Monday, January 16, 2017

Crit on Crit

Hopefully I won't spend too much time talking about other people who are talking about pictures, but we shall see.

Today I'm going to dissect, a little, a recent essay on Conscientious Photo Magazine.

Let me begin by noting the irony of a man who said, recently:

How or why her [Susan Sontag's] On Photography came to be seen as so revelatory has always escaped me.

laboriously recapitulating so much of Sontag's material. Admittedly, he's largely repeating material from Regarding the Pain of Others here, but not entirely.

Onwards. Colberg begins with a bit of background, reminds us of a couple relatively recent pictures of Suffering with a capital S. Then he makes the remarkable statement that by arguing that a photograph, because it was exploitative, ought not to have been made, that we are in fact pretending that if we don't have to see a problem then it is as if they problem does not exist. This is a planted axiom. He's is, specifically, planting this axiom:

If you argue that a photograph is exploitation, you are secretly motivated by a desire to ignore the problem.

This is right up there with "if you're opposed to homosexuality, you're probably a closeted fag yourself" as far as rhetoric goes.

In fact, if you argue that a photograph of a suffering child is exploitation, you are quite likely motivated by the inarguable fact that converting someone else's suffering into career advancement, into money, is a pretty grotesque thing to do. It seems to be unavoidable and ultimately I don't think people ought not do it, but it is grotesque. In the end, we want people taking these pictures. These pictures are hard to take, in a bunch of ways, and therefore we need to compensate people to take them. Like much that is grotesque, we're stuck with it.

Colberg waves a vague hand in this general direction, but then declares that his original, absurd, thesis is the main thing and simply dismisses everything else.

Colberg spends a little time going on about the artifact of the photograph itself, versus the depicted thing, the distance/separation this creates, and so on. Pure unadulterated Sontag. Perhaps Colberg should go back and skim On Photography again to see what the big deal it.

Then he spends the remainder of the essay claiming that we are all complicit in these terrible things depicted, that we're helpless to do anything about it, and that we ought to do something about it. Which I have to say, if a fairly puzzling collection of assertions.

There is clearly an element of Judeo-Christian Western White Guilt here, the stuff that the Catholic Church weaponized. As the Israeli foreign minister once jested, "There's no business like shoah business" which I interpret as "you can always persuade those Americans that they are, somehow, personally at fault and ought to pay up."

Look. Either there is something you can do about the conflict in Syria, or there is not. If there is something you can do and you're not doing it, well, sure, it's partly your fault, you jerk. If like most of us there is literally nothing you can do, well, it's not your fault, stop beating yourself up. Colberg does, somewhat half-heartedly, argue that we're benefiting from the fruits of all these global wars and oppression and are thereby complicit even though we're individually helpless to actually change the situation.

Frankly, that's a tenuous argument. You can argue that without the crushing burden of endless proxy wars between Russia and the USA, I would be able to buy even nicer shirts for an even smaller percentage of my income, so perhaps the global oppression is actually harming me as well. Not that I necessarily buy that line of argument, the point is, it's complicated. The paths of blame are not obvious.

On the other hand, if you can do something about it, then you probably ought to. There's a whole spectrum of "well, I could, but the personal cost would be enormous, so, uh, what then" and it gets complicated, I guess. I give you permission to not travel to Syria and take up arms against whichever side you most oppose.

I've made a personal commitment to be more politically active. I'm writing letters on a regular basis to elected officials, because I am informed that This Actually Works (at least, when it's performed as a collective action -- but I can only do it for myself). I'm going to shoot a protest march this coming weekend, and if there's anything at all to be had photographically I'm going to publish it. I don't expect to change the world with a tiny publishing effort. No single soldier ever won a war, but put a whole batch of them together and they can blow up a hell of a lot of real estate. Kaboom.

The odds are that you're pretty irritated, upset, worried about some damn thing or another that your government is up to. Do something about it. Write grouchy letters, if nothing else. It turns out that politicians listen to whoever talks to them, and in the west the biggest problem is that the only people who talk to politicians are moneyed interests. Because of the money and the interest.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Snowdon

Snowdon has died. I shan't bore you with the usual hand-wringing, but will say that he was one of my favorite portraitists.

If you don't know his work, it would behoove you to spend some time with google image search. He did some really marvelous work.

You Can't Add Significance in Post!

I liked the idea of adding "significance" with Photoshop or Lightroom so much that I have taken a little poetic license with the title of this piece. What I mean is something slightly broader.

It seems obvious, perhaps, stated this way. You can't compose your way to significance. You can't push-process, or photoshop your way to it. You can't analyze or explain a photograph to the point that it contains substance. While this is obvious, surely, we see a lot of attempts, through, both from photographers and from critics.

The web is filled with deadly serious photographs of nothing. Landscapes processed lovingly, focus-stacked pictures of bugs, reams of black and white "street" photographs, all basically pictures of nothing much. In many cases, the photographer doesn't have any great aspiration, but in some cases it's clear that the photographer is really hoping to have Made Something.

We see this thing:



which is visually arresting, but ultimately not about anything. It's some cops hustling a protester off the street in exactly the way they are supposed to, in exactly the way that we wish fervently they always would. And so, despite the efforts of the critics, it's not significant.

Compare with this one:



The guy in the background is DEAD, and the guy with the upraised finger just now SHOT HIM. In the west we're pretty confused by this because the dead guy is a Russian (i.e. a bad guy) and the guy with the finger is obviously a TERRIST (i.e. also a bad guy) so the story is not sufficiently black and white for us. Regardless, the picture is and always will have significance. I suspect that in other parts of the world, it's resonating just fine.

Recall the trivial and silly picture "analyzed" on readingthepictures, of the kid "dabbing" as his dad is sworn in. Compare in your mind's eye with the famous photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc. In one a kid is mostly likely indicating that he thinks the pompous and silly ceremony into which he has been drafted is pompous and also silly. In the other on a kid is ON FIRE, as a result of geopolitical fuckery of a fairly high order. One of these pictures has weight, the other does not.

The point, here, is that subject matter trumps all in photography. Because a photograph is a record of what was real, that reality dominates. A painting could be of something trivial or weighty, and be great or not great independently. With few exceptions, not so the photograph.

All we can reasonably expect to accomplish with all our composition or our handling of tone and color is to midwife the content

Which leads us around to the obvious question, which I will phrase here as "Ok, smartass, what about Weston and his goddamned pepper?" To which I respond, "well, obviously there's something a bit more going on someplace, eh?" and that something has, I think, to do with artistic intent, ideas, and the expression thereof. I'm pretty sure Weston's picture has weight (and, obviously, it stands in for a whole class of pictures that have weight while also being of trivial things), but I'm pretty sure Weston put the weight in before he shot it. I'm pretty sure he shot 29 others, for starters.

Also, it's a different sort of thing, somehow, than the pictures above.

More on this as I think about it.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Role of Composition

This is a sort of follow-on, perhaps "conclusion", for these earlier remarks.

If the purpose of Formal Composition is to clarify, support, underline the intent of the artist, the obvious corollary is that there must be some intent to clarify.

This is, it occurs to me, one of the great reasons that "rules" are so harmful. They permit the photographer to ape some of the forms of composition, without any particular purpose to it.

It is as if someone, observing that in such and such a great novel, an owl appears as a metaphor for death. The rule is then derived "use an owl as a metaphor for death", and then all the amateur stories on 50000wrds.com start having an owl jammed into them. Sometimes the owl works marvelously, but more often the owl doesn't really fit and we wonder why the author is heavily belaboring this avian death-metaphor in a story about a puppy.

Later, the rule is modified and becomes "stick an owl in your story" or "use birds as metaphors" or "kill everyone in the story" and now we at any rate have variety, but less sense than ever.

The proper lessons to learn from the novel and the owl are that a metaphor for death, perhaps an owl or similar creature of the night, can be a useful tool in the kit. You need the right sort of story to deploy it, and you need to deploy it in a way that makes sense.

In a similar way we can learn many a useful trick for photographs. Separate the objects of interest from their backgrounds with tone, color, and focus. Visual weight is a real thing, and placing forms within the frame one way will produce a sense of equanimity, of balance. Placing them in the frame in another way will produce a sense of imbalance, unease. Diagonals might introduce a sense of dynamism, or energy. High contrast looks this way, lower contrast looks that way. Deep blacks versus softer greys. These are all the owl as metaphor.

The formal composition of the frame always has to be taken as a whole (Arnheim) to understand anything of the formal qualities of the composition.

When you start a business, or plan a project, the more detailed and thorough your plan, the better the chances of success even though success is rarely just what the detailed plan describes. No plan survives contact with the enemy, but planning is essential. We have a lot of experience with this, without a plan nothing much happens.

I believe that the more intense and detailed your awareness of these three disparate facets you are as you shoot, the better:
  • Your own intentions.
  • The formal tools and details of composition.
  • The stuff that's actually in front of the lens.

The job of the photographer is to bring these three together simultaneously, as best we can. Your intentions may not be fully realized, or even realized at all. The tools of composition may not play out quite the way you hoped. The stuff in front of the lens may misbehave. Still, you're better off prepared than not, even then. Or so I claim, without much in the way of proof.

It feels right, dammit.

But let us never forget that the subject matter rules all. About which more anon.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Pseudo-Intellectual Wankery

I was perusing Conscientious Photographer today, as I know I ought to more often but don't, and was directed to No Caption Needed. More about that latter site shortly, but let me remark here that the title is misleading, since they seem to be in the business of providing rather excessive captions to photographs, presumably on the grounds that the photos need a caption after all.

From No Caption Needed, I was directed to that bastion of wankery, Reading The Pictures, which Lewis Bush also cites from time to time, which should give you the general thrust. So there's a little community of these people out there, it turns out. All with, based on their comment rate, about the same engagement as the blog you are currently reading. That is, very very low. Which, as we shall see, is a good thing.

Let us take a moment and examine the current head post on that last web site. Hello Orwell: On the Congressman’s Kid Who Dabbed Paul Ryan. Great start, a gratuitous reference to Orwell in the title, never explained or expanded upon. The reference to Orwell is pure dog whistle, signalling that we're going to get into some heavy police-state big brother shit (or was Big Brother Aldous Huxley or Yevgeny Zamyatin? It's likely that the author of this piece of shit neither knows nor cares).

This long pseudo-intellectual analysis wants to connect some sort of dots here, suggesting that the "dab" move at that moment "opened a channel from the halls of Congress to a strata of race, attitude and sensibility, as well as language, meme and symbol that largely defies the white, conservative ruling class" to which I can only respond "what the hell?" White liberals seem to think that "dabbing" is some sort of powerful and yet problematic move, like a Black Power salute.

The kid, being a 17 year old white american male certainly intended no such "channel opening", and RtP manages to stop short of claiming that he did, thankfully. But then, how is this magical channel to race, attitude, and all the rest opened? Are we, the viewer, supposed to make that connection? Obviously we cannot, unless RtP shows us the way, because it's an idiotic over-reading of the thing, so is it actually just RtP "opening the channel" here? If so, is this actually just an essay about itself?

Then there's a bunch of shit about how the GOP views the move as sacrilegious, as if the Democratic Senatorial Windbags are somehow more open to laughing these things off.

The whole piece is pseudo-academic posturing, which boils down to "the GOP sucks, hur hur hur" and reminds me of the classic high-school English Lit teacher (I had one of these) who finds allegories for sex and for Christ in absolutely everything.

It's bad analysis of photography, and it's even worse politics. The average person can recognize this sort of thing as BS instantly. This is exactly the sort of thing that the Intellectual Left Wing Elites gobble up with the joy and devotion that my dog eats cat shit (and let me tell you, my dog is devoted to that particular treat, horrible beast that she is). This sort of nonsense does nothing that isn't politically harmful.

Before we move on, let me remind you that I am one of those Intellectual Left Wing Elites. I differ from these people mainly in being less of an idiot.

Before I dig any further in to this, let's see another example this time from No Caption Needed: Fires, Floods, and Photos. Just for fun, let's break it down a paragraph at a time and see what it's actually saying.

Fires burn stuff up. Here is a picture.

Wildfires are the fault of man. Anthropogenic Global Warming, and other human activities.

I like small fires. Big fires are very photogenic, but they are sad because they burn stuff up.

Forest fires are actually necessary for forests but I don't want to talk about that. I want to talk about how terrible fires are. They are terrible and, like all forces of nature, they don't respect personal property very much. Maybe we can learn something here?

Fires don't burn up rivers, or rocks, or air, or dirt, or clouds, or lots of other things, but I want to ever-so-cleverly segue to floods so lets stick to rivers. Fires don't burn up rivers.

Floods are also caused by global warming. Floods are sad, like fires, but different.

Floods are different from fires. Slower, and muddier.

Here is a picture of a woman drying out photos after a flood. I like saying "memory work" it sounds cool. Floods are sad.

Floods, like all other things that affect groups of people like fires, the economy, and rain, are both collective and personal experiences. After a flood, or any other kind of disaster, there is stuff to do to put things right.

There is something to learn from looking at pictures of floods and fires. Different things. I'm not going to tell you what either one is, though, because I don't know.

Yes, I am being sarcastic here, but that is literally what it says. It's like reading the thoughts of a 10 year old who has access to a good thesaurus. When you actually look at what it says, it says "Fires and floods are sad, and caused by Anthropogenic Global Warming" and then twice suggests that we can learn something without so much as hinting what, exactly, we can learn. The last paragraph, maybe, says we can learn that the planet is in danger yet worth saving? But it begins by saying that flood and fire would teach us different lessons, so which one is this, and where's the other one, if so? Also, I kind of knew that the planet was worth saving. I'm using this planet to live on. So is that even a lesson?

This piece seems to me to be, basically, Global Warming is terrible, it's burning all this shit up and flooding the rest! This is a hugely problematic statement. While Anthropogenic Global Warming is a real thing (fuck off, deniers, I won't even publish your retarded comments) but the consensus is that current flooding and fires and whatnot remain within prior normal bounds and should not be ascribed to Global Warming. Indeed, people have been putting out too damn many fires for the health of the environment, ditto controlling floods. For the present, the fire/flood problem isn't Global Warming, it's that people insist on building houses on flood plains, and maintaining picturesque forests where they ought to be radically trimming them down for fire management purposes. In future, the consensus is, it's likely to get a lot worse. Global Warming will, eventually, play a major role. Just not right now

Both RtP and NCN are basically 100% this sort of bullshit. Half-baked political commentary dressed up in pretend analysis of photographs. It is, essentially, identical to the sort of Fake News the authors would decry. While it's not quite the same as "Hillary Wants To Sell Your Organs To Mexico" it is nonetheless false commentaries dressed up in clothing designed to slip the commentary past the inattentive. It's "Republicans are Awful" and "Global Warming is Awful" and "Wars are Awful" served with a side of "Our Side Would Totally Put A Stop To It" which is absolutely untrue. The left wing is just as awful, and is just as in the pocket of the oligarchs whose interests are served by doing not very much about any of these problems.

Any plumber of average intelligence, if confronted by this sort of crap, knows it's BS. His or her instincts are spot on. Furthermore, the plumber is insulted by the pseudo-intellectual elitist tone of the thing, and goes and votes for Donald Trump, or Brexit, because, god damn it he is sick of these wonks in their ivory towers turning (or attempting to turn) this sort of shoddy thinking into endowed chairs and other cushy berths from which to belch.

In short, RtP and NCN and Lewis Bush are precisely the kind of thing that so disenchanted the Average Bloke that he voted for crazy things, just to shut these idiots up. Which didn't work, because the idiots are convinced that if they just double-down, their dumb strategy ought to work.

The hell of it is that I am absolutely on the same side as these idiots. I agree with basically all of the same things, although we probably differ on the details. Mostly I want to punch them in the face until they stop it, but otherwise we're blood brothers.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

H/DJI and Ming

Note: People have been referring to Ventizz, but the correct name of the firm is Vorndran Mannheims, and they are a private equity firm not, as Kevin Raber suggested, a venture capital firm. I botched the name earlier, sorry. I will use VMCap here, which is how they seem to refer to themselves.

Ming Thein's written a remarkably silly bit of analysis of the Hasselblad/DJI situation in which he adds exactly one bit of information, namely Chinese businessmen are sharp dealers who do not invest in things they think will fail. As opposed to whom? Are the Swedes famous for investing in things they're pretty sure will collapse?

First a little background. Suppose that a year ago Hasselblad's outstanding stock consisted of 100 shares, and that VMCap, the private equity firm that acquired H some years ago, owned 80 shares, and DJI owned 20. This is, obviously, simplified for clarity.

In order to infuse cash into H, would DJI buy some of VMCap 80 shares? No, they would not. That is the wrong layer of the ownership onion. Money given to VMCap to buy, say, 31 of their shares, would go to VMCap's fund, and become cash potentially to return to their investors or whatever. That money would not be accessible to H, unless VMCap elected to either loan to it H or purchase new shares of H with it. It is VMCap's money, not Hasselblad's.

If I buy a share of Microsoft from you, does Microsoft get the money? No. Even if I buy every share of Microsoft that's out there, Microsoft sees not one cent.

No, the only way money actually goes to H to fund the company is if H issues more shares. They print up another 100 shares and sell them to DJI. Now DJI owns 120, and VMCap owns 80, and DJI is the majority shareholder. The value of H has changed by the value of however much money DJI gave them for the shares. That cash is now sitting in H's bank account, and counts toward the value of H. So VMCap now owns a smaller slice of a larger pie, not even including things like "and now the projected growth is much bigger to blah blah blah" which is the usual story. There's a thing called a Balance Sheet which you can look up.

There are some odd corner cases. For example, if DJI actually loaned Hasselblad the money, but the loan was collateralized with either newly issued H stock, or paper which can be turned in to newly issued H stock (warrants, I think these things are called). This might actually have happened, and been misinterpreted by Kevin Raber's sources. In a case like this DJI would not be a majority owner, yet, but would be in a position to become one if the loan doesn't get repaid.

Ok, with that background, let us now quote the Marvelous Mr. Thein:

One thing I haven’t yet seen postulated is that the DJI investment was not necessarily a buyout: it may well have been an expansion with issue of new shares (Note: I don’t actually know if this is the case). This makes quite a bit of difference to the interpretation, because buying something over implies that the other party has decided there are better uses for their capital, as opposed to perhaps having to maintain portfolio diversification, or not having more to invest being a closed fund. This kind of corporate action is quite common when companies have to raise more capital for expansion.

Now, I don't actually know what the second sentence really means, it appears to be word salad with a hint of VMCap maybe thinks there are better uses for their money, or maybe they ran out of money in that pot which is frankly self-evident, since they chose not to infuse the cash. Given the background that you and I now both have, this whole paragraph a ludicrous statement. Of course H issued new shares (or, possibly, doled out some shares they had issued but not sold in the past which is functionally identical). Of course it was not a buyout, that would give H $0 in new capital, thereby quite missing the point. I think this is a remarkable statement from someone who has, well, let's quote him again:

I did work in M&A, private equity and at senior operational positions for the better part of 10 years

Mmm hmm.