Thursday, May 16, 2019

Valueless Art

There is a crew of the usual suspects going on and on about Art Institutions taking dirty money (and, no, Mr. Smith, it's not just a handful of irrelevancies) and scoring victories here and there. Nobody takes Sackler money any more because of OxyContin, and Photo London (whatever that is) cut ties with the Kingdom of Brunei because, whoa, it turns out they're terrible people, who knew?

Accusations are flying that this is mere window dressing, because if you dig down you find other tainted sources of money, and so on.

All this strikes me as terribly naive. Any pile of, say, a million dollars and up, is going to have quite a bit of blood on it. If you're running some institution, festival, contest, whatever, that requires more than about $10/year to operate, you're going to be running it on dirty money. The trouble isn't that these institutions are not adequately vetting their donors, the trouble is that money is generally pretty messy.

The usual woke suspects have not yet realized that you can dig anywhere, in any direction, and find something to complain about in any source of money. This is not to suggest that the complaints are not legitimate, of course they are. Billionaires are odious people.

Berger wrote in 1969 about the history of Revolutionary Art. It turns out that some of the Art designed to critique Capital and The Wealthy turned out to be rare and valuable. The Wealthy bought it up with gusto, because the point is to own valuable objects. The fact that the artifacts revile their owners is of literally no consequence. Indeed, it's probably a little delicious. If you made a limited edition of T-shirts with Swarovski crystals on the collar, the words EAT THE RICH on the front and a picture of a guillotine on the back, and sold them for $1200 a pop, wealthy socialites would wear the shit out of them.

Money is tainted. And. Money validates the artist. This reaches down to the lowest levels of Art. Suppose you get a book deal with someone fancy, you pony up your $10,000 or $20,000 and you get an edition of 400 sumptuous volumes made, priced attractively at 40 euros each. This validates the artist, because it is a real object, heavy, and while not particularly expensive, it is being offered for sale for real money. A cast of minions have worked on the thing, significant amounts of money have been pushed around. It's real. The artist has accomplished some sort of success, albeit limited. If you look closely, some of the money probably had someone's blood on it.

My solution, which dovetails perfectly with the two facts that (1) my art isn't very good, and that (2) I cannot bother to go try to drum up an audience for it, is to make art that has no cash value. Work that is infinitely, cheaply, reproducible manages to escape the clutches of Capital fairly thoroughly. The Wealthy don't want it, it's neither rare not expensive. Any peasant can bang out of a copy for himself, that's no good.

Photography, by its very nature, fits into this model beautifully. Indeed, it is quite painful to make photography into a Rare and Expensive object, and always ends up being a bit of a scam. Gursky may sell his enormous rare prints for a few million a pop, but paintings (which are actually rare, rather than pretend rare) sell for an order of magnitude more.

I propose going the other way. Make your pictures small and as close to free as possible. Give them away.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Theater of Indifference

Berger wrote an essay with the same title as this one, although of course he spelled Theater wrong. The subject of his essay is, more or less, the difference between the way we present ourselves, the way we interact, move, emote in the city versus our village. Not all of us have a village, and in particular I have been fairly itinerant all my life. I had to extrapolate and ponder a little to make any sense of what he was saying.

His point is, it appears to me, that in the urban environment we are as a rule acting or as the kids might say frontin' to one degree or another. In this environment, surrounded by people we do not know, we present ourselves as cooler, smarter, prettier. Or we present ourselves as more closed, less approachable, more aloof. Or we deploy any number of other facades.

In our village (or, as I think of it, my neighborhood) we present ourselves at least a little more directly, authentically. There is no point in presenting ourselves as smarter, or cooler, because everyone we meet knows us. While we might well conceal or exaggerate the thoughts, emotions, and reactions of the moment, our essential nature is well known and to try to cover it would be ridiculous.

You can probably cast it into your own terms. How do you feel, how do you walk, how do you imagine yourself: walking in a place where you do not know most people; walking in a place where you do know most people.

An anecdote by way of illustration. An attractive young woman walks. A young man notices her, and attends to her. She, noting his attention and finding it unobjectionable, throws a slight wiggle in her walk, and finds an excuse to turn around and take a second pass. He continues to notice her. All at once, they realize almost simultaneously that they know one another, and the charade collapses into something else entirely. Laughter all around.

The switch from strangers acting, to friends being friends, is the point, here.

This speaks, I think, to that entire genre of photography we know of as "street", both contemporary "street photography" and the so-called "street portrait."

This strikes me as specifically about photographing that theater that is this urban street. You are photographing not authentic people but rather the performances they put on in this environment. The lone figure in the distance, head down, a mere silhouette with the attractive shadow play, is closed to the world, fending off unwanted attention. They are not the warm, three-dimensional human they are at home, or in their local park, or even in the office.

The pretty girl crossing the street might be shouting with the set of her mouth and shoulders "don't talk to me!" or she might be whispering "look at me" or somewhere between the two or something else entirely. She is certainly not Marie who loves cats and has tried and tried but never mastered the macarena.

The street portrait, the closeup Bruce Gilden, these are likewise not real people. These are people acting out their fluid urban persona, suddenly confronted with a camera and donning what they hope is a good role for that moment.

Diana Arbus, as I have noted in the past, seems to have been acutely aware of this, and photographed neither the urban persona, nor the urban persona-for-the-camera, but rather the moment in between the two, for reasons I cannot really fathom.

This is not to say that street photography is bad, or flawed, but merely to recognize it for what it is.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Remarkable Sentence

In Jörg Colberg's latest in which he reviews a book that concerns me not in the slightest, he includes this startling sentence:

All of this prevents the viewer from ever getting to the “Oh, I get it” that’s marring so much archival work.

I do not know what to make of this sentence. Is there a typo somewhere I cannot mentally unwind? Does he mean that this applies only to picture books drawn specifically from archives? Is he referring only to a sudden sensation of "getting it?" Does he perhaps mean some sort of sense of "Oh, it's just that. That's stupid?" All these strike me as possible.

What is also possible is that this is a clue to a larger philosophy, namely that art should not be comprehensible. It suggests that if you arrive at a point of understanding, the work is marred.

This would certainly explain why Jörg seems to have a genuine fondness for books that appear to me to be incomprehensible trash. It would also explain his singular inability to articulate in any meaningful way why he likes one thing and dislikes another.

Regardless of what Jörg actually means here, this has caused me to put on my thinking cap. I have, for quite some time now, felt that the entire point of Art is that it is from time to time comprehensible. I judge everything from picture books to symphonies based on whether I can develop some kind of understanding, whether I "get it." When I don't, on good days, I am charitable and assume that perhaps it's just me, and on bad days I dismiss whatever it is as unmitigated trash.

It never occurred to me that there might be some other criteria upon which one might judge these things. I am by no means convinced that there is, it strikes me that absent meaning all that remains is the technical details, the formal details of the construction of the thing. I am certain Jörg does not mean this, here. Worrying about balance, or leading lines, is far too bougie for any proper academic, I suspect. It's certainly too bougie for me.

So.. what else might there be? If we postulate that when Jörg says something is good he does not mean that he gets it, or that it has elegant formal qualities, what on earth could be (or some notional other critic) mean?

Maybe there is something here. I don't have all the answers, that's for sure.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Photographing Chernobyl

The area around the Chernobyl reactor is a heavily photographed area. During my periodic checkin on Medium Format Magazine, which has struck me as hilarious since inception, I found this article, Photographing Chernobyl, on the free list, and skimmed it. I said to myself, self, these pictures sure look familiar.

So I went hunting around to see what's what. This is pretty interesting.

The reason all Chernobyl photos looks similar is because they are similar. There is fairly obviously A Tour that includes a startling small number of locations, through which photographers are briskly marched. I am going to ruthlessly lift photos from all over the place without regard for copyright because, in the first place, I am performing criticism, and in the second place it is not clear there is a copyrightable originality in any of these things, as I will demonstrate.

Exhibit A, the danger sign:

Google something like "Chernobyl danger sign barbed wire" and you will find dozens, possibly hundreds, of photos of this sign. Not this sign design, but this actual literal sign. The arrangement of barbed wire and the building in the background are distinctive. There may be 100s of these signs on miles of fencing for all I know, but this one is the sign that's On The Tour, so everyone photographs it.

The sign moves around a bit. Clearly it falls out of the fence, or falls askew, from time to time, and is put back. By the tour guides? Photographers? Who knows.

Exhibit B, the sea of gas masks with doll:

The story here is that there is a room somewhere in what looks like a school, where there are gas masks on the floor. People have brought in dolls and posed them in this room over the years. The dolls move around, are reposed, and in these modern times have largely disintegrated. They have great patina, eh? That's the grease of a million photographer fingers.

The one thing we know for sure is that this doll was not abandoned by a child on the day of the accident, and left reverently in place. It was probably brought from elsewhere in the area, or just as likely brought in by some photographer as a prop.

Now, this is where it gets fascinating. See the table with the shell of the TV in the foreground? Make a note of that.

Another canonical photo from Your Big Expensive Chernobyl Adventure is the school notebook.

Look at that. The notebook, abandoned one the very day of the accident, undisturbed for decades.

Nah, the notebooks move around constantly. And hey, remember the table with the busted TV on it? Same fuckin' table. Look closely.

There's A Room with the sea of gas masks, the dolls, the table, the notebooks, and clearly photographers go in there and reverentially photograph various closeups over the course of 2 or 3 minutes, creating the impression of many locations (except for the cheaters with the wide angle lenses who give the show away.) Sometimes stuff gets moved around to look better. There's a reason the gas mask is so elegantly draped behind the notebook.

It goes on and on. There are the bumper cars at the fairground, constantly moving around and getting more graffiti, there's the ferris wheel at the same location. The interior of the under-construction cooling tower and.. well, actually that's pretty close to it. There's a handful of other vaguely snapshotty things people pick up here and there, but that is basically the tour.

The standard tour includes something like 10 locations, each are visited pretty quickly. Everyone shoots the same things, sometimes after moving some shit around and then sprinkling dust over it all to look authentically abandoned. And then they go home.

I kind of get why one might do it as a tourist. Sure, these photos all exist, but these ones are my photos. You have, as it were, proof that you were there and that you did the thing. You have personalized memory-triggers of having done the thing.

What does not make sense is publishing this in a would-be serious magazine of Medium Format Photography, or more generally the once-every-couple-years articles in semi-serious photo news sources, The Abandoned World of Chernobyl!, or whatever, as if someone went and did some journalism rather than simply taking the tour.

I am reminded of Maria Lopez, who a few years ago did an Art Thing about the Cambodian Killing Fields, discussed in some remarks of mine over here. She went on The Tour, took The Snaps, and pretended it was a serious photo essay. Maria herself seems to have vanished from the web, or at any rate from the photography part. Presumably she gave up her dream of becoming a serious artist, and went back to her day job (middle management at NGOs, maybe? There were a flock of these people mobbing Souvid Datta a couple years ago, mostly professional NGO types.)

Friday, May 10, 2019

Storytelling II

I wish to set aside books with much in the way of text. If you're writing any sort of coherent "story" whether it be a literal laying out a sequence of events, or something else, the words will carry things along.

As usual, I want to construe "story" as generally as possible, to cover Cinderella through an impressionistic take on Monet's garden, and probably more besides.

And so, under consideration is a book of, essentially, just a bunch of pictures, most of them photographs, a book aimed at conveying something.

In my previous remarks I argued, with what I imagine to be a fair degree of success, that you're not going to get much traction if the goal is to convey a sequence of factual (or fact-like) events, such as the story of Cinderella or the Roman Empire. What you're going to be able to accomplish is something a lot more like Keith Smith's composite picture, a whole or a gestalt that in is psychologically similar to a photograph in that it contains a collection of visual facts and ideas and relationships, but is ultimately a singular object to which you, the reader, may react in some way.

A visual book does not, in general, relate a sequence of events, or a sequence of logical statements forming an argument. It does not convey names, dates, locations, and similar details. It is nothing more than a complex arrangement of visual details that may add up to... something.

The basic unit of the western codex is the two-page spread. You may elect to put one photo on there, or two, or more. The traditional approach places one photo per spread, and so the basic unit of that book is a single photo.

With a little work, some cueing, you might be able to persuade the reader that the unit is, say, 3 spreads in a row. Perhaps you alternate three color spreads with three black and white ones, or change the page color every three spreads. In this case the reader might be persuaded to flip randomly to a spot, and then find the beginning of the unit from there, more or less consistently.

The unit, therefore, is what I am considering to be the basic lump of material. I divide the book notionally into units, each unit being consumed together, as a whole, perhaps even in-order. Units, however, tend to be consumed more or less randomly. Earlier units will tend to be examined sooner than later ones, because we do tend to leaf through books roughly front-to-back, perhaps with some backing and filling.

You might envision the course through a visual book as, roughly, a series of units each consumed in-order, the units themselves consumed in a zig-zag path that tends front-to-back, but contains gaps and backtracking to one degree or another.

Probably a strict two-level hierarchy of "units" and "book of unit" is simplistic, but let us see if it offers any guidance.

All this suggests that, far from the complex structures we associate with the film and the novel, there is in fact very little wiggle room in the visual book.

Your choices seem to be one of these two: either have no particular progressive goal, but merely make your point through a pile of units; or make your point within the context of this somewhat labored path.

This chart suggests how I see these things.

We start our with a sequential reading (matching the dashed blue line) and then a short jump forward, and then back a little. One unit gets skipped, another gets looked at twice. A little later on a larger forward jump happens, more backtracking. At some point there is one dip backwards into previously skipped material, and then a large jump back forward. This is, of course, just an example, but illustrates the general shape of the thing.

So you have a few units at the beginning to set the stage, and then people start jumping around, in a more or less forward-moving fashion, with potentially larger and larger jumps.

After that, you can say things later and earlier, and people will notice that, although they may not encounter these statements in-order, they will tend to encounter them mostly in the right order, that is, later things after earlier things. Even if they backtrack and come across something near the end of their reading, they may well note that this is happening near the beginning of the book.

This suggests that your book should progress in fairly large strokes, with a lot of repetition. If you want someone to reliably notice something in the latter half of your book, you better give them several chances at it, because they're just jumping around at that point. The farther along in the book your material lies, the more repetition you'll need (or, the more you'll have to accept people simply missing it).

Opposing this notion, you don't want to simply make the last half of your book just a bunch of repeats of essentially the same point, so as to get through to people who are just casually flipping by that point. You'll put off the people who are reading more closely.

Some sort elaboration seems right. You will want some way to both communicate the bigger ideas in broad, repetitious strokes, while offering rewarding detail to the closer reader.

It will come as no surprise to long time readers to discover that I think this supports a music-like view of the visual books.

Sonata-like, you can state a couple of themes up front, in that first sequential read.

Following that, you can repeat and elaborate on those themes over longer stretches of material. The elaborations are enough to reward the closer readers, but the large themes are repeated over lengthier stretches of the book so that even people skimming will likely stumble across each of the important themes, in roughly the right order.

If your book is engaging, your readers will occasionally return to it, taking each time a similar but different path through it. They will, one hopes, discover the same large set of themes, the same overall structure, but with new details. Elaborations previously unnoticed may reveal themselves. Relationships between this picture and that, this unit and that, will pop up over time.

The composite image, formed at least hazily on the first read-through, ideally becomes clearer and at the same time evolves, upon each new reading.

It's not perfect, but maybe it's a model you can find something to use in.

Most people just go for a pile of pictures, anyways, and that's OK too.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Limits of Visual Storytelling

Lewis Bush has published the first of two pieces on visual storytelling, over here, which got me to thinking. My remarks here are in no meaningful way a response (although I may write one of those later, after the second part is published).

No, it just got me to thinking.

Consider for a moment motion pictures, film. The logic of film is that of time, of events unfolding one after the other. Yes, you can use framing devices and flashbacks and all those things, but the logic of a specific scene unfolding is, in general, that of time. The man steps forward, and then the dog shies away, as the girl lifts her hand to her cheek. Causal relationships, and stories are, at least at a micro level, simply revealed as the passage of events embedded in the inexorable stream of time.

Now consider the novel, and more generally the written word. Again, we have an inexorable forward drive, but it is not the forward thrust of time. Here it is almost cultural. Each sentence implies, demands, the previous sentence and the succeeding sentence. Here, the logic is not that of time but of thought. Just as thought, imagination, may recapitulate time in the same way a movie does, it may also proceed forward through an argument, or a set of related images. It may flit from one thing to another. Language being what we use to think with, the written word can be construed as a record of someone's thoughts.

Some progressions work, and others do not, according to rules I do not particularly understand.

Pictures, though, have no such logic. There is not, as near as I can tell, any compelling reason to always advance from one picture to the next. One photograph (or drawing, etching, whatever) does not imply its predecessor, or its successor.

Take a book of photographs, with no structure of text laid out from beginning to end, no particular external support for a particular approach to turning the pages. I submit that people will in general start at the beginning, because it's a book, turn a few pages in sequence to get the flavor of the thing, and after some period of time start flipping randomly. Only a specific urge to see the pictures will carry forward a sequential leafing. If I desperately want to see all the pictures, I will leaf forward 1 page at a time until the feeling wears off, or until I reach the end.

If do not have a fairly potent hunger to see them all, I will flip randomly, starting fairly soon. A mild desire to see all of them is not enough, I know I'll get there by flipping back and forth. I flip ahead to middle, and leaf through 4-5 pages. Then I flip back and leaf through 8 pages. And so on.

Essentially, within a book, or a section of a book, you have in a sense a budget of pictures to spend on order. You might get 4-5 pictures, or you might get 20 pictures, before the random flipping starts. But start it will.

It might not be absurd to hope that while your reader might start at a random spot, they will generally give you a small number of sequential page-flips before striking out at random again.

In part, this is because we have been trained that books of pictures have no meaningful sequence. If you simply jumbled all the pictures up at random in your average picture book, almost nothing would be lost. Some pleasing graphical coincidences might die, making the book less attractive, less pretty, but there was never any meaning in the sequence of pictures anyways.

Why do I care about sequential reading?

Most of the mechanics we associate with storytelling rely on ordering. Flashback, foreshadowing, framing devices, shifting viewpoints, rhythm, and I dare say 100s of other things don't make much sense if we're simply dipping into the thing at random.

Other mechanisms like allegory and relationships between things may survive a random walk through the material.

So what to do?

Well, for one thing you can build you book to not much care what order people flip through thing. Books (or sections of books) which are essentially just a box of pictures work this way. You can play games with spreads, but from one spread to the next you cannot rely on any particular ordering. Andy's book, reviewed in the previous, takes this approach. Each of his five sections has, on average, 25 pictures. It's pretty natural to leaf to the start of a section, and then leaf forward, 1, 2, 3, 4... 10, 7, 22. It doesn't matter, though, because each spread within a section or chapter works fine on its own.

It occurs to me that using the two-page spread to hold more than the traditional one or two pictures might be a good idea, although I just had this thought. If there truly is a sequence of three or five pictures which must be seen in order, then put them on a single spread. It's the only way to be sure.

You can add in a textual structure, to carry the reader from one page to the next in order. At this point people will mostly be reading, not looking, so there is a tradeoff.

If your pictures are wildly compelling in-sequence, perhaps you have essentially shot a movie rendered as a series of stills, well, that might work I dare say.

Fundamentally, though, I think that Lewis is going to have a lot of trouble convincing me that ideas from film and novels are likely to translate to picture books in any useful way. The forward, sequential, drive is simply not present. Further, pictures are semiotically large objects that cannot be sliced up and re-arranged in the way that, for instance, words, or frames of a movie can be. You're kind of stuck with 20 or 30 or 500 intractable lumps of meaning, rather than the 10s of 1000s, or millions, you have with novels and films.

Picture books comprised mainly of pictures, as far as I can tell, are best suited to allegorical and emotional communications. They work when designed to be accessed with a fair degree of randomness.

Keith A. Smith talks about the idea of a composite picture, a "total" picture built up out of the individual pictures in a visual book, and I think he's got it right, there.

Me? I do that. I also do things with lots of words, which are really books of words with a secondary counterpoint of pictures.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Crit: ATMTX Photo, On the Street: India

On Kirk Tuck's recommendation, I acquired a copy of this book.

If you like the preview, you'll like the book. It's pretty simple!

I like the book. It's not a book I would ever have made, but I am pleased to possess it. The author (not identified beyond the identifier ATMTX PHOTO in the book, but I believe named Andy) talks about his design inspirations on his blog, here, notably the use of full bleed, and double-truck pictures, and a ruthless willingness to rotate 90 degrees to print horizontals on a vertical page.

The system works just fine. It's hard to visualize how it's going to work on screen as you lay out a book like this, but it turns out that with a physical book one turns the thing 90 degrees as necessary, almost without thinking. It feels perfectly natural after a little while.

Blurb's trade books, especially on the uncoated paper, do not have great blacks. I do a thing with a curves adjustment to shovel a little contrast and depth into the blacks which I feel strengthens them a little visually, but it might just be voodoo. Andy either doesn't mind the weak blacks, or just decided to live with them. The pictures read as slightly flat, but that's just a quibble. Content is king. If Steidl can say "fahk zee midtones" we are allowed to print with weak darker tones.

The photos themselves are a blend of vernacular and more formal. Everything is recognizably street, nothing is posed, of course. Some pictures are more of a chaotic jumble, and some are more formally arranged masses of tone. I feel like a few of the pictures might have benefitted from some post-process color filtration. Sometimes a person's hand is almost lost in the chaotic mass of similar tones that are visually behind the hand, that sort of thing. Perhaps, though, this is intentional.

The pictures generally seem to work. Whether I would apply a "red filter" to this one, or crop that one differently, or punch up the shadows of yet a different one is immaterial. The book "reads" fine, it makes sense to me. It reveals something to me.

Full marks for design: simple, nice looking. There a couple pages of frontmatter, which so many people leave out. The typography is simple. The chapter/section beginnings burn a couple of pages attractively, usefully, rather than rudely dumping you into the next block of photos in an effort to save money. You get a lot of pictures for your money here, but it does not feel crammed full, or amateurish.

It's a bunch of photos, 123 according to the author, a few lines of text at the beginning of each section to set the stage. The organizational structure, while uncomplicated, works and was of interest to me.

So, onwards to the content.

Andy has built this thing as five sections, or chapters, more or less in chronological order of a short trip he took to India. What astonished me most about this book is the way Andy conveys his (his? an?) experience of India over such a miniscule visit, during which visit he was actually working at his job as well. Perhaps he has been many times, though? I am not sure. At any rate, I felt something authentic and fairly deep from the book.

Each section is more or less an unordered cloud of pictures from some segment of his trip. All are concerned with a view of the authentic "street" life of where Andy happened to be at that time. Each section can be taken separately, but it makes sense to look at the first section, then the second, and so on. There is a logic to this flow, albeit not a strict one. Within each chapter, each picture (or, really, each two-page spread) can be taken by itself, without concern for ordering, as far as I can tell.

The blend of what appears to my white eyes as "authentically Indian" with "western influence" was fascinating to me. Almost all the men wear jeans, but not quite. There is at least one instance of more traditional legwear, which appears to be a dhoti, worn by a fellow in a work crew consisting largely of jeans-wearers. Western brands show up in the backgrounds constantly, and so on. The balance feels, to this westerner, "right," it feels as if "yes, that is probably how it really is."

An element that appears regularly: a two page spread of a pair of photos taken a few seconds apart. I loved this. It imparts, I don't know, some sense of motion. Some sense of being present. It's a beautiful idea, and one I intend to steal.

In general, Andy is quite good with spreads. The temporal pairings are, I think, critical to the weight of the book. The others are merely pleasing graphical pairings of the usual sort, which make the book more visually appealing but are not important to meaning as such.

Much of the flavor is of functioning chaos. Not a society that struggles through chaos, nor yet a society that is chaotic, but simply a society that exists inextricably intermingled with a certain kind of chaos. It strikes me as maybe similar to the chaos of color and materialism that characterizes Las Vegas, or a standard-issue enclosed North American Mall. There is chaos, it exists, but we are used to it. It does not much impede our use of these places, it does not much register. We are not chaotic at the Mall, nor is our existence at the Mall choatic. The Mall is chaotic, we are not, we exist in the Mall, surrounded by chaos we barely register while we shop, eat, and pee.

I found a strong sense of presence in this book.

Well done, Andy!