Saturday, January 20, 2018

Hijacking the Machinery of Communication

I've had an epiphany of sorts, or at any rate a crystallization of of certain ideas. My previous remarks made mention of the notion that Art doesn't necessarily "communicate" as such, but it hijacks the machinery of communication. It feels like communication, when it's working. We imagine that we're getting some message from the artist.

This goes hand in hand with several notions I've beaten more or less to death on these pages. The first is that if you put a lot of meaning in then your audience, if any, is more likely to get meaning out -- but not necessarily what you put in. Next up is the related notion that a good portrait does not actually reveal the inner personality of the sitter except by accident, but rather that it gives you the impression of doing so.

If we treat Art not as a medium by which messages are passed from artist to viewer, but rather as some sort of broken medium into which messages are placed, and out of which messages are read, but not always the same messages, things get interesting and potentially useful to us, the working artists.

On the one hand, as JG reminded me commenting on the previous remarks, Art is a medium of expression. We're putting things in when we make these things. We have intentions and ideas. On the other hand, if the work is evocative, if it has the right structure somehow, we'll get things out when we look at it. These two are related, but only loosely.

Consider the Voynich Manuscript. As far as I know the consensus is that it is an elaborate fake. Entering the sketchy areas of my memory: I think it has an identifiable vocabulary, that is, the use of "words" in the script is consistent and repeated, but that efforts of discern a grammar of any sort have come up empty. Where exactly the wheels fall off that particular wagon does not matter, which is why I haven't looked it up. The point here is that it has very much the structure of something filled with meaning, of a real book about something or other. As a result, you can without effort find endless crackpot theories about what the text actually is, and probably also lots of "translations" and whatnot.

What is the easiest way to construct such a thing? Well, the easiest way would be to invent a way to transliterate, say, Latin, into a different script. You could use a simply substitution of letters, or something more complicated. The result would be a book that actually does have meaning. It might all be scatological couplets when translated, of course, but it would have the structure of something with meaning because it is a thing with meaning.

In the Voynich case, it appears that the forger did not do this, but rather went to considerable effort to create something with the structure, but no actual meaning, which is probably more difficult (but ultimately more fun, I dare say.)

So this is, we think, a case in which no meaning was put in, but loads of meaning can be pulled out. Conversely, of course, most of us know full well that you can stuff in all sorts of meaning and nothing whatever comes out the other side.

Still, it illuminates a sort of path.

My thesis that "putting things in" makes it easier to "get things out" becomes clearer at this point.

It is possible for a work to have the structure of something that contains meaning, without that meaning being particularly clear, as the Voynich Manuscript makes clear. Furthermore, I maintain that is it self-evident that building something around a load of meaning more or less automatically grants that something a suitable structure. The easiest way, in fact, to make a book, a portfolio, a web site, whatever, with the structure of something that has meaning is to build it with meaning.

Since Art is more or less by design an encoding, a transliteration of sorts, the meaning itself may not be particularly clear. But building a thing with whatever meaning we have in mind more or less guarantees that the structure is there. Well, assuming we have a certain degree of literacy and coherence. There are certainly people capable of writing things which, while written with the intent of conveying meaning, utterly lack the structure of text-with-meaning, so I suppose the same could apply to, say, photography.

The sharper members of the peanut gallery are no doubt biting their tongues vigorously at this point, if not actually lunging for the comment button. Go ahead. <sigh>

And so Art may or may not be actual communication. It might merely behave for the "reader" as evocation, based on a structure that looks meaningful. It might merely behave as a medium of expression for the artist, a thing into which we place meaning. If the meaning we put in happens to come out more or less intact, then, lo, we are communicating. If it does not, if the meaning is lost but something else is recovered on the other side, well, we're not communicating.

But we're still doing something. We're expressing, and evoking. And perhaps, usually, there is some very basic substrate that survives the process, some underlying foundation. But perhaps not.

In order for Art to do its job, though, all that really needs to happen is the evocation. If Art is to enbiggen us, to stimulate us, to make use better, deeper, more interesting, more thoughtful, more alive, richer, than all it really needs to to is to evoke.

Even the Voynich Manuscript does that. I think you could argue that the artist here did imbue the thing with a great deal of "meaning", just not the textual sort. While it may not be much of an Herbal, but it's pretty successful Art.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Artist Intent/Viewer Reading

There's been a mildly spirited discussion of artist intent in the comments of some previous remarks, which has in turn spurred me to think about artist intent in general terms. Therefore, some more or less disjointed remarks.

Insofar as Art is an act of communication, our goal is to bridge that gap between artist intent and viewer reading. That is, we're trying to figure out what this bloke is trying to say. On the flip side, of course, we take away whatever we find regardless of what said bloke had in mind. If Art is an act of stimulation, of evocation, then perhaps we don't give a damn what the bloke intended.

But let's stick to the communication bit.

At this point we're trying to work out what this person meant us to see, to feel, to hear, to experience. There are wheels within wheels here. For starters, nobody is all that self-aware. The artist could be lying, or unconscious. If we get a series of graphic suicide scenes starring the artist, and the artist's statement claims that it's about his love for his family, we can probably say "bollocks" with a fair bit of confidence. If it's a bunch of pictures of kittens playing with yarn, allegedly about the artist's fondness for cats, we are probably on firm ground believing her. Pretty much everything lands between these two.

It is rare that a person knows themselves well enough to be perfectly accurate on their intentions. But generally we have a pretty fair idea. We, in the role of artist, may or may not choose to share that idea, and we may or may not choose to be honest if we do.

We, in the role of viewer, are surprisingly good at working out what the artist might have been thinking. As social animals, we have enormous fat brains huge chunks of which are pretty much devoted to figuring out what other humans are thinking (or were thinking). It is probably fair to say that we are unreasonably good at working out what the artist was thinking, and detecting when they are lying, and so on.

We're by no means perfect, though. "Unreasonably good" doesn't mean error free, and in fact it doesn't mean all that good at all. All it means is better than one might, objectively, expect. I mean, what on earth could one expect to glean from a dozen bits of paper with smudges of silver compounds on them, about the mind of another human?

Finally, there's a big problem with language. We tend to say things like "Bill was thinking X" when what we really mean is "Looking at this sculpture, I imagine Bill thinking X as he made it" because that's the kind of thing we do. When we see a portrait, we more or less instantly start to build up a guess as to what was going through the sitter's mind "She looks sad" or whatever. When we see a painting, or a sculpture, or a book, we more or less instantly jump ahead to "boy, I wonder what they were thinking, I bet it was..."

For example, when I characterize Ming Thein's "Idea of Man" as more of a suicide note than a portfolio, I carefully couched it in the language of "let us assume that this is a serious statement" which, the attentive reader might have guessed, I do not. In that case, it's clear to me that Thein has simply found a motif that he's comfortable shooting (the strangers are safely distant) and which he thinks look cool. These pictures are the sorts of things which are a bit fraught, so it's easy to paint some meaning onto them. He paints one meaning, I paint another. I am certainly painting on the "suicide note" meaning after the fact, and I am pretty sure that Thein is painting on his "Idea of Man" meaning likewise.

So here we have several layers of interpretation of intent going on. My honest opinion about intent is one thing, and is largely baseless. Well, it's based on a lot of tiny details, a built up and deeply personal impression of the photographer in question. There is the intent the photographer explicitly ascribes to the work, which I assert is, whatever else is true, pretty obvious either false or at the very least painted on after the fact. There is a secondary intent I am willing to paint on to the work if I sort of method-act my way into imagining that I take the project seriously. And, finally(?) there is whatever you see in the work.

Some pieces are probably common throughout, there's probably something like an irreducible core of flavor that persists and exists more or less in all possible notions of intent.

To take another, perhaps more serious example, we can consider Diane Arbus. We have Szarkowski saying:

her true subject was no less than the unique interior lives of those she photographed.

which statement I consider to be utterly asinine, and it tells us more about Szarkowski and his wishes for photography than about Arbus. My take is that Arbus did not give a single shit about the interior lives of these people, but was interested in the masks that they threw up between themselves and the world (and, as I have previously noted, I am not alone here). Arbus, I think, was fairly opaque on the subject of her own intentions. Her Guggenheim application just talks about the subjects she wants to photograph, and offers as a rationale something like preservation. I have found this, though:

You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw. It’s just extraordinary that we should have been given these peculiarities. And, not content with what we were given, we create a whole other set. Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I’ve always called the gap between intention and effect. I mean if you scrutinize reality closely enough, if in some way you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic.

but, again, we have here a variety of ideas about intent. Arbus's actual in-the-moment intent is surely lost to us, apart from a few very vague hints. I am pretty sure that I've got hold of what she was up to, based on nothing more than looking at a bunch of pictures and thinking hard about what I am looking at. Szarkowski presumably performed more or less the same rite, and arrived at quite a different conclusion.

I see Alec Soth as a guy taking pictures of random crap that catches his eye, while idiots from Europe and the coastal areas of the USA see a Marvelously True Indictment And Portrait Of Middle America And Her Myriad Failures. Alec Soth might have an opinion, but there is no goddamned way he's going to do anything but nod and agree with the latter crew, because he's making a nice living at the moment.

But all through these things, as with the work of Dragan Novakovic, there is clearly an affinity, if not an actual affection, for certain things. We see Thein's fondness for shooting distant silhouettes in urban spaces, we see Arbus' fondness for the odd people out, we see Soth's tendencies, and we see Novakovic's apparent affection for these certain types of pictures in Northern England.

In all cases, these people aren't just snapping random crap, they're looking for something pretty specific, and they're finding it, and they're letting us see it. That much, we can be certain of. Beyond that, we're relying on the outputs of that big fatty social brain of ours. Unreliable, but fun, and sometimes surprising.

And, in the end, that's what Art ought to do, right? Does it matter if we get it right? Or is the point merely that we're enagaged and thinking and expanding?

Is it really about "communication" as such, or is it really about hijacking the machinery of communication to do something bigger, better, more interesting?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Art and the Surveillance State

A lot of the more serious thinkers about photography, or at any rate people who are trying, are more or less academics. As one would expect. As academics they tend to be politically left-leaning, and in fact generally ascribe to a fairly simple politics more or less selected from a chinese menu of options. As, again, one would expect. In fact, one suspects that some of them are more sophisticated than that, but put forward the simplistic ideals their students expect in order to avoid unpleasantness.

An interesting phenomenon emerges. These thinkers, steeped (perhaps mired) in a more or less standard set of philosophical-ish ideas which they push around their plates like colds peas which they do not wish to eat, seem to think that they are experts on anything that involves pictures.

A case in point. Trevor Paglen is an artist and a researcher who actually does spend time examining and thinking about The Surveillance State and whatnot. Corporatism, Facebook, etc, I suppose. He wrote a piece recently, which you may read over here. The piece itself, while overlong, may be essentially summarized thus:

The government and their corporate allies are watching us, there are machines taking a lot of pictures of us, for the usual shitty reasons governments and corporations conspire to gather data on people. The ways we have of understanding and thinking about photography and visual culture are worthless here.

He doesn't quite have the sense to stand up and say "look Sunshine, it's got nuthin' to do with photography and visual culture, and everything to do with bureaucracies, large scale human institutions, and the shit governments tend to get up to when nobody's holding their toes to the fire" because he wants very much to make some direct connection between his work (Art, and the Understanding of Art) to this.

The usual B-list academics that I keep an eye on lined up and said OMG THIS IS SO IMPORTANT and linked everyone off to it. (Note that Trevor is higher up the food-chain, and that therefore his ass should be kissed.)

Coming, as I do, out of a background of computer security, I find the whole thing rather tiresome. "Oh? Facebook and google are gathering up all your personal data now, are they? Really. Do you remember when we told you... no? Ok then." This has been obvious and a foregone conclusion for quite some time now, to professionals working in the field. And yes of course they're colluding with the governments. I'm no historian here, but I'm not an idiot.

Statements like In aggregate, AI systems have appropriated human visual culture and transformed it into a massive, flexible training set are sheer bait for the not-very-clever. Unless you're claiming that "human visual culture" is nothing more than "a big pile of pictures" this statement is simply untrue. Visual culture, I like to think, is a much more interesting thing. The AIs have appropriated a huge pile of pictures, yes, and are using it to Get Up To Stuff. But Paglen's notion that "visual culture" is somehow merging with, or being eaten by, The Machine, is simply silly. Culture is essentially human. You might as well imagine culture as evaporating in to space, carried away by the myriad radio signals of media. Quick! Surround the earth with tinfoil so our culture stops leaking away!

We saw echoes of these same sorts of things in Lewis Bush's and Jörg Colberg's naive talk of machines and algorithms, earlier.

The machines are, without question, getting up to a lot of shit on behalf of their not particularly agreeable masters, But what they're getting up to is neither new nor particularly related to photography qua photography.

The mistake here is in the idea that having thought about photography a lot, and being able to fling around phrases like "politics of representation" somehow qualifies you to parse and analyze the activities of a more or less hostile State apparatus, merely on the grounds that it involves, among other things, cameras. The leftist politics of these gentlemen tends to get muddled up in there a lot as well.

Cameras do many things, and many of them are unrelated. Sometimes it feels a bit like knowing a drummer who, on the strength of knowing a lot about drumsticks, tends to launch in to lengthy treatises on anything whatever that involves the use of a stick, or two sticks. As if Ringo somehow claimed to be an expert on Chinese culture on the grounds that drumsticks are a bit like chopsticks.

Now, I am interested in politics, in the political uses of cameras, of photographs, of visual culture, and I am pretty leftist. But, those are all different things, there is no common thread binding discussion of one irrevocably with the others. Expertise in one area does not carry over, you have to develop new expertise.

Further, I do think that Art generally construed does have a role in struggling against The State. It is the assumption that the philosophical ideas which are used (currently) to understand Art are somehow applicable to understanding The State that is false.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Ruin Porn and Americana

Let me begin by saying that I still like Dragan Novakavic's photographs of Northern England just as much as ever. Still, there is no denying that he went there looking for some specific things, and found them. There is no way that "northern england" taken in toto looks, or ever looked, like that. For one thing, I am informed that there are rather a lot of sheep there, and I don't see a single one in Dragan's pictures. Which, of course, isn't the point of his pictures at all. He's after a specific facet of the area, not a complete summation of the place.

Mike C pointed out in a comment, astutely (he better be astute, I pay him enough!), that actual residents of Northern England might legitimately object to the photos.

Reading Darren Campion's take on Alec Soth's Sleeping by the Mississippi I had the exact point brought home abruptly to me.

Darren is a fine fellow who is, I think, reading rather too much in Alec's book. But then, I have not seen the book itself, just a lot of the pictures from it (maybe half or a bit more). I will note in passing that Darren's discovery that the Alec seems interested in Beds and in Boats becomes a lot less interesting when you review the title of the book. Sleeping. Mississippi. Yep.

While I am sure that Alec would nod sagely at all the analysis, because he is not an idiot and would like to remain successful, I don't see much depth in the book. What I see is a book that was well set up, probably by accident, so that excessively clever people who already despise middle america could read a lot of depth into it if they chose.

Anyways, the thrust of Alec's pictures is a pretty gloomy one. It presents the middle of the USA as full of prostitutes, broken men, weirdos, christian zealots, and desolate landscapes. As a midwesterner, I have to say this whole fucking genre pisses me off no end. Everyone seems to trundle around middle america these days giving us these gloomy color photos of bullshit. It is apparently a rule that you have to cite Eggleston and Twentysix Gasoline Stations and you must never, ever, suggest that anyone living in a state without a coastline has a shred of hope.

This, of course, plays well with the coastal elites who very much like to think of the middle part of the USA as a bunch of god-forsaken cannibals (even, perhaps especially, if they're from one of those states).

The midwest isn't like that. Soth's pictures are not even a facet, they're a complete fiction. Or rather, they are snippets of reality so narrow, so specific, that they imply a larger world that is utterly false. Midwesterners are fully formed people who read books, write books, have kinky sex, laugh, drink, and make beautiful things. Just like the people on the coast. Yes, there are strip malls and broken people in the midwest. Just like on the coasts.

Now, it's perfectly possible that Soth intended to re-imagine the Mississippi's watershed as a fictional world of his own invention, and if so, great. I've done that myself, and it's a fine thing to do. It has been taken by critics to be a true vision, though. We get stupid phrases like "late stage capitalism" and "the dream's final unravelling" (a fond hope, but things can get a hell of a lot worse before the wheels actually fall off) applied to this whole genre. These things are taken as harbingers of a coming revolution (or something) in which, presumably, the art critics for New York based publications are finally made the God Kings they so obviously should be.

Anyways, I can see how people living in Northern England (or, really, anywhere) might get annoyed with the work of photo tourists walking briskly through their world, taking the same blighted photos again, promoting the same false vision. Perhaps Dragan's pictures do get at an essential reality of Northern England, or perhaps they too take such a narrow view as to be in the end false.

I cannot speak to whether Dragan intended his work as a fictional idea based on Northern England, or if he hoped to get at some true soul of the place. Perhaps he has no firm idea on that point.

As always, there is a great deal I do not know. I do know that the "Americana" genre is a kind of ruin porn, and that it angers me.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Because it's GOOD for you!

When you sit down to eat a meal at my table, you will be presented with a variety of food. Included will be vegetables, never as much as my wife would like, as well as a more or less balanced assortment of carbohydrates and proteins and so on. My goal will be to make food which pleases you, as well as being healthy for you. Some parts of the meal you will, inevitably, like more than other parts. Some parts you may dislike quite a lot, but you will eat them anyways, otherwise I will shoot you.

When you come to my house for a meal, one of the things you are doing is placing yourself in my hands regarding the food. You are, roughly, trusting me to find some balance between pleasing you and nourishing you. Left to your own devices, and granted permission to purely please your palette, you might well choose to subsist entirely on chocolate ice cream or something similar. Perhaps you'd favor fish.

Similarly, when we go to a museum or a gallery, we place ourselves in the hands of a curator or an artist. We trust them to show us some things, some of which we will like more than the other things. We might hate some of it. Some of it, alas, might leave us with no response at all. When we pick up a newspaper, we expect a similar experience with respect to news and other content.

We do this, because we imagine it will be good for us. By giving up a degree of control, we open ourselves to greater enlargement, greater education, a broader range of emotional response than if we were fully in control. We know, in fact, exactly what happens when we do the opposite.

Flickr, facebook, instagram, 500px, and so on. These things allow people to rate things, and use that information together (sometimes) with information about us (usually what we have liked in the past) to very rapidly develop an accurate model of what we're likely to like. Gone is the idea that we have to eat vegetables before we can have ice cream, it's straight to the ice cream. No more do we have to deal with the infuriating picture that makes no sense, or which makes altogether too much sense. No more do we have to try to figure out what THAT mess of shit glued together might mean (nothing?). Never again, it's inoffensive saturated landscapes from here on out!

But it gets more interesting even than that!

If, in my category, there are a few people that liked A best, and a few that liked B, but the best performing thing was C with 20% of people liking it, what we will all be shown next is C, every time.

It is as if I simply served you chocolate ice cream for dinner, because my polling indicates that, while there's only a 15% chance that it is your favorite food, all the other foods scored even lower. My best single shot at delighting is chocolate ice cream. If you like strawberry, or turmeric, you're not going to get it. Chocolate is it.

Web sites are constantly selecting "the next thing" to show you, and there's only one slot. So, they pick the one most likely to please. Probably it's going to be OK, most people like chocolate ice cream at least a bit. But the thing they show you probably isn't testing all that well, it's just testing better than anything else.

This, I think, is why algorithms serve us such utter shit.

The algorithm wants to engage us, to make us stay on the web site and click on things. That is its goal. Not to educate, to enlarge, to improve us. This is not a newspaper, this is not a museum, this is not even my dinner table. It's a click farm designed to make you not leave. It constantly tests its products, and it constantly discovers chocolate ice cream, over and over.

I like to think that I do a better job. You might not like everything I make, or everything I choose to talk about, but by god it's GOOD for you!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Algorithmic News

Lewis Bush wrote a thing about how algorithms might change journalism, and then Jörg Colberg wrote a response to it, and now I'm writing a response to both of them.

Both of these guys need to read more science fiction, for starters. They're both at least part-time in the prognostication business, and the writers of science fiction are a substantial body of people who do the same, except full-time.

Both of them also need to pay a little more attention. Their use of the future tense is a delight to behold.

Jörg makes at least one weird statement in his, to wit, that algorithms cannot manage "the unthinkable" offering up the example of 9/11 as an example. In the first place it was totally "thinkable" and in the second place, what kind of news algorithm would not be able to handle #planecrash as well as #buildingfire as news items? There's a large body of the "unthinkable" that is simply simple combinations of the "thinkable" and if there's one thing algorithms can do, it's combine stuff.

All this, though, missed the point.

I wrote about Eliza, a computer program, several years ago. I will summarize here, though:

Eliza was a computer program that could carry on a credible conversation without remembering a single thing about the conversation. It simply responded to the most recent thing you typed in with something assembled out of your words to form a leading question. Eliza was a crude but elegant algorithm that relied on the human in the loop (you) to produce its results.

My earlier remarks on Eliza, now that I review them, still strike me as a wonderfully clever analysis of how meaning appears in visual art.

In exactly the same way as Eliza, Flickr and Instagram are algorithmically selecting photographs people like, by using people to do the work. A relatively crude algorithm is built that allows humans (which are free and numerous resources) to click Like or +1 or whatever. This provides, in some sense, a measure of goodness. The more a photograph is liked, the more it is shown around. I assume they have some damping mechanisms to prevent things from going completely off the rails, preventing odd cases like a Flickr that appears to have only one extremely well liked photo.

The point is that neural networks and AI and stuff are super sexy, but what actually works is looping in people. Artificial Intelligence, while trendy, isn't as good as the real stuff. It's not even as good as the worst of the real stuff. In this way, it resembles sugar substitutes.

Imagine, if you will, a future in which there's live video feeds from all over the place. Every street corner. While online, we are shown random snippets of footage constantly. When "news" happens, people who happen to be watching that clip will abruptly engage, they will hit the "replay" button. The plane smashes into the skyscraper over and over, and in moments the system begins to show that clip to other people. It trends. In 60 seconds, the world knows about it, and the comments begin to flow in.

While there is no editorial oversight, and no coherent analysis, there sure as hell are internet comments which serve, in some sense, the same role.

This trivial to implement, and it will (manifestly) work better than neural networks.

More to the point, though, this isn't the future at all. It's right now. This is how news works right now. 2/3 of Americans get some of their news from social media, and this is precisely how social media works, with one small caveat.

The caveat is that it's not actually randomly selected snippets of street cameras. It's "user generated content" which is slightly more curated. Someone already though it was interesting. Or someone has a point of view they wish to flog. We'd be better off if the underlying material were random security camera footage.

Which leads us around neatly to one more thing. On flickr and instagram it's well understood that you can game the system. There are visual tropes you can simply roll out to get Likes. Get good at it, and you can be, if not a star, at any rate 10x more popular than you are now. In the same way, we find people on social creating "user generated content" that looks kind of like news.

There are tropes you can hit that produce pretty much guaranteed engagement (immigrants, blah blah blah).

These bits work exactly the same way that the photo of the pretty girl in the swimsuit on this site, and the oversaturated landscape on the other site, work. They hit certain cognitive buttons so that the humans the network is using to compute with will Like the content. The content then "trends" and becomes part of the news landscape.

Same algorithms, using the same free and infinite human labor, same ways to hack it, same results. A sort of kitschy, fake, treacly substitute for Photography in one case, News in the other. The same easily manipulated results.

Lewis remarks on the possibility of bias in algorithmic reporting. Not only does he miss the fact that these algorithms tend to exhibit biases that, while very real, in no way resemble human biases, he misses out of the entire social media element. Algorithms that loop people in tend to amplify and confirm biases already present. I am convinced that this effect absolutely swamps any sort of "digital" bias. He almost touches the truth when he talks about Microsoft's chatbot being trained as a Nazi, but fails to recall that this is how everything online works.

It is precisely this amplification of bias that produces the god-awful kitsch that dominates flickr, 500px, instagram. It's populism, kind of distilled, fed back to the populi, and redistilled.

Lewis seems touchingly unaware of it, but it's already over. Yes, there's still a thing called journalism, kind of. But there ain't no percentage in it, and it's not how people are actually learning about the world.

It's just a sort of buggy whip for intellectual snobs like Lewis, Jörg, and me. And probably for you too.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Crit: Dragan Novakovic

This fellow sent me a link to his pictures a while back, which link I will share with you anon but not quite yet.

I'm not a player, so it's not like I get this sort of thing every day. But, now and then, yes. I have enough time to give it a look, so generally I file the link and get around to it some day, and poke through the work. I try to make sense of it, see what's good in there (and, here's an interesting thing, there is almost always something to love, apparently people don't send me links to things I will hate).

Dragan's web site has, roughly, two bodies of work, and I looked at the wrong one first. I am going to point you to the one you need to start with: Northern England.

From there you can navigate back up and find his London photos.

I found the whole thing to be an interesting body of work, but since I started with London, I ended up having to kind of back into it.

It takes no effort at all to see that Dragan is a fellow with a camera in the 1970s, doing that 1970s thing of looking for the good ones. He's thinking one picture at a time. He's also got some real ability, there are some genuinely good ones in here. The result is a pile of things that are much more structured, much more "composed" than what we might think of as snapshots. These are the opposite of vernacular photography, they're quite mannered, and as noted, good examples of that.

The London pictures read as pretty much documentary. I do not feel that Dragan has an opinion here at all, no particular idea. He's simply recording what he finds interesting, and as such had ended up with a documentary record of sorts. It lacks breadth, precisely because Dragan is focused on the pictures he thinks are interesting (there are a lot of Interesting Looking Old Guys, for instance), so it doesn't really work as a document of the times unfortunately. The pictures, while good and sometimes excellent, are not strong enough to stand by themselves. Neither as a Concept/Art piece, nor as a historical document. It is, "merely", a collection of good and often excellent individual pictures.

I think it might be really interesting to pair these pictures with modern ones of the same places. The Brick Lane Market is still there, and could be shot again. With some editing (I assume Dragan has a relatively deep archive of these pictures) you could get something. The editor would impose, from the outside, that necessary opinion, concept, idea. It could work.

Moving on, though, to the Northern England pictures.

There's a much higher percentage in here of wall-hangers, of "the good one" shots. Damn near everything in this set could be hung on damn near any wall and do the wall justice.

Much more important, though, it's clear that Dragan has a real emotional response to the region. We are at once appalled by the endless factories and smokestacks and taken by the beauty he finds in places that are, objectively, pretty wretched. In the pictures of the people we see a much warmer connection than in the London photos. In London, Dragan is shooting "street" style, looking for candid shots of interesting people and tableaux. In Northern England as often than not people are posing for him. Even the candids feel more engaged, and correspondingly engaging.

While it is fairly clear in this set of pictures that Dragan was still trying to shoot individual wall-worthy pictures, it is also clear that he has an opinion about the region. That idea has led him to, more or less spontaneously, create the sort of thing I like, a coherent body of work that takes a position and says something.

So what we have, to my eye, is the same guy, with the same camera, doing more or less the same thing in two different places. In one of the places he has some fairly profound feeling (I am cheating here, to an extent, because I read this piece before writing this one, but I had arrived at this conclusion first.) In the other place, he's just taking pictures. It doesn't look to me like he even cares about about London to hate the place, he seems more or less neutral about it. Probably he likes it well enough, and thinks it's got some interesting looking bits. But his soul appears to be largely untouched by London, whereas it is deeply moved by the north.

And so I offer this as a lesson. It is that emotional connection, that depth of feeling, that makes all the difference. Same man, same camera, same time, same methods. Totally different bodies of work. I am confident that I have identified precisely what makes the difference.