Friday, August 26, 2016

Documenting The Decay

While I would not say this essay is gin-powered, as such, gin was involved. Read at your own risk.

A reader pointed me to some pictures, a document of one man's dad's descent and eventual death from Alzheimer's. While I haven't been able to find a complete gallery, I've poked through some links and seen a bunch of samples. They're perfectly good pictures, and include some really very nice portraits as well as some very decent photojournalistic "story telling" pictures.

As the best of these things often do.

This is a genre, though, and it's the genre I want to talk about a little bit.

There's some historical precedent here. Leibovitz documented Sontag's death in something of the the same way. Sally Mann is working on her husband's muscular dystrophy. And then there are endless "When Jane's Husband Was Diagnosed, She Started Photographing. The Last Image Will Break Your Heart!" links infesting the clickbait grids across the internet. It's a genre.

I'm always harping on and on about emotional connection, about how the artist needs to have some sort of genuine emotional response to what's in front of the lens. These things certainly have that, don't they? I mean, a loved one slowly dying, wow. It doesn't get more personal and emotional than that. And that, I think, is why even the least of these things has a lot of genuine emotional power. It's real (although it's only a matter of time before someone gets busted for faking one). Still, I find that these things leave me a little chilly.

Let's poke at a couple. Sally Mann's work in progress is Mann doing her usual thing. Dark, moody, semi-abstracted details. She's digging, deep, for the heart of the thing itself. It's in there someplace. Closeups of weakened limbs. The man's profile. I read this as Mann showing us what MD does, and leaving it up to us to make something of it. For the moment, anyway. I assume she's making something eventually that actually destroys the viewer.

Leibovitz is more like the things we see these days, the slowly sagging, slowly sicker figure, the hospital bed, the grave. All done with strong Leibovitz notes throughout, often an elegant frame but genuine moments. Rather than the huddle of earnest medical staff in the hospital hallway, there's a photo of the Sontag's son in the waiting room, slouched and reading a newspaper, as one does. Sontag looks like shit on her last day in the hospital. It feels less stagey, less carefully selected to Tell The Story than the modern versions do.

We have, I assume, all seen at least one of the other sort. The photographers rather fancy themselves Time Magazine essayists, so they're offering crisp black and white pictures of: the subject hale and hearty, the subject gets diagnosed, the medical staff consult worriedly with the family, the subject bears up bravely while looking worse and worse, the subject looks awful, the empty hospital bed.

The last style, by overtly seeking the sentimental, manages instead to crush it with a sort of formulaic and overwrought treatment. The sentiment is the sentiment of the romance novel, not of Faulkner. These times are difficult, but complex. There is relief as well as grief at the end. There is boredom, vast swathes of boredom, in the weeks and months leading up to the end. The dying person does not always bear up all that bravely. By leaving these things out, by distilling it to the Great Fall and Sorrow, the modern format reduces the whole thing to a sort of stagey veneer, too thin. Two dimensional. Mann and Leibovitz go much further, distilling the whole thing down much more, but rather than thinning it out, they're concentrating it, to my eye. We see only a fragment of the whole, but a very genuine fragment. A fully realized, deeply felt, fragment. A fragment with three full dimensions.

Even worse, the modern format, by concentrating on the Great Loss aspects, create more problems. By distilling the misery and loss out, they distill the thankfully, it's not me and the, for want of a better phrase, misery-porn, which comes out to the same thing. This doesn't mean that the pictures are bad, or not genuine. It doesn't mean that the pictures are not deeply affecting, powerful in their own limited way. They often, even usually, are. What it does mean is that the artist is struggling to justify the work, which is ultimately not fully realized, which is ultimately thin.

These things are deeply personal. For the most part, these essays strive to bring out the individuals as individuals. This is Bob, he's dying. This is Emily, Bob's loving wife. The were married in 1804 and have lived permanently embraced in one another's arms for the intervening 212 years, etcetera. These details, while making the individual story accessible, personal, also provide us with that valuable distance from which we can breathe our sigh of relief. For this, and for reasons noted above, the creators should feel the need to justify the work. It is thin, it is personal. Why do I, a stranger, want to look at it?

Of course, in a lot of cases, they're also processing their own grief. They want to do something to cure whatever it was that killed dad, or mom, or their little sister. I get it, but that too is personal. Your grief is not my grief. Adding insult to injury, it's not really within the power of one person to move the needle on an Alzheimer's cure, or whatever.


There's some nubbin of something in here, I think. By all means, make your Time Magazine essay. This is an important time. Record it and remember it as you see fit. If you want to elide the boredom of the waiting room, go ahead. If you would prefer to forget the relief at the end, go for it. But be advised that your essay is -- for other people -- a bit thin. The two-dimensionality of the material that, in the end, you're willing to share, will come through. If, on the other hand, you want to make your lover's demise something worthwhile, try for all three dimensions.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

"Inspiration is for Amateurs"

Chuck Close is fairly widely quoted as saying this, the title of my current piece here. The full quote is, apparently,

I always thought that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. You sign onto a process and see where it takes you. You don't have to invent the wheel every day. Today you'll do what you did yesterday and tomorrow you'll do what you did today. Eventually you'll get somewhere. Every great idea I ever had grew out of work itself. If you’re going to wait a around for the clouds to open up and lightning to strike you in the brain you’re not going to make an awful lot of work.

which, perhaps, makes it clear that he's not talking about quite the same thing I am about to. Still, I think inspiration is indeed for professionals.

What I mean by inspiration is really the wideest, most generous definition. What I mean is, perhaps, arriving at a solution which was not at all obvious beforehand, but which is obviously correct afterwards. Consider a very mundane professional chore. Perhaps you're shooting pictures of hand tools for a catalog. Perhaps next up is a #2 philips screwdriver. Now, you could just take a picture of a screwdriver. Bad news, bub, anyone can do that. You're out of a job.

Suppose instead that out of the 100 or 200 more or less reasonable possible pictures of a #2 philips that one could take, after talking to the client, looking at the tool, and thinking about it, it occurs to you that this particular picture, let's say number 79, is the right one for the catalog. Stylistically you can use the same sort of thing for all the tools, and it promotes the right sort of idea. The client, ideally, will begin with "look, just pictures of tools" but will then talk about the company values, the durability of the tools (or how inexpensive they are, or how well made, or, or, or). They'll look at your test shot of number 79 and will say "aha, yes. yes."

That's inspiration. Sure, you're not inventing a new lighting method, you're not inventing a new way to think about photography. But you are arriving at an answer, a way to approach this shoot, that is obviously the right answer.

Monday, August 22, 2016

"Art" Blogs as a Business

Chris Gampat's ongoing quest to turn talking about black and white art photography into a business got me to thinking, is there a business here? Let's poke at a few numbers.

First, let's suppose that the language in question is English (if you're dealing with Mandarin Chinese the situation is a somewhat better). We've got about 1 billion people on the planet who speak English, and let us suppose that all of them read it fluently enough to follow an English-language blog. We're erring on the side of generosity.

Let us also assume that all these people have cell phones and internet access, again, a bit generous. They probably all also have a camera in their phone.

Suppose 1 in 100 of those people has some interest in Photography as a thing they might like to read about. That gives 10 million people who might read some English-language photography content, and let's say, I dunno, 20 percent of those are the sort of people to become regular readers of something other than facebook or whatever the major social media sites are. That leaves us 2 million people.

Given that sites like PetaPixel and DPReview and whatnot seem to clock in around (very vague estimates) 100,000-200,000 regular readers and probably roughly the same number of casual/occasionals, it feels like we're in the ballpark. Those 2 million are going to be spread around a bit over the half dozen or so majors, many of them will have found more niche-y homes, and so on. 2 million is at least a credible number.

Now, what percentage of those are going to be interested in Art & Culture? 10%? 1%? You're looking at a total global market of, estimating generously, 200,000 people. Of that population, let's say 1 in 4 finds your particular take on things interesting enough to read your output from time to time, you're down to 50,000 people. In total.

If you capture 100% of those generously estimated 50,000 readers you can not make a living. Let me re-phrase that. You cannot make a living as a pure media play. There's just not enough money there.

Google AdSense says they think I could make $12 a month on my blog, which has maybe 200-400 readers (in my 50,000 readers sense, so including the casual drive-bys as well as the regular/daily readers). Scaling up to those 50,000 readers (250x), AdSense clocks in at $3000 a month. To capture that market, you're probably spending some money on content, or at least on staff and infrastructure, so there's less money even than that. Maybe AdSense sucks and the real number ought to be more like $6000 a month, if you did the advertising right.

Now, if you chose to make the blog a marketing vehicle for selling something else, services or products, than there might be a business here. But nobody's making a living with a Photography Art E-Magazine, there is literally only a few thousand bucks a month -- globally -- on the table here.

And, to be honest, I think that the real number is more like 5,000 (1% are interested in Art and Culture, not 10%). I've been writing this blog for a while, and every now and then I place a piece somewhere else or get a high-visibility link. There's a spike in traffic, but in a week or two it backs off to the baseline. I think I've tapped my market out pretty completely. There's probably a bit of turnover, people get bored, new people discover photothunk, but I'm pretty sure this is it. Maybe I could quadruple my readership or something, with the right sort of push? That's generous, I think.

So, $48 a month. For, I admit, a pretty fringe blog. Go more mainstream, generate 10x the money! $500/month.

There's no business here. I'm not gonna monetize you guys, because there are easier ways to get $12/month, when you get right down to it.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Blackmon, Balthus, and Callahan

Here's a piece from ToP a while back. He's talking about Julie Blackmon and possible (almost certain) references to Balthus paintings in her work. Commenter S. Latkovic remarks that Harry Callahan (the photographer, although it's also perfectly possible that Dirty Harry did as well) also had a bit of a thing for Balthus.

Now look at this, from Callahan. Portugal, 1982:

For reference I'll include the Blackmon (2012):

And the Balthus (1954):

While I certainly agree that there appear to be references, the dates strike me as consistent with Blackmon referencing Callahan just as much as Balthus. There are specific elements in hers that appear to be borrowed from both pictures.

Interesting, huh? Sometimes the referents are tangled up more than seems at first obvious.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Grumpy Notes from Here and There

Over on PetaPixel we find a complaint that it's hard to make a living teaching photography, with, to the author's credit, some ideas about what to do about it. The elephant in the room here is that photography is easy, now. Those motivated, interested, students that are a joy to teach are motivated enough to figure out almost all this stuff on their own, or by spending a few bucks on a craftsy course, as needed.

The main impediment to new photographers is old photographers with their stupid advice. I am watching a tragic conversation unfold in which a guy wants to shoot product for his eBay store in which some doofuses on the internet are trying to teach him how to use strobes. He was using continuous light (totally appropriate, a 100x easier), but switched to some sort of strobed light. Probably because some old photographer suggested it.

Ming Thein has a hilarious post in which he reveals to the world the shocking news that image stabilization technology is not perfect, and also makes some fascinating`accusations that I have not read elsewhere (IS components will wear and the image quality will degrade over time, and IS components may not lock in the right position when IS is turned off). It strikes me as almost certainly an apologia for Hasselblad. Whether written at their behest, or whether it's his own idea, I cannot guess, but I note that either is possible.

Also, he doesn't know anything about control systems. Sample rate and shutter speed? What?

Finally, Mike J over on ToP has this interesting post about little details. The obsession with little details is a fascinating study in the world of photography. You can generally sell your obsession with little details as simply being a super-awesome professional photographer, and sometimes it's even true. More commonly, though, it's about avoiding the big questions. If you fuss endlessly over tiny details, then you never have to worry about whether the picture is any good, if the project is any good, if your work is any good. Photography, being endlessly fiddly but ultimately pretty easy, lends itself especially well to this sort of thing.

You can't do this with ballet, because nobody is going to fail to notice that your feet are all over the place while you're fussing with finger positions. You can't do it with sculpture, or drawing, or architecture. It's actually pretty hard to get to a half-decent looking result at all so your obsession with chisel-work, line weight, or mullions, isn't going to distract people from the ugly lump you've made. As a camera user, though, once you figure out how to focus the damn thing, your rotten flower picture looks pretty much like a flower. You can start rattling on about tonal placement, light modifiers, or microcontrast, or something, and there's a chance people won't notice that you suck.

Friday, August 19, 2016

How Did We Get Here?

PetaPixel recently published a link to a youtube video breaking down the lighting in some photo made by some guy, Karl Taylor. For all I know Karl Taylor is some huge deal, but I've never heard of him and his web site suggests that mainly he teaches people how to Do Photography. Anyways, this picture is sort of typical of a low-rent wanna-bee fashion photographer.

This is, of course, receiving accolades, and people totally wanted to know how he did it etcetera and so forth. And I dare say the breakdown is a good teaching tool for how to spot the light sources. But just look at this stupid thing.

There are three obvious light sources here, with three completely different characters (but all the same color), two of them are on the floor and yet, somehow, the result is still kind of muddy and indistinct.

It's time to come out and say it. Having light sources all over the goddamned place just looks stupid. Yes, yes, I get that you want to show off every little detail of the girl, or the chair, or the car, whatever. Figure out how to do it without looking like you just shoved lights in all over the place because, let us review, it just looks stupid.

How the hell did we get here? Is this just a plot by the lighting companies to sell more crap? Is it some sort of weird technical challenge to see how many lights you can stick in there? Are photographers too lazy to figure out how to show off the object without simply hitting it with light from every angle? Is it basically an easy way to make the picture look expensive and "done"? How the hell did we get here?

For the record, actual fashion photography looks nothing whatsoever like this except that it has hot girls in it. Car photography looks a little like this, possibly because it is very hard to show off both the lines and the wheels without lights all over the place, if you want that nighttime look, which sometimes you do.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


Chris Gampat is at it again, trying to figure out how to turn an almost total lack of ability and a bunch of enthusiasm into a business. He really really really wants to do some kind of magazine based around black&white photography, which is a worthy goal. It just happens to be beyond his skills, and is in fact a very very high wall to climb.

Don Quixote here got me to thinking, though. How would I do it?

The concept I arrived at very suddenly but after quite a lot of noodling on it, is a 'zine called "Gesture", stealing from Jay Maisel. His recent book Light, Gesture, & Color defines his rather personal and idiosyncratic notion of "Gesture" as, roughly, the essence of the thing itself. Maisel tries to do it one frame at a time, with varying success.

This is something I am interested in, the uncharitable might say that I harp on it endlessly. My opinion, oft-repeated, is that the essence of the thing is best got at photographically with multiple pictures, a photo essay, a portfolio.

So this mythical "Gesture" magazine would feature one photo-essay per issue, which gets at the essence of the thing in some way. The artist gets a few column inches of text. I get a few column inches of text. And then there are pictures. Black and white, it's called "Gesture", not "Gesture & Color". Artists selected by me, edited by me, judged by me.

Online and print, funded by a Patreon and whatever sales of the print edition happen. Shoot for once a month. Published on the 1st of the month, every month, every other month, every sixth month, as time and available content permit. Pay the artists.. something. Maybe not much, but always something. "Corporate structure" to be determined. Print edition delivery model to be determined.

It's just a concept. I'm not going to do it this year. I have no time and too many projects already. I'm probably never going to do it. Feel free to steal it and go for it. Let me know if you do, I might buy a copy. Indeed, we could all of us do this 'zine, and every one would be different, every one would probably be worth something.

See MagCloud and its competitors as a starting point.