Thursday, July 2, 2015

But Still...

The previous post notwithstanding, I am just kinda fuckin around with stuff most of the time.

Which isn't incompatible with the other stuff.


My wife and I talked the other day about some things tangentially related to this, which is where this comes from.

I'm basically midwestern in outlook. When I'm working on something, especially something artistic, I tend to be very vague and non-committal about it. "I'm just fuckin' around with some stuff". I don't really share unfinished things. As the long-time reader will know, I most definitely don't share stuff online, but I also don't share with people close to me. People you'd think I want to include.

This is because, I am pretty sure, the process is essentially a solitary one. I'm trying to dredge things up from inside me and turn them in to something in a picture, and then a set of pictures, and then a set of pictures mounted in a book. I don't know if this picture or that picture is any good. I probably won't know for a while, and anyways it's possible that one picture isn't much good until you stick it next to a different picture, and so on. I'm groping in the darkness, inside myself, with the camera, in a mass of half-finished crap, trying continuously to sort it out and make some sense out of it.

The reality of this situation is that the last thing I need is any kind of external commentary. What's someone going to say? My wife, because she loves me and thinks I'm pretty great even when I am not, is going to be tempted to say something nice. Which might be lovely, but might be exactly the wrong thing to say at that moment. Anyone with firm opinions about pictures and definite ideas about how they ought to be might try to offer helpful advice. God help me.

Even a simple reaction, an indication of whether the project or the pictures or this picture "reads" a certain way, it's no good until the project is done.

The most recent thing, the Edsel books, relied in part on the angle in which the photos were mounted. It wasn't a big deal, but it's a piece of the whole experience. It's an element. If my beloved wife didn't "get it" as a stack of photos, I'd be left wondering if maybe it was because I hadn't yet mounted them.

At this point it's got to be a kind of wild leap into the unknown. Just do it. Pull it together as best you can, finish it, and put it out there. Maybe it's crap, maybe it's good. Maybe it's somewhere in between.

All I can be sure of is that I don't want the waters muddied by other people midway. The waters are pretty goddamned muddy already and it's a job to find my way through the mess I've made all by myself.

But in the end it's all about whoever picks the work up and looks at it. I love you and I hope you find something in the book.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


As I have mentioned, the thing I do these days is make handmade booklike objects with pictures stuck into them. In editions of three. One for me, one to give to ... someone project specific, and one to release into the wild.

It is such an enormous relief to wrap one of these stupid things up. To get that third book abandoned in a coffee shop, or into the hands of the right person, or whatever. To be done. Freedom to move on.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Photographs and Reality II

This is a followon to the previous remarks.

In the past we had a situation in which the reality of a photograph was assumed. If it looked real, the assumption was "it looked pretty much like that", that's pretty much what most people thought when they saw the picture. This is why a photo of a little girl running down a road, naked and on fire, had such an impact on the Vietnam war. A painting of that same scene, a drawing, a verbal description, would have had far less impact simply because the viewer would automatically assume that it could never have really looked like that. That's utter madness, nothing is that terrible. And yet, it was just that terrible, the child's terror and pain was just that great.

There is a reason that the US military is controlling the photographic narrative from their current wars so tightly. They'd really prefer not to have their lovely lovely wars messed with, thankyouverymuch, and they have learned some painful lessons in what happens when you let accurate visual depictions of war escape into the public eye.

That was then, this is now.

As I suggest in my previous remarks, this is in flux. We're awash in unreal photorealistic imagery. The younger generation, I suspect, does not have the default assumption of truth. Confronted with a contemporary version of the photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, they're as likely to assume a photochop, or a staged photo, as anything else. Confronted with the photo of Nguyễn Văn Lém being executed, they would likely ask what movie it's from.

A very very small, but real, aspect of this cultural shift is the laissez faire attitude of contemporary amateur photographers toward alterations. They merrily clone out inconvenient telephone wires, trees, they move things around, because of Art, or because they want the thing on a 1/3 line, or because they can, or because the want "to capture the way the feeeeeel" or whatever. If you're 'shopping the hell out of your pictures, you're not evil. You're not even doing an evil thing.

What you are doing is taking part in a cultural shift, you're a tiny cog in an inevitable evolution of the photograph away from something important and truthful, to being, perhaps, what photographers have feared all along, merely a grubby stepchild of painting and drawing. A sort of easy etching method for the untalented.

The unstated but neverthless real social contract: "What you see was really there" has been broken. With that lost, what has photography to make itself worthy?

Emerson was, ultimately, right. Bashing away to fix and improve a photograph does, ultimately, lead to photographs which are just shabby paintings.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Photographs and Reality

This is something people love to go on and on about. You can take either side of the "a photograph accurately represents reality" debate and make yourself look smart, at least to the rubes.

As Sally Mann remarks, a photo is only the reality within the frame at an instant. I reply that it is nonetheless what was actually in front of the lens, that is, reality, at that moment. We're both right, so we're both smarties, right? And so on.

It hardly matters.

What is undeniable is that a photograph's power as a photograph derives from some sort of deep connection with reality. If it's just an easy way to make a drawing of whatever pops into your mind, then photography is a subset of drawing, and surely a lesser one. If photographs are to be a thing in their own right, that connection with reality has to count for something -- because there isn't anything else.

We, the viewer, tend to make two mistakes. The big one is that we confuse the 1/30th of a second of reality with something larger and longer. How often have you heard someone exclaim, about a photograph of someone they do not know, "Oh, you really captured her personality" when, of course, there's not a shred of evidence that is true? As I have remarked elsewhere, the skill in portraiture is not in capturing truth, but in creating a picture that feels true, that feels like an embodiment of someone.

The second mistake we make is to assume that what we see is, at least, the truth of the 1/30th of a second. This is also untrue, of course. There's stuff outside the frame, there's manipulation within the frame, etc. See any internet forum on a Wednesday, for a complete discussion of how RAW files have to be manipulated to even be viewable so there!!!1!!1!!

I maintain that the first mistake is built upon the second. We trust the truth of the captured instant, and extrapolate from that. When we find the frame itself to be untrue, the whole charade collapses.

Now here's where it gets interesting.

The generation after mine is, to a large degree, distrustful of the contents of the frame. They assume all photos are 'shopped, are manipulated and edited. Half erasures and half composite, all untruth. They don't seem to mind this, but the result is that we as a culture are starting to view photographs as quickly made paintings, with no more truth or reality in them than the maker chose to put in. The deep connection with reality is being, I think, broken.

The influences here are many. We have photorealistic digital effects in movies. In virtually every movie, in fact. Hardly a day goes by when some hapless nation on the Pacific Rim is not outed for some crudely photoshopped propaganda photo. Photographic "artists" litter the web, as often as not crowing about how heavily they use photoshop. The standard $100 portrait session results in pictures that are so obviously faked as to be painful. We are literally steeped in fakery, it would be incredible if we continued to believe in the reality of photos.

The consequence is that the photograph is, perhaps, doomed to become nothing special. Just a sort of quick way to sketch something, true or false hardly matters, it's a quick sketching method. As I've mentioned elsewhere, it's already ephemeral, cheap.

Perhaps this is at the root of why we see some people returning to film, to print. Perhaps they're looking to recover that verity that we seem to have lost along the way.

Me, I'm not gonna worry about it much, but I pretty much ain't give a fuuuuck.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Also, note this:

The previous essay has zero mention of nude photographs, of kids or otherwise. (OK, I do refer to that one picture, but not to the nudity apart from the title)

Because fuck that, it's utterly irrelevant to the book, despite every goddamned interview and review.

Hold Still, by Sally Mann

Look at me, reviewing a book written in this century, by someone who's not dead. Incredible.

The short review: This is among the finest books I have ever read, and you should read it too. It's really really good.

Unpacking that a little.

Mann accomplishes a lot for one book, and despite doing a lot of different things in a single book, it all hangs together. In no particular order, she gives us:
  • her story, her history
  • a good description of her artistic process
  • an exceedingly nuanced critique of the south and the american problems of race
  • a good critique of photography

The book is hilarious and poignant. It is powerful. She's got a lot to say, and she's really good at saying it.

There's a great deal of personal history, both factual and, hmm, perhaps emotional is a good way to put it. It's fascinating stuff. Still, what else can a reviewer say about it? Read it. Enjoy it.

For the working photographer, especially the photographer trying to make Art, she has a nice set of examples, of the duds. In particular detail, she shows us the process by which she and her son Emmett made "The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude" which took a lot of effort, and a lot of sheets of film. Her process is not that different from mine, and I suspect this is not because we are particularly sympatico but rather because this is how photography she is made. You work at it. You make bad pictures and not so good pictures and, sometimes, with a little luck, a lot of sweat (originally I misspelled that as swear which strikes me as just as good), and maybe even a little talent, you make something pretty good.

In general the book contains a lot of photographs. Finished work, but also failures, and snapshots taken "on the job" as it were.

If there was a an Absolute Zero for bullshit rather than temperature, this book would hew very close to it. It is, in a way, appalling in its directness, in the author's clearness of vision. I am reminded of a line from LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, a science fiction novel about a people for whom gender is fluid. In it, an ordinary human character, gendered in the same way we are, notes in a dispatch that the people of this planet judge you entirely without regard for gender, and that this "is appalling." It takes a moment for the line to sink in, to realize what a shock that would be, and how it might leave you or I socially and psychologically lost and adrift. There is an element of that in Hold Still. The clarity and openness of the author becomes disconcerting, almost upsetting, at times. And yet, it's not simply memoir-porn.

I think perhaps she sees more clearly with words than with photographs, and she sees very very well with the camera.

Slipped in there, for no particular reason except that Mrs. Mann grew up in the south, grew up steeped in its racism, she offers up a detailed critique of racism and the south from a personal perspective. She was raised essentially very liberal, very egalitarian. Looking back, she sees that somehow she missed out on so much. So much of her daily life, so much of what she was -- and was not -- aware of day-to-day was completely imbued with differing standards based on skin color. Mann is, of course, utterly open and direct about it all. She picks up and carries her share of the blame without flinching, but also recognizes it as thoroughly embedded in the culture. Everyone took part in the rituals of racism, regardless of skin color and social position. She shows us, without belaboring the point, how much simple inertia is involved here.

She shows us almost nobody who is overtly racist. I assume that in fact she had very little contact with people who were overtly racist, and probably not all that many people who really thought black people were inferior -- poor, uneducated, perhaps, but not really inferior. And yet the social matrix was inviolable, on all sides. Everyone toed the invisible lines with remarkable strictness. It is clear that there was real fear of reprisals, but nobody is pointed out as someone who'd take part. Every town, one supposes, had a few bastards who might well get drunk and do some real damage, but they weren't most people. Or perhaps they weren't her family's people? Most people were just woven inextricably into the social fabric.

I, of course, cannot do it justice. For one, I'm a Yankee, and for another I'm not Sally Mann. Read it, though.

Mann's take on photography is, naturally, larded throughout. A fascinating and recurring theme is the idea that photographs actively destroy memory, and have destroyed hers. Given a photograph of something, we tend to lose the literal memory of the thing and instead remember the photograph. I'm pretty sure Sontag covered some of this, but Mann provides a very personal testimony to the effect. As a photographer herself (unlike Sontag) who's made a point of photographing parts of her own life in detail, she lends a certain extra weight (several tons, perhaps) to the thesis. She remembers, tragically, her own father largely as a series of photographs.

Mann underlines the point that, when we remember through photos, we remember static visuals, and nothing more. No sound, no smell, touch, taste, motion. That is a real loss.

She also spends quite a bit of time arguing that photographs are not real. She has, as always, excellent examples. Her own children, mugging for the camera, look like completely different people from one frame to the next. The sliver of time, rendered in silver on paper, isn't reality. We do tend to confuse it with reality. Mann does not (or at any rate if she does, I missed it) admit that photographs nonetheless partake of reality, and in this I think she is wrong. While her children are not the cold-eyed gang shown in one frame, they did look like that for that 1/30th of a second, and that too is reality.

To be fair, failing to wrestle with this dichotomy is no sin. It's not a resolvable issue, it simply is. A photograph is real, as far as it goes, but that is not terribly far. The troubles arise because we tend to extrapolate from the undeniably real 1/30th of a second to a bigger, wider, deeper, reality, and we simply cannot. Not with any reliability.

Mann does propose, interestingly, that there may perhaps be a specific number of photographs one typically needs to examine in order to form an opinion of a person that approximately matches the opinion held by that person's friends. This is a marvelously precise idea, a marvelously precise way to sketch the problem, and a marvelously precise experiment with a way to measure the results. There are working scientists who would be hard-pressed to develop such a careful design. Mann just tosses it off as a 'maybe you could..' side remark.

Get the book. Take it out of the library, or buy it, whatever. Read it.

Mann isn't just an important and mighty photographer, she's funny, entertaining, and smart. She can write like hell.

Reading this book might not make you happier, but it will make you smarter.