Thursday, January 17, 2019

Burn Story

Emma Bull, who is a writer of real ability, has offered this advice to writers: burn story. By this she means that, if you have some good idea, some clever plot device, whatever, use it and use it now. "Story" in this sense is not be be preserved, to be spread thinly over your 80,000 word novel, it should be applied in large chunks as fast as possible. The concern naturally arises "but I will run out of story, then" and this is, it turns out, not so. Burning story generates more story, and in the end you get 80,000 words of densely packed story rather than 80,000 words of bread with 5,000 words worth of butter scraped across it.

Note: I am informed that this term is used in Hollywood, and may have originated there!

I had an epiphany today along these same lines.

As mentioned previously, they are doing a sewer line replacement job a few houses up the alley from me, a process I wished to photograph, and to thereby tell the story of. It is not a complicated process. Cut the pavement over the old sewer line. Dig a hole. Replace some pipes. Fill the hole. Pour cement over the hole.

So, I shot a bunch of pictures. Edited it down to, I don't know, 6 or 7 that I thought "told the story" pretty well, and in which each picture had at least a touch of lyricism in it. And now I was thinking "ok, I could trim another one or two but how to fit this great little story into this book I am working on?"

And this is where the epiphany hit me: it's not about cramming as many pictures as you logically can in there, it's about telling the story you want to tell in as few pictures as possible. If one picture will suffice, it's probably a really good picture, and you should stick to that. If you need two, well, again. Simply trying to cram in more photos because you're got some more pretty good ones is the wrong direction.

Now, this is not new advice. I have probably received this advice half a dozen times in one form or another, maybe a lot more. But having discovered it for myself, I hold out hope that it will stick a little better this time.

Just as a for-instance, let's revisit Pixy Liao's widely lauded (?) book, Experimental Relationship, here leafed though by Jörg Colberg. Ignore the typo in the video title, I have tried several times to bring this to Jörg's attention.

Anyways, regardless of what you think of the work, regardless of what you like Pixy is trying to say here (if anything) there is no doubt that she is doing the photographic equivalent of droning on and on about it. We could argue about whether there is a single note in this book, or whether there are two, or three, or perhaps if you stretched you might get up to five. But there's no getting around it, the ratio of butter to bread is very very low indeed.

Imagine, if you will, that she had compressed Experimental Relationship down to, say, the three pictures that really nail it. At this point my advice has in one sense ruined her book, it is now a very short pamphlet, and that's not going to get shortlisted for any prizes. However, what there is of her book is a hell of a lot better and, if she's attentive to the muse, she will be rewarded with more story to burn. By being timid, and spreading her 3 pictures worth of story thinly over 160(!!!) pages of book, she wound up with a not-very-good book, and her muse did not grant her any more story.

Burn story. If you can tell the entire story in one, do it.

There will be more story, later. It's ok.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Crisis Point

I am reading some essays from John Berger. The very first one in this book of selected essays which I have is about Drawing.

Berger characterizes drawing, in the sense of the artist sketching for themselves, as a process of discovery. The artist, in the act of drawing, explores and learns which the subject is, what it actually looks like, in detail. This little space there, the alignment of this line or plane with that. The relationship of this bit to the other bit.

This, of course, makes perfect sense, but it's not something I had quite thought of in quite that way.

But then, Berger says, there is in every drawing a moment of crisis. There is a point in the process at which the act of drawing becomes more about the drawing than about the subject. The subject begins to serve more as a reference to confirm what the artist already wants to put into the drawing. The drawing takes on a life of its own and, in a meaningful sense, the process of discovery ceases.

Photography is nothing like drawing. In the act of photographing, one may be almost entirely unaware of the subject. More usually, you have some grasp of the larger forms, the bigger and more obvious graphical qualities, perhaps some emotional or human handle on the thing, a few other details. At best a sort of narrow and probably kind of trivial gloss on the whole thing.

However, when you come to the computer, or the enlarger, and begin to work on the damned thing, if this is something you do, then something a bit like drawing happens. You notice little bits of pieces, small details, larger forms you missed, and so on. In the decisions about what to bring out, and how, and what to suppress, and how, you examine the photograph minutely. You discover it and you discover what was photographed.

As with the process of drawing, there can come a crisis point. There comes a point, if you're deep into the thing, where the work you are doing ceases to be about what was in front of the camera, and begins to be about the photograph itself. This might come almost immediately, if you're some compositing hero for whom photographs are merely raw material, or a collage artist, or whatever. It might come very late if you're a Serious Street Tog showing the gritty side of life on the street. It might never come.

But when that moment arrives, it behooves you to notice it. It's not so much that you ought not proceed past that point, it is that once you do proceed you are in a different territory.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


The opposite of serendipity, that is.

We have a detached office structure, which is really the garage at the rear of our lot, backing onto the alley behind the house. This building has been remodeled into a fairly decent office space, and a separate storage space. When I worked, I had my computer and whatnot out there, and spent my days in there. Now that I do not work but my wife does, she spends her day out there. Occasionally, when she is out of the office, I take the space over to use her large and beautiful Apple computer.

Recently, I was in there, working away laying out my cursed Alley book which has been in progress for the better part of a year now, I guess. I pretty much have it conceptually wrapped up, sequenced, written, etc. I am working out cover design.

One of the minor pieces of this is some discussion of the sewer line that runs down the center of the alley, 7 feet down. The sewer lines from our houses to that central line are, originally, ceramic tile pipes which are gradually aging out and failing. When the line fails within the last 6 feet or so, someone's got to cut the pavement in the alley, dig down, and replace it. The creates a characteristic cutout in the alley pavement.

This is the only visual trace of the sewer system, so of course there's a photo of my neighbor's cutout.

So, you may visualize me working away on the cover, and then I perk up, hearing a larger-than-average truck backing down the alley. I pop out, curious, to see what is happening, and lo, they are replacing the sewer line for another neighbor. They are literally making one of the characteristic cutouts right now. God damn it. Now I have to take yet more pictures, and fiddle with my stupid book some more, because this too is part of the story.

Bush Leage II

I have thought about this some more, and what I am trying to say is coming out clumsily. Which is an indication that I am unsure of what, exactly, I am trying to say.

I think it comes down to this, though: there are good, serious, struggling artists all over the place. Some of them I would surely judge as "crap" and a few I would judge as "good" but that is beside the point.

When those artists are spread out thin, as in Duluth, Bellingham, or Toronto, they don't really know one another socially. If you reach out into a pool of friends, even if you are yourself creative, and know a bunch of creatives, you're unlikely to stumble across one of these people.

I hypothesize, but do not know for sure of course, that in that very small number of cities to which creative types move/flee in their 20s, the density of genuinely good, talented, creatives is high enough that simply asking around has some reasonable chance at turning up someone worth talking to, worth showing.

I am biased, of course, because I don't use the "asking around' method, instead I wade through mountains of stuff I find on the internet and in various and sundry printed materials, following leads, following my nose, and occasionally I stumble across someone I like. This is radically different from reaching out into my social network, asking "hey, do you know any good photographers?" I happen to be certain that the latter method would produce endless birds-in-flight, colorful landscapes, and other insanely boring derivative, albeit well-executed, photographs.

Perhaps it is a foolish pipe dream, that If Only I lived in NYC and was young, and beautiful, I would know people who knew the really good rising artists. I am not in NYC, I am neither young, nor beautiful, so I don't actually know for sure.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Bush-League

So Josh Reichmann, the new boss at Luminous Landscape, continues to interview and profile photographers that he has some personal connection to.

Don't get me wrong, I really like Canada. I have lived there many pleasant years of my life, and I visit often. It is a good place to be.

But. Canada is not a large country, nor is it a country which punches above its weight class artistically. The National Film Board of Canada has long been subsidizing the film industry, and encouraging a hilariously awful style. You can recognize an NFB film almost instantly, and that's not a good thing. I do not know if broader ham-fisted government intervention has likewise damaged the other arts, but I do know that Canada has produced a large number of 3rd rate authors to go with their 3rd rate filmmakers. I dare say there's a large supply of 3rd rate painters and photographers to go with them.

It is not so much that everyone in Canada is awful.

The trouble is that if you're talented and ambitious, Canada in general, and Toronto specifically, is someplace that you leave. There isn't a critical mass of support and audience there, so even if you are a great painter, and you can find a gallerist who "gets" your work, they're still not going to show it because there isn't an audience. There's too much milquetoast government sponsored, safe, avant-garde-in-1963 art lying around, or something.

There's probably something to be said here about what constitutes a critical mass for the creation of Really Good Art. Whatever the number is, it seems to be enormous. It seems to need enough room in several senses to enable a lot of really awful work, as well.

Now, it's not universal. There have been a handful of truly great writers in Canada, who remained in Canada. Occasionally an artist will depart Canada for more fertile lands, but then return home having made their nut in New York or wherever. And so on.

Still, if you're going to poke around among your artistic friends to see if anyone knows someone who's any good, what you're going to find is bush-league yahoos, even if you're in Toronto. It's going to be a bit like performing this same exercise in Duluth, or in El Paso, or in Bellingham, WA.

Friday, January 11, 2019

What I Like

I've been thinking lately about what kinds of photographs I actually like. For a guy who spends so much time complaining that other people don't seem to like photographs, I myself seem to like precious little. Which isn't quite true, I like a lot of photographs. I just don't like most photographs.

At some point in the last 100 years or so it was brought home to critics of all stripes that there was never going to be devised a particularly firm basis on which to criticize things. Aesthetics was supposed to be a firm and objective basis, handed down by God or the very structure of the universe, but then it turned out not so much. As a mathematician, I am pretty familiar with this. A contemporaneous program to place mathematics at last on to firm ground, with a certain and unshakable foundation, was blown up spectacularly by Kurt Gödel. It is now clear that things like Truth and Beauty and The Sublime are all mere constructs of whatever system they arise in, be it a system of logic or a system of culture.

The post-modernists (post-strucuralists? somewhere in that mess of post-whatevers) seem to have stumbled across this at roughly the same time. It is not hard to discover, all you need is a 5 year old who responds to every ever-more-detailed explanation with "but, why?" and in a few minutes you will see the futility of it all.

Mathematicians dealt with this by saying "well, I guess we should agree on a system to live in. Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory everyone? Very good. Moving on..." and the post-whatevers seem to have dealt with is in a somewhat less organized way which allowed the writing of an infinite number of papers that don't say anything.

That doesn't mean that there are no ideas that aren't stupid in play here. Yes, it's true that the merits, of any, of a photograph are relative to the culture that produced it, and the culture in which it finds itself. This does not mean that the enterprise of judging a picture is hopeless. It does not mean that author intent ought to be ignored. It does not mean that everything is subjective and that therefore you can say anything as legitimately as anything else.

What I like is, therefore, not based on any firm logical ground. It is based on a vaguely systemized set of ideas which feel right to me, and as such it doesn't land on any specific critical ideology.

I think Art is, at its best, an attempt to communicate something, to share something, to show me something. As such, the authorial intent does matter. In some sense it is my job, as the consumer of Art, to work out my best guess at what the author means. I described this as "story #4" within the last few days, I guess.

I also think that Art exists in the gestalt of society, and that it is useful to make an attempt to guess what others are likely to see in a piece of work, so see as the post-modernists might say, what is "coded" in the piece. A writer might use the phrase "strange fruit" and mean only a particularly lumpy orange, but that is also a reference, in contemporary America, to lynchings.

As a consumer of Art, I also bring myself to the table, and I am a more or less functional thinking creature with my own history, memories, ideas, tics. As such, Art is going to hit me in, to some degree or other, a unique kind of way.

I try pretty hard to bring all of these things together into my own personal understanding of what a piece means. I bring all these together into my judgement of whether something is good or whether it is bad.

I like Art in which I can discern the author's voice, that perhaps indefinable thing the artist is trying to communicate. If the artist seems to me to be saying nothing, or nothing coherent, I am likely to judge the work Bad.

If my guess as to the reaction of a more or less normal person in my cultural milieu is that the reaction is likely to be superficial, or empty, I am likely to judge the work Bad. This particular case covers an enormous amount of ground, by the by. Most photography which is broadly identified as good is in fact just pleasing. The reaction of a normal person is positive, agreeable, but shallow.

Finally, while I try to be charitable about this and use a lot of first person phrases, if it doesn't hit me personally in a good way, in a complex, enlarging way, I am likely to think the work isn't very good. In part, I like everyone else am prone to generalize my reaction to everyone else.

My insistence that Art should provoke some kind of complex reaction leads to a lot of acrimony when I trot it out in public, which isn't very often.

There's a tremendous amount of appealing photography out there. Most people who style themselves photographers appear to be satisfied with their own work, and the work of others, if it is graphically pleasing, has nice colors, or a beautiful girl, or a cute kid in it, or any of a handful of other things. These people get kind of grumpy when I wave my hands dismissively and say "tut tut, but it's all shallow, innit?" which I do.

I find these pictures appealing as well, I like them in the same sense that everyone else does.

As a guy who spends an unhealthy amount of time looking at pictures, especially pictures made by bottom-tier Serious Photographers, I also know that these things are common as grass. I sense a difference between these common, appealing, pictures, and the pictures that appear to me to be saying something, that appear to be making a strong play to enlarge me.

As such, I feel these two categories ought to be distinguished, and there is no way I know of to distinguish them without appearing to be saying nasty things about the common, appealing, shallow pictures. One can temporize and say Of course they're appealing and pleasant and you're welcome to love them but... and all anyone ever sees if the material after the word but, and they interpret the whole thing as a personal attack.

And so, I stopped caring much about what people think I mean. I dub the common, appealing, material as "shit" and the stuff I like as "good" and I am done with it.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Aig so much traffic

I assume my blog is being hammered by bots, since I am being flooded with traffic, but not with idiotic comments, but my god what a surprising lot of traffic.

If you are people and not robots, please go away. Actually, go away if you're robots too.