Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Art in my little town

In my little town, of Bellingham, there is a lot of Art. Not great art, just pigments applied to surfaces, and photographs of pretty things, and chunks of metal welded to other chunks of metal, and so on. This is not to suggest that Bellingham is the end of line. No. If you fail in Bellingham, there are still places you can move to, to try again in a more forgiving market. But still, if you fail in New York, you don't move to Bellingham right away. First, maybe you fail in Birmingham or somewhere like that, and then Boise, and only then do you pull up stakes and come to Bellingham to see if there is a place for your art here.

There are, in my little town, Bellingham, any number of modest storefronts which represent someone's particular passion. Of course, there are bookstores, but what is unusual, really, about a passion for books? There is a museum of contraptions beautifully machined out of wood. There is a museum of electrical, things, mostly built around what might be the world's largest collection of dead shortwave radios. There is a train museum, where the wives of recently deceased old men donate their hundreds of pounds of model trains.

Also, there is a fish store. For live fish, fish for bowls, for tanks, for impossibly difficult to maintain aquatic environments. Tropical fish, goldfish, all manner of fish. Also, dog treats, dog toys, dog food, dog collars, bird seed, bird toys, and so on. But mostly, fish. It is the kind of store where, if you are not worthy, you may find yourself unable to purchase a fish for reasons you cannot quite grasp perhaps a nice goldfish says the young woman but I wanted the beta you say, bewildered. By way of explaining the breadth of the thing: they have a pufferfish, Miss Puff, not for sale please don't try to make me puff up it's bad for me. They maintain heroically large salt water environments in what seem to be intolerable circumstances.

Next door, in the former feed store adjoining the fish shop, is or more precisely was, a rather more ordinary pet store. Bunnies, parakeets, a few lizards, a snake, and aisle upon aisle of pet foods, pet toys, pet accessories, and, seasonally, setting out plants and seeds.

One night, the former feed store burned. Most of the animals were rescued, save only 10 birds and a snake. It is not clear if they are known to have perished, or if they are simply unaccounted for.

Allegations are being pursued to the effect that the fire was started by a homeless man who was trying to stay warm as temperatures dipped below freezing.

The fish store, with its lights and pumps and filters and heaters and coolers all maintaining the myriad delicate and complex environments was quarantined inaccessible to staff and without power for 18 hours.

All of the fish survived.

Monday, May 20, 2019

A Photo Book Project

I am plugging a project here, not mine. I don't know this person, even slightly. There are many many things about this project that are large red flags for me, but there's one thing I like. More on those in a moment. It's an indiegogo campaign (similar to kickstarter) to pre-sell enough books to justify going to press.

When We Lie Down, Grasses Grow From Us

Things I don't like.

This is one of those shitty-ass pay-to-play project where the artist is being forced into the role of fundraiser, a model I have talked about angrily in the past quite a bit. I hate this bullshit.

Jörg Colberg likes it, and it's a lot like what you're expect from that. The pictures are dreary, the book is over-desiged (by one of the Usual Crew in that social scene) and so on.

The campaign is set up as a "flexible goal" which means that even if she doesn't raise enough money to slake her publisher's thirst for lucre, she gets the cash, which is sketchy. I am absolutely certain that if this happens she will try with all her might to spend the cash on pushing the project forward anyways, and that she will fail and end up spending it on rent and groceries.

But I like one thing, basically. The artist has a clear concept. The dreary-ass nothing pictures so beloved of the MFA crowd actually seem to work for her concept.

I think I'm gonna back it to the tune of one (1) book, which I will then review (assuming it comes to fruition) and then pass on to someone else. Most likely.

You may elect otherwise, and to be honest, this kind of thing is very much an acquired taste. One I have not entirely acquired.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Valueless Art

There is a crew of the usual suspects going on and on about Art Institutions taking dirty money (and, no, Mr. Smith, it's not just a handful of irrelevancies) and scoring victories here and there. Nobody takes Sackler money any more because of OxyContin, and Photo London (whatever that is) cut ties with the Kingdom of Brunei because, whoa, it turns out they're terrible people, who knew?

Accusations are flying that this is mere window dressing, because if you dig down you find other tainted sources of money, and so on.

All this strikes me as terribly naive. Any pile of, say, a million dollars and up, is going to have quite a bit of blood on it. If you're running some institution, festival, contest, whatever, that requires more than about $10/year to operate, you're going to be running it on dirty money. The trouble isn't that these institutions are not adequately vetting their donors, the trouble is that money is generally pretty messy.

The usual woke suspects have not yet realized that you can dig anywhere, in any direction, and find something to complain about in any source of money. This is not to suggest that the complaints are not legitimate, of course they are. Billionaires are odious people.

Berger wrote in 1969 about the history of Revolutionary Art. It turns out that some of the Art designed to critique Capital and The Wealthy turned out to be rare and valuable. The Wealthy bought it up with gusto, because the point is to own valuable objects. The fact that the artifacts revile their owners is of literally no consequence. Indeed, it's probably a little delicious. If you made a limited edition of T-shirts with Swarovski crystals on the collar, the words EAT THE RICH on the front and a picture of a guillotine on the back, and sold them for $1200 a pop, wealthy socialites would wear the shit out of them.

Money is tainted. And. Money validates the artist. This reaches down to the lowest levels of Art. Suppose you get a book deal with someone fancy, you pony up your $10,000 or $20,000 and you get an edition of 400 sumptuous volumes made, priced attractively at 40 euros each. This validates the artist, because it is a real object, heavy, and while not particularly expensive, it is being offered for sale for real money. A cast of minions have worked on the thing, significant amounts of money have been pushed around. It's real. The artist has accomplished some sort of success, albeit limited. If you look closely, some of the money probably had someone's blood on it.

My solution, which dovetails perfectly with the two facts that (1) my art isn't very good, and that (2) I cannot bother to go try to drum up an audience for it, is to make art that has no cash value. Work that is infinitely, cheaply, reproducible manages to escape the clutches of Capital fairly thoroughly. The Wealthy don't want it, it's neither rare not expensive. Any peasant can bang out of a copy for himself, that's no good.

Photography, by its very nature, fits into this model beautifully. Indeed, it is quite painful to make photography into a Rare and Expensive object, and always ends up being a bit of a scam. Gursky may sell his enormous rare prints for a few million a pop, but paintings (which are actually rare, rather than pretend rare) sell for an order of magnitude more.

I propose going the other way. Make your pictures small and as close to free as possible. Give them away.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Theater of Indifference

Berger wrote an essay with the same title as this one, although of course he spelled Theater wrong. The subject of his essay is, more or less, the difference between the way we present ourselves, the way we interact, move, emote in the city versus our village. Not all of us have a village, and in particular I have been fairly itinerant all my life. I had to extrapolate and ponder a little to make any sense of what he was saying.

His point is, it appears to me, that in the urban environment we are as a rule acting or as the kids might say frontin' to one degree or another. In this environment, surrounded by people we do not know, we present ourselves as cooler, smarter, prettier. Or we present ourselves as more closed, less approachable, more aloof. Or we deploy any number of other facades.

In our village (or, as I think of it, my neighborhood) we present ourselves at least a little more directly, authentically. There is no point in presenting ourselves as smarter, or cooler, because everyone we meet knows us. While we might well conceal or exaggerate the thoughts, emotions, and reactions of the moment, our essential nature is well known and to try to cover it would be ridiculous.

You can probably cast it into your own terms. How do you feel, how do you walk, how do you imagine yourself: walking in a place where you do not know most people; walking in a place where you do know most people.

An anecdote by way of illustration. An attractive young woman walks. A young man notices her, and attends to her. She, noting his attention and finding it unobjectionable, throws a slight wiggle in her walk, and finds an excuse to turn around and take a second pass. He continues to notice her. All at once, they realize almost simultaneously that they know one another, and the charade collapses into something else entirely. Laughter all around.

The switch from strangers acting, to friends being friends, is the point, here.

This speaks, I think, to that entire genre of photography we know of as "street", both contemporary "street photography" and the so-called "street portrait."

This strikes me as specifically about photographing that theater that is this urban street. You are photographing not authentic people but rather the performances they put on in this environment. The lone figure in the distance, head down, a mere silhouette with the attractive shadow play, is closed to the world, fending off unwanted attention. They are not the warm, three-dimensional human they are at home, or in their local park, or even in the office.

The pretty girl crossing the street might be shouting with the set of her mouth and shoulders "don't talk to me!" or she might be whispering "look at me" or somewhere between the two or something else entirely. She is certainly not Marie who loves cats and has tried and tried but never mastered the macarena.

The street portrait, the closeup Bruce Gilden, these are likewise not real people. These are people acting out their fluid urban persona, suddenly confronted with a camera and donning what they hope is a good role for that moment.

Diana Arbus, as I have noted in the past, seems to have been acutely aware of this, and photographed neither the urban persona, nor the urban persona-for-the-camera, but rather the moment in between the two, for reasons I cannot really fathom.

This is not to say that street photography is bad, or flawed, but merely to recognize it for what it is.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Remarkable Sentence

In Jörg Colberg's latest in which he reviews a book that concerns me not in the slightest, he includes this startling sentence:

All of this prevents the viewer from ever getting to the “Oh, I get it” that’s marring so much archival work.

I do not know what to make of this sentence. Is there a typo somewhere I cannot mentally unwind? Does he mean that this applies only to picture books drawn specifically from archives? Is he referring only to a sudden sensation of "getting it?" Does he perhaps mean some sort of sense of "Oh, it's just that. That's stupid?" All these strike me as possible.

What is also possible is that this is a clue to a larger philosophy, namely that art should not be comprehensible. It suggests that if you arrive at a point of understanding, the work is marred.

This would certainly explain why Jörg seems to have a genuine fondness for books that appear to me to be incomprehensible trash. It would also explain his singular inability to articulate in any meaningful way why he likes one thing and dislikes another.

Regardless of what Jörg actually means here, this has caused me to put on my thinking cap. I have, for quite some time now, felt that the entire point of Art is that it is from time to time comprehensible. I judge everything from picture books to symphonies based on whether I can develop some kind of understanding, whether I "get it." When I don't, on good days, I am charitable and assume that perhaps it's just me, and on bad days I dismiss whatever it is as unmitigated trash.

It never occurred to me that there might be some other criteria upon which one might judge these things. I am by no means convinced that there is, it strikes me that absent meaning all that remains is the technical details, the formal details of the construction of the thing. I am certain Jörg does not mean this, here. Worrying about balance, or leading lines, is far too bougie for any proper academic, I suspect. It's certainly too bougie for me.

So.. what else might there be? If we postulate that when Jörg says something is good he does not mean that he gets it, or that it has elegant formal qualities, what on earth could be (or some notional other critic) mean?

Maybe there is something here. I don't have all the answers, that's for sure.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Photographing Chernobyl

The area around the Chernobyl reactor is a heavily photographed area. During my periodic checkin on Medium Format Magazine, which has struck me as hilarious since inception, I found this article, Photographing Chernobyl, on the free list, and skimmed it. I said to myself, self, these pictures sure look familiar.

So I went hunting around to see what's what. This is pretty interesting.

The reason all Chernobyl photos looks similar is because they are similar. There is fairly obviously A Tour that includes a startling small number of locations, through which photographers are briskly marched. I am going to ruthlessly lift photos from all over the place without regard for copyright because, in the first place, I am performing criticism, and in the second place it is not clear there is a copyrightable originality in any of these things, as I will demonstrate.

Exhibit A, the danger sign:

Google something like "Chernobyl danger sign barbed wire" and you will find dozens, possibly hundreds, of photos of this sign. Not this sign design, but this actual literal sign. The arrangement of barbed wire and the building in the background are distinctive. There may be 100s of these signs on miles of fencing for all I know, but this one is the sign that's On The Tour, so everyone photographs it.

The sign moves around a bit. Clearly it falls out of the fence, or falls askew, from time to time, and is put back. By the tour guides? Photographers? Who knows.

Exhibit B, the sea of gas masks with doll:

The story here is that there is a room somewhere in what looks like a school, where there are gas masks on the floor. People have brought in dolls and posed them in this room over the years. The dolls move around, are reposed, and in these modern times have largely disintegrated. They have great patina, eh? That's the grease of a million photographer fingers.

The one thing we know for sure is that this doll was not abandoned by a child on the day of the accident, and left reverently in place. It was probably brought from elsewhere in the area, or just as likely brought in by some photographer as a prop.

Now, this is where it gets fascinating. See the table with the shell of the TV in the foreground? Make a note of that.

Another canonical photo from Your Big Expensive Chernobyl Adventure is the school notebook.

Look at that. The notebook, abandoned one the very day of the accident, undisturbed for decades.

Nah, the notebooks move around constantly. And hey, remember the table with the busted TV on it? Same fuckin' table. Look closely.

There's A Room with the sea of gas masks, the dolls, the table, the notebooks, and clearly photographers go in there and reverentially photograph various closeups over the course of 2 or 3 minutes, creating the impression of many locations (except for the cheaters with the wide angle lenses who give the show away.) Sometimes stuff gets moved around to look better. There's a reason the gas mask is so elegantly draped behind the notebook.

It goes on and on. There are the bumper cars at the fairground, constantly moving around and getting more graffiti, there's the ferris wheel at the same location. The interior of the under-construction cooling tower and.. well, actually that's pretty close to it. There's a handful of other vaguely snapshotty things people pick up here and there, but that is basically the tour.

The standard tour includes something like 10 locations, each are visited pretty quickly. Everyone shoots the same things, sometimes after moving some shit around and then sprinkling dust over it all to look authentically abandoned. And then they go home.

I kind of get why one might do it as a tourist. Sure, these photos all exist, but these ones are my photos. You have, as it were, proof that you were there and that you did the thing. You have personalized memory-triggers of having done the thing.

What does not make sense is publishing this in a would-be serious magazine of Medium Format Photography, or more generally the once-every-couple-years articles in semi-serious photo news sources, The Abandoned World of Chernobyl!, or whatever, as if someone went and did some journalism rather than simply taking the tour.

I am reminded of Maria Lopez, who a few years ago did an Art Thing about the Cambodian Killing Fields, discussed in some remarks of mine over here. She went on The Tour, took The Snaps, and pretended it was a serious photo essay. Maria herself seems to have vanished from the web, or at any rate from the photography part. Presumably she gave up her dream of becoming a serious artist, and went back to her day job (middle management at NGOs, maybe? There were a flock of these people mobbing Souvid Datta a couple years ago, mostly professional NGO types.)

Friday, May 10, 2019

Storytelling II

I wish to set aside books with much in the way of text. If you're writing any sort of coherent "story" whether it be a literal laying out a sequence of events, or something else, the words will carry things along.

As usual, I want to construe "story" as generally as possible, to cover Cinderella through an impressionistic take on Monet's garden, and probably more besides.

And so, under consideration is a book of, essentially, just a bunch of pictures, most of them photographs, a book aimed at conveying something.

In my previous remarks I argued, with what I imagine to be a fair degree of success, that you're not going to get much traction if the goal is to convey a sequence of factual (or fact-like) events, such as the story of Cinderella or the Roman Empire. What you're going to be able to accomplish is something a lot more like Keith Smith's composite picture, a whole or a gestalt that in is psychologically similar to a photograph in that it contains a collection of visual facts and ideas and relationships, but is ultimately a singular object to which you, the reader, may react in some way.

A visual book does not, in general, relate a sequence of events, or a sequence of logical statements forming an argument. It does not convey names, dates, locations, and similar details. It is nothing more than a complex arrangement of visual details that may add up to... something.

The basic unit of the western codex is the two-page spread. You may elect to put one photo on there, or two, or more. The traditional approach places one photo per spread, and so the basic unit of that book is a single photo.

With a little work, some cueing, you might be able to persuade the reader that the unit is, say, 3 spreads in a row. Perhaps you alternate three color spreads with three black and white ones, or change the page color every three spreads. In this case the reader might be persuaded to flip randomly to a spot, and then find the beginning of the unit from there, more or less consistently.

The unit, therefore, is what I am considering to be the basic lump of material. I divide the book notionally into units, each unit being consumed together, as a whole, perhaps even in-order. Units, however, tend to be consumed more or less randomly. Earlier units will tend to be examined sooner than later ones, because we do tend to leaf through books roughly front-to-back, perhaps with some backing and filling.

You might envision the course through a visual book as, roughly, a series of units each consumed in-order, the units themselves consumed in a zig-zag path that tends front-to-back, but contains gaps and backtracking to one degree or another.

Probably a strict two-level hierarchy of "units" and "book of unit" is simplistic, but let us see if it offers any guidance.

All this suggests that, far from the complex structures we associate with the film and the novel, there is in fact very little wiggle room in the visual book.

Your choices seem to be one of these two: either have no particular progressive goal, but merely make your point through a pile of units; or make your point within the context of this somewhat labored path.

This chart suggests how I see these things.

We start our with a sequential reading (matching the dashed blue line) and then a short jump forward, and then back a little. One unit gets skipped, another gets looked at twice. A little later on a larger forward jump happens, more backtracking. At some point there is one dip backwards into previously skipped material, and then a large jump back forward. This is, of course, just an example, but illustrates the general shape of the thing.

So you have a few units at the beginning to set the stage, and then people start jumping around, in a more or less forward-moving fashion, with potentially larger and larger jumps.

After that, you can say things later and earlier, and people will notice that, although they may not encounter these statements in-order, they will tend to encounter them mostly in the right order, that is, later things after earlier things. Even if they backtrack and come across something near the end of their reading, they may well note that this is happening near the beginning of the book.

This suggests that your book should progress in fairly large strokes, with a lot of repetition. If you want someone to reliably notice something in the latter half of your book, you better give them several chances at it, because they're just jumping around at that point. The farther along in the book your material lies, the more repetition you'll need (or, the more you'll have to accept people simply missing it).

Opposing this notion, you don't want to simply make the last half of your book just a bunch of repeats of essentially the same point, so as to get through to people who are just casually flipping by that point. You'll put off the people who are reading more closely.

Some sort elaboration seems right. You will want some way to both communicate the bigger ideas in broad, repetitious strokes, while offering rewarding detail to the closer reader.

It will come as no surprise to long time readers to discover that I think this supports a music-like view of the visual books.

Sonata-like, you can state a couple of themes up front, in that first sequential read.

Following that, you can repeat and elaborate on those themes over longer stretches of material. The elaborations are enough to reward the closer readers, but the large themes are repeated over lengthier stretches of the book so that even people skimming will likely stumble across each of the important themes, in roughly the right order.

If your book is engaging, your readers will occasionally return to it, taking each time a similar but different path through it. They will, one hopes, discover the same large set of themes, the same overall structure, but with new details. Elaborations previously unnoticed may reveal themselves. Relationships between this picture and that, this unit and that, will pop up over time.

The composite image, formed at least hazily on the first read-through, ideally becomes clearer and at the same time evolves, upon each new reading.

It's not perfect, but maybe it's a model you can find something to use in.

Most people just go for a pile of pictures, anyways, and that's OK too.