Friday, December 6, 2019

People Pix

Took the kids to a Climate Change Protest today, and took a lot of pictures of people.

These people are at a protest. The entire point is to be seen, to be counted, to be remembered. In addition, I have a specific project in mind, for which I desire these kinds of photos. For me, this is a no-brainer, I can and do take these photos without compunction. This is, as I see it, an extreme corner case where the answer is very clear.

Unless you are a remarkably dim bulb, you will likely notice that these pictures are heavy on the pretty girls. I noticed this partway through the protest, and took stock. There just were not many dudes among the under-30 crowd. The middle-school skate punks, and a couple of boyfriends firmly attached to girlfriends.

The young people in this youth-led protest were almost 100% girls. I dunno what that means.

See the adorable little dork in the sport code, leftmost in the group? He's coming back, stay tuned. Oscar is kinda awesome.

Phones are ubiquitous, as is attention to them. This young woman was in fact only glancing down, so this photograph is not entirely fair to her. The next frame shows her fully engaged with the march.

I don't actually know, but I suspect this is another unfair frame. I think he's got some weird momentary expression, but there are no other photos of him, and I don't recall shooting this one.

Fair chance mom would be angry about this one, but she's the one bringing her kid to a protest. I am on unshakeable legal ground here, and pretty firm ethical ground as well. Mom might be totally cool with it, though, she seemed pretty relaxed about stuff in general.

These three girls, and their friend, are all wearing the same shoes. Damnedest thing.

These two gitls were listening to a speaker, and eating. I have several less flattering frames involving forkfuls of noodles. They seemed to really enjoy their noodles.

Beautiful singing voice.

I spotted her with her camera, and told her to "go!" until she pointed her camera at me, and I shot this, and yelled "WE'RE DOCUMENTING SHIT" at her as we marched by.

Antifa. Jesus. I told them I knew they were actually all cops, and then stood around taking pictures of them for ages, because, seriously, fuck these guys. The ones that aren't FBI are useless drama queens, and I am pretty sure Bellingham rates zero (0) FBI infiltrators.

I took a lot of pictures of actual cops, too, because I make a point of photographing cops when I see them, and have a camera. Every time. I want 'em to stay used to the idea.

There was a gang of middle schoolers who skipped out of school to "protest" but somehow managed to bring their skateboards. And helmets, too, do that's good.

Bellingham has a fake Christmas tree this year, a 60 foot cone of fake bristles. The branches can be moved aside, revealing a large space inside, which was full of kids. Some older man with a camera yelled into the tree that "the cops are coming and they look pissed" which they were not, but the kids came out pretty quick anyways, which was funny as shit.

Check it. These four girls (high school? college?) have the same boots.

Oscar was an articulate little dude, but when he started throwing in thinly veiled references to zoning policy instead of just talking about bad weather, it became clear that mom wrote his speech. But he delivered it like a champ. Go Oscar, you rock. Might wanna stop letting your mom dress you pretty soon, though.

Photographing People

There are, roughly, two schools of thought regarding photographing people in public settings. The first is I can do what I want, so who cares what they want and the second is respect their desires unconditionally, and err on the side of not taking the photo.

I want to pick this apart a little, because these are simplistic.

Someone in public, walking down the street, has already agreed to be seen, to be observed and remembered. They might not be happy about it, or they might be perfectly OK with it, it doesn't really matter because for whatever reason, they've already signed up for this. There is not a lot of space between being remembered and being photographed and trying to insert an argument into that gap is going to be dicey, but there are cases and circumstances.

On the other hand, many people simply have an aversion to being photographed. This is not necessarily a rational aversion, usually it's just some vague sense of unease, some notion that photography is intrusive, or some vestigial belief in the magical ability of the camera to steal the soul. While irrational, it's something people feel.

We are, in the end, balancing our own desire to photograph a person against their potential desire not to be photographed.

Human society demands a certain degree of respect for others beliefs, irrespective of whether those beliefs make sense or not. It does not demand absolute obeisance, however.

Therefore if I have only a vague desire to photograph some people, and they have a distinct desire not to be, perhaps I should put the camera down. On the other hand, if I have a firm plan, and definite idea, which produces a strong and coherent desire (I hesitate to say need) to photograph them, perhaps I don't put the camera down.

These people have, after all, already agreed to be seen and remembered. Should their mildly neurotic desire not to be photographed trump my stronger, more coherent, desire to photograph them? These balancing acts are the stuff of human society, and we all have some little skill at navigating them.

We can throw in to the mix here some notion that people own their appearance, an idea I think codified in law in Europe. I am unsure where I land on this, ethically. On the one hand, ok, I guess? On the other hand, you're the one parading your appearance around in public. In a sense, you are giving your appearance away every day. More precisely, I think, people have a right to their representation, which is to say, a right to control the way they are made to appear to others.

It is essentially unfair, socially, and also unphotographic to represent people other than as they are. To take a photograph of a perfectly average bloke in such a way as to make him appear a fool is unkind, as well as unphotographic in that it is not showing us the truth. If the average bloke mugs for the camera, willfully forcing his features into a foolish expression, what then? Well, I don't quite know. It still seems to me unfair, but on the other hand our notional bloke is complicit. See Arbus's photo of the boy with the toy hand grenade.

In general, I think it should be obvious, one should err on the side of generosity. Such is the nature of human society. We should treat one another kindly, while also balancing our own needs and desires against those of others. There will, inevitably, be conflicts. Do your best.

Now, to the exceptions.

There are people who have a perfectly rational, fact-based, desire not to be photographed. I took a picture of a store interior recently, and a pleasant man of apparently Mexican descent was in the frame. He politely asked if I would delete the photo.

His presence in the frame did not matter to the picture, and so I took another without him, and deleted the first one. My need to have his picture was nil, and he asked nicely, so the social calculus was clear. Furthermore, though, it occurs to me that his documents may not be entirely in order, or perhaps they are but he fears that some consequence may fall upon him by way of our thuggish immigration enforcement staff anyways. We did not discuss it, but he may have excellent reasons for wanting to maintain a low profile.

Another point in favor of deletion.

This seems to me one of those narrow cases in which the distinction between being seen and remembered is different enough from being photographed to matter. A photograph, potentially, allows a legally strong positive identification, in ways that a memory does not. When the law in in play, therefore, the gap between memory and photograph is perhaps wide enough after all to admit an argument.

There are probably other, similar, cases, here.

In the end, though, I see no reason to hew to an absolute notion that one ought not to photograph people who do not wish to be photographed. Nor do I have any truck with an absolutist notion that a camera entitles one to photograph anything and everything. Society is a system of needs wishes balanced against other needs and wishes.

Navigate accordingly.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Torn from Space and Time!

In my previous remarks, I quoted John Berger's argument that photographs are, in an essential way, an invitation to imagine a past and a future that surrounds the photo. I was reminded by one commenter that, just as often, a photo is an invitation to imagine the world around the picture, the spatial rather than temporal extension from which the photograph was extracted.

Another commenter remarks, correctly, that this is a limited view of photography in general.

My point here is not that there are only a few things one can do with a camera, but rather that there are things the medium lends itself to better than other things.

Oil paints are formulated to stick to canvas. If you attempt to paint instead on glass, I expect the results would look quite different. You would be fighting the medium here, doing something that does not come naturally to it. The results might be fantastic. You might insist that it's "oil painting" and others might insist the opposite, and in the end it would not matter. The point is that you're doing something that argues with the medium, and that will inevitably produce something different from oil paintings on canvas. That is all.

My interest lies in the functioning of photography as a medium, and I am accordingly interested in what comes naturally to it.

I've quoted this vaguely doltish essay before: "Perfect White Family" in which Daniel Blight remarks that Buck Ellison's photos hearken back to Dutch Golden Age painting, which isn't wrong. Here's another photo from Ellison's "Tender Option" series:

Perhaps it's just me, but the vague sense of artifice (and this is a posed photo made with models) that comes off this picture prevents me from extrapolating either space or time. This frame is its own little world, and it ends at the edges of the frame. History, it has none. Future, also none. It is entirely in the present tense, as Berger would say, and as such it functions exactly like a painting.

Contrast this with a Crewdson:

This is just as reeking of artifice, and indeed just as artificial. But, to my eye, because it is shot like a play, or perhaps a stagey film, it does encourage an extrapolation of time. I reach for a past and a present to go with this thing, and indeed any Crewdson photo of this sort. I do not, I think, reach for a spatial extrapolation. It feels like a stage, so I know in some sense that it's just dusty props and ropes out of frame, nothing to see there.

Finally, let's throw in Sally Mann:

Again, this is completely artificial, but it asks to be extrapolated (again, to my eye) in both space and time. There is a world here, extending spatially and temporally.

This could all just be my personal takes, but I'm not sure how much that matters here. The point is that all options are on the table.

There are many reasons for taking a photograph. The basic one, though, is to preserve the appearance of something. When the instagrammer photographs the art in the foam of their most recent latte, they're trying to show us the appearance of that coffee, because they think it is beautiful, or striking in some way. The beauty of that latte, though, lies only partially in the pattern of tan on white that lies in the cup.

The coffee shop is, perhaps, warm and pleasant. There is a low hum of conversation, or a loud soundtrack of indie music. It's dark, or light. The instagrammer is alone, or with a friend, or with a lover. All these things are a part of why the instagrammer finds the coffee photograph-worthy.

Let us decorously set aside the issue of social media likes.

When I photograph my daughters I want, of course, to preserve their appearances, but also their essences. I am trying, after a fashion, to immortalize the little girl who is now in front of me. I love her desperately as she is right now, in this place, at this moment, and I want to put that into a container, to stash it away like a jar of jam, forever.

Photographs of this type, this ultimately natural-to-the-mediun, are attempts to encapsulate an entire universe into a frame. We are trying to stuff into the frame maybe not all of space and time, but this part of it for sure. These hours or days or weeks in this house in this yard in this cafe. We want to put them in a frame with a little lace ruffle and a hand-written label on top that reads "My daughters, Dec 3, 2019."

Upon viewing, a successful photograph (of this type) does indeed unfold into something resembling that world we're attempting to preserve. That's what success means, here. The attempt is to preserve for later enjoyment, and perhaps for the delight of others. If it so delights, so success.

This unfolding is what Barthes is struggling to tell us about with his punctum, although for him the unfolding is a sort of paroxysm, an hysterical spasm. It is, I think, what Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment is about.

As for myself, it turns out that I am not much good at this. I resort to using collections of pictures, and some words, to accomplish after a fashion the same effect. The results are less magical, are less inherently photographic, but they are perhaps within my grasp.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Good Pictures

In 1904 Sadakichi Hartmann issued a plea for straight photography. His argument was, essentially, that the photograph naturally has certain properties as a result of the method of its creation, and that the artist is generally better off working with rather than against his tools.

In modern terms, he's saying that the power of the photograph to witness, its power of quotation, is what you should be relying on rather than your facility with mashing up the emulsion with your fists.

Whether Hartmann was merely the bellwether, or was the impulse that sparked the change, I do not know. History, though, marks his plea as the beginning of the end for emulsion-mashing. Mostly.

I have recently acquired and read Berger & Mohr's Another Way of Telling which read as eerily familiar. I recognize Berger's ideas about photographs as essentially my own, in tremendous detail. Berger wore it better, however. He's far more lucid than I, and gets a lot of fiddly bits more correct than I have done. I take this not as an indication that I am a genius, but rather that these ideas are obvious if only you devote yourself to thinking seriously about them a bit.

One facet of Berger's large essay in this book goes as follows: because of the way a photograph wrests a single instant from the passage of time, and because we are generally aware of this, we tend to lend to a photograph a past and a future. That is, we tend to imagine what came before and what came after in ways that we generally do not when confronted with a painting.

Berger, roughly, characterizes a good photograph as one for which people may be relied upon to mostly come up with similar imagined pasts and futures, and secondarily, a photograph which is highly evocative of imagined pasts and futures.

He is making essentially the same argument Hartmann is. Where Hartmann is arguing for the artist to use, rather than to deny, the indexical nature of the photo, Berger is arguing for the artist to use, rather than to deny, the temporal nature of the photograph.

What struck me about this particular notion is how applicable it was.

If you ask people to put up their best photos, you will in general get a mass of sharp pictures with bright colors, with well balanced mass and line, with pleasing forms, and so on. Almost none of the photos will evoke a past or a future in any substantial way.

They all look like paintings. They are all made, as Berger says of paintings, "in the present tense." These photos, in general, do a masterful job of evoking the moment at which they were made, but nothing much else. The sun sets, the castle looms, the cow grazes in the field, and the flower does whatever it is that flowers do. Even the ones with vigorous action seem to evoke mainly the present. The duck launches itself into the air in a welter of splashes and.. we don't really care what happens next. I dare say it flies off somewhere?

In this way these pictures defy the nature of the medium, and become more or less poorly made paintings all over again.

Consider how people are advised to "improve" their photos. It is invariably a crop, or clone out some irrelevant detail, or focus better, or do something with the colors. It is instantly clear that these efforts speak to the formal qualities of the photograph, they alter, if anything, only the way in which the photograph resembles the painting. Almost never do they alter, specifically, the way we "read" the picture and imagine for it a past and a future.

This is not to say there isn't a brisk market (both dollars and social-media-approval) for photographs that look like paintings. This is not even to say that there are not other metrics by which those photographs are not "good photographs."

This is only to say that there are fundamental properties of photographs, and that working with rather than against those properties produces pictures which are essentially photographic in nature, and that we can after a fashion measure "goodness" in those terms.

And I do.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving

I made pita bread yesterday. To all you oiks in other countries, I am sorry that you're foreign!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Prix Pictet

Pictet Group is some fashion of wealth management organization, about $USD500B under management which makes them moderately big fish even in that particular pond. They sponsor an annual prize for Art, something something sustainability. They get a certain amount of ineffectual blowback from artists because, well, because Pictet and Pictet's customers are a large part of the problem here. So, fair enough.

Someone I have never heard of until today, Lisa Stein, wrote a piece on it, and specifically requested feedback. Probably not from people like me, but whatever.

You can read her piece here and it's worth reading, so you ought to. I'll wait.

dum dee dum

Ok, what I got out of her piece is that the Prix Pictet operation is, essentially, a fairly bland and obvious marketing operation. They are packaging Political/Protest Art in a way that is broadly appealing. There are a lot of details, but it's the same playbook you use to sell luxury cars, or athletic shoes. What, exactly, they're selling is a bit mysterious to me. They are, obviously, Art-washing Pictet itself. They are also selling the Art itself and the Artists, though. The Art is selected and packaged to be inoffensive, broadly appealing, despite its often fairly serious political content.

So, the question is, is this good or bad?

On the one hand, the operation is clearly, willfully, de-fanging the Art. There are no angry mobs shouting "EAT THE RICH!" here. There isn't really a lot of anger at all. In contrast to the content itself, the mood is vaguely upbeat. Often it is borderline offensive in its upbeatness.

This is definitely gonna get the choir angered, and angered they duly are every year about this time. They write grouchy tweets and think pieces. And, you know, they're not wrong. Pictet is part of the problem. Wealth, in general, is trouble, and it's all over and interwined with Art, and that sucks.

Worse, Wealth seems to be inoculated against the effects of political art. Billionaires will cheerfully purchase Art which directly calls for their destruction, if that Art is valuable in some fashion. They just don't seem to care.

Still, Pictet may not be without value. I direct your attention to my immensely long and boring think piece on how minds are changed.

And argument could be made that the Prix Pictet, with its bland and inoffensive marketing, is delicately smuggling in ideas to where they might do some real good. While billionaires do seem to be largely immune to the effects of political Art, perhaps by trying a variety of different venues, approaches, methods, the world as a whole can incrementally push the thinking of billionaires in a positive direction.

It is at any rate not completely impossible that Prix Pictet is normalizing a set of ideas within the community of the Very Wealthy, ideas which are in general not normal within that group. If so, that would be a good of perhaps almost incalculable worth.

You're not going to change the minds of billionaires much with a mob of angry sign-waving proles, unless you're willing to accept simply switching it off with a guillotine as "changing their minds." It is possible that a deft marketing campaign of inoffensive packaging of modestly radical Art might contribute something positive here. I dunno. It feels like a long shot.

But again, the value of a success here could be very very high, so perhaps it's worth some long shots.

I'm certainly not saying that the Prix Pictet operation is some sort of deep-cover psy-ops campaign against the Super Rich, that would be silly. If it is doing anything positive, it is as much by accident as anything else. It seems to be, at worst, harmless, though. And it injects a little cash into the Art World, right? So, that's not a bad thing.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

But I Already Know The Answer

These remarks have been sitting in draft form for a while, but in the light of the most recent commentary on the little note Donald Trump was holding in the picture mentioned in the previous remarks, this seems like an opportune moment to drag this out.

There is a pretty large community out there that appears, at least superficially, to be widely read and at the same time to know almost nothing about anything. People who claim to be Rationalists, or Atheists, often appear here. They cite a broad range of sources to support their weirdly narrow and frankly blockheaded theses about, well, about almost everything. There is no topic which cannot be discussed stupidly by some Rationalist, at great length.

I have puzzled, in some sense or another, for years over how someone can read so much and yet have learned to little.

My working theory is that it comes from knowing all the answers beforehand.

Let us suppose, for instance, that you are an Atheist (not an atheist, an Atheist) and you know of a certainty that religion was a deliberate invention of a few power-mad individuals as a tool for controlling the masses. I can assure you that this is a belief held by people who exhibit no other symptoms of schizophrenia, as outlandish as that may seem.

Suppose now that you go ahead and read the bible. Well, let us be honest, you're a lazy shit, so you skim a few bits and pieces. You probably consult a few online guides and skip the genealogies, and dig right in to the juicy bits. Regardless of how you go about it, though, you're not really reading in any useful sense. You're looking for confirmation of your pre-existing biases. And, by golly, the bible has a lot of words in it, you're gonna find it. Especially if some like-minded simpletons have gone ahead of you and marked the good bits with large red Xes.

You can do this for anything. Was Jospeph Conrad a racist? Why you needn't read past the title of of The Nigger of the "Narcissus" to find confirmation, and of course everyone knows that "Heart of Darkness" is terribly racist, and if we are honest with ourselves he didn't write anything else. Is Obama a Muslim? Are black, whites, or arabs, actually an inferior species? Is David Foster Wallace overrated? Yes, yes and yes! Naturally!

For the purposes of this blog, this matters in the ways people approach photographs.

People with axes to grind approach photographs one way, and people without approach them completely differently.

The people with axes to grind are, in general, completely wrong. They find in the picture the answer they sought, virtually every time. Photographs allow a great deal of room for interpretation, for "reading," and if you are committed to any particular project, you can read the photograph that way.

If you wish to know more about a photograph than how you, an anorak, read it, then you cannot approach the photograph this way. If you pretend to the role of critic, it is quite literally your job to know more about the photograph than the way some doltish anorak (you) read it, and therefore your job requires you to approach the photograph differently.

Which is, of course, merely to bang on one of my two, or maybe three, little drums once again. You have to set aside your preconceptions, and flip on your Empathy switch, if you want to dig in to some sort of picture, to guess at any kind of ground truth, and to guess at what people might make of it.

I am rather fond of flippantly dismissing books I have not read. It is a character flaw, and I do try to mark those remarks carefully so you don't get fooled by them. This isn't as good as simply shutting up, but I have so much fun being flippant that I can't. So, pointing out what I am about is the best I've got.

Nobody's perfect, but we can make a bit of an effort, you know?