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


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?

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A Matter of Media

There's a minor tempest going on in the usual British Academic Photographers circle, around a 2017 reissue of a book by Gian Butturini, London. In the book there is a spread which features a woman in a booth collecting fares(?) opposite a photograph of a gorilla in a cage. The woman appears to be of African descent. This is horribly racist and everyone involved should be killed, and, more importantly, should grovel at the feet of the riled-up twitter heros. When Ben Chesterton rolls up, you know things are gonna get stupid.

Ok, so they're not wrong. In this day and age, one does not publish that sort of thing. Partly to avoid the wrath of twitter heros, to be sure, but also because, well, it's Just Not Done, right? I wouldn't. More on this later.

One could, I think, argue that the point of the spread might have been something like good god, they treat blacks like ANIMALS in this fucking town (or substitute "poor people" if you prefer) but it doesn't matter. One would not make that point in this way, today. Or in 2017 when the book was published. More on this later as well, first there is underbrush to clear.

The trouble is that this this is a re-issue of a book from 1969.

I was told this:

If the pairing of the two images was in the original publication, then at that time (think civil rights movement) it would have been considered deeply offensive and overtly #racist.

Full disclosure, whenever anyone offers as supporting evidence the phrase think X for some X or another, my hackles go up. Personal thing. Now, I have to say, I was 3 years old in 1969, so I was not meaningfully there, but to suppose that the spread would have been read the same way 50 years ago as it is today is simply absurd. Let us consider some history of the idea about representations in media.

The Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan) is published in 1963, and is at any rate one of the earlier notable works that touches upon the harm media depictions can cause. It is talking about the harm "women's magazines" do to the lives of white middle-class women in terms of the standards they set.

Stuart Hall is publishing in the early 1970s and comes up with the Politics of Representation, a formal statement and model for the ideas that media representations of people influence society, influence culture. In potentially harmful ways.

Laura Mulvey published "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in 1975, in which she introduces the idea of Male Gaze in cinema, another watershed moment in the idea that media portrayals, media representation, can be harmful.

1969 in bang in the middle of these. Six years after Friedan's book, six years before Mulvey's essay, and there's other material in play in that same interval. This is a set of ideas that is being birthed, refined, and mainstreamed in exactly this interval.

So, that's a few samples to get a flavor, which I think roughly bracket the interval and give a reasonable flavor of the intellectual environment.

What is some graphic designer (Butturini) in 1969 going to think about the power of a photographic juxtaposition to harm? Well, probably not a lot. The academic community is definitely starting to get a feel for it, but it's not really mainstream thinking yet, by any stretch of the imagination. It is at least credible that some random person on the street would not yet have run into any of these ideas (although, of course, it is also credible that they have.)

What are racial justice advocates likely to think about it in 1969? Like Butturini, they're living in an interval where these ideas are coming forward, but not fully mainstream. What any given activist thinks about these things is unknown, of course, but we can situate this next to some American history: Emmett Till's murder 14 years earlier, desegregation of city buses in Montgomery, Alabama in the same interval, lunch counter sit-ins in the same interval, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and on and on.

In the UK things were perhaps somewhat less dire, perhaps the Till episode would not have happened in London, but in roughly the same interval a little research shows that, for example, black Caribbeans had a lot of trouble simply renting a place to live. In the 1960s and onwards issues like Can I Live Somewhere, Can I Get Paid, and Can I Not Be Beaten Up seem to loom fairly large for people of color in the UK.

What an Italian creative photographing in London thought is anybody's guess, honestly.

In short, we're sort of on the tail end of a historical period in which the overwhelmingly dominant issues surrounding racial justice are things like: Not Getting Murdered or Beaten, and Being Allowed to Vote, and we're still working on a lot of stuff like Getting Paid More Like White People and so on. We're also on the cusp of a new generation of issues, which concerns things like media portrayals, in which one might reasonably have a little space between being beaten up to worry about a spread in a photobook, edition of 1000. Again, 1969 lands right in the middle of these things.

While it's certainly reasonable to suppose that some activists would have found the two-page spread problematic, it's also reasonable to suppose that many activists would look at the same spread and characterize it as not important enough to worry about. To issue a blanket statement it would have been considered deeply offensive and overtly racist is flatly ahistorical.

What we are seeing on twitter is a group of people who are seeing this object in contemporary terms, and insisting on applying their understanding to 1969. Indeed, at least some of them are insisting not only that we should judge the work by modern standards, but that the standards in 1969 were substantially the same as they are today which is simply absurd.

But what about the spread, anyways? Let's actually look at it.

It seems to have been deliberate, both figures are in small boxes, rendered about the same size, and so on. It is credible, at any rate, that we are supposed to compare and contrast the two figures.

But what are we meant to take away from this? More precisely, what would we have been presumed to, in 1969, take away from this spread?

What I see is a sympathetic recognition of similarity. These two figures are, as I see it, similarly trapped, constrained. Both appear to be resigned to an unhappy lot. I don't feel any denigration from the photographer here, only sympathy. Certainly there is suggested an equivalency of the black woman to the gorilla, but is the intention to cast the human down to the level of the animal, to raise the animal up to the level of the human, or is such an analysis entirely beside the point?

Given the sympathy that seems to come through so clearly, I am unable to accept that the photographer intended to cast the human down to the level of the animal. You may read it otherwise.

But that is 1969, right? The relevant intellectual stew makes it credible either that Butturini would have seen that making this equivalence was an act of racism, or that he would not have seen it that way. It depends on just what he had and had not been exposed to. The ideas were there, but not universal. The sympathy I see makes it difficult to imagine that Butturini willfully intended an act of racism here, but if you don't see the same sympathy I do, you may find that jump easier to make.

It is worth noting that contemporary understanding of the harm done by representation in media is never about a single picture, never about a single bite of media. It is invariably about the continuity of all media, the constant flow of the same idea repeated over and over. Only on twitter do we see single images characterized as, by themselves, doing harm.

Seeing this today, we are, whether we like it or not, steeped in modern theories of representation in ways that Butturini was not. At best he might have been aware of these ideas, but they were simply not part of the water he swam in, in the way that they are today.

In today's terms, the spread is unabashedly racist.

Not because it in and of itself does any harm, but because the way one eliminates the continuity of harmful media is one bit of media at a time. One picture is harmless, maybe, but 100,000 are not, but you eliminate the 100,000 by consciously not printing one picture 100,000 times over.

How should this spread have been handled in the re-issue?

I am always loathe to suggest Bowdlerizing, so, I reject the idea that the spread should have been eliminated to broken up.

I have seen suggested on twitter that a suitable essay could have been written to accompany the book, specifically addressing this spread. Having just written such an essay (see above) that sounds like an excellent plan. But then, I always think the right answer is "some sort of essay."

Leave it alone and just publish it as-is? That was the choice made by the publisher, and it stood for 2 years before someone freaked out. The book was reviewed in some of the usual places without fuss. Perhaps this whole tempest is a big nothingburger, in the end.

I will say that watching a bunch of white academics competing on twitter to see who best understands the downtrodden black woman is both hilarious and nauseating.