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Thursday, January 4, 2024

I'm Not Dead

Really, I am not dead.

I just can't think of anything to say about photography. Drawing has kind of eaten my brain lately, but I am utterly unqualified to talk about Drawing, really. Maybe some day. I draw a lot. Every day. I am substantially less bad at drawing than I was a year ago, but I'm not good as such, and I certainly have no expertise or theory.

It's always tempting to just pivot to a this-is-my-life blog, but for whatever reason I am loathe to do that. Lots of people do, and that's fine, but I just don't feel it for this blog here and now.

To an extent this is a knock on effect of the workshop/retreat I did with Jonathan Blaustein a year or so ago. I came away from that with a serious plan to do serious work, a sort of "stop screwing around and get down to business" situation, and it turns out that I'm not quite ready to do that. Or I don't have the time. Or the energy. Or something. Maybe I simply haven't got the stuff for anything except screwing around.

Anyway, it was time to fish, or cut bait, and apparently I am doing whichever of those doesn't include doing a lot of photography or writing about photography.

Consider me on indefinite hiatus, I guess. Sometimes saying "I am on hiatus" stirs the pot, so it's 50:50 I'll be back in short order with 20,000 words, each more unhinged than the last, but I make no promises.

I do plan to actually get back to doing photography at some point, to doing that serious project, but it's just a hypothetical for now. Don't take me seriously until I actually deliver some fucking pictures.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Vandalism and Local Art

A couple days ago, I guess, some protestors entered the National Gallery (the British one, not the American one) and had a go at a painting, because that's a thing we're doing now. To be clear, I don't think people ought to do this in general, and I don't think these protests make any sense. It's clearly just a "bit" the kids have settled on.

That said, it raises in my mind the question of who actually cares? There's been an outcry, of course, about our cultural heritage and so on. These valuable artifacts must be preserved, and their destruction is a crime against humanity! I've seen calls for much more vigorous security arrangements, which seems like a terrible idea to me. I don't really want angry, tense, guards on a hair trigger.

What, exactly, is the value that any of these paintings is bringing? I'll accept extremely abstract answers! I'm not here to reduce culture to dollars or to British pounds. Did the Rokeby Venus enlarge anyone's life? Does a Monet? I am, for reference, extremely pleased that these things existed! I am pleased that they exist, and I don't think people should destroy them! At the same time, I am not entirely sure why we should mourn their loss. There is no "mysterious air" here, it's just a picture.

If the painting had been, instead of vandalized, suddenly revealed to be a modern forgery, well, what then? The painting would quietly vanish from the walls, and the consensus would surely be that Culture writ large has been Improved rather than Impoverished. And yet, it would be the same painting. The fact that we believe it to be authentic seems to be an essential feature of whatever actual value it's bringing to us. Berger covers all this in "Ways of Seeing" of course, with his marvelous takedown of da Vinci's "The Virgin of the Rocks," it's not new with me.

Functionally, the Rokeby Venus has been the subject of a few million glazed-over glances, a few hundred art student sketches, and a very small handful of the weeping fans. What its current existence does for Culture is pretty vague.

Also, the mirror looks like a fucking head in a box, not a mirror. Dude, wtf were you thinking?

The history of the thing is pretty interesting! It occupies a notable position in art history! Something something nudes Spanish Inquisition, you can read all about it on wikipedia. The physical artifact on the wall doesn't seem to be particularly relevant to that, though, except as a sort of moral anchor to the story, a reification of the story. It performs the role of a photo illustrating a news item.

Let us compare, though, with an annual event here in Bellingham, the 6x6 show hosted by our local art store.

This is an open show. You can pick up a 6 inch by 6 inch square of one of several materials, for free, from the art store. Cover it with art. Anything. Paint it, carve it, attach sculpture to it, sew it. Return it to the shop, they'll give you a coupon for future purposes as a reward, and they'll hang your work. Zero curation, everything goes up. They have a show for about a month with a grid of 100s of 6x6 artworks on the wall of their gallery. You can buy any piece for $25. Proceeds to a local art non-profit.

The work is everything from 5 year old kids scribbling with crayons to professional working artists painting small landscapes. One piece was made by the artist's pet snails crawling around with pigment.

It is, easily, my favorite Art Thing in the world.

I'm now going to stealthily replace the Rokeby Venus with Monet, because the position of Monet in our culture while similar is more immediately salient. You won't have to think as much.

I put things in the 6x6 show, and so do my kids. I am, this year, the only photographer (I think) in something like 470 pieces. Which is wild! My kids draw/paint stuff. Usually, nobody buys anything we put in, about which more anon.

But what about this small, often poorly made, extremely local, art? It hits quite differently from a Monet. I could write at length about why a Monet is "better" but at the same time some child's crude drawing of a frog has its own intense value. At the bottom, the Monet and the Frog are the same: a piece of decor, with the potential to move us emotionally, to enlarge us as humans. They are the same in that both Claude and the child, let's call her Susie, essentially wanted to show us what something looked like: A Garden, A Frog.

There are endless details of scale, of technique, of scope of imagination, and so on that could be brought to bear to show how the two paintings are different, and one much superior. Mostly, though, the Monet painting is superior because the people we pay to tell us what's superior have said that it is superior.

Looking at a Monet can hit pretty hard! The effect is real! I love Monet, and have travelled to see Monet paintings! At the same time, though, a part of what I experience is the cultural baggage, the stamp of approval from the curatorial staff of various museums, the stamp of approval from critics and historians. The Frog hits differently, it has no baggage.

Nevertheless, it manifests with awful clarity the sincerity of the artist. The Monet and The Frog both reveal the will, shared by Susie and Claude, to show us what something looks like. Looking at Monet, the cloud of cultural baggage tends to obscure this will; looking at Susie's Frog nothing is obscured. There is a reason theorists and critics are obsessed with the ways children draw. There is an authenticity, a clarity of purpose, a purity of method (as it were) that a more thoroughly educated artist, or even art appreciator, loses.

Monet is in a sense sealed in amber and elevated to a pedestal. We cannot but react to the paintings, because we're told to do so. Monet is distant. You literally have to take a trip to see a Monet. For $25 I can have Susie's Frog in my home, over my desk, and look at it every day by raising my chin slightly. Susie's Frog was made here, in my town, by a child who probably lives no more than 2 miles away from me. There is an immediacy here, a nearness. Susie's Frog is a radically different cultural artifact than is a Monet painting, and in many ways it's much more salient.

Looking at a Monet can be a powerful experience, but in the end I leave the gallery and return to my life much as I was before. This kind of High Culture, as defined and managed by the priesthood, feels like a separate track, a kind of entertainment I can step into when I want to, but which doesn't live and breathe with me, with us. It has nothing to do with my daily life, with the daily clockwork of my little town.

Something is lost when an artist matures. The childish authenticity fades as the artist works to become more technically proficient, to make something look real; or perhaps the artist is trying to imbue their work with some sort of abstract meaning. Passing "beyond" the desire to show you what a frog looks like, the mature artist tries to make the frog look "real" or tries to make the frog stand in for something else.

This is, of course, the business of High Art, but damn is it hard. Many, perhaps most, artists spend a long time in the doldrums between childish directness and the actual ability to make the frog mean something. They're not painting a frog, they're painting a painting of a frog but no more than that.

Interestingly, the pieces that sell quickly at the 6x6 show are exactly these pictures. The realistic but ultimately kind of empty paintings of bicycles or boats, the well-made pictures with silly jokes, and so on. I like these things too, but I don't much want to own one. As well, there are certainly a few artists in play who are genuinely injecting meaning and depth into their well made pictures, and those sometimes sell as well. The childish frogs don't really sell, which is in a way a pity. I dare say people want to have something that's obviously well made, rather than something clumsy. Perhaps they're not very interested in the art children make; their loss.

In the end, I love 6x6 more than anything else Arty, because it hits inside my world, rather than outside it. It's Art that lands inside my life, my existence, not outside it in some temple to culture, not on a track that is parallel to my life, but actually on the rails my life runs on.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The War for Culture

I've stumbled over a few items randomly, which just coalesced into something in my head, so, here we go.

Sam Bankman-Fried, currently on trial for operating an enormous kinda-Ponzi scheme in the crypto world (it doesn't seem to have been as coherent and organized as even a proper Ponzi, it seems to have simply been a sort of maelstrom of money that leaked a lot until the money was gone) is having his private conversations closely analyzed. As some point he seems to have written something or other about Shakespeare, arguing that so many humans have been born since Shakespeare that, statistically, there must have been many better writer after Shakespeare.

This illustrates a profound failure to understand how culture arises. Interestingly, while everyone had a good time making fun of Sam, I didn't see anyone offer a coherent explanation of why he was wrong. I plan to correct that here!

Second item: there's a guy, Devon Rodriguez, who's made something of a name for himself drawing and painting People On The Street. He's all over social media, and if you're looking for youtube videos on drawing portraits you're gonna have a hard time avoiding this guy's useless videos. He's a skilled technician, but mainly he's a social media presence.

He has millions of followers, and the backing of at least one NYC real-estate developer, and so he got a little popup show for his paintings. This show was reviewed on artnet by some hapless critic, who pointed out that the paintings were not very good, and went on about social media influence.

Devon's PR machine, noting an opportunity, decided to pull out the "I won't let the haters stop me!" page from the Social Media Influencers Handbook, and has been running that play for a while.

Here again we see the intersection of "Culture" in the form of Art and Criticism of Same with something more populist.

Finally let us recall that Larry Gagosian got himself a pretty girlfriend, painter Anna Weyant, a hair older than 1/3 of his age, and appears to be trying to make her into a Major Painter using his credentials as an art dealer. Weyant appears to be a significantly more interesting painter than Rodriguez, and is also a fine technician, so I don't really have a sense of whether she's "good" or not, in any way that makes much sense to me.

Let's keep these three little examples in mind.

Culture, contrary to common understanding, is not a distillation of the finest products of the finest creative talents, elected by some alchemy that inexorably whittles away the inferior and reliably, eventually, locates the best. It's just not. It's a hell of a lot more venal than that.

Bankman-Fried missed the point about Shakespeare: we have defined him to be great. Yes, the work is technically good, the meter or whatever you want to name is excellent. Shakespeare is great largely because, for him, the standard is how much like Shakespeare are you? Obviously, he is the best at being like Shakespeare. The attentive observer might wonder out loud how much of "Shakespeare was really good at specific important technical things" is actually "these specific technical things are important because Shakespeare was good at them." It's fair to suggest that there's a bit of push and pull going on here.

Larry Gagosian's efforts on behalf of Anna Weyant are specifically interesting, because Larry is absolutely a member of the club of people who get to decide things like "who are the really great painters anyway?" He's not the only member, though!

And finally we get around to Rodriguez. He has essentially no backing from anyone in that club, but he has a lot of social media followers, and he's got some rich people in his corner. Rich people who would probably like to be members of the taste-making club, rich people who probably go to some of the same parties that Larry Gagosian attends.

What interests me here, though, is whether we're seeing something larger.

Why should a small club of goobers like Gagosian be in charge of High Culture? There certainly seem to be days when they're picking shit at random (abstract expressionism? really?) and there's really no doubt that they do a lot of selection based on how hot and/or slutty the artists are. Why shouldn't TikTok select the Important Artists?

The crypto bros made a brave attempt to seize a beachhead in Culture with NFTs. Unfortunately for them they were thoroughly embedded in the crypto world, which turns out to be 100% scams, and also their art was really really terrible shit, not even rising to the level of kitsch. It wasn't even populist, it was just dumb. The try was bold, though, and it looked like it might work for a while! Beeple and his dumb $69 million dollar whateverthefuck looked like a real thing for a minute (before we learned that it too was a scam, oops.)

I don't much like Rodriguez, in part because his work isn't very interesting (it all looks like it's an excellent copy of some extremely bland reference photo, and some people think that's because they are in fact excellent copies of extremely bland reference photos.) I also dislike him, though, because his videos gum up the search for "how the hell do I draw a nose" with what are essentially ads for his work and his classes. I just want a few pointers on how to draw a nose!

My opinion, though, should not really carry any weight. Who gives a shit what I think?

The very idea is insane that these things should be decided a small group of people with degrees in art history, and an even smaller group of wealthy assholes who've eased their way into advising even wealthier assholes about which art to buy. Why should this specific group be in charge of determining what we see when we go into museums and galleries? Especially the museums and galleries funded by our tax dollars! Maybe we should be seeing a lot more kitsch!

On the other hand, there seems to genuinely be value in some small group making insane selections, however venal the reasons, for future generations. Maybe it doesn't matter what gets picked, as long as it's weird enough, as long as it's not populist kitsch. Maybe the job is simply to weed out things that are easy to like and pick some vaguely coherent selection of stuff that's hard to like. Future generations then have something to think about, something to struggle with. I think I'd rather live in a culture where we have abstract expressionism to gape at, than a culture were it's all likable kitsch.

In general I would rather see the collapse of Art As High Culture. I believe in local art. Rodriguez would do well as a Local Artist. He's entertaining, people like his pictures. I think people should totally be able to buy his pictures, sit for portraits, whatever. I don't think we would be well-served by making him into a Great Artist to Stand With Monet, but then, I'm not sure we're well served by the very idea that artists should be elevated to some stratosphere.

But my opinion doesn't matter. This isn't the first time populist art has made an assault on the cathedral, and it won't be the last. It'll be interesting to see how it shakes out, I guess.

Friday, September 15, 2023

The Photo Grift

A number of threads of thought crystallized this morning, abruptly. Let's see if I can write them down.

In 1800s quite a number of photographers mostly took pictures and were paid for pictures and that was that. Gradually companies formed to supply those photographers, and those companies presumably made money. There were amateurs, to be sure, but they knew who they were, and there weren't all that many of them in relative terms.

In the 1900s the number of amateurs exploded. Kodak and others enabled a several generations of nerdy fellows to take up the Hobby Of Photography. Magazines evolved to serve them, camera manufacturers built cameras and advertised in the magazines, and so on. A whole economic thing arose to serve the enthusiast. And, to be sure, many of those enthusiasts aspired to "go pro" in some sense, but most of them didn't. It was a hobby.

By the time I arrived on the scene the industry was largely funded by amateur photographers. They bought cameras, film, and magazine subscriptions, and that was the money that made the industry hum. Yes, Vogue bought photos and paid photographers, but that was not the engine that drove the industry.

Enter the digital camera. Suddenly everyone with disposable income could be a photographer. You didn't need a darkroom, you didn't need to be particularly dweeby, it became a normal, even cool, thing for basically anyone to do. Good! How fun! Now you can enjoy my hobby too!

A little later youtube arrives and the concept of a "content creator" shows up about the same time.

Poeple are blogging and setting up forums and so on. We start to see guys like Michael Reichmann on the scene.

At this point there is a substantial shift. It's no longer pretty much just photography companies selling cameras and film to hobbyists. It's Content Creators and Influencers selling workshops, memberships, subscriptions, and advertisements. It's a money spinner. Anyone can play. Set up a web site, crib some articles from someplace else, and watch the money roll in!

Well, not quite. You have to be both lucky, and skilled at being a Content Creator. It wouldn't hurt you to be pretty good at photography (Reichmann was a skilled technician, for example) but it honestly isn't even required.

In the background here there is a constant thrum of "you could go pro, you could make money at photography, all you need is whatever it is that I am selling." I don't even know why this turned up. I think maybe the Content Creators felt the need to justify their revenue, which they couldn't on the basis on their fairly thin content.

I don't mean to suggest that in 1990 everyone was an innocent and happy hobbyist without a thought of going pro, and that 20 years later it's some Lord of the Flies situation with everyone desperate to become a Pro Photographer. Not at all. But there's been a shift in mood. The vague hope, the idea, is a little more present. Maybe a lot more.

You could probably point at economic conditions, maybe everyone's a little more hungry, a little more on the lookout for a quick buck. I dunno. It doesn't matter, because the point is that it's a thing.

Anyways, to my eye from the 2010s there was an enormous wave of Content Creators attempting to take money off of photographers who were themselves looking for fame and/or fortune. The main thing to note here is that the successful ones were good at being Content Creators; they may or may not have been interested in photography, but whether they were or not doesn't matter. They're "professional" Content Creators which means they have a whole bunch of skills around attracting eyeballs. This is their actual expertise.

In some sense, this is the same as it ever was. It's not like Nikon was giving cameras away in the good old days, they were definitely making money. The difference to my eye is that in the first place when you gave Nikon money you actually got a camera, and in the second place there was less of a "you too could be a pro, you could make money at this." In fact, Nikon had several lines of camera, and only one was explicitly the "many money with this camera" line. The others were all implicitly "have a good time taking photos with these cameras."

In the 2010s you often didn't get anything. You could watch a Tony Northrup video or read a Lloyd Chambers blog post, with the result that you would be older and dumber by the end. You could pay a few thousand dollars for some workshop, with the result that you'd have a folder with 10,000 completely uninteresting photographs of icebergs or whatever. Even then, though, at least everyone was trying to give you some value. Lloyd at least did (does?) detailed if pointless testing. I'm sure Tony thought he was telling you.. something useful?

Somewhere in here MFA programs arose or were retooled based on, apparently, little more than "we can put butts in seats at $10,000 per butt-year" and guys like Colberg got jobs teaching in them. Based on the results it's honestly unclear wtf they were even trying to teach these kids? Most of them, of course, have not become successful artists although many have given a bunch more money to glorified vanity presses. Again, there was at least an attempt to deliver value, kinda. I am sure that Colberg really thought he was helping. I dare say some of his colleagues were more cynical.

And now here we are in the 2020s. At this point to be honest I think everyone's given up, and they're just trying to extract as much money as possible for as little effort as possible.

I, for instance, am apparently still publishing articles on Luminous Landscape (no, I am not, I wrote the piece currently at the bottom of the front page in 2017, not the August 2023 date indicated.) PetaPixel and fstoppers are descending rapidly toward click-farm link-mill stage, with articles about reddit posts and other articles describing videos they found on youtube. The filler doesn't quite dominate. Yet. It will.

Andy Adams, a relentless engagement farmer across many platforms, has a substack newsletter he's making thousands of dollars a year on, which is insipid to the point of transparency but which offers "exposure" to photographers who almost certainly make less money on photography than he does.

And this is the theme. The money flows from photographers to everyone else, the same as it always has.

The difference is that the photographer's aren't getting anything for their money, or for their attention. Andy's newsletter is read by absolutely nobody except your peers, who are all also vaguely hoping to "go pro" or become well known, better known, something, some day. Nobody reads PetaPixel or fstoppers except the same crowd, and on and on. The content available is essentially nil on all fronts, it's just the same recycled drivel, or often literally nothing at all. Newsletters about "how to find inspiration, we interviewed 5 photographers" will tell you it's "light" or "taking a walk." Youtube videos will begin and end with 3 or 4 minutes "like, share, and subscribe" with 2 minutes of content in between which is even more insipid than "I am inspired by the light!"

All of the "content" around photography has been reduced to a way to destroy some time. A ten minute video doesn't do anything except make ten minutes of your life go away. An 800 word blog post makes.. well, how long does it take you to read 800 words? That's how much time it will destroy. It will not make you a better photographer, it will not even entertain you particularly, it will not inform you. At best it will validate some life choice you made, and tell you that you're special (despite the evident fact that you are not.)

All this empty content still produces money for someone. You're paying for it, either with your wallet or your attention. You're getting nothing in return except maybe a little empty validation, a little tease that one day you might be someone.

At least when you went to the Galapagos with Michael Reichmann you got to see some turtles. It mighta cost you $10,000 a turtle, but at least there were turtles.

Monday, September 11, 2023

AD Coleman on Trump's mug shot

AD does a nice analysis of this photo, of just the sort I would do. A little more partisan than I would have written it, but AD's philosophy on that is perfectly clear and to my eye a perfectly reasonable approach. If he were disingenuous, I wouldn't like it, but he's not.

Read it here.

Really, do. It is well worth your time.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

On Visual Literacy

There is a school of thought, largely among the low-rent photo-academics that I so enjoy making fun of, that visual literacy is a thing, a thing which can be learned, ought to be taught, and so on. They say supremely stupid things like "one can read a photo just like a novel" and so on. This is one of those ideas that feels immediately kind of stupid. It gets a lot of its traction because of this, it's a strange but true idea that lets dummies imagine they have access to secret knowledge.

Let's dig in!

The first thing one might think about, if one asked oneself seriously "what is visual literacy actually" is that perhaps it's just about seeing things. A photo, of the sort one reads with ones visual literacy is generally just a picture of some stuff. Perhaps one could just read the stuff?

I am nearly certain that this is never what is meant. To be honest, I'm not 100% on this since these guys never explain what they actually mean, but I'm pretty sure.

Nope, visual literacy is specifically about the photo. It fits into that narrow gap between just looking at stuff, and just looking at a piece of paper with blotches on it. It's about decoding the photographer's methods and choices. What did the photographer choose to represent here, when, and what techniques did they apply to render the stuff they're photographing?

At this point even a moment's thought reveals that there cannot actually be any secret knowledge here. Suppose the photographer carefully applies Methods to make the subject look heroic, or venal, or whatever. If this doesn't actually come through to the ordinary citizen, if the sensation that the subject is venal or expensive or whatever does not come through to the untrained eye, the photo has failed. This isn't like a novel, where you're assuming that the person holding it can read the language. We don't encode things in a photo using a system of signs that one learns in school.

Yes, there are signs and tropes that get used, but they're culturally ubiquitous. A low angle and dramatic lighting to make the dude look heroic, or threatening, or whatever? Sure. That's totally a thing. It might be a bit of biology, it's definitely a lot of culture, but the point is that the great unwashed masses who didn't go to your stupid MFA program can read it just fine. They read comic books too.

Visual literacy, if it means anything at all, means that one notices and inventories ones own responses to a photo. The advanced course might conceivably teach us how other cultures, other people, might respond, so that we can imagine their responses and inventory those as well (wait, this sounds a lot like Molitor's theory of criticism, huh.) There cannot be anything interesting about our responses, those must be universal. The literacy arises in that we notice them.

The trouble we run in to immediately here is that we have trouble separating our reactions to the photographic methods and tropes from our reactions to the content itself.

As a critic, I don't see much point in separating those. I am interested in the total effect of the photo on me, and on other people. Trying to comb apart the lighting techniques from the content isn't something I am much interested in.

It is, however, of central importance if you're trying to do visual literacy and decode the Language of Photography or whatever. You can't just be reacting to the content, that's not visual literacy that's just looking at stuff. So, the visually literate academic weirdo has to pretend they're reacting to the way the photo is made, rather than just the contents of the frame.

Case in point, Jörg Colberg's more or less unhinged critique of Helmut Newton.

The underlying drama here is that Colberg is a prude, and also believes that Men should not photograph Women, ever, and especially not Nude Women. Which, you know, ok. He's perfectly entitled to his opinions here, and these are not even particularly odd ideas.

You can, however, see him muddling up the content and the method, constantly. Newton's photos are sexist and misogynistic not because it's a dude photographing women with their clothes off, but because somehow something something male gaze. Colberg flatly refuses to admit that his beef is that dudes shouldn't photograph women with no clothes on, and so he wanders endlessly around saying ridiculous things like "In a most obvious fashion, Newton’s world is entirely heterosexual."

Not only is Colberg somehow gleaning the sexuality of a nude woman from the photo, which is itself pretty suspect, but Helmut Newton's photos are famously some of the gayest shit ever! It's all flirting with sexual fetishes. We do not in these enlightened times think of gayness as a fetish, but in Newton's time it absolutely was. The Fetish/Gay/Camp blend was 100% a thing, and Helmut Newton was a master of it, if not the master.

Colberg goes on to argue that Newton's photos are "sexist and misogynistic" because it's obvious that they are and if you dared argue that they weren't, well, your argument would also be "sexist and misogynistic" and therefore wrong. Q.E.D. I looked this up in my Logic 101 textbook, and I think we formally refer to this syllogism as Modus Dumbass.

Anyways, this is pretty much a perfect case study of some dude who earnestly believes in visual literacy and earnestly believes that he has more or less mastered this arcane art, and that he is therefore qualified to offer us a "reading" of Newton's work. He sees himself as diligently decoding the dense thicket of symbols encoded in Newton's photographs, to reveal to us the inner meaning.

I don't even much like Newton, but I don't think there's any inner meaning that you need special training to decode. The magazines who commissioned Newton's work would likely be surprised and upset to learn that special training was necessary to make sense of that work. It is as if The New Yorker commissioned 2500 words on dogs, only to receive a manuscript written in Latin.

No, Newton is pretty much all surface. It's all fetishistic and sexy, in a sort of blunt and dated way, and that makes Colberg extremely uncomfortable.

Is it "sexist and misogynistic" to represent women as powerful but also sexual, and also kind of pervy? Maybe? That seems to me like a cultural judgement that's gonna give you different answers in different times and places. Ultimately, I don't particularly care. I am interested in the total effect of the photo, content and method combined.

There's nothing wrong with noticing and inventorying your reactions to a photograph. I do it as a hobby. The difference, as near as I can tell, between simply looking at a photo with your eyes open and visual literacy is that the latter tries, fruitlessly, to separate content from method, to catalogue in some meaningful the reactions to method separately from content.

Invariably, the reaction to content bleeds in, and the whole effort collapses into a re-iteration of the visually literate nimrod's politics. In the end it's never more complicated than them being mad that someone photographed a naked woman.

It's fine to be mad that someone photographed that, or that the subject exists, or whatever, I don't care. What's dumb is to pretend that you're actually mad at the secret neoliberal coded message that you can't articulate but which is definitely in the photo probably as a punctum or something.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

A Photo Testifies

A photograph which looks like a photo of something or someone, as well as anything else which isn't a photo but which looks like such a thing, mainly does one thing: it testifies to that-which-was.

This has been my thesis for a little while now, and it's recognizably lifted directly from Barthes, so if I'm a crank, at least my crankery has a pedigree! What I mean is that a photo, or something that looks like a photo, which also looks like it's of something (not an abstract, obvious collage, or what have you) mainly asserts that something existed, and it looked like that at a moment in time.

There's other shit these things do, of course. They're a mass of tone and color in pleasing, or less pleasing, arrangements, and so on. Paintings do all those things, but paintings do not testify in the same way.

Let us now turn our attention to AI-generated photo-realistic imagery.

It functions in the same way a photo does, if it is sufficiently photo-realistic. It cannot do otherwise. It testifies to that-which-was.

The point is not that it's functioning differently but that its testimony is false.

An unaltered actual photograph cannot be false in the same way. Within the limits of its capacity, its testimony is completely, utterly, true.

The attentive reader might notice here that I am introducing the idea of index in a way that sidesteps the traditional analysis of that concept (light particles physically induced a blah blah blah therefore it's a direct blah blah index index) in order to include digital imagery or whatever. The point is that the testimony is 100% truthful, within the extremely narrow limits of the medium.

To be clear, I am perfectly aware of the many ways a straight photo can misrepresent reality. My point here is that there is a core of visual facts about which no straight photo lies. It looked like that. That thing was in that visual relationship to that other thing. Those two forms overlapped thus. And so on. It is this core of truth that is the testimony of the photo, no more, but also no less.

It is this core of truth that begins to erode the moment we modify the photo (yes, including burning and dodging, contrast adjustments, etc, so yes the core truth of the testimony begins to erode immediately, I am also aware that digital cameras do image processing, thank you.)

An AI generated "photo" testifies in the same way, but its testimony is a complete fabrication.

A perjurer and a priest testify in exactly the same way. The former, however, lies, and we like to imagine that the latter does not.

What is the value of any testimony? Most photos testify as indicated, but nobody cares. Oh, what a nice bowl of tomatos. The light falls just so. Who gives a shit? The aesthetics might be nice, and maybe you even want to decorate your kitchen with a copy of it. But, it doesn't matter if it's real, photoshop, or AI then. So what if the tomatos never existed? Or did? It simply doesn't matter.

Most real photos testify to facts that almost nobody cares about and that don't matter even slightly, to anyone. If we're talking about aesthetics, and if aesthetics is all we care about, then it doesn't matter how the dumb thing got made. Its nature as a piece of testimony doesn't matter a fig, although the fact that it adheres to a photographic aesthetic may.

That said, most real photos testify to something that someone cares about, at least a little. You and I don't care, but to whomever went to the trouble of hauling out her phone, it matters, at least enough to take a photo. It's trivial, but it's real. The photo testifies, and to the photographer, that is in fact what matters. My kid did a cute thing. What a pretty flower. Look at my latte. AI imagery has no place here.

AI imagery only applies to circumstances where we either don't care about the testimony of the image (i.e. Fine Art and Fucking Around, ok maybe Stock) or in places where we explicitly want false testimony. Everyone is focused on the "where we explicitly want false testimony" case because they're worried about things. Let's look at that in a moment.

The point though is that in almost all uses for photography it is the testimony which matters to whoever is taking the photo, albeit to almost nobody else. Nobody looking at an especially pretty flower wants an AI to make an even prettier one, they want to record the one they're looking at. That's literally the point. It's my flower, my child, my town, whatever. If you just want to make a pretty picture of a flower or a child, you could take up painting, and nobody paints.

Almost all uses for AI image-generators that I observe today consist of fucking around and discovering the limits of AI image-generators. The only use case is to post the result online and say "wow, check out what this AI image generator did." This is already starting to get worn out.

As for the case where someone wants false testimony, well. The trouble with false testimony is that as a rule it doesn't work. Nobody accepts any testimony of any kind by itself. Whether we mean to or not, we place testimony in the context of our own world-view, we place it next to other testimony. Even photos, perhaps especially photos: we don't believe testimony unless it supports a larger, more or less coherent, picture of the world.

The only actual use cases for AI imagery that strike me as having any legs at all are basically variations of I wish I could paint, but I can't which honestly seems a bit thin. Not sure there's a big market here.