Saturday, June 23, 2018

Could vs. Would

The most common questions photographers ask about a photograph, or another photographer, boil down to could questions. What skill, technique, what tools do I need, so that I could take such and such a picture? How can I become a photographer who is capable of such and such a photograph?

The filp side if this is the would question. How can I become the photographer that would choose to make that picture? Would choose to shoot that photograph, or that one?

This question is almost literally never asked. It's approached perhaps obliquely in videos about how to develop your style, or whatever, but only obliquely.

This matters, because all the could questions are relatively trivial.

I see people buying mannequins so they can practice their lighting. They want to become a photographer who could set up loop lighting, or Rembrandt, or broad, or high key, or whatever. What they miss is the would question which is really, becoming the photographer who is tuned into the subject enough to take the picture that's right. It's about becoming a person who would do something as much as anything else. Screwing around with a statue to learn how to shoot portraits has got to be one of the most tragically wasteful exercises ever.

When you're in front of a person with a camera, there are 1000 pictures you could take. You could take 24 frames a second. But which one or two or three would you take, would you choose? Do you even have an opinion? You should. And it shouldn't be based on a bunch of technical posing or lighting bullshit. The ability to work with a person, to develop an opinion about which picture you would take, might be the entire point.

And so with everything else. What landscape would you shoot? What still life? Which photograph of Formula 1 cars would you take?

All those could questions are things you can answer pretty easily. Don't overthink 'em.

Become the photographer who would take the pictures that carry some weight that matters to you.

Saturday, June 16, 2018


Commenter JG raises an interesting point with regard to the work I put up in this blog post which I will interpret perhaps somewhat freely (don't ascribe anything I say to JG, especially not anything dumb that I say).

First let me make clear that I think I am on solid ethical ground with respect to the subjects. I made it painfully clear to all that they had the right to withdraw, demand edits or changes, and so on. Their approval, I said repeatedly, was mandatory, because I am attempting to in some sense tell a truth here. In all cases, the subjects at any rate had the opportunity to review the final picture, check the words, and so on. In a couple cases I got no reply, so I cannot swear that they looked, saw, and approved, but in most cases I got a clear thumbs up and in the others the opportunity was there. In all cases the subjects very much projected an attitude of "hey, you do what you feel is right, it's all good" from the very beginning.

I am very comfortable that I treated my subjects well.

This leads around to the viewers, however.

I elected to use handwriting rather than print for the quotations, primarily to lend a sense of veritas to the thing. There's also a stylistic element, there are a few other elements in the book that are also hand written, so the book has the main theme in print and the counterpoint in handwriting, but that is distinctly a secondary use.

I could weasel around and say that it's obvious that the people didn't write it themselves, Jackie and Clove mysteriously have the same handwriting and there are a few other tells, but that's bullshit. I mixed up the writing styles for visual interest, but also to lend a little weight to the notion that these at least could have been written by the subjects. I certainly, willfully, leave the door open for you to believe that. It wasn't a fully conscious choice, but it was without question a choice I made.

So while the pictures are of the real people, and the words are the words they spoke, I have not only selected a few of the words they spoke, and I have written them out in my own hand as a device. The result is a blend of truth and artifice, with the line between the two made vague, and made so on purpose. It isn't the main purpose, it wasn't a part of some nefarious master plan, but I made those choices, and there they are.

Still, there is always a lot of artifice in photography. There is the usual litany of elements: the pictures are not in color, they represent a slice of time, they are of a pose, they are cropped. The quotations are "cropped" as well, and I led the people through an interview which surely skewed their words, and anyways those words were spoken then at a specific moment in time. Those people are all slightly different today. Etcetera and so forth.

I can live with one more element of artifice, but as JG notes (I think), it is artifice, it is a falsehood, smuggled in somewhat under the cover of darkness.

How does it compare with, say, photoshopping out a lamppost? (something I would never do!)

Friday, June 15, 2018


Having recently made some photographs that feature quotations, I was struck by the resemblance of a quoted remark to a photograph.

If I talk to you for a while, or read something you wrote, I might pull one of two lines of material from that. A sentence, a phrase, a short paragraph. By selecting what of that which you chose to say, I act in a role equivalent to that of the photographer. The photographer and I each select a single limited snippet of a larger whole, and display it.

This could be my best effort to represent the whole. It could be completely slanted, up to and including being the precise opposite of your actual intention in your words.

I am, in effect, "cropping" your words. This inevitably will emphasize certain aspects, de-emphasize others, and thus shape perceived meaning. In my previous post, I showed you some photographs and some quotations. The quotations, while verbatim and literally true in that sense, represent a conscious effort on my part to cast the photographed person, or people, in a revolutionary mold. I tried my best to balance the actual intended meaning of the interview as a whole with my desired narrative, and I am convinced that I dealt fairly with my subjects. I did warn them, every one, that the intent was to select quotes and to shape meaning.

And so I did that. I shaped the meaning of their words.

And then I superimposed those words, with their shaped meaning, on another object (the photo) intended to increase the perception of veracity.

I have made things which appear very true: This actual person, who you can see, spoke these very words.

And yet, the meaning was shaped. I bent the words spoken to suit my artistic goal. Not, I hope, too far. Not, I hope, beyond what the subject might reasonably have meant.

Indeed, I hope that by shaping their words, I can in some small way influence my interview subjects to adopt the slightly radicalized, the slightly more pointed, position that I imposed upon their picture. I will be giving a copy of the book to each of them.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

More Work

Some time ago I wrote this blog post about America's obsession with Guns, Cars, and Money. I even threw it into blurb's book making tool at some point, and fiddled around with it and tried to make sense of it.

Gloomy, depressing, and not necessarily with much of a point to it.

Eventually as I reported earlier I decided to interview younger people and see what they had to say, maybe build a more optimistic counter-narrative to go with the gloomy essay.

These are the results of those interviews, and the book is now in production. An edition of TWENTY FIVE which is a record for me. I'm going big.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Knowledge and Stuff

A friend of mine blogs on what I think I can fairly call a virulently anti-religious web site. While my friend is a bright fellow who is working hard to figure some things out, the community present there is... not. There's a lot of talk about how objectively stupid it is to believe in God which devolves rapidly into a competition to see who can most quickly illustrate their total unfamiliarity with the Old Testament while simultaneously saying the most horrible things about Christians.

I am not a devotee of any religious faith, but I find this sort of thing incredibly boring. Still, as this sort of thing does, it got me to thinking. "Why, exactly, is it objectively stupid to believe in a diety?"

So, my rough and ready grasp of mathematical philosophy in hand, I spent some time with Wikipedia's page on epistemology. I understand philosophy the way a welder understands ship design, which can carry you a surprisingly long way.

My rough and ready summary is that Epistemologists are concerned with the difference between a Belief and Knowledge. The latter is distinguished from the former by a process of Justification. Justification takes several forms depending on which school of epistemology you hew to, but in general comes out to a correspondence with the real world, in the sense of having predictive power.

Knowledge is the collection of beliefs about the strength of metal that allow us to build a bridge that will not fall down when the train passes over it. Whatever the process for justifying our beliefs about metals, welds, truss shapes, and so on, they are justified, the proof of the justification being observed when the train passes over the bridge without a collapse.

Knowledge is great stuff, I approve of knowledge. I was trained as a mathematician, and spent 20+ years writing software. I love predictability and correspondence with the real world.

But the religious believer, confronted with this and asked to provide Justification for their Belief in a God, correctly responds "but I'm not trying to build a bridge here." The sort of half-assed rationalist program that insists belief in a deity is "just objectively stupid" is itself simply on the wrong track. Predictability, correspondence with the real world, all those things that distinguish Knowledge from Belief, are simply not on the table. Someone in the conversation is definitely objectively stupid, but it's not the believer.

As a non-believer myself, what the hell does this have to do with anything, let alone photography?

Well, I suspect that Art falls into the same general camp. We're not trying to build bridges here. Predictability and correspondence with the real world are not relevant factors here.

We're trying to create experiences, feelings, emotional reactions. We're trying to create impressions and ideas. We know we're not going to get through to 100% of the viewers. Some artists might not care to get through to any viewers at all. Some would be content with half. Even talking about what percentage will "get it" seems to miss the essential point, somehow.

While human vision, sensation, and the human brain are (we suppose) just physics when all is said and done, this does not mean that some rationalist approach is going to get us anywhere. We might as well try to predict the weather by modeling the atmosphere as a shitload of molecules. We might as well try to understand biology in terms of Quantum Physics. None of these programs work, and so I theorize that any sort of rationalist approach to Art is at least as doomed to failure.

Arnheim and people like him have made credible cracks at nibbling away at it from a rationalist stance, but in the end they have not turned Art into a Science. They have built or discovered a handful of rules of thumb, perhaps a staff to lean on as we embark into the wilderness. The staff does not render the wilderness tame.

Luckily, we don't have to model the brain as a vast collection of interacting molecules. It happens that each of us possesses a more or less functioning brain of our own.

We have the capacity to feel, to emote, to imagine. Vast portions of our brain appear to be devoted to guessing what someone else's brain is up to based on facial expression, body language, eye movements, and so on. We can use our own brain to feel around what others might feel. If we let go of the Justification demanded by Knowledge, we can do something lovely, something that has its own, forgive the new-agey verbiage, its own truth.

Good work is done, I think, by following pure, unjustified, Belief, wherever it may lead.

Photographers, and I count myself among them, are perhaps alone among Artists in seeking some sort of rationalist underpinning to the enterprise. They want to know what the effect of moving the light up a little will have. They want to know how to make pictures that people will Definitely Like. They want the predictability of Knowledge.

This shows up in endless books about how to take better pictures. This shows up in the fanatically metric driven sharing web sites, in the burgeoning cottage industry of AI software that will Judge Your Picture or Fix Your Picture.

Photographers want Knowledge about photography. They don't want to Believe things, they want Justification. They want to be able to stamp out Good Photography in a predictable way. Photography in popular culture, in the magazines and web sites, proves over and over and over that the rationalist approach to Art is utterly bankrupt. It leads nowhere.

But we're not building bridges here.

You're on the wrong track entirely. Look more. Feel more. Just wing it sometimes.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Female Gaze II

I may have been slightly hasty in my previous remarks. Go figure!

I spent some time this morning just plain poking around to see what "female gaze" seems to mean out in the wild. The primary usage is in movies and TV shows, in narrative motion picture world. It makes a lot of sense there. These objects are built on a story which can be -- for instance -- literally told from a woman's point of view. There is a wealth of telling detail in the plot, the script, the set decoration, the direction, which can make the whole thing read as "real" at least in theory. Usually female gaze implies some degree of female authorship; the writer, the director, or both may be women. But the staff as a whole is assumed to be mixed, which helps to dodge a problem I'll go in to shortly.

I will believe, at least tentatively, that there are movies and novels which could only have been made by a woman.

If you restrict your search to "female gaze photography" you seem to hit a pretty short list of things. All of them are photographs of women by women.

Some pieces you'll see are retrospectives, which more or less reiterate the basic notion that women tend, slightly, to have a more emotionally open take, a more sympathetic eye. There's usually a sniff of "woo, women photographers, so special" but it's not overt.

Some pieces you find work on an overtly feminist narrative, usually talking about new and upcoming female photographers who are expressing a new, distinctly female, view of the world. This is where you find the nudes, but you also find a mass of outré gimmickry. Let's throw grass on the naked model, to subvert the patriarchy! Sherman gets dragged out in these pieces pretty routinely. The trouble with this work is that there's nothing particularly female about it, it's just outré pictures of women with some feminist text attached about how the gimmicks are actually bold attacks on heteronormativepatriarchy. Think up some gimmicks and you can do it too.

There does not appear to be anything here that is the equivalent of the mass of telling detail we might find in a movie written and directed by women, a mass of detail inaccessible to most men, a mass which renders a distinctly feminine take on the story. It's just grass clippings and blank expressions.

The last major thing we find is book projects. Again, pictures of women by women, which may include some of the material mentioned above, or may (as in the case of, say, Rayon Vert) be more or less just perfectly nice pictures of beautiful women, portrayed sympathetically, but not unusually so.

Notably missing in all of this is much of any reference to Berger's idea of portraying woman as they are, as their true selves. I, a white heterosexual male, have more truthful pictures of my wife than anything I saw in my morning's research.

Notably missing also, at least to my eye, is much sense of these works being things that could only have been made by a woman, or by women. If you weaken the proposition to would only have been made by a woman, it's not quite as bad. But still, nude women looking emo, blank-eyed models staring neutrally at the camera, lesbians holding hands, seem to be things that not only would have been made by men, but have been, ad nauseum.

The rebuttal to my position is likely to be something along the lines of "Andrew, you're just not seeing what I am seeing" which is possible. I am not, however, a wildly unsophisticated viewer of photographs. If I can't see it, you can be certain that many many many other people can't see it, and you should probably be open to the possibility that whatever it is you see is not actually present.

A common thread through the whole mess is this high risk strategy:

The use of the phrase female gaze is invariably used as part of a program to carve out a women-only space in Art. In cinema, this seems to actually make some sense. Complex narrative does genuinely reflect the lived experience of the author, and at present men and women experience life differently.

In photography this simply is not true. Your lived experience turns up, perhaps, here and there in small ways, but there is no monopoly on any of the material. It's simply too easy to copy tropes, and to borrow ideas, even unconsciously.

If, as a man, I attempted to write a novel or a movie from a woman's point of view, it would be a pastiche of lifted scenes detailing what it's like to check one's makeup in the mirrored walls of the elevator, and so on. The seams would surely be visible, and the whole would surely read as both false, and plagiarized. I can lift a photographic trope seamlessly, however. I don't have to stitch 100s of the things together to make a movie, I just need to borrow a couple to make a series of 20 pictures.

Female gaze in photography, as an attempt to carve out a women-only Photography, has two basic problems.

There doesn't seem to be anything particularly "female" or "male" in photographs, beyond a barely discernable subtle trend. Thus, this Photography risks (and is well on its way toward) becoming a set of tropes that you simply bang out. When men copy it, you can yell at them, and dismiss it as bullshit because they "don't get it" but their pictures will be indistinguishable from the "real" ones.

While I will stipulate that there may be a distinctly "female" way to make a film or write a novel, photography feels a lot more like carpentry to me. While there might be a female way to drive a nail, in the end the house will look much the same whether built by men or by women. So with the photograph.

The second problem is that once you segregate Art into "women-only" and "everything else" you set up to be attacked. The very next step in the program is for the power structure to start tearing down the women-only Art as inferior. If you've let it fall into the trap of simply being a basket of dunderheaded tropes, the attack is going to work, and by god it should work.

By all means, celebrate, uplift, encourage, and above all pay the female photographer. But don't pretend that her vagina magically imbues her pictures with some special, indefinable but clearly visible (albeit only to the anointed) way. It doesn't. If you see anything, you're almost certainly just seeing a handful of the emerging basket of easy tropes that are well on their way to defining the "female gaze" genre of uninteresting pictures.

If indeed we do end up with a simple basket of easily ripped off tropes being "female gaze," well, that's going to be a tremendous waste of a lot of things.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

"Female Gaze"

I'm not sure I actually have much to add past what I wrote some time ago back here. But I am going to take a swing at it, because I've been reading and thinking for a while now.

The executive summary is: I think the phrase "female gaze" is, mostly but perhaps not entirely, code for "pictures of boobs but it's ok to enjoy them because female gaze" which is basically a scam. The goal is to make pictures men will like (boobs) while giving them an escape hatch from just being pervs.

I've been slowly working through a couple of volumes on the history of women in photography. Essentially, it seems to boil down to "same as it ever was." There have always been opportunities (variously limited), there have always been female photographers (sometimes more, sometimes less, never as many as male), there is often pushback, there is lower pay, there are specific genres that tend to be female dominated. But always, there are a few, a very few, who break into the most male dominated corners of the profession, of the field.

Having looked in the last weeks at many hundred photographs exclusively by women, I am slightly more firm in my notion that I could pick photographs by women out at a rate slightly better than random. Designing a proper test, though, remains intractably difficult. At this point I would simply recognize a lot of the pictures by female photographers that you could dig up easily.

Still, there does seem to be a slight tendency toward better emotional content, a more open, perhaps tender, approach. A difference more felt than seen, and correspondingly difficult to get your arms around -- and therefore quite possibly a chimera after all.

Whatever the differences, they are slight, unreliable. Men and women take, mostly, the same pictures. The difference between Artist A and Artist B will always be far far greater than the difference between Woman A and Man B, as photographers.

Back around to that male gaze thing.

As noted in the comments the last time I visited this, John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" is relevant. Notably, Episode 2, which centers on The Nude. I spent some time watching and rewatching this thing lately, to try to extract from it Berger's way of thinking of these things and see how that fits with my own. I think I am largely aligned with him.

As I understand it, Berger's position and the approximate position of the women he interviews in the latter half of the segment, is that women are visually judged as if they were being examined by a man. There are ideas of availability (for sex), of the woman waiting for the man, and so on. This particularly appears in The Nude (The Nee-ood) in which the woman is explicitly displayed, is wearing in some sense a costume of her own flesh, posturing submissively for the male viewer. Even other women will judge a woman on these same criteria, because (as I noted in my earlier remarks) this whole mess is a long-standing social construct.

Berger notes that, occasionally, a woman will be depicted in a way that actually suggests herself, on her own terms, as she actually is rather than as she is objectified.

All of this material seems to swirl around the same set of ideas I favor when thinking about portraiture, the idea of the various masks we wear. There are the unguarded moments, the subject at ease just before perceiving the camera. There is Arbus's favorite instant, a moment later, when the face closes. There are various other masks that the poor portraitist imagines is his art -- the "camera face", and then there are the other poses and masks that appear later as the subject and portraitist work.

Berger's discussion, while never using the phrase, is clearly about "male gaze" probably because that phrase does not appear until 3 years after Berger's show. What makes it interesting and useful is that he provides a useful, if largely hypothetical, notion of what the opposite might be. If the underlying idea is of the woman posing or being made to pose, as an object for the judgement and pleasure of an abstractly conceived male viewer, then the opposite is the woman not so posing. In this, the woman appears as herself, as some kind of truthful representation of herself.

This, now, a bit sticky. Is this something that even makes sense? Is there a singular true Self that might shine through? I am not certain. I am content, though, with the notion that a picture might reveal more or less of some True Self or another.

The simplest case here is surely the action shot. The nude dancer, the nude rock climber (see Stone Nudes) are at any rate surely too busy to be doing much submissive posing for a notional male viewer.

As an aside, occasional commenter Eric Kellerman, accomplishes this is much the same way. He's doing some abstracting, and in that way objectifying his subjects, but they certainly are not "posing" in Berger's sense, they're not focusing on appearing available to the notional male viewer. They're quite busy making abstract shapes, they're fully engaged in something else. In a way, the game here is to override the default, easy "pose" of available-to-male-gaze by insisting upon another pose, one that demands the entire attention and body of the model.

Just as I imagine I see a specific moment in an Arbus picture, a specific mindset in the subject, one might imagine a similar phenomenon in a more passive picture. Berger makes the case for 3 paintings which he characterizes as quite different from the usual European nudes, which he feels depict the woman as herself rather than as the object of the man's view. Looking at these, I see, I think, what he means. The women, while more or less in repose, feel more introspective, they feel as if they are perhaps not posing, posturing, intimately aware of the painter's gaze. The subjects appear to be in themselves, inhabiting their own bodies as it were, without much concern for the viewer. They are, in a way, just as busy as the Stone Nudes, but with their own thoughts and emotions rather than with The Wall.

Which leads us around to Jörg Colberg's latest, a review of yet another bunch of sexy pictures of young women, by a woman, supposedly under the safe umbrella of the female gaze. Now I don't know what the hell Jörg means when he says "female gaze" and I am moderately certain that he doesn't either. He could no doubt write or speak a torrent of words about it, but they would not mean anything.

Let us examine the sample pictures from Rayon Vert through the lens of my interpretation of what John Berger has to say.

I dunno about you, but I ain't seeing it. These women appear to be completely aware of the gaze of the camera, indeed they appear uncomfortably aware. They strike me as struggling to pretend that it's not there, while simultaneously posing in the usual ways. The first one, in color, might be a moment as the model is in motion, or any number of things, but what it appears to be is a model literally thrusting her nipples toward the camera, while demurely looking away in a transparent and clumsy sham of introspection and unawareness.

This is soft-core porn dressed up in the guise of 3rd wave feminism, with a bunch of words about rejecting the patriarchy. This makes it ok for people like Jörg Colberg to look at some pretty young tits while allegedly not being patriarchal assholes.

I like looking at pretty young tits, whether they're posing, posturing, oblivious, or something else entirely. I decline to feel shame about this. I also decline to be taken in by some would be artist "giving me permission" as long as I toe the line on a bunch of post-modernist bullshit. I don't need your permission, and I don't need your po-mo bullshit either.

Now, I dare say it is possible to truly photograph a nude woman, in repose, at a moment of un-selfconsciousness. A woman, perhaps still posing, but at any rate not posing under the aegis of traditional male-based ideas. It might be easier to photograph such a woman simply pretending successfully, it is after all, called "acting" and I suppose it's possible. It's bloody rare.

I can think of a small handful of such pictures, maybe.

What seems to be all too common is female artists photographing naked women, often but not always beautiful, and then writing some nice sounding text that lets men off the hook because "female gaze", which allows the men to quietly and yet publicly enjoy the tits, leading the men to say nice things about the art. That's one way to get a grant, a show, or a book deal, I suppose.