time and space. Space-time exists, things and events occur in it. It is a rare subject indeed that can be fully revealed in a direct and naive way from one view in one instant. One needs to show or to imply a continuum of points of view, and a continuum of time. This seems to be in direct contradiction to the photograph, which specifically and in its very nature, does the opposite.

The obvious solution, my pat answer to pretty much everything, is the sequence of photographs. Multiple points of view, multiple points in time, surely we're done here?

Less obviously, though, I think the single frame has the power to imply time, to imply multiple points of view, especially when helped along by a little text.

I have no magic recipe for doing it, but I believe it can be done, and that doing so is worthwhile.