Thursday, March 25, 2021

(Pinned Post, See Below for New Content)
  A Policy Note:

I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smokes clears. This is not a judgement about other writers, other sources, there's good information that ought to be shared, there are personal stories that are interesting and compelling.

There's also room for other work, and I intend to pursue that here.

If it looks like I'm going to die, I will try to put a note here so you know to delete your bookmarks.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Something to Look At

Via Reading The Pictures, we have this photo:

Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post 

Michael Shaw offers his typically blockheaded discussion here, which I will request that you peruse at some point. Let us inventory the thing. Back to front, let's say.

A sunset, or possibly a sunrise. A statue of some sort with a standing figure, a bowed figure, and some other shit I can't make out. Small and out of focus, but probably recognizable to anyone familiar with the statue, unrecognizable otherwise. A fence and some kind caution tape, possibly but not certainly to barricade the statue. Some people out of focus doing various things, nothing particularly recognizable. One might be taking a photo, or drinking from a flask as far as we can tell. Some temporary waste containers.

Two figures in the foreground.

A young black women with braided hair, un-striking clothing, a bandanna-style mask with writing on it, pulled down off her face. Her posture is mostly relaxed, hip slightly cocked, hands behind her back. Posture might have a hint of some kind of tension in it. Her chin is up, she gazes upwards slightly, eyes rolled further to the sky. Her expression is neutral. She has an attitude, maybe, of studied calm. Consistent with a sense that she is waiting, almost but not quite patiently. Equally consistent with a sense that she is listening intently and with focus.

An older white man a couple of feet away, close, looks directly at the young woman with brows apparently furrowed. One hand is in his pants pocket, the other is spread wide, possibly but not certainly gesturing at the statue. Possibly also at the waste bins, or something else, or nothing at all. He leans forward toward the young woman, there is a clear intensity to his posture. He appears hot, possibly excited. His posture is consistent with talking intently to the young woman, with a degree of tension. He is masked, so we cannot be sure he is even talking, but we guess that he is.

We are, I think, certain that there is some interaction between the two foreground figures, which has been going on for a little while at least. More than the last few seconds. Perhaps at least a minute or two, and maybe a lot longer. The two figures appear to be interacting, with intensity but without any obvious tell of pleasure or satisfaction.

The overall structure of the photograph certainly suggests an intense discussion between the two figures, and the photographer has indeed placed the backlit statue dramatically between them. Since, according to the caption, they were indeed arguing about the statue, the structure of the photo does indeed match the ground truth. Good job, Evelyn Hockstein.

Now would be a good time to read Michael's analysis if you haven't yet. He does his usual prog-left "analysis" which tells us a great deal about Michael Shaw and very little about the picture. He does the weird thing where he notices random geometrical coincidences, and assigns meaning to them. He does not tell us what he intends here, though: Is this meaning the photographer intended? Is it meaning that everyone would see? Is it just meaning Michael sees? Who knows! It could be anything, because Michael is not going to say. He just notices the juxtapositions as if they have import, and moves on. Why doesn't he notice that the texture of tree resembles the texture of the young woman's hair? Why not notice that the word TRASH is written on WHITE plastic as if to label the man as WHITE TRASH? Who the fuck knows.

But let us stipulate that apart from a few minor quibbles what Michael sees in the photo is a perfectly good reading, and much of what he sees people of his political stripe would see.

I will note that Michael says Or who has the greater exposure to the virus? and what he surely means is that people of color are getting sick more than white dudes. What is present in the picture, though, is an unmasked black woman interacting with a masked white man, and let us recall my mask protects you, your mask protects me so we have a little conflict here which Michael, being a prog-left dolt, simply ignores.

Anyways. Michael sees mansplaining, whitesplaining, a white man's rendition of history. Which, sure, you can totally read into this.

What Michael does not notice is the equally reasonable alternate reading, which is of an earnest white man trying to engage with a young woman who is responding by rolling her eyes and waiting for him to stop making mouth noises because OK boomer. This is surely what someone who wants the statue to not be torn down would see in this photo.

The man can be understood as irrationally furious, earnest, tired, or any and all of those things. Depending on your politics, you will see him in whatever way suits you. The woman can be understood as listening intently, or as arrogant and dismissive, or anywhere in between. Depending on your politics, you will see her in whatever way suits you. Regardless, the way you read this photo will reveal much about you, as it has revealed (again) much about Michael Shaw.

Honestly, how can you take the white guy more proximate to the waste bin seriously? Shaw is like my high school English teacher who found symbols for Jesus and for sex in every book.

Me? I think you should take all the monuments down. Monuments are stupid. Or, leave 'em all up, but march all the schoolkids past 'em every year as teachable moments. Anything but leave them there to catch bird shit and do nothing. Honestly, people don't even see these things after a little while.

Monday, June 29, 2020

It's all Social

Here is a fun fact. Suppose you are the CEO of a privately held company, and that you and the board have decided that your plan to get rich is to sell the company to, say, IBM. It doesn't matter who your buyer is. Your next move is to find someone who's recently sold a company kind of like yours to IBM, and hire that someone. Make them VP of something, anything, it doesn't matter.

Corporate mergers and acquisitions are driven by who knows who. Deals are driven by people who have already done deals. This doesn't mean that IBM will buy garbage, but given two decent looking deals, they'll choose one. Your new VP gives you a big leg up, and the expense is essentially zero. He might even be an OK VP of whatever.

The MACK First Book Award, which was established in 2012 to support emerging artists and bodies of work that find a voice through the book form was just awarded to a guy who first exhibited 26 years ago, got an MFA 20 years ago, and lists 4 solo exhibitions, about 45 group projects/ exhibitions, 11 grants/awards, and 4 collections in his CV. I am so pleased that Damien Heinisch is finally able to emerge after nearly 30 years of work.

Just today I saw a remark to the effect that Lena Dunham (writer and showrunner, I think) sold her first show to HBO on the basis of a ridiculously scant pitch. The complaint was that she, obviously, sold the show because of her family connections and not because her pitch was any good.

None of these stories are really about insiders thinking "hurr hurr hurr, we gotta keep the outsiders out because it's our club!" although that is the effect.

No, when Lena Dunham comes in with her one page of scribbled notes, the social dynamics are different. When you know Lena, you're more relaxed, more open. You read the notes, and think a bit, and the idea opens before you. You fill in a lot of shit in your head (probably not the way Lena intended, but it's your head) and you say to yourself this is dogshit. dogshit that people will watch the hell out of! Lena gets the deal.

The (imaginary) well respected guy who came in before Lena, who had a really coherent and thorough pitch for something that was not dogshit, but that people would still have watched the hell out of, well, you don't actually know that guy. A friend of a friend said he's really well respected in South Africa and has done some amazing stuff, but you've never seen it.

You are not as open to this fellow's idea. His idea does not spontaneously flower in your mind into a vision that feels right, it remains words on a page. You have to struggle a little to visualize it at all. You do not offer him a deal.

But let's be clear, the fact that Lena is the daughter of your best friend, and the fact that the other guy is black, while causal, are not proximate causes. The ingroup, the private club, asserts itself relentlessly, but it's not the proximate cause. The proximate cause is this sort of vague social grease that makes you actually perceive one project as worthy and the other as not.

If some rando approaches you on the street and asks to borrow five bucks, you probably say no. If a friend does the same, you might well say yes.

Now, if you're pretending to operate a meritocracy, this is a bit of a problem. My $5 loan business is not a meritocracy, and I don't pretend it is. HBO's pitch process, MACK's first book award, and corporate M&A activity, all pretend to some degree to be meritocracies. They are not.

People are tribal, social, animals. I think one could argue that pretending things are meritocracies is just stupid in the first place.

I think it is fairly obvious that we do not benefit, in the long run, from a bunch of relentless closed clubs. It is, therefore, beneficial to try to continuously pry the closed clubs open, to break them down, to create new ones, and so on.

Still, rather than thinking those hypocritical fuckers! we must tear this facade down and erect in its place a true meritocracy! is both not very productive, and a fantasy. You can no more erect a meritocracy than Michael Mack can.

There are really two threads of thought that come out of this.

The first is that the tearing open of closed clubs should not, I think, be viewed as some sort of revolutionary gateway to a better world. That's mostly just not going to happen. Local improvements, sure, but also local failures. Change, and maybe some slow overall progress, sure. Revolutionary change leading to utopia, nope.

This doesn't mean revolutionary activity shouldn't happen. There is benefit to a kind of dynamic equilibrium here, even if no real progress is possible. Shifting barriers around creates temporary opportunities, cross-fertilization, social benefits of many kinds. Fixed, closed, clubs lead nowhere but to inbred stagnation. Even just moving the deck chairs around is substantively better than that.

The second thing is the super secret road to success: acknowledge the social aspects of it all.

Do you want to be an M&A person? Find the guy who sold a company and just got hired as VP of whatever, and get a job as his assistant. Do you want to win an award for emerging artists? Go schmooze, be social, work your ass off for a few decades. If you want to sell a show to HBO, um, choose your parents wisely I guess.

Art, like everything else, is a highly social game played by highly social animals. Relying on your awesome work to carry you is a fool's game, and definitely Will Not Work. Relying on your awesome work, together with your angry Tik-Tok videos in which you call out the Tate and the MOMA, hilariously according to your mom, at least once a week is also not going to go very far.

You gotta schmooze. You gotta show up and make friends and pitch in.

If you and Michael Mack's second favorite designer happen to share a love of cheese, and bond over that at a festival here, an opening there, your chance of getting a book deal at MACK goes up. I don't even mean this as an indictment of MACK, it's just they way of the world. I'm not sure why anyone would want a book deal at MACK but apparently it's a thing. Anyways, almost literally everything works this way.

So, uh, wear your cheese shirt proudly at as many openings and festivals as you can.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Crit: Extinction Party by Jonathan Blaustein

This book crossed my radar a bunch of times. I think I was aware of the kickstarter campaign in November of 2019, and I've seen mentions of it here and there (not least because I read Blaustein on aPhotoEditor). Initially I was completely uninterested. Absolutely not my thing. But damn it, that drip marketing works, and so eventually I came around to thinking it might after all be my cup of tea. At some point in there I asked him for a favor, and he was very nice about it, which led me — primed to buy — to actually buy. Probably he popped into mind in part because of the book, so keep that in mind. Publish a book, and the mooks are gonna start crawling out of the woodwork with favors to ask.

Anyways, here we are.

So, what is this thing? You can buy it here, while supplies last. It's about 50 pictures, from four different projects. Two essays, and two anecdotes. All in a slim volume, well-made, with a foil embossed graphic of a mask on the cover.

The essays tell you what it's about. It's about consumerism, consumption, and the effects of that on the planet. It directly indicts us, you, me, the reader. At the same time it indicts the wealthy even harder. So, that's about right. But, anyone can write an essay about that, and god damn near everyone has at this point. The question is whether the pictures support the thesis in a good way.

The answer is, yeah they do, but let's look at how.

The four projects here are as follows, in no particular order:

MINE which is a series of studio studies of natural objects arranged or built into sculptural forms, and captioned My <whatever> so My dirt and My snow and My mushroom or whatever. The caption is the key here, Blaustein is explicitly claiming stuff from the natural world that is, in absolutely no meaningful way, his.

Party City is The Devil is a series of studio studies of objects purchased at Party City, arranged in sculptural forms, and captioned neutrally with an inventory of what's in the frame, Blue spoons and green tablecloth. These are very brightly colored, and Blaustein uses formal color theory a lot here. Blue and orange show up a lot.

The Value of a Dollar is a series of studio studies of one dollar's worth of various edible products, arranged in sculptural forms, captioned One dollar's worth of <whatever>.

Recycling my Junk is a series of studio studies of things Blaustein was throwing out, arranged, you may have guessed, in sculptural forms and captioned with various whimsical, tangential, remarks.

Ok, so what do we have? Blaustein may do more in his life, but these four projects which have consumed much of his time for many years are very very similar. They are objects, arranged sculpturally, and photographed in the studio. The frames contain nothing but the subject, and perhaps a little neutral background. There is no implied world around the objects, they are explicitly arranged to be seen by themselves without any visual context.

This, essentially, is why I have been wrestling recently with what a photograph of artifice actually does. I knew I was likely to want to make sense of this thing, so I best have a theory handy, right?

Let us clear some underbrush first.

The sequence is very strong in the visual/graphical sense. The visual connections frame-to-frame are very dense and well done. I have learned that the publisher, Jennifer Yoffy, did most of the work here. One assumes that Blaustein and the designer (Caleb Marcus) spent the year mooching around drinking coffee and talking smart while a woman did all the work. As a feminist I am, naturally, outraged. (You in the cheap seats? It's a joke, settle down.)

All the text is set in this bland-ass sans font which I hate hate hate. But I am a known fontist, number three on the Southern Typographical Law Center's list I think, with very strong and inappropriate opinions, so there's that. The covers caught my eye, because the elements are centered on the boards rather than the book — the spine material does not seem to have been considered here. The result is that the title (on the back) and the mask graphic (on the front) both appear to be set forward on the book. I don't know if this is a deliberate detail to.. I don't know, create unease? It feels like a design flub, in a book that is very well designed indeed.

So that's the design bits and pieces. It's well done, elements are thoroughly considered, the thing is a very pleasing and elegant object. I would not say it feels sumptuous, but it definitely feels done up right and I am pleased to have it in my house.

Moving on to what it might mean, and how it works conceptually. Let us suppose that I've got it right, and that what a photograph actually does is it brings the viewer, you, to the subject in a sort of metaphor of teleportation.

If you are being brought to the subject, rather than the other way around, or something else, it follows that you are being explicitly brought to Blaustein's studio. You are being brought there for a pretty explicit purpose: so he can lecture you.

Now, this sounds pretty bad. But Blaustein is not literally snatching you off the street and yelling at you, it's just a book! Calm down! What I mean is that the book is didactic, by design. The notion that, metaphorically, you travel to the subject rather than the reverse is really just a device to explain how the thing is didactic. It is a bit lecture-y, but never in an annoying way. The captions are the lecture, and they are short, sometimes witty, never strident.

I attended a webinar thingy a few days ago, about the making of this book. The making was a pretty Cadillac process with most of the trimmings. Designer, Publisher, Offset Presses in Europe, a year of effort, and so on. In the discussion, Blaustein suggested that mashing these four projects together was not particularly easy, and I have to say I am a little baffled by that. The projects seem to fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

It may be that he was having trouble making the work together graphically, rather than conceptually, though. As concepts they work perfectly in concert.

The Value of a Dollar hammers home how cheap bad food is, and how expensive high quality food is. Party City is the Devil highlights a bunch of other useless cheap shit. MINE covers the all too human attitude of simply assuming ownership of anything that's not nailed down. Recycling my Junk is maybe the weakest here? Still, Blaustein drags out a handful of cheap consumerist shit objects and shows them to us. They're the kind of thing we seem to "need" 100s of. Thumbtacks. Dusters. Why do we need so god damned many objects?

This brings us around to the two anecdotes and two photos I haven't mentioned. There was a dead deer one winter, and Blaustein took a foot off it, and photographed it in the same style he uses for everything else (having failed to take off its head). Later, his mother-in-law gifted him with the head, which he also photographed. This is one of two dead animals in the book.

The deer parts are the only full bleed pages in the book, the head being a two-page full bleed spread. We're supposed to notice these things. Also, I do not think they're officially part of any project, although he claims the head — kind of — as part of MINE by captioning it My dear head (not a typo.)

What are we to make of this? The deer, we learn in the anecdotes, was not the victim of environmental disaster as far as anyone knows. It was just a deer that died, as they do sometimes, in winter. I think it is intended, though, to stand in for all the deer, all the non-human life. Its deadness leaps off the page. The foot and the head are photographed with greater depth than anything else in the book (Blaustein tends to render things rather flat, planar). It is maybe the most real thing in the book.

At the same time, in contrast to everything else, the deer's meaning is left more open. We are not boxed about the ears with its meaning, it's there to be made sense of on our own terms. Blaustein's use of the word "dear" in the caption suggests, I guess, that he values the deer in ways that he doesn't value most of the other shit he's photographed, which certainly makes sense.

So, Blaustein teleports us to his studio and lectures, us, persuasively and fairly inoffensively, about how bad our consumer culture is. He rubs our nose in object after object that support this point.

Look at all this garbage we buy. Why is garbage from 10,000 miles away so cheap, and quality so expensive? Why do we claim every damn thing that's not nailed down? What the fuck are we even doing, how can this even make sense? And oh christ look at this poor fucking deer. We chopped it apart for photographs.

There is a certain irony in a book indicting cheaply made brightly colored Shit You Can buy being itself an inexpensive, brightly colored, Thing You Can Buy. Thanks to Blaustein, I have another goddamned object in my life which I cannot eat, which gives me no shelter, which provides me no warmth.

I bought it because I liked it, and I still like it, but man, we like so much shit, you know?

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Teleporter

I've been noodling again on what a photograph actually does and have a new analogy to try out on you all.

A photo, by its indexical nature, or the fact that it looks very very real, or whatever the hell, evokes its subject in a particularly photographic way. I have been thinking of this in terms of it metaphorically bringing the subject to you. The metaphor of the window gets dragged out, and I think not just by me.

What if, instead, we imagine that the photograph brings you to the object?

Without, of course, all the usual trappings of the teleporter as a science fiction device. You're not actually in the war zone, you're not in danger, you have no concerns about how you're going to get home. But the mental gymnastics you perform perhaps make more sense if you treat it as you going there, rather than the subject coming here.

When you see a fashion photo, a model in a dress, a greyhound at her feet, you are not looking through a window at her. The greyhound and dress and woman are not brought to you. Rather, you are transported there, to revel for a moment in that life, to try that dreamworld on for a moment. If you like it, you might buy the dress.

This also matches the documentary photograph. Because you are there, you seek to fill in the surrounding world. If you were merely peering at it through a window, there is no particular motivation beyond an abstract desire to work out a larger sense of "what's going on?" When some MFA student inflicts a documentary photograph of nothing on you, you are like Scrooge transported by the Ghost of Sept 24, 1817, When Nothing Much Happened, to some random empty lot. You struggle to work out why you're here, but unlike the other ghosts, this one offers nothing but a shrug and a yawn. No wonder Dickens left that one out.

I can't actually see why a photo would "take you there" rather than "bring it here" and indeed, the latter seems simpler, easier, and more obvious. I think, though, that the former more closely matches the kinds of effects that photos have on me, and (apparently) on others. The effect seems, in practice, more like passing through the mirror (however lightly) than merely gazing at Wonderland.

Thursday, June 25, 2020


Arrrg. I cannot escape this news, and now you can't either. Olympus sold its camera division off to a private equity firm.

The Internets are alight with theories and rambling conspiracy theories. I am going to help. I will not tell you the answer, but unlike everyone else I not only know the answer but will tell you how you can figure it out yourself.

Private Equity firms have web sites, on which they disclose their investments past and present. You can look up those investments and see how they have fared. It should not take you an hour to formulate a general picture of what kind of strategy this particular firm uses, and how successful they are at it. No two Private Equity firms are the same, so generalizations about how they just strip mine companies and discard the remains merely reveal you as a rube who reads too much Mother Jones.

This is the firm that's buying the Olympus camera division: JIP. An hour with google's translation and search services will tell you what is most likely to happen to Olympus camera.

Assuming you care, which I don't.

The NASCAR Noose

Those of you elsewhere in the world may not be aware of the noose story.

The team of the sole black driver on the NASCAR auto racing circuit was assigned to a garage at the Talladega racetrack, and a hangman's noose was found in the garage tied in the end of some sort of pull-rope for the door to the garage. This was investigated by the FBI to determine if some sort of racist/hate crime had occurred, and they determined that since the noose had been tied some time before October of 2019, it could not have been targeted at the driver, Bubba Wallace.

Here is a photograph of the noose.

There's a lot of ideas running around. Maybe the FBI is lying! Maybe the hate crime is actually in assigning Bubba Wallace to that specific garage! I don't pretend to know, but what I am pretty confident in is this: nobody else knows either.

There is no denying that the hangman's noose is closely associated with racial lynchings in this country. It is not the only association, but it is a tight one, and the dominant one. How the thing takes someone in, say, the UK I do not know. At least it has a kind of macabre to it, surely?

What interests me is the commentary I have seen. There are people who say, perfectly seriously, that the rope is new and the knot recently tied. This is something that you absolutely cannot see in the picture. There are people who remark that it's a slipknot, which renders it useless as a door pull: the first part is true, the second is not, as anyone who's actually tied one of these things knows.

Another little fact that someone who's tied one of these things knows is that the knot uses an astonishing amount of rope.

Anyways, much of the discussion around the picture boils down to asserting as facts things that the speaker cannot possibly know, in support of a theory of motivation.

In reality, we have no way of knowing why someone tied the knot. No amount of chemical analysis of the strands or poring over surveillance footage will reveal the motivation. It could have been a sort of blockheadedly whimsical way to use up excess rope. It could have been tied specifically to threaten some other black person in NASCAR (Bubba Wallace is the only driver, but I bet there's plenty of black mechanics.) It could have been tied, and then used, to hang a cat, or a Halloween decoration. To be fair, if some prick hung a cat with it it's possible surveillance footage would reveal motivation.

What we are observing here is that people have formulated a theory, invariably along strict dualistic lines: a) it was a deliberate racist act specifically against Bubba Wallace or b) it was a completely innocent act, intending only to create a useful handle by which to close the garage door. The selected theory then informs what they see in the picture. This is a near perfect case study in how people strive to discern motivation to a photograph, when there is none to be discerned.

There simply isn't much to be seen in the picture.

The motivation of the man who tied the knot is certainly not present, and no amount of wishing will make it appear.