Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Rogue Photo 2: Alleys

Rogue Photo is a sort of notional imprint that I am starting to organize projects under. Pictures and text together, intended to be made into a cheap mass-produced book. Content over finesse. This is the second such project, and it aims to be more detailed, less political than US, the first one. This project is about alleys, alleys in Bellingham where I live, and in particular the alley behind my house. This is a rough draft of some introductory material.

Bellingham, old Bellingham, by which I mean the Bellingham that is about 100 years old, is a town of alleys. This is not all of Bellingham, there is much that is newer, more modern, with back yards and back lots directly against other back yards and lots. Modern Bellingham has the same curved street suburbs, the co-called coved design which allows more houses with less street, the very opposite of the alley based designs of a century past.

But downtown, and in the neighborhoods near it where I live in one of those throwbacks, every block in sliced down the middle by a narrow, little used roadway littered with whatever bits and pieces concerning the uses it was then and is now put. Gas meters, dumpsters, electrical connections, cooking oil disposal, recycling bins, storm water drains, cable television boxes, telephone connection boxes, access doors for people, access doors for trucks, access doors for cars, parked shopping carts laden with the belongings of the unfortunate, with bollards and concrete aprons and iron grates higgledy piggledy as necessity has dictated over the last century.

There are alleys downtown, with commercial dumpsters and the remains of streetcar tracks, with large-sized gas meters and massive interconnects for anything that needs a massive interconnect. Further out, there are the little alleys behind the 100 year old homes on the tiny lots. Alleys that sometimes provide access to the one car garage, or for household garbage, recycling, and compost pickup. Alleys that provide a little cover for the unfortunate among us to move less visibly about the neighborhood, as well as providing a foraging ground for those who gather cans to recycle for cash to ease whatever pains they have.

In some neighborhoods the alley is little more than a walkway and bike path, all essential services being streetside, to the front of the house. In others, where the alleys were laid out a trifle wider, the lots a little larger, the buildings set back a little farther, garbage pickup happens on the rear of the house and the Garwood compactor trucks thread their way through the maze of haphazardly parked cars and haphazardly set out bins, early in morning, as an occasional householder charges out in a bathrobe just ahead, or sometimes just behind, the truck to roll the bins out hastily, hopefully, to schlep the recycling crates to the appropriate edge for pickup.

In winter the alleys are dark and wet, in summer they are hot and arid. Always, they are a little tucked away, a little hidden. Only the people who live on the alley, really, use the alley, except for the occasional trash-picker, dog-walker, shortcut-seeker. Neighbors meet and chat for a few moments, one parking a car the other tossing a bag of trash into the bin, both with a little free time. More often in the short summer of endless sun, less in the wet winter with her brief, damp, overcast days and endless chilly, wetter, nights.






Sunday, July 15, 2018

The End of it All

Yesterday I saw Jörg going on about how terribly exhausted he was with the lazy narratives surrounding the ubiquity of photography and what photographing means. Not, of course, that he or any of these other dabblers has much of anything to add beyond lounging about in flouncy dresses dabbing exhaustedly at their own foreheads.

The trigger for him was a short piece somewhere about a picture of a crowd in which it appears that almost literally everyone is viewing whatever is happening through a phone. It was one of the ubiquitous pieces about "wow, we photograph everything, and directly experience nothing" which, sure, we've seen that before. But the reason we keep seeing these lazy narratives is that nobody's got a handle on it, and everyone feels like there's something important going on here.

So here's some thoughts about that.

Some years ago I recall Mike Johnston at ToP telling a little parable that went something like this. In the old days one might have thought "I would like to do something with yard sales" and then you'd go out and spend a year shooting yard sales most weekends, shoot a couple hundred rolls of film, and then pull together the best ten photos. Nowadays, in this era of flickr and instagram, you go out one weekend and shoot 50 pictures, and show off the best 30.

Let's set aside the truth that Mike is prejudiced toward the fine print, and that his model of photography is a small portfolio of beautifully made black and white prints, either 8x10 and 11x14, and that this is a large part of what drives his parable.

Beyond that, Mike was on to something there. There are two fundamental differences in play here. The first is that by spending so little time actually at yard sales the photographer has no time to develop an idea, a position, an opinion about yard sales. The 50 contemporary shots from one weekend will have no point of view. The best you can hope for is that they document in some straightforward way some aspects of some yard sales. More likely they will be clumsy copies of something the photographer saw elsewhere.

The couple hundred rolls of film photographer probably developed a real point of view, and is far more likely to have something to actually say about yard sales. The first few rolls will likely be clumsy copies of other photographs, but rolls 150 through 200 might have something interesting on them.

The second problem is that there is very little selection going on in the second photographer's world. This is connected to the first problem in that the photographer selects, ultimately, where to point the camera and when to mash the button based on that point of view, that opinion, so painfully developed. But also there is far less material to select from, far less material was placed in front of the lens to be shot and far fewer frames are available to select from.

If photography is, as I assert, an act of selection which is morally on the same plane as but different from creation, then the second photographer is simply doing far less of it. Insofar as photography is creative, a making, the second photographer is on firmer ground. But it is not much that.

Consider a world in which each of us simply wears a camera which takes a photo every 30 seconds and uploads it to Facebook. There is no selection at all, except in where we choose to place our bodies. Everything is photographed and shared.

Is this photography? I don't think it is, in any but a most literal and dunderheaded sense.

In this world, there is no selection. There is no privileging of this scene, this moment, this object, over any other. As Sontag noted god knows how long ago, we make things special by photographing them, and in this imagined world everything is made special, and therefore nothing is.

So what is different in the actual modern world?

We have not arrived at the dystopian world of the camera which automatically takes a photo every 30 seconds (although there have been periodic attempts, see Google Clips). But, we are nudging in that direction, we sniff at things that are similar, we can feel the presence of that world in the wind. We may never get there, but we're in the neighborhood.

I think perhaps what we're feeling about the current ubiquity of photographs is that end-game. We're feeling that when everything is selected, when everything is privileged to be photographed, then there is no photography, the world is flattened to a single two dimensional plane of specialness, of value. Your cup of coffee, his new shirt, that pretty girl doing yoga outside a Sprinter van she pretends to live in, and the death of the Hindenburg are all pretty much the same.

What happens next? Do we push every further, asymptotically approaching the dystopian world of "a photo every 30 seconds" by photographing ever more the banal? Does some radical convulsion change everything? Do we arrive at a steady-state in which we're pretty much photographing with a constant density -- now, after 150 years of steady growth?

Having enumerated the names of God, does the world end?

It is this feeling that the final drops are being squeezed out that incites the think pieces. These complaints about how every dolt is a photographer, and photography is ruined, have indeed been going on for 150 years or so.

But today an argument can be made that we, if not at an end, surely wandering fairly close to some kind of border.

It doesn't worry me, or bother me, particularly. But it is kind of interesting.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

#DiversifyTheLens

I'm just going to point out a pretty good article over here: #DiversifyTheLens: Why Your Brand Should Hire More Female Photographers more or less as a PSA.

The piece does contain the implication that you will get different photos if you hire women, which I am on the record as finding suspect. Still, it's a good solid cause in general, and it aims to actually make it easier to find those good female photographers. Half the trouble, at least, has to simply be "we always hire Bill" and having easy access to a solid stable of alternatives to Bill is strategically sound.

This is very much the same thinking that drove some acceptance of women into advertising photography in the early 20th century, according to one reference I read recently. It was a successful argument, to a degree, but female photographers wound up in a niche and mostly did ads for soap and whatnot. If successful, the contemporary version of the argument can end up blocking women out of work targeted at men.

A better argument, in my opinion, is that women are just as good as men, so why on earth would you ignore a huge chunk of the talent pool simply because you like working with Bill? It would be even stronger if you can present a narrative that sounds like "everyone else is hiring women" or at least "many major players are" which you can probably do with a little cherry picking. If you can present the story that there's an imbalance, but it's caused by bush-league loser companies mainly hiring men, you're gettin' someplace.

This piece was already re-published on PetaPixel, where the comments are, predictably, turning into a god damned dumpster fire as every fat-ass basement dwelling asshole who pretends he's a professional photographer weighs in with his imbecile misogyny. I urge you, also, to send email to editor@petapixel.com applauding their republishing the piece, and abhorring the dumpster fire that is the comments. Check first to see if the comments are still a dumpster fire, though. I expect Michael to turn comments off shortly.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Actually Seeing

When I look at my refrigerator my first impression is of a stainless steel box, two doors, with various pieces of paper attached with magnets. I think lists, coupons, children's art. But that's not what is really there. As a summary it's not wrong, but it's exactly the kind of thing that our brains come up with as a summary. It's incomplete, and based on memory as much as the visual input. If someone attached a ransom note in the middle of the night, I might not see it.

I school my brain, and look closer. I see lists. I think, ah yes, the list of tools we ought to acquire some day for the garden and my mind wanders off to the hardware store. I drag my mind back and see another list. I see my daughter's summer reading challenge paper, with little squares labelled things like "biography" and "I liked the cover" to indicate the kinds of books she might read. If she fills in enough squares, she gets some little award from the library. I had forgotten this, and therefore not "seen" it in my first impression.

Looking again, mentally stepping back, I see the pattern of rectangular scraps of paper at this angle and that. I see various colors and shapes of both paper and magnet, and how they form a haphazard design, against the two handles of the doors and the other features on the face of the 'fridge. I've lost the lists, I see shapes, but I have no notion in the moment of what is on each piece of paper.

I see the design but have lost the content.

The whole thing is a slippery chimera, the many layers of material slipping away, retreating and then advancing, as I focus on this or that. I can't really see the thing all at once. My mind intrudes and distracts with thoughts of shopping, of the library. I can't hold both the details of the papers and the pattern they make simultaneously in my mind. Only just now at this very moment did I even notice the way the lights in the kitchen create streaked highlights slanting diagonally over the handles, and I just lost awareness of everything else about the thing for a moment.

In short, seeing in a deep and meaningful way is not easy. Even a relatively modest and familiar object is an intractable mass of layers of detail.

Photography is, in essence or at least at the initial instant of exposure, the act of selecting from this intractable mass.

There are other kinds of selection. Selecting from a group of foals which one will, at the age of 3 years, be able to run a mile the most quickly, is difficult. If you can do it with anything better than random results, you can make a great deal of money.

Nobody claims that the act of picking out the right foal is creative as such, although the subsequent training, the moulding of the animal into a champion, arguably is. Everyone sensible agrees that selecting the right foal is difficult, that it takes a degree of wild talent to do it well, and so on.

Nobody (much) claims that thoroughbred horses are Art, either. They do not generate what I refer to as an Art-like experience. While seeing a champion run can inspire great emotion, it does not have the enlarging quality of Art, it does not induce reflection particularly, it does not expand us. Not much, anyways. Thus, it is not particularly Art.

Art is that which generates that Art-like experience. Duchamp demonstrated that there need be nothing creative in the process, one need merely, with some authority, declare that a certain thing is Art, and lo, it generates the Art-like experience. At least, some of the time. We see this repeated in this amusing anecdote related in the New York Review of Books. In this story, Janet Malcom all tongue-in-cheek declares what she considers an objectively bad photograph to be Art. She is subsequently surprised and amused to learn that her designation has, to a degree, stuck.

It is an amusing story, and it reveals something to us (again) about Art and the nature of that particular social construct. But, it is the same thing Duchamp was at some pains to teach us in 1917, and which we, really, ought to have grasped by now.

If we say that photography in its essential state much the same as the act of selecting a thoroughbred colt, if we say that it is much the same as selecting a suitable urinal to display, then we must say also that photography is not creative as such.

There is often plenty of creativity, making, in what happens between the exposure and the display of a final print, but none of that is really essential to what photography is.

But this does not mean that it is not Art. All too often people assume that Art must be creative, that the artist has to actually make something, and this is simply not the modern conception of Art at all.

Photography, despite being neither particularly creative, is neither easy nor not Art. None of these properties implies any of the others, they are all independent.

Is there a word for the act of picking out the right thoroughbred colt? Is there a word for that kind of talent? Other than simply "talent?" I don't know of one. I wish there was one.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Impostor Syndrome

I was noodling around last night, after writing the previous post on Copyright, thinking about what it is that photographers think they own. These guys who say "it's miiine" in a sort of vague and formless way, arguing against things like fair use and so on. They want total control of their pictures. But what is it that they think they actually own?

Obviously, everyone knows, one can own an embodiment of a picture and one owns only that embodiment. If I own a copy of a novel, I own a pile of paper with marks on them and that's it.

Some people, particularly photographers, imagine a sort of Platonic ideal, a notional object with no physical form of its own, which "is" the picture, or the novel. Some sort of essence of the thing. I suspect that this is, in sort of vague terms, what photographers think they own.

Unfortunately for them, property and ownership are social constructs, and society is when pressed unwilling to define "ownership" of nebulous bullshit. Therefore we have created the idea of a copyright, which is a bundle of rights surrounding the right to produce new embodiments of the whatever-it-is that we can't really define very well. If you're going to own something, it's going to be either an embodiment (a print, a physical book) or a copyright. You can own both, but they're two different things.

It turns out that this is pretty clever. Coming up with a formal, definable, thing which does a reasonable job of capturing the important parts of the abstract Platonic thing is not so easy, and copyright does a fair job of it.

Photographers strike me as particularly grasping and whiny about copyright specifically, and "ownership" of the abstract Platonic object in general.

I think this is, ultimately, because photographers tend to feel a bit like impostors.

There's a strong historical precedent for this. The whole Victorian era hand-work mess was, essentially, a reaction to the idea that photography is not sufficiently creative, it does not involve, let us be honest, all that much actual creation and therefore many of its practitioners decided to do some creating by painting on negatives, mashing gum-bichromate prints with their fists, and so on. We continue with this today, altogether too often we find people saying in a rather shrill voice that they do not take pictures, they make them. Usually by positioning lights, by extensive post-processing, and so on.

"Hey, nobody applies Lightroom presets in the same way I do! I make pictures, I don't just take them!"

In the end though, photography when distilled down, is just choosing a rectangle out of whatever happens to be nearby. At the end of the day, you're just throwing up index finger and thumb on both hands, and cropping out what's there, and then doing some technical whatever-the-fuck to fix that into some persistent embodiment which (let us review) is not the actual Platonic thing.

It's just plain not that creative, in the sense that you're not creating much of anything.

This doesn't mean that it sucks, or that it's easy, or stupid, or lame. It's astonishingly difficult. It's just not, you know, creative in the sense of creating something.

Photography, it seems to me, is very much its own thing here. Sure, you can go to work on it and be a failed painter with photoshop, or whatever. Feel free to run off a gum-bichromate print and do a waltz on it. None of that stuff is photography, although it may be very creative and it may be Art it's not photography. It's dancing, or painting, or scratching at negatives, or whatever. Which is lovely and fine. But not photography.

Indeed, much of this sort of thing is excellent. There are excellent painters out there. I've seen a fair number of collage-y things I quite like.

And no, the line is not clear. Where photograohy ends and other, more creative things, begin is not a precise line. The fact that the line is vague does not mean we cannot distinguish things on one side from things on the other. It's not as if you can no longer distinguish the castle from the invaders merely because the moat is rather wide and muddy, after all.

Photography in its essence is selecting, not making.

You can argue that it is creative after all, and drone on about the various tidbits of creativity you personally do in your work, and try to use that as a justification for whatever.

This is to get hold of the thing by the wrong end. Jut because photography isn't particularly about creating anything doesn't mean that it isn't worthy. Observing, seeing, is a wonderful thing. The ability to say "hey, look at that" and simply point out something worth looking at is pretty marvelous.

Just pressing the button at the right time is a fine thing to be able to do. We're not impostors!

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Copyright

There's a piece going around about some judge's opinion of a certain usage of a certain picture as "Fair Use". I saw it first on PetaPixel, but it's been on reddit and dpreview, and no doubt is all over the internet everywhere. If you look around for "Violent Hues Copyright" I dare say you will find 400 places where it's being talked about.

The comment threads this thing has spawned are both fascinating a depressing. Mostly people have no idea what they're talking about, and there's a whole muddle around some side remark the judge made about the alleged infringer "not knowing the picture was copyrighted" which is being utterly misconstrued. Violent Hues (the alleged infringer) clearly knew, by the time they claimed "Fair Use" as a defense, that there was a valid copyright in play (see below). The "not knowing' issue is very much a sideline, either entirely irrelevant, or at best speaking to the basically decent and fair-minded intentions of Violent Hues.

In the first place, it's clear that many photographers out there who pretend to understand copyright don't know what Fair Use is at all. While it's complicated, an essential and easy feature of it is that it applies to copyrighted works. If I claim to be using a thing "as a Fair Use" I am acknowledging that a valid copyright exists. If a judge rules that something was used as a case of "Fair Use" the judge is likewise acknowledging the copyright. There seems to be a lot of notion that Fair Use is somehow the opposite of a copyright, and that since photographs are all copyrighted by default there can be no such thing as Fair Use. This is exactly wrong.

The second, larger and more interesting, theme is that photographers seem to feel that Copyright is essentially the secular law recognizing some kind of unalienable right, one imagines granted by God, perhaps in the form of some stone tablets, to total control over any and all uses of the copyrighted object. Copyright is, in the eyes of many a photographer, simply the law of the land regulating their infinite and just power over the picture (oh, excuse me, the "image") they just made.

This is also wildly wrong.

Copyright exists to provide incentive to people to create those things which are subject to copyright, by allowing them a good and just portion of the usage of that work. It is not an infinite box of power. It is an agreement with the creator, that the creator will create in exchange for a certain, large, degree of control. The reason society enters into the agreement is because society, as a whole, feels that it is a good thing that creators create. If the creator were to simply have infinite control, the benefit to society would be curtailed. Society, in effect, exchanges the control granted by copyright for certain social benefits, which turn up as limitations on that control.

Copyright on photography is particularly problematic, because it seems that only photographers seem to think that the photographer is, as a rule, the sole creative force in play. The model? No rights. The architect? None. The park service which maintains the landscape and the trails that lead to it? Nothing. The guy who presses a button? All of it. Photographers, let us be quite clear, are jolly well lucky to enjoy the protection of copyright.

The doctrine of Fair Use is one of the limitations on the control copyright holders enjoy. Compulsory licenses are another limitation.

As a some-time critic, I happen to think Fair Use is a really good idea.

More generally, the creation of the new often rests upon what was created before. If all creators were permitted to simply retain their work entirely within a sealed silo, without connection to anything else, then not much new would get created at all.

Also, Internet Photographers are idiots.

Something Mystical

When I started writing here, more or less, I think I was obsessed with inspiration and how it works. There's a bunch of neurology on this, how our big fat brains manage to pull startling answers to problems kind of out of the æther. I felt then, and I still think, that this is a useful tool for sorting out how to take a picture of something.

I have come to believe that there's more to it than that.

Sure, if you have a clear idea how what you want a picture or set of pictures to convey, then you can sit around poking the triggers for inspiration and trying to work out the right thing to do. And when the solution arrives, if it arrives, it will likely appear more or less fully formed from essentially nothing. You'll just see it, and the answer will be obviously right, because that's how your big fat brain does that. That's inspiration. That's the "Eureka" moment, and you can in fact learn to manage that after a fashion.

There's more to it than that, though. Maybe it's the same neurological mechanism, maybe it's the voice of God, maybe there isn't even any meaningful difference between those two things.

There's a whole process of seeing and being present. To know even what you might want to convey is a bit of a puzzle much of the time.

Where am I? What is there here? What can I see?

The Miksang people have a piece of this, and a whole detailed process for noticing things. I think they're got hold of the wrong end of the horse, because they all seem to notice the same trivialities, and they have a bunch of other weird strictures that tend to drive the results in the same direction. Still, the underlying idea of stilling the inner voice and simply seeing strikes me as solid, although there was some disagreement in the comments when last I wrote about this.

There is a long series of books entitled The Inner Game of ... where the ellipsis can be replaced with god damn near any activity. Skiing, Music, Cards, Philosophy, Welding, I dare say. The idea in all these books is the same. In your head you have not one but two monologues running, as you try to do something like ski or play the piano. One of the monologues is pretty positive, and the other is quite critical: You're going to fall! What note comes next?!!! and so on. The Inner Game books all teach you the same methods for stilling that second voice, and in this way they quite resemble the Miksang book.

Getting the monologue about how should I shoot this? maybe rule of thirds... if I bend my knees and move to the left then... to stop is an excellent first step. Tragically, the bulk of what passes for photographic education is about adding more material for that annoying voice to go on about. This all interferes with actually seeing what's there. You're too obsessed with the sign "growing out of" the model's head to notice that she looks miserable.

The first thing, surely, has to be to see. To free your muse, your soul, your emotional self, your right brain, your Buddha. A commenter on my earlier remarks on Miksang suggested that the inner monologue is critical to their working, and I am going to interpret that perhaps too liberally: It's perhaps not about complete silence in your mind, but allowing the proper voice to speak. Not the voice that drones on about focal lengths and apertures, but Buddha's voice, the voice of the muse.

With that mystical, or neurological, connection you have a chance of seeing what is actually there. You might notice the miserable model as well as the signpost behind her. You might also have some insight in to what you feel, what you believe, what the point of this exercise even is. You might even get a little nudge of inspiration about how to do it.

This, ultimately, is where I am going. Or at least the direction I am trying to go. I admit that I spend perhaps more time wrestling the horse back onto the path than I do actually, you know, proceeding down the path.

I want to see and to feel first. For a moment, now and then, I can really see what's in front of me. More rarely, I can translate that into something with a camera. I'm trying to shed the engineer and become the artist, to spend more time in the magic and less in the technicalities.

I want to be Buddha, now, if I can just figure out the right algorithm...