Sunday, October 21, 2018

Can't. Stop. Laughing.

BIG NEWS, NINJAS!

The awesome new Medium Format eMagazine (that is to say, blog) is live! It's so exciting. For a mere $25 a month you can read the wise words of the likes of Lloyd Chambers, Ming Thein, Patrick Laroque helping you rationalize the breathtaking sums you have spent on a perfectly ordinary camera.

Here is editor-in-chief, or whatever he styles himself, Olaf Sztaba, in a piece entitled "50 Shades of MF" about why he shoots medium format.

Here is what is the most appealing to me when working with medium format. I can capture and depict light in multiple dimensions and with variety, which I was not able to do with my other cameras. A new, sort of grey area has appeared – 50 shades of it! Yes, this is the visual sphere which the cellphone crowd will not give a damn about but I do! I call them transition strokes when light changes, bends and submerges into coexisting elements in the image. In most cameras, this metamorphosis is rather abrupt and loud. In the medium-format camera, it takes the form of “melting” (I stole this word from Patrick La Roque :)) as if there was no border – no beginning or end. Your eyes wander without interruption between shadows and highlights. The light becomes liquid and perpetually spills over. This allows the photographer to blend light and shadow in a way that was not possible before. It reminds me of recording and listening to music.


This does not, as nearly as I can tell, mean anything except give me your money, fools, GIVE IT TO MEEEEEEEE.

Damn right it's like recording and listening to music. This is straight out of the audiophile playbook. Invent some undefined and indefinable terms, "transition strokes", and the wax on poetically about them, and the experience of them. Be sure to slip in a diss to anyone with lesser equipment and lesser senses who are unable to see the wonder of the Emperor's New Transition Strokes.

The reference to the famous BDSM themed novel, and the phrase "transition strokes" makes me go "hmm". What is stroking whom and in what way, here?

Or, really, it might be simpler to list what is not getting stroked.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

How We Judge

Specifically, how do we judge pictures. But everything else, too.

First off, most people don't. They're interested in the content, and as long as they can make out what the content is, that's pretty much all they care about.

No, I mean those of us who judge pictures as pictures.

I have gone in at length in years past about how social groups rapidly converge on very specific standards, which are then pretty much all that is in play when it comes to members of the group judging pictures. My recent experiment on ARS Beta only reinforced my ideas on that front, and were surprising to me since it turns out that almost no social interaction is required to produce a remarkably restrictive community standard.

Consider for a moment that in a larger sense, we are all members of society, societies, members of overlapping and expanding circles of society stretching outward to "all living things" or wherever else you might choose to stop.

Art is a construct of those overlapping groups of humanity, with their conflicting, intersecting, overlapping, and evolving ideas of what constitutes Art, Good Art, Interesting Art. It cannot, as near as I can tell, be otherwise, and so to complain that pictures are judged based merely on social standards is in a way absurd. On what other basis, after all, would we judge?

Well, when society is working properly, ideas flow around from person to person. We attend to ideas that we see, or hear, or read, we internalize those ideas, and then we produce (sometimes) our own notions based on everything that is in us. Things come in to me, and things go out of me. Ideas meet, join or repulse one another, evolve, and become something new. Sometimes the new idea is recognizably the old one, or a rejection of it, sometimes it is a more complex synthesis of stuff.

There are, as I see it, two basic forces operating here. These exist in each of us as individuals, and also reflected in society as a whole.

One force seeks to support, to clarify, to exalt a specific interlocking set of ideas. This force argues against other ideas, seeks to suppress them. It rejects ideas that do not fit, in the service of its singular goal. This force is comforting, tempting. It promises simplicity and clarity, it offers us the answers. See also politics, religion.

The other force seeks novelty, contradiction, the energy of hybridization. It welcomes other ideas, seeks to integrate them, to blend them with that which already is. This is a lot more fun, but can be uncomfortable for people.

Neither is particularly good or evil, both are necessary. Without the first, the ideas flowing through society flit lightly from place to place, never becoming clear, never becoming a plan of action, never really producing greatness, a kind of foolish and fluffy anarchy. Without the second, ideas ossify into dogma, enforced by thick-headed authoritarian brutes.

The trouble with social media is that is it encourages the creation of the second scenario, the one without the fluffy anarchy of hybridization. More exactly, social media enables the creation of infinitely many islands of this scenario. That uncomfortable business of contradiction and disagreement can be muted, blocked, banned, unfollowed, or sometimes just bullied out of existence. The single unified voice, preaching a single unified and simple dogma, is as popular on Facebook as it is in a church of a political system. ARS Beta has shown us that you can eliminate virtually every aspect of these systems, except the single "win approval" aspect, and the result is precisely the same. A single authoritarian voice arises, with alarming swiftness, and the interesting part of the game ends.

The single voice allows us a simple set of standards by which we can judge.

Pictures, here, are judged pretty much exclusively on how closely the resemble other pictures that the unified and authoritarian voice tells us are good pictures.

This part is pretty much normal. Why is the Mona Lisa great? Because authoritarian voices, which are to an infinitesimal degree our own voices, tell us so.

The part that is not ok is when nothing else is a good picture, when that fluffy and foolish anarchy is eliminated almost entirely. Nothing new turns up. The ossified ideas simply stiffen, cool, and simplify further.

It is from this impulse that we derive some many terrible rules of composition. These "rules" are always -- always -- presented to us specifically as methods by which one can make pictures which resemble pictures drawn from the canon of authoritarian-blessed pictures.

At this point I will crawl out on to a limb and see what happens.

The vast majority of people who style themselves Serious Photographers appear to be men who like technical things. The lean toward rule-based solutions to problems. They lean, in fact, toward that authoritarian impulse that seeks the simple answers, that like pictures that look like other pictures. Photography communities both online and offline tend to be dominated by these people, and are, to be blunt, pretty fucking toxic.

The ugly truth is that most people think fascism is a good idea -- if they can be in charge.

Separate from that are people who actually are Serious Photographers. These people embrace both sides of the business, the anarchy and the authority, in various measures.

Interestingly, the male dominance drops a lot over here. Not, I think, because women are better, but because women are repulsed by the authoritarian communities and seek other places to be. They find more balanced places to be, and to make their Art.

Friday, October 19, 2018

ARS (beta)

Eric Kim seems to be the driving force behind this new thing that he wants to see change the way we give and receive critique on photos, which I guess is named ARS but is in the "beta" stage of development? Anyways, it's called ARS Beta and it has "moonshot" dreams to "disrupt the photo industry and social media" well, me too, bud. You can go look at it here.

Essentially, you log in to the thing with a google account and upload some photos. You have to participate (rate photos) in order to upload photos. Your photos are in turn shown to other users for rating ("keep" or "ditch" are the choices) and, optionally, a line or two of written critique.

Key points for rating photos: you get no indication of the photo's author, you do not see other ratings or critiques, and the photo shown is remarkably small.

The anonymity does a lot of good things. There's no pile-on effects of any sort. You're on your own, judging this thing on its own merits, as it were. It also seems to completely eliminate the site's dreams of being social in any way shape or form, so I am not sure where they're going with that. But let's get back to the photos.

What the photo's owner sees is what percentage of ratings are "keep" and any written critiques (unattributed).

The algorithm is heavily biased toward showing you recently uploaded work, which makes sense. Over time, you get more and more pictures in the system, but not proportionately more and more users, and you've got to get the new stuff rated. So your new picture will get examined for a day or two, and after that you're pretty much done. I have been getting anywhere from 0 to 5 written critiques, and I think something on the order of 50 ratings. You can tell for a while how many you have: 50% keep probably means "two ratings" if you see it in the first hour. 33% or 66% shows up next, generally, and so on. So, most of the time people just click one of the two buttons.

Based on some glancing at the "top users" ad "top photos" (which is one of the few ways you can begin to connect content with people, but it's very very tenuous) and the ratings their photos have received, people mostly click "ditch" -- it appears that you are doing pretty well to get a photo in the area of 50% "keep" ratings. The results in the "top" links are, maybe?, from the previous month, but only the top 40-odd pictures were over half "keep" ratings.

This makes sense, of course. People on a site like this are likely to consider themselves to have good taste, and especially given the anonymous nature of things (no incentive to be kind) are likely to click "ditch" constantly. Even I do, although I write critiques much more often than average.

You would think that with all these anonymous elements, that the top photos would be an eclectic mix.

They are not.

What ARS Beta users like is high contrast black and white photos, invariably with a single human figure in the middle or far distance, with strongly graphical shadow play. There are a few exceptions in the top photos, but not many.

The fact that the pictures are shown small tends, I think, to produce a strong preference for simple graphical designs. Anything not very simple tends to collapse into incomprehensible busy-ness. The fact that the users are weighted toward effete Eric Kim fans (wannabee street photographers) means that pictures should look as much like their lazy ideas of what an Henri Cartier-Bresson looks like as possible. The top photos include two direct copies of Henri's bicyclist shot, both much weaker than the original (they're sharp, for one thing).

They do not go for just any random garbage. I tested it, turning some random junk into a high contrast black and white photo, and achieved a record low 3% keep rating:



I tried some high contrast black and white geometry, and got up to a 23% keep percentage:



At this point I started throwing in people. This one, which the attentive reader will recognize, achieved 76% keepers, my best rating:



I tried a couple pictures of just people, portrait-y things. This is not a brilliant portrait, but at 17% it's clearly not just people in b&w that's floating the boat here:



Oddly enough they liked this one enough to give it a 62% rating, which is quite favorable. It's a very pretty picture, highly graphical, and it's b&w?



To their credit, they do not just like girls. This was just straight-up bait, and garnered only 27% keepers:



But onwards and upwards.

69%

57%

60%


And on and on. I could hammer these things out endlessly, and some of them would do pretty well. Interestingly, the only actually good photograph I put up is this one (again, familiar to the long time reader). It's the only one with any "story" on its own, it's actually interesting, although perhaps it's been ruined by the ubiquity of the distracted boyfriend meme. It got a 45% keeper rating:



And to give you an idea of the level of written critique:

[Ditch] A man's attention is taken by a passing woman. Could be cropped a little tighter. Should have been taken a second later.

[Keep] Nice, he is looking at other woman, that's cool.

Neither of these commenters actually looked at the picture in any depth. The first is just stupid. 10 milliseconds later the shot was gone. The second guy is missing about half of the byplay.

Anyways.

ARS Beta is a bold effort, but I think it illustrates perfectly that virtually any community will have some sort of weird inbred tastes, and that people will learn to cater to them, and then you've got a hideous feedback loop of terrible.

But I think more importantly it shows us just how bankrupt the idea of the single iconic image is. The idea that you can meaningfully critique a single picture, without any context, without any notion of what it's for, is simply stupid. People will reach for whatever crutch they can, in this case "does it resemble one of the 2 or 3 photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson that I can remember?" with a dash of modernity thrown in -- they like sharp, highly contrasty, and a little of that "HDR look" lightly salted in will do no harm.

Ultimately the whole thing is a deeply stupid exercise in attempted ego-stroking.

I don't see how Eric Kim is going to monetize this thing, but I suppose if he can get enough users some idiot in Silicon Valley will give him a billion dollars.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Colberg on Dada

Jörg has another book review up, a book I'm not much interested in.

What I find interesting is his labored discussion leading up to the discussion of the book. On the one hand, good for him attempting to place the book in some sort of Art-Historical context.

On the other hand, if you watch what his hands are doing closely you will see that he starts out bringing up Dada, describing it very quickly (citing the same link to The Tate's 231 word description of the term no less than three times but providing no other references. Colberg likes the Tate's web page, because it gives him access to the word "satirical" which he uses to caulk up the seams in his argument. Other obvious references are less generous. The next step is to dismiss what the practitioners of Dada said it meant, and substitute his own interpretation based on a British TV Comedy Show. Then he lumps the book he's discussing into this exciting new definition.

I was tempted to give him a pass on this, because whatever, until it occurred to me that there's a perfectly serviceable category that does exactly what he wants without having to drag in sitcoms.

If he flipped a few pages further into his copy of Art History for Dummies he might well have stumbled across surrealism, which appears to be more or less precisely what he is talking about.

How well the book itself fits under either label I am not prepared to judge.

My point is that Colberg's new-and-improved Dada appears to more closely resemble surrealism.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Well, well, well.

One publishes a some negative remarks on The Phoblographer's "Emulsion" shit-show, and one finds oneself shortly after subscribed to some magazines that one is not interested in.

It does not take a rocket scientist to guess the process here. Chris cannot even be bothered to email me back denying it, and while I cannot be bothered to do the work necessary to construct a hard link (or the absence of such a link) I am morally certain Mr. Gampat decided to sign me up for a few rags in a fit of pique, because he is an immature little prat.

Happily, I can cancel subscriptions rather more quickly than he can sign me up for them, so it's asymmetrical the wrong way around. Not surprising, really. Our boy ain't particularly sharp.

Naturally, this will not deter me. If Chris is so foolish as to attempt further print efforts, I will be reviewing them as well. He should probably attempt to make sure they're not garbage, if he wants a good review.

Something to keep in mind if you're considering some business adventure with this particular young grifter.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Crit: Metropole by Lewis Bush

This is a book you have to begin with a google search. What the hell, you ask yourself, does "Metropole" mean? You probably know that it refers to London if you've gone to the trouble of obtaining this book, but what does it mean? It means, it turns out, the "mother city", but actually the central country of an Empire. It refers in this case to England in general, and London in particular, but the word has also been applied to Portugal and probably other Imperial countries.

I should mention in passing that you can buy your own copy here: Metropole.

Lewis lives in London, and always has. He is unhappy with his country, as so many of his generation are, and not without reason. This book is (a part of) his response to that.

It's not a complicated book.

The first section, entitled "Metropole", is a series of black and white photographs of tall buildings, many under construction, taken at night. Well, let me back up. There is an opening photograph, before the section's title page, of a skyscraper at night shot through a window. One imagines a bedroom window. It's a strong open. One imagines the sleepless author, gazing sleepdumb at his home town, at what his home town has become. And then we proceed to learn what that is.

This section is quite long given its content, on purpose. It is supposed to feel overlong, stretched out. Full bleed two page-spreads of illuminated construction of large buildings. The pace picks up visually. Not all photos are of construction any more, some appear to be completed, occupied, but it becomes more difficult to discern. At first a few subtle "double exposures" appear, two variant photos layering atop one another. Motion blur is introduced, then mirroring, and more layering. There is at least one lull, but the general trend is more, faster, denser, wilder. By the end, the density of repetition is largely abstract. You recognize it, generally, as architecture, but in many ways it resembles some 1960s movie notion of a Computer Processing Core, you can practically imagine the voiceover about the Megaframe Computer.

Every sixth page the orange thread of the binding's sewing kind of pops out at you. More on this in the sequel.

The mad frenzy of buildings ends, and the second section, entitled "Developments" begins.

A single page of text appears, which expresses the author's position clearly, with perhaps a hint of poetry, just before the title page of "Developments", a kind of recapitulation of the opening window picture. The author is no longer dumb with sleep, but passionate, perhaps eloquent. The frenzied over-development, he says, is bad, driven by speculators and offshore money, and is going to lead to an economic crash. The frenzied present has been, as the upcoming crash will be, disastrous for the people who actually live in London.

This section is also bound in 6es, with the same orange thread. The paper changes to a cheaper, lighter feeling paper. The structure here is 4 full bleed two page photo spreads, followed by a another two page spread of text. Repeat the pattern 7 times. The 4 photo spreads are pixelated, one recognizes them quickly as photographs of a computer screen. A little less quickly, one recognizes them as adverts for buildings or developments. The anonymity and distribution of human figures in each picture displays that characteristic and yet completely artificial nonchalance of the architectural mockup. A quick check online finds any of the pictures almost immediately, as expected on some web site promoting the development in question. The text spread following each group of four provides a basic description of each of the advertised development projects. Development company, financing, a CEO, number and kind of units, whether and how much affordable housing has been mandated, and so on. Attached to each is a hundred words or so detailing the inevitable shenanigans behind each development's approval.

The story is always the same. Lies, chicanery, promises broken, regulations flouted, waivers granted by weak-willed politicians too in love with money to turn down the polite request of a man in a very expensive suit. Vast sums of money, and enormous profits, natch.

The buildings are uniformly staggeringly ugly.

If I have counted correctly, 28 separate development projects are covered, every one as nearly as I can tell started some time between 2001 and the present day. London's a big place but good lord that still seems like a lot, which is rather the point. One gets the idea that there are rather more, as well.

So there it is.

Does it work? Well, I think it does.

What I find most interesting here is that the whole thing relies of masses of material rather than individual... anything. There is nothing here that really invites deep inspection. The photos in the "Metropole" section do not reward inspection, they are to be flipped through fairly quickly, to create a sense of frenetic pace, and of the wheels falling off. The "Developments" section is more like an encyclopedia than a novel, it is fun to dip in and read this and that. It might be fun to look up a development you're familiar with. But it would be frankly a chore to read it start to finish. Again, it functions by sheer mass. You rapidly come to understand that London is simply a mass of development after development with the same terrible designs, the same failure to respect, well, anything, the same greed, the same disinterest in regulations, in people, in anything but building something and reaping the awards and the cash.

Whether you read 3 or 4 taken at random, whether you skim them all, or whether you take the plunge and closely read Every Single One, the impression you get will be the same.

I assume that this is by design, and that works very well indeed.

The orange thread. This book is "swiss bound" which is a phrase I cannot manage to recall when I see these things, and which means roughly "we forgot to glue the front cover" which seems terribly un-swiss to me, but I didn't name the thing. It makes the case of the book into something that is more obviously a container, a sort of box that wraps around the book, and there are no doubt cases where this works well. Here, I am unsure.

The book itself is very well made, it feels weighty, serious. It is, in its own somber way, a rather beautiful object. The raw, rear, edge of the text block is rather unbeautiful. It's not wilfully ugly, it's just the product of a binding machine, a product intended to be covered up.

This is probably intended as one or both of: a) revealing the seedy back side of things, which is sort of the book's point b) recapitulating the notion of construction. The orange thread is in fact safety orange, or a very close hue to same, and recalls safety tape, the vests, the helmets and the other highly visible notes of the construction site.

I get it, and it is semiotically functional here. But, it feels slight, it feels a bit silly. The book is fucking serious. This guy is pissed off, he's spent a lot of time digging around and writing and taking pictures and banging on them in photoshop. He's done some work here to make a point and I feel as if the orange thread and the exposed binding cheapen that effort to an extent.

Beyond that my criticisms are all of the form "I wish this book was something other than what it is"

Metropole is a cri de cœur, an impassioned complaint. Lewis has a point of view (thank God) and has expressed it. What I wish the book was, was a call to action. It is obvious, I suppose, that the natural corollaries to the book begin with relieving a large number of neoliberal and conservative elected officials of their governmental duties. Still, it would be nice to see that stated.

This book is, nearly, an effective piece of propaganda, it is, almost, a call to arms. It is arguably a demand for change, but it is not a template for change.

The problems of London are global problems. Land prices are spiraling upwards, and the regular working people are finding it incrementally more difficult year on year to find somewhere reasonable to live. Speculation and rampant development both obey and define a market that seems to be out of control. The sleepy college town of Bellingham, pop. 80,000 or so, is infested with neoliberal shitheads who are pretty sure that the route to affordable housing is to deregulate and hand tax breaks around. But you know, only to Green Developers. Or whatever.

"They'll stick a solar panel on the roof, so those snappy little condos starting at $800K or so are OK, right? And they contributed... hmm, hmm, calculate, calculate, hmm, um... some money to our affordable housing slush fund, so that's almost like solving the affordable housing problem, right? Right? Right?"

The trouble, really, is not that housing is too expensive. Nor is it that wages are too low. The trouble, really, is that the gap between these two is too large. The reason that it is too large is that this gap is, precisely, what the 1% of the most wealthy think of as their "rightful profits." The solution to the problem of housing affordability is to persuade these people to take a moderately smaller pound of flesh for their hard labor of, um, whatever it is that they do with their days.

Traditionally, this persuasion is accomplished by shooting a couple large batches of them, until either none of them are left or the remainder begin asking for suggestions as to how they can help.

Just sayin'.

The previous two paragraphs are a historical note not a call to arms, and should be read as a remark made in the voice of this blog's author, not by Lewis Bush whose opinion in this matter is completely unknown to me.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Would-Be Publisher

As everyone knows we are inundated in photographs. Everyone takes too many pictures, there are too many pictures, we're being deadened to the Photographic Image, nobody has any taste any more and obviously the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Well, I don't really believe much of that, except the bits about sheer numbers of pictures. But there is an interesting knock-on effect that I have just put together.

There are a gajillion photographers out there. Perhaps a million of them are doing quite good work, in one sense or another. Let me include under that umbrella the sort of twee self-referential bullshit that sells so well to professors in MFA programs and the artier of the photobook publishers, insofar as those two categories differ. And probably a bunch of other categories of work I might or might not like but either way have not thought of. What I mean is work that some actual audience of non-trivial size approves of that's not just your mom.

With a million (or whatever, I made that number up, but the point is it's a lot) people out there churning out work that is good enough to appeal to someone or other, this has led to a whole range of would-be publishers, serving the frantic desires of many of that army of a million.

I've talked in some depth about the predatory photobook publishers. I've talked about, well, about one zine.

It turns out that there are plenty of zines out there. It turns out that the fantasy of being some sort of hip zine editor is pretty appealing, so an incredible number of people try to grind these things out.

Publishing, however, is harder than it looks.

On the face of it, you just get some content from someplace, and in the world of photography content more or less throws itself at you the moment you say "Let's Put On A Zine!", and you need something or other than can output a PDF, and there you are. You can do an eZine by getting a domain and sticking your PDF on it, and then plastering your domain name all over social media. You can do a print zine by uploading your PDF to one of any number of on-demand presses.

Simple, right?

Not really.

The production of the item is more complicated and boring than you think. There's a virtually unlimited amount of design and editing skill that can be shoved into the thing usefully. This is where zines fall short. A young exuberant fellow just has too much raw talent to spend much time on fiddly bits like that, he'll make up for the lousy production values with the sheer raw talent, right? (no) On the back end, there's the problem of selling the goddamned thing. This is where the predatory book publishers fall flat. They have no idea what will sell, and furthermore don't care. They get paid on the front end, not the back, so if it sells, well that's nice but so what?

The predatory book publishers do at least have the relevant design tools and skills in-house, or at least on speed-dial, so there's a possibility that you'll get a decently made book out of it instead of a ridiculous looking mess.

This is not to suggest that all publishing is terrible. Brook Jensen's LENSWORK is a well made magazine, with good photographs in it (of a certain type that are not quite my cup of tea, but you can't have everything). There are good publishers of photobooks out there. Steidl may be a bit of a put on, but the guy seems to do good work without bilking all the artists, and I am reliably informed that there are other publishers that manage to do much the same.

Some publishers may indeed do both, bilking this artist, while producing an excellent and well-received book on honorable terms the very next month. I dare some some of the amateur zine publishers get it together and produce quite decent work after a false start or two.

But the point is that the vast numbers of photographers have engendered a shady knock-on market for would-be publishers. It's not healthy, and it muddles up the market not only for photographs but for publications built around photographs.