Sunday, November 19, 2017

Lookit these bozos

I cannot resist a spot of outright mockery. Look at this thread on this dumb forum:

Image Quality? No such thing?

Which is a discussion of Mike Johnstone's essay of more or less the same title.

Note in particular the theme of "that guy probably just hasn't ever used a good camera." At least one of the commenters on that theme is a Respected Grand Olde Man in that forum.

Colberg's take on Capitalist Realism

I've been chewing on Colberg's recent essay. He's been tweeting about it a lot and has gotten some traction among the titterati. So, I've been thinking about it.

His central claim is that Annie Leibovitz's portraits, and Gregory Crewdson's photography (as a whole?) make up two sides of the same coin, that coin being Capitalist Realism. The latter being, more or less, an analog of Socialist Realism, which was a straight-up propaganda movement which enobled the Socialist Cause with a series of fairly crude tropes that worked pretty well.

What Colberg cannot seem to commit to is just exactly how this works. He's coy but allows for how Leibovitz probably isn't doing it on purpose (and so perhaps we can infer that Crewdson gets the same pass -- notably, Colberg's discussion is wildly asymmetrical, we hear very little about Crewdson, for what I think are excellent reasons.) His claim appears to be that these two present a sort of package. The successful are enobled. Ok, I get that. That would be some great propaganda, and I kind of see the relevant tropes in play. The unsuccessful, Colberg claims, are shown to be hopeless and stuck. The message, Colberg claims, is that "you can't do anything about your shitty lot, so suck it up."

Ok, now, where I sit, this looks like the worst propaganda in the world. This is absolutely how not to do it.

Let's look at Crewdson. His work is pretty depressing. It's extremely mannered. It certainly illustrates the beaten down, the suffering, the miserable. His themes don't seem to be opposition to wealth, particularly, though. While he's certainly done plenty of work that could be construed as about the poor, it strikes me far more as about family trouble, emotional trouble. Crewdson reads as a sort of northern Faulkner, showing us the current link in a chain of inevitable disaster that stretches both back and forward in time. Sex, incest, emotional distance, the crushing weight of aging, all these things are hinted at. But the theme of being a victim of capitalism, much less so.

What makes Crewdson attractive here is the obvious visual similarities to Leibovitz, and I certainly do feel that sense of opposition. They do feel like yin and yang. But if you attempt to hook that yin/yang up to Capitalism, it falls apart. You can hook Leibovitz up, but not Crewdson, and once Leibovitz is viewed as Capitalist Propaganda, Crewdson more or less ceases to be yang to her yin.

If you want a proper yang, well, photographic studies of America's Poor are the hydrogen of photography. Colberg is waist deep in this shit in his MFA program. You'd don't get the cute visual duality, because all that stuff is washed out fake film these days, but at least the subject is right. And, of course, you don't get to cut down Crewdson.

Ok, so I can't figure this out. Let's see if Colberg will just tell us. As far as I can see, the only explicit remark he makes that's relevant is this one:

being able to buy Crewdson’s photographs at a blue-chip gallery helps the wealthy see the role they play, as those providing the concerned pillars of society

Which, to be honest, appears to me to be gibberish. Well, it literally does mean something, but that something makes no sense. He's buried this quote in parenthetical asides and, so be further honest, I think he lost his way halfway through the thought and just dribbled off. It does suggest that perhaps Colberg is claiming Crewdson behaves as propaganda aimed at the rich, further justifying their wealth and power?

Is Colberg claiming that Crewdson is propaganda aimed at the rich, while Leibovitz is propaganda aimed at the poor?

That might make sense, except that one does not traditionally propagandize the entrenched powers, as far as I know.

And, again, why pick on the ambiguous Crewdson when there are probably billions of photos explicitly about how stuck the poor are?

Let's return to Leibovitz.

As a side note, I want to pull out this sentence:

That said, it [the sheer amount of post-processing] also is the one part of Leibovitz’s work that brings her closest to the world of fine-art photography.

To which I respond, what the fuck? Is it 1870 again? Did you forget to take your anti-dipshit pills this morning, Jörg?

And now we come to that damned reference to Riefenstahl. And let us recall that Leibovitz is a Jew. There's absolutely no way Colberg is that tone deaf. Despite his protestations that he's not comparing the two, blah blah blah, there's no doubt that he's digging the fact that he's found a way to jam these two names together. So controversial! Whoo!

As I have noted elsewhere, I will not deny a fellow his impressions. If he saw Riefenstahl in Leibovitz's book, so be it. Having skimmed a bit of this and that, I even sort of see it, although Riefenstahl always had the drama turned up to 11 and Leibovitz is more of a 9. But this connection seems to serve no genuine point, only a rhetorical one. He could have shoved in John Singer Sargent just as well, and the parallel would have been quite a bit more apt. Of course, while it would have been more apt, it would not have led so neatly to his fairly forced discussion of propaganda. He could also have jumped right ahead to Socialist Realism, which would have gotten him where he wanted to go, politically, but, let us be honest, Colberg wants to cut Leibovitz down. Lashing her, however obliquely, to Riefenstahl, accomplishes that, as well as making Colberg look intellectually courageous (to idiots).

Anyways. Colberg's piece sounds pretty good until you actually start to dig and to think, and then it kind of falls apart. I mean, there's some stuff there, and you could probably dig out two or three themes and make some sense of them, but this particular incarnation of the ideas is kind of a mess.

To be honest, I suspect that Colberg saw the Trump picture and recognized Crewdson in it. The emotional distance is right there, and if you look around you see Crewdson did a bunch of pictures with standing automobiles with the driver's side door standing open. Sometimes with a human figure, sometimes not.

I suspect that Colberg noted this similarity, and then spun the rest out of his own fevered imagination, because we wanted to write a "capitalism is terrible" piece, because that's what all the cool kids are doing. He wound up with a sloppy, glib, and in the end kind of foolish piece.

But it's killing it on social media, so he'll probably get tenure.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Anti-Portrait

What's a portrait?

Well, I think it's a picture that seems to reveal something specific the interior life of the subject. Something of character, something of their emotional nature, whatever. Something more than this guy is a carpenter, see, he's holding a hammer. A good one does, anyone. As usual, I say "seems to" because I've never worked out if they actually do, or if they just make me think they do through some sleight of hand.

An anti-portrait, of course, does the opposite.

I come at this from thinking about Robert Frank's book, The Americans, when juxtaposed with Caleb Stein's pictures which I talked about a while back. Whether Stein knows it or not, he's influenced by Frank. It occurred to me that what Stein has done is made a bunch of pictures in the style of Frank, but which do not cohere into a whole the way Frank's does.

This led to down the mental path to the way Frank's book reveals. He went on a pretty specific mission to find the soul of America, and he came back with one. It's by no means a complete picture of America, but it is a coherent essay. It is one of America's many souls, if you will.

Now, one could set Stein's work up as an anti-Frank, but that's unfair, really. It's not that his pictures are fated to never cohere, it's more that his project is woefully incomplete. Whether it will ever go anywhere (no, of course it won't) is unknown and a different essay. Still, the idea lingers. Looking specifically at Stein's portraits, which are related to Bruce Gilden's idea of a portrait, the clearer idea of an anti-portrait begins to emerge.

When Stein photographs someone, he's clearly less offensive than Gilden. His subjects are warmed up toward him, but they are simply mugging, putting on their camera face. By isolating them from their background, Stein more often than not removes any useful context, so all we are left is the reality of the person's physiognomy. This is roughly what Gilden does, except his subjects are usually one step beyond and actually annoyed with Gilden, closed rather than mugging. Either way, nothing of that person's interior even seems to appear.

Our powerful face-reading ability recognizes these people more or less instantly as revealing nothing, of giving nothing away.

These are anti-portraits.

This doesn't make them evil just somehow less interesting. All of fashion is arguably anti-portraits, we're not supposed to be thinking about the inner life of the model. Just look at the clothes, ok?

Stein and Gilden could, and might, argue that the entire point is to focus on the details of physiognomy, to confront us with the person's skin and makeup, or whatever. Is that good or bad? I don't know, but I think it's a lot less interesting. We are, after all, social animals.

The closed face is uninteresting, or at best alarming. In a photo, it's almost never even alarming.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Blurb Trade Books

I've done a fair number of "trade books" on blurb, with mainly black and white photography. They're cheap as anything. I have successfully learned two (2) things.

The first is to be aware that pictures (especially masses of black) will tend to show through, especially with the bargain paper. Be a little cognizant of that, and consider your layouts appropriately.

The second is that the blacks are weak and it can be a bit disappointing if you do black and white with large masses of blacks.. It's not like they're grey or anything, but they're weak. So, first of all, make sure you have beefy blacks. If you "crush the blacks" as they say, starting from slightly open and airy looking darker tones, you're going to get a greyish mist instead of a photograph.

In order to get a picture that reads more or less normally, I push the very darkest tones down, and lift the darker greys (the ones right above the darkest ones) up a little to shove some contrast down into the darker areas, and then I tack everything else in place. This is all in a curves adjustment tool of your choice, and it looks a bit like this:

The result will look terrible on screen, with plugged up shadows and whatnot. Don't you worry, those are gonna open right back up. The result reads pretty well to me in the final print. The blacks, while weak, still read OK. There's nothing to be done about the narrow tonal range available, but you can fool the eye as it were, to a degree.

If you print "straight" you will wind up with a bit of that "crushed blacks" look, with the slightly "open" darkest tones. Which might be what you're looking for. If you're a weirdo.

Why "crushed" blacks means "lightened" I do not know, but there it is.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Somehow, whenever a photographer goes asking for "how to get inspired", or when a photographer offers up advice for inspiration, the answer is always either a piece of gear, a technical method, or a gimmick. Are you uninspired? I know how you feel.

But I know what you ought to do, to get inspired!! I DO! Try macro photography!

Or grab a wide-angle lens!

Have you thought about trying a graduated neutral density filter?!! It's opens up a whole new way to see!

Try a Lee Big Stopper ND filter for super long exposures!

Buy a drone, get inspired by how things look FROM ABOVE!

Use a wide angle macro lens and a 10 stop ND filter ON a drone! Use a drone with a wide angle macro lens to photograph ten things within ten feet of you in the next ten seconds! Because the way to get inspired is to buy more stuff!!!!!

Ahem. Sorry.

I don't know why this is the case, it has something to do with the ways camera owners view photography. There's a strong tendency to seek technical solutions to creative problems, and there always has been. If you can't solve it by buying a widget, perhaps you can solve it with a step-by-step recipe, and if that doesn't work surely a widget AND a recipe will work!

The trouble is that when you're feeling uninspired what you're lacking is an idea.

A widget or a method is not a guaranteed failure here, to be sure. Sometimes a fresh view through a new lens really will produce an idea. Not, however, all that often.

Inspiration can be a lot cheaper. Try asking yourselves these questions:

What is the best thing in the world? What is the worst? What is the silliest? What do I believe in? What in this world is most precious to me? If I could change one thing in this world, what would it be?

Really, any Big Questions. You can probably make up another 50 of your own. When you've worked out something that matters to you, some story you want to tell, then work how to to take a picture of that.

And then take that picture.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Capitalist Realism!

Jörg Colberg surprised me today. He hinted that he had queued up a piece on Annie Leibovitz and Gregory Crewdson, and I assumed it was going to be a tedious snorefest of how much they both suck.

But it's not.

I wouldn't say it's Colberg at his very best but at least he's thinking biggish thoughts again.

What struck me, though, was that after talking about how Annie portrays all these rich assholes as noble heros, in the Riefenstahl mode, he singles out this picture:

Which certainly deploys the relevant tropes. However, it enobles nobody. I find it remarkably subversive. It's the sort of picture that pretty much only Donald Trump would think flatters Donald Trump. It's Crewdsonesque in its suggestion of the imploding relationship. And, mostly, it's pretty much just this picture:

Annie doesn't like Trump one goddamned bit, and she's not afraid to show it to anyone who's willing to look.

Anyways. Jörg is engaged here in the trendy business of pointing out that Art works as propaganda, and then bitching about how the opposing team is doing a better job of it than his team. That's very sad, but Jörg and his crew are complicit.

They bitch about and sneer at Annie and Gregory, because successful populist Art sucks. They promote tedious "my-sad-project" Art, they promote "OMG dictators are terrible" projects. They get behind exhibitions that boil down to "Trump is a doodoohead." And so on.

What they, the leftist anti-neoliberal Art community are failing to do is find any kind of a goddamned voice of their own. You know what works? Propaganda, which is an unkind way of saying "messaging that is clear, accessible, and persuasive" which of course they cannot get behind because they're too precious. What is maddening is that they can see it working for the other side, but refuse to take up the same tools themselves.

Instead they bury themselves in self-reference, post-modern "symbols can only refer to other symbols dontchaknow" blather, dense incomprehensible work about nothing, and self-indulgent displays of childish temper.

Stop bitching about how Annie makes rich people look good, find an alternative narrative, and start pushing the shit out of it using Annie's toolbox. And while you're at it, tone down the sneering at Annie, because she's already doing just that.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Malian Photography, Revisited

The reader with the long memory may recall my remarks on the Archive of Malian Photography. I expressed some disappointment with it, and I continue to be disappointed. It strikes me as, at the very best, a cultural artifact of very little depth.

Turns out there's more going on here!

One of the photographers in the archive is actually a well known guy, a sort of recently discovered (20 years ago or so) wunderkind of Africa. Also, somewhat more recently deceased. As usual, the story is that he labored in obscurity until white guy discovered his vast archive of important work, but the reality is that he was at any rate well known in Mali, and quite possibly known in Europe. It was by the efforts, perhaps, of the white marketing guy, that his previously known work become Important. I don't know where this guy's true story fits, but probably somewhere between those two stories.

So, the guy is Malick Sidibé, and there was a retrospective held in France recently, reviewed in the Tedious Grey Lady. These are much more visually interesting pictures and, perhaps, a somewhat deeper artifact than the Archive cited above has.

The white guy who discovered Sidibé is André Magnin, an independent curator who was actually looking for someone else in Mali. Magnin, to some extent or another, did or does represent the Contemporary African Art Center (CAAC), a project funded by Jean Pigozzi, who is another white guy who happens to have a hell of a lot of money. What exactly the relationships between Magnin, CAAC, and Pigozzi are is a little murky, probably deliberately. Things like CAAC are usually in part a tax dodge anyways.

Ok, so, digging further we find that CAAC/Magnin hold a bunch of Sidibé's negatives, that MSU (where the Archive above lives) appears to be somewhat pissy about this, not least because Magnin clearly has the good ones and the Archive has the shitty ones. If you poke around the Archive a bit, you find some material about how they are very careful that negatives never leave Mali, always remain in the hands of the right people etc, because there's been a lot of LOOTING and STUFF which they're vague about. Another MSU professor mentioned on twitter, without sources, that Magnin has attempted (or is now attempting) to buy the copyrights from Sidibé's family.

In case you were wondering, the princpals at the Archive in the USA are both white. The guy who accused Magnin of trying to buy copyrights? Yup. White guy.

Me? Yes, also a white guy. It's like some kinda fuckin' pattern here.

So, what we have here is a set of pictures, which Magnin essentially made valuable through the marketing efforts. There is now money and prestige on the line, and a Whole Bunch of White People are set to squabble over who gets it.

What seems to have occurred is that Sidibé took a bunch of photos of Malians in nightclubs and at parties in the 1950s and 1960s. They're pretty good pictures, fun to look at, interesting because of context. Had they been shot in Harlem they would have been a minor curiosity. Since they were shot in Africa, they're much more interesting to Euros and Americans. People like me. Me, in particular. They do tell us something that we did not know, but which many people in Africa (not least the Malians) knew then: namely that African youth look and act a lot like Euro and American youth given the chance.

There is a distressing subtext here, about which we can do nothing. It is possible to read these pictures thus: Look at the Africans, why, they're almost like us, what a surprise! Well, they were, until of course the wheels fell off and they re-descended back into their natural state of savagery and poverty, because, Africa.

There is, however, no doubt that Magnin was instrumental in creating the value in these pictures. Sidibé took them, certainly. I will speculate that across Africa over the last 75 years, many photographers have built many such archives. It's just the stuff that was going on, that Sidibé could shoot for money. Africa, obviously, has had lots of photographers and I dare say many of them made some money taking pictures along the way. No Magnin, no value. Obviously, no Sidibé, no value either. Photographs in general, and these photographs perhaps a little more, are valuable because of what they depict (Sidibé) combined with how and where and to whom they are presented (Magnin).

Several questions are raised here.

The first is who is deserving of reward here. These pictures are not even very interesting in Africa, any more than wheat is particularly valuable in Saskatchewan. Are Magnin and CAAC nonetheless simple white exploiters who should justly be cut out of the loop? Should the MSU Archive be placed into the loop, and if so, on what grounds? They're just a bunch of white exploiters with different protocols, really. If Magnin hadn't "discovered" Sidibé they'd be furiously protecting some masks or something from exploiters instead. The Archive of Malian Photography appears to be a grant-funded land grab. They would like to acquire the Sidibé archive in toto and they are hoping to discover more of the same. Surely they intend to respect the photographers, and so forth, but they would also like to make some substantial career hay here as well.

The second is an older and larger question. Are artifacts of a culture better left more or less in situ or carried off to carefully managed archives? The current "correct" answer is that, obviously, the you should send the Elgin Marbles back to Greece. This is the MSU Archive's program, they're restoring negatives in-country, scanning them, carefully restricting access to high resolution scans, and returning the negatives to the copyright holders. Or, well, to someone in country. Someone who seems to be a good choice to represent the copyright holders. Recall that as far as I can tell, these negatives are completely uninteresting even to us, I cannot imagine they're much above the level of trash in-country. A humongous pile of bog standard studio mugshots of people from 65 years ago? Huh? Why would anyone even keep that?

Magnin's program was to bring the negatives to Europe, he acquired the ones that were, once imported, valuable. Did he compensate Sidibé appropriately? Is he compensating the heirs who now hold the relevant copyrights approprately? Unknown, and let's be honest, probably quite secret.

Not to throw shade at the Africans, but these are objects that have very little value in situ. Are these negatives going to be around in 50 years? If we assume that they even ought to be around 50 years hence, it is not obvious to me that Sidibé's family will ensure that's the case. This is something that is nearly impossible to determine without going to Mali. We can be assured that the MSU Archive will certainly assert for us that they're doing the right thing. Their assurance plus a couple bucks will get you a cup of coffee.

The whole thing is a fascinating study of, well, of something. It is certainly a clusterfuck, it is certainly murky, and it has a lot to tell us about how Art gets its value. It makes the Vivian Maier situation, which it resembles in several ways, look positively boring!


I admit I take a certain delight in imagining the MSU Archive's story. Most likely they came in to possession of these pieces of knowledge: That Sidibé was a photographer of note, that Magnin had acquired many of his negatives, and that many other negatives remained in Mali, and finally that these negatives could be made available to more white people under, well, under some circumstances or another.

Then, one imagines, that they got a grant to save Sidibé's work, at least some of it, from the predations of Euro Neocolonialist Powers (Magnin/Pigozzi/CAAC). Money in hand, they started to look for more awesome stuff. Days of sifting through negatives. O.M.G. this is all shit. It's just an endless parade of young people standing in front of shabby backdrops in a simple studio. Magnin has gotten all of it. The fucking tomb is empty. GOD DAMN YOU HOWARD CARTER!!!!!

Then, well, fuck. So they start digitizing what they've got, because, what the hell else are they gonna go? They have this fucking grant. Dreams of The Endowed Chair Of Pan-African Studies At Oxford turn to shit in their hands. Welp, that's how it is in the rough and tumble world of academia, eh?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Crit: Yagazie Emezi

I'm trolling around on Women Photograph for work I haven't seen that's worth a mention.

Yagazie Emezi appears there, and I went to her web site, which is right here. Basically she only takes a half a dozen different pictures, they're fashion inspired portrait-things, but she does them competently. This isn't high concept fashion, this is people standing against a wall, posing, in clothes, hair, and makeup.

What makes it interesting is that it's African, self-concsiously so. This woman has a limited technical palette (well, for all I know she's got vast and incredible powers with the camera, but here she's only using a few simple tropes) which she is using to explore various and sundry ideas. She shows me things that are new to me, that enlarge me, and she shows them to me in a way I can understand. The fact that the photographs are stylistically familiar, the poses, and to some extent the clothes, gives me a portal to access this stuff. These are modern women, living in the same world I inhabit.

On an approach to beauty in Liberia, in which aesthetics are driven not by "correctly" combining fashion elements to please others, but in which you simply choose individual colors and clothes that you like:

You’re not putting on pink because it matches, but because you like it, so you’re going to put it on you

Taken by itself, it's not even that interesting. Taken with the rest of the pictures in "The Beauties of West Point" and with the text that accompanies that project, it snaps in to focus and reveals itself as a cultural facet, new to me.

On body image in Liberia, we get little snippets of interview with young women, and then a picture:

Royda, 30: "I am a 5'1" and a half, curvy, thicker woman, and when I add five pounds, it may look like 10. In African culture, as soon as you gain a little weight, people tend to say, 'Oh, you're getting fat,' which they think is a compliment. You're getting healthier. But it becomes a subconscious thing for me that I'm gaining weight.

Again, nothing particularly interesting. A competent boyfriend shot, maybe. But taken against the text, and against the text and pictures of other young women of various sizes and shapes (all shot in the same place and, roughly, the same way), I learn a little something of "Body Image in Liberia" and how it is different from in the USA.

Interestingly, it strikes me that western ideas of body image are getting mixed in. There's a curious duality between a skinny ideal, which I identify as western, and a no-skinny ideal, which I adentify as Africa.

Something a little more "traditional western media views Africa" appears in the project "Process of re-learning our Bodies" in that we see Africans with scars, sometimes pretty severe. She talks a little about body image in Africa, but does not do a particularly good job of, I think, of telling us anything interesting. There's something vague about African attitudes toward damaged bodies? But the pictures are interesting, in their own way, because she's continuing to use the simple fashion tropes.

I feel like there's something going on here, something which would reveal something interesting to me if only I had a better handle to grasp.

Anyways. Yagazie Emezi. There's more work on her web site. I think it hangs together, if only because she uses that very small visual vocabulary, and I think she's got some interesting things to say. Also, cheerful Africans who are not posing in Traditional Poses for some western dork with a camera, and that's all to the good, right?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Caleb Stein: Man of Mystery

Recently on PetaPixel we have seen a young photographer name of Caleb Stein, an "emerging" photographer as they say, featured with a bunch of pictures. This sort of thing:

which is instantly recognizable as "kid with a camera documents poverty gonna change the world" and which, upon further inspection, turns out to be exactly what it appears to be. There are all the usual tropes. This kid thinks he's Diane Arbus, but has a handful of other tropes he's picked up here or there that he churns out. So what, it's just PetaPixel. He's got a web site of sorts, and there's some other pictures on it, none of which struck me as much better. It's the homeless-people project that's getting traction, though.

What's interesting about this kid is that he's "published" in at least three magazines besides PetaPixel: Huck, Burn, and Trip. At least two of those have print editions, as well as the web site, although who knows if Caleb's work will get printed. I eagerly await his publication in more four letter magazines, perhaps FUCK, tUrn, and pOOp. Caleb has also been nominated, shortlisted, and runnered up in various competitions.

It is inconceivable to me that anyone publishing this photo essay does not instantly recognize it as the uninteresting lightweight fluff that it is. Which begs the question of why they'd publish it, eh?

In addition, he's interned at Christie's and currently interns for Bruce Gilden (collective "ugh" now, all togather!)

All this on the basis of, basically, nothing. The internet is utterly festooned with this sort of thing. This lad has trotted out to the section of Poughkeepsie where the junkies and homeless hang out, he's persuaded a handful of them to pose for him. Then he wraps this up in a little turgid prose about Poughkeepsie's poverty level (I live in a town that's poorer, and it looks nothing like this, although the homeless people look just like that). There's no structure, this is just a collection of "the best ones" in the sense of Likes, one assumes.

These pictures have been done so many times that they're just symbols, standing in for the photographer's politics. They don't even, in any meaningful way, connect us to poverty, to homelessness, to any sort of social problem any more. They tell us, in short and simple strokes, what kind of photographer we're looking at.

He's pretending that he's documenting Poughkeepsie's poverty, but he's not. He's documenting, mostly, a very small handful of addicts and people he thought looked weird enough to be worth his time. The 19% of Poughkeepsie that lives below the poverty line look, almost universally, like regular people, perhaps a little shabbier, in cheaper clothes. More tired looking. A little hunted.

Caleb's got some bog standard "street" shots, there are 10s of thousands of similar "projects" out there on the web, some better, some worse, mostly just about the same. He's parleying this into a career! Good for him, but how on earth does that work?

I smell a powerful mentor, money, or both.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Black and White Landscape

QT Luong (full disclosure, QT is the man I longed to be for years and years until, arguably, I simply gave up because I lacked the necessary ability) has asked some pointed but intelligent questions on an earlier post. He takes issue with my remark about students of Adams, which was ultimately a throwaway remark based on experiences from decades ago in which I interacted with various and sundry Adams followers.

It's not true, of course, that everyone who ever took a lesson from Ansel Adams sucks, nor I dare say is it even true that they all wrap themselves in the mantle of the great man. Many of them suck, and many of them so wrap themselves (or at any rate did).

More interesting is QT's assertion that black and white landscape all kind of looks like Adams. I read this more as "is naturally associated with" Adams, as a more general statement. Certainly the unsophisticated viewer tends to see a B&W landscape and responds "looks a bit like Adams" pretty much regardless, but I think even there they're simply connecting up the basic tropes, not making a literal statement.

But let's look at some pictures. I have selected two well known photos by Adams, and then three more landscapes by two different Westons with similar tonal ranges. I present them here in two versions, one the "orginal" as downloaded from the web, and two a "crushed tones" version, in which the white tones are lowered to a dismal grey, and the black tones are raised to a somewhat darker dismal grey. Let us see what we can see.

It will be helpful to click the pictures and look at them big. In a proper web browser, it should pop up a viewer thing you can use to flip through the photos.

Ansel Adams:

Ansel Adams again:

Brett Weston:

Edward Weston:

Edward Weston again:

I am going to make the bold claim that Adams's pictures lose more by being crushed than either of the Weston's, although neither do they enjoy the process. In particular, without the glittering whites, Adams's work seems to be to be thoroughly demolished. It's still a pretty scene, but it's nothing special. That's just what those places look like. More on this in a moment.

I don't think anyone would mistake Brett Weston's picture, or Weston's dunes, as an Adams. Both of the Westons are far more about firmly graphical pictures, while Adams enjoyed depth of detail you could sink in to forever. Adams was also, I suspect, frankly afraid of the kind of sensual curves that Edward shot constantly. All three of these men have distinctly different voices, though all are photographing, more or less, the same thing with the same tools.

Like most Adams acolytes, I paid little to no attention to his constant harping on genuine emotional reaction to the scene, preferring instead to re-read the bit on N-1 development and the use of Farmer's Reducer. And, had I kept on with sufficient discipline, I would have probably become what so many of his fans did become, an expert on N-1 development and the use of Farmer's Reducer.

If you're attentive, though, you can see in Adams's pictures precisely what he was on about. Again and again, the picture is about bright sunlight picking out a specific detail, illuminating it in a brief moment of glittering brightness, while the rest of the scene is plunged into gloom, buried in the mist, or sometimes just not quite as glittering. Your average Adams follower goes out and waits for the thing to look a bit like an Adams picture, and goes "click". This usually means exciting clouds over a vista. A more sophisticated one mutters about "the light! the light!" and waits for the light to "do something interesting" before going "click".

Adams, quite clearly, waited for the light to do a specific something interesting. He didn't want some random piece of crap illuminated, he wanted that tree or that waterfall brilliantly illuminated, because to him, that was what the scene felt like. In Adams's Yosemite, Bridal Veil Falls is endlessly falling, a brilliant glowing torrent of purest white, into a dim and mysterious valley of deep green trees while mist dense with spirits swirls around and around forever.

In my Yosemite, the sun has suddenly hit, uh, think it's a big rock over there! Or maybe a chunk of ice! I dunno, but quick, set up the tripod! I am not a landscape photographer and never will be.

This, ultimately, is why I so dislike the work of Adams's followers, in the aggregate. On one end of the spectrum, there are tech nerds who take photographs mostly to test their processes, and make sure to shove in some big clouds. At the other end, there are the light seekers who don't quite know what the light is supposed to do, other than to illuminate something or other, so we can be sure to put a Full Tonal Range down on the paper, the way god intended.

Very very few, it seems, have found a distinct voice, an opinion of their own about the what a landscape is.

Having spent more time with John Sexton's pictures, I have to admit that he's one of them. While he's lifted a lot of design from both Adams and Weston, his voice is distinctly different. Nature is a place of calm, of peace. If he finds his god in nature, John's god is a god of whispers and silence, not of dramatic gestures. But you know, he still lifts the graphics from his precursors, and it's pretty obviously deliberate.

You want to make a living, you better sell some product, after all.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Sexual Harassment in the Art World

This is only of tangential relationship to what I usually write about, but it's a topic I feel strongly about.

Anyone who has not been living under a rock has heard rumblings of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and then against an apparently endless list of others. I neither know nor particularly care whether this allegation or that is true, false, exaggerated, or underplayed. People who seek power do so because they wish to gratify their desires as much as for any other reason. What do men desire? Yep, that.

Some men in positions of power rape, others simply arrange situations in which they may converse politely with young, beautiful, people. There's a spectrum. It is no surprise that some powerful men, lots of them, have used their position to coerce sex. It's not even a question, is it?

I write here and now specifically because the people I pay attention to, artists, writers, editors, and so on are wringing their hands on social media, loudly and vigorously. They re-tweet the shocking news stories. They make vague demands, and ask "what shall we do about this terrible situation?" Everyone agrees that Terry Richardson is really just business as usual, and censuring him is mainly a bit of theater. Apparently "Artforum" is at present under fire for some allegations. This pervades society, including the worlds of Art and Photography. Some photographer named Anthony Turano is accused today.

Like the weather everyone talks about it but nobody does anything about it.

I ask those busy re-tweeters and reporters of stories: what are you going to do about it?

You have a platform. I have a platform. We all have platforms. Some of them are large, some are very small.

I occasionally write for online publications. My choice is to talk to my editors, to make suggestions, to apply pressure. I could refuse to write for a publication without an anti-harassment policy that has teeth. I could request that my editors decline advertisements from companies that don't have a good record of anti-harassment. I can, and I do, make my opinions heard, I offer my help, I apply pressure using my small leverage. I do all these things, in one variation here, another there.

If I submit this to you consider it another letter from me, asking you to act. You know who you are. And you're one of the good guys, you want to to the right thing.

Nobody's going full-on politically correct here. I'm not demanding that everyone police their language (although you could, if you like). I'm only asking that those people and organizations do these things:
  • Implement for themselves a modern approach to equality and fairness.
  • To reach out the next level up and out, to apply the same pressure to whomever and whatever they influence. Ask your advertisers, your boss, your contractors, your friends, your models, your MUAs, your accountant, what I am asking you.

The reaction, I will note, is always positive. This is the 21st century, nobody wants to be some weird 19th century operation. Everyone I speak to agrees, they say "thank you" and sometimes they ask me to help, or tell me how I can help.

Don't wring your hands and say "how awful," and don't wring your hands and say "awww, it's just political correctness." It's just the modern world, knocking on the door, and asking you what you're gonna do to make things better.

Stop re-tweeting and start acting.

What are you going to do, today, now? What change are you going to make, what demand, what request, what polite reminder, are you going to make and to whom. Right now.

Monday, November 6, 2017

A Shift

I've been noticing a shift in photography over, oh, the last several years. It just crystallized in the last few days, though, into an honest theory, or hypothesis anyways.

PetaPixel has, over the last few weeks, featured articles on three different photographers, including these pictures:

Christoffer Relander does landscapes in jars, using double exposures:

Denis Cherim finds visual coincidences and shoots them with great depth of field to make this sort of thing:

And Stefan Draschan finds people in museums who are dressed or otherwise resemble paintings, and waits for them to align with the painting:

These are all very cute, enjoyable to look at. But lightweight. Set aside the issue of whether they're photshopped, the conceit is invariably that they are not, and that is certainly possible.

These all share certain properties. They're instantly consumable. Sometimes you have to take a moment to get the joke, but then you smile, and thumb the Like button on your phone, and swipe on to the next picture. They're all perfectly readable on a tiny screen. None of them particularly engage, but they do generate a certain "oh, neat" or even "oh wow!" response.

Add in to this mix other genres. The UrbEx guys taking pictures of their own feet swinging over a vast city. The #wokeupklikethis hot girl. The picture of my lunch.

These are related to the selfie, the photo of friends at a party, the slice-of-life moment, in that these are meant to be consumed in a moment. There it is, "ha ha", Like, and move on. They are not, however, the same. They're meant as serious pictures, these people are working on these things. Sometimes very hard. They're intended to be universally interesting, not merely interesting to friends and family.

These pictures live in a strange zone. They're lightweight, to the point of the purest fluff, and yet they are also serious.

My first thought was that they would not translate to other settings but I rather think they might. In a gallery, they're consumed the same way. Look for a moment, and move on. Just like things in galleries always are consumed. If you want to irritate the other people, stand in front of an interesting piece and drink it in for a while. Nope. Nope. Glance and move, glance and move. It's the 21st century! A book might work too, glance and flip, glance and flip. Every page, every picture, you get that little jolt of pleasure, there's nothing challenging either visually or conceptually.

It's like fast food, I think. And I don't mean that in a negative way, particularly. The french fry ("chip" to our British friends, I believe) is delicious. I love them. They have more or less negative nutrition, but they're good. They're broadly appealing, everyone likes these things. There's no harm in eating them from time to time, and they give enormous pleasure when eaten. Chips are great!

I don't know about these picture specifically, I don't think I really enjoy them, but I dare say that a) I am a bit of a drip about photography and b) there are probably other, similar, genres I would like. I like cat pictures!

These are certainly the product of social media. The machine that is social media has successfully evolved an area of photography that perfectly fits the needs of the machine. The photographs attract the eye, even on the phone (so you can be shown ads) but don't retain the eye (so you can be shown more ads on the next one). Ever watched anyone "read" instagram?

They look and decide within, literally, milliseconds. A picture that does not attract is flipped past in well under 1 second, the good/bad judgement is almost immediate. Strikingly, even a good judgement buys your picture something like 1-2 seconds of attention. Just enough time to thumb the Like icon, and then we're on to the next one. It's a wild universe.

The engine of Like-and-Follower driven positive feedback has surely driven this evolution, to a large degree.

I posit that another aspect is in play. Followers can be monetized in these degenerate modern times, if you have enough of them. You probably cannot actually make money, and almost certainly not a living wage, but you can get paid. I have a nasty suspicion that people who actually become Influencers, and actually get paid real money, were already rather affluent. It takes real money and real time to create this kind of work. There is evidence that the serious players employ staff. Sure, they're getting paid $170,000 a year, but they're spending $250,000 a year. And they can afford it, because they're already rich.

Like most dreams of riches, the actuality is not available to the poor, or even the middle class. Anyone can become president, or prime minister, anyone at all. As long as he's rich.

Not everyone aspires to be a Social Media Influencer, but that possibility exists, hanging out there like a dream. It encourages everyone, no matter where they sit on the spectrum of Influencer to Loser, wherever they claim to aspire to sit on that same spectrum.

With the increasingly constrained middle class, with the increasing dominance of the gig economy, of stitching ones life together from multiple temporary jobs, surely the idea of monetizing a following is attractive to nearly anyone.

That the possibility exists, dangling out there, surely motivates a little bit of this evolution of the form. To, perhaps, our detriment? But then, I do like chips.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Squid-Eye Thinking

I read these things so you don't have to!

Daniel C. Blight, one of the apparently endless bunch of young turks of photography that Jörg Colberg mentions online from time to time, has published a thing. Link to it will appear shortly. It would not be of any note, except that it was apparently a talk given at a symposium at some academic institution, so it it what passes for scholarship in these degenerate times. It's actually fairly readable, there's not a lot of technical terms you need to look up to make sense of it. The big thing you need to have your arms around is this cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman's whack-a-doodle theories. Well, they're not whack-a-doodle, they're probably pretty solid, but they're clearly designed to be misunderstood which is important because they're not very interesting if you have a proper hold of them.

Hoffman has this idea of a Conscious Agent, which has a precise mathematical definition, which you can find if you poke around. Probability spaces, markov kernels, etc. He names the things in it to make it sound more like a "consciousness" as we understand such things, and of course he calls this thing a Conscious Agent. While these things may in fact model a consciousness as we understand the word, they also model pretty much anything else. This mathematical object he's invented is essentially "A Thing that interacts with Other Things" in a probabilistic but organized way.

Hoffman is deliberately abusing terminology to give the impression that he's got hold of something about consciousness, but as far as I can tell, he does not.

He then makes the bold claim that there is no Objective Reality, all there is in Conscious Agents interacting with one another (mediated by what?) which sounds simply amazeballs if you haven't figured out that Conscious Agent means Thing. There is no objective reality, there's just Things. Well, that's a lot less sexy sounding. It almost sounds fucking stupid, actually.

Ok, so what Hoffman wants us to do is to imagine that he has mathematical proof, sort of almost, that the universe is a construction of our own consciousness. He's nowhere near this, of course. He's got a model that might or might not explain the universe as Things Interacting, and is quietly hoping that because he's sprinkled the word "conscious" around a lot, we'll make the jump to "whoa, those Things must be us!" without him explicitly saying it.

Blight, of course, walks right into it, and imagines that Cognitive Science has collectively agreed, more or less, that reality does not exist, it's just a construct of human consciousnesses chugging away being conscious.

Here is Blight's piece. I will summarize it in my usual fashion but, I think, basically honestly, now:

Cite Baudrillard on theory. Po-mo BS, theory is a pushing out, an encompassing, and in the end a destruction.

Think about this in context of theory of representation, that is, that photographs are merely representations of the real world. But the world isn't real anyways, isn't simply "documentable" it's more complex.

People are creatures of signs and metaphors, a photo has many meanings. Namedrop all over the fucking place. Watch me cite "Wayne's World" and then Derrida. Good lord.

This next bit is somewhat muddy, but I think I have it combed out. Rejection of theory is incorrectly confused with dislike for technical writing. Blight seems to be saying that people who reject theory are actually just pissy about language. The implication is, I suppose, that they would love theory if they knew it?

Quotes 3 people, dismisses them as stupid, also lots of virtue signalling -- a lot of hand wringing over being a white male and so on. This is, sort of, relevant later though.

"Theory forces me to accept that I don't understand everything and never will" which strikes me mostly as humblebrag, doesn't seem to connect to anything. Bunch of whining about his name, and something more or less incomprehensible about writing (it's only for myself, yet not me, it's dissent against me, what?)

A little more about writing, it's not "for" anything, but rather "for" everything, anything and, happily, writing need not be clear or even comprehensible. Case in point, the embittered might suggest.

Bunch of stuff about Hoffman's "interface theory" which is fine. Our perceptions did not evolve to see the truth, but to conceal it (which is overwrought, of course, but in a sense correct).

Then the wheels fall off entirely. Blight gets sucked right in to Hoffman's BS and starts going on about how there is no reality, that it's all just a construct of consciousness (our consciousness), and that therefore the camera (itself a construct) records, if anything, only a representation of the construct of our consciousness, producing photographs which are themselves more constructs etc. Essentially, Blight has a "My God, it's full of stars" moment. It's constructs all the way down.

Except, of course, it is not. Hoffman has demonstrated no such thing, and his theory supports no such idea. It is a trap that Hoffman has set, to attract the Wired editors and so on, but it's not real. Objective reality may or may not exist, but Hoffman certainly has no idea either way.

At some point in here we'd like to imagine he's going to get around to why on earth photography needs theory, and here he finally starts to nudge up against it with ths nugget:

Theory mediates the space between reality as a perceptual construction according to cognitive neuroscience, and photography as the cultural production of visual representations bound to fictionality.

In this case as near as I can tell the "fictionality" he's referring to at the end is the construct of our imagination, which we imagine to be reality. It is the thing the camera takes a picture of, more or less. Once you take it all apart, the "fictionality" seems to be precisely "reality as a perceptual construction according to cognitive neuroscience" which is the first of the two things theory mediates the space between. We can call this "reality" if we keep in our pocket the notion that, per Hoffman, it might not be a thing at all, but a construct of, um, whatever. This sentence boils down to:

Theory mediates between reality, and photography as the cultural production of visual representations of reality.

Which seems to be saying, essentially, that "theory of photography" is the "theory of representation" since this is a more or less exact description of the latter. This strikes me as a somewhat limiting view since what he is saying, after you scrape away all the Hoffman, is that photography theory is just a well-mined-out subset of what we currently understand as photography theory.

Anyways. Then he wanders off into some ideas that seem to be in essence, if the world is all made up by our consciousness(es) we should be able to topple the white patriarchy with the power of our mind. I'd be happy if I could imagine myself up a candybar from time to time, but apparently it doesn't work that way. We actually have to do the work, even if it is all imaginary.

I cannot, in any case, discern anywhere in here a justification, or even an attempt to address the question of, Does photography need theory? which is allegedly the question he set out to address. He seems to be getting close when he defines photography's theory, but then it all slips away when you start actually looking up the words (as he petulantly demands you do, early on in the piece). Perhaps he should have asked us to not look up so many words.

This is scholarship? This isn't even clear thinking. It's a careless pastiche of half-understood and largely bogus ideas, with a large helping of name dropping and virtue signalling. No wonder we're still stuck with Sontag, if this is the sort of thing that's been going on since Sontag, that self-indulgent woman is far and away the best we've got.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Art about Art

Inspired by Colberg's latest, I went to look at Thomas Ruff's pictures around the internets. I think I have heard of this guy, but wasn't familiar with his work, and Colberg made it sound interesting.

As an aside, is there some law in Germany that if you're a crashing bore you have to go live in Düsseldorf? The Bechers were up to something, but christ, their students...

Anyways, Ruff is in the business of making Art about Art.

Art about cars is interesting to art people, and car people. Potentially. Art about flowers is interesting to flower people and art people. Art about people is interesting to people and art people, which is, well, it's just people isn't it? Art about Art is interesting to Art people and Art people. That's just Art people.

These are, luckily, exactly the people you need to get interested in your work, because they have the walls to hang it on, they run the museums, the galleries, the shows. They're the critics who talk mainly to other Art people.

So if you do this you're taking steps toward success, but you've lost your bloody way. Art about Art is boring as shit to normal people. It's a stupid, pointless, circle-jerk. Yes, there are moments in time when Art needs a good kick in the ass, but they're not always, not 100% of the time, and anyways most Art about Art isn't doing that. You're not Duchamp, bro, and anyways that was a long time ago. Art, good Art, is accessible to more than a few poncy dipshits standing around smoking Gauloises. Art, good Art, engenders thoughts, enlarges, engages, across a larger field. Perhaps not the great unwashed, but at least more people.

People would rightly mock Art about Paperclips, but by god that might just reach a broader audience.

Back to Ruff. Ruff claims to be "exploring" and "deconstructing" photography.

Exploring photography is like exploring Zurich. It's already full of people, and the only people who really give much of a shit about it are already there. Ruff's claim to fame here seems to be that he does more or less the same old shit, but he prints it really big, and he does an obsessively huge number of whatever it is. So, you know, he's not some dilettante on flickr, he's very serious about huge dead-eyed portraits and weird computer generated bullshit. Plus, he's pedigreed you know.

Maybe Ruff pioneered the huge dead-eyed portrait? I don't know, but that's a vein that's been thoroughly mined out by now, and let us be honest: there wasn't anything there. It's not clear that even being the first here is exactly a feather in the old cap.

Here in the USA we know all about pedigree. We've been knee deep in assholes who "studied with Ansel Adams" for decades now, and they all suck.

Deconstructing is worse. You can deconstruct anything, it consists of saying "but why?" like a five year old over and over, and then saying "look, nothing means anything!" and then banging impressionable freshmen until you're too sore to move. In some remarks I stumbled over, Ruff claims to be showing how, contrary to popular understanding, the photograph lies, it lies all the time. Mostly what it does is lie.

Ok, sure, Thomas. That was a sophisticated point of view in 1970, but if you look around as you explore Zurich and ask any of those people what they think, they'll tell you that photographs lie a lot. Ask me. I've said it often enough.

This is the usual post-modernism routine, which is deeply bankrupt. Meaning does, manifestly, exist. "Proving" that it does not by asking "why?" over and over again (carefully disguising your inner five year old with a complex and inscrutable vocabulary, so the freshmen don't notice) does not change the fact that meaning exists.

Photos lie, but they also carry a lot of truth. Again, ask me. They carry the literal truth of what was in front of the lens, at least. With a bit of honesty on the part of the photgrapher and the editor, they can and often do carry a narrative which corresponds fairly well to the real world. Yes, it's a construct, like language, but language too carries means (shut up, po-mo boobs, it manifestly does).

So, anyways. I guess I don't like Ruff's pictures very much.