Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Monument and the Thing Itself

Guy Tal is a fellow who angers me every single time I read his blog. I think you should probably take that as an endorsement, though. He's tackling the Big Issues all the time, and I am pretty sure that I find him irritating because he's not me.

Anyways, he's got a piece up recently (which, incredibly, turned up on PetaPixel, a place not exactly famed for publishing think pieces). He's trying to apply Russell to an idea of photography. Now, as I noted in a comment over there, you gotta be careful with Russell. His philosophy was kind of self serving.

I could (and in earlier drafts of this remark, did) have some fun disintegrating Guy's arguments, but really, it's just a guy noodling out loud so doing that is wildly unfair.

However, there's one thing worth calling out specifically.

Guy notes that as time unfolds all is washed away. Nothing is permanent, nothing will remain eternally. Like many people, he feels that this creates a problem with doing things of value, and falls in to a version of the nihilism/hedonism trap. He thereby betrays that he is confusing the thing itself with the monument.

If someone performs an act of great heroism, and a statue commemorating that event is duly erected, where does the value lie? Is it in the monument, or in the act itself? If the monument is washed away, does the value of that act of heroism dimimish?

It does not, and only a fool would imagine it. It follows, inexorably, that the ultimate dissolution of the universe cannot have any effect on the value of what we do, or do not, do. If we make Art, if we make a child laugh, if we scratch a dog's ear, these acts will have value per the socially constructed value system (and there is nothing else, unless you defer all to God or similar, and you will tend to find that God's Objective Will often bears a startling resemblance to the constructed social system).

That value occurred, and it was real. When the dog dies, when the child forgets, when the Art vanishes in the heat death of the universe, the original value will still have been. Despite Guy's efforts, the fact that all things will pass is irrelevant to whether you take pictures strictly for yourself, or for others.

The argument I have made, and which I stand behind still, for making pictures for yourself is that nothing else works.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Words Matter

As most of my readers ought to know by now, Ctein and Mike Johnston have had a falling out over, proximately, whether or not we should have a different word for photographs which have been, to some unspecified degree, modified from the original scene. This dirty laundry isn't my concern, although I found the episode to be mildly tragic and I wish it hadn't happened.

I want to think about whether Mike's right, and why we might need such vocabulary now. It seems, on the face of it, that perhaps we've been getting along just fine for 160 years or so, so why now?

Here's a thumbnail of the relevant history, told through the lens of my ignorance and opinion. Don't quote me on any of this, although of course I will try to be as accurate as possible.

For roughly the first 40 or 50 years or so of photography, people are largely thinking of this new thing as a kind of painting. It's a way of making a really accurate (in some senses) painting without having to learn all that business about brushes and mixing colors and whatnot, although there is a whole host of other things you might learn. While there is a certain amount of railing against people who are "merely lousy painters" and so on, this is pretty much what people think. You might even mention the zeitgeist here.

Somewhere in there we have Emerson (and probably others who have not benefited from Newhall's PR campaign) trying, kind of, to invent straight photography. He's against manipulation, but he still thinks he's making paintings of a sort. He's making Art, Impressionistic Art at that.

So throughout that time, manipulation is more or less baked in. With orthochromatic emulsions you have to paste in the sky anyways, always. One of the mainstream approaches is to composite multiple negatives together for everything (pace Emerson) and we're about to roll forward into the "Camera Work" era of hand work in a big way. It's "painting for dummies" and the idea of the photograph as indexical has not really been born yet, although there are glimmers in Emerson's thundering rebuttals of Robinson.

Then we have "Camera Work", gum bichromate, hand work. Art Photography is if anything more wildly manipulated, and it's still simply baked in as part of the normal process. Also, in 1888, we have Kodak introducing their camera for the people. 100 exposures, send the film away to be developed and printed. The snapshot is born.

We start, I think, to see a split in the zeitgeist at this point. On the Art side manipulation is part of the process. These people are still "painters" and nobody expects their photos to be indexical. In fact, it's somewhere about this time that the idea of "indexical" is invented but it naturally remains the province of eggheads and wonks for some time before leaking out, in some form or another, to meet a similar idea held by the masses.

The Kodak camera, I feel, cannot help but have launched this idea in the minds of the public. They begin to take snapshots, and surely the idea that a photograph is a record of what truly was begins to rise to consciousness, more or less broadly.

We're somewhere around 1900 when I think these ideas really begin to take root, the idea that a photograph can be something with an inherent truthiness built in to it; the photo is a new thing, an objective visual record which has its own distinct and unique value.

Next up, a few decades later, we see Straight Photography rise up and dominate, the idea of indexicality is quickly central. It is, allegedly, absolutely vital to a photograph. While Straight Photography was more of an idea than an actual practice, it was the important idea of the era. Photography in America converges largely around this business, and manipulation is shunned. I think that in Europe we still see a lot of manipulation, but it tends to be quite obvious. Multiple exposures and so on. Man Ray is running around at this point, and so on. Adams famously thunders extensively at Mortensen.

For most of the 20th century, it seems to me, one could make Obvious Art photographs with heavy manipulation, compositing, multiple exposures and so on, and not be too deeply sneered at. At least in the USA the high ground was, and would remain for some time, straight photography. No removing telephone wires, and so on. In between, one could make photo-realistic manipulations, but one was a dirty animal and when caught you'd be roundly abused.

Furthermore, while one certainly could make photo-realistic manipulations, most practitioners lacked the skills and anyways it was a huge pain in the ass even if you knew how. While people could and did do all sorts of things in the wet photography era, it was rare, and it simply wasn't the sort of thing decent people did. Stalin did it, for god's sake, we don't.

Enter digital.

Abruptly the entire spectrum of manipulation possibility fills in and becomes equally easy, almost trivial. Anyone can remove the telephone wires, move the lamppost, delete three men in a rickshaw. Anyone. Whatever you fancy might "improve the composition" is trivial. Ideas shift, with dizzying rapidity, to "and if you think it will make it better, you should go ahead and do it." Photojournalists are supposedly the last bastion of straight photography, but everyone knows that even that is a farce.

No longer do we have a clear visual and social distinction between "manipulated, probably Art" and "straight photography".

I think this argues strongly for a need -- a new need, here and now -- for artists and viewers to have vocabulary to talk about these things. While none of these things are new, as such, the social context in which they occur and the frequency with which they occur, mean that, arguably, we can no longer get along with a few assumptions and, as necessary, talking around the issues.

Are "photoart" and "photograph" the right words? I dunno. I don't care, and most importantly, I don't get to decide. Terms will arise if they are truly needed. We could simply use "photograph" and "straight photograph", borrowing some more or less appropriate terms from the past. This has the advantage that "straight" naturally permits a usage implying a degree of straightness.

This photo is straight
This photo is mostly straight, it's pretty much straight. I just erased a wire in the corner.
This photo isn't really straight, I moved a bunch of stuff.

I dunno. Like I say, I don't get to decide. We're probably all going to walk off cliffs and die trying to catch imaginary monsters in our phones anyways.

That said, Ctein is also right. Once you create these categories, people will line up in one camp or another and start hating on the other guys. However, note that we already have that, we just don't have the words for the categories, and also, so what? Welcome to humanity. Trying to force everyone to get along by controlling language is just silly. The Whorf-Sapir hypothesis isn't completely wrong, but that doesn't mean that you can actually force people to get along by forcing them to use the same words for everything.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


My earlier post about copying deserves a little clarification. I wrapped up with a "be judicious" throwaway remark. Not that what follows is necessarily clarifying, but it unpacks things a bit, I hope, and perhaps provides some food for thought.

I think that what this really means is that you should automate and hide whatever makes sense for your work. That means that you need to know what your work is about, in this moment, and really think about what you should and should not tuck in to an action, a macro, a preset. Since your concepts can change, you probably need to try to retain some notion of what you're automating. Perhaps review your actions, presets, macros, at the beginning of every new project just to refresh your mind about what your fingers have learned to do automatically.

An example.

I could, without much effort, develop a collection of methods for producing a convincing Wet Plate look to a digital photograph. I could crank out beautiful fake ambrotypes all day long with it.

But there's absolutely no way I could reproduce the glorious disasters that fill the pages of Sally Mann's What Remains. This book delights me despite being remarkably hard material to look at because of these disasters, and also the little note on the back talking about "technical brilliance." On the one hand, sure, Mann is excellent at a lot of stuff and it a fully competent technician etc and so on; but on the other hand this book is entirely made of up beautiful examples of the infinitude of horrible ways wet plate can go wrong. In the movie of the same name, she mentions (probably somewhat tongue in cheek, to be sure) that she lives in fear of mastering the wet plate process, because so much would be lost.

Make no mistake, I love the book (duh, insert girlish squeal).

Of course there's a reductio argument here if you're not careful, and you wind up having to manually adjust every pixel by hand, and that's just silly.

But somewhere in there, there's a degree of automation that makes sense.

Over at LuLa there's a tempest in a teapot. Apparently Adobe managed to break hyper-accurate printing in the most recent editions of their software on Macs. Mostly, the differences manifest when you print out a test chart, and then measure it, because the differences are, in most cases, quite near the edge of visibility. Obviously this is a problem for a few people, but for most of us, eh, whatever.

But it illustrates clearly what a certain class of people doing color printing are up to. They've got a bunch of technology in play to make the printing process automatically hyper accurate. Most of the people who are calling for Adobe to abase themselves and Fix This Instantly are not, I will warrant, people with any particular external need for hyper-accurate color, they're just convinced that their boring landscapes will be ruined if the blues are a trifle off.

An aside. Mark Segal wrote a piece up on this TECHNOLOGICAL CATASTROPHE in which he provides test swatches illustrating correct color and wrong color. I read the piece first on my phone and there was literally no difference between correct/wrong visible. Now on a different screen, there's a difference visible in the blues, but not in the greens. Not sure what the hell Mark was thinking attempting to illustrate these differences with a JPEG on the web.

Those of us with wet darkroom experience surely all recall that time when we botched up the timer, dropped something, mishandled something, and got a print that was not at all what we had in mind but which pointed the way. Oh my god, we'd say, that's why it was looking insipid. I need to print the whole damn thing way darker. How could I have not see it?

With properly functioning color management that will literally never happen. It can't. The purpose of color management is, literally, to prevent that from happening. Digital technology enables, encourages, methods of ensuring repeatability. It encourages us to convert the entire process of Art Making into a sort of assembly line. It, essentially, leaves you all alone in the process of Art Making. You have to make all the choices yourself, you have to know a priori what you're trying to do. A proper muse knows when to knock over a paint pot. A proper artist should know this, and not nail the paint pots to the bench. Too many paint pots too firmly fixed and, I claim, the muse simply leaves in a huff. Figure it out yourself, asshat, she says, and like mist she is gone.

Automate what seems right to you, but from time to time, throw it all out and start anew. Give your muse a little room to work.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Copying in the Digital Age

Copying other people's work has long been an accepted pedagogical technique. Painting students spend days in the museum, sketching away. Mathematicians in training work through the (difficult) classical proofs of important or interesting theorems. Writers write "in the style of" pieces.

The digital era, by making copying so easy, would seem at first glance to be a wonderous new era. Except that it's not.

The point of copying is to, by laboriously duplicating the steps used by the master, to train oneself in the same methods. It works well for painting, by repeating the brushwork of the masters, we learn something of brushwork. It works well for analog photography, by repeating the motions of burning and dodging, we learn something of burning and dodging. It works for mathematicians, by recapitulating the thought processes of the genius, we learn something of genius.

All of these things boil down to building a foundation of specifics from which we may and do generalize. We practice writing Dickensian description, and learn something more general about descriptive writing, something we can apply without being overtly Dickensian. We generalize to a collection of ways one might insert an adjectival phrase. We tweak and twist Dickens. We do the opposite.

In the darkroom, we experience serendipity. Practicing Adams' methods, we forget to set the timer, and in the ensuing disaster, we might learn something interesting. Indeed, my experience is that we're practically certain to.

Human laziness conspires against us. We would like to skip to the good part, to encapsulate the copying process neatly away, get through it in a few minutes, and somehow still gain the knowledge, which is impossible. It is only through the struggle, the boring tedium of copying, that we actually learn. Digital technologies are wonderful at eliminating this part!

Fast forward to now, get specific about photography.

Photography writing is 99% copied. People writing how-to guides simply crib the content from elsewhere, and often don't even understand the technique they're talking about. Missy Mwac and her ilk simply copy gripes from internet forums and expand them with boilerplate "humor". Even what passes for "serious" writing is, mostly, just lifted from elsewhere and slightly tweaked. The present blog, of course, is nothing but brilliance and original thought, though. Cut&Paste, Google, the haste to write something, and the desire for clicks have pretty much sucked the thought out of writing.

The pictures are also 99% copied. One of the most common themes in internet forums is "how does so and so get this look" (hint, it's always raising the black point until the picture looks all misty, or at any rate that's the answer you're going to get even if it's wrong). This is not in and of itself a bad thing, this is, sort of, how we learn. The trouble is that as soon as you see how to do the thing with the tone curve, then you save it as a preset, or make an action, and the knowledge vanishes.

The allegedly experienced photographers (Joined in March 1887, 120812981983 posts) all too often make it clear that they cannot look at a picture and simply see, in general terms, what's been done to saturation, hue, and the tone curve. Often, they can't see where the lights were placed with any reliability. They can't really guess very well at focal lengths, and most of them still get pretty muddled when you start talking about focal lengths relative to format. This should be basic stuff. I can do it, and I'm just some jerk on the internet. These guys may have been shooting forever, but they don't know anything about photography. A lot of that, I believe, has to do with the fact that they've mostly been copying ideas and methods in this modern digital era.

And that is the basic problem with copying in the digital world. It's so easy to make that tedious drudgery vanish, so people do. But the tedious drudgery is the point. Without the tedious drudgery, you're not learning anything.

It is as if a violinist who wanted to learn a technique of Itzhak Perlman were to simply buy a CD of the man's music and simply listen to it over and over. You're never going to learn anything unless you pick up your own violin and start sawing away on it.

So the takeaway. If you want to produce a specific effect by performing a specific well-understood manipulation in a Curves Tool, go do that manipulation by hand, every time. Don't convert it to an action. Don't use a preset. Go do it, by hand, every time. That way you'll never forget what it's actually doing, and you open the door to serendipity.

Generalize and apply, judiciously, the previous paragraph as necessary.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Intellectual Property Rights

Here's an amusing thing.

Missy Mwac, who is a boring idiot who fancies herself terribly funny, got another snotty piece placed on PetaPixel, this one about stealing photos. The money quote, for our purposes, is:

Take a look at the image.
Ask yourself, “Did I take this?”
If the answer is yes, do whatever you’d like with it.
If the answer is no, walk away…
It doesn’t freakin’ belong to you.

Because I am an unpleasant person, and because I know hipster shitheads like this all too well, I peeked directly at her blog. Lookee here, posted on June 8, we find this post. Which includes this picture:

Wow. Missy Mwac, snotty hipster, shoots The Walking Dead? Or, maybe, she actually neither took that picture nor walked away. Indeed, her web site is littered with stolen pictures, but since they're all used ironically, I guess it's OK. Or maybe it's OK because someone else stole the pictures first?


I've talked at some length about how screwed up the intellectual property rights around photography are. Here, for instance, and here.

Be that as it may, photographers seem to be almost universally in favor of strong intellectual property rights for photographs, rights which favor the photographer very very strongly, and that is indeed the current state of the law. These same photographers, often, will happily steal photos for meme purposes, or other "ironic" uses. Many of them probably download movies or music to which they actually have very little right under the law. Some of them probably use cracked copies of Photoshop. But steal someone's boring sunset photo, and feel my wrath! I saw this in the software industry as well, people who literally create intellectual property for a living would routinely steal other kinds of intellectual property.

People are hypocrites. Surprise!

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Plastic Zeitgeist

I mean here, "plastic" in the sense of easily shaped or molded, malleable.

Zeitgeist is, of course, plastic. It's baked right in to what it is. The point is that it changes, really. Still, the internet has granted us some new avenues, some new, speedier, ways that it can be changed. XKCD had a comic that's related. Anyways.

Whatever the actual position of Marc Riboud's picture in the zeitgeist of the western world was prior to about July 10th of this year, it now occupies a different one, as does Bernie Boston's picture. At least one commentator has definitely mistaken one for the other, I suspect others of the same mistake, and I certainly don't monitor the entire internet. Statistically, this is an error that is happening a substantial number of times. Boston's picture, despite its substantially greater historical impact (I've spent some time poking in to this), is being replaced in the zeitgeist by Riboud's.

Let me spin out an imaginary scenario. Some 20-something wannabee critic needs to cite "that one picture of the Japanese girl in her bath after some industrial accident" and does a google search. Due to some accident of his search some hypothetical minor picture by Eisie turns up. Perhaps our wannabee happens to be physically located close to the location Eisie shot his photo. Google moves in mysterious ways. The photographer is, in the wannabee's mind, close enough to Smith to fit, the picture is perhaps of some little boy injured in some accident with industrial machinery. It too is a bit dark. Wannabee has his citation, cites it, and maybe even appends a "heh heh, I originally misremembered this as a Japanese girl!"

Now the circle is complete. Subsequent vaguely phrased searches for Tomoko will turn up this other picture. Gradually, or perhaps quickly, Smith's photo will be eclipsed in the zeitgeist, a new zeitgeist emerges in which a formerly minor photo of Eisie's replaces the significant photo by Smith.

Since this isn't History with a capital aitch, there's nothing really concrete here to be fact-checked, it's not correctable. All these guys citing Riboud don't actually care which photo they cite, they just want something, anything, kind of appropriate in order to give a gloss of scholarship to their piece. Riboud's picture serves as well as any. It may or may not be the one they meant.

So what? What's lost? Well, in my imaginary scenario the photograph that actually was the tip of the spear, the photograph that did indeed change the world and save lives, gets pushed into the history books and out of the zeitgeist. The common perception is, perhaps, the vague notion that the minor picture was the one that changed the world. A little bit of truth is lost from the common knowledge. Not that the common knowledge is exactly rife with strictly accurate facts now, of course.

Add a lot of these things together, and perhaps we replace truth with error at a faster pace. Perhaps the zeitgeist becomes more and more a pastiche of made up facts, mis-remembered facts, and simple nonsense. Maybe not. Maybe it doesn't matter either way.

Mostly it just irritates me to see people botching stuff like this up, being sloppy and then enthusiastically copying one another's sloppy work.

zeitgeist, zeitgeist, zeitgeist. I love this word.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Another amusing item coming out of this recent picture is that people are apparently misremembering their icons. I am nearly certain that these young media guys flogging the THIS IS THE ICONIC PICTURE OF #BLM!!!11!!1!! narrative are vaguely remembering this picture by Bernie Boston:

And lazily googling around a bit until they come up with this picture from Marc Riboud:

And now that enough of them have done this, the circle is complete. The latter picture, which I have I am pretty sure never seen or heard of, and which these people most likely also never have, is supposedly the "iconic" one, rather than the first one, which is probably the one they actually sort of half recall, and which is (or at any rate was) most definitely iconic.

Lewis Bush over at Disphotic most definitely makes this error, pointing us to a youtube video of some sequence from a contemporary movie which is clearly a quote not of the Riboud picture but of the Boston picture (but he identifies it as a quote of Riboud). Even better, if you poke around you come across at least one still from the movie offered up as comparisons with the new photo from Baton Rouge. Again, I think people are half-recalling Bernie Boston's picture, lazily googling around, and coming up with another wrong picture.

Of course, now that the careless twenty-somethings running the asylum have declared the Riboud picture the "iconic" one, it actually is.

Not sure what to make of this, but this kind of sloppy visual memory coupled with modern web search seems to be doing something to our visual culture. It's making it, I suppose, somehow more plastic, more changeable. We are actually watching one photograph's position in the zeitgeist get replaced by another one, or by several. That's interesting. I may have more to say about this, anon.