Wednesday, June 26, 2019

This is Steve



This is Steve. Steve is a friend of mine, within a somewhat limited definition of that term.

When I took this picture, Steve was sitting at the end of the offramp from I-5 into Bellingham, holding a sign, panhandling. It's what he does. When he gets enough money for beer, he gets up and goes to buy beer.

To take this picture, I sat down with Steve, and asked if I could, and he said I could. He was a little drunk, but not as bad as he sometimes is. Slightly past lucid. He admired my wedding band (plain gold, the ring my father married my mother with) and showed me his wedding "ring" which is a tattoo on his wrist. It's mostly a scar now, he burned it off with matches (he told me) after the marriage broke up. There was also a proper ring, copper, tin, another metal. Braided, maybe. Custom made in Pike's Place in the 1980s. That one may have gone missing in the aftermath of a fight. This story, as with most of what I know of Steve, was given me in bits and pieces.

His wife's tattoo on her wrist was positioned so that when they held hands, the two tattooed patterns formed a whole. Steve's tattoo is mostly gone, I don't know about hers. The first match is pretty easy, but after you burn off a few bits you start get pretty shy of the matches, so there's a few strands of Steve's tattoo left.

Anyways, within some limits, Steve is a friend of mine. I like him, he likes me. He knows my name, the names of my daughters, the name of my dog. I wouldn't trust him to look after my dog, or my kids, or my car, unless I was really up against it. It's not that Steve wouldn't try, but he drinks, and when he drinks he doesn't always exercise good judgement. And when he doesn't drink, he very very much wants to drink, and so again, doesn't always exercise good judgement.

We know Steve in this way: the elementary school is on the other side of the highway, so my children and I, and sometimes the dog, walk to and fro under the highway underpass every day during the school year, and thus we cross the offramp where it meets the street, waiting dutifully for the walk signal twice a day (four times for the parents, who walk both directions for each trip.) Steve is not always working that spot, but he's there pretty often. If we don't see him for a while, he's probably in jail. We always hope that he's not dead.

Steve spends a few weeks in jail every year. His main crime is stealing beer, which he needs and sometimes cannot raise enough money to buy. Perhaps he loses the money, or likely he shares what he has more freely than his alcoholism demands he ought. However it works out, Steve steals beer. When he gets caught a few times, he is then banned from premises, which means that he also gets busted for trespass when he goes to get beer, even if he is in funds and intends to purchase beer. There are not too many places left that Steve can be without risking a citation for trespass.

One of the many tiny tragedies of Steve's life is that the court hears his case some months after the crime, and if he is sentenced to time in jail, that will occur sometimes quite a while after the rigmarole of the courts. This makes any sort of self-improvement a bit tricky, as Steve generally has at any given moment something close to a year's worth of hearings and punishment stretched out in front of him.

Steve was married, I think he married quite young. He's about my age, but wed some decades before I did (I was rather late.) He has two boys, grown and living, I think, in Alaska. I don't know anything about his wife. Steve was a welder by trade, building ships up and down the coast of Washington. He took up the trade some time after getting married, worked at it for some time. Eventually he worked his way up to being a crew boss, running a crew of welders on the night shift. Steve was a rotten boss, though, because he'd weld too even though he wasn't supposed to. He likes welding.

It is true that welding is easier and better if you do it when you're a bit stoned. It's not great, though, if you drink.

There were, I suppose, episodes involving drink, and then recoveries in addition to Steve not being great at not welding. Then the alcohol had a serious conversation with Steve and laid down some rules. One of those rules was that Steve doesn't work, he drinks. Nowadays, Steve is pretty single-minded in his pursuit of being drunk.

Having run in to him from time to time during some stints in recovery, I can attest that sober Steve is pretty rough. He does not track well, his personality is almost completely blank.

I like Steve, and I think he likes me. I know he's not mean, or vicious, or stupid. He's an alcoholic, and he's not very good in groups, which makes it hard for the systems which attempt to help homeless alcoholics get better to help him much. They're all about the groups. Groups in shelters, groups in halfway houses, groups in therapy. Steve isn't very good in groups. Attempts at recovery run in to, I suppose, more problems than that, but still, Steve isn't good in groups.

So, between stints in jail, and less frequent stints in recovery, Steve lives outdoors. There's a shifting, loose, association of mostly men who look after one another, share a bit of this and that, occasionally get in fights. Steve used to hang out of Lyle, but I think Lyle's in a pretty decent run of recovery now. Steve's been hanging out with Michael and his wife a fair bit, they're First Nations (Indians) and generally pretty sober near as I can tell. Seth and Chris kind of circle around the edges of the same crew. I think they get along with Steve, but not with Michael and his wife. There might be a bit of racism here, I don't see much of anyone but Steve with the Indians.

Sleeping outdoors is pretty tough. I know I'm not all there even after a couple days of camping and these fellows do it month after month after month with vastly inferior camping gear, except when they're in jail, in recovery, or maybe on the very coldest nights when they'll unbend enough to go down to the Mission and sleep inside, with all them people. That does't add up to too many indoor nights in a year. Some of the guys may actually be housed, I'm not certain. Steve, I am pretty sure, is generally outdoors.

Being outdoors always, and drunk a lot, isn't good for you. You can see that Steve's nose isn't straight. I don't know if that's a fight or a fall, but my guess would be "yes." Several of his fingers are permanently mangled, crooked, from being broken and never set properly. He has no idea how the little finger on one of this hands (right, I think) came to be at right angles to its normal position one day this spring, but there it is. It looks better now, but it's not right. Still, Steve is slim and upright, a fine looking figure of a man. When he's sober, or too drunk, he shambles a bit, but with right blood alcohol level, he strides along steadily with a spring in his step, a regular man about town.

Steve looks mighty serious in this photo, and he was pretty serious that moment. He does laugh a lot, and smile a lot. He needs a fair bit of beer in him to bring a smile, but that's just because it hurts quite a bit until he's got a bit of a load on. When he can get that pain down to a dull roar, he can be a pretty happy guy. Sometimes he's pretty chatty, I've heard a lot about Steve in little bits and pieces over the years, in those times when I've met him drunk enough to talk, but not too drunk to talk.

Steve has regrets and sorrows, but at the end of the day, of the possibilities available within the constraints of our world, this is the one Steve wants. He's pretty clear-eyed about that. It's not great, and sometimes it's terrible. But the alcohol won't let him work, and he's not good in groups, and this is pretty much what's left. One of his case workers told me that he thinks Steve (and guys like Steve) have something of a death wish. Steve told me that this case worker is a complete fuckhead.

I wouldn't say that Steve is happy, excepting now and then, but he is positioned in the place he wants to be, of all the places that are available to him and the beer.

He gave my wife some tulips once. He gave my dog a ball once.

I gave him $5 after I took the picture. I don't usually give him money, I give him attention instead which is harder for him to get. I ruthlessly use him as a lesson to my children, that all men are deserving of our kindness, our regard, and our respect. That not all men make good choices, that not all men are granted good choices to make. That we should treat each person with a little bit of love, but also within boundaries. Boundaries that are different for each of us, but laid down with care, respect, and kindness, the best compromise between ourselves and them that we can navigate.

This is Steve. He is a friend of mine, after a fashion.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Diane Arbus's Twins

Here's another thing to look at. Closely. It comes here from Mike Johnston's recent post on ToP. Let us really look at it.



You will probably note the usual things quickly. The girls are not quite identical, one appears sad or neutral, the other is smiling. They are dressed almost but not quite identically, in slightly clumsily made dresses. There is a slightly weird sensation to the thing. Dig a little deeper and ask why it feels weird.

The non-smiling child appears much older. It is probably just one of several quirks of expression here, but her face is reminiscent of a grown woman's, out of place on the child's body. The smiling child's face appears crooked, probably an artifact of the angle of her head, her expression, and the wide angle lens Arbus used here. One child is "freakishly old" the other is "freakishly distorted."

The children are off center in the frame, and the line of the floor behind them is likewise angled in the frame. The child closer to the edge of the frame is the one distorted, which suggests optics plays a role here. If I asked you to, from memory, tell me how the children are posed and framed, you would likely say: backs square to the wall, centered in the frame and you would be wrong on both counts.

In short, everything is slightly askew in this picture.

If you've spent much time with Arbus, another thing should more or less leap out at you. Contrary to received wisdom, this picture is a radical departure for Arbus. The subjects are wearing their "camera face" here, that expression one dons in front of the camera. One is playing the role of oneself, in that moment. This picture shows subjects that have fully settled in to playing the role of themselves-being-photographed, which is a posture Arbus seems to have vigorously avoided.

Arbus's subjects in her well known photos are, generally, playing a role, but it is never that role. They are, generally, putting forward some more appealing, more interesting, fantasy of themselves. Most of them are pushing forward some slightly forced notion of freedom from, defiance of, social norms: transvestites, nudists, circus performers, and so on. These are people concerned with concealing themselves behind a role, behind a pose.

Earlier photographs, as I have noted earlier, are largely concerned with the mask that drops in the moment the camera is noticed, but slightly before "camera face" or other reactions begin. There is no conscious role here, but there is a mask, there is a concealment of the self behind a posture, an expression.

This photograph, of the Wade twins, still partakes of Arbus' characteristic weirdness. Weird both for reasons noted, and also because twins dressed identically seem to simply generate an impression of weirdness. I was in San Francisco, living in the right neighborhood, during the last days of San Francisco's Brown Twins, two tiny old ladies, identical twins, who dressed identically and made a bit of a career of being local characters. They evoked pretty much the same "how cute, but, a little weird" response.

We know that Arbus took this picture at a party for twins and other multiple births. She took, one imagines, at least a roll of picture of various kids. Given the contact sheet and the selected picture from the "kid with the hand grenade" photo, we can guess with some justification that Arbus picked this one because it was the weirdest one (and, in fact, a contact sheet is available, you may examine it and decide for yourself.) Mostly the party would have been a bust, endless cute kids with "camera face," nothing Arbus wanted in the least. The fact that she picked out this one and printed it, rather than throwing the whole lot away, is telling.

This photo isn't interesting because it represents some distillation of Arbus, because it is some pinnacle of her ideas, but rather because it is not. It flies in the face of most of her other work. It reveals to us that, at this moment quite near the end of her life, Arbus only cares if the picture looks a bit weird.

Mike repeats the notion that Arbus's work is some sort of investigation of "self" which seems to originate (?) with Arbus's biographer, which possibly derives, at least in part, from this statement from Arbus's notebooks:

“what is left after what one isn't is taken away -- is what one is.

which is a kind of Deepak Chopra level aphoristic bullshit Arbus was very good at. It's a true statement, but it's exactly as true about donuts. Donuts are what are left when you take away everything that isn't a donut just sounds kind of stupid, right? It's exactly the same statement. Anyways, if you take this as some sort of statement of principle, one might as well assume that Arbus is interested not in "self" but in "what one isn't" and in fact you'd be a lot nearer the truth if you did.

I have previously quoted Szarkowski on Arbus:

her true subject was no less than the unique interior lives of those she photographed.

which contributed to the weird notions about what Arbus might possibly have been up to. The one thing Arbus seems to have been definitely not interested in is what people's true self, true interior life, was. Every single photograph she published makes this painfully clear, all one needs to do is actually look.

All of this suggests strongly that none of these people (Szarkowski, Bosworth, Johnston, and I dare say a great number of other people) have failed to actually look at the pictures. They looked at Arbus's notebooks, and then at what one another have said.

The mission of the critical apparatus, of course, is to bundle up an artist's oeuvre into a single coherent story, with a neat progression (from worse, shallower, to better, deeper, natch) and so of course Twins has to be crammed in there. It does fit, after a fashion, but the progression is going the wrong way. This is evidence that, by 1967, Arbus just wanted things that looked weird, and was no longer much interested in the person in the picture, thus culminating a pretty definite trivializing trend from the 1950s to the end of her life.

As I have noted earlier, her 35mm work, while less polished, shows a definite interest in certain aspects of the humans she is photographing. As her career unfolds, she becomes more polished, and less interested, until at the end all she cares about is whether the picture looks "Arbus-weird" or not.

Here are three pictures in a row. 1957, 1963, 1967:






Having placed these pictures down in a row, I find myself far more appalled than I thought I would be. There is, at least to my eye, a clear progression from interesting to outright lazily dopey.

There is, possibly, a reason why curators are careful to put these things into separate rooms, isn't there?

Thursday, June 20, 2019

My favorite photographer story

I saw this on Usenet back in the day. Back in Mark of 1998, a guy named John J. Stafford shared this story.

Around 1971 I found myself assigned to cover a minor soap-box derby race in suburban Chicago. I was young, between the ages of the participants and their parents, bored with suburban stuff because there was so much more "happening" in the city of Chicago. "This is one didly-squat assignment.", I told myself, but tried to get into it anyway.

When I thought I'd seen it all, I made one more walk through the whole scene before leaving early, when I saw an older man in good clothes, European, I thought, smiling away and enthusiastically shooting pictures. "A real enthusiast.", I thought. Then the man saw me, all decked out with three Nikons like any city photog and he said Hello.

Yea, a foreign accent. I introduced myself in passing, still moving on, and didn't catch his name. (Not being one to suffer difficult accents, I barely tried.) "Didn't get it. What's your name again?", I asked. "EISIE!", he said, smiling broadly.

Holy shit. It really was Alfred Eisenstaedt, on this "Didly" assignment in my idea of "nowhere suburbia." I was so flustered that I reshot the whole thing. It ran as a full-page feature, but to this day, I'd love to know what Eisenstaed got. I've got to believe it was better.


Friday, June 14, 2019

Ai-Da and Stochastic Art

Mostly I don't take requests, not because I hate people but because I have my own ideas. Derrel's pointer to the AI driven drawing robot, though, found me in a receptive mood.

Ai-Da is a humanoid robot. It has one or two cameras in its eyes. It has a plotter-type printer, disguised as a crude arm. It takes a picture of what is in front of it, runs that image file through some sort of neural network algorithm, and renders an output picture using its plotter to render some sort of stylized line drawing.

It appears to be a humanoid robot looking at something, and then drawing the something, but that is not meaningfully the case.

People have been using algorithmic methods for art for some time now, probably quite a bit longer than I've been able to track it back. In 1968 Fred Whipple published a book (?) called Stochastic Painting in which he outlines methods for turning a sequence of random numbers into paintings. It seems likely to me that people were inspired to make decisions in their paintings per the roll of a die or the turn of a card before that, but at any rate we see that Algorithmic Art definitely exists by 1968.

In the intervening 60 years, we have of course seen masses of computer art. Some of it uses only random numbers as input, others use randomness plus other inputs, and some simply transform something given to them, in much the same way Ai-Da does.

The recent addition of "AI" to the mix has been sold to us as some sort of sea change. It is not. What "AI" means, here, is neural networks. Recent developments in this technology have led to a basket of new ways to build very powerful neural networks quickly and easily, which sounds a lot like "we're building BRAINS" but we are not. This is a (deliberate) blurring of terminology. A neural network is simply an algorithm, and not a very complicated one at that. It happens to have been loosely modeled on actual neurons, but it is leagues simpler. It is arguably no more complex than a gear in a watch. The power comes, as in a watch, from sticking a whole lot of these things together.

It is fun to say that we don't know what a neural network will do when given an input. The Ai-Da scammers certainly like to say that. The trouble is, it's not true. We know perfectly well what Ai-Da will do when presented with some scene, or at any rate we could work it out easily enough. The important point is not that we don't know but rather that the easiest way to see what will happen is to run it.

A watch also has this property. You could certainly take a watch apart and count all the teeth on the gears and take detailed measurements and work out what will happen when you wind it up. Or, you could simply wind it up. The latter is much simpler. This does not make a watch a brain, it simply makes it a moderately complex contraption.

The AI industry as a whole is engaged in a bit of a scam. The conceit is, to the lay person, that they are building brains, things with personalities, super-intelligent electronic organisms that may some day take over our world. There is literally a well funded academic discipline on "AI risk" which is, in part, studying issues surrounding "what should we do when we accidently build a super-intelligent electronic orgamism?"

This conceit is nonsense. The AI industry has a small collection of algorithms, often absurdly simple ones, which produce startling results when you set them up right. There is no way they are building, say, conscious beings. Humanity has, literally, no idea whatsoever, what a "consciousness" even is. There are multiple theories in play, and they all share one property: they are obviously wrong.

It is perhaps interesting to note that the credible practitioners in this area tend to use "Machine Learning" or "ML" in preference to "Artificial Intelligence" or "AI.' I have no idea if this is conscious or not, but it appears to me to be a definite trend.

Anyways, back to Ai-Da.

The name Ai-Da begins with AI, so you know immediately that they're selling something. The obvious reference to Dada seems to go universally unmentioned, which is strange because "automatic art" is totally a Dada thing, even though it's not strictly speaking algorithmic. No, she is named (inevitably) for Ada Lovelace, the Only Woman Ever Even Slightly Involved In Computing.

As nearly as I can tell, all Ai-Da proper does is render pencil drawings with a plotter, from photographs taken on the spot. I am unable to locate even a single drawing online, despite the broad press we're seeing here, which I suspect is highly telling. What we see instead are a few derivative artworks, which allegedly start with an Ai-Da drawing, and then are further processed by other software and people. A greenish abstract painting and a sculpture of a really fucked up bee is all we get to see online.

I currently have in my bookmarks this stylization tool. It is a neural network that runs in my browser, it's just a pile of Javascript. It is in no way a brain.

I just used this tool now, as follows. I took this snapshot of me, from within the tool itself, much as Ai-Da might photograph me:



then I selected this sketch from the style source choices:



And I clicked the Stylize button, to produce this:



Bang on some fairly straightforward non-AI code to turn that into code to drive a plotter, and you've literally got Ai-Da minus the creepy animatronics, which Disney has been churning out for decades. Technically, we're also missing Ai-Da's alleged facial recognition software, which presumably allows her to not draw the background just the face. As we all know, facial recognition software is certainly not commonly available in every camera and cell phone built in the last few years. No, wait..

Ok, so, technologically, Ai-Da is pretty epically uninteresting. There's literally nothing innovative here, it's simply a thing one can build pretty easily there days if you have the cash for the custom mechnical systems. I don't think one can even argue that there's any interesting incremental evolution here, given that I can knock out the interesting bits with some Javascript somebody else wrote some.. months?.. ago.

I suspect strongly that the purveyors of this bloody sideshow would assert huffily that they are raising important questions about the nature of humanity and what it means to be creative. Which, sure, they are. People have been raising precisely these same questions since 1968, and to be honest, nobody seems to be working very hard on the answers.

What we do know is that what it is to be human, and what it is to be creative, is definitely not that. What it actually is to be human, or to be creative, seem to be infernally complicated and slippery. Working out answers to these slippery questions, though, does not seem to be materially aided even slightly by, tediously, raising the questions again with some ridiculous contraption.

It does look like they're going to sell some Art for a lot of money.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Something to Look At

Take a look at this picture. Take some time with it. What do you see? And beyond that (or under it, or past it) what do you see?


Sunday, June 2, 2019

Hiatus

Summer is nearly upon us and things are getting busy. I will be writing less, or perhaps not at all, for a time. Don't panic.

Any straggler comments that come along I will try to moderate through from time to time and might or might not engage in witty repartee.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Two Mysteries

I've been discussing the nature of creativity elsewhere. As happens so often it devolved pretty quickly in to "no, no, that's not really creativity, creativity is... " in response to pretty much anything I said. Humans, at least some of us, have a peculiar desire to defend the borders of the unknown which surround creativity.

Creativity is indeed a mystery, and competing with the aforementioned reflex, we have the Enlightenment, or if you prefer Modernist, notion that for all things we can figure it out, if we only apply our big, fat, brains. And, to some degree we have sorted out creativity. We understand, in sort of broad strokes, the neurology. Not, you know, really, but we know which bits of the brain light up when someone's creative juices are flowing. And, more importantly, we have teachable strategies for encouraging those moments, for making ourselves as it were, open to the muse.

So in a way, creativity is still a mystery, an unknown wrapped in the known. The idea that we might some day understand the brain enough to truly understand it at its root, in an essential and complete way, is kind of depressing. But I am delighted to know some ways to welcome the muse. She's nice, and I like her.

That is one mystery.

The creative production of Art is a fascinating process, in many ways I suppose. The way it's fascinating me today is this: the creative impulse is profoundly internal. These sections of your brain light up, ideas churn, silently, invisibly, and entirely inside your own head, the answer emerges. In that instant, only you and maybe God know the answer.

But Art, successful Art, is a cultural construct. If your creative impulse has indeed produced a good answer, that answer is culturally specific. It's specific to here, and to now, and yet it was produced by, one supposes, the underlying biology of your brain which, one supposes, is basically a lot like the brain of a Russian from 1914, or a Vietnamese brain from 257BC.

This is the second mystery.

We live in our society, swimming in the cultural constructs of it. Presumably, we consume these things. We see a Monet, we see a gas station, we rub our dog's tummy, all these things are here, now, in this place and time. Our mind, I guess, takes these things into itself and does we know not entirely what with them.

The creative impusle occurs, if we are lucky, and if we have the skill we execute it, and make something. Something of the constant mystery of our humanness, but also something of the culture in which we live and eat and breathe. If we are lucky, others see our work, touch it, taste it, however that is, and it becomes something to them as well.

I find this continuous interplay between the underlying more-or-less constant human object, you, or me, and the malleable, temporal, tentative, fluctuating, culture in which it resides to be a wonderous and fascinating thing. Imagine, if you will, that you'd been adopted by a nice Chinese couple, or a Mexican family. You would still be you, in many essential ways, but the art you make, the songs you write, the dances you dance, they might all be completely different and yet still, somehow, you.

How amazeballs is that?