Monday, March 18, 2019

Category Error

There are lots of ways one might get value from a piece of Art one acquires.

At the high end, part of the value of a million dollar piece of Art is in being able to brag that you spent a million dollars on a piece of Art. Sometimes it's just decor, masses of color, tone, and line that appeal to you and which match the couch. Sometimes Art makes you think, or amuses you, or delights you in some way. Perhaps a piece of Art reminds you of something, or someone, it sparks a poignant memory. If you made the Art yourself, or if you personally know the artist, there are myriad personal connections which might have value of one sort of another.

Good Art makes you think, enlarges you, creates an "art-like experience" and is rare. There is a thing, which is not common, and which has this uncommon effect on us, and we have decided to call that rare thing Art. This is, ostensibly, what the million dollar piece does, and which it sometimes does (in part, because of the price tag.)

Setting aside the matter of personal connections, if we assume that we're looking at some Art made by a stranger, we're mostly likely to value a thing in roughly the same ways. There may be outliers; for you, since the girl in the picture reminds you of your first wife, the picture takes you much differently. But for the other 10 of us over here, we kind of look at it much the same way.

There is a thing photographers do. I suspect all artists do it, but since there are so damn many photographers, and because I attend far more to photography than to painting I notice it more among photographers: they overvalue their work.

There are roughly a billion web sites out there with some photographer, styling himself (rarely, herself) a Fine Art Photographer, and offering fairly expensive photographic prints.

Usually these things are landscapes, less often they are "street", almost never are they anything else.

What kind of value does one get from one of these things, if one buys them?

For the most part, they are decor, I think. Landscapes don't have much choice here, basically they can be pretty, or they can be sublime, and sublime is really hard. Street photography that sells (or at least which is popular) is graphical and cute. It's decor. It goes with the couch, it's appealing, it might be slightly amusing.

So why is it offered in canvas wrap for $700 or whatever? You might as well buy a poster. It will cost you far less, but yield the same (or better) value.

This is a variation on the "you get no credit for working hard" theme that gets talked about a fair bit. It turns out, most photographers do want credit for their hard work, or their not so hard work, or their m4d skillz.

This brings us around to what got me started on this. Over of ToP, Mike did a recent print sale of Ctein's work. Mike discusses the photos that were up for sale in this post.

The one that really got me was the Christmas Lights picture.

I am sure it looks fantastic in print. I am sure it was very difficult to make. Far be it from me to judge if Ctein wants to spend his time making that print, and far be it from to judge if people want to purchase that print.

But it's friggin' christmas lights, dude. It's decor, and kind of weird decor at that. Whether it's worth $169 or not is entirely up to you, that's a genuinely pretty low price as these things go.

Mike, being in love with printing and the solutions to difficult printing problems, seems to me to be overvaluing these prints.

We are being asked, here, as we are on the web sites of endless Fine Art Photographers, to imagine that these essentially decorative masses of color and form are, in some un-articulated way, more than they actually are. There is a Category Error in play here. I suspect that all these photographers are hoping that their work has more weight than it does, they want to to carry whatever it is that Serious Art has, and thereby to be valuable.

They are, generally, wrong. These are frequently lovely pictures, and in many cases were very difficult to make, but they do not carry any of the je ne sais quois (except I jolly well do know what) of Important Art.

They have many appealing properties, but they do not have that.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Climate Change Revolution: Bellingham

I learned something recently. In the city of Memphis, in the late 1960s, at least, the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was on the wrong side of history. Memphis is where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and in that city (and across much of the USA) the FBI was engaged in trying to subvert the civil rights movement. The reasons vary, depending on who you ask, but nobody thinks it was a particularly shining moment in the history of the FBI.

Anyways. At that time there were any number of groups working in any number of ways to Advance the rights of Colored People, not just the NAACP. The NAACP in fact was run by wealthy and successful black people who felt that the proper approach was evolutionary, legislative, through litigation and not through direct action, and so on. This is not at all surprising, of course, nor it is to say that the NAACP was a bad bunch of people. But they were wrong. They had been, effectively, captured by the status quo, and were effectively, committed to maintaining it.

King and various more radical groups were not, and they did bring direct action, and they did win victories which would have been longer coming (perhaps we would still be waiting) if the slow and evolutionary path of the NAACP and the establishment had won the day.

That much is history.

Which brings us around to today, March 15, 2019. Today, students too young to vote walked out of schools around the world to protest climate change, and to demand action. Bellingham, of course, got into the act. Several hundred people, many of them middle and high school students, gathered at City Hall at 11am to have a short rally to protest climate change and to demand action. I went and took some pictures.

Somewhere along the way from 1968 to the present, we have developed the idea that change is wrought, or at any can be wrought, by loosely organized groups of people with heartfelt opinions and rhythmic chants. Bellingham loves these things, we have a couple of protest rallies a year, at least, here. This one was pretty typical.

The complete lack of cops was interesting. They were probably around, though.

The attendees were varied. It seemed to be a pretty complete set of nerds, weirdos, normals, popular kids, and so on. I asked, and was informed that the organizers leaned a bit toward the popular in-crowd kids but that a) it wasn't all in-crowd clique shitheads doing it, and b) even the in-crowd kids were getting some respect here. So, while the speakers appeared to be, and indeed were, mainly the cool, rich, popular, kids, they were either doing it for the right reasons, or faking it very well. Sincerity all around. So, that's good.

Now, I don't mean to indict these kids. I think it's really great that they're getting out there and doing this (they did a similar thing last year opposing gun violence, another nation-wide thing that some of you may recall, taking place on the heels of some damned school shooting or another).

But. Change does not occur when loosely organized groups of enthusiastic and committed people have rallies and chant, no matter how sincere they are. These things are a mechanism by which enthusiastic people who desperately desire change are induced to expend their energy. Change looks a lot like this from the outside, to be sure, but on the inside the organizations that generate change by these methods are organized with maniacal detail. Everything is planned. There is an overall strategy of a completely military nature. Indeed, it's probably a hell of a lot more coherent, detailed, and sensible than anything a modern army throws together.

Gandhi and MLK were the leaders of incredibly large and disciplined organizations. It looked like they just did a bunch of hastily thrown together marches and shit, and that was no accident -- it was supposed to look like a bunch of more or less spontaneous, hastily thrown together, rallies, protests, and marches. But it was not.

These young people, however enthusiastic they are, are not part of any such organization. This is Jaden Stevenson. Articulate, passionate, and checking her phone while other people are making sounds with their food holes. Not all the time, but for a while, and very publicly. Ooops. It doesn't mean anything specific, but it does suggest that there's a lack of discipline.

And then there's this guy, another speaker.

I don't recall his name or which of the myriad local environmental advocacy non-profits he works for. It doesn't matter, those details are irrelevant. He is instantly recognizable as a type. He is a professional non-profit bureaucrat. He's slick, he speaks well, he's very good at having meetings, and he genuinely thinks that having meetings is working for change.

This is a local politician, April Barker, ditto.

April lurked around the edges smiling and shaking hands and then sloped off at about the half hour mark.

Here are a handful of pictures that don't directly connect to anything, but they are emblematic.

Our corporate masters are always present.

Ok, so what?

Like the NAACP, April and whats-his-name above are philosophically on the right side. They oppose climate change, they oppose oil pipelines and coal terminals and all that stuff. They will tend to favor incremental approaches, through careful legislation, which is functionally the same thing as not opposing anything at all. Assuming there is anyone left to write the history, they will find themselves on the wrong side of it.

Here is hoping that the enthusiastic young people can get off their phones, and stop buying Hollister-branded clothing for long enough to study up on how this shit actually works.

You do not create change by having enthused rallies with rhyming chants. You do not create change by carefully crafting legislation in partnership with our corporate friends. Both of these things may be part of it, but they are not the core strategic elements.

The creation of change is a fascinating chess game. The object of the game is to force the existing power structures into a position where they have only two choices: 1) to actually effect change, or 2) to publicly behave in ways that are manifestly, violently, blatantly, opposed to their own stated ideals.

Incremental approaches only allow the existing power structures to continue to behave badly, but in ways that are not obvious.

You have to, non-violently, force a crisis. Doing it violently isn't a very good idea, for reasons that are outside the scope of the current remarks.

It is a complex and intricate game, it requires enormous reserves of strategic intelligence, it requires great organization, discipline, and patience. And, not to put too fine of a point on it, probably some good people are gonna get killed. That's part of the crisis.

I don't want any of these decent, enthusiastic, hopeful, scared, kids to get killed or beaten up.

But if they do develop a strategy with some actual teeth, it's gonna happen. So, in a way, I guess I hope they do.

Which is sort of terrible. But then, this whole fucking thing is fairly terrible.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Attention to Detail

Perform the following experiment, possibly only in your mind for now, but it's not a bad idea to do it in real life as well.

The experiment boils down to walking somewhere, and noting ornamental details. You might walk down an urban street, and notice the decorative casting at the base of the lamp post, the way the door handle is machined into a radius of appealing curve, a few tiles set into the cement sidewalk, the brickwork at the curb, the plantings in the strip of earth between sidewalk and curb, and so on.

You might walk through a forest, noting the curve of a branch, the way a leaf dangles, the tiny flower that peeks out from behind a stone.

A hallway, note the trim around the windows, the pattern on the floor, the ornate script telling you what's inside this office or that.

All those myriad details generate a kind of background noise of beauty, or at least attempts at beauty. In the general run of life, we do not notice these things as such. When they are missing, though, we feel their absence. When they are overdone, we feel the rococo flavor of an overbuilt room. Am I the only one who notices when a window has no trim, but is simply the wall brought out to a box, into which is set a window? Surely people feel the lack of trim, even if they don't note it specifically.

By all these things we know that in some way we are aware of those myriad details. We note the little pattern of tile in the sidewalk by its absence in front of the cheaply built government buildings. We feel the sterility of a building in which everything is functional, and there is nothing of ornament. We are depressed by it, generally.

Consider now the photograph. Or rather, all the photographs.

There is, I think, an analogy here.

When we skim through social media, through Facebook or Instagram, barely looking at this photo or that, I wonder if it is not something similar. Certainly text-only social media is a different thing, and I think one could argue cogently that "sterile" is an applicable word here. Even if we don't really look at the photos, we register something of them. Perhaps we note a fact "Suzie was camping" or an impression "Bill looks stressed out" or something even lighter than those.

We read a book with pictures, or a magazine, the same way. We notice some pictures, and almost-don't-see others. Occasionally we alight like a magpie on some photo, and inspect it. Perhaps, at some point, we make a pass through the thing specifically to look at pictures. It doesn't matter. If printed matter has more than one picture, and especially if it has text, we will pay rather more or less attention to this photo or that. We will not attend to each one equally, drinking in its glory.

All those photos which "we" collectively are not giving due attention to, are creating a sort of background noise of visual information. A stab at beauty here, a datum there, a socially notable impression there.

One can certainly argue that we spend too goddamned much time on our phones, on our tablets, on our computers. Still, that time is I think substantively enriched by those photos we are ostensibly ignoring. Not every photo needs to be printed out large and examined with a loupe.

Not every lamp post's base needs to be a Rodin. Indeed, probably Rodin is a bit of overkill for lamp posts. This does not mean that every lamp post, incapable of greatness, should therefore be an austere model of pure function without a trace of ornament.

In the same way, I think, not every photograph needs to be great. Perhaps most of them ought not to be great. And, this is important, the fact that a photograph falls short of greatness need not consign it to the dustbin.

We see this odd notion, though, in photography. Everything is either tip-top, or junk. Sometimes we keep the junk around as a reference, to learn from, or whatever, but the name of the game is always making some sort of notional "ideal" photograph, some sort of perfect expression of whatever. Mike over on ToP is going on about this. His remarks aren't stupid, indeed they are as usual pretty sharp.

The system he's proposing, though, is entirely about sorting your photographs -- one by one -- in such a way as the "really good ones" (whatever that might even mean) rise to the top. One by one. Mike's attitude toward photography is very much informed by the ideas he was taught. Photographs should be printed, ideally on fiber-based paper, and archivally processed. The goal of the photographer is to produce single photographs, each with as much greatness as can possibly be shoveled into it. Most photographs should have a full range of tones.

It is, essentially, chapter and verse from the Ansel Adams trilogy, leaving out only the parts that matter. This attitude, or if you prefer cloud of similar attitudes, is an aberration that is carried around by photographers. They might not be able to teach one another how to see, but they can bloody well share terrible attitudes and ideas, and pass them on to the next generation too.

This is not the world's attitude toward photographs. No, the common person, as it were, sees photographs far more as the ornamentation on the lamp post, and a lot less as a Rodin.

Photographs are not paintings, not in the way they are made, nor in the way they are used. Except by fetishists.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Leica Q2

I was peripherally aware of the predecessor model, the Leica Q, but never paid it much mind. But now this thing comes out and I happened across some pictures, and holy cow. So here we go.

We can summarize this creeping horror in two pictures:

The front view recalls the classic Leica rangefinder. The top-deck steps down on the photographer's right to hold a couple of dials and stuff. The body is rounded at the ends, and covered with textured leather from the bottom plate to the top metal assembly thingy, whatever it's called. Ok, so this model is maybe the stubbiest, not to say stoutest, in a long line of gradually porkier Leicas. Maybe the front surface is featureless to the point of blandness. Maybe the lens looks absurdly out of proportion. I will stipulate all those things.

One can at least see the design notes being nodded at here, the maybe-respect for heritage. The retro notes, let us say, but updated to modern times, albeit by removing anything with a sniff of character, by botching the proportions, and replacing the traditional "natural" leather texture with something that looks like a chain link fence.

Let's flip this thing around.

No, no. Flip the Leica around, not whatever the hell that object is. What? That IS the Leica? The same Leica? This is the back of that? What insanity is this?

I showed this picture to my wife and asked for her impression. She thought a bit and said "basic" and then laughed out lout when I told her it was a $5000 camera.

It looks like someone took the sketch of where the buttons were supposed to go and built it. It's as if their AutoCAD licenses expired, so they had to design it in Microsoft Word's drawing tool. This is ridiculous. The buttons look like they came off a $40 VCR from the last days of VHS tape.

This is the same kind of Bauhuh? anti-design we see from Phase One, but in this case it's being thrown in our faces by a company whose actual entire reason for existence is to design things that hearken back to an older time. They may design some electronics and lenses and stuff, but they certainly don't have to, anyone can do that. No. Leica's entire raison d'ĂȘtre is to be a design company that successfully translates design notes from previous iconic Leica cameras into new cameras.

And then they insult us with this monstrosity.

Sure, sure, I get it. They're going for austere. They missed, and hit "basic." Austere means a few beautifully designed buttons, not a few rectangular blotches adorned with a hyper-modern Eurotrash font. They phoned the entire back side of this camera in, because they don't give a shit. They don't give a shit about making the front and back look like they're parts of the same object, they don't give a shit about making the back look good. They just don't care, because they know that the red dot on the front is the only thing that matters.

Don't even get me started on why the jammed a 28mm lens on the thing.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Lewis Bush Workshop

Lewis is an interesting guy. Something of a tendency still toward arty bollocks, if he's writing for an arty bollocks kind of thing, but he's grown increasingly sensible in the last few years.

He's starting to do workshops in his own studio space somewhere in south London. Having never taken a class from Lewis, I cannot actually vouch for him here, but I have seen a book of his which I liked pretty well, so there's that. Anyways, I am willing to stuff a link in here, so you can decide. I shall not be attending, south London being very far away indeed. He wants £100.00 for a one day deal. I assume he's providing the tea and the coffee.

Workshop – Photographic Storytelling, April 27th 2019

This strikes me as the kind of workshop that is worthwhile. You come out not with a bunch of shitty pictures, nor even a finished thing, but rather with a richer understanding of the problems and possible solutions. I think I might sign up for it if it was in Seattle.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Our Fleeting Attention

Among the many tropes of the "social media is ruining everything" think pieces is the one about how nobody really looks at photographs any more. I've certainly observed the appalling way that instagram is actually used: glance, swipe, glance, like, swimp, glance, swipe. I've probably written about it. God knows what dumb shit I said. God, and anyone willing to spend a minute or two searching, I guess.

It's certainly true that social media encourages a very very lightweight engagement with, well, everything on social media. People won't read an entire tweet, or Facebook post. They glance at photos. Videos play more or less unwatched.

But back to photography. There is a planted axiom in these think pieces on photography, which is that in the past people used to look closely at photographs. Usually there is some drivel about The Print, and how detailed it is, how a well made print "just glows" and so on. Half the time, at least, the piece is being written by someone too young and too hip to actually have ever held a decent print in their hand, although I dare say they've held a small number of shoddy ones.

There were no glory days when loads of people really looked at photographs.

What we have today is a billion times more engagement with photographs than ever before. All those people doing the glance-swipe thing on instagram? 20 years ago, 10 years ago, I can promise you that they were not sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat with incense burning, making love with their eyes to a single glorious print. They were watching TV, playing some 2D video game, skateboarding, awkwardly trying to talk to girls, maybe fixing a car. They were doing anything except looking at photos. I was there. Nobody looked at photos, except a few weirdos.

It's a lot like today. Only a few weirdos really look at photographs. Perhaps a few more than 20 years ago.

Even in the glory days of the mightiest of the mass media photographers, Ansel Adams, when everyone who wanted to look a bit clever, a bit artsy, bought a poster of some Adams picture, I don't think the posters got all that much attention. Sure, you hung it up, and people glanced at it. It was recognized by people. Many people could probably even name the giant stone in the frame (probably "Half Dome" which is fairly easy to remember, since it looks like half of a dome.) But that poster in your dorm room didn't get a lick more attention than the picture of a waterfall you stick on your instagram.

One of the consequences of the modern era, in which everyone is a photographer is that now everyone has a mild interest in photography.

Rather than being a niche activity that a few people take very seriously, it is now a not-quite universal activity that almost everyone takes mostly unseriously.

This, of course, gets under the skin of those of us who still take it seriously.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The DMCA Counter-Notice

Suppose someone uses one of your photos someplace. You wail to your friends about the unfairness of it all, and someone suggests that you issue a DMCA takedown against the evil someone. So, you do that, jumping on the relevant web site, finding their DMCA takedown page, and clicking rapidly past all the legal boilerplate. You mash SUBMIT and grin wildly. Victory, surely, is yours! Your photograph is taken down.

A little later, the evil someone files some mysterious and no doubt illegal "counter notice" and the photograph re-appears! The web site becomes thoroughly unhelpful, having clearly been subverted by the evil someone, and now apparently you have to either go to court, or give up. This is the terrible! You have a sad! Your friends are baffled, especially the idiot who told you to file a DMCA notice! It is a conspiracy against you, and all photographers.

Except, actually, no it is not.

The DMCA takedown is step one of a legal process, about which you would know quite a bit if you hadn't clicked past the legal boilerplate in a hurry to get to the SUBMIT button. The thumbnail sketch of how it actually works is like this:

You file a notice with a web site. The web site arranges for the content to be taken down, and notifies the alleged infringer.

If the alleged infringer folds, you're done. This is the usual outcome.

If not, the alleged infringer files a counter notice, possibly because they are a large corporation with deep pockets, or possibly because they know more about copyright law than you do, and they're actually in the clear in their use of your photograph. At this point the web site you filed the takedown with will generally reinstate the content. This is when your photo reappears.

Fun fact: I had a guy tell me "it can't be fair use, because you stole it!" which is some kind of galactic-level nonsensical sentence.

It is not twitter's job, nor google's, nor Facebook's, to work out who really owns the photograph. These entities are just serving notices and acting in accordance with the law. The actual resolution of whether someone has or has not infringed your copyright is a matter for the court system, if you and the alleged infringer don't work it out yourselves.

Once the counter notice is filed, you have two options: you can fold, or you can go to court. If do you decide to go to court, there may be a fairly short clock running, you may have to decide to retain a lawyer within a couple of days. Don't try this without a lawyer, by the way. Really. Maybe try representing yourself on a murder charge, but don't give it a shot in a copyright case.

Filing a counter notice does commit the filer (the alleged infringer) to the next step, which is court. If the original filer of the DMCA takedown does not fold, costs begin right about here. So why would anyone file a counter notice? Who really knows, but among the possible motivations: there is no infringement involved (e.g. fair use), or the infringer is prepared to take a risk of losing probably after estimating that you're bluffing.

Almost everyone who files a DMCA notice is bluffing, whether they know it or not. The process leads, pretty directly, to court. If you're not prepared to go to court to not only prove infringement but also to prove your ownership of the copyright, you are bluffing. Both of these things are probably a lot more complicated than you imagine, and there are a lot of pitfalls. I am not a lawyer, and cannot advise beyond "ouch, complicated and risky."

Is it safe to bluff? Well, yeah, in practice pretty much. You can just fold if a counter notice comes back. There may be some ways you can get hammered here, but the normally if you filed a DMCA takedown, you will just fold at this point, and the alleged infringer wins.

Technically, though, you probably shouldn't be submitting the notice in the first place if you're not prepared to back it up in court. The DMCA is not a toy, it is not a tool for harassing people you're angry with, and it is not a hammer of automatic victory for copyright holders.

It's just step one in a legal process that leads in a short number of well-defined steps to the courtroom.