Friday, January 18, 2019

I Am A Snob

I'm a snob, and while I am not especially proud of that, I have come to terms with my snobbishness.

Allow me to elaborate. Or don't, I shall elaborate regardless!


I've been mashing shutter buttons off and on for something like 40 years. I've been making a stab at Serious Photography for something like 30 years. I did my time as a wannabee Ansel Adams, and read the Trinity and spent a lot of time dorking around in darkrooms. I've read history, and I have aspired to be Stieglitz, and Steichen, and all those blokes. Along the way I have taken a fair number of pictures, and learned a fair number of things about taking pictures. I haven't taken as many as a lot of you probably have, but I've taken a pretty goodly number.

Along the way I figured out enough about Ansel Adams style landscape photography to know that I could probably, by applying myself diligently for a year or two, get good enough to churn out black and white landscapes of a certain caliber more or less at will. Perhaps not Adams, but anyways Picker and a whole lot of other acolytes. Pick up a copy of LENSWORK and you'll see a lot of this stuff. This is not because I am special, it is because I am a normally competent human being. Almost anyone can learn this. There are 1000s, maybe 10s of 1000s of people out there banging out this material on a regular basis.


Basically, though, I am lazy. I don't want to do all that hiking, and I don't want to arrange my life such that I would be able to do all that hiking. It takes more than normal abilities with the camera, it takes a commitment and a lifestyle that I found unappealing.

The same story can be applied to, say, photographs of models. Again, I learned enough along the way to see that if I applied myself for a year or two I could get Quite Good at it and then I could churn out Fashion Styled photographs, or Figure Studies, or whatever. Again, the skills necessary to grind out the pictures are a minor part of it, it's the business of rearranging my life to make room for a lot of hired models and lights and enormous octoboxes that I found uninteresting.

Ditto macro photography. I never did make a serious attempt at wildlife photography, but by now I see the pattern. I could buy the gear, devote some time to learning some skills, and then I could rearrange my life, and lo, I could churn out endless Birds In Flight or whatever.


The question arises naturally: if I am so damned serious about photography, why am I so unwilling to rearrange my life a bit in order to do it better, to produce better photographs?

It is, essentially, because I perceive the kinds of pictures I could have made down any of those paths as not worth the trouble. They would have been fine pictures, but they would have been just like a lot of other pictures put out there by a lot of other normally competent people who applied themselves rather more diligently that I am willing to apply myself.


It's a bit like making a good quiche. Lots of people never make a quiche at all. Quite a few people make lousy quiche. Some people make excellent quiche. To make good quiche there's a bunch of skills you need to have: you should be able to handle a pie crust, you need to have a rough grasp not only of how to reliably crack eggs without getting shell bits everywhere but also some grasp of how eggs cook, etcetera. The point is that the ability to make a good quiche is perfectly teachable. A few people may have some mental block which renders them incapable of learning these skills, but almost anyone could learn to do it. Most people don't.

It happens that I have learned it, and that furthermore I am perfectly happy to bang out a good quiche more or less on demand, despite the fact that there isn't anything particularly special about a good quiche. I am not a quiche snob, at least not in the sense that I refuse to do it because it's something that anyone could do. I am perfectly happy to be an everyman who happens to have and to exercise the relevant quiche making skills.


Where photography is concerned, however, I am a snob.

The fact that my quiche exists does not mean that the restaurant French Laundry does not exist, and the existence of French Laundry does not make my quiche non-existent, or even bad.


Neither could I pretend that a dinner I prepared of my quiche and a salad is equivalent to dinner at French Laundry. These are not the same thing, at all. Almost anyone could, by applying themselves with a little diligence, produce the former. The latter is rather more involved and, in very real ways, a superior thing. My quiche dinner would be excellent, I assure you, but it would not be in any way equivalent.

If the French Laundry dinner included quiche, the quiche would not be much better than mine. That, however, is not the point. French Laundry is doing something other than sticking a slice of good quiche on a plate.


Where photography is concerned, rather than quiches, I am much more interested in the French Laundry version of the thing than the homemade quiche version. The analogy could be stretched a bit more to note that it is not the quiche which makes the dinner ordinary or great, it is the way the quiche is contextualized. But that is maybe a bridge too far.

Do I do the French Laundry version? No, of course not. But it's what I am interested in. It's what I want to do. It is the object of my study, it is my aspiration, it's what I write about and think about.

I am a snob. Your quiche photographs, and my quiche photographs as well, are perfectly nice, but I am not very much interested in them.





Please observe the new "How (Not To) Read My Blog" page in the navigation on the right (in a real web browser, someplace else on your phone).

For your amusement, read it now, if you like. It is not mandatory, just advisory.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Burn Story

Emma Bull, who is a writer of real ability, has offered this advice to writers: burn story. By this she means that, if you have some good idea, some clever plot device, whatever, use it and use it now. "Story" in this sense is not be be preserved, to be spread thinly over your 80,000 word novel, it should be applied in large chunks as fast as possible. The concern naturally arises "but I will run out of story, then" and this is, it turns out, not so. Burning story generates more story, and in the end you get 80,000 words of densely packed story rather than 80,000 words of bread with 5,000 words worth of butter scraped across it.

Note: I am informed that this term is used in Hollywood, and may have originated there!

I had an epiphany today along these same lines.

As mentioned previously, they are doing a sewer line replacement job a few houses up the alley from me, a process I wished to photograph, and to thereby tell the story of. It is not a complicated process. Cut the pavement over the old sewer line. Dig a hole. Replace some pipes. Fill the hole. Pour cement over the hole.

So, I shot a bunch of pictures. Edited it down to, I don't know, 6 or 7 that I thought "told the story" pretty well, and in which each picture had at least a touch of lyricism in it. And now I was thinking "ok, I could trim another one or two but how to fit this great little story into this book I am working on?"

And this is where the epiphany hit me: it's not about cramming as many pictures as you logically can in there, it's about telling the story you want to tell in as few pictures as possible. If one picture will suffice, it's probably a really good picture, and you should stick to that. If you need two, well, again. Simply trying to cram in more photos because you're got some more pretty good ones is the wrong direction.

Now, this is not new advice. I have probably received this advice half a dozen times in one form or another, maybe a lot more. But having discovered it for myself, I hold out hope that it will stick a little better this time.

Just as a for-instance, let's revisit Pixy Liao's widely lauded (?) book, Experimental Relationship, here leafed though by Jörg Colberg. Ignore the typo in the video title, I have tried several times to bring this to Jörg's attention.

Anyways, regardless of what you think of the work, regardless of what you like Pixy is trying to say here (if anything) there is no doubt that she is doing the photographic equivalent of droning on and on about it. We could argue about whether there is a single note in this book, or whether there are two, or three, or perhaps if you stretched you might get up to five. But there's no getting around it, the ratio of butter to bread is very very low indeed.

Imagine, if you will, that she had compressed Experimental Relationship down to, say, the three pictures that really nail it. At this point my advice has in one sense ruined her book, it is now a very short pamphlet, and that's not going to get shortlisted for any prizes. However, what there is of her book is a hell of a lot better and, if she's attentive to the muse, she will be rewarded with more story to burn. By being timid, and spreading her 3 pictures worth of story thinly over 160(!!!) pages of book, she wound up with a not-very-good book, and her muse did not grant her any more story.

Burn story. If you can tell the entire story in one, do it.

There will be more story, later. It's ok.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Crisis Point

I am reading some essays from John Berger. The very first one in this book of selected essays which I have is about Drawing.

Berger characterizes drawing, in the sense of the artist sketching for themselves, as a process of discovery. The artist, in the act of drawing, explores and learns which the subject is, what it actually looks like, in detail. This little space there, the alignment of this line or plane with that. The relationship of this bit to the other bit.

This, of course, makes perfect sense, but it's not something I had quite thought of in quite that way.

But then, Berger says, there is in every drawing a moment of crisis. There is a point in the process at which the act of drawing becomes more about the drawing than about the subject. The subject begins to serve more as a reference to confirm what the artist already wants to put into the drawing. The drawing takes on a life of its own and, in a meaningful sense, the process of discovery ceases.

Photography is nothing like drawing. In the act of photographing, one may be almost entirely unaware of the subject. More usually, you have some grasp of the larger forms, the bigger and more obvious graphical qualities, perhaps some emotional or human handle on the thing, a few other details. At best a sort of narrow and probably kind of trivial gloss on the whole thing.

However, when you come to the computer, or the enlarger, and begin to work on the damned thing, if this is something you do, then something a bit like drawing happens. You notice little bits of pieces, small details, larger forms you missed, and so on. In the decisions about what to bring out, and how, and what to suppress, and how, you examine the photograph minutely. You discover it and you discover what was photographed.

As with the process of drawing, there can come a crisis point. There comes a point, if you're deep into the thing, where the work you are doing ceases to be about what was in front of the camera, and begins to be about the photograph itself. This might come almost immediately, if you're some compositing hero for whom photographs are merely raw material, or a collage artist, or whatever. It might come very late if you're a Serious Street Tog showing the gritty side of life on the street. It might never come.

But when that moment arrives, it behooves you to notice it. It's not so much that you ought not proceed past that point, it is that once you do proceed you are in a different territory.

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.