Monday, August 19, 2019

Writing on PhotoPXL.com

I am writing for Kevin Raber's new venture, PhotoPXL.com, which is something like a reboot of The Luminous Landscape after that changed hands. My pieces are a hopefully on-going series of historical vignettes, with a trifle of critical analysis. Less swearing and more history than here. My nefarious plan is to cover photographers and photographers with brown skin, although paradoxically I think I am going to wind up writing something about a guy named White pretty soon.

NiƩpce, Daguerre, and Talbot
Archer and Cameron

I like Kevin and I hope he succeeds. His new thing is, apart from me, pretty much the same stuff as LuLa used to be -- high-end camera enthusiasm. He's got Mark Segal writing reviews of papers and going on about gamut volumes and whatnot. Phase One is an advertiser, and the forums have a certain amount of 'I used my Phase One XF78237b12 v1.17 back with the 900mm Super Exactalon lens to photograph this duck' so, it should be pretty familiar to you if you spent any time on LuLa.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Review: Women at Work by Betty Medsger

I snapped this 1975 volume up at the used book store the other day, because I am a father of daughters. I felt that it was the kind of book I'd like to have, you know, just lying around the place as my children grow. This won't be criticism as such, I don't think. I'm just going to tell you about it.

It's very fun, both as a document of its time, and as a bunch of photographs and stories.

Betty Medsger is a journalist of some note, and apparently also takes pictures. In the early 1970s she decided to do a photojournalistic project documenting the state of women in the workplace in the good old U.S.A. and accordingly set out around the country to do that. She interviewed and photographed a whole bunch of women, and gives us 170-odd different professions in this book.

The reproductions are not great, and it's possible the underlying negatives are also not great. Lots of blocked up whites. Lousy detail. The old "Soot & Chalk" pejorative comes to mind. Better than a newspaper, but not really a lot better. All black and white, natch. Most women and their job get one photo, but a few get two or three photos. Some subset, maybe on third, get a little paragraph of quotes and context.

The book opens with a fairly lengthy essay on the project, some of the women, and a general statement of the overall status of women in the workplace. We get a few statistics, and a handful of telling personal stories of the kinds of difficulties that women face getting certain kinds of work, and being the workplace both generally and specifically.

As opening essays go, it's quite readable. The bar here is very low, though, this thing isn't exactly a thriller. I can recommend actually reading it, though.

A fascinating detail that Medsger hits several times both in the opening essay, and in the main content of the book, is this: It is common to find people who say women ought not to do that kind of job who, when confronted with the fact that Sue does it, and does it well, respond oh, well, Sue. She's fine, it's ok for Sue. This kind of thing illustrates, I think, how attitudes change over time. It is not that people cease abruptly to hate black people, to look down on women, to fear some other group. They continue to do so, while also coming to agree that specific cases are different. I hate fags. Well, not Bill, Bill's my friend and he's fine is a normal intermediate stage.

Onwards to the pictures.

There's pictures all over the place. She shows us playboy bunnies, waitresses, cleaning ladies; she also shows us corporate executives, marine corps officers, company owners, and lobsterers. It's the full gamut of work, from "traditional women's work" to everything else.

In spite of the poor reproduction, the photos are, generally, somewhere between pretty good and fantastic. Medsger had a real eye for movement, and the women photographed look like dancers as often as not. Really fun to look at, without feeling posed, awkward, or false. There's a strong sense of that mid-century photo-essay truthiness here, to go with the often (but not always) elegantly shot frame. I suspect she did a lot of radical cropping.

The book feels a little "salon style" with pictures all over the place on the page. Some are surrounded by white borders on all sides, but others bleed off one edge. Tall frames might bleed off the top, bordered on the other three sides. Occasionally, a picture will bleed off two sides of a corner. I am still trying to work out the uses for this approach to bleeds. Anyways, the result is somehow a very 1970s feel to the book.

The picture placement creates rectangles of white space that can appear anywhere on the page, so the paragraphs of descriptive text and quotations fill in here and there, without much rhyme of reason, but generally pleasingly.

The women profiled are awesome. There's some really crazy stuff in here, and some really mundane ordinary stuff, but it's all engaging, fun, encouraging. Medsger makes us like her subjects, root for them, applaud them.

This is pretty much exactly the book I'd hoped for, for my daughters. It's a bit old school, pretty historical, but encouraging as well as realistic and still very much relevant today.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Something to Look At Redux

I find myself baffled by some of the responses to the previous.

Call the reading "Trump is just a sociopath" #1, and the "Ray of Hope" reading #2.

I am not asking anyone to believe either one. You can read it either way, or in some other way, that's a personal matter.

All I am asking is that you accept that some people -- people who are not you -- might read it the other way. If you land on #1, accept that someone else might land on #2. And vice versa.

You might well say, as a good leftie, that #2 is a ludicrous reading. Fine. That is just another way to select reading #1, but with vigor and commitment. Laudable, but irrelevant. So what if it's ludicrous? Lots of people believe ludicrous things. You probably have a couple of your own, although at present you don't think they're ludicrous.

The undercurrent I think I detect among Good Lefties is this: Everyone actually thinks #1, but Trump supporters are lying and pretend to think #2 which is, well, it's wrong.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Something to Look At

Here's a picture that's been making the rounds:



The back story is this: Racially motivated mass shooting in El Paso, among the victims are two parents of a very young child. The parents die protecting the child, the child survives with minor injuries. The President, Donald Trump, visits El Paso in the aftermath, and there are photo opportunities. In this photo, the President's wife, Melania Trump, is seen holding the injured child.

The left reads this as Donald and Melania Trump being sociopaths with the collective empathy of a stick, and perhaps a dopey grin reflex when confronted with a camera. They find the grins and thumbs up gesture in the midst of tragedy to be repellent, vile, and tone-deaf. This is the narrative promoted by leftists of all stripes. Notably it is promoted by leftists who consider "reading" photographs to be an important part of their job. As usual, the establishment photographic theorists treat this politically charged picture as having only one possible reading, their own.

The right reads this picture as Donald and Melania Trump celebrating a ray of light, a triumph of life over death. The gunman intended the baby to die, and was thwarted. Among all the tragedy, one victory for the good guys, as it were. Hooray for the good guys.

Ones reaction to the photograph and its back story depends entirely on where one stands politically. Nobody except, possibly, Donald and Melania know what was in their minds in this moment. You and I certainly don't. We are looking at a pattern of pixels and reading meaning in to them based entirely on the suite of ideas and biases we bring with us.

Humans are good at reading faces, I will tentatively allow that almost everyone regardless of political persuasion will read this as the Trumps projecting a facade of good cheer and optimism. They are performing, as Presidents and First Ladies always do. An expert could probably point to specific features of the facial musculature as evidence of a performance rather than a natural emotional response. That this is performance is in no way surprising, nor really a judgement. This is a photo-op.

The meaning we read diverges when we try to imagine why this particular facade, why this performance?

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Ugh Redux

As occasionally happens, a previous post has generated some confusion in the comments. Allow me to clarify.

My recent vacation photography adventure was not an experiment in spraying and praying. I didn't just go out and shoot 1400 frames of bullshit.

The experiment was one of thorough reportage of an intense two weeks. There were 14 days, 3 airplanes, 12 people, 3 dogs, 7 locations (at least, to get down to 7 some are fairly broadly construed), 2 bodies of water, 2 fairs, and 1 amusement park. Naturally, shooting kids on amusement park rides produces some dross, but that's easy to discard.

My daily counts are, roughly:

14
28
200
130
84
49
54
56
153
97
223
62
40
16

Can you tell which days we were doing amusement park rides? Ordinary lazy days are 50-70 exposures. More intense days are 100+, and amusement park rides push it around 200+.

As of this writing I am down to 100 frames, and to go further the next step is to select from the photogenic and memorable episodes those which can be dropped entirely. Well, I could probably drop another 5-10 by trimming down particularly charming episodes where I kept up to half a dozen photos. Getting down to 50 final pictures requires dropping episodes entirely.

The problem was not of how to find the few keepers among a giant pile of shit. There were lots of decent frames in there, and a few pretty good ones. There's just a hell of a lot of story.

I am used to making my projects in bits and pieces. I shoot a few things, I pick out one or two frames. I shoot more. The keepers accrete gradually, and then get re-edited down. At the end I've shot a lot of material (100s to 1000s of frames), and whittled it down to a handful. It's the having to do it all at once that was daunting.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Crit: Monsanto by Mathieu Asselin

The author of this book, Mathieu Asselin, recently made the book available as a free PDF download. Since the book was much lauded in certain circles, I took advantage of the opportunity to download it and give it a looksee.

You too can download it and check my work. It's not a particularly arduous read. Click here to get your own copy: Monsanto.

The executive summary is that this book desperately wants to be Minamata and it isn't. It is, in fact, terrible. Reading it was a profoundly depressing experience, because these are important topics badly handled, and because I thought perhaps that something that's won or contended credibly for major prizes might be a cut above the gruesome mess that is MFA-student photobook making. The laudits are entirely based on the progressive/anti-Monsanto stance of the book, which is very contemporary and chic, not the actual content, which is garbage.

So what is this thing? It comprises four sections, each covering an extended episode in Monsanto's storied history. The production of PCBs in Anniston, Alabama; Agent Orange and its long term effects; Monsanto's company town in Illinois; Roundup-Ready products and the controversies around same.

The first three sections are historical summaries, written with a pro-consumer anti-corporate slant. It's slightly more detailed than wikipedia material, but to be honest, not much more, and it does a rotten job of combing out the actual history. In the first section, we learn that Anniston was the site of PCB manufacturing with all manner of gruesome followup effects, and later we find that the main site of PCB manufacturing was in Monsanto's company town in Illinois. This is only one of many minor inconsistencies which deserve to be clarified but are not.

None of the inconsistencies I noted are outright contradictions, but they are points of historical fact which, as presented, are confusing.

More of the same sort of thing: Asselin presents the company town, now called Sauget Village, as a "borderless wasteland" with, essentially, a handful of survivors wandering the zombie-filled landscape. It's pretty clear from a few minutes of research that Sauget Village is now an industrial park in East St. Louis that happens to be incorporated as its own municipality. Which, sure, makes it a terrible place to live. I don't wanna live in an industrial park either.

In the section on Roundup-Ready crops, Asselin persists in (sometimes) calling Roundup a pesticide, which it is not. While you can kill pests with Roundup, you've really got to work at it. It's an herbicide, it kills plants. Given that Asselin uses both terms, it's possible that he doesn't actually know the difference, which is really a problem since he's pretending to present some sort of serious analysis of Roundup and associated products. In this section, Asselin simply repeats the standard progressive anti-Monsanto position about Roundup, which lands scientifically somewhere in the range of questionable to simply wrong.

There's plenty to criticize on the topic of Roundup-Ready products, but the standard progressive narrative gets the situation, and the problems, almost completely wrong. Asselin makes no attempt whatsoever to sort it out. He simply repeats the standard material uncritically.

The writing is stilted, and contains at least one howler, which is pretty good for a guy for whom English is at least a second language. Still, an editor might have been usefully employed here. There simply are not that many words here, a good editor would have cleaned the language up greatly, and could possibly also have worked out some of the inconsistencies between sections. Overall, the text is about what I would expect (perhaps naively) from a competent high school student. I certainly could have written this in 10th grade, but I am informed that standards have fallen.

The French edition might well be better, although the content is presumably still the 10th-grade-research-paper material (spot checks seem to confirm.)

The photography and other graphical material is utter shit, worthy of the worst kind of MFA student. He literally photographs the box containing the microfilm with the newspaper that contains the account of a train accident from decades before, then shows us the microfilm reader with the newspaper page displayed, and then shows us reproductions of the pages from the newspaper. Each of these consumes a full page, or more, of the book. Later, he photographs the train tracks where the accident took place (spoiler: it looks like a fucking train track.) This is both wildly boring and completely insane. Worse, it's an insult to the reader.

There are some pictures of people, all with that vaguely washed out/odd color look that people think is a "film look", mostly of glum, anonymous, people staring at the camera. Captions tell us that this is Bob from Anniston and his sister died of dioxins, or whatever. There is a collection of photos of Agent Orange victims, with deformities and so on. Some of them are actually pretty decent. It is here that Asselin most closely approaches Minamata mainly because he is unable to effectively drain the life from people who have lived with these kinds of problems. Several of these pictures possess a kind of vitality that Serious Artists are seemingly at pains to remove from their work.

There's a lot of reproductions of Monsanto advertisements (possibly the author spent a lot of time in Google Books.) There are a few reproductions of Monsanto internal documents, which serve usefully to backstop the text about what Monsanto knew and when. These last are probably the only non-textual material that serves any kind of purpose here, the rest being nothing much more than some sort of evidence of the author's presence and labor.

Ok, all that is chaff. Sure, it's a dumb amateurish book with the visual and literary appeal of a dead badger. That's not the real problem.

The real problem is that this book wants to be Minamata and it isn't. There are two basic problems here. Well, three if you count Asselin's complete failure to acknowledge his inspiration.

The first is that it's not Minamata. The latter is a lyrical, poetic, and powerful piece of reportage, which combines a consistent and coherent historical narrative with in-the-moment photography of critical events and, to some degree, reporting of the end of the affair. Monsanto is an ugly, clumsy, mess which is entirely historical. The photos are boring not only because Asselin is a Serious Artist taking shit photos, but also because there's nothing to photograph. These events took place years ago. There isn't anything to photograph except train tracks, microfilm reels, and old men holding photographs of relatives who died of cancer years ago.

The second problem is that we already have Minamata. Monsanto engaged over roughly the same timeframe in essentially the same kinds of malfeasance as Chisso. The story here is not that Monsanto did more or less the same things, but that there seems to be a pattern here.

The story is not that this company or that did some bad things, the story is that they all did this sort of thing. The story, in the here and now, is about what behaviors are they engaged in now, that replaces the old behaviors? The reality is that these companies have changed. They don't just dump chemical wastes into rivers by the ton any more, at least not as a matter of policy. They do not, despite desperate efforts to prove otherwise, continue to discover and then conceal Horrible Toxic Effects in their products, at least not as a matter of policy.

They have updated their behaviors into new, equivalent, obnoxious behaviors.

There is no investigation into why corporations, or more precisely the people who staff corporations, consistently behave in the way they did. Asselin simply waves vaguely in the direction of greed and calls it a day. Smith, by contrast, went to some effort to humanize the people in the corporation, and at least nodded briefly at the conflicts that the people in the company face in these situations. While Smith never did a full-scale analysis, he does seem to be aware that these things happen for reasons that are complex and nuanced.

The following appears in Minamata, nothing even remotely like it, nothing with one 100th part of the power of this scene appears in Monsanto. Asselin is hampered by the passage of time, of course, but not only by that.

To set the scene, Kawamoto is a man poisoned by Chisso's actions, and is negotiating on behalf of many of the other victims. Shimada is the CEO is Chisso. He is refusing to pay the victims (the "patients" referred to here) because Chisso doesn't have enough money to do so. They are in a crowded and antagonistic meeting room, Kawamoto is seated cross-legged on the table less than a foot from Shimada, there are photos included with the text. Here is the text:

Kawamoto (quietly): President, do you have a religion?

Shimada (transparently, to Kawamoto alone): Yes. I am a Zen Buddhist.

   Sarcastic snickers come from supporters in the background, but it seemed that neither have heard.

Kawamoto: Ah. And your wife too?

Shimada: My wife is Christian....

Kawamoto: Ah, yes. Do you pray?

Shimada: Yes. I have a small room with just a shrine in it. I have the patients' names writen there, and I pray....

   Silence.


Pro-tip: It's not greed. It is vastly more complicated than that.

There is no pushing past Minamata here, to give us new ideas, new insights. There is not even an update of Minamata, this is simply a shoddy photocopy.

UPDATE:

The Guardian reviewed this thing in 2018, you can read the review here. Hilariously, or tragically, depending on how you look at it, they didn't review it very carefully. They refer to a creek which now runs red as a result of contamination. They share a photo from the book of Choccolocco.

What they missed out on, because they just flipped lazily through the book, is that Asselin uses red blotches photoshopped on to some of his photos to indicate "contaminated areas" within the picture. The creek isn't red.

This sort of shit just makes me want to tear my eyes out and scream. Well, I guess that would make me scream, but you get the idea.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Ugh

We just returned from a two week holiday visiting family out east. I decided to experiment and just shoot, shoot, shoot. Burn them 1s and 0s.

So now I have 1400 photographs, very few of which are outright trash (and, I dare say, only a couple are truly excellent) and I am attempting to smash this down to, I don't know, maybe 50 plus of minus. This is horrible. How do people do this? People shoot weddings and come back, allegedly, with 1000s of exposures. They shoot a huge pile of corporate headshots, cranking them out like some demented machine, and go home with 1000 exposures, and then they bash this down to size.

How on earth does one bear it?

I mean, I'll get through it, but good god this is drudgery.