Thursday, November 15, 2018

Vivian Maier, Again

Mike over on ToP mentions Yet Another book by the (not even slightly) mysterious nanny, this one of color photographs. I have not seen the book, but if you flip through the color section of John Maloof's web site we find more of what we ought to thoroughly expect at this point.

All the pictures look vaguely like other pictures we've seen. This one looks a bit like an Elliot Erwitt, that one looks a bit like an Alec Soth, this one looks like some random contemporary MFA candidate's Serious Work (or like she pressed the shutter button by accident, I could go either way). Oh look, here's one where you photograph some random scene, but hold up some optical thing in the middle of it, to create a circle of upside-down and magnified (or whatever) scenery. Some of it looks like black and white photography that happens to be shot in color, a little bit of it actually looks like color photography, in the sense that color is actually playing a role in the picture.

You could certainly argue with whether I have Erwitt or Soth pegged properly, but the point is that we've seen all these pictures before, and not in the same place. This is an incoherent pastiche of vaguely familiar pictures, not the body of work of an artist, of a serious photographer.

That is to say, it is exactly like all the Vivian Maier books.

What is plain and obvious to anyone who hasn't been sucked in by the myth is that there is no Vivian Maier style here. Since she appears to be "copying" artists who post-date her, often by many decades, we are (again) drawn to the inescapable conclusion that this is entirely a work of curation. Again, we are left wondering what her pictures actually look like, when not clumsily sorted into these pseudo-derivative messes designed purely to sell books.

Is there, in fact a real Vivian Maier that could be discovered if we were not being spoon-fed these cheap copies of other photos? Or is it really just a mass of random snaps, large enough to pull a handful of highly marketable monographs out of, marketable if you wrap them up in a good enough story?

As an aside, I see that the amazon description of the book continues to pound the "mysterious nanny" story when in fact we know more about Vivian Maier than we do about Napoleon, and nobody refers to him as an enigmatic, mysterious, Emperor.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

I'm Not Even Sure What This Means

Someone, as you may recall, signed me up for some magazines (I assume Chris Gampat, in a fit of pique over my remarks on his terrible magazine), which subscriptions I cancelled immediately of course. However, this has not stopped them from sending me a few mags. Free magazines! Thanks, Chris! The most recent gift was a copy of Vanity Fair, which has a pretty good collection of fairly high end fashion adverts.

I love fashion photography. Not for the clothes and the girls, although those are certainly very nice. I like it for the sheer weight of artifice.

Here's an easy one.

Armani has been rocking this crazy out of focus thing for, at least a year I think? Anyways, check the color palette. It's pure slate greys, with a very slightly gold touch of silver in the strap of the purse. Which is echoed in the indistinct mass of decorative crap around the model's neck and chest. Very consistent.

So what? you say, this is probably a composite on a digitally drawn background, or at best in a studio.

Ok, look at this Coach ad:

The model is styled to the nines here. Skin tone, the glasses, the blouse, the coat, it's all the same ultra-warm brown tones. Beautiful, but just good styling. But look in the background. Those buildings in the distance. The same hue. Some are quite bright, maybe more yellow, but there's that one brick wall back there that's practically a perfect match for the fur on the coat. It's eerie.

Bottega Venata:

We've seen these colors already. Warm browns and slate greys are In. Ok, so they lit the phone booth to match her jacket. Good work, set crew. But wait, see those safety barriers in the background? Same damn orange hue as her lapels and purse.

House Dior:

Yeah yeah, same slate greys. Nice choice on the balcony doors, the whole balcony is all pale greys, a little slate, and blacks, just like the clothes. Did you spot it yet? Check the architectural detail in the background that hits the models at chin height. The shadows and stonework are the same yellow/orange as those absurd epaulets on the one model's jacket. Even the lettering at the bottom is yellow.

And last but certainly not least, Calvin Klein:

By now you should notice instantly that the trees in the distance are the color of faded denim. Nice detail of the railing hitting just at her waistline. But did you notice how the horizon lines hits their jeans? That's not an accident.

I love these things, because they are so very very made. The point of these exercises, surely, is to make the photographs feel fully controlled, to let the viewer know, mostly unconsciously, that these pictures were made by someone who was totally in control of every aspect.

I feel a kind of surrealist element here (which by the way D&G hits pretty head on in their ads) but since it's usually subliminal I'm not sure it really counts. These things, glanced at, appear to be just pictures of models, in clothes, standing around looking vaguely surly. Is there a word for "surrealist, but hidden, unconscious?" I dunno, but I feel like there should be one. If it's not just "surrealist."

Saturday, November 10, 2018

"Engages With"

The phrase "engages with" is one of the more irksome in the art world. Along with "necessary" which means "this thing aligns with my simplistic acadamy-approved leftist politics" it is the phrase that most vigorously provokes my temper.

Political change in this world occurs in precisely two ways: Someone votes for something, or someone shoots someone else.

Everything else boils down to persuading people to do one thing or the other thing. Ghandi and Martin Luther King worked quite hard to persuade people in legislative bodies to vote in certain ways. Lenin worked quite hard to persuade other people to shoot yet other people.

Politics, political action, therefore, must ultimately come down to asking people to either vote, or to open fire. At the end of the process, you need to persuade people to vote "Yes" or "No" on a specific thing, or you must provide people with guns, bullets, and an identifiable target. One step removed from that, you can talk about the general shape of things which ought to be voted for (or shot). You can step back a little further and talk about changes you'd like to see in the world, and what kinds of things we might choose to vote on, and who ought to vote for them.

Art which "engages with" an issue invariable takes another ten steps back, and merely deplores the way the world is.

This is, to be sure, a starting point. You've got to clearly delineate what's wrong before you can proceed through the next steps. You need to explain what's wrong with the world as it is before you can hope to open a discussion of what the world might be, and thence the discussion of things we might vote on (or shoot), and thence the discussion of wording and how to persuade people to vote, and thence the persuasion to actually vote, and thence the counting of the votes and finally the battle to see the results of the vote actually take shape.

"Engaging with" is easy. You simply pick out something all your friends deplore, and deplore it. There is no intellectual effort here to even work out what the next step might be, let alone any of the actually difficult slogging through the steps after that one. The game is entirely to develop new and ever more outré ways to express how sad you are. "I know, I will make a sculpture of Donald Trump out of my own shit" (except I assume that's already been done). I see no way that a fecal sculpture of Donald Trump leads to impeachment hearings, or even a US president from another party in 2021. It will garner shivery and excited reviews, though, which is rather the point.

Gene Smith's Minamata, one of my big touchstones here, details what happened inside the Japanese government and judiciary, it details the response of Chisso. Aileen Smith took a side trip to Canada to investigate methyl mercury pollution there, and identified specific things the government was not doing, what the government was doing that was insufficient and thwarted.

While the Smiths did not call out specific remedies, and did not call for so-and-so to be shot, they did dig deeper than simply deploring the situation in Japan and Canada. They named names, they called for specific actions. They provided a historical record as a template. They were not lazy, nor were they merely working hard but ineffectually.

Another personal touchstone. You might say that Sally Mann's work on racism is too far removed from concrete steps of political action, and it certainly does not do much more than detail and deplore the situation. I think her work is more of a personal lament than a call to action. I don't see it as an attempt, particularly, to foment change. Perhaps I am giving Mann a pass here, because of my fondness for her and her work.

There is no denying, though, that Mann is doing difficult emotional labor here. She is examining the world around her, but at the same time herself. While it might be a stretch to say Mann's photography is really about Sally Mann, certainly there is a lot of Sally Mann in there. One can usefully grasp the work as being about Sally Mann (whether it presents a true telling of her is another question entirely, but it is certainly a telling if not the telling.)

Art that "engages with" leaves out the hard political work of devising next steps, but also seeks to avoid the difficult emotional work of the lament for how things are. In this sort of hybrid of a call to political action and of a personal lament, the artists are able to pick and choose the bits and pieces, somehow always selecting the easy bits, the trivial bits, and leaving out the hard ones.

These people want to use the documentary methods, to retain their safe distance and avoid emotional, personal, labor. Yet they also do none of the work that ought to follow a political call to action. They abdicate all responsibility, in favor of the cheap and simple deploring of whatever it is that their friends agree is deplorable.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018


As it happens, one cannot become a mathematician without learning from other mathematicians.

Well, I dare say that there are occasional weird geniuses who could manage it simply by reading, but these people are extraordinarily rare. Math departments often have one or two unaffiliated but tolerated kooks hanging around the place who fancy themselves members of this rare breed, peddling their theories of quantum marshmallow gravity or whatever. They are tolerated, I think, because the main difference between these kooks and the Real Mathematicians is that the latter agree on their underlying system of abstract craziness, and can generally reproduce one another's fancies. Occasionally, some fancy or another manages to match up with the real world and someone can build the Hydrogen Bomb which always exciting.

In any case, mathematicians are aware, I think, that the veil between kookery and mathematics is fairly thin, so the quantum relativity guys are not dragged off by security as long as they don't pee in the staff lounge, or drink too much of the coffee.

Mathematicians are mildly obsessed with the family tree of master / apprentice relationships, who advised whose thesis, and so on. Also, with who has published papers with whom. Essentially all mathematicians can trace themselves back to Gauss, by one path or another. There is little in the way of "islands" in mathematics.

Hanging around with other mathematicians for many years is necessary to master the processes and techniques of mathematics. The kooks in general have no such mastery, but simply ape the general shapes of things, poorly.

A side-effect of hanging around and learning the methods, though, is that one also learns a surprising amount of aesthetics. The bearded fellow at the front of the lecture hall intones "A beautiful theorem of Banaschewski" and later your advisor, staring at your scribbled idea, mumbles "well, it seems right, but it's very ugly" and so on. A few years of this and you've got a pretty good notion of what pretty mathematics looks like, as opposed to the other sort.

The kooks may, interestingly, have some grasp on the aesthetics, but lacking the mechanics, being as it were an island of one worker with no connection to anyone else, they don't actually have anything interesting to say.


Painting is, I believe, similar. The methods and processes of painting are complex enough that if you want to be any good at it, you've got to hang around with someone who knows this stuff. You can struggle along with some books, but if your experience is anything like mine, you cannot really even learn to draw from a book, let alone paint.

In the process of learning how to get paint to stick to canvas, and how to mix green, and where to hold the brush, you're likely to learn something of aesthetics. Indeed, in the fine arts, it's likely that your teachers will be at some pains to pound some such notions into your head.

While Painting with a capital P may not be quite as thoroughly connected a family tree as mathematics, I do think that there are not too many small islands of thought, technique, and method. Mostly, everyone learned from someone else, and they learned from someone else, who collaborated with someone, and so forth. Perhaps not back to Leonardo, but many steps.

Consider now photography.

Photography is at its heart, as I have argued elsewhere, entirely a process of selection rather than creation. The mechanics of the process are so thin as to be negligible. The essential thing in photography consists of nothing but the aesthetic considerations, all those pesky issues of what it looks like, what it means, why is it good, or bad, or stupid, or monumentally important.

Photography distills fine art to exactly those details which, in other disciplines, are passed on more or less osmotically through a long apprenticeship, through long collaborations, through long associations with other workers in the field so necessary to master the techniques and methods.

Tragically, photography simultaneously removes all immediate need for any such associations. You can in fact master the processes and methods of photography simply by reading the manual. This is indeed the entire point of all commerce in the equipment and materials of photography -- to enable the amateur to more and more easily master the methods and techniques of photography without any kind of apprenticeship.

This has led to endless little islands of thought and method. I was taught, to the extent that I was taught by anyone which is not much, by my father who learned it as far as I know from the manual. I am one of an island of two. There are endless islands of one out there, the 'self-taught' photographer is practically a cliche.

This is not to say that apprenticeships are not available; but there are, and can be, no "schools" of any meaningful sort. God knows I can take a workshop from any number of assholes, none of who learned anything from anyone. Ming Thein sits at the top of a family tree, an island of photographers with, I dare say, hundreds of members. None of these photographers have much of a connection to any larger tradition, it's simply Ming's ideas which he got mainly from the manual, and perhaps a few videos on technique. Virtually none of his students will successfully have many students of their own. This island of workers might peak at 1000 photographers before they start dying off, and in 100 years there will be nobody alive who learned from anyone who learned from Ming Thein.

There are a few programs that produce little collections of bores (I'm looking at you, Düsseldorf) and the result is a few dozen or a few hundred students all doing more or less related work, all working from as well as building a Tradition of some sort. These schools are inevitably going to be drowned out. You don't have to go live with Thomas Ruff for five years if you want to take pictures, so mostly people won't. Whatever sense of aesthetics Ruff has learned, rebelled against, and expanded into his own will not last much past him. The Düsseldorf school might last 3 or 4 generations, but I predict that in due course there will be nobody alive in the chain of teacher / student with a connection to the Bechers.

In short there is no Tradition in photography, and this appears to be irrevocably the case.

I don't suggest that Tradition is the be all and end all, but it is the path through which more than technical knowledge passes. Ideas about what is beautiful, what is good, what is meaningful, and what matters are also passed down through Traditions.

Photography, unfortunately, lacks these things. For better or for worse.

Sometimes, to be sure, for better.

Friday, November 2, 2018

"Photographers" are Weird

By "Photographers" I mean, probably no surprise to anyone, camera enthusiasts.

By weird, in this case, is their willingness to judge a human being based on their photographs. Not even photographs of the human being, but made by the human being.

The more interactive I am in the world of photography, the more frequently I get the "oh YEAH well let's see ur pix" which is code for "I disagree with you about something, and I intend to bolster my philosophical position by mocking your photographs, completely independently of whether they are any good or not" which is absolutely the damnedest rhetorical flourish ever.

So, disagreement with Andrew turns into judging Andrew's pictures as shit. Which they might be, sure, but it's clear that they want to judge my pictures based on something I said about The Nature Of Art or whatever, not on whether the pictures are shit.

Conversely, when I piss in someone's cheerios and say things like "I don't think Ming Thein was ever a hedge fund manager" or "Chris Gampat is a terrible designer" or "Patrick Laroque is a hilarious idiot" or "Olaf Sztaba is a grifter" or "Michael Reichmann's margins on this Galapagos tour are insane" (all of which I have said and stand behind) the argument against is that their pictures are wonderful.

What on earth do their pictures have to do with what I just said? Nothing! Nothing at all! If you could tell a man's character by the photographs they make, well, a lot of very good pictures would have turned out a lot worse. Conversely, if being a good and upright human was all that was required to make good pictures, we'd have more of those.

I honestly have no idea what to make of this phenomenon. Are these people just imbeciles? It's possible, but it seems remarkable that so many of them would be.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Photography, Journalism, History

Photographs are true. As far as that goes. An unaltered photo depicts in correct perspective what was in front of the lens at the moment the shutter was pressed and is, as far as that goes, absolutely truthful. Photographs are not truth. There are things outside the frame, things that appeared earlier, things that appeared later. Indeed, there is, literally, an entire universe that lies outside the frame.

John Edwin Mason, a card carrying member of the cult of Edward Said's Orientalism complained on twitter recently about a photograph that appears on the cover the NYT Magazine. They've published something on the conflict in Yemen, and included in their coverage is a picture of a malnourished little dude, naked, held by some people wearing what appears to be hijab. One assumes that the people are women, possibly relatives, and the little dude is malnourished and insanely thin as a result of the conflict.

Mason and Colberg get into a little mutual stroking, as they are wont to do, talking about how problematic this picture is, how it evokes the White Savior, etc and so forth. Interestingly, they seem to agree that it's a failure of knowledge and wisdom on the part of the NYT photo editor responsible, although it's a bit tough to tell on twitter of course.

Let's back up a little.

I don't know the details, but I would bet my bippy that the conflict in Yemen is one of those fractally complex piles of shit that 1000 pages of dense research and analysis would not suffice to unravel. The "truth" here most likely stretches across the globe, and back in time 1000 years. It is, certainly, another Sunni vs. Shia pissing match. It is probably related to the fact that the Saudi rulers are, culturally, narrow minded genocidal savages. Their enemies (which is everyone, but in this case it is the Houthis) are probably also a very difficult bunch of rebels, terrorists, whatever. I assume that if you kept digging you would find somewhere in there various tribes of Bedouin shitheads who were killing one another with camel thigh bones 1000 years ago over some argument having to do with a melon.

Without a doubt, buried not very deeply, is the American hegemony's love affair with Saudi Arabia, and the American military industrial complex's desire to a) consume materiel and b) test out their weapons systems on other people's bodies.

And so on, you know, it probably goes on forever in all directions. So this this is probably a mess.

To report on it, you have to frame it. You have to, in the manner of a photograph, "crop" it to what you see as the essentials. If you behave as a responsible journalist, or a responsible historian, you will end up with something that is in many ways like a photograph. Everything you say is true, what you have placed inside your "frame" is true and accurate. Because you are responsible, and care about truth, you have made a good faith effort to "frame" the story in a way that captures what is essential, in a way that gets at the underlying reality of the situation. You are trying to create a summary of the situation in 1000 words that more or less lines up with the result a team of scholars would arrive it in their 10,000 page magnum opus.

As a journalist or historian, this is the goal. You're not achieving it. Not if you're the New York Times, nor if you are John Edwin Mason, nor if you are Jörg Colberg, nor if you are Andrew Molitor (although in the last instance you will at least be pretty.)

There are fundamentally two ways you can disagree with journalism, with history, or with a photograph.

The first is if the piece is outright false. You read it, you look at it, and you glean from it some statement of fact which is factually wrong. The photo clearly depicts a victory when in reality there was defeat. The article asserts that nobody was killed, when in fact many died.

The second is when you disagree with the framing. The photograph, while true as far as it goes, has cropped out essential details. Remember, the photograph cannot but crop out an entire universe, and a 1000 words in a magazine cannot possibly explain anything complex. That these things, all of them, are radical crops is built-in, inevitable. Given the breadth of human experience and understanding, it is inevitable that some people will feel that essential things are being cropped out regardless of how you frame it.

Mason and Colberg are simply complaining that the NYT is framing the Yemen story in a way that they disagree with. They would prefer that the frame instead place the blame squarely on the government of the United States of America, and this is because they are academics in the United States of America and that's how these people signal their virtue.

Note that their preferred frame is, if anything, even more simple-minded and incomplete than the one the NYT has elected to use. Their preferred frame eliminates a vast swathe of material that other people (notably: people of color living in the middle east) would consider essential (e.g. the Saudis are genocidal shitheads, an essential detail in the minds of many a Semite.)

The idea that the NYT is choosing not to implicate the US government through ignorance or incompetence is laughable. The NYT has been for my entire lifespan and probably well before that the willing lapdog of the US government. They are highly skilled professionals. They frame stories in a way that accomplishes many things all at once. Their frames please their readership, which is generally a pro-USA albeit left-leaning elitist. Their frames also please the government bureaucrats who helpfully provide them with with so much of their global news, complete with pre-fabricated frames. They can sell papers and protect their sources at the same time.

Now, it happens that I more or less agree with Mason and Colberg. Our shared government should be implicated a lot more in a lot more things around the world. Not the elected imbeciles, they are 90% irrelevant. I mean the bureaucrats, the machine of government, that massive system of humans and processes and tradition that is hell-bent on any number of extremely weird, perverted, and outright stupid enterprises which we might loosely lump under the head of American Hegemony.

But, I am not so naive as to suppose that the NYT has it "wrong" and that I have it "right," the distinction is that I prefer one framing of the story, one way to "crop," and they prefer another. They prefer, surprise, the way that is most advantageous to them, and I prefer one that advantages me.

This is not some post-modern "there's no such thing as truth anyways" bullshit. There jolly well is truth. It's just big, unwieldy, and largely incomprehensible. It's the cutting it down to comprehensible size that's such a bugger.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Preciousness of The Print

I don't mean "precious" in the good way, and I apologize in advance to my readers who in some sense or another revere the print. I will attempt to not mash too hard upon your toes.

There was a column Ctein wrote on ToP a good long time ago. In it, roughly, he sent some prints off to auction, they did not sell, and when the auction house returned them they were "ruined" and Ctein went to a great deal of trouble to get some money back for them. In reality, he did quite well, essentially ending up "selling" the prints to the insurance company rather than simply filing them away again to, perhaps, never be sold.

In this piece, he discusses the damage. Little creases here and there. Certainly this is damage, no question about it. Are the prints ruined? Certainly not. Dry mount those bad boys down and the damage would be virtually invisible and, after all, you'd still be able to see the picture. I wonder, sometimes, what Ctein actually did with the ruined prints. Did he, as he ought to have done, shred them? Or did he salt them away somewhere?

Anyways. Ctein's prints, being dye-transfer, are kind of special. You're not going to be seeing any more dye-transfer prints, after all, and you don't exactly stamp these things out like donuts in the first place.

Most prints, though, you stamp them out like donuts. Ctein's attitude is typical of Standard Photographic Attitude toward prints, and it is bizarre.

I am pretty sure this comes out of photography's ongoing neurosis regarding its status as Art. By elevating The Print to something akin to a painting, by making it a special, super-awesone, limited edition, yadda yadda, we collectively hope to aid photography's position as Real Art.

The truth is that ever since the positive/negative process was devised, making more prints has been an essentially mechanical process. If you can make one, you can make 100, or 1000, it's just work. In this digital era, you literally just type a different number into the little box, and load in more paper. In the digital world, if you want to make another 100 a year later, assuming everything is calibrated or re-calibrated correctly again, you should be able to stamp out another 100 that look exactly like the first batch.

Prints are mass-produced and inexpensive objects. They are not paintings. They are not precious.

This does not mean that they are not marvelous. Of course they are marvelous.

This also ignores economic realities, for a few photographers. If you need to make your money selling prints, some sort of artificial scarcity is necessary to support a high selling price. Do not lose sight of the fact that the scarcity is artificial -- your buyers certainly won't lose sight of that fact. Ponder what this costs you, if anything. Are you selling pictures, or a more or less fungible scarce object to someone who merely wants things which are hard to obtain?

This fits in neatly with my various remarks made earlier this year, to the effect that at its core photography is selection rather than creation and that photographers ought to cease being neurotic about this as well. Selection in this sense deserves to be seen as fully a peer and partner of creation, it is different, but ought to be equally valued. In the same way, the mass-producible print is just as marvelous, is just as valuable in a non-economic sense, as a painting. The print is different, it is inexpensive. The marginal cost of making another one is trivial. But none of that alters its essentially marvelous nature.

There are many things a photographer can do, but one thread of activity is to purely select viewpoints, press a button, and then quickly and easily produce masses of identical pieces of paper with a 2 dimensional index of whatever was in front of the lens. There is no creation here that matters, there is no tremendous labor, there is no particular expense. It's easy and cheap.

But well done, it is marvelous, amazing, wonderful.