Friday, April 19, 2019

The Difficulty with Straight Photography

When someone paints Aphrodite, they probably get themselves a model and have her strip down, and then the paint a picture of her, and then they lard the painting up with all sorts of clues, a bunch of symbolic objects so that the educated will know that the girl in the picture is Aphrodite. The point here is that the picture is a picture of Aphrodite. The model was just a reference to be sure the painter didn't have to keep muttering "face, boobs, navel, THEN knees" to himself over and over.

Photography trying the same game has trouble because there's the model right there in the picture. It's harder to get around her to Aphrodite. Pictorialists had a bunch of ideas (a bunch of different ideas, notably, it's not just "make it all blurry") to help out with this, but in the end the Art Establishment decreed that none of these ideas really worked, and that photography really had to get back to admitting that the model is, after all, the model, and there she is.

And so we have straight photography which is, like it or not, the dominant form of photography today. Certainly there are people painting all over their photos and making collages and whatnot, but they're constantly being glared at by everyone else. If you want to be recognized, unambiguously, as a photographer without any caveats or asterisks you pretty much need to be shooting fairly straight. And that really just means that the picture is first and foremost about what was in front of the lens.

The model is present.

Virtually all photography done today just stops there. Large swathes of serious photographers have no ambition beyond rendering a pleasing account of what is in front of the lens. Billions of phone owners just snap their friends, their cars, their lunches for no reason but to show these items to other people, the purest form of representation maybe.

I am on the record as a snob, as a seeker of something more. Not to denigrate the straight representations of things, I like those too. But I believe that more is possible, and that more is what interests me.

So, what is the more? I will use, rather loosely, the word allegory. In a painting of Aphrodite, we see a kind of an allegory for the goddess of myth. The painting isn't her, but the idea of her is mashed into it someplace. When Weston rattles on about "seeing plus" what he means is that his green pepper is somehow more than a green pepper. When Cartier-Bresson goes on about the "decisive moment" he means that moment when the scene in front of him is not merely a bunch of kids playing in the street, but becomes something more.

Straight photography, being as it were "subject forward" is a bit strapped when it comes to what this notional allegory is an allegory of. Now comes perhaps the dumbest-sounding thing I have ever said, in a lifetime of saying dumb shit:

The photographer's job, therefore, is to find the moment, the point of view, in which the stuff in front of the lens manifests itself as, in some sense, an allegory of itself.

Straight photography doesn't really permit allegories of anything else because if you do that you're basically just a dirty pictorialist. At the same time Art demands an allegory, so there you are kind of boxed into a corner. You're stuck with the thing as an allegory of itself.

I think this is really what all the theorist-photographers of the 20th century were banging on about. There's a bunch of ways to say it, to approach it, and a bunch of different results. Is it allegory for my emotional response to the mountain, or is it an allegory for my Impression of the mountain? Maybe it's an allegory for the mountain-ness of the mountain! Maybe it's an allegory for the valley/pass/river/forest implied by the mountain.

Anyways, poncy as it sounds, I think it's a useful handle (for me, anyways) to grab hold of when I'm trying to make something out of something.

You can use it too!

Tulip as an allegory for Tulip.
Also, apparently I cannot stop taking
this fucking picture.

The allegory of the lineman

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The History of the Digital Transition

Mike over on ToP recently wrote what amounts to a kind of request for a History of the Digital Transition by which he means, roughly, a history of the last 20 years of photography during which photography changed over from analog film to digital sensors, more or less abruptly and completely.

I do not intend to write that history, here or anywhere else. I do intend to discuss some of the problems inherent in such a project.

Histories of Photography tend to be built around two intertwined strands. The first is technical: the tools, chemistry, and methods of photography and the evolution of them. The second thread is a variation on the Great Man approach to historiography, in which central figures are identified, biographied, and their influences traced.

The Great Man approach to history generally casts the Great Men as exceptional, and causal. The conceit is that without Napoleon, the relevant portions of European Political History would have been radically different. The opposing viewpoints assert that without Napoleon, more or less the same things would have occurred under the leadership of another man, or other men, because of social and political reasons. While one might argue about Napoleon, the situation in photography is far clearer.

Fixing the image cast in the camera obscura was a project western Europe was embarked on in the early 1800s. Without Talbot or Daguerre, almost no change. Someone else would have invented similar methods. Perhaps there would only have been one, using sheepskin, rather than two, one using paper and the other silver-plated metal sheets. Without Robinson, someone else would have risen up to thunder Ruskin's philosophies at the burgeoning photographic world. Without Emerson, someone else would have fired back from the redoubts of Impressionism. Without Stieglitz, well, ok, Stieglitz. Probably someone or several someone's would have arisen, likely in New York, to champion American Photography. And so on.

It is exquisitely clear that the technical evolution of photography was more or less inevitable, and that Great Men would crop up out of the social context to perform the specific roles that they performed.

This is not to suggest that Talbot and Daguerre and Emerson and Steichen were not influential. They assuredly were. What they were not is particularly causal. These roles had to be played, would inevitably have been played, and history quite properly records those roles, the relations between those roles, and the ways the roles influenced the progression, the history, of photography. And, while we're in there, we might as well assign the names. But make no mistake, Robinson's influence was the influence not really of Robinson, but of whomever it was that was assigned the job of translating Ruskin for photographers.

Fast forward to perhaps the 1970s, if you will. Ansel Adams is still rattling around the USA writing books, and working out his assigned role of promote straight photography, U.S.A. division and making quite a bit of money in the process. It is somewhere in here that the wheels begin to fall off the intertwined technique/great man approach to history. Technique rolls onwards, a few minor twiddles followed by the digital camera, but there are no Great Men nor even pretty ok people to carry your narrative.

Who, in the last 50 years, has really been leading the charge, telling us how we ought to photograph, what we ought to photograph, and why? Nobody? Or is it that there are too many?

Since the beginning, most photographers have been in some sense self-taught. One might learn a technique here, gather an idea there. A few went to schools, but many schools simply provided opportunities for students to teach themselves more efficiently. Few schools seem to have made any serious effort to transmit a philosophy or an aesthetic, to transmit anything of the sort art historians are in the business of documenting.

Replacing the kind of hands-on osmotic teaching that we find in schools of painting or the piano, we find instead authoritative voices thundering away in periodicals and books. Emerson's influence was not by way of teaching students, but by way of publishing opinions and ideas more or less widely read. Adams wrote any number of books on How and Why To Take Photos, which have been woefully influential, and remain so to a degree even today.

What seems to have happened in the end is a sort of fragmenting of these voices. Today we have literally thousands of people styling themselves as experts, each with some sort of following, each promoting some mixture of useful information (technical and/or aesthetic) and absolute nonsense (ditto.)

Coupled to this fragmentation of authority, we have a curious effect of technology.

In the olden days, each technology, each basket of materials and methods, produced specific looks and had specific working properties. As often as not we find Great Men expounding some particular selection of materials and methods as best suited to whatever they were selling. Adams promotes glossy silvery based paper, and a suite of chemistry, because it best suits his Precisionist tastes. Emerson promotes platinum paper and some methods, because they best suit his Impressionist theories.

In the digital era, all of these things are pressed into post-processing, and are available simultaneously through the application of suitable sliders or, worse, "presets" which you can purchase in bundles of 6,000 or 27,000 or 800 for a few dollars. The photographer, rather than selecting a collection of materials and techniques to laborious purchase and master, to accomplish one suite of looks, one kind of photography, now has access to all of them at once.

You can, as it were, switch in an instant from gum bichromate Pictorialism to glossy silver Precisionism to Cibachrome Egglestonism in the blink of an eye. There is no need to commit, you don't have to pick someone to follow. It's a mere click or two away to some other Youtube channel with 10 Fast Tricks for whatever it is that you glommed on to this morning.

We have always, really, had these ideas more or less floating around society in the minds of the masses, bashing in to one another and evolving. Ruskin's ideas about painting were there, they were going to be deployed into this new discipline of photography. From the historian's point of view, though, Robinson conveniently arose to personify, to embody, this abstraction. He can be biographied, he helpfully provided a selection of handy quotations and pictures that you can decorate that portion of the history book with, and so on.

In these modern times, and especially in the last 20 years, we have no such embodiment. The ideas are still out there, after a fashion, but they have no convenient personification.

Currently, for instance, we have a fad in portraiture for heavily processed skin, and oversharpened eyes. Many techniques exist for "skin work" one of which is "frequency separation" which has a particularly ugly look. It brings up the texture of the skin, but deletes imperfections, leaving an endless sea of glowing perfectly rendered pores, each the size of a bus. Add to this the creepy punched up eyes, and you have an archetypal look which has been quite popular of late.

Would you put this thing into your history of photography, 2016-2019? I don't know. Maybe. But if you did, how would you record it? It was not originated by any one person, it is a collection of techniques, some of which probably originated in the bowels of Adobe, some of which are probably misunderstandings of someone else's technique for doing something else. Is it commercially important? Not really. Is it a historically important style? I don't know, maybe? Certainly millions of words have been written about it, and hours of video tutorials exist on this basket of methods. It is surely more thoroughly documented than Emerson's Impressionistic methods of photography.

How do you write the contemporary history of color science? There are dozens of books, dozens of real authorities and thousands of false ones. There are, again, millions of words of misinformation and millions more words of information. There are theories and ideas. But I cannot detect any organizing principle which can be used to chop this mess down to size. You could simply review the facts of color science, I suppose, but that hardly seems a history.

In some ways I feel that we may be witnessing an end of history here, not in Fukuyama's sense but simply in the sense that the whole thing has gotten so shattered that no organizing structure is possible.

The death of the Great Man is probably a good thing, that was always bollocks, but I don't see anything else popping up to take his place.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

This Too Shall Pass

So, as most of us know, Notre-Dame de Paris had a fire which gutted the building pretty thoroughly. Actually, quite a lot of stuff was not burned up (apparently both organs are basically OK, and so on). Apparently you can drop a couple hundred tons of burning wood and lead onto that delicate vaulted ceiling and it doesn't collapse, mad props to the masons.

Predictably, there is global hand-wringing, and everyone suddenly remembers that the cathedral is the most important building in the world, and it is so sad. Humanity lionizes the recently departed, for some reason. I dare say a lot of the loudest moaners would have nodded sagely last week if you had shown them a photo of the cathedral captioned The Louvre.

We also, in these modern times, seem to be obsessed with preservation, especially of anything which smacks of Art. Buildings in the USA that are 100 years old are, to the amusement of everywhere else, added to Historic Registers and woe betide the owner, because now you can't change anything about the damned thing. You have to leave the single-glazed windows alone, and, yes, continue to heat it with increasingly difficult to obtain whale oil. Ansel Adams spawned a couple generations of photographers who obsessively wash their prints and negatives so as to ensure they will be in perfect condition when their heirs throw them into the inevitable dumpster.

The Wall Street Journal magazine recently had a fairly interesting article on the efforts the Vatican expends to maintain the Sistine Chapel in "like-new" condition. It is a constant, expensive, effort. They preserve where possible, and remake when necessary. Eventually, if this keeps up, the whole thing will have been remanufactured, brand-new as it were, but identical with the original.

Why did Ansel wash his prints so carefully? Why do we preserve these monuments in amber? Part of it is simply money. Adams wanted people to pay him large sums of money for those prints, and therefore built into his pitch that the damned thing was anyways long-lasting. Nobody wants to visit the New Sistine Chapel, they want to see the original. They want to visit the same Sistine Chapel that Doris-next-door was going on and on about.

Notre-Dame de Paris was, evidently, begun in 1160, which according to the popular press makes it 859 years old. This despite the fact that it was, maybe, a hole in the ground at the time. It was nominally completed in 1260, making it more like 759 years old (which is still very impressive). Since then it has undergone regular cycles of decrepitude due to neglect and war, followed by revitalization, all overlaid on a constant drumbeat of maintenance and modification. The most recent revitalization, spearheaded by Victor Hugo, seems to have launched the building squarely into the modern blob of amber, wherein it has resided more or less unchanged until April 15, 2019.

This place is not the Heart of France, it is not The Soul of the Earth, it is a building. It is a very well made pile of very carefully shaped rocks. Some day, it will be entirely gone. Some day, it will be forgotten. The three people injured in the fire? I begrudge Fate her bite at that apple, damn her eyes. The building? Not so much, this is simply the start of a new cycle of renewal, a new imagining of the building.

Art and indeed all the works of man are not eternal. They are made, they may have one or many lives, they pass on. If they did not, the earth would rapidly fill up with Art, so, in the end this is a good idea. Your photos do not have to last forever. Is a mayfly less wondrous and beautiful for lasting one day, rather like a photograph posted to instagram? I don't think so. If you made one picture which gave one person a single moment of sheer delight, would that not be more worthwhile than any pile of rocks in the middle of Paris? Notre-Dame's value, if any, was surely in the delight it gave to this person, or that person. Had it collapsed into rubble, well, there are other delights. We could say, perhaps, that the cathedral had done her work, yoeman's work in giving to the people joy, delight, a window into the sublime, and now she can, at last, rest.

It appears, though, that our lady of Paris will not go on to whatever peace it is that buildings find, she will be revived again, to serve another round of, well, of something. Probably it will involve many tourists and very few Parisians.

I hope they do something interesting with it. Would a glass spire be a bit too much? The gothic stonework already looks surprisingly like brutalist architecture, if you squint a bit. Maybe a bit of brushed aluminium and glass is just the thing. Of course, all Paris will hate it for a generation, but they never went to Notre Dame anyways.

We do not suffer by proxy as something wonderful is ruined. We are instead privileged to be present at the rebirth of something wonderful into something new. At any rate, we may hope for the Phoenix.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Global Art Market

Artists don't get paid. That is, generally speaking, artists don't get paid. Everyone else might make a buck, but not the artist. The gallery owner, the gallery director, the receptionist, the guy who paints the walls, the intern who hangs the stuff, the framer, the glazier, and so on. They all get paid. Maybe not the intern. The artist gets paid last, if at all.

This seems wildly unfair, and it surely is, but maybe not in the most obvious of ways. There's an annual report on the Art Market put out by Art Basel and UBS, and I spent some time with it. Interestingly, it breaks things down in ways that make detailed analysis of who's getting paid what pretty much impossible, although they clearly have the data. It's a report about trends and percentages and whatnot, mainly of interest to the people who already know who's getting paid (them) and who isn't (as few other people as possible). But, you can make some guesses.

The global art market is about $68 billion a year, which sounds like a great deal of money, right?

Well, it is, and it isn't. As nearly as I can tell roughly half of that money goes back to collectors who are selling pieces of art, at auction or in the secondary market through art dealers of various stripes. The other half goes to "the art industry" broadly construed, and includes commissions to auction houses, dealers, galleries, and it includes money paid to artists for their work. Call it $30 billion dollars, plus or minus $10 billion.

$30 billion also sounds like a lot, but it is and it isn't. You can afford 1,000,000 people an annual expense of $30,000 which includes their pay packets, benefits if any, the cost of keeping the lights on in the buildings, the cost of shipping art all over tarnation, the wine and cheese at the openings, at the art fairs, and all that stuff. Figure in the expenses, and imagine that you're paying people a living wage instead of whatever is left over of $30,000 after expenses, and you're employing maybe half a million people.

Which seems like a lot, right? But there's a hell of a lot of galleries out there. The Art Market report contains an estimate of 2.7 million people employed in the gallery and dealer industry, in almost 300,000 businesses. This means that there is something like $10,000 per employee on the table. If we're generous, maybe $15,000, pessimistic, maybe $5000.

Now, a certain amount of the money gets laundered through the system in a couple of passes. Someone might take home a little pay from one gallery, and pass that money on to pay a fee at another gallery, who in turn pays that money onwards to the receptionist. Economically, that dollar might count as 3-4 dollars, but would only show up as $1 in the Art Basel report (since I am considering only money coming in from the outside, not money moving around inside).

Another feature of the Art Basel report makes it clear that the money coming in is wildly tilted. The top ten percent of everything (galleries, auction houses, artists) take a lot more than 10 percent of the money. Now, again, we should wave our hands at the idea that money flows around inside the system -- a major artist taking in millions, in general, will spend a lot of those millions "inside" the industry. The artist probably has a factory with a bunch of assistants, each of whom are likely to be aspiring artists themselves, and so on.

No matter how you slice it, though, there simply isn't a lot of money on the table for an industry of this size.

At the end of the day, the receptionist is not going to answer the phone is he is unpaid, but the painter will paint whether you pay her or not. The stick has a very prominent short end, and it's obvious who's going to get it. And they do.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

On Observation

... an artist's observation is not just a question of of his using his eyes, it is the result of his honesty, of his fighting with himself to understand what he sees.

-- John Berger, 1964.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Black Hole Photo

As we all know, Scientists Have Photographed a Big Black Hole. With an array of radio telescopes and some software, apparently.

Lewis Bush and I had a short discussion about how one ought to think about this "photo" and then I thought about it some quietly by myself. As always in these things, you should assume that anything intelligent in what follows originated with Lewis, and anything stupid, with me.

A JPEG file is a collection of data, and a print made from it is a visualization of that data. It is in some ways no different from a chart of recorded temperatures over time, except that the data it is helping you visualize is the pattern of light cast by a certain lens on a certain surface, not a temperature. Analog film does not materially change this. It too collects readings of light-pattern data, and allows the visualization of that data on paper in much the same way a piece of litmus paper enables you to visualize the acidity of a solution.

Still, there is, it feels obvious, something critically different between a print from a JPEG and a paper strip recording temperature over time. Both are "mechanical" reproductions of data, and thus trustworthy in a certain sense. But the picture feels quite different.

The difference, I think, is that the picture allows us to apprehend the data in a way that mimics the original experience of seeing the whatever-it-was. Imagine that instead of a paper strip with temperatures, we had a device that "played back" the temperatures, perhaps by heating or cooling our fingertip. Now, rather than simply seeing "it got hotter at 10am" we can re-experience that heat to a degree.

The critical difference is that the print of the JPEG offers us the idea that it looked like that in a limited way, in the same way that the temperature gadget offers us a more direct line to it felt like that.

Scientific imaging is frequently presented in a way that is both data visualization, and it looked like that but only sometimes is the second part true.

Electron microscopy of a bug's nose is, arguably, a proper photograph. Sure, we would have to be very very small, but that is what the bug's nose would look like. Reconstructed color imagery of Saturn? Again, if we were hanging in space in the right spot, and maybe had somewhat more sensitive eyes that are nonetheless much like the eyes we have, sure, Saturn would actually look like that.

Those pictures of individual atoms that pop up from time to time? We begin to stray into strange territory. We might imagine ourselves very very small indeed, but with what are we "seeing" these atoms? Photons are the size of basketballs. There is really no way to imagine that atoms look like that in any meaningful way. These things are data visualizations that, while I think useful, stray out of the bounds of a proper photograph.

In the same way, we might imagine ourselves very large and in space near the center of galaxy M87, looking at this supermassive black hole.

Firstly, this thing is, like a JPEG print, a data visualization. Secondly, it is apparently extrapolated quite a bit by software (apparently the process of emulating an Earth-sized radio telescope with a lot of human-scale radio-telescopes scattered around the surface of an Earth-sized object like, say, Earth, leaves some gaps that have to get filled in, in some sense.) So, it resembles computational photography, or perhaps Adobe's content-aware fill. It's a visualization of an intelligent and reasonable guess at a much larger, notional, data set.

Would it look like that if we were in the right place? What if our eyes were sensitive to radio waves? How much different from our human selves would we have to be to directly perceive something that looks like the Black Hole Photo, and is it even physically imaginable that we could?

This is an interesting question, and I do not know the answer.