Thursday, August 16, 2018

Another Essay from Mr. Blight

When I was a mathematician, the primary tool I used was a thing called duality theory. In pure mathematics we are generally thinking about some class of objects, "groups" or "topological spaces" or what have you, and trying to figure things about about them. Surprisingly often, there is a duality in play, which means simply that if you have one of these things, any one, you can turn it into quite a different kind of object (and back again) in an extremely precise way. Now you have two things that you can think about. Properties in one class of objects translate precisely into other properties in the other class, and back again.

In a way it's a hyper precise version of an analogy. "A lemon is like a malamute" one says, meaning something or other, and then perhaps by thinking about malamutes we can gain some insight into lemons. A truth about malamutes might be much easier to perceive and to prove than the corresponding, equally true, truth about lemons. Ta da! It's a bit of a magic trick, and can be astoundingly productive in mathematics.

Daniel C. Blight, who has graced these pages before when I disassembled a blindingly stupid essay of his, will now re-appear. I regret that I will not be turning him in to a smarter and more interesting object in order to reason about him. Instead, he has attempted to deploy the power of analogy himself, with poor but entertaining results.

He starts out fairly strong. This first bit from Daniel:

Photographs view the world sideways, at an angle, elliptically, but never straight on, as much as one might hope.

suggests that he's seen Emily Dickinson's poem, or at any rate the first line of it:

Tell all the truth, but tell it slant -

but has forgotten the referent. Daniel is certainly not the first to bring up this notion in regards to photography, I am nearly certain that Sally Mann did so in Hold Still but Mann and Dickinson are practically the only names Daniel does not drop in this piece.

He proceeds onward to the notion that a photograph is like an essay, which is a good analogy to make. It's not clear that Daniel figured this one out on his own or not. Despite citing an astonishing 47 names (several of them multiple times) in a 3700 word essay for a name dropped about every 70-80 words, it is quite difficult to sort out which ideas are Daniel's and which one's he's simply quoting from other writers.

Anyways. It's a good idea. An essay and a photograph are both essentially rooted in some notion of reality, of truth, and proceed from that to somewhere else. Both are fragments, both are filtered through a lot of stuff. One is visual, and an index, the other is not, so the analogy is not precise. Still, let us see what Daniel can make of this, and what we can learn by examining this relationship.

Well, obviously, Daniel learns nothing and tells us nothing. He leaves the analogy there, and talks around it a bit, and that's pretty much that, because like all the other dolts in his little circle he has literally no idea how to discover new ideas. All he can do is rehash other people's ideas and stir them together in a pot trying fruitlessly to synthesize something new.

No, Daniel is going somewhere else. He wants to talk about essays about photography. He tries manfully to make the leap from the analogy of Photograph::Essay to the subject he's actually interested in, but does not manage it. He does this weird thing, though:

The relationship between the ways in which the photographic might describe literature, and the literary might describe the photograph is a regular occurrence in the history of photography, as we shall see. [...] Virginia Woolf writes of Julia Margaret Cameron that her photographs ‘reflect her literary friendships and tastes’

In this section it is notable that none of the three examples he provides can reasonably be considered to be photographs describing literature or vice versa, as he promises us. Photographing an author, which Cameron did from time to time, is not making a photograph that describes literature. No. Neither is referring to Proust's writing as "photographic." Daniel is unable to distinguish between two different things being more or less near one another in a paragraph or sentence, and two things behaving in the dual way mathematicians are fond of.

Apropos of nothing in particular, we have this gem:

Various historic conceptions of the photographic image have seen it described as the act of “writing with light”. One interpretation of the etymology of the word photography in Greek translates into “light writing”. In considering photography (Greek: fotografía) is the production of images made with light (Greek: phōtós) and finds a relation to the word writing (Greek: grafí), it is no wonder that various photographers have had literature in mind when making images.

Which is frankly bizarre. He makes it seem as if the etymology of the word photograph is subject to interpretation, that there are perhaps multiple conceptions of what this word means and the manner in which it arose. That is wrong. The word was coined by Herschel and introduced in a paper read to the Royal Society on March 14, 1839. There's no conceptualizing, there's no interpretation. There are verifiable bare facts on the table here.

Daniel seems to be unaware of the fact that the modern Greek word is a borrowing from English of a word constructed from Greek roots, none of which matters because regardless of borrowing back and forth the fragments mean, and always meant, and were mashed together because they meant, writing with light.

Daniel blunders on, listing more accidental coincidences of literature with photographs. Stieglitz (photographer) and William Carlos Williams (writer) knew one another, and so on. He tries to make some hay out of the grafia part of photograph to suggest a further link between writing and photography, but it doesn't come out to more than simply stating grafia means writing, see? writing and writing. But with light not ink. Wow.

If we found that Stieglitz also knew a plumber, could we then assert that there is some wonderful and meaningful connection between plumbing and photography, without actually exploring it even slightly? Well, yes, we could, I suppose. But it would be obviously stupid.

A brief and pointless side trip through the layers of meaning that a photograph might have follows. It's an index, a representation! It's 1s and 0s! But it's also a reflection of social constructs and interpreted/seen through the filter of social constructs! Zowie! This is yet another opportunity for some sort of dualistic analysis which Daniel completely missed, preferring instead sprinkle names wildly about.

Finally, agonizingly, Daniel drags himself around to what he seems to really want to talk about. Essays about photography are and always have been written almost exclusively by white men. Daniel C. Blight is, as nearly as I can determine, a white man, so he's carrying on the tradition, but apparently unhappy with it. In the midst of his lengthy complaint, we find, more or less as a representative example, this sentence:

This position is not to be confused with an anti-intellectual polemic against the stylistics of “literary sophistication”, but instead to make a socialist point with regard to the inclusion of various idiolects in coming to an understanding of what writing on photography has been, and might become.

Which says, roughly, look I'm not complaining about how white all these essays are, but I do think we need some essays about photography that aren't just a white man banging on in pseudo-academic cant in what might possibly be the pinnacle of the style "white men banging on in pseudo-academic cant" in an essay about photography. At this point one begins to wonder if this is just some sort of complicated joke, or if Daniel is actually so staggeringly unaware of himself and of the words that his flailing fists are mashing onto the screen of his computer.

Now, to be fair, Daniel's not wrong. Writing about photography is almost exclusively done by people like him, and like me, and like Colberg and so on. There's a few black guys like John Edwin Mason running aroound, but they write in exactly the same cant.

On that point, though, I think I can make one of those dualistic analogy deals here. Writing about photography is a bit like competitive adult hopscotch. Now, I don't know if the latter is actually a thing, but I bet it is, and I bet it's played entirely by ironical white men with tattoos and ridiculous beards. The fact that adult people of color and women don't play competitive hopscotch, while definitely skewed, is arguably not a problem. Hopscotch, like writing about photography, is not a discipline which leads to wealth, opportunity, or really anything interesting.

Arguably, women and people of color don't write about photography and don't play competitive hopscotch because they don't give a shit about essays on photography or hopscotch. And more power to them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Wall

I have have been reading a book on book design (Adrian Wilson's The Design of Books) which is quite wonderful. It provides a lot of information, a lot of detail to think about, a lot of ideas and concepts, and nothing specific in the way of rules. There are no dicta. He says things like "these fonts have a traditional look, so think about it before combining them with modern design ideas" (not an actual quotation).

In general I am struck by how frequently creative people who are actually good at creative things decline to boil things down to rules of thumb, dictates, and the like. There's far more discussion of what is possible, and what, in general terms, the various bits and pieces are likely to do.

I recently got into a discussion about rules of composition (again) and as always happens, it devolved into me and a few people like me staring goggle-eyed at a handful for people who cling to the Rule of Thirds and so on with a desperation that drives them into waves of fury when someone points out that these rules are based on exactly nothing, and are the contemporary inventions of people who would teach photography to camera owners.

While the rest of the world worries that Photography is being ruined by the fact that everyone has a phone and can take pictures, I suspect that far greater is the damage done by people who want to sell glossy softcover books about Improve Your Digital Photographs and people who want to draw clicks by cutting and pasting material drawn from other unsuccessful web sites.

I would rather know about a billion people just reaching out and shooting a flower because it's pretty than about one schmo lumbering through his way through one Formal Composition Based On The Golden Spiral after another. The latter, unfortunately, seeks to shove his ideas into the former, and pretty soon we have fairly pretty flowers all slavishly placed at the same location in the frame until all the beautiful flowers blend into one another and it's all garbage. There are major web sites literally filled with these things.

It feels like a wall has been erected.

You get a phone, you start taking pictures with the camera. They may be no great shakes, but they have a certain verity to them. See also this post from a while back, about a somewhat enigmatic snapshootist.

If you get interested, you start poking around the internet, or maybe you try to find a book. This is where the wall is. You will, inevitably, start to find "information" about how to put objects into the frame. Rules of thirds, Power Triangles, all kinds of shit. If you follow these dictates, your pictures will start to look like the other pictures you have seen and admired. In fact, they will start to look very much indeed like those pictures. Practically identical, often. Perhaps this delights you, satisfies you. I suppose there would be nothing wrong with that. It has, in some circles, become the established taste. While they claim it's all basically just da Vinci and Micheangelo, it's not. It's just some bozos trying to sell How To books, the ideas escaped, and became this sort of self-licking ice cream cone, a sort of cult of ideas that exist only in the world of Serious Amateur Photography.

But maybe you got sucked into it, because these ideas are ubiquitous in that narrow world which is probably where you looked, and you are now trapped at a wall.

People who have been photographing for a year or two or three will, from time to time, complain that they are "stuck" and curious as to "how to progress". Their peers will tell them to buy some stuff, and I suppose sometimes this works. But that's not the problem. They're trapped at the wall.

I don't know what percentage of photographers can feel that they're trapped. Maybe only a few. I kind of think that even one is too many though, you know?

The trouble is that the wall is tough. Many photographers who are, knowing or unknowing, stuck at this wall are the ones who will fly into a rage when you say things like The Golden Triangle is a modern invention, based on almost nothing. It is bullshit, and you should forget it, substituting instead actual looking, actual seeing, and actual feeling. If a fellow is one of those, well, I don't see how he's going to get past it. He's willing to fight a pitched and angry keyboard battle to avoid getting unstuck.

What's worse, is that this doorknob is promulgating this same crap. While one chap might be perfectly happy with rules-based pictures, and more power to him, he's creating more people similarly bound, and some of those people are going to hit the wall, they're going to feel it, they're going to know it, they're going to be frustrated by it.

Then when they ask their mentor, doorknob guy, how to get unstuck, he is going to suggest buying a macro lens and experimenting with oil drops on water, or something. The doorway to some totally new domain of crappy copies of utterly uninteresting exercises in technique.

Way to go, doorknob guy.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Luminous Endowment

I am disappointed to notice that The Luminous Endowment appears to have, if not folded up shop, at least stalled out. No grants since Novemeber 2017, and only a brief announcement that 3 of the 10 or so listed grants have been closed because of lack of funding.

The DxO grant might have been impacted by the financial implosion of DxO, but I have no guesses as to what has happened with the other grants.

All grants are currently listed as "Closed" on the Grants page.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Bowen Island, British Columbia

My family took a short vacation to this place, not too long ago, the details of which are neither here nor there.

I took some photographs and there were some things happening, which have prompted me to do a little research and think about some things, and so here we are.

Bowen Island is located at the mouth of Vancouver's outer harbor (Vancouver, British Columbia, west coast of Canada), in a sound (Howe Sound) that leads north. Vancouver proper is south across the harbor, and further in to the east a bit. About 10-15 miles by water, depending on where you're going. In the early twentieth century, the island was a tourist destination for people from the city, with multiple steamships heading out there daily. At various times various vacation indulgences were available. Day trips to sunbathe and ride a carousel, overnights, evening dinner and dance trips tucked back in bed at home by midnight. Other times, other people, stayed overnight, or for a week, or the whole summer long.

This was a common theme at least in the United States. On the east coast, people with sufficient funds (this went down as far as the thrifty schoolteacher) would vacation at "the lake" or "the shore" depending on their tastes. Coney Island to the Hamptons. My in-laws began visiting Lake Winnipesaukee in those days. Vancouver in the same era had Bowen Island.

More or less between the world wars, cottages were erected for rent. By the week, by the season, or year around. Small, 1 or 2 bedrooms, a common area, a tiny kitchen tucked out back under a shed roof. Tons of charm, comfortable and quaint. Sometimes with water views. Often, I dare say, with water views. Bowen is essentially a low mountain sticking out of Howe Sound, you have to work a bit to avoid sightlines that touch the water.

In the 1950s car ferry service arrived from Horseshoe Bay (the ferry route indicated in the map, above), first from a private firm, and then from the "nationalized" version of the same firm (the province bought them after a strike). This service has a different character, as it originates from more or less the furthest point west in the metro Vancouver mainland, rather from the centers of population. Today, this is the only service to Bowen Island, and it is essentially an extension of the highway system. The modern British Columbian ferry system is built entirely this way, to maximize the time on roads and minimize the time on water. While efficient for cars, it leads to a very car-centric system built around ferry terminals in far remote locations.

Artists of one stripe or another have been living and working on Bowen Island since the earliest part of the 20th century. At present, they represent something of an "old guard" of residents on the island. While the old guard is surely not all artists, the artists are more or less entirely old guard. They are part of what make the island desirable, fun, and interesting. There are no shortage of places to purchase poorly made pottery, a slapdash painting, or some trite photographs of tall birds standing in short water.

This old guard is, of course, in conflict with the newcomers. Since Vancouver began spiking wildly in the 1980s or so, Bowen Island has increasingly been the weekend getaway spot of the white and affluent. They don't want a quaint cottage, they prefer to own a modern home in what resembles as closely as possible a modern suburb, except with a better view and maybe a place to put their boat. And so they do that. The artists, on the one hand, like selling slapdash paintings to wealthy dolts, but dislike both modern suburbs and large boats, to say nothing of deplorable wealthy dolts.

As you can imagine, this leads to friction. The wealthy dolts and the old guard exist in an inextricable and not entirely friendly symbiosis, in the same way gentrifying dolts and sloppy artists live in every artsy little district undergoing gentrification (i.e. all of them).

This has manifested itself in the Davies Orchard.

At the ferry terminal, in Snug Cove on the island, a man named Davies planted an orchard, 100 years ago or thereabouts. This orchard now lies, according to the historical society Bowen Heritage, in the heart of the village of Snug Cove. I can attest that while this is true, it also lies on the outskirts, and indeed somewhat outside that self-same village, on account of the village being very very small indeed. Davies rented tent platforms to campers in the very early days of Bowen's tourist industry. In 1928 a group of cottages was built in the orchard itself, and the remains of this group is essentially the last of the historical cottages which formerly dominated the island.

When we arrived on our vacation, 9 cottages remained. 4 are available as rentals by the week. One houses Bowen Heritage, and another houses a museum.

When we left, there were 6 cottages remaining, as the 3 not counted above had been stripped hulks when we arrived, and were demolished when we left.

The old guard, the hippies, had left a single sign printed on two sheets of letter sized paper expressing their disappointment with the failure of the various relevant organizations (they are legion) to preserve the vital and significant history blah blah blah, but nobody bothered to show up for the demolition. Nobody lay down in front of a bulldozer. Bowen Heritage has a web site which has not been updated in at least two years.

The fight for history appears to be over. The orchard and much of the surrounding area is being folded into a large, already existing, park well suited to day activities. There is a softball field, where the local men play softball (men's softball? say what? they're very very in to it on Bowen Island, uniforms and the whole bit. Recall that, these are for the most part affluent white people.)

It's still a great spot to go for a day or a week. The island is no longer filled with quaint cottages, but it is filled with AirBNBs, VRBOs, and honest to god Bed & Breakfasts, invariably in four season modern homes in modern suburbs, but usually with a good view and access to a beach. Mainly you drive there, the ferry ride a short blip in which you are not actively piloting your vehicle for a few minutes, before you drive off the ship and into the thoroughly modern suburb where you will vacation.

You can purchase some art, take short hikes through classic Pacific Northwest Forest, walk your dog, buy an ice cream cone or a latte or, no doubt, some fudge. It is Island Living, still. But different. The frenetic and highly social days of closely packed cottages and dance floors with live bands on the waterfront are over. The carnival atmosphere, if it ever truly existed, is gone, each of us vacations in our sealed bubbles. Perhaps we exchange a few words over breakfast with the elderly couple also staying at the Bed & Breakfast before going to do our own thing, purchase our own blotchy mugs and splatchy paintings, hike our own dog around the point, and rent kayaks with our own family for a clumsy paddle in the afternoon.

The cottages, though, are largely gone. And not without reason.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Enlightenment! Truth! Propaganda!

Across the world we have people complaining about Donald Trump. Politicians, software engineers, artists, photographers. Colbergs.

A not uncommon theme is the notion that Enlightenment Values of reason and logic have abruptly fallen by the wayside, discarded by a madman, and replaced with wild delarations about FAKE NEWS and whatnot. The world, in the minds of many, is divided in to Before Trump and After Trump, and in the BT people were swayed by reason, by common sense. Why, a man could effect change with a properly formatted syllogism!

This is utter BS. What makes Trump distinct is that his lies are misaligned with the lies his own administration drags out. His wild-eyed and nonsensical stories are, as often as not, the exact opposite of the wild-eyed nonsensical stories peddled by his own staff. That's genuinely interesting and new, but the lying part isn't new at all. These are, and long have been, people for whom truth isn't an interesting idea.

What is infuriating to see from the Colberg set is the hand-wringing "whatever shall we do? this is unfamiliar territory!" narrative. Are these dopes so dumb as to be unable to make the leap from the fact of propaganda in general, and the Farm Security Administration photographs in particular, to this modern context?

There are reasons that those in power find the idea of Truth to be uninteresting.

The first is that it is devilishly difficult to actually get your arms around. My daughter knocks a cup off the table, and it shatters. That is a fact. But what is the true story here? She was riding her scooter in the house, too fast, and not completely in control. But also my other daughter left the cup on the edge of the table, on a placemat. The placemat had slipped partially off the table, so a corner was hanging over the edge, because Dad was distracted by the dog's whining to go out as he tidied up the table. It was that stray corner of fabric that the younger daughter brushed as she scooted past.

Is it the dog's fault that the cup was broken? Or was the root cause Dad's carelessness? Or is it the older daughter's failure to bring her cup back to the kitchen?

These things unpack indefinitely, back to the Big Bang, if you're not careful. A proper and Truthful Account of the Incident of the Cup unravels things to a degree, but not to the ultimate degree, and assigns cause in a just fashion. I am put in mind of the accident reports produced by the NTSB (which investigates transportation accidents here in the USA, with a degree of rigor and, well, taste, which simply has to be read to be grasped.)

The second reason power finds Truth uninteresting flows from the first. Given the inherently squishy nature of these things, the world lends itself to selective telling. If you're good at this, you can stick to factual statements, and still shape the tale to your own ends and give, ultimately, an impression which suits you best. It may or may not resemble the actual state of affairs as others might see it.

Power, having ends to which it would like to shape stories, finds this irresistible.

The official story of the killing of Osama bin Laden and Seymour Hersh's story of the same agree on almost every single factual detail, but are completely different stories. The former, naturally, makes the government of the USA look a lot better.

Imagine, if you will, a boxing match between Bob and Abe. Bob was awarded the win by the judges, having handily beaten Abe in the first two rounds, and finally knocked him out in the third round. How might one mis-report this?

One might report this with a photograph that was completely contrafactual. One might photoshop Abe into a frame showing his arm held aloft by the referee, indicating victory.

One might report this with a factual photograph taken in the first round in which Abe is shown smashing Bob in the face, Bob reeling backwards with his his face distorted by the force of the blow.

One might use a series of pictures, which the viewer would take as a representation of the ryhthm of the fight. You could show Abe consistently beating Bob down, with Bob finally landing a lucky shot in the middle of round three, apparently winning almost by accident.

The first would be the Trumpian mode. The judges, if they saw your report, would say "But.. that did not happen." The others would be the mode of a competent world leader. The judges would be unable to say that none of the pictures are true, but would likely hem and haw about "it wasn't like that" but would be easily discredited by demanding that they point out exactly which picture it is that's untrue. The truth, NTSB report style, is a subtle and nuanced thing, too complex to be grasped quickly, too complex to be summarized in a few sound bites, a few photos.

Now, you could argue that if you simply photographed Bob with his arm held up by the referee, indicating his victory, well then you'd have the Truth. And certainly that would be more true than the false reports I suggested. But it would not in any meaningful way be The Truth, it would simply be a shorthand easily grasped symbol that happens to align with what a sensible person would agree to be The Truth.

In the real world, few things have as clear and simple an answer as "to which contestant did the judges award the victory", the real world, especially the political one, has rather more issues which take the general shape of, "So, tell me, how did World War I start?"

In this sort of world, there is no simple summary. There is no single thread of story that sensible people would agree is true. There is only the mass of detail, of nuanced and subtle analysis.

Why did Hillary Clinton lose the presidential election? Was it because she labelled a mass of people "deplorables?" Was it because she did not campaign in the state of Wisconsin? Was it this? Was it that?

There is a long list of things which, if she had done any 1 or 2 or 3 of them differently, she might have won. If there are 50 things on that list, which one can you reasonably describe as "the cause" of her loss? What, in reasonable terms, is "the cause?" Well, none of them and all of them. There is no glib answer here, there is only the mass of detail.

When you have these masses of detail, these stories in which The Truth if present at all is multi-faceted and complex, there is an opportunity to carve out a narrative. Any selected thread through the mass will be, in a sense, a lie. If it be not a lie, well then it certainly is not The Truth.

Confronted with these complex and subtle stories like "Why did WWI start", "Why did Hilary lose?", "Why does Poverty Happen?" and so on, we can imagine that a person might dig through the mass of material and analysis, and having carried out a complete survey, develop a sort of gestalt understanding. Then we might imagine that many people did this, each arriving at their own gestalt.

Do these various broad understandings, arrived at by honest, earnest, and reasonable people generally agree or not? One might imagine a sort of cloud of these understandings, one point representing each person's view. Is that cloud diffuse, spread out all over the place? Or is it a dense mass? In the latter case, one might say that there is a sort of Truth to the whole thing, a fairly clear, more or less agreeable-upon notion of What Happened. In the former, perhaps there simply isn't.

And so when we carve out a narrative, a single thread, a voice, which takes on a particular viewpoint, is there even a Truth for that narrative to align with? Perhaps there is, perhaps there is not.

If that cloud of hypothetical gestalts of understanding be diffuse, then there really does not seem to be anything one can do except tell this story or that, according to your lights. There is nothing in play that really resembles a Truth. No judges agreed that Bob won, there's really just a mass of material and myriad interpretations of it, peppered through with the occasional fact like "the bridge collapsed" and "the dog died".

If that cloud of hypothetical gestalts be dense, coherent, then perhaps there is a Truth, roughly speaking, that one's narrative might align with.

That narrative would not be true, such a single thread, a single opinion, a single slice, will not an any meaningful way explicate the truth of the matter. At best it will be a symbol, a representation, which might align with some notion of Truth, if these even is such a thing.

Life magazine, it is generally assumed, provided us with wonderful picture-drive narratives that aligned with truths, where possible. I have in my hands an issue for October of 1946, with a little photo essay on the death sentences handed down at Nürnberg. We see before and after photos of Göring, Ribbentrop, Funk, Streicher, Raeder, and Hess. The before are generally official portraits from during or before the war, the men look well fed, arrogant, proud. The afters are from the trial period, and then men invariably look desperate, haggard, usually thinner. We have a photo of the transcript room, essentially a sea of paper, and a caption referring to millions of recorded words.

Turning the page we find photographs of the wives and children of some of the convicted, along with a few more or less random personal notes. So and so was a minor actress. So and so was rude to the other wives. A little personal touch.

In 4 pages, 18 photographs, and a few lines of of text, Life gives us the Nürnberg trials. These men, bad men (Striecher is a "Jew-baiter", Göring shifty, Life is not pulling its punches) have been tried, at great length and detail, have been sentenced to die, and have already paid a substantial toll. Their wives and children are ordinary women, suffering as well, grieving as one might expect. These men were not only architects of great evil, but also were people with wives, children. Parts of their existence were quite ordinary, parts were extraordinary, and their end will also be.

Is this Truth? Sure, the pictures are indexes, the facts described are factual, and even the overall impression is probably not something any sensible person would disagree with. Is it complete? Certainly not. Is it almost hilariously trivializing of a monumental moment in modern history? Yes. Yes it is.

The FSA photo archive is, I suspect, one of those veins of narrative drawn from a mass of detail which itself admits no agreed-upon truth. There is only the detail of the depression, of the plight of the American Farmer in that time, of the dust bowls, of the migrations. Nonetheless, drawn from this mass Roy Stryker drew a tale of the basic resilience and strength of the American, especially the rural American. He drew a story of trials faced with iron will, of struggle, of difficulty to be, inevitably, overcome. He drew from the mass of detail, a strong and clear argument for the power and influence of the Farm Security Administration. It is well documented that he did so deliberately, with real ability, according to a set of methods that were in no way mysterious.

Again, the pictures are indexes, the facts are (mostly) factual. The story given is in no meaningful way Truth, because there is no meaningful over-arching Truth here, there are only details and situations, individual stories, and the facts of the weather, the price of cotton, and so on.

And so on and so forth.

What is missing in this modern era is not an understanding of the methods. What is missing is the organization skills to make something happen. We see occasional photo essays here and there, notably the New York Times occasionally puts together a handful of pictures. But the NYT has sold its credibility with the masses long ago. We're left with dipshits like Reading The Pictures with their endless sneering pseudo-academic virtue signalling. We're left with dipshits like Colberg, bleating about how awful fascism is (again, mere virtue signalling).

Nobody is taking a strong editorial stance, backed up with credibility, to carve those stories out of the mass of detail. The press is trapped in some hideous middle ground between toadying to corporate masters and some half-assed attempt at even-handedness.

It's some sort of minor scandal when some photograph of a weeping child turns out not to have been one of the children forcibly removed from its parents by the recent catastrophic ICE policy here in the USA. Who cares? There were children removed, and they wept. This is not a picture to back down on, this is a picture to double down on. Why are we not seeing strongly positioned photo essays produced on a daily basis?

The methods are clear and well known, the motivation appears to be there, if we measure by the sheer tonnage of pearls being clutched.

The left appears to be in the hands of basically stupid people focused on their careers. Virtue signalling is the proper path to career advancement on the left, not strong editorial positions skillfully executed, unfortunately.

Friday, August 3, 2018


We're seeing a lot of discussion online about Nikon and Canon introducing new mirrorless camera lines shortly. As is typical, there's a lot of chatter of the form boy they have a hard row to hoe, they better come out with someone incredible if they're going to stem the Sony tide. This is silly and wrong.

This is akin to suggesting that when Chevrolet was planning to introduce automatic transmissions that their cars had better have wings and jet engines in order to stem the inevitable onslaught of Oldsmobile's Hydra-Matic. Of course Chevy didn't have to do anything of the sort. What Chevy needed to do was quite different. They needed to convince the buying public that a Chevy with an automatic was still a Chevy. Chevy merely needed to persuade people that whatever it was that made people buy Chevy cars (good value car for a relatively inexpensive price, sufficiently reliable, and so on) was still present in the version with the automatic transmission, and that the automatic transmission made the whole experience sufficiently better to justify the additional cost for at least some buyers.

Chevy was an established brand, with a great deal of what is termed "goodwill" in business parlance, when the automatic transmission was introduced. They had an established base of existing customers, and a large base of potential customers who, while they may never have bought a Chevy, had a clear idea of what "Chevy" means and could potentially be induced to buy at the right moment.

Mirrorless technology, with electronic viewfinders, has been coming for a long time. Right now Sony has been doing well with a line of these cameras in what is termed the Early Adopter market, the technophiles, the people who want to have the latest and greatest and are willing to suffer a bit for it. Sony cameras are, to be blunt, notoriously a pain in the ass. They're too small, they're buggy, they're difficult to use in myriad ways. And, they get talked up among Serious Camera Owners.. excuse me Photographers... as the second coming of Jesus. This is classic Early Adopter stuff.

Canon and Nikon, to be blunt, don't give a shit about Early Adopters. They want the mainstream.

It looks from here in the cheap seats as if the big two have decided that this is the time mirrorless makes the leap to the mainstream. The technology is mature, the Early Adopters have done their work, creating a zeitgeist of "mirrorless is the future" which is starting to resonate with the mainstream buyers. Mainstream buyers are, to some degree, starting to look in to maybe making the switch. They're suspicious of Sony, because when they dip into the photo press it's a mess of obvious hype and bug reports. And the cameras just look weird. And doesn't Sony make radios, microwaves, and movies?

Canon and Nikon have to be Chevy, today, and persuade people that these are genuine Canon and Nikon cameras, with all the goodness that goes with those names (whatever that goodness is), just slightly updated to the latest technology to make the picture taking experience a little bit better, a little bit more modern. The can still botch it, of course, there's no guarantee that they'll succeed. Sony could make that leap to the mainstream and become the dominant player.

This is not a technological competition at all, this is a product marketing competition. Can the Big Two build solid "whole products" that integrate into the brand well? Can they translate their goodwill into the new area? Can Sony build a good "whole product" and persuade the mainstream that their cameras and the accompanying ecosystem are mature, seamless, reliable, easy to use, and appropriately priced for the mainstream market? Can Sony overcome the "but they make microwaves" barrier?

Any outcome is well within the realm of possibility. Anywhere from 0 to 3 of the players (Canon, Nikon, Sony) could end up with a substantial mainstream market in mirrorless cameras. The current positions of the companies mean that Sony's path to success is quite different from Canon's and Nikon's.

But the big kids do not have to produce some astounding wunderkamera, and to do so would be a mistake. They need to make the same-old-same-old, only better. And they have to do their marketing properly.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Actually Seeing II

Related to the inherent difficulty in seeing, in any kind of completist way, what we're looking at we seem to suffer from a deep desire to simplify what we look at. Perhaps it has something to do with the need to see the tiger rather more than the forest. Regardless, we're constantly simplifying and summarizing as we look around ourselves, extracting what we think are salient elements, "my wife" "a boat" "a fire hydrant."

A finished photo is typically both small (relative to the world) and persistent, static. We take the thing in in all its detail (ok, maybe not quite all, but some). We take in the details more readily, in any case, than we do the details of the world. The commonest mistake in photography is to see Grandma and to miss the background, which background becomes glaringly obvious in the picture, later. Photographers deal with this is myriad ways, mostly harmful.

The more sophisticated photographer seeks to solve this problem not by looking at the background particularly, but by controlling it. One "checks" the background, one does not look at it. Place Grandma against a blank wall, a painted backdrop, or simply open up to f/1.4 and drop the whole thing into an incomprehensible blur. The background problem is solved by eliminating it, rendering it irrelevant to actual seeing.

Lighting is treated, often, in much the same way. You simply move the lights around as shown in the diagram until the shadow under the model's nose matches the diagram. When you're attending to the shape of the shadow, it is incrementally harder to attend to the model's expression and body language.

Much of photography as it is actually practiced by more or less serious practitioners is simply pattern matching of this sort. Do this thing until whatever you're looking at matches the diagram. All compositional tricks follow this template, the rules of thirds, leading lines, and so on. You simply move yourself or the subject around until the pattern is matched, and then you press the shutter. It becomes almost unnecessary to actually see what's in front of the lens.

That sounds rather flippant, but let us review that seeing what is actually in front of the lens it remarkably difficult, it is no mystery why we seek frantically for shortcuts.

Allow me to draw a somewhat artificial line. There are perhaps two schools of photography, one of which seeks to simplify the thing in front of the camera until it can be more or less "seen" while photographing it. The other seeks to find some sort of essence. Ansel Adams talks about an authentic emotional response, but is silent on rules of composition. Naturally, in the real world, one partakes ideally of a bit from column A, and a bit from column B. There's certainly nothing particularly harmful about isolating a subject, if that makes sense. There's nothing inherently harmful in moving lights around until the shadows land in the right places.

The harm is when, by paying too much attention to column A, you lose the things in column B. Column B, that essence, the emotional response, that largely indefinable thing which you only know when you see it. I submit that it's column B that matters more.

When I take a picture, my aim (rarely executed well), is it first feel it, to first get a firm grip on what it is I want to photograph, what matters here, what is the essence. I try to see, if not fully, at least thoroughly, and grasp what I am seeing and what I think about that. After that, I move and wait until there is at least some slight compositionally fortuitous arrangement. Sometimes it works pretty well.

This is basically the process the Miksang people talk about, but it is also arguably Light, Gesture, and Color as well as innumerable other sources.

Column B first, then column A.