Thursday, March 25, 2021

(Pinned Post, See Below for New Content)
  A Policy Note:

I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smokes clears. This is not a judgement about other writers, other sources, there's good information that ought to be shared, there are personal stories that are interesting and compelling.

There's also room for other work, and I intend to pursue that here.

If it looks like I'm going to die, I will try to put a note here so you know to delete your bookmarks.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Shootist and the Editor

I will eventually get around, here, to thinking about how people work on archives of other people's photos, but let me first do a little spade work.

I consider "photography" as a creative activity to take part in two modes, by the action as it were of two different tasks. The first is the shootist, who pushes the shutter button. The task here is, roughly, to reduce the idea-free chaos of the world to a finite set of visual ideas. The second task is that of the editor who begins from the set of ideas and produces a clarified, refined, coherent vision. A completed body of work.

This need not be a fancy fine artist. This could be mom shooting her kid's birthday party. As shootist, mom does not photograph the empty bedroom down the hall, or the clouds in the sky, or the silverware drawer. She shoots the cake, the children playing a game, the presents being opened. She reduces 4 or 5 hours of time in a house and yard to a few dozen frames that are related specifically to the party. Later, she throws out the ones that are out of focus. The experiment with motion blur during the game did not work out. The dozen frames around cake eating all look pretty similar, but there's one that feels a little better than the rest. Mom refines and clarifies the ideas around "birthday party" and reduces the pictures to those that show the birthday party as she wants to show it.

Mom posts 17 pictures to social media. The end. The shootist, and the editor, have both done their work.

Of course the same thing applies to Robert Frank and his Guggenheim journey. Robert Frank, shootist, reduced the infinite depth and texture of America to 28,000 visual ideas. Robert Frank, editor, further reduced and clarified those 28,000 ideas to 83 pictures in a book, a singular idea of dazzling clarity.

Naturally, the two roles, or tasks, are not perfectly distinct. They are not even two sides of the same coin, but perhaps two sides of the same marble. As with "tall" versus "short," where one leaves off and the other begins may not be precisely clear. Nevertheless the two things are different. One could argue also that someone working from, say, Google's Street View is acting in the role of shootist, rather than editor, since the collection of pictures is so vast, and is so devoid of anything resembling an idea.

It's complicated. As we are adults, I think we may continue regardless of the risks.

Consider now the creative who works with an archive of photographs. They could be found photographs. They could be someone's discard pile. They could be someone's entire output. They could be someone's keeper pile.

I am interested here specifically in archives shot with intent, an archive of ideas however half-formed. This excludes Street View, surveillance footage, and so on. Arguably it excludes Winogrand's later work (consider that remark 50% in jest) and, as usual, the lines are not crisply defined. Further, for reasons that will become clear, I exclude collaborations between the archive worker and the shootist.

We're talking about Szarkowsi and Winogrand, Maloof and Maier, Contis and Lange.

We have a pile of visual ideas, made with intent, by a shootist. Our notional creative arrives, in the role of the editor, to do something with the pile.

Because the editor is not the same person as the shootist, the editor's work includes reading the photographs in very much the same as when you and I look at a picture. The editor has no privileged position here with respect to the visual ideas represented by the pictures.

In this case, the editor begins with a loose pile of ideas, and spends time with those loose ideas. The editor then develops a refined, clarified, idea, and selects and assembles photographs to embody that idea (or ideas). The editor's idea might be intended as a new thing entirely, as is often the case with work done with found photos. It might be an attempt to edit "as-if" the editor had been the shootist as well, in which case the editor attempts to locate intention in the pile of work and to refine and clarify that idea.

No matter what the situation, though, there is bound to be some kind of disconnection, a discontinuity. The editor, holding no privileged position with respect to the photographs, cannot and will not read them exactly as the shootist would have. The editor might get close, perhaps being on first base rather than home plate, but cannot expect to take the place of the shootist. We, reading the editor's work equally imprecisely, cannot even expect to be at first base, but will inevitably find ourselves somewhere in the outfield.

There is no particular reason the editor's work cannot be in some meaningful way "good", perhaps even better than what the shootist did or might have done.

What it cannot be is photography in its full flower, in the form of shootist and editor, combined, producing a singular coherent vision start to finish. It contains, inevitably, a discontinuity.

When Sam Contis went to work on Dorothea Lange's castoffs, she found something new (a simulacrum of Sam Contis) and ran with it. Her book is, arguably, pretty good. More to the point, there's no essential, structural, reason it can't be superb. What it is not, however, is Dorothea Lange's work.

Let us take a moment to follow a detour. If the editor and the shootist are two different people working in collaboration, the situation is different. With the shootist, the original idea-finder, in the loop the whole thing changes. At least in theory the editor can work as an editor, and then check in with the shootist. Whatever alchemy and inexpressible ideas the shootist may have had can be brought to bear, can be embodied in the final outcome. So, the situation I am really interested in here postulates a shootist making photographic ideas with intent, and an editor — not in communication with the shootist — performing the task of editor.

My goal here, though, is to work out what a critic ought to do with one of these things.

The critic can, first of all, seek to get their arms around the original archive. What can be learned of the original pile of visual ideas? Can one examine the archive itself? Are there other publications shedding light on parts of it? Can we, perhaps, make sense of the underlying archive by close examination of the work the editor has published?

Second, the critic can attempt to discern the seam, the discontinuity, which inheres in the situation. Where does the shootist leave off, and the editor begin?

Third, of course, the critic can examine the work itself to see what can be seen.

It may occur to you, if you've been paying attention, that one can do this with the work of a single creative worker as well. There isn't the same kind of discontinuity, but still you can look at the raw pile of pictures and attempt to trace the ideas as they are refined and finally delivered in some form. This is not untrue. It's a kind of standard deep-dive form of criticism, I think, albeit a bit old school.

The single-person photographer is in some ways lot more opaque. When shootist and editor are one, the artistic process is more or less hermetically sealed. Nobody really knows what the hell is going on in there except, maybe, the artist. When the editor is separate, however, the gap creates an opportunity.

No more must we cope with the potentially irrational, potentially incomprehensible interior processes of a brain. The editor simply sat down with the photos and looked at them, just as we might have. The process is brought firmly to earth here. You and I could just as well have looked at those same pictures, have read them, and created something or other from our second-hand understanding of the visual ideas we're examining.

The editor, reading the original ideas, internalizes them and makes something that is essentially new from them. Whether the editor is attempting to paint a new painting based on a sketch, or whether the editor is simply using the notes as inspiration for something intentionally different, it hardly matters. The result is new. It might be an attempt to copy the original ideas, a sort of painting of a painting; or it might be by intention an entirely new thing.

At this point I feel comfortable asserting baldly that this kind of thing is inherently different from photography as we know and understand it. The discontinuity inherent in the thing renders it so. The two minds at work, not entirely (or perhaps not even slightly) in concert makes it so. It is something different.

I feel comfortable also in asserting baldly that the thing is difficult to get hold of. The discontinuity is potentially an opportunity, but also a difficulty. It is usually buried, sometimes on purpose. The editor, invariably, seeks to make something coherent and meaningful, and will consciously or unconsciously attempt to erase any latent attempt by the shootist to assert anything that would disturb that vision of the work. The photographs are bent, invariably, to a task for which they are not entirely (or not at all) suited.

The abilities of the two players, the supplier of raw material, the editor, are rarely in sync. The result seems more likely correlate with the smaller talent than the larger, where there is a difference. The best one can reasonably hope for is some sort of lowest common denominator. The worst is an incoherent mess, the discontinuity embarrassingly visible.

Mostly, of course, these things are an attempt at cashing in. Maloof has done rather well for himself making a mess of the nanny's pile of stuff. Sam Contis didn't sell many copies of her first book Deep Springs, but when she made a fair copy of it using Dorothea Lange's photos, she got a writeup in the Wall Street Journal (and loads of other press as well, I dare say the book is doing extremely well as these things go.) Szarkowski mainly embarrassed himself with Winogrand's archive, but I think they probably sold some books there as well and of course Winogrand remains something of an industry cash cow to the present day.

To an extent it's just the way Art is made. It's a sausage factory, and looking too closely at what goes in is generally going to turn the stomach. It's also rich, albeit messy, ground for the working critic!

I know I have turned it in to a great success.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Something About Archives

I am not dead. I am on holiday and thinking very hard about people who edit other people's archives. Hope to have something in a few days

Hope everyone is enjoying their summer. Or winter, I guess.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Looking for Readers

I have been humbled by the response here. Thank you, everyone. I do not require further readers, but if you are interested I will happily send you a copy anyways.

I have this goddamned manuscript, about 14,000 words (a little shy of 40 pages) of shit on "how we construct meaning when we look at pictures" which longish time readers will have seen before. This is more or less a single extended argument with a beginning, middle, end, all that business. More structured, more carefully copy edited, and I think it might be more readable than my usual blog posts (albeit considerable longer).

It is the worst possible length. Too long for a journal article, and too short for a book. But there it is, that's how long my brain is.

If you'd like to volunteer to give it a read-over, I can send you a PDF. Typos, clumsy phrasing, this makes no goddamned sense, this is a terrible idea all gratefully received.

Also the phone number and extension of any publishers you thing might take a flutter on the next Camera Lucida.

Drop me an email if you're interested. amolitor@molitor-design.com

Friday, July 31, 2020

A Plague of Critics

As I have remarked in the past, I consider the job of the critic to offer a nuanced, layered, view of the object under criticism. We should learn something of how the thing touches us collectively, what variety of ways it might naturally be understood by people, and so on. What we get from the likes of Colberg, Shaw, Mason, and others is not that but rather just more personal readings. The photo takes me this way, and there we have it.

When the chips are down, at least sometimes the critic will defend their personal position as in fact the only legitimate one, all others are deeply problematic. The chips are not usually down because, usually, nobody reads these guys. This kind of criticism is 99% output only. Still, the bad habits they develop writing things nobody reads carry through to those rare times the larger world tunes in.

The conceit is that because they are educated (i.e. have been hanging around art schools and reading the wikipedia entry on "male gaze" for a few years) is more valuable and correct than that of some ordinary bloke's silly ideas. This is, it turns out, exactly wrong.

Critical theories arise from time to time. Properly understood, they should be considered as additive. A new theory, usually, should add nuance and layers to previous understandings. When postmodernism considered the idea that the author's intention should not be considered, the proper way to use that idea would have been to add it to the idea that the author's intention does matter. The result should have been that we should consider the author, but also the text separate from the author. Both/and.

What actually happened, at least in the hands of the ham-fisted, was that the author got thrown out. The new theory replaced the old, rather than adding to it.

In the same way we see singular theories from media studies being used as the lone basis for these so-called critic's personal takes.

Representation and gaze, those modern theories from the 1970s, are essentially the entire basis upon which Colberg and his equivalents view media. There isn't anything else.

Thus, their personal takes are not merely as narrow and singular as any other personal take, they are peculiarly narrow, singular, and above all idiosyncratic. Their criticism often makes no sense whatsoever from the point of view of anyone not steeped in 1970s era media studies.

Their takes, far from being broad, nuanced, layered, are singularly and peculiarly irrelevant and wrong in terms of making any kind of larger sense of a photograph or other media.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Disagreement

Photography is, maybe, unique in that one can reasonably disagree with the author on what a piece means. That is, without deploying the unusual methods of literary criticism or something similarly antic.

If I write on a piece of paper my dog is happy the meaning of that piece of paper is pretty clear. A po-mo lit-crit aficionado might remark that, by pointing to the dog's happiness, I allow the possibility of the dog's sadness and that therefore encoded in my piece of paper is the dog's sadness as well. Which, well, ok then. Normal people will agree with me on what it means, most of the time, though. Note that the dog's actual joy is not relevant here. Perhaps I don't even have a dog. The point is the meaning of the text on the paper.

If I make a painting of my dog, larded up with cues as to the dog's joy, and maybe even title it my dog is happy then again the meaning is clear. You might remark that the body language of the dog in my painting is not consistent with joy, but that just makes it a bad painting (maybe). The meaning of it is still clear, it is an assertion about my dog's happiness, and there isn't much room for disagreement. The meaning of the painting is unambiguous, and disagreeing with me, the author, on what it means is going to be a bit dicey.

Now let us say I photograph my dog, again larded up with the tells of canine joy. The ball in flight, the bounding animal, whatever. Perhaps I entitle it, again, my dog is happy. Whatever is necessary for you to imagine that my intention is clear, imagine it.

This thing, you can trivially disagree with without any lit-crit shenanigans.

If the dog's body language indicates that it is anxious rather than happy, there it is. You can point to that, and say "no, the meaning of this picture is not that the dog is happy, but that it is anxious, you have misread the dog."

Again, it's still not the actual joy of the dog we're interested in here, it's what the meaning of the piece it. The picture's meaning is, as we see it, contrary to the author's intention.

What drives this, obviously, is that the dog's actual condition is (or at least might be) robustly encoded in the picture. It's right there, you can see the dog's state of mind in the set of its ears, its jaw, its tail, whatever your book on dog body language says.

The distinction here, as I see it, is that when I make a painting or write some words, every smear of paint and every letter on the page is laundered through my psyche. I might lie to you about my intent, I might be unconscious of my intent, you might misread my intent. But my intention informs every infinitesimal blotch in the thing. A photograph, on the other hand, is not made but selected, generally from reality. My intention informs only the rough form of the thing, my intention informs the moment and the angle, a few other parameters, but in the end the real world remains traced there in the picture.

The author is not really in control of the meaning of a photograph. Meaning arises both from the real world shown in the frame, from the viewer's perception of the real world, and often only in third place, the author's intention.

One of the virtues of the book form, surely, is that there are more places for the author to stick their oar in and control what the hell is going on.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Crit: London by Gian Butturini

Let us begin with what we can determine of the facts.

In the summer of 1968 (probably) Gian Butturini, an Italian graphic designer went to London on business, and took a lot pf pictures of London with some small camera. His pictures were, where we can identify or guess locations, all taken very close together. Regent's Park, Hyde Park, Carnaby, Earl's Court, Portobello Road, Piccadilly Circus. All these locations are located within a circle not more than 2-3 miles across. I don't know if this counts as "London" or not.

The London Street Commune as a historical event was happening then. Butturini has a photo of the sign for Pronto Cafe, the epicenter of the thing, according to some accounts. It seems likely that the Street Commune was a source of much of his material. If not actual members of the Commune (insofar as that even means anything) then the events in which the Commune was admixed.

Accordingly, the breadth of humanity we see portrayed is, well, substantial. There are a lot of black people, white people, poor people, less poor people, hippies, squares, young people fashionable and not in a variety of ways,and a couple of guys who look like Jesus (European standard version.) We see a surprising number of indications of theater in the backgrounds, but I think this largely occurred in a theater district? The book is very much of a specific place, which may or may not arguably be "London" and an even more specific time.

The photographs are uniformly blurry and what purists would consider to be remarkably badly printed. There's a ton of grain, and everything looks push processed to hell and back. Contrast varies from "very high" to "off the charts", figures are often rendered as silhouettes (sometimes, apparently, with a certain amount of post-processing effort). The whole thing has a very graphical feel, it all looks like poor newspaper prints which feels very weird given the nearly sumptuous physical production of the book.

Interleaved with his often nearly two-tone prints, Butturini stuffs in graphical bits and pieces. Pure black and white design notes, no greys. Some of the prints are intended to look "torn" although you can tell the "ripped edge" is simply drawn in. Other figures are cut out and dropped onto a plain white background. A few of the prints might even be collage, or possibly just a strangely busy background with, maybe, a poster behind the subject. The flavor is very low-fi, very zine-like, very collage-like. I think this works rather well with the overall beat sensibility of the thing, but the total effect is not something a purist will like one bit.

There is text, rendered very stylized, in that zone between text and design: an excerpt from a poem, and the Italian text of Luke 3:23-35 rendered in a pseudo-calligraphic font on a "torn" page opposite a photograph of a guy who looks like Jesus descending a staircase.

Butturini is fond of the jarring juxtaposition. You may, or may not, recall the two page spread which has caused Martin Parr a little trouble: a black woman in a booth, a ticket inspector for the Underground, appears opposite a photograph of the Regent's Park gorilla in his cage. This caused a extraordinarily small amount of extraordinarily loud of outrage. The photograph of the gap-toothed old man with the Israeli flag (a Jew?) pinned to his front, opposite a graphic of barbed wire, and one page prior to the young boy with the Nazi pin (eagle and swastika) doesn't seem to have raised any eyebrows.

The photograph of two young women waiting for a train, the black one reading a book and the white one smoking a cigarette and holding her purse protectively, caused no fuss. Even the fashionable young man on the opposite page, "looking" bemusedly at the women was unable to arouse any outrage here in the year of plague, 2020.

Butturini places a photo of a young man with a needle, opposite a pure black page with a single "rip" of white down the center like a bolt of lightning.

Butturini refers in his opening essay to a few controversial pairings, the occasional ironic emphasis, a touch of pity, an almost restrained smile. He declines to tell us what it means, and insists that it's up to us.

Butturini is not an idiot, he knows what he is about. You can see the fingerprints of his design credentials throughout, nothing is accidental. This is, to my eye, an excellent example of what sequencing can bring to the table. He has, ultimately, a bunch of really crappy photos, printed very poorly, and he makes this thing out of them.

Mixed in there, we see some harbingers of "street" tropes we are now very tired of. Juxtapositions of the poor and the advertising. The homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk. An old and very ragged man stands on the curb; in front of him painted on the street, the word LOOK. How very clever.

There is one photograph which reveals something of what Butturini was aiming for.



If that's not a direct quote of Robert Frank's photo:



... then I don't know my business. Butturini clearly knows The Americans and had ambitions in the same direction.

Is it good? Fuck if I know. It's very idiocyncratic, and it's very... rich? Yes, let's go with rich. There's a lot of material in it that seems to mean something, but what, who knows. The Jew is placed next to barbed wire. I get the reference, but what are you trying to say? The Jew is placed one page before the Nazi, and again, I get the reference, but what does it mean? The black ticket collector in a box is placed next to the gorilla in a box, and it seems impossible that this isn't on purpose, but again, what does it mean?

There are plenty of people out there who are certain it means to assert "black people are apes" but those people are blockheads. It doesn't mean that any more than Butturini means to assert "Jews belong behind barbed wire" or "Nazis are soft-faced little boys." Butturini is being deliberately obscure, and it seems unlikely in any case that he thought any of these things were true. Indeed, in his own opening essay he writes:

The blacks are sad. The blacks are good. The blacks are dignified. I was photographing them in Portobello Road, but they forced me to flee.

At Speaker's Corner, however, I was able to photograph them. On Sundays, they crowd around a box to listen to one of them give them a sweet fairy tale about freedom of equality of racial integration.

Make of that what you will. Butturini seems very black-positive, but not optimistic, and he says "Them" rather a lot. It's certainly not a clear statement of anything, but I have a hard time reconciling it with "black people are apes."

The book is highly political, there's a lot of political content and to my eye the left/protest/hippy/poor position is given a sympathetic eye. This is consistent with the essay from Butturini himself, however obscure it is, with his selection of an excerpt from Ginsburg's "Europe! Europe!" near the beginning as a textual element, and with the essay by Luciano Mondini, a friend, introducing the photographer.

We may take it as given, I think, that Butturini was, like the text you are reading, left aligned. In the 1960s what would this have meant? Likely it means, and again we see this in his own words, he would have seen black people, as well as Jews, the poor, and so on, as a distinct Them, to be respected, loved, supported, lifted up, but nevertheless definitely Not Us. In modern terms we identify this attitude as racist, sexist, classist, and anti-Semitic. These are the attitudes that lead us out of the frying pan of personal isms to the fire of systemic isms. In 1968-69 it was, however, pretty much the standard radical-left position.

Here I enter the land of speculation. Butturini was a leftist, distinctly so, as anti-racist, as feminist, as anti-classist as any leftist weirdo who happened to be white and affluent could be in 1968. He wasn't really optimistic, he didn't see the world becoming a fair and beautiful place by 1970. But then, nobody who wasn't incredibly high was particularly optimistic.

1968 was the summer of love, but also of darkness and fear. Harold Wilson (Labour), so famed that his wikipedia entry has 90 words 18 of which are his name, styles, and dates, was the Prime Minister of the UK. Labour was about to lose Parliament, Margaret Thatcher was about to begin her campaign of terrible ideas from a seat in Cabinet. Lyndon Johnson was merrily pursuing the shit out of the Vietnam War, and Nixon was about to replace him. Nuclear Armageddon seemed around the corner.

Note: the very short wikipedia article I report for Harold Wilson seems to have been an error, whether on the part of wikipedia or me I cannot say. You may make your own judgments, of course. Wilson's article is appropriately lengthy now.

Butturini, to my eye, reflects this precise gestalt of idea and attitude. I recognize him as, more or less, my parents. Good, earnest lefties who didn't actually know many black people and who were honestly a little bit uncomfortable with anyone who wasn't white. This particular leftist made a book aiming at a Robert Frank meets a graphical underground-newspaper sensibility, together with a healthy dose of leftism mixed with hardheaded realism. He hit it, I think, and we can see his bootprints on it clearly. What is unclear is whether it was a good idea or not.

I do not think it has worn particularly well: it's dated in its attitude, its styling, its politics in ways that Robert Frank's book isn't.

--

By way of a sort of coda, I think it is notable that the voices shouting at Martin Parr to apologize for his role in republishing this "extremely racist book" seem to have never mentioned the opening essay by Butturini. This essay explicitly references the photos in the spread they find problematic, the ticket collector and the gorilla:

I did photograph a black woman, locked in a transparent cage; she was selling tickets for the Underground; just a listless prisoner, in immobile island outside time in the midst of waves of humanity flowing by and mixing and then splitting aside around her prison of ice and solitude.

[...]

I did photograph the Regent's Park gorilla, which with imperial dignity receives the witticisms and peel thrown at it by its nephews in ties.

These are the only two photographs specifically mentioned in the essay (there is a remark which may or may not specifically call out the young man with the needle.) That Paul Halliday and Ben Chesterton, both of whom have the book, neglected to mention these remarks is interesting. This also casts Parr's insinuation that he didn't notice the spread in a dubious light. What is perhaps most clear is that Parr, Chesterton, and Halliday, are all disingenuous pricks.

By all means, cancel Parr. But why not cancel the lot of them?