Wednesday, December 7, 2016

And a little more -

With regard to this picture:

some dunderhead "asked" me the following:

The story and questions that you pose in relation to the street photo in the article. Did you consider all of those in the nanosecond you had when the composition presented itself before you clicked the shutter? No. You created the image first in a snap, then gave it it's meaning after.

I am pleased to report that in fact yes I did think of a great deal of the meaning and subtext of the photo before I shot it. This, because this is a repeated scene. It happens every few minutes in an busy coffee shop. Every time, in fact, a slender woman walks in. Literally every single time. So, yeah, I had thought a lot about it, over days, perhaps weeks, I forget.

Even for "real street" photography, there's a process of feeling the scene, grasping what is essential in it while shooting, groping for that frame that exemplifies that essential quality. I am confident here: street photography is all about trame, and it is largely conscious although sometimes fairly brisk. So, up yours, dbltax, whoever you are.

Without trame there's almost nothing to street photography. In relation to the previous post, there is generally no particular beauty to fall back on to, nothing much within the frame itself that can support the picture. It's a street, with people milling about on it. Occasionally there may be some thin games of geometry or form in play, but these are unlikely to be particularly satisfying by themselves.

Frankly, this is why most so-called street photography sucks. The practitioners rely on following the forms (black and white, street scenes, some sort of Interesting Interaction) without really getting at anything, and they wind up with endless pictures of nothing.

Trame and Not-Trame

I have been accused, justly, of setting aside all consideration of aesthetics in my poking around with the word trame. I think I could have got off if I'd stuck to just using it as a word, "whatever it is that a photo evokes" but I didn't, I charged ahead and rendered judgement based on it.

So, apparently, in my mind trame is the basis of some sort of framework for judging pictures, or at least for scoring them. And, indeed, it is so. That is exactly the score that I think matters, and it is indeed the basis of my judgement of pictures. All I've really done, though, is define a word. I've left the framework out, and failed to show my work. Sorry about that. Let me dig around a little...

So what does it mean to have left out aesthetics? Looking the word up and doing some reading, we find that our memories are more or less right, it's a bewilderingly broad term, with a meaning that has evolved horribly over the centuries. My memory was "it's really about beauty, right?" but I had a nagging feeling that this was an incomplete notion, and by golly, it sure is. Wittgenstein, apparently, felt that it was a description of the entire culture.

Indulge me, and let me try to refine the accusation leveled at me, then.

Trame explicitly refers only to things outside the frame, to the meaning inferred from the picture, and explicitly ignores the actual picture itself as a first-order thing, as the object of our attention. To say that I have ignored aesthetics, I think, is to say that inside the frame there can be value. The picture itself can be beautiful, or interesting. The picture, the artwork of whatever sort, can arrest our attention, can enlarge or ennoble us, or whatever it is that Art is supposed to do.

This is, I think, something I can and do agree with albeit in general terms. The trouble is, and I speculate without actually knowing that this is what Wittgenstein was on about, that it's Really Hard to disentangle the trame from the frame when you really start looking at it. So, it's beautiful. What makes it beautiful? What's so great about it being beautiful?

I remain convinced that we suffer from too much pointless beauty. Long ago, beautiful pictures, beautiful Art, was rare and difficult to make, to obtain. Beauty, pure beauty, was seen by some as an uplifting, enlarging, ennobling thing all by itself. Perhaps it was, I did not live then. I live in an era where pure beauty, abstracted away from meaning, is common as sand. Any doofus can churn out endless pleasing seascapes, endless beautiful sunsets, endless balanced still lifes. Where once, perhaps, it uplifted the miserable, it is now part of the background.

Is it reasonable, though, to suppose that beauty within in the frame -- supported by meaning, or by emotional content, or at least by the possibility of such, the open door, as it were, for meaning, for trame -- is a good thing in and of itself. While we cannot divorce it fully from the support it enjoys, we can say "stipulating that the support is there, this beautiful thing is wonderful and valuable, and I love it."

There, that ought to muddy the waters up good and proper.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The End is Nigh!

I'm just going to revisit some themes I've talked about in the past, and most likely I'll express opinions that contradict previous remarks. That'll happen from time to time.

A common essay to write, if you're some irrelevant artist or thinker, is the one about how many trillions of photographs are being made every nanosecond, and how this spells The End for photography, or whatever. Then you hand-wring about Quality and Skill and how nobody cares about them. The implication is, of course, that the writer is making Wonderfully Skilled Photographs and is only being held back from great success by the lousy taste of the unwashed masses. Tragedy!

I no longer think that the trillions of photos being made is having any impact whatsoever on Photography as these writers think of it.

The argument is that, since everyone is exposed to so very many lousy pictures a day, since everyone can and does take their own lousy pictures, that this causes a devaluation of photographs across the board. I can practically guarantee you I've made that exact argument. And it's wrong. Even the fattest head can tell the difference between a bunch of photos of their friends on facebook, and a print hanging on the wall in a gallery. These two objects are no more related than a brick and a Michelangelo's David, and everyone knows it.

The vast majority of photos are ephemeral objects. While they might persist on some disks in some cloud somewhere, they are in effect gone. There's no serious intention by anyone that they should exist for more than a few hours. Facebook and so on only retain them at all because the lifespan is open-ended, and it's cheaper to hold them than to work out when and how to discard them. So, the stock discussions of "a stack of prints to the moon" are meaningless, nobody is printing these things. The idea of printing them is absurd.

The ones that are left over do cover a wide gamut. You can't identify the "permanent" photos by type. A vernacular photo might be immortal, if someone loves the way it depicts something deeply personal. A Fine Art photo might well be ephemeral. We'd be well served if more of them were more ephemeral.

If you, as a Fine Art Landscape photographer, are having a hard time selling prints, look to yourself. Your problem is not the selfies on facebook, your problem is that your business model sucks. It was never very hard to churn out your kind of stuff, and technological changes have indeed made it incrementally easier. If you are a wedding photographer, having a hard time selling your services, ditto. There is a population of these folks who were (or would have been), just barely, good enough to make a living in the film era. They were already pretty close to the line, mainly because they had no vision only a desire to churn out the same old stuff, and now they're on the wrong side of the line.

Photography is still everything it ever was. It hasn't changed into something new. What has happened is that photography is more, now. It's ephemeral "look at this" imagery, as well as the permanent artifacts of Sontag, of the pre-digital/pre-Internet age. These changes have been happening since the beginning. At first, photographs were unique objects, obtained with great difficulty. Then they were objects that permitted replication. Then they were objects obtained easily, as well as being endlessly reproducible.

The "OH MY GOD HUGE CHANGE" we've all commented on is in fact not, it's merely a new facet, no more interesting and game-changing than roll film, or dry plates. We're been fooled by the enormous size of the facet, by the sheer numbers of pictures, into thinking that it's a huge change.

We're at the beginning of realizing this, I think.

More and more we see articles and notes and essays about how people are printing more, and doing this or that more, and so on. These pieces are positioned as a recovery from the Vast Sea Change, but in fact I think the Vast Sea Change never was.

This whole thing finds a nearly precise allegory that is barely an allegory in the lives and methods of the working photographers. Serious photographers who bridge that era from 1990 to 2016, let us say, hardly noticed what was up. They may, or may not, have purchased new cameras. They may, or may not, have begun to approach their work a little differently now and then. In the main, though, they simply chugged along doing what they had been doing all along. Their photography changed organically, as their vision, as their ideas, changed. The Vast Sea Change wrought by instagram et al? It never even happened.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

I Ain't Dead

Just slammed. Christmas is coming and the dog is always sick.

I have some half-formed material in the pipeline. Check back from time to time!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Criticism: Two Portfolios

I'm going to send you off to look at two different portfolios, one of which I think works and one which I think doesn't. Then, I'll discuss!

The first is here. Jeffrey is a fellow I kind of "know", we've exchanged a lot of email, collaborated on one or two little projects. I admire his work greatly, and I like him personally. In addition, he's said things to me about this work. All of this is going to color and shape my commentary to a degree. There's no helping that.

Please concentrate on the black&white suburban nighttime photographs, as these are the ones I am talking about. Jeffrey honored me once in the past by sending me a selected set of these specific photographs, and so to me that is his "important work" although of course it's just the material I saw first.

The second portfolio is over here. Irritatingly, I don't seem to be able to link directly to the portfolio, so find the two pictures with the white square in the middle, and the identifying text "Alternatives Landscapes" and "Alternatives Landscapes II" because, again, this is the work I am interested in comparing to Jeffrey's. I don't know Benoit from Adam, and have not exchanged a word with him, ever.

I like to compare things like this. The one that "works" shows me why the other one doesn't, and vice versa.

First, similarities. Each is a set of basically dark pictures with a prominent strong light, a man-made light, which casts shadows, illuminates, and generates a strongly visual element. Superficially, they look quite similar, in fact. Neither body of work seems to present a strong position. We're not seeing starving orphans here, or open-pit mines, or a purely sublime view of a mountain. The subjects cluster in the general area of banal, in fact. Some very much banal, others of mild interest, but nothing leaps out and grabs us by the throat. That, by itself, is in no way a negative as far as I am concerned.

Looking closer, we see that Jeffrey is showing us similar subjects over and over. The light sources move around and change character (sometimes it's a lit doorway, sometimes an exterior light, and so on). The actual houses change, but the general type does not. It's not quite a typology in the strictest sense, it's a little too variable and Jeffrey favors a more dynamic angle of view than a straight-on foursquare presentation. But, elements of typology are present. It seems to me that Jeffrey's pictures definitely take no particular position, there is no obvious statement of politics, ecology, sociology, or anything of that sort here. The only overt, deliberate, statement of which I am sure is that the photographer thought there was something interesting here.

Looking at just one of these pictures, by itself, I suspect you'd be left cold and simply wander off. They're not traditionally "pretty", although they are graphically appealing. Being presented with a bunch of them, we're asked, implicitly, to reconsider, to try to grasp what the photographer saw here. Clearly this is no accidental snap, this guy's been putting in some serious work here, what the heck does he see?

We can compare and contrast the pictures. What's the same, what's different. What are all these houses, anyways?

In short, there are typology-like aspects here, and quite strong ones. We're invited, whether the artist likes it or not, to draw our own conclusions. There's plenty of grist for the mill here. The general region in which the photos were taken is clear, and that opens a great basket of political and ecological concerns. While the photographer may offer no personal opinion on, let us (for example) say the ecological impact of modern cities in the desert, these pictures certainly open the door to us, the viewer, to consider these things.

There is in these pictures adequate variety to give us a broader scene onto which we can project our own ideas. At the same time, there is enough commonality to firmly bind the pictures together into a coherent whole. We're forced, more or less, to consider them as a group, a collective, which we then ask "what are you trying to tell me?" And then, looking inside ourselves, perhaps we find some answers.

Onwards to Benoit's Landscapes.

Visually similar to Jeffrey's pictures, and sharing some of that ordinariness in the subject matter, but quite different.

On the one hand, the central glowing square strongly ties the pictures together. They are clearly a coherent set, a collective that belongs together, that, like Jeffrey's pictures, demands to be considered as a whole. There is less graphical appeal here, the pictures are bluntly foresquare, dead-on. This is made necessary by the light Benoit is placing centered in the frame, his key graphical element. He needs to be dead-on to the light, and the light illuminates the scene, and thus even the few pictures which strive to use a more dynamic angle of view do not really succeed. The light's position and illumination pattern dominate.

The scenes into which the square light is set are all over the place. Trees, hills, concrete buildings with artfully tumbled things on the lawn. A trio of nudes exposing their genitals to the light? There is nothing connecting these pictures together except the single graphical element.

Again, any single one of these pictures you'd likely dismiss. You might get a little jolt of "cool!" when you saw it, but that would be about it. The fact that this photographer has made a bunch of them, has invested a great deal of time and effort here, draws us in and asks us to reconsider, asks us to look more deeply and to think more deeply. It's nothing like a typology, though, because the only common theme is literally the same object, repeated. We're being asked, essentially, to examine wildly disparate scenes each containing the same object.

What are we to make of these? I see the square and visualize it as a portal (I have read a tremendous amount of Science Fiction in my life). Benoit imagines it as a man-made element that assists and reveals the natural. But then, why the photos with the man-made buildings, and indeed the human figures? Why does this square portal change size from one picture to another? In any interpretation, though, the glowing square is a mysterious and singular object, inexplicably hanging a few feet above the ground in this location, and in that location, and so on.

I see no coherence here at all, really. I see a singular object appearing more or less at random around the earth, for no particular rhyme or reason. If this is an essay on capricious fate, the rule of the random, then perhaps it begins to make sense, but it doesn't go far enough to make that point clear. And in that case, why so many similar pictures of the square in a bunch of trees? The mysterious glowing object invites question, but seems to leave no real room for answers. These pictures might as well be abstracts. If we want answers, if we want meaning, we are left to construct it entirely ourselves. There are referents in these pictures, but they provide no handles to grasp, no signposts to guide us.

Benoit's pictures are all, at least, shot at night. But is that merely to make his gimmick work, or is nighttime somehow important to the theme?

In terms of trame what I feel here isn't a portfolio that is necessarily closed into itself, but rather that has such diffuse and varied connections to an exterior as to lead nowhere in particular. While the pictures are evocative, what they evoke, their trame, is so vague and indistinct as to add up to nothing much.

In contrast, the referents in Jeffrey's pictures give us firm guidance on geographic location, as well as environment and socioeconomic status. If those are insufficient signposts to guide some thinking, some speculation, some story-making, I can't imagine what is. His choice of nighttime is clearly deliberate, rather than a necessity driven by a gimmick. It's another interesting case study of trame I think. While there are many different things that might be evoked here, each possible path seems to be intellectually fruitful, dense, and at least mildly interesting. While I might view his pictures as one thing, and you quite another, each of us could reasonably find some meat here, something to think about.

I suspect that both Jeffrey and Benoit took their pictures because they though the results would look good, or cool, or interesting. Jeffrey managed, perhaps by design, perhaps by instinct, to produce something in which I can find some depth. Benoit did not.

Monday, November 21, 2016

White Cubes

Lewis Bush over at disphotic has a piece railing against the White Cube style of gallery, the featureless white rooms in which Art is displayed. He cites a piece by Jonathan Jones of the Guardian on the same subject. Jones makes an interesting remark in his piece.

But what is really happening is that the white space of the gallery authorises the object as art: this is why commercial galleries like White Cube (the clue is in the name) and Gagosian opt for that purity.

and then he wanders off complaining that it is the business of these places to persuade collectors to part with lots of money for Art. He's right, but only partly so.

It is literally the job of Gagosian and so on to authorize objects at Art. That's their function. Someone's got to do it, especially in this world awash in excellent work. They are the gatekeepers. Yes, part of the result of this is soothing the wealthy and assuring them that their expenditures are a good idea. Part of it is indeed to make it be a good idea by blessing those works as important and valuable. Part of it is to separate for everyone in the world what pieces matter and which, perhaps with regret, we must consign to to dustbin of history.

These people, these galleries, are building the modern art history. They're reaching into the maelstrom, and pulling out work. Work which is, contrary to Jones' ongoing populist ranting about crummy modern art, actually says something, means something. Work that flows from previous work, and provides the basis for the next generation, and so on. They weave the tapestry of what will be the Art History of this millennium. It's their job.

If white walls help them do their job, well, so be it. I'm ok with it.

I did enjoy the joke about painting the walls red, though.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dear PetaPixel Readers

If you get this far, please note that the previous essay is just introducing a word. I am not claiming to have invented the idea that a photo has meaning. Also, I have not read Camera Lucida, but only because it is a turgid, unreadable, mess, which is why you almost certainly haven't read it either, hero. And no, we don't already have a word for this thing, if you think you've got a candidate, feel free to contact me, and I will cheerfully explain to you why your word is too broad, too narrow, or simply not on target at all.

But you know, I don't really need to. Several of the wanna-bee philosopher types on PP have exclaimed "Pfft! We already have a word for this!" and they have offered, as of this writing, five different words, all with different meanings which I think illustrates the problem better than I ever could.

That is all.

ETA: we're up to 11 proposed words with 11 different definitions.