Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Way We See

I despise the notion of "levels of photographer" but I am going to sketch out a sort of a progression anyways. Sorry about that, I hate myself a little right now.

The neophyte with the camera mainly sees the subject. The flower, Aunt Martha, the thing they want to take a picture of. Many camera-carriers happily remain here. These people famously photograph people with trees "growing out of their heads."

After a while, many of the more serious camera owners will read things that tell them about, well, various graphical features. They might notice leading lines, or intersections of lines. The might notice bright spots, shadows, the way the light falls. Most of the rest of the camera carrying community stop right here, slowly stirring around the short list of technical/graphical features they notice and photograph. These folks almost never photograph a person with a head-tree.

Serious photographers who are successful at communicating things, I feel, manage to simultaneously "go beyond" a sack of graphical tricks, and at the same time to return to the naive subject. Of course, I count myself among this sainted number. And, naturally, you as well, gentle reader.

The same applies to looking at photographs. The naive viewer says "what a pretty flower," the more sophisticated camera owner says "tsk, the flower is centered rather than placed on a Rule of Thirds Power Point," and the artist says "what a pretty flower" but in a more thoughtful way.

I think, I like to think because it's the way I do it, that the Serious Artist sees the whole frame of the photograph. They grasp the whole as a collection of forms and tones and lines and colors all in balance, or not, etcetera. And they they see a pretty flower, and the way the picture reveals the pretty flower without clutter (or with clutter, as is fit and meet.) But at the end of the day, it's still the pretty flower.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

US

This is a prototype of a book project built around an essay, again. So, it's not commentary or criticism, it's my attempt at Art, again

In 1776 some fellows wrote these words, and some other fellows signed the blank space found below them:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.




Some 13 to 16 years later more words were written and ratified, as follows:

Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 2: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

These are, of course, some of the central texts of the United States of America. The first is the core of the Declaration of Independence, and the second are the first and second amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Arguably, these are pretty much the only bits of these larger central texts that the average citizen has much familiarity with in these modern times.

I am not much interested in what the authors or signers of these statements might have meant. They are all 200 years dead, their intentions are surely academic. Yes, yes, Jefferson and Washington were terrible assholes. Or not. Whatever. Neither one of them is saying a lot these days.

Nor am I much interested in contemporary legal theories of what these things mean. Not that these are not interesting questions, but they are irrelevant to what I am saying here.

What I am interested in is the cultural impact of these things, how we citizens and residents of the United States, have internalized these words, what we make of them, and how they influence the ways we think and live.



Utterly entrenched in these words is the idea of individual liberty, the right of each of us, one by one, to seek out what it best for us and ours. Entrenched in these words is the idea that the government should at no time and in no way attempt to restrict our individual freedoms, our individual search, our individual labors. Ours is a nation built, the idea goes, on the efforts of individuals. The railroads were built not by Chinese laborers but by titans of industry, working practically alone. The west was won by steely-gazed men with Colt pistols and strong-willed horses.



Still, this freedom and liberty business is a pretty good idea. Empowering the individual to seek out what is best is a good thing. Each of us should feel and be free to pursue our dreams. It is not unhealthy to feel that perhaps without individual striving things might go badly for us. Around the world parents try to imbue their children with these ideals, among others.

These ideas do ignore the group, the tribe, that force that is all-of-us, together. They minimize these ideas, and perhaps that is not so beneficial. The myths of this nation are not quite true, the railroads were built by shared labor, the west won likewise. Most of the large scale success here in the United States was through group effort, through teams of self-effacing (not always willingly) people working as one toward a larger goal, as well as by oppression, exploitation, or elimination of other people, other classes.

Still, I believe firmly in the ideas of individual pursuit of hopes, dreams, success. Up to a point.

With so many millions of us so deeply imbued with these beliefs, there will inevitably be outliers, in all directions. Some few will utterly eschew individuality in favor of the commune. Some few will observe opposite theories. Some few will seek to elevate their own individual liberty above everything and everyone else.

The worst results hold when we fetishize the objects we identify with our Liberty, when we feel that certain objects contain the answer.

The Car





The first world as a whole has embraced the absurdity that is the car. Several tons of steel and plastic, nowadays bristling with computers and cameras and air bags, simply to transport, usually, a single person and a few personal odds and ends from one place to another.

The United States has taken this to some sort of ultimate pinnacle. Our lust for personal liberty has obliterated every other method of getting around, in any practical way. Ask yourself "how would I obtain a pair of socks without using my car?" (of course you'd jump on amazon, tsk, but amazon would use a truck in the end anyways.) In the United States, for most people, that is a virtually intractable problem requiring half a day of bus travel if it is even possible.

We've built a nation around the car. It is, for all practical purposes, impossible to live here without a car. You cannot hold a job, you cannot purchase food and clothing, you cannot obtain medical care, without a car. Certainly there are a few people without cars, who beg rides and use public transit. They are miserable. There are a few places in which walking or bicycling to much of what is necessary is possible, I live in one of them. But mostly, Americans rely on The Car. 95% of American households own a car. And The Car is completely crazy. It costs the average American something like $8000 a year to own a car. This is a crushing burden for all but the best-off of us, and yet we shrug it off as a simple necessity.



Ordinary people cannot imagine going to work by bus, "What if I want to run an errand at lunch?" and so on. Our personal liberty demands the ability to simple go when and where we choose, at any moment. Public transit systems across the nation are dead or on life-support, the country is enmeshed in a web of highways, interchanges, streets, parking lots, gas stations, repair shops, car dealerships, car factories. Trillions of dollars of infrastructure exists so that we can go when and where we want.

The United States sees almost 11 traffic-related fatalities per 100,000 people, per year. We are by no means the worst here, but that is because of our safe cars, safe roads, and fairly thorough enforcement of traffic laws, not because we're not driving the damned things basically all the time.

There's nothing inherently wrong with The Car. Cars are ubiquitous, globally, and in the end they're just a thing we use to move ourselves and our stuff around conveniently.



But. But.

The Car is central to our identity, here in the USA. It represents freedom, it represents our selves. The American passion for Liberty has, to our detriment, caused us to view The Car as the answer to many problems to which it is not necessarily the best one. The Car has cost us, and cost us greatly.

It should not be the answer we treat it as.

The Dollar





Ahhhh, money. Everyone wants it, everyone needs it. Nobody even knows what it is. It's a medium of exchange. It's labor distilled into convenient chits. It's the only known way to efficiently compute solutions to the problem of distributing goods. It's power. It's speech. It's lovely. It's sex.

It's a government plot to control us all.



Money is global, it's not a uniquely American invention. One might argue, though, that it is in America where we have most perfectly distilled the cold pursuit of it against all opposition, against all common sense. America has 5 times as many billionaires as the next nation in line, and our per capita billionaire count is ridiculous.

Money isn't a bad thing, we need it. You cannot run an economy -- in the most basic sense of a system that gets food into the mouths of people, at scale -- without money. The ruthless pursuit of money, on the other hand, is not particularly good for anyone. Not even for the billionaires who are a famously restless and unhappy people.

The trouble is that people in general, and Americans with their infernal pursuit of Liberty more than anyone, sometimes perceive money as the answer. "If only," we imagine, "I could get a million dollars" or a thousand, or a hundred, "then my problems would be solved." More often than not, it isn't true. Money, it is said, cannot buy happiness. Americans, there is no kind way to say it, do not believe that.



Lottery winners are famously less well off 1 or 2 or 3 years after winning, as a class. Billionaires cannot give up the relentless pursuit of more money, far past reason. Men so rich that they cannot purchase more power, more sex, more influence because there simply isn't any more for sale cannot give up the pursuit. Money, in the worst cases, makes heroin look benign, except that the victims are all too often everyone except the addict.



Money should not be the answer we take it for.

The Gun





Whether the second amendment is really about militias, privately owned guns, or donuts does not matter. We have internalized it as a central idea of gun ownership as American. Some deplore it, and some approve it; all agree that it's deeply American. The myths and legends of the American West helped entrench these ideas, our heroes are soldiers, sharpshooters, experts with the rifle or the pistol.

Sergeant Alvin York is famous as the pacifist who became a war hero, because of his skill with guns. A pacifist. They made at least one movie about him.



Guns, guns are just tools. They're things. They're not more dangerous than chainsaws, or cars, or fire, or poison. Wags are fond of saying "guns don't kill people, people do" or sometimes "bullets do" or something.

In a literal way, these things are true, but the deeper truth is that whoever says this is looking for a way to not talk about what it is that kills people. Guns kill people in a lot of ways, but the uniquely American way they kill is enabled by their power as a fetish object. Little kids raised on videos are fascinated with Dad's gun. Unhinged men collect the things and purchase gimmicks to enable them to shoot them more efficiently. The suicidal snuggle their gun, the solution to all of their problems except one.

The trouble arises not with gun use or gun proliferation, it arises when someone gets the idea that the answer is embodied in the gun. Perhaps the answer is to put the gun to his own head, or to shoot his girlfriend, or his dog, or a whole batch of people at a concert. Perhaps the answer is to shoot that cop, or that perp, or that enemy.



In America, The Gun, like The Dollar, and The Car, are sex, power, independence, Liberty.

The Gun, like The Car, and The Dollar, enables me to choose. The Gun enables me to make choices that are denied to people who do not possess The Gun.

In this world there's two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You: dig.

This is baked in to our culture. How often do we think or say "man, if someone would just shoot that guy things would be so much better."

If people would only stop thinking that the gun is a mystical object which can, somehow, make things OK, they'd stop shooting so damn many of one another. The Answer is not to be found in The Car, in The Dollar, or in The Gun. Our Liberty, our Personal Freedom, is surely larger than these fetish objects in which we see such power.

It is true that each of these objects truly does enable choices, each enables a certain kind of Liberty, of Freedom.

Those with loaded guns do not dig, those with running cars do have jobs, those with money make the rules for everyone without it.

These are all terrible ideas, and they're rotten ways to engage in the Pursuit of Happiness.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reality and Photos

Mike over on ToP asked out loud if photographs look less "real" than they did, which I found a fascinating question from one as erudite as Mike.

It has already been pointed out to him that photographs don't look real no way no how, and he's probably just trained himself to think of the photos from about 1930 to about 1990 as "real looking" which is perfectly right.

That which we perceive, we think of as something like a photograph. In that, we deceive ourselves. What we perceive is in fact a memory, albeit a very recent one, of a visual field recently constructed out of bits and pieces by our big fat brains from a very lousy but deep collection of visual information.

Consider, therefore, memory. We imagine that our memory of Aunt Sally's birthday as a set of mental photographs, more or less. But stop there, freeze it. There's Aunt Sally blowing out the candles on her cake. Who else is there? Bev, Sam, Jane. Who is seated to Sally's right.. Um. Um. Bev? Or was it Sam? Don't you remember, Sam couldn't make it, he wasn't even there.

Memories are nothing like photographs, once we actually peer into one we find a squishy mess that is long on certain types of detail, but surprisingly short of actual visual facts.

Hold that thought while I relate a story.

I once remarked to my father that Lewis Carroll had really done a remarkable job of writing down what it is like to dream, in his Alice adventures. My father replied with his usual insight: yes, the books capture with wonderful accuracy the way we dream after we have read Lewis Carroll.

How I dreamt before I know not, or even if I did, because I heard Alice read aloud before my memories begin.

This begs a similar question. How did we remember things before the photograph?

Did we remember things, or rather fancy we did, as the sort of accurate visual record that resembles a photograph? If so, how on earth did we describe the experience of a visual memory? Did people say things like "my memory of such and such is like a marvelously detailed painting?" I suppose I could do some research, but that sounds exhausting. Is it possible that (our notion of) our visual memory was experienced differently before we had the photograph as a reference idea?

One could go find one of those rare untroubled tribes in the rain forest who have never experienced a photo, and ask, but I hear that sort of thing is frowned on.

ToP Print Sale

The Sale Is Over, I have unlinked the link.

Mike asked nicely (not me specifically, he asked everyone in the world) so I am doing it.

Current print sale going on over at ToP. Gordon Lewis's "Precipitation" available (again) for $155 (includes shipping to Anywhere) printed 8.75x12 on 11x14 paper. I like this picture a lot.

Full disclosure: For about 3 or 4 reasons I can name, I am not buying one. But that doesn't mean you ought not, if it's even remotely your thing, you know that this is the next best thing to free.