Thursday, May 28, 2015

Making Books

While I am not a particular expert in the field of bookbinding, I have made a few things over the last couple years.

When hand-making a book, I feel that I need to have it fully planned out, the design complete, before I start folding paper. This is not quite literally true, but since there's an investment of time and materials involved, it's psychologically necessary (for me) to have the plan clear in my mind before I start. There are inevitable adjustments as we go, of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

I'm doing a trade book (prices starting at $2.49 a copy, holy cow!) on blurb's platform now, and in a way it's very freeing. I've done things on the blurb platform before, but always had a pretty clear plan.

This time I just wanted to make something and I had a couple portfolios that I thought could be cut to fit, to be the raw material.

It was interesting. The design evolved as I mucked about placing pictures, and so did the idea, and somewhere in there the book became about something. And now it's about that, and the pictures support that idea, and here we are.

I'll be pressing Print some time today, most likely. Super fun!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


I sent this thing I made to Daniel Milnor who, I may have mentioned, is a real inspiration to me, and I think everyone ought to listen to what he says, and read what he writes.

Anyways, he liked it enough to mention it on site!

I can't tell you what will work for you, but just making a thing and putting it out there works for me. Give it to someone, leave it in a coffee shop, or on the street. I find it incredibly satisfying to complete something and put it out there.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Punditry Gone Mad

Punditry is all mad, of course, and is mainly about confirming audience biases. Here's a particularly egregious example from the camera industry.

A popular column (essay, blog post), oft repeated by the internet-famous, runs thus:

The camera industry is in trouble, sales are dropping, fast. People are taking more and more pictures with cell phones and buying fewer and fewer real cameras. The solution for camera makers is to woo the cell phone users to real cameras, and the way to do that is to put such and such feature into a camera.

The fact that Nikon et al don't is evidence that they are stupid, and that I am smart.

This is unadulterated pandering. The implication is that the audience, being very much like the pundit, are also smarter than Nikon management. Then a jolly good time can be had arguing about precisely which mix of obscure features would save Nikon from the cell phones, and everyone gets to feel very clever and they get to have a great time talking about one of their favorite things, fancy cameras.

Somewhere in here is the planted assumption that cell phone users can be wooed, en masse, to cameras, if only you got the mix of features right. An essential part of this assumption is that cell phone picture-takers are dissatisfied with the phone's camera.

It fails them in low light. Sometimes it fails them shooting action. Therefore, the argument goes, the cell phone picture-taker is simply waiting for a better solution.

The problem here is that the cell phone picture-taker doesn't care. Oh, they're a little sad the pictures didn't work out, but they're not crushed.

Because pictures are disposable ephemera, and simply not important.

This is the vital point the average internet camera enthusiast cannot grasp. Pictures are not important. Image quality is not important.

To the average reader of Thom Hogan, LuLa, Ming Thein, and no doubt dozens of others, this is a literally incomprehensible attitude. No wonder the aforementioned pat bit of canned rumination, coughed up whenever there's nothing else to bleat about, always sells so well.

Without understanding how people understand photographs, in the mass, you cannot begin to understand how to sell photograph-taking equipment.

And the internet-famous pundits, mostly, don't understand.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The History of Photograpy, Beaumont Newhall

I want to make a few remarks about this book. It's the go-to history of photography, and it's fundamentally flawed (in my opinion). Newhall had some serious biases, and they show.

There are, more or less, three remarks I want to make.

Remark The First

In the 4th edition we have chapters named Pictorial Effect and Photography as an Art. In the 5th edition, we have the same chapters named Art Photography and Pictorial Photography, respectively. What's interesting that the the adjectives "Art" and "Pictorial" are reversed in the 5th edition.

On the one hand, in reality, these two terms are -- largely -- interchangeable, in context. The folks who wanted photography to be Art (respected by the establishment, as well as doing whatever it is that Art does) felt that the proper path was to make Pictorial photographs (photographs that look like paintings). So, they don't mean quite the same thing, but they describe much the same set of people and ideas.

On the other hand, we pay historians to name things properly and put them in the right buckets and so forth, so I think a case can be made that Mr. Newhall has fallen down on the job when he's moving things around in 1981.

Some time in the first half of the twentieth century the word Pictorial came to mean "photographs I don't like", more or less. My guess is that the naming change in the 5th edition was, somehow, a reflection of this, but it's very late. Certainly the later of the two chapters (Photography as an Art in edition 4, and Pictorial Photography in the fifth) is largely concerned with the era of fuzzy gum-bichromate pictures, the body of work we now call Pictorialism. The 5th edition comes along quite late to be driving, or even closely following, this usage. So, I am not sure what's up.

Newhall never seems to use the word Pictorial or Pictorialist in the pejorative "those buggers making fuzzy gum prints" way, in either edition. Still, the word "Pictorial" is fraught, and I think it was fraught in 1980, so Newhall was up to something here.

Remark The Second

P.H. Emerson. Both Newhalls (Beaumont's wife, Nancy, wrote a remarkably thin biography of Emerson, which appears to be about half apologies for not being able to find anything out about great swathes of time, and inventing fantasies for what might have happened during them) seem to want Emerson to be very influential.

He just doesn't seem to have been. Yes, he wrote a great deal, and got in to spectacular fights. He was, briefly, well known and either respected or feared, possibly both. But he doesn't seem to have actually influenced anybody.

I love Emerson. He was just my kind of grouch. But he was also a nutter, and photographers generally seem to have simply ignored him in the long run. One can argue that he was the first to seriously espouse a philosophy that was to become Straight Photography 20 or 30 years later, when the time was right, but it seems certain that the Straight Photography people came up with it on their own.

It's not at all clear that Emerson deserves as much as a line in a definitive history of photography, and he almost certainly doesn't deserve the kind of coverage Newhall gives him.

Remark The Third

In the 4th edition we find this remark attributed to Stieglitz: "The result is the only fair basis for judgement. It is justifiable to use any means upon a negative or paper to attain the desired end."

I cannot find this remark quoted in the somewhat larger 5th edition.

This fits rather neatly with Newhall's bullshit narrative of Stieglitz single-handedly lifting Photography out of the mire of gum-bichromate fuzz. The brutal truth is that Stieglitz seems never to have told anyone how they ought to work. He simply didn't care what methods people used. He never did. Stieglitz himself usually shot straight, his primary change in methods over time was simply to shoot on clear days rather than foggy and rainy ones. Of course there were other vast changes in his life, Stieglitz was always in flux, but his approach to the physical acts involved in making photographs was largely similar across his career.

Stieglitz' main philosophical positions seem to have been:
  • Pictorial Photography is the thing.
  • No it's not, photographs that look like photographs are the thing.
  • Aww hell, whatever works, Georgia's tits are awesome (which they were).

(the last in unfair, actually, what he was actually doing was: we should make distinctively American Art and stop aping the Euros, and who cares if it looks like a painting or a photograph.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Review My Book!

I keep selling copies of this book, Intermediate Photography. Slowly, slowly.

Y'all buying it out there, write me a review, huh? Even if it's bad, that's OK. I'm vain enough to want to know what people are thinking. Heck, I might even try to improve it if I got some constructively negative reviews. Maybe.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


This is a prize-winning photo. Alison Postma, of the University of Guelph, won a year's tuition from the Art Gallery of Ontario.

And she should have. This is not a technical tour de force. This does not illustrate Mastery Of The Light, or any of that shit. What this is, is a razor sharp concept simply and clearly executed. This is the embodiment of an idea. What it is, exactly, is up to you. But by golly it's something.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Death of the Iconic Photo

I dunno about you, but I think of contemporary photographers and photographers from, say, more than 40 years ago quite differently. Robinson, Stieglitz, Weston, Lange, Adams, Evans, Evans, I can think instantly of one of two iconic photographs. Bam. These people exist in my mind, first and foremost, as iconic pictures.

SebastiĆ£o Salgado, Peter Turnley, Sally Mann? These guys do not.

These guys exist as bodies of work, sets of ideas. I can, with effort, think up single pictures from them, but there's no instant recall of these things. I instantly think of ideas and books and collections.

I think, although I am not sure, that this is a reflection of the modern trends in photography.

There's no such thing as a singular iconic image any more. There's an idea, a concept, and then a cloud of pictures around it. Pick any Salgado picture. It's probably crunchy black and white, of some subject or another. A desolate landscape, a desperate human, perhaps. I can find 100,000 similar photos online in a few minutes. Some of them will be excellent. Some of them might be better than Salgado's picture.

Does this mean that Salgado sucks? Certainly not.

His strength is in the ideas and in the bodies of work. Any fool can make a crunchy black and white photo of a poor South American child, and 10s of 1000s of fools have. 1000s of them have probably made excellent crunchy black and white photographs of a poor South American child. But only one has made important books, embodying important ideas, that contain such pictures. Ok, maybe two or three people have. But not very many.

Edward Weston's place in the history of photography rests, at least in part, on a handful of truly excellent photographs. Sally Mann's place rests on a handful of books. The pictures themselves are, of course, excellent. But the point is that they fit into carefully built collections, portfolios of work that embody something bigger.

It's not that excellent pictures are no longer being made, it's that they're being made in such quantity that the quality "iconic" is no longer applicable to a single photograph. Instead, we have an archetype and a collection of instances of it. These things, in and of themselves, have become less and less interesting.

In a way, I think we've grown up. Individual words were cool when they'd just been invented, but now everyone can read and write. What's interesting now is the sentences and poems and books and plays that a few of the most talented are writing.