Thursday, May 25, 2017


Just a short note to remark that the Art Schools of Great Britain are producing some amazingly low-wattage people. I have mentioned some names, but the list just goes on and on. I keep hoping to stumble over someone who's not an idiot, but it's all just dunderheads dribbling on in gibberish. And, yes, I have spent some hours unpacking the gibberish, looking up the terms of art, reading the background material, and it always boils down to something like "well, the photographer and the viewer might not agree on what a picture is about, wot?" but you have to wade through 1000 words about the "politics of representation" or whatever.

I dare say the Art Schools of everywhere else are producing the same lot of dullards, but I am currently hacking my way through the British jungle.

1000 Words Magazine appears to be 100% this shit, and I wish they would confine themselves to 1000 words per item, but alas, they don't come anything like close. It takes them 1000 words to say "the photos are large and red" at which point they're just getting started.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


I've been noodling on a bunch of things this last week. I tried to write up a review of the latest Luminous Endowment Winners, but it wasn't going anywhere (it's a stronger field than the last time, still with a couple of weak spots, and I really really just like several of the winners). Colberg made a remark on his recent reviews about the trend toward photographing traces of people rather than people. I noted in the Luminous Endowment Winners a fellow doing aerial/drone photography to illustrate poverty, which is pretty much the same thing. See also recently reviewed bits and pieces.

It strikes me that I am noting an almost nihilistic thread in contemporary Art, at least in the products of people with MFAs.

The business about not photographing people, about appropriating satellite imagery, and so on, has the effect of creating distance from the subjects. I suppose if you're shooting macro pictures of bugs, or landscapes, or whatever, you can go get coffee now, skip this essay entirely. Human stories are increasingly being told without any humans in them. I have at least one regular reader, who makes pictures that I love, who shoots extensively in this genre.

We also have Nina Berman writing about how to document sexual violence with photos, leaving out the people. On the one hand, obviously, photographing people in these cases is difficult, on the other hand the photo essay she provides to support her point is a piece of shit, and on the third hand Nina Berman shot "Marine Wedding" about which I have written a little before. Nina can and does shoot people, and her work is much better when she does.

So the Artists are leaving people out. The photojournalists, some of them, are working around to leaving the people out.

Cowardice, perhaps. It might be more kind to say "Shy"? Because people are difficult to handle, because photographing them is difficult, the temptation to leave them out of their own stories is strong. There are other reasons, rationalizations. I don't claim it's as simple as mere cowardice, there's a lot going on. But gosh, it sure clears out the underbrush when you don't point your camera at people. I include myself in here, it's goddamned hard for me to take pictures of people, and I constantly find myself rationalizing not doing it. Constantly. Every. Single. Day.

Art used to, I think, at least for a time, try to point the way to Answers. At least suggest an agenda, give some hints, some ideas. In Christian religious art, piety and mercy are often shown as the path to, well, some sort of betterment. In the Victorian era we see little morality plays in collaged photos; Oscar Rejlander's "Two Ways of Life" is a photographic manual for not meeting a bad end, as subtle as a Chick Tract. The FSA photographers, under the firm hand of Roy Stryker, held out the FSA itself as the answer to all the ills a farmer might experience.

I don't mean, here, answers in a necessarily specific and detailed way. In contemporary photography I think I could argue that Sally Mann's What Remains gives us in some sense answers to questions of mortality, or more specifically our fear of death. It's not a handy 3 step book on Overcoming Your Fear, but it is in its own poetic way a kind of guide, a collection of hints, items for consideration. Maybe I'm just projecting my own reaction onto the work, I don't know.

The Smiths' Minamata obviously looms large in my mind here, again they don't give a handy 3 step guide to solving the pollution problem, but they have some ideas, some signposts.

It seems to me that the reluctance to photograph people is, if not a symptom of, at least packaged neatly together with the larger trend to shy away from taking a stand, to shy away from proposing answers. If you won't photograph the people, then you're not telling their stories in a meaningful, visual, way. If you can't even tell their story, you're unlikely to provide answers to problems, or paths to enlargement, or insightful commentary, or any of that. See Nina Berman's photo essay.

The same coyness that pushes us not to engage people, to avoid their terrifying gaze, to avoid engaging them, to avoid their messiness, also pushes us to avoid Answers. It's so much easier to simply document the problem, or the place, or... whatever it is. Actually engaging, actually shoving our ugly fat noses into it to, actually getting muddy, involved, messy, is simply too much.

For me too. It's hard and it scares me.

But you can't make anything of any depth unless you get in there, get in there hip-deep in the muck, get engaged, get your face all shoved up in whatever it is. Even if you're shooting landscapes, when you simply drive up at the golden hour and take 50 minutes to shoot, your work is going to be shit. Get your goddamned boots on and hike out there, roll in the flowers, drink out of the streams, wrestle a bear. Metaphorically, of course. Unless you're Russian, then just go right ahead with an actual bear. Because, Russians. Google "russian dash cam" for proof that Russians are more or less immortal.

If your story is about people, you're gonna have to get messy, you're gonna have to get into their faces, get involved. I don't mean be Bruce Gilden, and I don't mean you have to become friends with your subjects before you shoot them. I mean you do have to be in the mix, you have to connected, plugged in, part of it all.

Stamp all over this piece, in big red letters, "NOTE TO SELF" because I am the first person that comes to mind as I write. Still, you can use it too, if you think it might apply.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Doing Better

I've looked at some things over the last few weeks, and now I'm kind of looking back over it all, trying to discern some pattern, some progression. Trying to find what I can learn.

I have been very pleased with my San Francisco essay of a couple months back, but of course having spent time with Gene and Aileen Smith's book I am crushed, convinced that my work is the purest, most carefully distilled, quintessence of shit. Possibly the eight or twelfth essence.

Let's back up. Lewis Bush (I cannot leave Lewis alone, partly because he seems to be held in at least modest esteem by Jörg Colberg) and his lot work in a region of Art in which, as near as I can tell, the process is all. It occurs to me that academic Art is going to tend in this direction. It's a bunch of people who spend too much time thinking about Art and not enough time doing it. Wait, wait, that sounds familiar..

Anyways, it is natural that they might tend to thinking more about process and method. So Lewis and his chums spend a lot of time rejecting this, inverting that, and playing with the other thing. Which is valuable in its own right, it's useful to keep the boundaries of Art fluid. But they seem to ostentatiously avoid saying anything, in that wildly general notion of saying that I favor. You have divine their message, if any, almost from the artist bio. The message seems to usually be look at this, isn't it awful?

Then I looked at Laura Saunders, and I liked her quite a lot better. She actually makes a clear statement. As has been noted, it's not a particularly profound statement, nor is it new of particularly illuminating. It too falls into the general area of look at this, isn't it awful? but at any rate she's not just grinding a process without much concern for what comes out the end. She has something to say, and bends process and method to her message, rather than the other way around.

And then we take a walk. A very very very long walk to somewhere very far away, and we find Minamata.

I don't really know how the photography itself was received, but anyways by them Smith was revered and so on. There's a lot of process, of method, in this book. We have impressionistic photos that stand in for a way of life. We have triptychs of photos taken perhaps seconds apart, a sort of proto-animated-GIF of a moment. We have pictures styled in purely journalistic ways, and others styled in profoundly artistic ones. Minimalism here, densely filled frames there.

The typography is similarly exciting. Snippets of text appear floating here and there, unattributed, unconnected. The main body text comes in ebbs and flows, jagged here and flowing there.

My point here is that method and process are present here as well. The book is dense with method and process, although it doesn't leap out at you. Like Saunders, the Smiths bend process to the message, to the story. With, and I don't think I am insulting Saunders to say this, a great deal more subtlety and skill.

The Smiths also have something to say, obviously. Pollution is bad is a message, and it doesn't jump out at us as a terribly profound or new one. It wasn't new or radical in 1975 either, the EPA had already been formed, Silent Spring had been out for a decade.

So why is Minamata better than, say, Laura Saunders's work on migrants? It's certainly larger, a lengthier project, has more detail, but surely that cannot be it.

If I want to, in my own crude way, ape the Smiths rather than Saunders, what shall I do?

I can point to a couple of things the Smiths do that actually do separate them.

The first is that they dig very deep indeed, and show us a lot of things. My understanding of the Minamata episode expanded enormously. It's not a complete and detailed historical treatise, but it's deep enough, and dense enough, that you probably won't recall all of it. Every time through, you're likely to have "oh, right, I had forgotten that" moments.

The second is the broad viewpoint. On the one hand, it's all from the view of the Smiths, but on the other hand they strive to show us the various factions, and to help us understand those viewpoints at second hand. This creates a more balanced view. It is a rare story in which learning how the other side(s) feel doesn't make the story more powerful, more comprehensible, and in the end more true.

The last thing they do is to suggest a way forward. They distill the essential problems as they see them, and propose a way forward. One of those floating, jagged, bits of text, ostensibly a caption:

The morality that pollution is criminal only after a conviction is the morality that causes pollution.

The depiction of the direct negotiation between the passionate victim, Teruo Kawamoto, and the president with empathy, Kenichi Shimada, is clearly intended as a model. The Smiths side with Kawamoto, unabashedly, and think he was on to something. And they prove it. The former leads the group that insists on direct negotiation, that insists that Chisso management see and touch and hear the victims. It is this intimate, personal, human connection that ultimately leads to the breakthrough.

To be honest, I don't even know if the story they tell is even true. It seems too incredible to be true. The denouement was so intense, so powerful, that a handful of black and white photos and a few hundred words of text left me, literally, shaking. Literal truth hardly matters here, though.

It's not a stretch to suggest that the Smiths want us to know that a rule-based morality is the root of the problem, and that a morality based on humanity, on empathy, on intimate contact is the solution. If corporate managers, the Smiths suggest, lived in more intimate contact with the people "downstream" literally or metaphorically, then the corporate entity would behave better.

Of course, in the intervening 40 years the exact opposite has happened. Corporate leadership is isolated more and more, because the corporate entity, while not itself a sentient being, "knows" that human contact is exactly what would solve this problem, leading to decreased profits, decreased power, and slower expansion.

Be that as it may, it's not my purpose here to rant against capitalism!

The point is that the Smiths gave us depth, they gave us breadth, and they suggested answers, or at any rate a signpost or two that might lead the right way.

It is this, essentially, which makes Minamata great, and "Tracing Gila River" weak. Yes, this is awful, but give us depth, give us breadth, and point the way.

Saturday, May 20, 2017


I have had this book, from W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith, for a while, and have been soaking in it pretty thoroughly.

The usual questions seem silly. Is it good? Does it work? Of course it does. This isn't new work, this isn't even recent, and there are really no questions here. It is monumental, the work of the acknowledged master of the form, at the peak of his power. This is a good book, it is powerful, it is successful. It is a book of its time, and one of the most potent expressions of that time that I have seen. It stands with Silent Spring (published 10 years before the work began) and perhaps bookends that era of change.

Looking back on the era coming to a close as this book is published seems incredible to me. Corporations still do plenty of harm, capitalism seems still be be largely about shoveling off expenses, risks, damage, onto those least able to complain about them. Still, in the world we live in today all but the most rabid corporatists seem to take a basic suspicion of corporations as perfectly normal. It's not even radical to suspect that Monsanto is lying about, well, everything, to the extent that even the things they say which are obviously true are suspect. US President Nixon signs the EPA in to law a year before the Smiths move to Minamata.

The book is at least as much words as it is pictures. There are words, lots of them. There are pictures, lots of them. Sometimes the pictures simply illustrate the words, more often they complement the words. There is much to be learned here about how to marry these two forms together. The Smiths tell us of the town's connection to the sea, and then they show us, but the pictures are not direct illustrations. Rather, they are a parallax view of the same ideas, shown to us at roughly the same time. Neither provides a detailed chronology of events (although a chronology is included in an appendix). Neither pictures nor words claim to even give anything but a single view, a fragmentary glimpse, of any one thing. It is more poetry than prose.

The story of Minamata is vastly more complex than I ever knew, more fraught, more interesting, and more terrible. I'm going to extract a pair of threads of the book, and talk about them.

Since I've been thinking about ethics, and because I got the book specifically to try to understand Smith's take on the ethical concerns, these threads do concern ethics. Don't expect any conclusions, I don't think I have any. This is, if anything, a meditation on the subject.

Some background. Minamata has long been tied to the sea. Fishermen, for generations, wrested their livelihood, as well as food for the town, from the waters of Minamata Bay. In the 20th century, Minamata became as well a company town, as Chisso built a large plant there to manufacture acetaldehyde. For decades, they used a mercury catalyzed process, and dumped methyl mercury into those same waters, the waters of Minamata Bay. It turns out this stuff is pretty toxic.

There ensued a series of investigations, of outbreaks of Minamata Disease. There were coverups, denials, and settlement after settlement, over a period decades.

The upshot of the circumstances, though, was that the town was fractured into multiple factions. The disease came from the sea, the sea which had always sustained them. The fishermen didn't want to believe that. The disease came from the company, and the employees didn't want to believe that. The disease became stigmatized for all these reasons and more. Many active sufferers denied being ill, or denied that Minamata Disease was their illness. Others shunned the sick. Familes and friendships shattered. Chisso management, of course, obeyed their natural loyalty to the company and sided as far as possible with any faction that wanted to downplay, to deny, the company's role, the severity of the sickness, and so on. There were many such factions to side with.

Into this chaos arrive the Smiths, a white man and a half-Japanese wife. Outsiders both, and only one speaks the language. She doesn't even speak the local dialect (although she picks up up pretty quickly). Smith is here to document a story that everyone has a strong opinion on, and that many opine should not be told at all. Even the most open of the maimed, the ill, suffered from the social stigma of the disease. Many sufferers were children, many sufferers were dying.

The tension of ethical concerns rings through the book. A wife gives permission to photograph her dying husband, who is well beyond giving consent. The doctor, however, asserts that she is just being nice, that Smith should not photograph. Smith photographs the man's hands.

Without much effort, we can detect a mesh of duty, of obligation, of consent given and withheld, that connects everyone. The company men, the patients, the Smiths, extending to us, the viewers. The Smiths felt, I think correctly, that much could reasonably be sacrificed to tell this story, the story is that important. And yet, they photographed the children, maimed, damaged. The parents, no doubt, gave permission. Consent, once given, cannot be revoked. The exposure is made, the print is published. Fin.

And yet, the social situation is fluid. Children, the lucky ones at any rate, grow up and develop their own ideas. The pictures float around in the world, become popular, become valuable, and yet the consent, given once and for all time in 1972, is inflexible, permanent. This is, obviously, absurd, and yet how can it be otherwise? We cannot function as a society if contracts, promises, can be revoked willy-nilly.

It happens that now, paradoxically, I own a physical copy of "Tomoko in her Bath", the copyright to which was given back to the girl's family by Aileen Smith, a photograph that is so difficult, so intimate, that the family has not, to my knowledge, given permission to reproduce it since. I too am complicit. Tomoko became an adult, albeit never capable of communication, and then died. She was never able to give or deny consent. This possession may be the one I feel least comfortable with of all the things I own, and yet, I will keep it. The conflict I feel is resolved by the strength of the book which contains the picture I don't want to possess.

Tellingly, Eugene Smith opens the book by remarking that "objective" is a word that should be struck from journalism. He and his wife inserted themselves into the story, and were able thereby to tell it far better. The account is biased, but not, that I can detect, unfair. You'd think that living in Minamata the Smiths would be anti-Chisso, but this does not seem to be the case, which leads us to the second thread of the two I promised you at the outset.

We see throughout hints and remarks that suggest the conflicts felt by the Chisso employees, the people who made up the corporate entity. Where the Smiths provide detail on any individual, it is clear that the people of Chisso empathized with the patients, with the victims, but were constrained by their loyalty to Chisso-the-entity to work against those same people. The doctor who demonstrated that Chisso's waste was likely the cause, the engineer who testified reluctantly for a year, and most importantly the president of Chisso. The president who, incredibly, kept a shrine in which was written the names of every patient, and in which he prayed while simultaneously negotiating for the future of his company against the better interests of those patients.

The Chisso men knew that, like consent given once to the photographer, ground given to the victims would never be recovered. Give up too much, and the corporate entity could fail (and it nearly did in the end, under the burdens it was forced to finally accept). Smith, as far as I can tell, never suggests that Chisso's people were evil, or even that their actions were particularly evil. Wrong, inhumane, certainly. And evil was certainly done, but by some gestalt of all that existed. Likewise, perhaps, town folk who shunned the sick were not evil, and yet, likewise, evil was done.

In the early 1970s, a small group of victims won a suit against the company, setting compensation terms. This triggered direct negotiation by a much larger group of victims, demanding the same terms. Chisso, correctly, claimed that they could not afford to pay that much. In the end, one of the victims smashed a glass ashtray and with a fragment slashed his wrist in the crowded negotiation room. He exclaiming loudly that without the money, he could not live. The president (who, let us recall, Smith has been at some pains to point out is basically a good man) breaks. The president says that they will pay. The president's empathy with the victims at last overwhelms his appalling loyalty to the corporate entity.

And that's it. Consent, once given, cannot be revoked. The president has spoken, the company will pay. And did pay. In the end, they needed a government bailout to survive, but they paid.

There is nothing in this scenario I can imagine occurring in a modern American company. The president would have been immediately replaced with a new president by the board of directors, who themselves are human but hold themselves conveniently distant from the victims and are thus able to remain monsters. Negotiations would probably still be locked in stasis to the enrichment of lawyers all around.

Whether good men or evil populate it, the corporate entity acts to protect itself, and it has learned how better to do so. Don't let those people negotiate, and make sure the ashtrays are made of plastic if you do. Somewhere, in some corporate archive, surely there is in a book of recommendations written by some basically decent corporate drone, the notation that glass ashtrays should be removed from conference rooms used for negotiation. Evil is done, and yet nobody in particular has done it.

So we see again a web of duty, obligation, consent, loyalty, connecting the corporate entity, the corporate men, the victims, a web that extends, perhaps, to you and me.

On the one hand we have the problem of corporate pollution, and more generally the problems of corporate greed. Corporations operate under the theory that if it has not yet been lost in court, then it is not only legal, it is "meet and just", it is proper. If it increases profits, it is actually the responsibility of management to pursue that course.

On the other hand, we have the problems of photojournalism, and of photographic storytelling in general. There is a loud school of thought that asserts that if it is legal, it is good, it is proper. These people say things like "you have no expectation of privacy in public" and therefore justify their photography of people in public. A school of thought, really the same one in disguise, argues that if a rule says that you should not photograph something, then a photograph of that is necessarily wrong, improper, without further investigation.

Just as corporations could do with a bit more empathy, a bit more humanity, a more nuanced approach, so too could photographers.

Gene Smith had no patience for "objectivity" in journalism, and very little patience for any sort of literal detail-by-detail approach to truth. His pictures are manipulated, the sequence of pictures is more manipulated. They're not even in chronological order! The text skips vast swathes of detail, leaves out chunks of information, focuses in on exact transcripts of this conversation, in on that minor detail, chosen specifically to make this point or that, all overtly to serve the author's passion. The Smiths struggled with consent, with issues of what pictures they could properly take and which they could not, throughout the project. In the end, they followed their own judgement, making best choices they could to balance the needs of the story -- and of the world -- against the needs of their subjects.

The power, the great and terrible power, of the photograph is its basic truth, its indexical relationship with the world it depicts. In the end, we must take what photographs seem best to us. With humility and awareness of the awful power we're wielding, with empathy for our subjects. In the end, we must take due care with these pictures. Consent, legalities, details of this and that, fade to nothing before the vast web of obligation and duty that binds the subject, the photographer, and all of us who look at the picture, together. This is not to suggest that we can do without them, surely not. But these are only the beginning, the obvious and trivial bits and pieces of what is proper, what is just.

To stop with "it's legal and I have a signed consent" and declare ourselves morally clean is utterly wrong, the real situation is much larger, and your chances for moral correctness are probably nil anyways. Similarly, to assume that "legal" and "consent" are inviolable prerequisites is to make essentially the same error. It's bigger and more complicated than that.

Accept that you will probably fail, if you are doing anything of any weight at all. W. Eugene Smith failed, at least once. He did not predict the power and consequences of "Tomoko in her bath", he did not predict that the consent given would not, in the end, be enough to cover his debt. He did not know, he could not know, that the connections between Gene Smith, Tomoko Uemura, her family, and all of us in the world would flow and change and eventually become something that even the importance of the story could not overcome his duty.

You will fail too, at least if you take pictures of people, if you do any work with weight and meaning. It's practically built in. Consent, once given, cannot be easily revoked. The picture, once published, cannot be recalled. You will do harm, if you take enough pictures.

Try to do more good than harm.

Gene and Aileen Smith, in this book, and shown us the way on both fronts simultaneously.

Thanks, guys.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Policy change -

This is a change in policy, I've been thinking it over and there's a distinct gap in my very liberal comment moderation policy.

Insulting other commenters, even as a joke, is likely to get your comment silently dropped. Unfortunately, I can't edit your comments, I can only publish them, or dump them. I will err on the side of assuming that when you appear mean-spirited, you are mean-spirited, and will dump comments as necessary. If your comment doesn't appear, feel free to re-make it, with the insults removed! I may even contact you, if your contact info is easy to find!

I realize that this is a new thing, and I am not going to go "clean up" any existing comments. Up until this moment, I had no policy on this (except, arguably, the "don't be a dick" policy, which I admit was rather vague). It has a chilling effect on conversation when you attack one another. Attacking me just makes me talk more, so keep that in mind as well. But I have to be here, nobody else does.

Thank you!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Two Quick Notes

I have a copy of Gene Smith's Minamata book and I am absorbing it. It's a big deal. More later.

I have successfully bookified this essay from earlier, and you can buy it at cost here. You don't need to, since it's all online anyways, and I don't make any money, so. But if you want to, you can have a physical thing. A few people will be getting a copy from me. If I have never stayed overnight in your home, though, you're safe.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Another Opportunity for Comparison

Comparing, this time, what people say with what they do. Here's one of the righteous people out there on twitter fighting for what is right and true, one Maria Lopez. Maria has been doing her bit to condem people who take terrible exploitative photographs, here she is commenting somewhere:

I’m no photographer. I’m a visual anthropologist (yes there is such thing). And as such, I want to say to photographers and image producers: either you come up with narratives that respect the subject (hint= do not deny agency over the discourse about themselves, do no deny dignity) + tells something interesting (hint= interrogates the interrelations that make up the complexities you should be interested in) , or you don’t shoot. It’s that simple.

Now let us examine some of her fine visual anthropological study, available here: remembering hell

A quick google around reveals that these are literally the standard tourist snaps of the standard objects everyone takes when they go to Choeung Ek and take the standard 1 hour (or whatever it is) Killing Fields tour. Keep in mind that, for all we know, some of the skulls she so dutifully photographs could be muslim skulls, or skulls belonging to some other religious group, the original owners of those skulls might not be thrilled with the current regime using their body parts for display. Maria Lopez doesn't care, though.

Not a hell of a lot of that "respecting the subject" here (she "can't" speak to the survivors, everyone else "doesn't" speak to them, everyone else "wants a piece of them" and Maria bravely photographs them, or some goddamned thing). Not a hell of a lot of interrogating the interrelationships here. She gives no evidence that she has even read the wikipedia page on the Cambodian Genocide. There are "interrelationships" which could be "interrogated" here, but she doesn't bother, doesn't care, she's had her 1 hour tour and she's done.

By being a standard tourist, she is simply regurgitating the narrative the current Cambodian government wants to promote which is at the very least a bit problematic (those damned skulls).

Tourist girl goes to Cambodia, takes the standard tour, takes the standard snaps, writes a few hundred words of weepy bullshit about events that happened decades before she was born and half a world away, and throws it up on the web as "visual anthropology", then takes to twitter to decry unethical photojournalism.

This is the quality of person we have "policing" the ethics of an industry. This is the quality of person that presumes to dictate to Magnum how they ought to conduct themselves. She makes James Curtis look like an intellectual superhero.