Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Consider The Nazi

Indeed, consider him. It's usually a him. No, not the efficient cog in the late 1930s horror machine based in Germany, I mean the essentially powerless portly fellow with the swastika tattoo and the bizarre opinions about Jews.

He holds some odious opinions. Opinions which, even in this post-God postmodern era without those firm nails of divine judgement and moral certainty upon which to hang my rhetoric, I could argue cogently are evil, wrong, opinions. Let us anyways stipulate that Nazi-ism is not merely stupid but objectively wrong.

Still, the Nazi is a human being and as such agrees with me on many points. Do we want a warm place to sleep tonight? Yes. Enough to eat? Assuredly. Do we want the same for our friends and loved ones? Of course. Do we like fried foods? Probably. Beer? Likely. And on and on. The Nazi is a fully three-dimensional human, and in the same way we share DNA with our hairy cousins the apes, he and I (and by implication, he and you) share an immense amount of stuff. Banal, human, stuff.

Being human, the Nazi has within him the capacity for change and could, at least hypothetically, alter his (again, thoroughly odious) opinion on Jews some day.

I do not intend to apologize for his odious beliefs, nor to rationalize them. They are odious. But he, he is human.

Let us now examine Jörg Colberg's most recent review. I don't have the book, I don't know what the book really says, I have no opinion. I have perused the publisher's advert, which you can as well. So, what I know, is Jörg's position on the book, and also the way the publisher is pitching the book.

Now, Colberg's discussion is something to behold. While there's a little more to it, he casts this book as a Lovecraftian story about Small Town Germany, referring more than once to a sort of hidden underlying horror and dread that characterizes, if not actual small towns, at any rate the Mahler's vision of small towns. Small towns which, according to the thumbnail bio Colberg offers us in this piece, he appears to have precisely no experience with.

Having lived in some small towns in America, I can report that I at any rate never actually was aware of any such lurking horrors. But perhaps Germany has a Cthulu or a Shub-Niggurath slumbering under every town with a population in the range of 5,000 to 20,000 souls. I confess myself doubtful.

The publisher's pitch provides us with an unrelentingly depressing series of pictures which, to my eye, do not support Colberg's hidden horrors, but do support the idea of the young people as a kind of freak show. I do not see how to read the picture of the two girls with their clutches as anything other than pathetic, as rubes out of place in their home, but equally doomed to be out of place anywhere their cute clutch purses would fit in.

Not that anyone who's in these pictures is likely to read Colberg's review, or to flip through the publisher's slide show. A few might see the book, which might itself support or not the ideas that appear on the web. It's possible that they would be distracted by the pictures of themselves enough to not notice, even if the book does indeed expound these self-same themes.

I do not see any way to understand Colberg's remarks, or the publisher's position of this book, in a way that is particularly flattering to the people in the book. There is, probably, some truth in the book. But it is not a full truth. There are almost no circumstances in which people do not, from time to time, laugh. Surely small town Germany has more hope and more joy in it than we are led to believe? Surely these small town rubes are fully three dimensional human beings, rather more like us than different from us?

Colberg's review of the book, and the publisher's pitch on the book, both characterize this book as one which fundamentally declines to offer up its subjects as fully human. I am inclined to suspect that the book does, in fact, offer us up caricatures, a litany of two-dimensional (or less) freaks and rubes. It's certainly the chic thing to do. If you want a book deal, you'd better pin all your pictures to the wall, and throw out all the ones with someone smiling.

While there is more to it than simply this, Colberg and the publisher (and maybe the Mahlers as well) are offering up the rural and small town people of Germany yet another tiny insult, another in an endless barrage of small cuts offered by the self-styled urban sophisticates to those who have not been able to "escape" from the "lurking horror" of not being a cool Berliner in cool Berliner clothing drinking cool Berliner cocktails in a cool Berlin club playing very loud, but cool, Berliner music.

Is it any wonder, really, that when the jovial fellow from Alternative für Deutschland turns up with his brochure full of horrendous ideas, there these people look at the brochure with some interest?

"The Jews, you say? What's exactly is a Jew, anyways?"

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Off Topic

Jen, who is a friend of ours, and an awesome cool theater nerd married to Brian who told me everything I know about the inner workings of art museums, had a stroke. Which sucks. There are expenses.

So, there's a gofundme campaign.

To be honest, I don't particularly expect any of my tiny band of readers to contribute anything, and that is perfectly OK. But maybe you know someone who has a Thing about strokes, or is wealthy and looking for an opportunity to place a few bucks in the hands of some decent people, or whatever. If you do, it would be lovely if you passed the link on.

That is all!

UPDATE: I am humbled. Thank you to all of you. If you put up with my writing, you have already earned my affection, but I was startled, delighted, and deeply touched that some of you also are willing to give money to some strangers in need. Thank you.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Synergy II

Normally I eschew discussion of technique because, honestly, I am not a brilliant technician. I muddle my way through things.

But, here's an example of some ideas colliding in my brain.

A common thing that happens on the Internet where n00bs appear is that a n00b shows up with a need to take some photographs of products. His girlfriend is making artisanal crack pipes or something, and he has foolishly agreed to do her web site. He's got some setup and he's not happy with the results.

At some point some lighting hero will point him to a book or two, to the strobist web site, and someone will explain that you can't do product photography with continuous lights, you need to use strobes, because you need power to freeze that stationary crack pipe apparently.

Another pretty common problem that arises for n00bs as well as not-so-n00bs is shooting glass or reflective objects because, well, the reflections. This is legit hard, because you have to manage the reflections and not get a picture of your camera and a bunch of lights. You end up encasing everything in black material, and then using strip lighting or whatever to try to get highlights that reveal shape, and then you have to play games so your strip lights or reflectors don't end up reflected obviously, and then there's your camera reflected there too, arrrg.

So, obviously, anyone who isn't an idiot knows you can shoot product with continuous lighting, in fact in damn near total darkness if you have a tripod. Products don't move. You just have to use very long exposures. At this point, it popped into my head that you could use light painting methods to make the problems of shooting glass a lot easier. When you move the light around, it's not going to turn up as a sharp reflection of a light, it's just going to be a highlight; and if the room is basically pitch black to start with there's a lot less stray bullshit getting reflected (like YOU and like YOUR CAMERA).

So I hung up some black horse blankets, wiped down a bud vase, and busted out a flashlight. After a couple minutes of experimenting, and watching what was happening, I bounced the flashlight obliquely off a large chunk of paper to create a vertical strip of light, pointing the flashlight up so the spill would come back down off the ceiling. Then I used a 6 second exposure so I could waggle the paper around, to conceal, in the reflection, the nature of my ghetto "strip light." With a little experimenting you can create pretty much whatever pattern of highlights you want, and there was enough spill to light up the rest of the glass.

While it was not pitch black in there, it was pretty damn dark.

I did end up with a very slight reflection of the camera (I think?) which I burned down when I cleaned up the glass a little. Start to finish, 30 minutes, including ironing the black fabric under the vase. In addition to minor cleanup cited, +1/3 EV in post, to render the support slightly visible.


I have opined once or twice here and there that "female gaze" theory may be tending to place female photographers into a fairly narrow box. While men are expected to do whatever the hell they want, women are to one degree or another find some "female angle" or to roll out some "female" tropes. This is eerily reminiscent of the early 20th century when women could certainly work as photographers, but were expected to take pictures of soap and so on. The revolution then was when women ditched these "female gaze" kinds of things and just shot what they wanted.

Anyways, this, and the rest of the narrow and weird little world of MFA Student Photography is not surprising at all. The academy moves, inexorably, from one fad to another. "What, you're a structuralist? We will have none of that, we only do post-structuralist things!"

Indeed, when I was a graduate student, I was cautioned that point-set topology was a discipline on the decline. Publishing was going to be hard, a career hard. I persisted anyways, and for a variety of reasons failed to make a career of it. As far as I know, nobody publishes papers in point-set topology any more, 25 years later.

But anyways, set that aside. One of the several basic ways to get fruitful results in mathematics is to take from other, sometimes moribund, disciplines. Sure, analytic number theory may be your bag, but sometimes what you need is a little graph theory. This is why mathematicians drink a lot together, and collaborate across disciplines quite a bit. Now, it's a little easier to hide your borrowed Impressionist ideas inside your Expressionist painting, so mathematicians tend to be pretty up-front about borrowings than I suspect artists are.

It is certainly true that simply randomly jamming two separate disciplines together only rarely produces a good result. Sometimes that's all you've got, so you smash them together and see what happens. Maybe you learn something, maybe not. Maybe you get an idea for something better to add into the mix. Sometimes you start with a clue about what another good ingredient might be, and you follow that up. No matter how you slice it, it's a bit his or miss.

I made a series of photographs of flowers, once, which I handled the way one might handle one of those "fine art nude" photos. These things have turned up on this blog now and then, and here's a couple more.

Are they successful? Well, nobody has offered to buy enormous prints of them, nor have I offered such for sale. I have won no awards, nor entered them in competition. Many of the pictures that resulted are very beautiful. This was the project that, in the end, convinced me that I would not find that which I sought in the studio. These pictures are pretty, maybe even witty, but they move me not in the least, they represent nothing I am interested in.

But it was a very interesting experience, and I think that applying these kinds of sensual tropes to flowers is a pretty good idea. I am simply not the man to make any sense of it. (Arguably Mapplethorpe was.) I think it's a good idea because our experience of flowers is essentially sensual, and in western society cut flowers are all caught up in our sexual politics.

Anyways, this has something to do with the Female Gaze tropes and MFA tropes I've been talking about.

These ideas are not terrible in and of themselves, although they are a bit limiting. It's not a terrible idea to go down a rathole for a while and explore the limits of said rathole. But, what is a good idea is to come back out after a while, and see if you can add something to the mix.

What did you learn down the rathole, and what might combine in interesting and fruitful ways with that? What ideas can you borrow or steal, to add to your sea of mopey women with 1000 yard stares, to make better art? Or at rate to make art that suits you better.

When your situation and career places you inside a narrow box, this is a way out.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

"Firecrackers" - the MFA Crowd

There's a group, a kind of collective, I guess. It's some kind of organization which supports female photographers through grants, by showcasing their work, and maybe some kind of collective work. Anyways, you can poke around the web site here: Firecracker and try to sort it out yourself if you like.

To be clear, I think this is a fantastic mission, and I support it wholeheartedly.

My job, though, as I see it, it to point out not only what is good, but what is a bit dicey, what is true as I see it, setting my personal support aside. I ran into this outfit through a book, entitled Firecrackers, which is an in-print collection of women photographers. Available at good bookstores everywhere, I suppose? It's been an interesting read, and interesting look.

If, as I do, you make a studious effort to read the front matter, there's a good chance you'll make it through this one without giving up. The remarks are fairly short and not too turgid. A remark that caught my eye was that the editors sought to expand their reach beyond Europe (where Firecracker is centered) and include a more international group of women, without simply "box-ticking" which is a really commendable goal. Later, if one recalls this, one wonders "why on earth do all there pictures look the same?"

Which isn't quite fair, because there is a lot of breadth here. But there is also much sameness.

If you attend to the little introductory remarks for each photographer, one soon realizes why. While it is true that these women are from all over the place they have, for the most part, gotten some sort of BFA, MFA, or other degree in Art Photography from some western school, or they have won some sort of recognition from Magnum, that self-licking ice cream cone of photographic influence. This last makes sense when you realize that the founder of Firecracker worked at Magnum for a while.

At the moment the first artist featured on their web site is Raphaela Rosella, with a photo essay about women in a small town in Australia, where she grew up (if I am reading the text right). This women are First Nations (which I guess we used to call Aborigines?) and they are having a tough time. Racism and poverty is No Fun and shit be awful. You might, naively, think that since the artist grew up there that she is part of this community and photographing, as it were, from the inside. But no, as near as I can tell she's a white girl who went to Art School (BA Photography, Queensland College of Art) and a social worker.

Now, this is not an indictment of the work, far from it. The point, though, is that this artist as far as I can tell literally has more in common with me than with her subjects. Ms. Rosella, whatever her virtues, and despite growing up in a small town in Australia, is not substantively adding to the diversity of voices represented by Firecracker.

This is, in the end, a small and insular group of photographers. They all know each other, or at least know people who know people. They all either went to Art School in the 2000s, or hang around with people who did, or at the very least have been thoroughly vetted by people who did. So of course there is much sameness here.

This doesn't mean that it's bad. It's quite variable, and there are a couple of pieces in the book that I found excellent. Which, as always, means that you, and you, and also you, will probably find a few of the pieces excellent as well, and not necessarily the ones I did.

There are basically two things I want to talk about here, the first is a set of stylistic tics that turn up (and which you can see for yourself on the web site), and the second is the actual work in the actual book. So, at some point in what follows, I will switch gears. Try to pay attention so you don't miss it!

I have argued in the past that perhaps there is no such thing as a "female gaze" but rather only the absence of a "male gaze", and here I am, in a way, proven wrong. In fact the Art Schools of the west have constructed a kind of female gaze, in the form of a couple of tics that women can use to indicate that they are Serious About Women Stuff. Men could roll these things out too, but it would take a certain amount of courage to engage in such poaching, and I dare say the establishment would punish you savagely.

The first tic is: women staring neutrally. They may, and often do, stare at the camera, but optionally they can stare into space. If you lard your portfolio up with a whole bunch of these, then you can say anything you like about women's issues, and it will "read." You can talk about oppression, repression, empowerment, whatever you like. Since the faces are blank, serious, and maybe a little mopey, you can project any and all of these onto them.

I guess you can't say "it's awesome being a woman!" and have it read against a sea of depressed stares, but this is not a grant-winning message anyways. MFA students only make depressing photo essays. Well, the world is a kind of depressing place, I guess.

The key here is that there women are not having a good time, no smiles are allowed. Of the 110-120 odd photographs that include a female figure, maybe a dozen evince some evidence of having a good time. You can intermix these things with pictures of whatever. Maybe local objects and scenes that are related, maybe pictures of nothing, random roads, buildings, hands, a chair.

The second tic is: dress yourself up in costumes and place yourself in contexts that can be read as some sort of comment on feminine stuff. One dresses up in hijab made out of candy, another paints herself in various brightly colored settings, another poses in a honeymoon suite. Again, these can be read as whatever you want to say, as long as you (the model) make sure to maintain a neutral expression and posture, and deploy a good 1000 yard stare.

Now, probably only about half of the book consists of this stuff. And, to be fair, these are just tics and sometimes they work just fine.

It is only a matter of time before some male photographer drags out the first of these tics under a female, or gender-neutral, name, wins some stuff, and then is outed to the horror of all. Many will quickly delete a lot of tweets and say they knew all along.

Onwards to the book itself. The bit I liked the best deploys tic #1 in spades, made by Endia Beal (MFA, Yale). This is a series of portraits of young black women who are finishing school and preparing to enter the workforce. Beal has them dress and present themselves as "professional" and the results are both fascinating and disheartening. While a few of the women genuinely look professional, more than half are wearing very tight clothing with skirts that hit above the knee. Every single one of them looks great and at least half of them have no idea what to wear at the office.

It's a powerful commentary that unpacks in a bunch of ways if you're attentive. On the one hand, I am a hell of a lot more like their likely hiring managers than they are, and I would substantially mark down a lot of these young women purely on their clothing choices. Am I right or wrong? Not only does this make me despair for young, educated, black women, it (on the other hand) makes me question myself. What, exactly, is wrong with tight dresses with hems above the knee, eh? So, that's all good! Good work, Ms. Beal!

Another piece, by Katrin Koenning, which I radically did not like in this book, but which I recognized as something I'd talked about before. This illustrates the problem with books like Firecrackers. Koenning's piece has exactly zero chance of working if you don't give us most of the pictures. Nine pictures selected from the project completely loses the flow of light to dark to light to dark, it loses the fucking point. It comes across like a handful of junky snapshots of nothing, which is exactly what it is. If you chop my arm off, it's just meat. I get their desire to include her, because BA, Photography, Queensland College of Art, which appears to be one of the nexii from which Firecracker draws its people.

There's a glorious profile of a Russian weatherman living alone at 69 degrees north, shot I think in summer but with the perfect flavor of the light of northern winters. Just beautiful, emotionally evocative, etc. And none of the "female gaze" tropes whatsoever to muddy things up, just a tender, light, touch, the kind of thing that is, while gender neutral, perhaps more likely to be shot by women. The artist even allows him to look happy. (surely she didn't go to Art School?!! But she DID, ICP, New York. How?!! What?) I will go so far as to suggest that you look up Evgenia Arbugaeva, as her work is at the very least beautiful to look at.

And then there's a handful of tic #2 (the Cindy Sherman trope) which mostly don't work, because Cindy can act and these woman can't do anything except stare vacantly, as they have been trained to do in Art School or by their Art Schooled peers. There's a few other things that look like a bunch of junky snaps of nothing which could, I suppose, but broken fragments of better work like Koenning's, but to be honest the book does not motivate me to go find out. Which is sort of sad.

The "For Birds' Sake" work appears, as noted previously, in this book. I'm honestly not sure if I like it or not, but it's pure gender neuutral MFA material. If you look at the copy online, over here and scroll down a bit, you will find a picture of a dirt road.

This is classic MFA "documentary" style. This road means nothing, it could be anywhere. It's stuffed in there to provide evidence of the Serious Documentary Nature of the work, and perhaps also to provide some sort of visual cue. It could have been shot in North Carolina. It is unexplained. It's supposed to suggest... well, a road (or a hole, or a chair, or whatever) can suggest anything, isolated like this.

What makes this photo interesting is that someone involved in making the book decided to put a copy of it up front, facing the opening essays.

Now, I am prepared to admit that I might be missing something. But from where I sit, my tentatively formed opinion, is that this shot is a bunch of bullshit signifying nothing, and that very mystery is why the editors(?) chose to lead with it.

Duchamp's "Fountain" appeared to be nothing, but was in fact making a bold and powerful statement. This seems, over the last century, to have been converted by the mysterious alchemy of human stupidity and postmodernism, into the notion that anything and everything which appears to be nothing just might be something, and if someone is standing behind it mugging wildly, it probably is something.

Sometimes a road is just a road.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The MFA Crowd

John Edwin Mason, who is a historian at UVA, cited some work, saying "It's terrific work" and so I went and looked. Mason is a guy who teaches the history of photography, knows a lot of stuff, tends to be a bit on the identity politics end of things. He's interested in many of the same things I am interested in (race, power, politics, and what photography has to say about that), and is a genuine scholar. I attend to what he says, but agree with it only part of the time.

What he cited was this: You Don't Look Native to Me which I am pretty sure John likes not so much for the pictures or ideas, but for the "OMG a marginalized people" content. You know, which is a real thing. It totally sucks to be marginalized, and lots of good work has been done about this kind of thing.

I have written several essays about work in this vein that could accurately be described as "glowing" or perhaps even "hagiographic" so if it has occurred to you that I just hate pictures of poor people, nope.

This is not particularly excellent work. It is the standard output of the MFA crowd, better than some, not quite as good as others. All the pictures are willfully vernacular, and some of them seem to have no point whatever. The bullet riddled stop sign means nothing other than "rural" and the vaguely New Topographics pictures of the small cheaply built homes are not particularly on-point. I suppose we are to assume that these people are low-income? We see pictures of the marginalized people, and we see a few bits and pieces of how they live. Which is to say, exactly like all the other rural teenagers in the USA, except they have more Indian Stuff on their walls.
The color palette looks kind of like Portra film, which is another standard MFA trope. It says "I use film, but not like those lomography lamers" even if they're not using film.

In part this is simply "holy shit, rural people, so weird and poor" porn, very chic. In part this is "holy shit, marginalized people, I feel sad, we should do something" porn. Again, très très chic.

So, having established this work's place, now let us look at more of Maria Sturm's work on the same web site, in particular: For Bird's Sake which is about another somewhat marginal population on the other side of the world. Again, it's not terrible, but not great.

But look at both of these things side-by-side. They are almost literally the same photo essay down the neck tattoo.

The second one, about birds, I met a few weeks ago in a book, attributed to Cemre Yesil rather than Maria Sturm. If you look closely in that book, and on the web site I linked to above, you will discover unobtrusively noted that this is a collaboration between the two.

But what is interesting here is that the two photo essays deploy precisely the same tropes on really quite different groups of people. Both are on the outskirts of society in one sense or another, but otherwise they are radically different people.

This suggests that Sturm is deploying what we might call "her style" as a way to tell every story, rather than sorting through the situation and crafting an approach that will be well-suited to the story that she wants to tell. It feels like a novelist who decides "fuck it, I'm telling everything in first person flashbacks, because I know how to write that" which might be good or bad, I dunno.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Pictorialism Meets Gearheads

Note to Anonymous commenters: Random name calling by an Anonymous commenter is likely to be attributed to mrca, who has been banned from commenting (with one exception noted below) so if you're just some other random dolt, that's where your comments are going. Sorry.

I made a little page just for you clowns hate-reading me from The Photo Forum. Fuck off, stop reading my blog, there's nothing here you idiots are going to find interesting. I will try to link to this page each time in future I refer to your forum, so you morons have some context when inevitably your little spies alert you to the Mean Blogger.

In my occasional wanderings through the seedier sides of the internet (no, no, not the MFA people god forbid, just the forums) I happened across this interesting thread, which you may peruse or not as you prefer.

In this thread (there is a history of these dolts harassing me with DMCA takedown requests, so I won't be posting the picture here) we start with a photograph of a man holding a Mamiya RB67 in the manner of Hamlet interrogating Yorick's skull. There's a HUGE pile of text that explains in laborious detail why the picture is so great, followed by a number of comments agreeing that it is extremely great. The point of the picture was to show how wonderfully sharp the Nikon D850 camera paired with Zeiss lenses is, an exercise in absurdity because you can crank out just as pointlessly crunchy a picture with practically any camera and lens today.

Be that as it may, the point of the picture is to show off technical chops, and by god it does that. Well done, whatever your name is.

Following down a little we find the spoiler. Some other poster remarks that with all those goddamned lights the result is kind of flat. To this I will add that the subject appears to be floating, or glowing, because there's so much light splashed around on him against the relatively dark background, and also I don't believe that you intended the specular highlights on the camera to look like that.

This is of course met with fury and vitriol, which is pure delight to read.

Anyways, the spoiler is perfectly correct. While this thing is a technical tour-de-force, it looks outright weird when you stop admiring the rim lighting and whatnot, and actually look at the picture. This is a picture photographers love, but nobody else does. To everyone else, it merely looks "sharp" or possibly "clear" and a bit... off.

Stepping back slightly further, we can examine the idea. Yes, yes, the lighting hero has some story about an analogy between Hamlet's contemplation of his own morality[sic] and the dominance of digital photography over film, but that's pretty forced and wrong-headed. He's just sticking a literary reference in there to be cute, and to borrow some of Shakespeare's mojo for his own. Obviously it worked, the picture is Award Winning, after all! But I am not buying it, and neither should you. It's just an arbitrary random reference signifying nothing, it has no more weight than name-dropping Roland Barthes in your essay about photography.

This is exactly the sort of thing the Pictorialists were rightly panned for. Rather than having any ideas at all, let alone photographic ones, they would simply stick in a literary or mythical reference, and hope for the best. Look, this isn't just some naked chick, it's Aphrodite! Indeed, I would be astonished if you could not relatively easily find some gum-bichromate mess from the late 1800s with pretty much exactly this scene in it, albeit with a skull. Possibly a teapot, if you stumbled across some would-be wit.

So, this particular photograph is fascinating because while it is essentially just some gearhead flaunting his gear and his lighting skills, it nonetheless is essentially a near-perfect example of the errors of Pictorialism. While it is vaguely painterly, no painter would ever have so grossly misunderstood how light falls, and indeed neither would any Victorian-era Pictorialist. It was left up to modern photographers, with their baskets of lights, to mess up the fall of light to thoroughly.

This all suggests to me that the errors of Pictorialism are basic just human errors. Most of us simply aren't clever enough to say anything particularly interesting, so we reach for the same gimmicks regardless of era. Photographers still ape painters, badly, and still borrow cheap references in lieu of anything interesting 100-140 years later.