Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Photobook as Equivalent

If you've spent any time knocking around the history of photography, you've probably run into Stieglitz's "Equivalents", these pictures of clouds that he claimed were "equivalent" to some emotional state, or something like that. Minor White went on at some length about this idea of "Equivalent", and seems to have considered it fundamental to photography, or at least to the photography he thought worthwhile. It has something to do with the idea that the photograph represents real things, but that upon viewing it evokes something quite different in the viewer. I think it's more than an evocation, though, it is that the viewer seems the picture as a symbol, an embodiment, of what the viewer feels. There is, in short, something like equivalence, natch.

Anyways, this is one of those concepts that has always felt a bit dodgy to me. I've never seen anyone write about it in anything like a clear fashion, which is rarely a good sign.

Minor White seems to think that, whatever it is, it might be pretty personal, pretty subjective (rather than intersubjective!). Everyone might get something different out. White also seems to subscribe to the theory that only some people can do it, that you might need to be specially attuned, or specially trained in order for an Equivalent to work. I find this notion to always be pretty offensive and useless. Art is bullshit if you need to go to night school to "get" it.

So what am I on about with the Photobooks?

When I look at a picture, I can kind of fill in a world the picture lives in from my imagination and experience. I imagine, at least a little, what's outside the frame, what happened before and after. So I fill out things "horizontally", but there's also a "vertical" filling-in. I react to that "horizontally" expanded view of the picture. I might have some emotional response, I might enlarge my mind on a good day, all that sort of thing. However you put it, even a crappy picture probably ripples outwards in several dimensions in my mind. Whether that's an "equivalent" or not, I can't say, but it certainly happens.

Let's suppose that a functioning "Equivalent" is one where that multi-dimensional space of mental ripples is roughly related to what the photographer had in mind, and that the photograph reads as some sort of symbolic representation of those ripples, rather than simply a thing that kicked the ripples off.

I visualize a photograph as a sort of grappling hook the photographer throws toward that whole complicated mental space, hoping perhaps to hit more or less near a specific spot. Weston seems to want to hit the "sex" part of my brain, which is a bit of a cheat because, let's be honest, it's a huge target.

A portfolio gives the photographer many casts of the hook. The idea can become clearer, there's a much better chance of a portfolio of work doing that "Equivalent" thing, surely, whatever it is.

A photobook is one step farther, since it allows the artist to shape the relationship between the photographs. Consider Keith Smith's notion of the book as, really, a single composite picture built up in the viewer's mind by reading the book, present and complete only after finishing the book. The book, considered this way, is perhaps a single cast of a gigantic grappling hook, ideally so large that it cannot help but get a piece of whatever the artist is aiming for.

Of course, it is also multiple casts of the hook, like a portfolio. So, in a way, it gives the artist several different ways to hit the mark.

It's a rough idea at the moment, but I might almost believe in the possibility of a book (or book-like object) of photos behaving as an Equivalent, in a pretty general and accessible way.

Monday, June 19, 2017

More on Sequencing

I'm probably going to keep writing about sequencing, which is odd, because I am increasingly thinking that most people who think about it at all overthink it. We treat it like composition "If only" we think "I could get the right sequence, then my work would suddenly be amazeballs." In reality, if you have good content I am pretty sure any sensible sequence is fine. If you have awful content, no sequence will save it.

Colberg's book drags on at length, but is largely concerned with how to get from one picture to the next. Notably, he advocates the "print 'em all out and agonize over it forever" approach, which has the following very interesting consequence:

You can't do repeats. You've only got one print of everything

And once you see that, you see immediately that this approach makes a lot of stuff hard. There's no clear way to visualize collages, or repeats-with-changes (what if I want to foreshadow with an ultra-low contrast version of a picture?)

I think, to be honest, that you need to spend time with the pictures, but more time away from the pictures, imagining things.

Right now, I am thinking about pacing a lot. Keith Smith points out that boring/repetitive material picks up the pace. 10 blank pages in a row would get flipping quickly. 10 identical pictures, much the same. 10 similar pictures with obvious differences, much the same. 10 similar pictures with extremely subtle but important differences -- the exact opposite effect (assuming the reader notices).

Imagine a picture A, with some subtle variations. Maybe A1, A2, A3 are all just successively tighter crops of the same photo while B is a completely different picture. Imagine this series of pages, denoting a blank page with a lowercase b:

A b A1 b b A2 b b b A3 b b b b B

I visualize the pace picking up, faster and faster, even perhaps a little frustration, and then suddenly B appears and the flipping stops. STOP. What possibilities are there in the reader's conception of the relationship between A and B? And how on earth would you imagine this if you were fixated on sorting and re-sorting a pile of physical prints?

What is A1, A2, and A3 were not just tighter crops, but also printed smaller? Or larger? Perhaps B exhibits a radical size change as you flip wildly past A3 and the 4 blank pages after that, as well.

What if B was a repeat of the first picture in the book?

Keith Smith's book is basically 200 pages of this sort of thing. If your mind isn't bigger by the time you're done with it, you are a blockhead.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Clary Estes Again

This young woman writes pretty well, and is thinking about things pretty hard. While I don't agree with everything, and I think she's naive, I also think she deserves to be read more widely.

Read her recent medium piece on photojournalism here.

The Ugly: Why Care?

I've been frothing at the mouth a bit about the ugly side of photobook publishing, notably the pay to play aspects, and one might reasonably ask why one should care. I've asserted that it's bad for Art and one might reasonably ask on what grounds I make that statement.

As an aside, let me clear up one point, and add some information that I have recently learned! It's obvious that not the whole publishing industry is like this. What's less obvious is that the entire photobook industry is not like this. The biggest fellows mainly publish established players, but Aperture at least seems genuinely devoted to finding good new artists and also seems to minimize the pay-to-play (I cite as evidence: I couldn't find anything about pay to play in a quick perusal of their web site, and Colberg doesn't mention them, so, not that strong a case).

One of my readers has done books with a small/boutique publisher that doesn't demand up front payment. That reader has indeed "leveled up" on the strength of those books. So, there is evidence of a system of real publishers out there. They're all muddled up with the fakes, though.

The pay-to-play model for photobook publishing (and, I dare say, other facets of the industry) has a couple of effects that we could do without.

First and foremost it selects artists based on their ability to raise money. The wealthy, the trust-fund-beneficiaries, the expert grant-writers, all bubble upwards (at least within this incestuous little self-licking ice cream cone universe), and none of those things particularly correlate with talent. Indeed, they take away from the work. If you're constantly busy mooching and writing grant proposals, you're probably not doing your best work.

I have seen it argued that this is not a problem, because it has always been this way, and to that I have two responses, the first of which appears in my second point here:

Secondly, it separates the money from the gatekeeping functions, which diffuses the gatekeeping. In the Badde Olde Dayes, you had a Medici who had, well, some sort of taste and a stack of money. He kept the gate, and he paid the money, and there you were. Good or bad, you sure as hell had a coherent vision being paid for. At least, in theory, and sometimes.

These days you have committees of people handing out grants based on who writes the best bullshit, committees who are surely, at least some of the time, deferring questions of taste and vision to... well, someone else. Then you have the publishers, who are struggling to make payroll, pay leases, and who may be more interested in things like book design than photography doing the rest of the gatekeeping function. As I have noted, I suspect that many of these people are unserious people simply playing at it anyways.

In other words, it hasn't always been this way.

The second, and more important, response to the "well, it's always been patrons and whatnot" argument is that in this modern era it doesn't have to be that way any more. I know homeless guys who have 100% of the resources necessary to do a decent book on blurb. They have a phone. They have enough money to buy tape, a blank notebook, and 4x6 prints to make a dummy. They can use the computers at the library to use blurb's online design tool to make their book, and they can get together enough money to buy a handful of copies. Not that they would but the point is that a literal homeless bum in the USA has the necessary resources to do a PoD book.

The system that Colberg endorses, the system that we are supposed to believe is a necessary part of the Serious Art World, turns artists into grant-writers and fundraisers, and then it consigns them to 18-24 months of development hell to get the book finished. All this is effort and time that is taken away from actually making art.

The old patronage system took the explicit form of "You are my chattel, now go do your thing. Probably with a bunch of restrictions and requests and demands, but do your thing." The modern system of grants and competitions which infests photography explicitly gets in the way of doing your thing. You're supposed to constantly attend events, write proposals, and take meetings. A modicum of success means, mainly, more meetings, more events, more proposals, and even less photography.

The single most important thing a would-be novelist needs to do is write novels. Do you want to be an actor? Then go act. Painters paint. Photographers, apparently, fundraise and agonize over how to best use the 7 gatefold pages their budget allows.

No wonder much of the high end photobook market consists of boring monographs by old men and endless iterations of what Mike Chisholm so hilariously characterized as My Sad Project. I'd be pretty fucking sad too, I guess.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Understanding Photobooks: The Ugly

Colberg presents us with a bit of a problem in this book of his. He is unabashedly in favor of traditional publishing, for reasons that he does not make particularly clear, and he is distinctly coy about the down sides.

He explicitly dismisses Print on Demand, repeatedly. He mentions that, in many cases, the photographer may be asked to pay for some of the costs up front when doing a book, but is too shy to mention any numbers. The number you're wondering about is north of $10,000, often considerably north. Let us recall that the up-front out of pocket expenses of PoD are less than $100 unless you are making a very fancy book indeed. Somewhat less than the $15,000 to $50,000 traditional publishers are likely to want.

Colberg is almost as dismissive of self-publishing, claiming that you want to work with a publisher because they know what sells and how to sell it. A few pages later he notes that you'll have done well if you sell 400 copies and don't make a nickle. Which is it, Jörg? Because it sounds to me a lot like these guys haven't got a clue what will sell, nor how to sell it. My evidence is this: They don't sell hardly any goddamned books.

There are people running kickstarters that sell books on this scale constantly. Kickstarters! Not that this route is easy, Colberg points out, correctly, that order fulfillment can easily turn into a nightmare, and you might wind up losing your shirt if you didn't figure out total shipping costs right, but still. Shifting a few hundred copies does not require the services of some magical Euro elf.

Dewi Lewis lays it out for us, although he wisely avoids doing it all in one place. He says, in Colberg's book, that he covers 50 to 60 percent of the $400,000 to $500,000 they spend on production costs each year. That is to say, Dewi is taking between $160,000 and $250,000 a year from the artists to cover production costs. The Dewi Lewis web sites states that they do about 20 titles a year, and also that unless you are an established photographer, you will be asked to "underwrite the risk". Which I think means, roughly, "If you are not Martin Parr or equivalent, you'll be covering the production costs" which begs the question "why on earth would I not self-pub?"

I asked around, and this is in fact basically the situation. Non-famous people pay up front. God knows what the back end of these deals looks like but given that the publishers appear to hold the whip hand, I assume "not great" is a solid guess.

Colberg hints at the real answer, saying that a Real Book might wind up in the hands of a curator, or gallerist, some influencer.

Let me tell you, if I was about to drop $35,000 into the hands of a publisher to do my book on those grounds, I would want some references. I would want to talk to someone who had gotten some success out of a book with MACK or Dewi Lewis on the colophon. My guess is that after I demanded references they'd simply stop talking to me, but who knows?

Colberg has about 21 quotes from publishers in the relevant section of his book, and two from an artist (and those deal with how tough it was to do distribution of a very successful self-published book). Nothing on "I published with Steidl and the next day Larry Gagosian wouldn't stop leaving me messages" for instance. Colberg teaches in an MFA program, surely he knows some artists.

So what's going on?

Well, nobody's getting rich. Dewi Lewis is probably selling 10,000 books a year, grossing, I dunno, half a million bucks or so. He's also taking $200,000 or thereabouts off of artists, for revenues of something under a million, which is covering the production costs and a few salaries. I could be off by a few thousand books, a few $100,000, but no matter how you slice it nobody's getting rich.

Here is another small datum. Colberg says that some publishers won't look at a PoD book dummy. I cannot imagine a legitimate reason for this, but it is easy to imagine bad reasons. "You have blurb on you, you are corrupted." At least some of these people don't want you messing about on blurb et al, and one cannot help but imagine that it's because they would prefer that you not discover that PoD is actually good enough for many projects.

What they are doing is having a good time pretending to be publishers.

Vanity Press no longer means enabling people to pretend to be authors, it means enabling people to pretend to be publishers. The correct answer for most of these projects is "Your project is shit. No." but it turns out that the answer is occasionally "Oh, you have $50,000? Let me see those pictures!"

The difference between this and a proper Vanity Press is that these guys are pretty pretty princesses who will often still say no if they don't much like your project. Unfortunately, what they like is often un-sellable garbage.

What I suspect is actually going on here is that there is a substantial ecosystem of Artists, Designers, Publishers, Editors and So On who all work for one another part time, and who publish one another's books as well as the books brought to them by the marks. One of the books Colberg discusses in detail is authored by one person, designed by another, and these two show up elsewhere in Colberg's book as the designers of someone else's book. I think we're looking at a community of a few hundred, maybe a couple thousand, people who wear various hats and who are eking out a living here. A few of them, one assumes the publishers, seem to be doing OK. Presumably they pay themselves the largest salaries, after all, they are the boss.

Somebody gets a grant, borrows a bunch of money from mum, or just saves their pennies from the waitressing job for 20 years, and scrapes up some cash. This goes into the system to support it. Occasionally, some books are sold as well. Well, that's not fair. Dewi Lewis makes 2/3 of his revenues from selling books, which in the absence of other information we might as well take as the benchmark.

So, as a first swag, the Proper Publisher business is supported 2/3 from selling Martin Parr and a handful of other well known names, people who are already famous, and 1/3 extraction of cash from hopefuls, who are wishing desperately that the book will open the right doors.

Probably there is also a set of galleries and whatnot, the same blokes, who will in fact perk up when they see you have a book with Dewi Lewis. So in fact dropping the $35,000 or whatever to do the book probably does actually open these doors. Is it opening doors because you are a proven fundraiser who might be good for another touch? Or, is it opening doors because Michael Mack signed off on your work and so it might actually be good?

Probably a bit of both.

Either way, it's a pretty scandalous business, fairly seedy, and quite bad for artists. It forces the un-famous author into the role of fund-raiser, grant-writer, penny-pincher, mom-can-I-borrow-50,000. Then it runs that un-famous author through a lengthy process of editors, designers, and other helpful experts who will stick their nose into the project over the course of up to two years.

Now, I like collaboration. I approve of it. Being stuck endlessly toiling on a single project with an every-changing cast of collaborators, not all of my own choosing, and who I am increasingly invested in getting along with no matter what, well, that doesn't sound like fun. When you're in it to the tune of $30,000 of mom's money, and 12 months of effort, when the publisher trots out this new friend of his who's a designer, what are you gonna do?

What if you just don't like this guy? What if you think this guy's ideas are shit, are ruining your vision?

You got the strength to fire him anyways, to push back? I dunno. Maybe you do, maybe you don't. It's a tough spot to be in, and while it might not happen to you, it sure as hell happens to someone now and then.

Colberg is colluding with this system. His book is, explicitly, a how-to manual for entering this system in the role of "sucker".

Colberg explicitly and repeatedly urges his readers to avoid PoD and to avoid self-publishing. He explicitly advocates for the system I have described above, while simultaneously painting it in mildly rosy colors.

I won't go so far as to say that Colberg's view of things is a lie, or even wrong. It is distinctly biased and incomplete.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: Understanding Photobooks, Jörg M. Colberg

The short review is that this is a complete primer on the production of a commercial book, from the point of view of the Serious Artist who wants to publish a book with a Serious Publisher. As such, it seems to me a pretty good resource, with a few issues. As you diverge from the Serious Artist/Serious Publisher model, the usefulness of the book drops. However, even if you're hand-building a 1-copy edition of an Artist's Book (roughly the exact opposite model) you may well find something of use in this book.

I approve of much of what he says. I learned several things about book publishing, which was a surprise to me. Colberg recommends things like "make physical book dummies (mockups), in fact, make a series of them" which strikes me as excellent advice. If you don't know much about the creation and manufacture of books, you're likely to learn quite a lot from Understanding Photobooks. If you're thinking about making a book, I think this may be a good buy, almost no matter what kind of book you want to make.

You will almost certainly find aspects of the book that do not apply, that are simply wrong for you, or that irritate you. Plug onwards. It's an easy read, it's accessible, and you will find useful gems.

Should you buy it? That is a tough question. Keith Smith's Structure of the Visual Book will teach you 1000x more about sequencing, and nothing whatsoever about publishing. Swanson and Himes Publish Your Photography Book -- which I have not read -- appears to cover much of the same ground in much the same size of book at about the same price. It has the virtue of being well respected, and in a second edition. As for me, I am not unhappy to own Colberg's book, but I am casting about for a chance to read Swanson and Himes.

Thus endeth the executive summary. Onwards to a more detailed discussion.

This book is, it turns out, actually two different books. The first is described above, the second book is essentially an apologia for the "traditional publishing" industry that makes photobooks. This essay will concern itself, as far as possible, with the first. The second I will deal with in a second writeup.

Colberg has an engineering background, and it shows here. As usual, he eschews the language of Arty Bollocks throughout, the whole thing is quite readable. He has a tendency to try to algorithm-ize everything, although you can practically feel him struggling against this tendency as well. He knows as well as you and I that there is no fixed algorithm here, and he tries to present his organized processes as suggestions, as recommended courses for the first-timer, to be altered as necessity and whim dictate.

The over-arching example of this is his insistence that you start from a completed photographic project, with a clear concept, and then follow a series of steps that end with the completed book in bookshops and for sale online. Colberg does say, repeatedly, that much of what he says should be taken as a guideline, and perhaps a useful "recipe" for the first time book-maker. It is not always clear what he intends as a guideline, and what he means as an absolute, however. Often he uses absolutist language for things that strike me as more like a guideline, and his general remarks lean away from absolutism. I recommend taking virtually every single statement in the spirit of a guideline, to be taken up or discarded as appropriate.

The book is structured around the various phases (editing, sequencing, design, print, binding) that make up the process of making a book, punctuated with "worked examples" in the sense of a more or less detailed examination of this specific book or that. Some of the examples are interesting and well designed, and others are, well, less so. In my judgement. Colberg's preference is for excessively design-heavy books.

Understanding Photobooks lacks in negative examples, even hypothetical ones. Colberg repeatedly comments that there are many many bad photobooks in the world, but he declines to name names. This, I suppose, I can understand. Unable or unwilling to name names, he should have distilled the problems into hypothetical examples, and gone over those. In the end, we see a handful of books that Colberg thinks are good, and we get a fair amount of general discussion about what makes things good, but very little about what makes things bad. The closest he comes is a handful of remarks of this sort: he notes that certain bindings don't open fully, and therefore are not well suited to photos printed across the gutter. These small samples of potential bad choices are, in my estimation, not enough, and his examples of what constitute good choices are, in my estimation, often quite weak.

A few general remarks in more or less book-order.

Colberg starts, correctly, with the statement that your book needs a clear concept from the outset. You've got to know what the hell you're trying to do before you can really make much progress. Everything flows from the concept. Colberg makes a solid argument here, and gives a good example (albeit a book I would never consider buying, but a book that makes his point quite well). He points out that narrative is really just one way to organize a book, and that other approaches can be deployed successfully. I think one could argue that he and I see eye to eye here, meaning and/or concept are necessary, pretty much everything else isn't.

In here Colberg sketches the process by which concept is converted into a book, how it flows into editing/sequencing, and thence into layout, design, and so forth. In reality, everything depends on everything else in a gigantic messy ball, but he does a good job of combing out the important dependencies and suggesting a general way to navigate them.

The chapter on editing and sequencing is fairly weak. He covers the basics. Connecting pictures one to the next through form and/or content. Narrative structures, both literal linear narrative and an example of a sort of montage of pictures that foreshadows and sets up a larger narrative. A little discussion of pacing and intensity. It goes on and on, and covers the basics, but without getting very far. He starts out on the wrong foot asserting that you should always choose the strongest single image from each grouping of similars, before proceeding to sequencing. He hints that you might wind up using a weaker picture from the set later, but doesn't explicitly state it (at least not that I noted). He's pretty dogmatic about how you ought to sequence (the tired canard of "print them all out and stick them on the wall") and his examples are remarkably thin. The nadir of the chapter is an example of straight narrative drawn from Hesitating Beauty by Joshua Lutz. These are all willfully ugly snapshots. Natch.

1. Picture of glum middle aged man.
2. Picture of glum middle aged woman holding something.
3. Reverse angle of same woman, she's holding a b&w photo of a young, happy, couple.
4. Similar photo of a young happy couple.
5. Photo of a decorative wall that's been made to look like its bursting/collapsing.

OH MY GOD. WHAT COULD THIS BE A METAPHOR FOR!!!!??
    I DON'T KNOW!!!!!

Seriously? You think I am making this up, don't you? Especially the wall. But no, someone actually put this sequence into a book, and Schilt published it. This garbage looks like Woody Allen and Diane Arbus had a love child, who suffered brain damage in a tragic car accident, and now makes art with a broken camera.

As an example to drive the point home to even the most dunderheaded, I suppose it serves, but I would be embarassed to publish that sequence.

The chapter on design reads a bit like "hire a designer" written out 1000 times, but it does also make the point that design should serve the concept, which point he's already made several times. It is remarkable that in the chapter on design, Colberg is almost completely silent on what design actually is. The chapter essentially consists of discussion of what it does, why it matters, why you should hire someone to do it, and (a little) how to collaborate with that someone. These are all good things to say, but one does arrive at the end wondering a bit what design actually is.

The next bit is production, in which he briefly discusses bindings, the necessity to hire other people, paper choices and whatnot, and notes that preparing photographs for print is complicated (especially if you're printing offset), and that you ought to hire someone to do it. Again, he hammers the useful and correct point that production, bindings, etetera, need to serve the book's concept, not the other way around.

He wraps up with how to make a photobook in 17 rules, which reads exactly like a long listicle. "Collaborate!" "Avoid Shortcuts!" "Have a Budget!" and so on. It's embarrassing, and one gets the sense that Colberg was struggling to hit 200 pages (which he does, barely). Should have gone with a bigger font instead, Jörg.

In general, this book appears to be aimed at Colberg's MFA students. It assumes that you know basically nothing, and walks you through the basics, but without much depth. There is a brief discussion of each of the major bits and pieces, with generally worthwhile discussion of how these parts interact, and the kinds of problems that are likely to arise. The design of a book and the sequencing of the pictures, while separate tasks, can interact in powerful ways. Finalizing certain design details may require that you go back and revisit the sequence, and so on. The choice of binding will likely affect how the pictures are laid out on the page. Etcetera and so forth, but never with much depth.

Colberg's solutions to most of the big problems are "hire an expert" starting from his recommendation to go with a Real Publisher (MACK, Steidl, Dewi Lewis, etc), but flowing on through hiring or enlisting people to help you edit, design, prepare for print, and so on. He recommends throwing yourself on the publisher's mercy for distribution, marketing, and sales.

This is in line with his relatively light treatment of all the relevant problems. Rather than discuss details of bindings and the kinds of problems that can arise in any depth, he simply recommends that you have a professional helping you out. Rather than give a brief primer on design relevant to books, he recommends hiring a designer.

Colberg's other big solution is "make physical book dummies," starting from pasting pictures into a cheap spiral notebook.

These two "big solutions" are defensible, but Colberg is a bit too absolutist on these points for my taste. None of these things are rocket science. I am not a graphic designer, but as long as I keep it simple and stick to stealing other people's good ideas, I am pretty confident that my book designs are OK. I am not a master binder, but I can make a pretty good looking book. I am not Keith Smith, but my edits and sequences are... well, they're maybe passable on a good day. The point is that you can learn these things.

Physical dummies are a good idea, but it's not clear that you can't do a perfectly good job of this with a series of PoD books in concert with carefully using the computer (a pattern he explicitly cautions against, without much of a convincing argument).

Interestingly, Colberg constantly beats the drum of "limitations are good" and "compromise is a necessary part of book making" while simultaneously advocating for what amounts to a spare-no-expense Rolls-Royce process. He's distinctly down on print-on-demand, making a point of dismissing it at least three times. These are not the only contradictions in the book.

The other truly annoying tic Colberg has is that he forces the reader to do quite a lot of work. The clearest example if the chapter on design, in which he say that you need to hire a designer, repeating more than once that it's about more than the margin widths. As noted previously, he does not remind us what design is, what a designer actually does.

Now, this is not a huge deal. One can in fact work out from the rest of the book what a designer does, and fill it in. Ditto various other places where the same tic appears, where he argues stridently in favor of something or other without giving much of a rationalization. It makes his arguments feel weak, however. And, to be honest, I think his arguments are weak.

The strength of his position is not enhanced by the design and editing of the book itself. Unless, I suppose, he intends the book itself to be that negative example I bemoaned the absence of, above. But no, the book is flawed, but not bad enough to serve that role!

His examples sections are, incomprehensibly, typeset with white text on a medium gray background, illegible in anything short of excellent light (especially the captions, which are set in a smaller font). The text, while not a mess, could have used a better editor. Consistent misuse of like vs. as, he uses the word amount incorrectly now and then, and I found at least one outright typo. I am a pretty close reader, and I expect to notice an error or two in even the best books, but Colberg's concsistent mis-use of what I assume is his second language should have been corrected.

Finally, he's very repetitive. Text and pictures found in the worked examples sidebars are often repeated in the main body. Even apart from that, he repeats the same points in the main text too often for my taste. A good editor would likely have chopped the book by 10-20 percent without loss, resulting in a tighter (albeit somewhat slender) volume.

I don't think Focal Press is a self-pub operation, but this thing felt like a quite well done self-pub book rather than a commercial product.

Despite these flaws, I think it is a useful volume, and I am pleased to have purchased it. In part, because it's quite inexpensive. You should perhaps own a copy, but have a good stiff drink before reading, lest you hurl it violently against the wall and damage the spine.

I regret that I am going to have to say some unkind things about Mr. Colberg in the next essay. This genuinely pains me, as I think he is one of the few genuinely smart voices in the area. Relative to the unkind things I intend to say about the industry, however, it will be as if I were hand-feeding him a fine cake. So there's that.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Why Sequence II: Examples

I'm going to try to think through a couple of examples. Not of "how" but of "what" -- specifically, how do I want my readers leafing through my book. What order do I want them looking at the physical pages in.

First, I am going to channel QT Luong, who recently put out a book of photographs from every single one of the US National Parks. QT reads has been known to stop by, so, "hi!" and this is just an example. His book and his concept may be completely different. However, it would be reasonable, I think, to approach a project of this sort thus:

1. I want readers to go through the whole thing in order, first.
2. I want readers to be able to find favorite photos easily.

The first suggests that the sequencing should have a firm forward drive. Readers should feel a desire to turn the page, contemplate, and then turn the page again. And so on. The second suggests some sort of useful organizing scheme, likely by location. Perhaps the book should proceed East to West or something, so when you want that one amazeballs picture from Zion, you know it's not at the front, and not at the end but about.. here.

Next, let's imagine we're making a visual telling of the story of Jesse James. Obviously a forward narrative drive makes sense, again. We might want to introduce a flashback, and we might even hope that the reader would literally flip backwards in the book to review those pictures. We might want to foreshadow, and hope to drive the reader to flip back to that foreshadowing picture or sequence when, later in the book, the relevant events begin to unfold.

The trip through this vaguely literary narrative, thus, would explicitly include backtracking in addition to the forward drive.

More generally, we might introduce pictures or sequences that make little sense, or make different sense, until something later is seen. Again, we'd like to see some backtracking (perhaps literal, perhaps just in-memory).

In the ultimate backtracking, we might want to finish the book in a way that demands the reader go back to the start. In the same way the movie "Memento" concludes in a way that makes us re-examine the entire film, our book might try to create a literal loop, requiring two consecutive readings to fully grasp. Two books, as it were, for the price of one.

Yet another coffee table book that is less completist that QT's might not even demand a front-to-back reading at all, it might need no forward drive at all. It might be purely a reference, intended to be dipped in to at random. You could even imagine a random-access with backward flow, with the big important pictures preceded, perhaps, by details and text that readers might or might not want to consult.

You could almost map this out, with a little box representing each two-page spread, and little arrows leading here and there. It's kind of how I visualize it. Arrows might represent remembering, physical page-flipping, or something in between, something else. No plan of this sort of likely to literally work in all details, but one can hope for a general thrust in the general direction. Some readers might do this bit, others another bit.

As with other aspects of Art and Photography, I believe firmly that if you put a lot in while simultaneously leaving space for the viewer or reader to find their own way, they will in turn get a lot out even if it's not exactly what you put in.

These are all different experiences of the book. Much of the lifting is done by the pictures, of course. Some of it is done by details of design. Some, however, is done by the sequencing. All, I suppose, should be working together to try to produce the right sort of effect.

I have a few other things to write about, but I will return to this and try to mention some actual ideas for generating these effects that I have observed here and there.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Fake Vernacular Photography

I think I am thoroughly on the record as approving of "vernacular photography", of the snapshot. What it lacks in technical merit it makes up for with the power and mystery of reality. When I find a crumpled snapshot on the ground, it connects me to a life, a series of lives, about which I usually know almost nothing. This genuine connection, this mystery, is precisely from whence these things gain their power, and it is considerable.

At the moment I am reading Colberg's book on Photobooks, about which more in a little while (I'm not finished with it yet) and I have become infuriated by a some of his examples.

He uses several of these things which are obviously meant as explorations of some personal problem (either the artist's or someone else's) through "the language of vernacular photography" which means "willfully ugly fake snapshots".

So, yes, indeed. We have a book made up of staged, fake, vernacular photographs, exploring, no wait, surely interrogating, the fascinating world of "how my mom's schizophrenia impacted my youth" or something.

We are looking at gutless, powerless, photos, willfully ugly, talking about a subject that almost nobody gives a shit about. Look, I get it, your family life was tough (although, to be honest, if you're willing to fake the snapshot aesthetic, I cannot ignore the possibility that you're faking your problems as well). And if you forced me to listen to your story, I would cluck my tongue sympathetically.

But it's a big world, everyone's got problems, and at the end of the day I don't give a shit about you or your problems. I don't know you, we have no connection (beyond that you're trying to sell me a book), and there are many many people I do care about to expend my caring on.

Amusingly, Colberg starts out by explaining that the market for photobooks is tiny, and consists mainly of aficionados who read photographs in specific ways. Of course it's tiny. Frankly, it's a miracle that you can sell 400 copies of a book of shitty fake snapshots that clumsily tells a possibly fake story about some personal problem, Who the hell wants a thing like that?

The game here, obviously, is to try to hijack the power of the vernacular photograph, but it fails, completely, for the reasons above. As soon as the staging becomes clear the enterprise collapses completely. Well, except for the 400 wankers who plug their ears and sing loudly, because they Want To Believe.

Now, Art qua Art is not well served by populism in particular, but this kind of explicit anti-populism, this explicit effort to make awful things that nobody on earth could possibly like, also does not serve well. Perhaps some sort of middle road, you know? And while you're at it, throw in some more universal themes. Blah Blah Blah My Problems was a thing in literature for 15 minutes a decade ago, and a) it's mostly over and b) it doesn't translate very well anyways.

All that said, Colberg's book looks at this moment (about half way through it) like a maddeningly irritating book that you really ought to own if you're interested in photo books of any sort (even photo books that might appeal to a real person).

Gimme a couple more days, I should have something coherent to say about it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

In Defense of Sontag

It's become quite chic to dismiss Susan Sontag as outdated and rather silly.

In serious fields, there are seminal works which we don't dismiss. We might update terminology and notation, we acknowledge that certain aspects turned out to be wrong. We might note that updated ideas have rendered some of the material moot, that we now think about certain things in a different way. Some things might even become untrue as the world changes.

Nobody uses Newton's formulations of Calculus any more, but neither do we dismiss him. We respect and, honestly, revere him a little. Even though his notation sucked, and he was a lunatic, the ugly reality is that he got a lot of the ideas right.

Sontag seems be dismissed mainly because her writing is 40+ years old.

She got a lot of stuff right, it turns out, and a lot of the stuff she got right isn't going anyplace until the human brain starts to work differently. She was also a pompous ass, and wasn't right about everything. So it goes.

My favorite is when someone disses Sontag, and then proceeds to parrot ideas that appeared, if not first then quite early, in Sontag's writing. To be blunt, it's pretty hard to say much about photography that is both interesting and true without slamming into a Sontag idea almost immediately.

So, rather than peeing on Sontag, perhaps critics of photography should recognize her work as what it is: Seminal, with all the good and bad that implies.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Why Sequence?

Computer problems at home result in low posting rates. Also, less to say.

I have a copy of Colberg's book on Photobooks in the mail now, arriving in a couple of days. As a warmup, I am re-reading Keith Smith's book on the same subject and making notes. Mental and otherwise.

In trying to make notes and organize my own thoughts, I fiddled with this and scribbled that and eventually concluded that it all needs to flow from what on earth you are trying to do with your book. Therefore, I want to start out a series of short essays, notes, on sequencing, by thinking through that first step.

What do you want your reader to get out of your book? Keith Smith talks about this idea of a composite picture which is in some sense the totality of your book. If you're making a Japanese folder, the total picture might just be the whole thing unfolded. Since I want to stick here to the western codex (a "normal book" to most of us, a bunch of identically sized rectangular pages bound together on the left edge) this composite is necessarily what is formed in the reader's mind by reading the whole book.

This might be simply an impression of what your best work looks like, if you've made a greatest hits monograph. It might be the actual story, if your book was an illustrated telling of the story of Jesse James. It might be something else. A sense of a place. An understanding of some person, some event, some entity. It might be sense of the sublime, a personal connection with God, or a thorough grasp of how faucets have worked through the ages.

Your aim might simply be to make certain a political, religious, ethical position appear reasonable, normal.

The point of the sequence specifically and book design generally is to bridge this gap from a pile of pictures and text to that total, composite picture.

The first job you have to do is to work out how you want your book to be read.

In most cases the reader is going to start by leafing through it front to back, in a more or less cursory fashion. Let's set such preliminary poking-around aside. What do you want to happen when your reader first sits down to have a serious look at your book? Then, what do you want to happen when your reader returns to your book later, for another moderately serious look?

Do you want the reader to chug through the pages at a fairly steady pace, front to back, and then mull it over?

Perhaps the reader ought to linger on this picture or that one? Slow down through this set, speed up through that?

Should the reader backtrack and re-imagine some pictures when they reach a particular pivotal picture?

Should the reader recall a related picture upon seeing this one, and understand the remembered one differently, in a new way, or a deeper way?

Which pictures give context to which others, which pictures are modified, re-understood, by seeing others?

Even the most basic monograph, the greatest hits book, wants to be read to completion. You want your reader to keep turning the pages. While it's certainly true that if the pictures are good enough, that might keep the pages turning, why not help things along?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Art Project Concept

My three year old had me up last night around 1am, so I had a little thinking time. I spent that time thinking about how I might make some Art which is somehow related to my earlier remarks on cultural change and the potential effects on the future economics of photography. I know, I know.

Still, if I am to take the problems discussed by Lewis and Ben seriously, there it is.

The basic unit of the work is a set of four versions of the same picture.

The first is large, maybe a classic Fine Print, maybe a Richard Prince style Instagram appropriation printed big but with all the Instagram crud left surrounding.

The second is small, snapshot sized. It's the same picture, removed a step. A photo of the large print. A photo of a phone with the picture on Instagram, Facebook, whatever.

The third is an illustration, a drawing based on the picture. Something simple. Also quite small.

The last is just a textual description of the picture, and perhaps the smallest of all.

Expand the unit to five pictures (somehow) or contract it to three (somehow). What about framing/presentation? Does the text get the biggest and flashiest frame? And why would it, or would it not?

Make a bunch of these. 3, 4, 50. There's a conceptual exhibition for you!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Economics of Photography

Lewis and his boneheaded friend got me noodling, as these things often do, which is why I read things I think are stupid as well as things that are clever, and things that are simply informative. Dissent makes you smarter, it makes you question things, it makes you seek answers. Dissenting opinions and ideas are what make you think.

Consider the industrial revolution. We have machines and steam and crap, and everything changed. The details are not terribly important here. The important things we see in the 1800s are things like the standardization of screw threads and a bunch of other things that mean, effectively, that mechanical contrivances can be made and used that are beyond the ability of a blacksmith to hammer out on his anvil.

Then along comes Henry Ford and invents the assembly line, and now we can build not only build complex machines, we can do so fairly cheaply. The age of the automobile is upon us. The marginal cost of an automobile-complex machine becomes remarkably low, although not zero.

Fairly quickly the buggy whip makers all go out of business, and the very face of travel itself is altered. It is no longer a big deal to go visit grandma 40 miles away. Visiting friends halfway across the country is not an expedition involving steamer trunks of crap and trains, we simply toss a pair of clean underwear in the back seat and go.

This is awful for the blacksmiths and the buggy whip makers. The world ends, from their perspective.

The world changes in ways that we did not predict, which seem blindingly obvious in hindsight. Motels and hotels are big business. Roadside diners. Truck stops. Gas stations. None of these are particularly new things. We have had roads, we had services for travelers along the roads, for 1000s of years. Canterbury Tales tells us all about it, from what, 700 years in the past or so, but the economic balance of these things changed. We still have buggy whip makers, I can still buy a whip. For horses. There are just a whole lot fewer of them. We still have hotels, just a whole lot more of them. The world convulsed, changed, as we learned what to do with this new "car" thing, and evolved into what we see today. It has further adapted to include air travel. Trains, sadly, not so much.

It's stupid to even say it: the economic convulsions that evolved out of the automobile were vast. More importantly, at least here in the USA, our cultural relationship with travel, and with distance, changed profoundly.

Consider now the state of photography. It's not the same as the industrial revolution, or the assembly line, but some things are similar.

There are, perhaps, three specific points that are worth noting:
  • The marginal cost of making a photo is very close to zero.
  • Digital implies infinitely malleable, plastic.
  • Digital and online implies infinitely automate-able.

Next, consider some recent trends that anyone who keeps track up the industry (e.g. reads PetaPixel) knows about.
  • Infinitely many pictures exist, and more every second.
  • Selfies, selfies, selfies.
  • Photoshopped pictures power fake news.
  • Social media influencers "make money" but use robots to inflate their apparent influence.

These all pretty straightforward consequences of the first three points. The last is an interesting case, and we can generalize it.

As soon as third parties are willing to pay people for behaving online in accordance with some algorithm controlled by that third party, an ecosystem of robots to milk that algorithm will arise. If you can get paid for having followers on instagram, you will be able to buy followers for roughly the same amount of money. If you can get paid for frobulating the whatsists on WeevleMole.com, you'll be able to hire an army of frobulation robots for a few pennies less than the money they'll make for you. The reason so many web sites are incomprehensible messes of ads is because those are not even supposed to be human readable web sites. They're there to be "read" by robots operated by the web site's owner in order to drive advertising revenue. So-called "ad-tech" is a third-party algorithm that pays for clicks, and so of course robots have arisen to click. Ad pricing on the web is in free fall, and that's part of why.

Many industries seem to be trying to be that third party, using algorithms to broker payments to amateurs, and this is a non-sustainable model in a very general sense. The web is a fine place for many kinds of business, but not that kind of business. The buggy whip business is collapsing, has collapsed. Marketing trying to re-invent itself by using "social media influencers" instead of supermodels and fashion photographers isn't working out either, because of the inherent properties of the digital photography ecosystem, which is what made the trouble in the first place. Robots and photoshop will destroy any efforts to make this work.

News media trying to reinvent itself using "citizen photojournalists" instead of actual photojournalists isn't working out so great either, again because of the inherent properties of the digital ecosystem that caused their troubles in the first place. Robots and photoshop.

On the one hand, we have to consider the possibility that the photograph is going to go the way of the illuminated manuscript. The idea of there being money associated with these things may simply be silly, there may be no "ecosystem" that works, any more than there is an "ecosystem" that supports monetizing handwritten notes on postits.

On the other hand, if it is possible that photography might remain an economic force, it will be in some way that embraces the new digital model rather than struggles against it. Sell gas, meals, and hotel rooms to drivers rather than trying to figure out how to make a car-compatible buggy whip.

I have no idea what it looks like, and it is probably unknowable. We did not know, in 1908, in what ways we would even use the automobile. Without knowing that, there was no way to predict in what ways the automobile would alter the landscape. The most common guess would probably have been that we'd use cars a lot like we used horses in 1907, and that guess was completely wrong.

The idea that in the USA the automobile would become a tangible symbol of independence, of freedom, to the extent that it is common and normal for miserable sods to drive an hour each way to their job, in heavy traffic, 5 days a week would have seemed complete madness. Obviously everyone would continue to use the streetcars, or walk. The idea that people would routinely drive 1000 miles to visit friends would have seemed absurd, who even has friends 1000 miles away?

In the same way, we cannot know what sorts of economic models will spring up around photography, if any, until we know what photography will become to us as a culture.

At present, photography seems to largely be what it always was, only moreso. More pictures, more self-indulgence, more news photos, more fashion photos, more lifestyle photos, more portraits. There's a trend toward "amateurish" in all these things, naturally, as photography is truly accessible to billions. There's a trend toward "faked" as the plasticity of the digital photo becomes more and more forward in our thinking -- not just photoshop, but face-swapping apps on our phones and the like. I've proposed that computational photography might usher in a whole brave new era of "fake".

The things we can take away, I think, are that any economic power that photography has in the future will have to either avoid or embrace the problems of plasticity, of automation, and of ubiquity.

I cannot shake this fact from my mind: During gold rushes, the people who make money are rarely the gold miners. The real money is in selling eggs, shovels, and baths.

While it's possible that photography will remain roughly the way it exists today, with all economic power gradually squeezed out of it, it's also possible that an automobile-like transition might occur.

Two things are possible:
  • That photographs will retain indefinitely something of their cultural impact
  • That they will not

By this I mean that the photograph will (or will not) retain its power to interest us, to attract our attention. Consider the line drawing, the illustration. We are awash in these things. The drawings in the instruction booklet, the inset map that shows where the advertised store is located, the illustration of the ear showing how small the hearing aid is, and so on. We don't notice these things, they only intrude upon our consciousness when we're attracted by something else.

(take a moment, look around your home, look for illustrations. I dare say you will be amazed at how many there are, and how few you have noticed.)

A photograph, contrariwise, attracts us. We look at the photo to see what it is, and read the caption, and then perhaps the article. A photo is a point of entry, while an illustration is something we literally don't notice until we're well-engaged with whatever the container is.

This might change. With the vast stream of pictures and, more importantly, the growing untrustworthiness of the pictures on all levels, this might change. We cannot trust that the picture was not photoshopped. If not 'shopped, it's likely to be false in other ways. Perhaps it shows an instagram "influencer" with 150,000 followers (149,999 robots and her mom) enjoying herself at a fine hotel in Egypt when in fact she is miserable, terrified, because she doesn't even have plane fare home.

If photographs vanish into that same mental and cultural space now occupied by the illustration, if they fail to attract attention (and we're starting to see this, I think) then what? News and fashion and business are already transitioning more and more to video anyways. Whence the still photograph?

Perhaps it becomes intensely personal. Nobody really looks at anyone else's pictures even now. Ever seen someone "reading" instagram? 1 second per photo, tops. Flick, flick, thumb a like, flick, like, flick, like, flick, flick. One gets the sense that they are liking photographs based entirely on who took it. No, photography for most people is an output-only medium. Perhaps we eventually stop looking, really looking, at any photographs except our own.

Where do the economics land, then? Is it in selling costumes for selfies? Selling purely virtual costumes to edit on to your selfies? Or something else, something so obvious (like motels) that we'll never guess it until it's already taken over the world?

I don't know if there will be a massive, imperceptible, cultural shift in how we understand photographs. I don't know what shape it will take, if it occurs. I don't know what the consequences will be.

But I do think that the automobile suggests the scope that is possible.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Authenticity

I'm not sure but I think this might be a forgery.

Arty Bollocks

My earlier remarks might give the impression that I am among the "the emperor has no clothes!" crowd, decrying arty bollocks as inherently gibberish, as a terrible blight on the world.

This is not the case. Lewis Bush thinks I am an awful person, and most likely takes comfort in the idea that I don't know what I am talking about. And, of course, to an extent, he's right. I am not as they say "skilled in the art". Still, I do have a rough grasp of International Art English (I once again commend to you the excellent and hilarious piece on triple canopy). I can, in fact, muddle my way through a lot of this stuff.

Let me give an example, of sorts. My PhD thesis in mathematics was about "continuous functions between topological spaces which are both compact and zero-dimensional" which, if you are a normal human being, makes your eyes glaze over precisely as much as Lewis and Ben's dribbling does. The difference is that if you got on wikipedia and started poking around, searching for things, in a few minutes you would likely be convinced that all that jargon actually does go together, and that it most likely means something. What it means, even roughly, would be several hours of tough sledding for anyone who hasn't taken a course in point-set topology.

But the point is that you'd get the idea, pretty quickly, that it probably means something.

I have come around to quite liking the Artist's Statement. Arty Bollocks can be quite poetic, and if all you really need is a sort of word-cloud around an idea or two, it works quite well. It's just quite difficult to have a conversation in. Arty Bollocks is in fact a language, in which you can actually say things. It has less of a compressing effect than most technical terminologies, and seems to often actually expand the word count over what common English might use, but you can in fact say things. This expanding effect is really what makes it so hard to converse in, you have to spend so much time trying to dig out what the other fellow is saying that you can't simultaneously form a response, so in the end you just blat some canned Bollocks back.

It's like trying to converse in sonnets. You can either marshal up your own allegories and rhymes, count out your own meter, or you can puzzle the other fellow's out, but you cannot practically do both in real time.

A proper technical jargon compresses meaning into precise, detailed, nuggets, and makes conversation much much easier.

But, you can say things in Arty Bollocks, even fairly precise things:

My work centers on interrogating the politics of representation by minutely examining the specific mechanisms and processes by which meaning is constructed. The central thesis I propose is that this meaning essentially arises through the dynamic interaction of shared cultural semiotics with the deeply personal mechanic of individual memory.

Now, I just wrote that piece of crap, but it actually does mean something. First we can clear away the clutter of extra words that the talented speaker of Arty Bollocks jams in all over the place. Adverbs, for instance, can almost always be dropped without loss of meaning. I will leave in the words that actually carry meaning, but otherwise leave it alone:

My work is about the politics of representation, it examines the mechanisms by which meaning is constructed. I propose that this meaning arises through the interaction of shared cultural semiotics and individual memory.

Which is still pretty much gibberish, but shorter. If you poked around a little, you'd find that the "politics of representation" is a term of art which covers, roughly, the ways meaning is constructed, in society, from visual material, from media in general. This is a whole area of study, and it's probably kind of interesting. I assume one could do real work in it, although I have no idea if anyone bothers.

Anyways, having discovered that, you'd notice that the next bits are in fact about how meaning is constructed, and you might reasonably guess perhaps this mess actually means something.

Then, wonder of wonders, I actually propose a sort of mechanism, having suggested that these things are what I am interested in. Something about the interaction of widely understood symbols ("shared cultural semiotics") and personal memories, which isn't any more bullshit than any other random made-up mechanism I could pull out of ... the darkness.

So, in the end, it means this:

My work is about the ways in which we construct the meaning of media to which we are exposed. I propose that this meaning arises through the interaction of individual memories with symbols and ideas we share widely across our culture.

Which, natch, is quite a bit shorter than the original, and it sounds a lot less intellectually weighty. One might reasonably ask "what the hell else would meaning arise from, anyways?"

Then, of course, if I were a real boy, I'd go on to expand what kinds of widely understood symbols I mean, and what kinds of memories I mean, and probably provide some examples, maybe some interviews with real people, some worked examples of how, let's say, the meaning of a poster, an advertisement, a news report, might be constructed. Actual research, you know?

The difference between this and the Bush/Burbridge interview is that searching around and unpacking the terms of art in the interview renders the whole mess more confusing, more opaque. This is because these guys aren't actually having coherent thoughts, they're volleying canned phrases in a language they don't really understand. Phrases that, to be sure, sort of orbit around the ideas they're interested in (social media sucks, photography is awesome, I want tenure), but which don't cohere into any actual meaning and don't actually go anywhere.

I think probably Arty Bollocks isn't a good language for conducting interviews in. Perhaps Lewis should look in to English, or German. Those seem to work.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Academic Artists

... or, I read this bilge so you don't have to!

Let me start out by noting that both of my parents were academics, in the Humanities. My mother taught in the English Dept, my father, Classics. Both were serious scholars. My mother examined Swift but, notably, did not write satire herself. My father was a specialist in Aristophanes and his contemporary critics but did not write plays himself. My sister has a PhD in biochemistry, I have one in Mathematics. So, I'm not some "academics are dumb eggheads" guy, I was literally raised by academics, and was an academic myself. I know, in short, the difference between real academics and fake ones. If life dealt me slightly different cards I would be holed up as high in the Ivory Tower as I could climb.

As a guy who shoots, designs books, and writes about photography, I can assure you that if you wear a bunch of hats and your name is not Goethe, you're probably not doing any of the jobs particularly well. But anyways, J. Colberg retweets 1000 Words Magazine's stuff, for reasons I cannot fathom, but it causes me to obsessively go back there try to figure out what I am missing. Colberg is, as you know, a real boy. He thinks and writes well. 1000 Words, on the other hand, is pure and unadulterated pseudo-academic bullshit.

Let us take a little tour through an Interview with Ben Burbridge conducted by none other than Lewis Bush. I will start by quoting my favorite exchange. They're zipped through some formalities "You curate, write, direct, dance, shoot, masturbate, pontificate, bloviate, and paint? Me too!" to demonstrate that both of them are dilettantes. Now Ben is talking about the second of two books he has in the pipe.

Burbridge: The other book is an effort to draw together various things I’ve been thinking about during the past five years or so, in relation to the idea of photography and ‘communicative capitalism’, a concept I’ve borrowed from the political philosopher Jodi Dean. I didn’t set out to write a book initially – I just followed my interests as and when I got the chance to do some work and then, a year or so I go, I realised that maybe I was sitting on enough material to draw together as something like a book. It deals with the ways in which photography is directly implicated in the political and economic machinations of neoliberalism, not so much in terms of the depiction of political and economic subjects within photographs, more in terms of the politics and economics of photography. It’s an effort to critically address diverse corners of a recent photographic landscape in terms of labour, profit and power. I do this with reference to a wide range of contemporary art practices, which provide the lenses through which this landscape is brought into focus – both because photography’s political-economies seem to be an important emerging interest for some artists, but also because they prove a significant blind-spot for others when they look to photography’s uses in the larger culture. Fairly traditional approaches to appropriation, for instance, seem to be very poorly suited to addressing questions of how the photographic cultures they explore are monetised, or how those processes are implicated in the broader dynamics of free-market capitalism. The book also tries to position the field of contemporary art – and, indeed, my own work as an academic (which would include this interview, of course) – within, not outside the issues studied. In that sense, I’ve gained a lot from recent discussions of institutional critique, particularly from artist-writers like Hito Steyerl and Andrea Fraser. I think Fraser’s idea that economics should be central to what artworks mean not just socially but also artistically provides an interesting jumping-off point when it comes to writing about photography, art and politics today.

Bush: I’d like to briefly pick up this idea of the way photography is implicated in neoliberalism, and capitalism more broadly. It’s a fascinating topic and one of significance for anyone who uses photography, almost regardless of how they position themselves, whether as artist, documentarian, professional or amateur. It seems to me that ‘serious’ photographers of most leanings have been aware for several decades at least of the extent to which the camera is inescapably meshed into a history and politics of seeing that complicates our use of it, in terms of the politics of representation for example. Relatively few seem to have applied the same thought to the way photography is part of a similarly problematic mesh of economics that one has to work within, whether one does so consciously or not. There seems to be an ever growing awareness in wider society about the way our lives exist within these diffuse meshes, most tangibly manifested perhaps in digital networks and the data we generate through their use, and an awareness also of how our lives are also shaped by these things. Do you think the moment is particularly ripe for photographers to engage more fully with these issues, as they have already engaged with issues around, say, representation?

Burbridge: I’m not sure.


Allow me to decode what they're saying. This took a lot of looking stuff up, and then bashing determinedly through a lot of excess verbiage. communicative captialism here refers to the present day capitalism in which we have this network that grants billions of people more or less an equal voice, we're all talking to one another, but unfortunately democracy is not magically emerging in a new and beautiful form. To first order this can be summarized as "Facebook sucks, and has not solved any problems, but they're making a bundle on us."

Neoliberalism is pro-capitalist liberalism. To leftists, it is Fascism-lite, or perhaps worse.

So Burbridge has used this idea, and his book is about how photography is "implicated in the political and economic machinations of neoliberalism" but not by what it depicts. It's not about photographs of stuff as such, it's "more in terms of the politics and economics of photography". When you dig through this, I think it must be referring, essentially, to the fact that photographs (yours, mine, everyone's) are powering social media, are a part of this communicative capitalism.

Then there's some stuff about labor, profit, power. Which, I think, must mean "Facebook is making a bundle off everyone's pictures, and not paying people". Blah blah "photography's political-economies" means what, exactly? Is photography trying to economize on politicals by using fewer of them? More likely it's just vague blather about "politics, economics, you know, all that stuff."

And, apparently, "Fairly traditional approaches to appropriation" seem to be "very poorly suited" to whatever the hell he's on about. Which, I guess makes sense, since he seems to be saying (basically), "Facebook sucks because it is making a bundle off us."

The business about how the book attempts to position contemporary art "and, indeed, my own work as an academic (which would include this interview, of course)" within the issues studied rather than outside seems to be nonsensical cuteness. If contemporary art (i.e. what you're talking about in your stupid book) is "outside" the issues you're talking about in your stupid book, then what on earth would your stupid book be about? What does it mean for "art" to be inside versus outside "issues" anyways? And to cutely include this horseshit interview within "my own work as an academic" is to expose the whole enterprise, isn't it?

Then Burbridge namedrops a bit, and asserts that the economics should be central what what artworks mean, which is a mysterious statement that probably means something but without context it does not. Does he (or, well, Fraser) mean the Art Market, or the fact that Rich Oligarchs buy Art? Or that capitalism is the system that enables the private ownership of Art? Or does he just mean that Facebook is making a bundle off everyone's pictures (well, of course that's what he means, but he's too cute to say so).

The Bush replies, saying "that's fascinating" and then "serious photographers ... have been aware for decades ... of the extent to which the camera is inescapably meshed into a history and politics of seeing" which, um, as far as I can see, doesn't mean anything. "Politics" means something, and not just elections and national leaders and so on. It's about the mechanisms of status and power and whatnot in any sphere. "politics of seeing" on the other hand doesn't mean a goddamned thing except "I have been to Art School and shove the word 'politics' in wherever the word 'dialectic' doesn't seem to fit." Then it turns out that "Relatively few" have thought through what happens when you replace some unguessable portion of the previous gibberish with "economics" which, as far as I can see, turns it from one meaningless sentence into another one no matter how you plug "economics" in.

Anyways, as soon as Bush got the camera inescapably enmeshed into a "history and politics of seeing" the wheels had pretty much fallen off, and no amount of blather about diffuse meshes can save him. Bush is also saying, basically, "Facebook is making a bundle off us, and that sucks" which you can see when he gets around to "most tangibly manifested perhaps in digital networks and the data we generate through their use" without specifying any of the less tangibly manifested manifestations.

Burbridge, wisely, replies "I don't know" which cracked me up, because it's pretty clear to me he's thinking "WTF did this guy even say? What issues? Oh god, get me out of here. Is it my turn to talk again? Yay!" and then he wanders off into the weeds talking about Web 2.0, Occupy, and Edward Snowdon, which is just a bunch of dog-whistle bullshit that means "I spend a lot of time on twitter."

I'm sure these guys are trying to pull together some general theory of how communicative capitalism is affecting photography, but it's a bit like a general theory of pre-Renaissance English Epic Poetry. I mean, it's pretty much just Facebook after you clear away the underbrush, isn't it? Google's in there making a pile of cash too, but they're not doing it by smearing your photographs all over everyone else's feeds or whatever. And, yeah, flickr and some also rans are in there struggling, but they're irrelevant blips. It's pretty much just Beowulf.

Finally, several 1000 words later we're done, thankfully. It's fairly hilarious because the two guys are clearly talking two different and mutually incomprehensible dialects of pseudo-intellectual gibberish. Whenever you can discover some actual meaning in a sentence or two here and there, it is invariably trivial, and invariably unconnected with whatever the other guy just said.

Yeah, academic artists. Just say no to the MFA.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Archive of Malian Photography

I stumbled across this thing recently. Somebody got a grant to digitize and catalog a bunch of negatives from Mali, shot by Malian photographers in the latter part of the 20th century.

To be honest, I don't know how I feel about it. I keep hoping for some great insight, some mass of incomprehensible imagery that yields ultimately some profound insight into a culture. I don't think this is that. This is largely portraits very much in the Western Style, albeit of Malian people with all that implies. Indeed, a sort of low-budget mimicry of The Western Portrait is what we see here. Flat lighting, shabby backdrops, and people self-consciously posing for the camera in basically the same way we do in the west.

The clothing is a weird mixture of what I imagine is traditional Malian dress, purely Western dress from the 1970s (we see dudes with wide pants, flamboyant shirts unbuttoned halfway down the chest, holding boom boxes!), and blends.

In a way, it does provide something of a cultural document. It shows us the violent collision of western style and taste with Malian tradition, among what I suspect is a pretty narrow socio-economic class. The people depicted, whatever else is true of them, are the people who would and could stop in to a relatively low budget portrait studio to get a picture taken, between 1958 and 1985. This covers a few different parts of Malian history, the tail end of French rule until just before the single party system was replaced with options. Most of the pictures were taken during a period of single-party, military-led, rule. Whatever that might imply, I do not know.

This does seem to be a genuinely spontaneous record, as opposed to (say) the orchestrated propaganda of the FSA in the United States. This renders the Malian archive more honest and more valuable. On the other hand, it obviously lacks breadth. It's most likely a specific socio-economic class, mostly in the specific context of Having My Picture Taken, and as such is far less valuable than the FSA archive. We see nothing, not even a propagandized version of, their way of life, the ways people worked and lived. Homes, work, social activities, food, and so on, are largely absent.

All we really see is how certain people chose to present themselves for the camera, and it is often depressingly Western.

Still, I find a certain interest here. I keep going back, flipping through the pictures, looking for something. Looking for clues in the eyes of the subjects, maybe.

I know a lot more about Mali than I did a week ago, I'll say that.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Crit: Clary Estes, Those Who Remain

Clary Estes is one of that kind of young turk who write boring pieces on Medium about how awful everything is. There's something about Medium, I swear to god, that turns people into pompous idiots. But that's enough bitching about Medium, I've got more important things on my mind.

Here's an interesting thing about Estes. She's pretty good.

Here's another work in progress, Those Who Remain about, well, at the core it's about people who were deported from Moldava by the Stalin regime, and who have returned to Moldava. In a larger sense, it's about the story of the Stalinist policies of famine and of moving people around, of enforced Russianization, and all that business. Anyone who wasn't raised under a rock has some rough notion of this, but I think it's a rare person who has much of a detailed insight into that whole awful thing. In the largest and most general sense Estes's essay is, but I feel I may be projecting here, about forced mass migrations, the human costs of them, and perhaps the moments of empathy, generosity, and joy that make them, occasionally less dreadful.

This isn't brilliant work, it's rough, it's patchy. The writing is often clunky, the web site is terrible. I don't much love the structure. But there's the heart of something in here, the potential for something really good. I think.

Estes doesn't really try to fill in the whole story, or to unravel the whole geopolitical mess. It doesn't much matter, really. There are always reasons for these things, and they vary, but the story is always roughly the same. Racism, nationalism, greed, naked power, corruption, and a large dose of venal stupidity and brutality. Whatever. We in the western world are enjoying a weirdly insulated bubble, safely away from this, but this sort of thing has been a constant backdrop of human history.

And, just to be clear, I think it is terrible. I hope that as a species, we can manage to graduate from this sort of thing, and find a new way to exist. The west, one imagines, might be a beacon, an example. Except that as often as not, Western meddling seems to be part of the root cause.

Just to get going, the pictures are perfectly nice, well made pictures. The sort of thing, though, that we've seen a lot of. The picturesque old people in the picturesque room with the signs of European poverty. Estes is not, thank god, interested in experimenting with form, she doesn't waste time trying to make banal pictures "look interesting", she's not following some twee fad. This is straightforward documentation. Well made, often appealing, but no individual picture is going to knock your socks off, or even stand out much.

Be that as it may. Estes is interested in the personal stories. Estes gives us fragments, details, bits and pieces. The stories, we should assume, are unreliable, but that too is irrelevant. Estes isn't a historian here trying to unravel some literal truth. Estes is an artist, trying to unravel instead some of Herzog's "ecstatic truth" for us, and I think she's well on her way.

Estes manages to accomplish, pretty well, I think, my two current little pet things. She's involved, she's personal. These are her friends, people she knows and who know her. There is personal connection here, she is emotionally plugged in. There's none of this coy half-assery of simply presenting facts without taking a position. We know where Estes stands. She is not some chickenshit hiding behind some bogus veil of "objectivity" and she's being in no way cute, chic, or trendy.

Secondly, she paints the whole picture tolerably well, or any rate gives up the bits and pieces we need. She uses photographs of photographs and other physical evidence sparingly, but well, enough to push our attention toward the past, to imagine that full story. She writes and quotes enough to suggest the breadth of the story. We understand that the people she loves and shows us stand in for a larger community of deportees.

Finally, she begins to lean toward what I think of as answers or the message or something. We see that strange indomitable stoicism distinct to the eastern Europeans. I think of it as a Russian thing, but it's not. It seems to start somewhere around Berlin as you head east. I dare say that the Russians express it differently from the Czechs who are in turn different from the Moldavians. From here in Bellingham, WA, it all looks the same capacity to endure absurd trials, stoically, with a cynical humor and occasional wild outbursts of emotion.

So we have also this story of endurance.

At least once, Estes makes the mistake of saying that we must never allow this to happen again which is the common refrain of the young and strident, confronted with a terrible story. Sadly, we're not going to accomplish that. It's happening right now, all over again, in several places in the world. At any given moment, masses are being forced to flee, or are being deported, or imported, or trafficked. To stand up and cry out that we must put an end to it is to simply make ones complete impotence clear, to look young and foolish.

I don't mean to suggest that nothing should be done.

What is lacking, to my mind, is that final step, pulling it together to suggest the way forward. I think the seeds are in there, they just need to be tended a little.

If it were mine, I would (obviously) crush the captions down to nothing, or almost nothing, and instead wrap the piece in an essay that encompasses all these stories. The personal trials, the Stalinist brutalities, the stoicism of the people, leading onward to hints of the repetitive nature of the story, the reality that we see these forced migrations over and over, and that we're still seeing them today. No need to handwring about Syrian refugees specifically, and indeed that would date the work too precisely, Enough to say that mass forced migrations continue, and seem to be built in to human history. Enough to suggest that this is perhaps, someday, it might no longer be true.

Just a line or two on the general cases of forced migrations would be enough. We know. We all know.

And then, and then, dig up those little bright spots. They appear in the captions, and in my notional essay they'd appear a little more clearly. Now revisit them, point out those moments of compassion, of giving, of sharing. Those moments that saved a life, that brightened a child's day. The moment that lightened the burden of exile, that eased the day of return. They may not have been common in the stories Estes tells us, but we see them, here and there. If these bright moments had been more frequent, more generous, these stories would not have been so tragic.

As always, the answer in these stories is human connection, is empathy, is kindness.

What is necessary is not a handful of westerners standing up and yelling never again! What is necessary is more global, more general. Each forced migration seems reasonable and necessary to whoever is forcing it, because they don't have compassion, because they have no empathy for the forced, and because they do not see that this forced migration (so obviously necessary) is just the same thing as all of the (cruel, brutal, pointlessly stupid) other ones.

Not to suggest that one book, one essay, will change the minds of whichever egomaniacal ideologue will lead the charge on the next mass forced migration, or the one after that. But 100 books, essays, plays, novels, television shows, movies, a 1000, 10,000, might change the masses just enough to take away the egomaniac's support. The global culture changes drip by drip, in tiny increments.

Someday, maybe, the idea that we're just not like that, this isn't a thing we do gets baked into the human psyche. Maybe tomorrow some snotty white Parisian makes the connection between the ancient Moldavian woman's trials in Khazakstan and those difficult brown fellows living the projects on the edge of Paris. Maybe the day after that, this snotty white Parisian is just a little bit kinder to some Algerian guy who bumps into him on the street. Drip by drip we normalize the idea that turfing out all the people who aren't like you isn't a thing we do. Drip by drip the idea that being an asshole to the immigrant who doesn't look like isn't a thing we do.

There are, in any of these changes of culture, many works of art that lead, or that follow, or that reinforce. Some are seminal, some merely tap the keystone a little more firmly into place. Richard Mosse's works don't seem to be the seminal works of a new tolerance for the refugee, for the migrant, for the displaced. Mosse is just spectacle. Estes, I don't know. Maybe I am being wildly generous. I think, I imagine, I see the seed of something. I think maybe, just maybe, Estes has a shot of something weighty, something important, a seminal work in a cultural shift. She's not there now, by any means, but her trajectory looks pretty good so far.

I find the website to be obnoxious. The captions (quite long) scroll upwards, obscuring the photo they caption, but allowing you to read the caption, and this is an absurd piece of design.

But Estes? Estes is pretty good.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Nnnngh

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

Answers

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.