Tuesday, January 15, 2019


The opposite of serendipity, that is.

We have a detached office structure, which is really the garage at the rear of our lot, backing onto the alley behind the house. This building has been remodeled into a fairly decent office space, and a separate storage space. When I worked, I had my computer and whatnot out there, and spent my days in there. Now that I do not work but my wife does, she spends her day out there. Occasionally, when she is out of the office, I take the space over to use her large and beautiful Apple computer.

Recently, I was in there, working away laying out my cursed Alley book which has been in progress for the better part of a year now, I guess. I pretty much have it conceptually wrapped up, sequenced, written, etc. I am working out cover design.

One of the minor pieces of this is some discussion of the sewer line that runs down the center of the alley, 7 feet down. The sewer lines from our houses to that central line are, originally, ceramic tile pipes which are gradually aging out and failing. When the line fails within the last 6 feet or so, someone's got to cut the pavement in the alley, dig down, and replace it. The creates a characteristic cutout in the alley pavement.

This is the only visual trace of the sewer system, so of course there's a photo of my neighbor's cutout.

So, you may visualize me working away on the cover, and then I perk up, hearing a larger-than-average truck backing down the alley. I pop out, curious, to see what is happening, and lo, they are replacing the sewer line for another neighbor. They are literally making one of the characteristic cutouts right now. God damn it. Now I have to take yet more pictures, and fiddle with my stupid book some more, because this too is part of the story.

Bush Leage II

I have thought about this some more, and what I am trying to say is coming out clumsily. Which is an indication that I am unsure of what, exactly, I am trying to say.

I think it comes down to this, though: there are good, serious, struggling artists all over the place. Some of them I would surely judge as "crap" and a few I would judge as "good" but that is beside the point.

When those artists are spread out thin, as in Duluth, Bellingham, or Toronto, they don't really know one another socially. If you reach out into a pool of friends, even if you are yourself creative, and know a bunch of creatives, you're unlikely to stumble across one of these people.

I hypothesize, but do not know for sure of course, that in that very small number of cities to which creative types move/flee in their 20s, the density of genuinely good, talented, creatives is high enough that simply asking around has some reasonable chance at turning up someone worth talking to, worth showing.

I am biased, of course, because I don't use the "asking around' method, instead I wade through mountains of stuff I find on the internet and in various and sundry printed materials, following leads, following my nose, and occasionally I stumble across someone I like. This is radically different from reaching out into my social network, asking "hey, do you know any good photographers?" I happen to be certain that the latter method would produce endless birds-in-flight, colorful landscapes, and other insanely boring derivative, albeit well-executed, photographs.

Perhaps it is a foolish pipe dream, that If Only I lived in NYC and was young, and beautiful, I would know people who knew the really good rising artists. I am not in NYC, I am neither young, nor beautiful, so I don't actually know for sure.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Bush-League

So Josh Reichmann, the new boss at Luminous Landscape, continues to interview and profile photographers that he has some personal connection to.

Don't get me wrong, I really like Canada. I have lived there many pleasant years of my life, and I visit often. It is a good place to be.

But. Canada is not a large country, nor is it a country which punches above its weight class artistically. The National Film Board of Canada has long been subsidizing the film industry, and encouraging a hilariously awful style. You can recognize an NFB film almost instantly, and that's not a good thing. I do not know if broader ham-fisted government intervention has likewise damaged the other arts, but I do know that Canada has produced a large number of 3rd rate authors to go with their 3rd rate filmmakers. I dare say there's a large supply of 3rd rate painters and photographers to go with them.

It is not so much that everyone in Canada is awful.

The trouble is that if you're talented and ambitious, Canada in general, and Toronto specifically, is someplace that you leave. There isn't a critical mass of support and audience there, so even if you are a great painter, and you can find a gallerist who "gets" your work, they're still not going to show it because there isn't an audience. There's too much milquetoast government sponsored, safe, avant-garde-in-1963 art lying around, or something.

There's probably something to be said here about what constitutes a critical mass for the creation of Really Good Art. Whatever the number is, it seems to be enormous. It seems to need enough room in several senses to enable a lot of really awful work, as well.

Now, it's not universal. There have been a handful of truly great writers in Canada, who remained in Canada. Occasionally an artist will depart Canada for more fertile lands, but then return home having made their nut in New York or wherever. And so on.

Still, if you're going to poke around among your artistic friends to see if anyone knows someone who's any good, what you're going to find is bush-league yahoos, even if you're in Toronto. It's going to be a bit like performing this same exercise in Duluth, or in El Paso, or in Bellingham, WA.

Friday, January 11, 2019

What I Like

I've been thinking lately about what kinds of photographs I actually like. For a guy who spends so much time complaining that other people don't seem to like photographs, I myself seem to like precious little. Which isn't quite true, I like a lot of photographs. I just don't like most photographs.

At some point in the last 100 years or so it was brought home to critics of all stripes that there was never going to be devised a particularly firm basis on which to criticize things. Aesthetics was supposed to be a firm and objective basis, handed down by God or the very structure of the universe, but then it turned out not so much. As a mathematician, I am pretty familiar with this. A contemporaneous program to place mathematics at last on to firm ground, with a certain and unshakable foundation, was blown up spectacularly by Kurt Gödel. It is now clear that things like Truth and Beauty and The Sublime are all mere constructs of whatever system they arise in, be it a system of logic or a system of culture.

The post-modernists (post-strucuralists? somewhere in that mess of post-whatevers) seem to have stumbled across this at roughly the same time. It is not hard to discover, all you need is a 5 year old who responds to every ever-more-detailed explanation with "but, why?" and in a few minutes you will see the futility of it all.

Mathematicians dealt with this by saying "well, I guess we should agree on a system to live in. Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory everyone? Very good. Moving on..." and the post-whatevers seem to have dealt with is in a somewhat less organized way which allowed the writing of an infinite number of papers that don't say anything.

That doesn't mean that there are no ideas that aren't stupid in play here. Yes, it's true that the merits, of any, of a photograph are relative to the culture that produced it, and the culture in which it finds itself. This does not mean that the enterprise of judging a picture is hopeless. It does not mean that author intent ought to be ignored. It does not mean that everything is subjective and that therefore you can say anything as legitimately as anything else.

What I like is, therefore, not based on any firm logical ground. It is based on a vaguely systemized set of ideas which feel right to me, and as such it doesn't land on any specific critical ideology.

I think Art is, at its best, an attempt to communicate something, to share something, to show me something. As such, the authorial intent does matter. In some sense it is my job, as the consumer of Art, to work out my best guess at what the author means. I described this as "story #4" within the last few days, I guess.

I also think that Art exists in the gestalt of society, and that it is useful to make an attempt to guess what others are likely to see in a piece of work, so see as the post-modernists might say, what is "coded" in the piece. A writer might use the phrase "strange fruit" and mean only a particularly lumpy orange, but that is also a reference, in contemporary America, to lynchings.

As a consumer of Art, I also bring myself to the table, and I am a more or less functional thinking creature with my own history, memories, ideas, tics. As such, Art is going to hit me in, to some degree or other, a unique kind of way.

I try pretty hard to bring all of these things together into my own personal understanding of what a piece means. I bring all these together into my judgement of whether something is good or whether it is bad.

I like Art in which I can discern the author's voice, that perhaps indefinable thing the artist is trying to communicate. If the artist seems to me to be saying nothing, or nothing coherent, I am likely to judge the work Bad.

If my guess as to the reaction of a more or less normal person in my cultural milieu is that the reaction is likely to be superficial, or empty, I am likely to judge the work Bad. This particular case covers an enormous amount of ground, by the by. Most photography which is broadly identified as good is in fact just pleasing. The reaction of a normal person is positive, agreeable, but shallow.

Finally, while I try to be charitable about this and use a lot of first person phrases, if it doesn't hit me personally in a good way, in a complex, enlarging way, I am likely to think the work isn't very good. In part, I like everyone else am prone to generalize my reaction to everyone else.

My insistence that Art should provoke some kind of complex reaction leads to a lot of acrimony when I trot it out in public, which isn't very often.

There's a tremendous amount of appealing photography out there. Most people who style themselves photographers appear to be satisfied with their own work, and the work of others, if it is graphically pleasing, has nice colors, or a beautiful girl, or a cute kid in it, or any of a handful of other things. These people get kind of grumpy when I wave my hands dismissively and say "tut tut, but it's all shallow, innit?" which I do.

I find these pictures appealing as well, I like them in the same sense that everyone else does.

As a guy who spends an unhealthy amount of time looking at pictures, especially pictures made by bottom-tier Serious Photographers, I also know that these things are common as grass. I sense a difference between these common, appealing, pictures, and the pictures that appear to me to be saying something, that appear to be making a strong play to enlarge me.

As such, I feel these two categories ought to be distinguished, and there is no way I know of to distinguish them without appearing to be saying nasty things about the common, appealing, shallow pictures. One can temporize and say Of course they're appealing and pleasant and you're welcome to love them but... and all anyone ever sees if the material after the word but, and they interpret the whole thing as a personal attack.

And so, I stopped caring much about what people think I mean. I dub the common, appealing, material as "shit" and the stuff I like as "good" and I am done with it.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Aig so much traffic

I assume my blog is being hammered by bots, since I am being flooded with traffic, but not with idiotic comments, but my god what a surprising lot of traffic.

If you are people and not robots, please go away. Actually, go away if you're robots too.


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Judging of a Photo

Not very often, but occasionally, once runs across someone analyzing a photo in great detail. They talk about how this bit represents one thing, and that bit another, and so on. In a public context, this is often greeting by eye-rolling or loud groans. Partly, of course, because photographers hate analysis and desperately want to return all conversations to the relative sharpnesses of various lenses, and how does depth of field work, anyways? There is a little more to it, I think.

When a fellow paints a picture, and they stick a cherub up in the corner, the cherub is not an accident. Nor is its position in the frame. The painter went to a fair bit of trouble to stick the cherub up there, after all.

Now, it could certainly be that the painting merely needed a light bit up there, and there was room for another cherub (what painting, after all, would not be improved with a few more cherubs, eh?)

It's also possible that the artist intended some complex religious allegory, and for some eras of painting I suspect that it's practically certain the artist so intended.

Photographs don't quite work this way. Well, they certainly can work this way, especially with constructed tableaux, and indeed in the early days we have many composites made in precisely this fashion. Most famously, we have "The Two Ways of Life" by Rejlander, in 1857, but this was very much a thing for a while. A thing which was, eventually, consigned to the darkest pits of history mainly because it's just painting, using scissors, photographs, and paste rather than actually being what was coming to be understood to be photography.

We live in degenerate, retrograde, times so there is a certain amount of this sort of thing going on now. Perhaps, more than ever, but at least as a percentage of all photography being done it's respectably small.

No, most photography embraces a certain degree of serendipity. While the small background detail may be powerfully meaningful to you, the viewer (oh god, did I just say punctum and name-drop Barthes on the sly?) it is as often as not an accident. Perhaps a lucky accident. Perhaps an accident which caused this frame rather than the one previous one or the next one to be selected at the contact sheet, and so in that sense deliberate.

Setting aside composites and still lifes, which is a bit of a cheat to be sure, every photograph contains a myriad of elements, some of which are accidental. Looking at the picture, we don't know offhand which ones are accidental, although we might guess. Ascribing some detailed allegorical message to some specific, potentially accidental, element of the frame is therefore fraught.

In the terms that I have been developing lately, we might well ascribe meaning in our "5th story" the one we, as viewers, construct for ourselves. Sure, the flower in the background represents her virginity or whatever. That ascription, in our own story, is quite different from presuming that the artist intended the flower to stand in for her virginity ("2nd story"). As such, our interpretation is more or less personal. We might successfully sell others on the idea, to be sure. There might be other features, accidental or deliberate, which support that interpretation.

My approach to looking at art, and to looking at photography specifically, is very artist-forward. I want to base my grasp of the work on what the artist intends, not on what I put in there myself. It's a hopeless endeavor, of course, but I do my best.

I tend, therefore (and obviously therefore you should too, no?) to dismiss the "the flower is a metaphor for her virginity" readings as excessively specific. Unless there is, to my eye, some reasonable argument that the artist intended that reading, I am loathe to adopt it.

Thus, in the end, I read photographs in a more abstract and emotional way than I might read a painting (to be honest, I don't know the relevant tropes and idioms of painting well enough to do it myself, but when the catalog tells me what the cherub in the corner means I am inclined to believe it.)

This is, I find, an amusing paradox -- I read the picture grounded in actual reality far more vaguely and emotionally than I do the picture which is a product of the painter's imagination.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Phoning it In

I haven't really been reading Ming Thein since he partnered up with Robin Wong, but I chanced to stop by and came across a recent photo essay he's put up: Forest in the City.

It struck me, looking through the pictures, that I am feeling a trend. Many of the photos Thein shares with us have that strong graphical quality and sensation of great sharpness upon which is reputation is built. But scroll down. It falls apart in to "here, have some random piles of leaves" shots. I'm sure he'd have some song and dance about how if I could just see the megapixels it would be an immersive experience or whatever, but the fact remains that he just shoved the camera out there and mashed the shutter. It's a random pile of leaves.

Next up, KAGE Collective which is some very self-serious bunch of Street Photographers. It's not all random snaps, by any means. But there's a lot of material on that web site that seems to be just "I waved the camera around and pressed the button a few times" shots.

This is different from photographs I don't like. There are plenty of mannered, carefully made, pictures that I hate. There are quite a few random snaps that I like. The point is that these photographers are putting out there as Their Work pictures which appear to have been made without the slightest thought or effort at all, by someone who's simply stopped caring.

I spend little time in the "critique" section of forums, but it has been, I think, more than a year since I have seen anyone trying to offer a truly critical response. It's all "I like #5 the best" and "nice shot" with the occasional "overexposed" and "doesn't work for me."

In the same areas, we see a little bit of those careless random snaps creeping in, especially from established forum members. If they're established enough, they can get a flurry of "nice shot" from, as near as I can tell, literally anything they throw up there.

It feels to me as if, a few years ago, we had a lot of relative newcomers to photography charging around trying to figure it out and being enthused (this part is not in doubt). Interest is absolutely flagging across the board (again, not in doubt), indicated by falling camera sales and falling web site traffic. The result, and this is where it starts being my theory, is that we have a pretty large collection of people who hanging around, having never really figured it out, and who have all unknowing ceased to care all that much.

At this point there's a large group of people who haven't put their DSLR down yet, and are just going through the motions of picture taking, of talking about pictures, of consuming media related to photography. But they don't really care much any more, and they're not even looking at the pictures of reading the media any more. They're glancing, skimming, and typing in the same responses they've been typing in for years.

You can put almost literally any shitty photos on the front page of Luminous Landscape, or Ming Thein's web site, or Kage Collective, or any number of other sites where Photographers We Officially Respect have long hung their work, and there will be a contingent who will assume they're good, and who will defend them without really having examined these things critically or even visually.

It has always been so, to be sure. There have always been camera owners who simply don't look at pictures. This era seems to have more of them, there seems to be a trend toward phoning it in, because you can get pretty much the same ego strokes as when you worked at it.

It's kind of gumming up the works at the moment.