Thursday, October 11, 2018

Well, well, well.

One publishes a some negative remarks on The Phoblographer's "Emulsion" shit-show, and one finds oneself shortly after subscribed to some magazines that one is not interested in.

It does not take a rocket scientist to guess the process here. Chris cannot even be bothered to email me back denying it, and while I cannot be bothered to do the work necessary to construct a hard link (or the absence of such a link) I am morally certain Mr. Gampat decided to sign me up for a few rags in a fit of pique, because he is an immature little prat.

Happily, I can cancel subscriptions rather more quickly than he can sign me up for them, so it's asymmetrical the wrong way around. Not surprising, really. Our boy ain't particularly sharp.

Naturally, this will not deter me. If Chris is so foolish as to attempt further print efforts, I will be reviewing them as well. He should probably attempt to make sure they're not garbage, if he wants a good review.

Something to keep in mind if you're considering some business adventure with this particular young grifter.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Crit: Metropole by Lewis Bush

This is a book you have to begin with a google search. What the hell, you ask yourself, does "Metropole" mean? You probably know that it refers to London if you've gone to the trouble of obtaining this book, but what does it mean? It means, it turns out, the "mother city", but actually the central country of an Empire. It refers in this case to England in general, and London in particular, but the word has also been applied to Portugal and probably other Imperial countries.

I should mention in passing that you can buy your own copy here: Metropole.

Lewis lives in London, and always has. He is unhappy with his country, as so many of his generation are, and not without reason. This book is (a part of) his response to that.

It's not a complicated book.

The first section, entitled "Metropole", is a series of black and white photographs of tall buildings, many under construction, taken at night. Well, let me back up. There is an opening photograph, before the section's title page, of a skyscraper at night shot through a window. One imagines a bedroom window. It's a strong open. One imagines the sleepless author, gazing sleepdumb at his home town, at what his home town has become. And then we proceed to learn what that is.

This section is quite long given its content, on purpose. It is supposed to feel overlong, stretched out. Full bleed two page-spreads of illuminated construction of large buildings. The pace picks up visually. Not all photos are of construction any more, some appear to be completed, occupied, but it becomes more difficult to discern. At first a few subtle "double exposures" appear, two variant photos layering atop one another. Motion blur is introduced, then mirroring, and more layering. There is at least one lull, but the general trend is more, faster, denser, wilder. By the end, the density of repetition is largely abstract. You recognize it, generally, as architecture, but in many ways it resembles some 1960s movie notion of a Computer Processing Core, you can practically imagine the voiceover about the Megaframe Computer.

Every sixth page the orange thread of the binding's sewing kind of pops out at you. More on this in the sequel.

The mad frenzy of buildings ends, and the second section, entitled "Developments" begins.

A single page of text appears, which expresses the author's position clearly, with perhaps a hint of poetry, just before the title page of "Developments", a kind of recapitulation of the opening window picture. The author is no longer dumb with sleep, but passionate, perhaps eloquent. The frenzied over-development, he says, is bad, driven by speculators and offshore money, and is going to lead to an economic crash. The frenzied present has been, as the upcoming crash will be, disastrous for the people who actually live in London.

This section is also bound in 6es, with the same orange thread. The paper changes to a cheaper, lighter feeling paper. The structure here is 4 full bleed two page photo spreads, followed by a another two page spread of text. Repeat the pattern 7 times. The 4 photo spreads are pixelated, one recognizes them quickly as photographs of a computer screen. A little less quickly, one recognizes them as adverts for buildings or developments. The anonymity and distribution of human figures in each picture displays that characteristic and yet completely artificial nonchalance of the architectural mockup. A quick check online finds any of the pictures almost immediately, as expected on some web site promoting the development in question. The text spread following each group of four provides a basic description of each of the advertised development projects. Development company, financing, a CEO, number and kind of units, whether and how much affordable housing has been mandated, and so on. Attached to each is a hundred words or so detailing the inevitable shenanigans behind each development's approval.

The story is always the same. Lies, chicanery, promises broken, regulations flouted, waivers granted by weak-willed politicians too in love with money to turn down the polite request of a man in a very expensive suit. Vast sums of money, and enormous profits, natch.

The buildings are uniformly staggeringly ugly.

If I have counted correctly, 28 separate development projects are covered, every one as nearly as I can tell started some time between 2001 and the present day. London's a big place but good lord that still seems like a lot, which is rather the point. One gets the idea that there are rather more, as well.

So there it is.

Does it work? Well, I think it does.

What I find most interesting here is that the whole thing relies of masses of material rather than individual... anything. There is nothing here that really invites deep inspection. The photos in the "Metropole" section do not reward inspection, they are to be flipped through fairly quickly, to create a sense of frenetic pace, and of the wheels falling off. The "Developments" section is more like an encyclopedia than a novel, it is fun to dip in and read this and that. It might be fun to look up a development you're familiar with. But it would be frankly a chore to read it start to finish. Again, it functions by sheer mass. You rapidly come to understand that London is simply a mass of development after development with the same terrible designs, the same failure to respect, well, anything, the same greed, the same disinterest in regulations, in people, in anything but building something and reaping the awards and the cash.

Whether you read 3 or 4 taken at random, whether you skim them all, or whether you take the plunge and closely read Every Single One, the impression you get will be the same.

I assume that this is by design, and that works very well indeed.

The orange thread. This book is "swiss bound" which is a phrase I cannot manage to recall when I see these things, and which means roughly "we forgot to glue the front cover" which seems terribly un-swiss to me, but I didn't name the thing. It makes the case of the book into something that is more obviously a container, a sort of box that wraps around the book, and there are no doubt cases where this works well. Here, I am unsure.

The book itself is very well made, it feels weighty, serious. It is, in its own somber way, a rather beautiful object. The raw, rear, edge of the text block is rather unbeautiful. It's not wilfully ugly, it's just the product of a binding machine, a product intended to be covered up.

This is probably intended as one or both of: a) revealing the seedy back side of things, which is sort of the book's point b) recapitulating the notion of construction. The orange thread is in fact safety orange, or a very close hue to same, and recalls safety tape, the vests, the helmets and the other highly visible notes of the construction site.

I get it, and it is semiotically functional here. But, it feels slight, it feels a bit silly. The book is fucking serious. This guy is pissed off, he's spent a lot of time digging around and writing and taking pictures and banging on them in photoshop. He's done some work here to make a point and I feel as if the orange thread and the exposed binding cheapen that effort to an extent.

Beyond that my criticisms are all of the form "I wish this book was something other than what it is"

Metropole is a cri de cœur, an impassioned complaint. Lewis has a point of view (thank God) and has expressed it. What I wish the book was, was a call to action. It is obvious, I suppose, that the natural corollaries to the book begin with relieving a large number of neoliberal and conservative elected officials of their governmental duties. Still, it would be nice to see that stated.

This book is, nearly, an effective piece of propaganda, it is, almost, a call to arms. It is arguably a demand for change, but it is not a template for change.

The problems of London are global problems. Land prices are spiraling upwards, and the regular working people are finding it incrementally more difficult year on year to find somewhere reasonable to live. Speculation and rampant development both obey and define a market that seems to be out of control. The sleepy college town of Bellingham, pop. 80,000 or so, is infested with neoliberal shitheads who are pretty sure that the route to affordable housing is to deregulate and hand tax breaks around. But you know, only to Green Developers. Or whatever.

"They'll stick a solar panel on the roof, so those snappy little condos starting at $800K or so are OK, right? And they contributed... hmm, hmm, calculate, calculate, hmm, um... some money to our affordable housing slush fund, so that's almost like solving the affordable housing problem, right? Right? Right?"

The trouble, really, is not that housing is too expensive. Nor is it that wages are too low. The trouble, really, is that the gap between these two is too large. The reason that it is too large is that this gap is, precisely, what the 1% of the most wealthy think of as their "rightful profits." The solution to the problem of housing affordability is to persuade these people to take a moderately smaller pound of flesh for their hard labor of, um, whatever it is that they do with their days.

Traditionally, this persuasion is accomplished by shooting a couple large batches of them, until either none of them are left or the remainder begin asking for suggestions as to how they can help.

Just sayin'.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Would-Be Publisher

As everyone knows we are inundated in photographs. Everyone takes too many pictures, there are too many pictures, we're being deadened to the Photographic Image, nobody has any taste any more and obviously the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Well, I don't really believe much of that, except the bits about sheer numbers of pictures. But there is an interesting knock-on effect that I have just put together.

There are a gajillion photographers out there. Perhaps a million of them are doing quite good work, in one sense or another. Let me include under that umbrella the sort of twee self-referential bullshit that sells so well to professors in MFA programs and the artier of the photobook publishers, insofar as those two categories differ. And probably a bunch of other categories of work I might or might not like but either way have not thought of. What I mean is work that some actual audience of non-trivial size approves of that's not just your mom.

With a million (or whatever, I made that number up, but the point is it's a lot) people out there churning out work that is good enough to appeal to someone or other, this has led to a whole range of would-be publishers, serving the frantic desires of many of that army of a million.

I've talked in some depth about the predatory photobook publishers. I've talked about, well, about one zine.

It turns out that there are plenty of zines out there. It turns out that the fantasy of being some sort of hip zine editor is pretty appealing, so an incredible number of people try to grind these things out.

Publishing, however, is harder than it looks.

On the face of it, you just get some content from someplace, and in the world of photography content more or less throws itself at you the moment you say "Let's Put On A Zine!", and you need something or other than can output a PDF, and there you are. You can do an eZine by getting a domain and sticking your PDF on it, and then plastering your domain name all over social media. You can do a print zine by uploading your PDF to one of any number of on-demand presses.

Simple, right?

Not really.

The production of the item is more complicated and boring than you think. There's a virtually unlimited amount of design and editing skill that can be shoved into the thing usefully. This is where zines fall short. A young exuberant fellow just has too much raw talent to spend much time on fiddly bits like that, he'll make up for the lousy production values with the sheer raw talent, right? (no) On the back end, there's the problem of selling the goddamned thing. This is where the predatory book publishers fall flat. They have no idea what will sell, and furthermore don't care. They get paid on the front end, not the back, so if it sells, well that's nice but so what?

The predatory book publishers do at least have the relevant design tools and skills in-house, or at least on speed-dial, so there's a possibility that you'll get a decently made book out of it instead of a ridiculous looking mess.

This is not to suggest that all publishing is terrible. Brook Jensen's LENSWORK is a well made magazine, with good photographs in it (of a certain type that are not quite my cup of tea, but you can't have everything). There are good publishers of photobooks out there. Steidl may be a bit of a put on, but the guy seems to do good work without bilking all the artists, and I am reliably informed that there are other publishers that manage to do much the same.

Some publishers may indeed do both, bilking this artist, while producing an excellent and well-received book on honorable terms the very next month. I dare some some of the amateur zine publishers get it together and produce quite decent work after a false start or two.

But the point is that the vast numbers of photographers have engendered a shady knock-on market for would-be publishers. It's not healthy, and it muddles up the market not only for photographs but for publications built around photographs.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Books, Functional Parts

One of my minor perceptions in digging in to The Phoblographer's "Emulsion" zine, which I tried to pass along to all of you, was how text comes in functional pieces.

We think of text as body text, and then a handful of other stuff, to be dealt with catch and catch can. That's not true. There are titles, heads, page numbers, various kinds of asides, and so on. They should work together to lead the reader through the book easily, simply, clearly. Done well, all you notice is the body text, the actual content. Everything else is a guidepost, gently and invisibly assisting you. You don't even notice the (See plate 29) and the corresponding caption on the corresponding plate. It just works.

I attended a webinar put on by Blurb's Dan Milnor some time ago, and in it he emphasized that pictures work the same way, at least in narrative style photobooks. He identifies a bunch of roles for pictures: "Scene Setter", "Portrait", "Portfolio Image", "Transitional Image", "Detail", "Landscape" and talked through how to assemble these into story-like things.

He also talked about captions, and how they work with -- or against -- pictures.

Every mark on the page needs to be set down with purpose. You should be able to speak to why you put that ink there. Maybe it's just "it felt right" or "the page needed balance" which is fine, but this begs the question of what the page is doing.

This is one of the failings of social media and photography. flickr, 500px, instagram, facebook, and so on. Almost all of the marks on the screen are controlled by someone else. You have almost no control over anything. The only thing you can do, and even this not always, is control the order your pictures are looked at. That's it. That's remarkably limiting.

But back to books, magazines, any multi-picture print publication.

Every element, text, picture, decoration, has a job, it plays a role or perhaps several. If it's not working, what the hell is it doing in there?

Some jobs are simply to tie things together.

Consistency from page to page matters, and is in almost any care a requirement. Normally, my attitude to these things is "well, whatever, just be aware of the effects of your choices" but in this case I land firmly on the side of consistency. The reason here is that you need to hold change back as a device. Consistency page to page, spread to spread, allows you to introduce change as an attention getter. It becomes a tool you can use to wake your reader up, to point out things of interest.

This in turn is necessary because of the structure of these things. They are inherently long form, your reader's interest will wax and wane, and you need to attend to that.

Some jobs are to mix things up, to re-ignite flagging interest. A change of pattern can do that, or a particularly arresting picture. Or both.

Most of the jobs are about carrying content, though, within that ebb and flow of interest and attention. You are, ideally, weaving a pattern, telling a story, building up some kind of edifice. From the top-level view on down through the details, you are managing attention, managing the path through the work, leading the reader.

Pictures and various pieces of text all exist together, interacting. You can prioritize them with sizing and styling. You can point out the next step with anything from a drop capital to a big red arrow. Usually the next step is to turn the page, but where then should the reader pick on the next spread? What is the important bit? Are we transitioning from one theme to another here, is there something special about this spread, or are we taking a breather, filling in some background?

It feels almost but not quite as if one could write down a system for doing this. But I don't think you can, quite.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

WTFacebook

What the hell are people saying about me on facebook? There's some crazy spike in traffic, apparently.

Nobody reads this blog, go away, or I will start wanting to monetize it.

Also, while you're here, Buy My Shit, you fucking peasants.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Or, hmmm

Is Hasselblad simply folding their tent at this point? Oosting tried to find a pony in there, and came up ponyless. They've been dead silent since appointing Ming, nobody ever confirmed the DJI deal (that I know of) and if true we can guess that the owners (Vorndran Mannheims) took a hell of a haircut.

Has DJI also thrown in the towel? The timeline is about right. Maybe that spiffy new camera wasn't selling quite as much as we thought.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Rumor: Ming Thein's role with Hasselblad has ended.

UPDATE: Ming has confirmed in the same comments thread that he is no longer with Hasselblad.

Note the comments thread on his recent review on the Nikon Z7.

Notably, he is asked multiple times if he still works for Hasselblad, which questions he ignores. In a more recent comment, he overtly hints that he is no longer with Hasselblad.

I believe this company has to this very day not commented in the rumor that DJI had substantially increased its stake, and the parent Vorndran Mannheims has been if anything more silent. It is not at all clear who even is on the management team at this time, I think the last two announcements were "Thein joins as Chief of Strategy" and "Oosting steps down as CEO, replaced by interim CEO"

Based on some other extremely vague and slender information, I consider it faintly possible although not likely, that Hasselblad is performing, or has performed, some background checking that has not worked out quite as expected.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Crit: The Phoblographer's "Emulsion" Magazine

Having cleared away the underbrush, I will now actually review this thing. I will repeat some things from my rather lengthy design study, since some readers may have found (incredible!) those extensive notes overlong and tedious.

The zine contains work from an even dozen photographers, and has two essential components, text and pictures in about equal acreages.

The text from each photographer is provided by the photographer, and per the application requirements contains some biographical information and the answers to some questions like "Who are your influences?" "How did you get started?" "What is your process?" "Why do you shoot film not digital?" and so on.

The pictures are about 1 dozen photos per photographer.

Overall it kind of works, as a kind of sample platter of photography. Here are some film-loving hipsters, and here are the pictures they made. There's breadth of material here: one has heavily hand worked negatives and prints, another has a whole body of double exposures, there's street photography, portraits, fashion-ish, and a few landscape-y things.

The pictures look to me less like film, and more like a hipster millenial's idea of what film looks like, about which more anon.

But there are some decent photos in here! As long-time readers know, I believe that any photo can be good, can make sense, in the right context. The nature of this project is that there is no context, essentially all these pictures are hanging out alone trying to be something. This is firmly in the tradition of the Single Iconic Picture style. As single pictures, there are about equal parts: Picture of hot girl, Competent example of some form, and Rubbish. There are also a small handful (less than ten) genuinely standout pictures that are actually pretty strong and interesting as standalone photographs.

So, this isn't terrible. I assume that many of you would find about the same ratios, but you might well reclassify things. My rubbish might be your standout. But I bet our choices would line up quite a bit, too.

Is it inspiring? I gotta say it might be, to the right person. There's a lot of ideas in here, executed well or poorly, they're ideas. In that sense it's pretty good. It's better than looking at instagram or pinterest, that's for sure.

The text comes from Chris's idea that we should get to know the artist, which is a worthy goal. The trouble with stacking 12 of these things together is that you start to see roughly the same answers over and over. It is tedious, and also reveals something: when you "fill out an application" like this, you answer with some mixture of honesty and what you think the application-reader wants to hear.

We see the same names dropped over and over as an influence (but we never see any visual indication of an influence). Ren Hang is mentioned twice, but in the first place he's clearly not an influence on these photographers, and in the second place he died and was all over the photo news at precisely the time these applications were being filled out. Hmm.

We see the same answers over and over for why film over digital.

The bio information is potentially interesting -- I find it dreary in the extreme, but I think normal people like it. Occasionally there is something about process that's interesting, but more often it's gibberish.

Providing us material as-written from a bunch of artists seems to be to have been a mistake. Many of these artists don't speak English as a first language, and this material is essentially just a piece of email anyways. Mangled sentences, half-formed statements, and typos abound. This is by no means the fault of the photographers, they are mostly not writers. They've simply been hung out to dry by editorial choices.

Overall, the text is probably a 5 out of 10. I'm sure some people will enjoy it, especially if they only read their own, or their friend's. Reading all 12 is a bit of a slog.

Back to the pictures.

Part of my interest in this zine was to see if there was evidence that people were submitting digital photos as film, just to get published and get a copy of the zine. There's nothing conclusive, but there is evidence.

Let me start out by saying that a good fake is somewhere between very hard and impossible to spot. I know for certain that Chris cannot spot a good fake. Note that "film emulation presets" and so on are not good fakes, they are in general terrible fakes which generate not a film look at all, but rather a hispter's wild misconception of a film look. Any evidence is going to be in badly made fakes. I looked specifically at blown highlights and grain/noise.

These are a couple photos in here that have very digital-looking highlights and what looks a lot more like digital noise than grain, to my eye. There are a lot of photos in here that look a lot more like "film emulation" than film. There is a startling lack of visible grain structure.

So, while there are a couple I would tentatively point out as likely fakes, the overall sense is that there's gotta be some in here someplace. When you're surrounded by Elvises, there's probably an impersonator someplace in the bunch.

Would I recommend this for the current list price of $45? Not in a million years. Chris's price for this thing is $21.99, he wants you to give him a clear profit of $23.01 per copy which is completely bonkers. Maybe he passes some of this on to the photographers? I dunno. I dare say they're not exactly flying off the shelves.

For $45 there are literally 1000s of better photo books out there. Buy one of them. But if you can pick one up used for a few bucks, or if your friend has one, flip through it. You might get an idea or two.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Design Study, Rescuing The Phoblographer's "Emulsion"

I'm going to try to put this together in the form of a purely hypothetical plan to "rescue" this mess, to produce something good.

While it may sound as if I am dictating things I know well, things I find obvious, I assure you that what you are watching is me learning in real time. Well, some things I knew, but some things I did not. As usual, I am attempting to synthesize a whole out of things I knew, things I have learned, and maybe some things I don't even know yet.

Let me back up and talk about the process of design a little. When I was doing coursework on boat design (long story) we used what is called the "design spiral." In rough terms a boat is a container (the hull) of roughly fixed size, which contains a number of objects (beds, toilets, fuel tanks, lockers, etc) which have more or less roughly determined sizes and shapes and which have to fit together in certain relationships inside the container.

The design spiral works thus: You go around and visit each aspect of design. Cost, size, the fitting of things into it, and so on. You fit things very roughly together into the whole. Objects are somewhat amorphous blobs at this point, requirements are amorphous ideas. Once you have your amorphous blobs roughly fitted, you go around again, visiting every aspect again and refining them. Sizes of berths must be no less than 72 inches long, but there's a bit of wiggle room in all the other dimensions. The details are refined. Sometimes you have to go backwards, there's simply no way to get the berth over 70 inches long, even if we use the smallest acceptable engine, damn it.

You may end up making the hull bigger, or deeper, which will change its sailing characteristics, which will necessitate... arrrrg.

The idea is that you uncover errors relatively early. You have a chance to figure out the berth size issue fairly early, before you've done detailed drafting on the fuel tanks and the keel bolts.

The graphic is a spiral, you go around and around, visiting each element over and over, refining and correcting, spiraling in closer and closer to a final design.

The parallels with printed matter should be obvious. Your container is of more or less fixed size, and you have a lot of elements of somewhat but not entirely variable size and shape which you must jam in there, in suitable relationships.

Something I learned recently. Real book designers do not simply jam the text into InDesign to see what happens. They have a font and font size in mind. Using the average letters-per-inch metric for the font, they estimate how many inches (or meters) of text they have. Once you have column sizes and line spacing sorted out, you know how many column inches you have.

They know, before they even start, roughly how much paper they'll need for the text. Of course, you can always go back and choose a slightly bigger font, increase or decrease line spacing a little, make the columns a touch wider. But, in general, before a designer even really gets going the material that goes in is broken down into a bunch of rectangles, with various degrees of wiggle room in them.

So the job really is to fit design elements and somewhat squishy rectangles togther, within (usually) a container of so and so many pages, and such and such a trim size.

If you're developing a periodical, as Chris has hinted he'd like to, your job is actually a little more complex.

You can't just develop A Design, you really need to develop A Design Language. You need a set of design elements which will repeat across the multiple issues of the magazine, and you need a set of principles which will inform the way you solve the inevitable problems that arise issue to issue. Consistency matters, if you can't be consistent than you're not doing a periodical, you're just doing a bunch of one off zines.

I have some mild ambitions to make a series of zines, and I have already fucked it up entirely by ignoring what little I knew about design. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa and I will try to do better.

One trip around the design spiral should illustrate the point.

Design Language:

To salvage "Emulsion" I would first attempt a design language. Something simple and spare, modern looking but with nods to classical design. You could do things like make the running text a serif font, but use a drop caps in a related sans serif font. You could use colored serif (or even a typewriter) font for headings.

Anyways. I'd write down a bunch of styling notes like that, specifying how to do everything I could think of that I might want to do. I'd throw down some graphical elements on a master page, tinkering with them to get the right general look.

Modern, with nods to classical is the basic design principle.

Size:

The target is an 8.5 x 11 premium blurb magazine, 100 pages. This worked out to 96 pages of actual material, which is 8 pages per artist. This is a little tight, normally you have more front-matter, but since the thing is supposed to be artist-forward, let's try that out and see what happens.

Text:

Now I would digest all the text sent in by the artists. It's repetitive and much of it is boring. Everyone is influenced by Gregory Crewdson and Annie Leibowitz [sic], and Eugene W Smith [sic] and Avedon, it turns out. As a side note, Ren Hang is name dropped twice. Fun fact, he committed suicide within hours of "Emulsion's" kickstarter finishing (I find no evidence of a connection) so everyone knew his name for 15 minutes.

The text reworks fairly naturally into two pieces. First, a introductory essay which pulls together all the common material. "I shoot film because nothing looks like film and also the process" is what everyone says. Second, a shorter essay written in the third person with inserted quotes (and maybe a pull quote on the side?) per artist, which summarizes what was unique and interesting about that artist.

Size the essays to fit on one page each, with whatever layout/styling elements have been roughed in. Just outline the essays, and maybe do a first draft of one to get a sense of how many words you might need to do it properly. But just a sense.

Pictures:

Next, throw away several pictures from each portfolio. By my count, about 50 of the 140-odd pictures are just pictures of shit. A crowd of people, a dent in a car, a storefront. Pictures of nothing. They might become something in another context, but here they're just crap. So, there's some room to edit. Do a rough edit by tossing 2-3 pictures from each.

It happens that a full bleed two page spread in an 8.5 x 11 inch magazine is almost exactly in the ratio of 3:2, so fits a 35mm frame almost exactly. I'd use that, and try to give every artist one of those, a number of single pages, and a couple pages of no more than 2 pictures. Mixing it up will help with that modern flavor.
  • 1 page essay/bio page with the artist name emphasized
  • 2 page full bleed spread
  • 2-3 pages of 1 photo per page, monograph style
  • 2-3 pages of 2 photos per page, looser layout, with generous margins


That gives between 8 and 9 photos per artist across 8 pages of paper.

Mockup:

Let's look at some other magazines and size some margins inside this 8.5 x 11 container that blurb gives us. We'll want 2 column text, because a 10 point condensed font is going to come up around 70-90 characters per column that way, which is about right. Here's a master spread, sketched out roughly.



This just shows us the margins and text columns. These are sized normally, but on the gracious, generous side since we're aiming for a premium flavor. More white space is more luxury. An inch at the bottom, page numbers down in there on the outside edge. 3/4 of an inch at the top and gutter, and 1/2 an inch on the outside. For book, those would be quite narrow, but for a magazine they're normal-to-wide-ish.

Note the nod to a design element to decorate the top of the page. This is somewhat arbitrary, but LENSWORK does it, so it's obviously cool enough. Let's sketch some ideas. Modern yet analog. Analog, yet modern. We've got a pretty specific space for it to go in. Ok, Lame-O, but it's the first time around, there are no dumb ideas, only dumb people, right?



Let's sketch a portfolio-opener page into this:



On the left we have an opening photo (note: this will cause transition problems from the previous artist), On the right we have the artist's name, an optional portfolio name, and a two column space for about 300 words of bio/essay together with a pull quote (note: what if 300 words isn't going to work?)

If you've been following along, you will see that I've simply lifted a bunch of ideas from stuff I have been looking at. Every element in here should be familiar.

Here is a mockup of the layout. There is at least one layout error, spot it if you can:



Fonts are American Typewriter for running text (because I love it, and it's also a nod to old skool 'zines, and it's a pretty readable serif font) at 10 points, condensed. Pretty much everything else is Euphemia UCAS in a variety of sizes and weights. The drop cap in the text is Euphemia UCAS, the pull quote, the heading-sized things, the magazine name in the footer, and the page numbers.

The fact that the drop cap is roughly the same color as the picture opposite is 100% an accident, but it's a good idea. Consider keeping it.

The big quotation mark setting off the pull quote is Helvetica.

So notice that even though I'm not as complicated as LENSWORK, I still have defined these roles for text:
  • Running text
  • Artist name
  • Portfolio name
  • Drop capital letter
  • Quotation mark for pull quotes
  • Name of magazine for footer
  • Page numbers

I am making my two fonts do all the work, with combinations of size, weight, and italics. American Typewriter's failing is that it's not very good looking (and frankly feels weird) at heading sizes, so it will only be used in running text (note: maybe photo captions as well?)

A couple more page/spread mockups are necessary. We'd like a table of contents, an introduction page, an introductory essay, and some ways to lay photos out on the page.

And now it's time to return to the top, revisit the design language and go through it all again. We know more about the material and how it might fit together, we can refine or re-do things as needed. We can go back to the beginning and start thinking about essays to write, how big they need to be, and whether they will fit. If they work at the sizes we can fit them in to, great. But we've already seen some potential problems, right? We need to solve those before we really start digging in to further details of this thing. We can re-evaluate the pictures in the face of our tentative layout ideas, check the trim size and page count to see if that's still working, and so on.

Go around a few more times (2?) and maybe you're ready to pull a proof copy. Do that, and live with it for a while. You may end up tossing the whole design, going back to square one. This is also an excellent time to do some proofreading.

Is my design spiral complete? Probably not. You can fiddle with it. You might break out typography, or picture handling, or whatever. The point is, though, that you throw down a set of facets you're going to cycle through.

Cycle through them, and don't get married to any specific ideas too early.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Design Study, Copyediting & Proofreading

Copyediting and proofreading (which I am ruthlessly lumping together here) are hard. Getting out all those typos, the bad line breaks, the orphan lines, the leftover lorem ipsums, the accidental mis-fonts, that's hard. In my experience, you never get all of them out.

Getting as many of them out as you can is critical, though. When someone hits a typo, their hackles go up and they start looking. If the spot another one too soon, they're going to start thinking the publication they're holding is sloppy, lazily done.

"Emulsion" magazine's text is, by my estimate, something like 10 to 15 thousand words long, and contains more than 40 individual typos and minor errors that could in principle have been caught by any kind of close reading. I proofread it, not correcting layout problems like orphan lines, not correcting font usage, not correcting mangled sentences, not correcting language usage. Just misspelled words, missing spaces, things than can be fixed with a couple of keystrokes without altering anyone's voice or sense. I came up with 40, and I know I missed at least a couple which I noticed earlier and did not catch.

This is an appalling error rate. There are probably a dozen cases of obvious mis-fonts, a half dozen minor layout errors, also easily fixed without messing up anyone's voice. This works out to an error rate of 1 every 200 to 400 words, depending on how you count.

I claim to be able to edit my own work, to a degree, but this is because I am a magical unicorn and have written a great deal of text. I think my residual error rate, when I am working hard on it, is something like 1-2 per thousand words, which is well below "good" but also not terrible. With a magazine like "Emulsion" I would expect to be able to reduce the number of typos and other easily-fixable copy errors to perhaps 5 to 10. A second, professional, proofreader would in turn reduce that to somewhere between 0 and 2.

For a premium product, a well-made publication, the standard is that three sets of eyes need to read the text closely. This might be the author, a copyeditor, and a proofreader, for example.

Where to call the line on the design issues called out in my previous notes, and the proofreading issues here is not clear. A good editor would probably call them all out.

This sort of terrible work tells me that Chris simply doesn't give a shit about the text. I suppose that he gives enough of a shit to pitch a fit in the unlikely event that he reads my notes here. I know he gives enough of a shit to talk and write loudly and often about how passionate he is. But he doesn't give enough of a shit to do the actual boring work of making something that's not garbage.

I'm sure that if you asked Chris, he would tell you he proofread the thing, and I dare say he actually thinks that he did. I'm sure he "read" it a couple of times. The trouble is that "reading" isn't proofreading, and it never was. Worse, the internet has trained us to read very very lightly. When what you mean be "reading" is "skimming it, picking out a few keywords, and forming a rough guess at what the author means" you're not finding very many typos, and this is exactly what the internet has trained us to do. We are presented, if we're not careful, with vast amounts of textual material. Much of it is short and dunderheaded, so skimming actually works pretty well.

Proofreading and copy editing means reading in a mindful way, very closely. Even normal reading does not look at every word. Proofreading must look at every word, and look carefully, mindfully. In the manner, as it were, of a photographer. I usually proofread out loud.

Chris doesn't even seem to care enough to draft a friend to read it. Or perhaps he did, but he recruited friends who didn't actually read it. He could have asked me and I would have done it. I'd have given him 100 corrections, and if he'd taken 80 of them the magazine would have been vastly better. If he'd taken them all it would have actually been pretty good.

Chris claims to have "only made about $1000 on this" which is incredible to me. He made money? Astounding!

He could have spent $500 of his profit on a professional, and made the thing infinitely better. If he'd done that, as well as laying the whole thing out again, this time not stupidly, it might actually have been quite good. But that would have taken $500 for an editing service, and 20 or 30 hours of layout work, and Chris simply cannot be bothered to do that.

Possibly, there is evidence to suggest it, Chris literally has no idea what a piece of dog shit he has produced.

This thing is an insult to the artists who contributed to it. If I were one of them I would have spent quite a lot of time on the phone screaming by now. This guy is actually still promoting and selling this thing, which makes everyone in it look like a shithead.


No italics? Also 3 of the ToC entries have the wrong page number



I caught Meercedes, but not Nikes. One error can mask another.



Drop cap "I" followed by "I" in running text. Not easy to see.



Captions are invisible unless you check them specifically.


And to be honest it just goes on and on and on. These are all in the first 4-5 pages.

Proof your work.

Get a hardcopy of the thing, and a highlighter. Or, if you want to be awesome, go learn all those cool copyediting marks. But they won't cover things like "picture is too small" and whatnot.

Read the text out loud, and slowly. This will be agonizing. When you see an error, mark it, and carry on. In ten minutes, you can read a couple hundred words. Go take a break.

Go through it again and look at the pictures themselves, check margins, sizes, balance on the page and so on.

Go through it again and check relationships between pictures and text. Check the captions again, and any textual references to pictures.

If there are technical things like tables of contents, figure numbers, lists of figures, devote one pass to nothing but checking those. Are the page numbers right? Are the chapter numbers in sequence, or did you skip/duplicate one? And so on.

Did you find any particular errors that might be duplicated and hard to catch: inconsistent paragraph indents, incorrect font family or size (especially if it's close to correct), that sort of thing? Devote a pass to nothing but those. Make a list: "body font", "paragraph indents", "captions should be italic" and check every single paragraph one by one.

All up this is going to take many minutes per page. 5? 10? This is hours and hours of drudgery. A fifteen page book is going to take 2 hours of labor, spread out over time. Don't do it all at once. You'll burn out in something like 20 minutes to an hour, and be no good, so knock off and pick it up later.

Having done all that, if you're trying to make something that's actually good and you want it to be widely distributed, pay a service to copy edit, and to proofread but only after you've done your work. If your manuscript is a blizzard of stupid, they're going to miss more stuff, so try to make it a gentle dusting of stupid, and then pay. You're paying by the word, not the correction. Fewer corrections means more awesome corrections.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Design Study, Font Follies

Carrying on with our investigation of Chris Gampat's "Emulsion" magazine, let's look at textual issues. Typography, styling, and a little bit of layout stuff.

More or less by accident this product seems to have at least 6 different font families. There are several obvious flubs, where Chris simply botched the font choice on a paragraph or a page. I think this accounts for at least 2 of the font families. There are a few places where the deviation from the surrounding font family might be intended to look like a pull quote or something.

The main font family in use is Economica, which is a spectacularly ugly font.



I dislike sans serif fonts in general, especially for running text, but that is maybe a personal problem. Economica is not merely sans serif, it is ugly and has low legibility even for a sans font. Most notably, it has several ligatures including this oddity:



When used in running text, the connecting bar from o to t creates the illusion of an r crammed in there, "ort." This reads slightly heavy so that every time the ligature appears there is a kind of illusion of a dark spot, a blotch. When your content includes the words photo, photography, shot, shoot, and shooting as much as this material does, that's a lot of blotches. In some sizes, especially italics, the type also comes out rather cramped. This is not a font for reading, this is a font for looking cool. There are probably good uses for it, but running text is not one of them.

Note also the weirdly lowered dollar sign, and imagine it, if you will, placed next to one of the quite tall and upwardly-weighted digits (as dollar signs occasionally are). The effect is gruesome.

On one front the choice was good, however. The descenders on the lowercase f, the weird but almost two-story g, as well as the heavy use of ligatures, does produce a touch of a classical feel. The lack of serifs and the overall modern look speak to a contemporary world, while the classical elements bridge the gap to the older world. This is a genuinely excellent note to hit for a magazine like this, where the topic is contemporary use of classical materials.



You need to select your fonts carefully, and appropriately for their uses. When in doubt, stick to mainstream fonts, don't run around buying weirdo fonts from all over. Start with Times and Helvetica, and edge slowly outwards from there.

Moving onwards, Chris consistently uses font sizes that are much too big, and he cannot stick to a single size. One 2-page spread, which contains a single flow of text, has three different font sizes. His smallest size is about 14pt, which is only slightly too big, and he goes up to at least 20 points fairly often, using a couple of different intermediate sizes along the way.

This is Chris's smallest font, as compared with the Wall Street Journal magazine (WSJ on top), which is set in about 10 point font. The WSJ font reads as quite small in real life, but only because the magazine itself is tabloid sized. It is perfectly legible, and not at all an unusual size:



And here is his hilariously enormous largest (I think) font:



Computer people, including me, tend to use fonts that are much too big when we go to print. My most recent blurb books use 14 point fonts, and I started out quite a bit larger. I have made a mental note to drop down to 12 point font in future. 14 is simply too chubby. We also tend to overlead, placing too much space between the lines. With decent printing (which mostly everything is these days), you can really cram the material in there as long as you're attentive to the overall balance of the page from micro to macro scales, and use good legible fonts.

There is no way to know you've got it right without pulling a physical proof, as far as I can tell. What looks ridiculously cramped and tiny on screen is loose and clumsy on the page. I, at any rate, have not mastered the trick of visualizing what it will really look like from the screen. It is worth noting that Chris did pull a proof and did not make his text flows even reasonably functional.

I half believe that Chris sometimes simply enbiggened a chunk of text until it filled up the space on the page he'd allocated for it, in preference to the rather more laborious task of re-doing the layout.

The fluctuating font sizes are but one of several problems.

Chris uses centered text, ragged right text, and fully justified text seemingly at random. The number of columns ranges from 4 (with a large font, natch, for lines that contain anywhere between 1 and 2 words each) to a single column (at least once with his smallest font size). The result is a chaos of varying line lengths, mostly wrong.

4 columns of 20pt font looks idiotic and is hard to read:



2 columns of centered 20pt doesn't look any better:



Things read best when you have something like 8 to 12 words per line, 50 to 75 characters. This means that you need to attend to the relationship between font size, page width, margins, and number of columns in your running text. Longer lines will feel more serious and scholarly, shorter lines will feel peppier and populist. Roughly speaking. As an added benefit, somewhere around 40 or 50 characters is the minimum length at which justified English text will look good, without   weirdly         spaced   words. Justified text looks much better on the page than anything else. It looks "finished", "well-made."

Much of the material is written out as a Q&A, and Chris cannot decide what combination of bold and italics to use. Sometimes the questions are bold, the answers italics. Sometimes the answers are plain, sometimes the questions are bold italics. Often, but not always, he manages to maintain the same style within a single artist's portfolio.

He could have stuck with one arrangement. He could have switched back and forth between two arrangements to give a little more separation from one artist/portfolio to the next. There are probably other things he could have done, but did not.

More chaos, more incoherence.

I think literally every control you can apply is adjusted more or less at random throughout the running text: alignment, line length, font size, font family, font weight, italics. What else can you do? I suppose he could have superscripted entire runs of text, and he did not.

I cannot really think of what to say here except to say "don't do this." You do need to be fairly maniacal to maintain consistency of all these things throughout, and usually you will make at least one substantial error which will require a thorough rework of the whole manuscript to correct.

Plan for this. The total rework will take less time than you think it will, and since it's inevitable, embrace it.

The alternative is to produce a careless piece of shit.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Design Study, Various Elements

Since Chris Gampat's "Emulsion" magazine is essentially a collection of small artist portfolios, together with some artist supplied text and bio information, let's look at another, similar collection. I happen to own an issue of LENSWORK which is structured exactly this way. LENSWORK is a bit stodgy, and while not over-designed to my eye, it is maybe on the design-heavy end of the spectrum. Here is the basic spread that introduces a portfolio in this issue:



It's basically a good looking spread, with a surprising number of moving parts. It's giving us the artist's statement, the name of the artist, the title of the portfolio, some side notes, and an opening picture. It's got a few design elements to tie together with the rest of the magazine, and a surprising number of elements to help us navigate these two pages in a useful way.

A minor nicety appears. One of the few bugs in the standard western codex is that when you turn the page, the first thing to heave into view is the recto page, the one on the right. But the text of a standard book does not flow from where you were to there, it goes to the upper left of the verso page. LENSWORK chooses to place the really important things recto. You can, in fact, completely ignore the verso page with all the text and go look at pictures. Brooks (the editor) is making a clear signal here about what's important. But this rabbit hole goes quite a long ways down.



This is the upper left corner of the verso page, the left page. Note the design element along the top of the page, the horizontal rule broken by the magazine title, LENSWORK. This appears on every page of the magazine, and helps to unify the whole.

Next, notice the capital W that begins the text, the so-called drop cap which serves as a visual cue to "Start Here." It is a bit of an affectation here, to be honest, but it almost universally respected tradition in periodical publishing. It makes more sense on a newspaper page which may have multiple articles starting at random locations on the page, in which case the strong visual cue increases readability.

Down at the bottom of the same page we have the bio:



Notice the font change to the sans serif font, the artist name in bold to both make the name clear as well as to give us that visual anchor. Note also the darker background for lower contrast, and the smaller text. This material is not as important as the artist's statement, which occupies the larger portion of the page. This is extra information. Skip it, if you want to get to the pictures. Come back later.

Looking now at the recto page, where your eyes first land as you turn the page:



The portfolio title, easily the largest text on the page, set against the paper white for maximum contrast. As if that was not enough, notice that it is styled in small caps, for greater emphasis. This is the only text that really matters here. Read This, if you read nothing else. Below it, the artist's name and signature, offset by a demure, almost invisible, "by."

Finally at the very bottom, in the smallest and lightest font, set against a dark background for lowered contrast, some side remarks about where you may find some more pictures. A technical note, intended to be ignored completely on the first, second, and perhaps third readings.



Brooks or his designer is using a total of only two fonts, one with serifs, one without, in a variety of sizes and styles, placement, and on two backgrounds, to create a fairly complex hierarchy of the text: Portfolio Title, Artist's Name, Artist's Statement, Artist's Bio, and Extra Information. This is a subtle and powerful piece of work here.

There are five different jobs that text does in this spread, and the designer has thought through how to make it do each job in a good way that is coherent with the rest, and functional for the reader.

Now let's look at "Emulsion":



In concept this is not terrible. There's the artist's name set out in a large font, in a contrasting color, nice. Underneath it is an understated block of text with a short bio (containing not one but two misspelled company names). There's a pull quote to get a little interest both graphically and to preview what is to come. There's an opening picture, and we launch into the text.

I have discovered that this is in fact one of the template pages in Blurb's "Modern Magazine" template. Chris seems to have changed fonts, re-arranged sizes in infortuitous ways, and plugged in some text and a photo. Blurb's template is pretty decent, Chris's changes are virtually all for the worse.

The pull quote is too dominant, what we really want is the artist's name, and then to launch into the text. Pull quotes are usually graphically big, but typographically quite light.

To accomplish this, Chris uses one font for the artist's name, a second one for the bio, and a third one for both the pull quote and the main text. A fourth font, sans serif this time, is used for the photo credit. I don't think we see any one of these fonts ever again in the magazine, nor do we see a photo credit again. There is a lorem ipsum style caption a bit later, but I'm not sure that counts. Even this group of fonts does not play well together, chunky, square, modern-looking serifs right next to traditional bracketed serifs, and so on. I mean, it's not awful, but it could have been nicer.

There's even a little graphical element, a dotted line on the bottom of the page.

Unfortunately, this is easily the best page in the entire thing.

Here is the very last portfolio intro page:



Again we have an opening picture (not bad) and the artist's name is at least present, slightly set off. It doesn't feel like an opening page, though, it looks just like any middle page, a mixture of text and photos. The only clue that this is the start of a new portfolio is that the picture doesn't look like it belongs with the earlier ones, and there is that artist name stuck there in the middle of the page.

There is only one font in use here, which is something of a blessing, and Chris is using size and bold to make it do different jobs. Good for you, Chris.

Here's another one:



The artist's name is set off by being italic bold, but then, Chris sometimes uses italic bold for the "Question" of the Q&A format that runs throughout, so at first it's not clear what's happening.

I could go on and on, there are 12 of these things, and they are literally every one different from the others.

LENSWORK clearly defines a series of roles that text is going to play on these pages. LENSWORK's design places those into a functional hierarchy, and leads you through them in a good way. The design uses graphical elements to tie together with the rest of the magazine, it uses a common format to tie them portfolios together and make the opening spreads useful. Understand one, the next unfolds trivially. Two font families are used creatively in this work, while tying things together more.

In contrast, "Emulsion" barely seems to recognize that the artist's name is important. There is no commonality, there is no useful hierarchy, there are little blocks of various fonts fighting pitched battles back and forth across the page. Far from guiding us through the text, the design (or rather, lack thereof) seems to willfully obscure any attempt to make sense of which text, if any, I can ignore. One has to struggle to work out who the artist is, as often as not.

Sadly, the correct answer is that you can ignore all of the text. It is 90% worthless and uninteresting. The only thing that is of any interest is the name of the artist, and trying to find that can be a bit of an adventure.

Chris has no concept of recto and verso, simply launching into the next portfolio whenever he runs out of material on the previous one. Honestly, I suppose we should consider ourselves blessed that he doesn't start them in the middle of the page.

I am about half sure that Chris had someone do that first page for him. The line on the bottom is a tell, that someone had a hand in this who had least had some rudiments of what design might look like. The rest of the thing looks like the work of a middle schooler who just opened InDesign for the first time. See above note: this is a blurb template page, and so was designed by someone else. A couple other pages are recognizable as "designed" as well, and they are all found in the template from blurb.

I think this discussion will flow fairly neatly into a discussion of fonts.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Design Study, Concept/Editorial Voice

Consider the concept of Chris's "Emulsion". He's a film booster, and so wanted to do a premium zine of film photography. As usual, he trusted to his enthusiasm for the medium to carry him through. He kickstarted it, pre-selling something like 140 copies based on nothing but a couple of names he'd gotten some sort of commitment from, and his concept of "100 pages, film photography, several artists."

He then put out a call for submissions, which requested a bio, some pictures, and answers to a handful of questions. Conceptually, Chris structured this thing as a collection of small portfolios, with some supporting text about the artist, biographical info, stuff about process and whatnot. By structuring the submission guidelines he did, he set himself up for two major problems.

1. The textual material is all over the place. Some people chose to write out the questions, and then write answers underneath in an interview-style format. Others simply wrote an essay that touched on all or most of the questions. The length, quality, and voice of the textual material varies wildly. Chris elected to include the supplied text more or less as-is.

2. By simply asking for a small portfolio of pictures, with the only stricture being that they be shot on film, Chris made the graphical material a mess. Some artists sent in greatest hits, some artists probably sent in current favorites, and a couple seemed to try for a coherent portfolio of material. By design, there is no flow from one artist to the next, and often there's no structure within the individual portfolios.

In short, there are no real levers the editor can use to create some sort of structure to the whole thing, it is -- by design -- incoherent. There is no space in here for the work of an editor, except to check spelling and do some layout. This general incoherence will, unfortunately, form a theme that runs throughout, which I found interesting in its own way. Side note: Chris did not check spelling.

When I did a not-dissimilar collaborative project, I requested more material than I would need with the explicit statement that I would be picking and choosing. My design, my concept, allowed me to jumble the pictures up, to seek patterns and relationships across artists. Since I included myself as a contributor, I had permission to shoot connecting material. Mine is much better for it. Mine is also a radically different book.

A regularly issued magazine is another example to ponder. These are also collaborative efforts. The writers, though, work against a style guide and usually to-order. Lengths, topics, and overall style are set before pen touches paper. The editing staff then cut, paste, re-arrange and re-write to suit. Pictures and graphics are similarly controlled and managed. While the many collaborators do contribute, usually in something like their own voice, it is the editorial staff that dictates the final shape of any element that goes into the magazine.

There is a pre-existing design language, which will inform the content. Pictures to be printed small need to be made differently than pictures to be printed large. If you use ridiculously narrow column widths, you have to avoid long words. Etcetera.

Not uncommonly, an issue is built around a theme, which informs the authors and artists, as well as the editorial decisions, and which adds another thread tying the thing together into a coherent whole.

Working even by yourself, your artistic concept, your vision, needs to have enough flex to support the editorial voice. I love this picture will, if you are wearing your editor hat properly, sometimes run up against but it does not work.

Chris would have done well to re-write all of the text. As supplied it is frankly boring. One artist may have an interesting answer to "which photographers inspired you" but most will just name drop a few people they have heard of. One artist may have an interesting process, another may not. The text should have been read, digested by the editor, and re-written into a common format, giving each artist roughly the same word count and sticking to the interesting parts. This would have made the text much smaller, tighter, and all around better. It also would have left more space for the pictures.

In addition, Chris should have specified what he wanted to see in submissions, and given himself room to edit and to create coherence. Send in more pictures than I will be using or pick your strongest theme/style and send in only pictures from that or something else.

I will say that within the extremely small envelope he built for himself, Chris did some good things. The picture layouts are sometimes pretty good, and I think it is safe to say that he never creates a jarring or particularly foolish juxtaposition. His worst crimes in placing photos are that he sometimes makes them very small (about which more later), and occasionally he falls into a sort of Snapfish autolayout style with small photos diagonally wandering down the page like an overly chill mom placing pictures in an album. These are infrequent, and in the grand scheme of this mess, mere peccadillos.

Whether he abdicated his responsibility as an editor, or whether he designed the product to have no editorial input on purpose I cannot say, but the result is the same. Long dreary text, incoherent material simply smashed onto pages one after the other.

Your project needs an editor, even if it's just you again. Your editor needs elbow room.

Give your editor some elbow room.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Design Study, The Phoblographer's "Emulsion" Zine

I recently acquired a copy of Chris Gampat's (of The Phoblographer) zine of analog photography, which he kickstarted a year and a half ago.



This initially started out as a review. Since I personally dislike the man behind this project, I felt it behooved me to take some real time with the material, so I wouldn't just bleat out a biting essay on how much I hate it. So, I did take time. As I write this, I am still taking time.

I have found a few things to like, a few things that are OK, and an almost infinite well of terrible. Digging in to it, I began to look things up, to compare with other work, to study other publications in ways I had not, and what began to emerge were some real lessons in design. I am now, and am continuing to become, a better designer for spending time with this thing. As I worked on initial draft material I began to insert "takeaway" sidebars, and after a time these came to dominate the text.

There is no way that this magazine is anything but a catastrophic failure. From concept to copy-editing, the thing appears to be an almost unending wall of mistakes and lousy ideas. Some I knew, some I did not, which I found interesting. Failure analysis is one way we learn. It's why air travel is so safe. When we see what is wrong, we compare with what is right, and we glean thereby a lesson.

I'm going to write and publish a series of essays about various aspects of "Emulsion" and I will compare with other, well-made, publications, and try to extract therefrom something to take away.

The overall impression of "Emulsion" is instantly positive. It's a weighty well-built physical object, as we expect from the premium blurb products. The overall print and build quality is good. The cover is sound. The first few pages are OK, although we begin to feel a sense of shoddy slapdash design more or less the moment we open the thing. Paging through it, the shoddiness of layout and design gradually rises, reaching ludicrous levels after a few pages, and then leveling off at "ludicrous" for the duration.

As a nerd, I can go identify dozens and dozens of specific things that are wrong. As a non-nerd, I think even without specifically noticing much you will feel that this is poorly done, that it is sloppy and amateurish. Squinting at some of the tinier pictures you will surely feel that perhaps they could have been printed a bit larger. You might notice the font sizes jumping around. You might notice the nonsensical font changes. Likely that's about it, but there's more. Boy howdy, is there more.

In my judgement as a bit of a book nerd, this object would be terrible even as a first draft. I propose to dig in to a demonstration of that, together with some guesswork about how it could have happened. There will be discussions of fonts, of descenders, of word counts, of bleeds and probably margins.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Art considered as a Tweet

In the bad old says of, well, I think some intervals before the Renaissance, most of the art produced in europe was in support of the church. Sculpture and paintings mainly served to decorate religious buildings, and that was that. Art served primarily to support and amplify the dominant dogma. It was not supposed to challenge, to enrich, to enlarge the human mind, it was there to show you what you already believed, and urge you to believe it harder.

In the modern era, we see challenging Art which does enlarge, enrich us. And then, gradually, those ideas sometimes move slowly from radical avant-garde ideas to, as it were, settled dogma. At this point there is still a nice opportunity for artists to fall back into the church mode, and make more or less endless pieces which glorify and amplify that existing dogma. They may even pretend to be avant-garde.

Case in point. American Monument. This is an installation of 25 record players, each with a record of audio relevant to some police killing of an African American. This is packaged together with some large piles of documentation surrounding these cases, and I dare some some other things.

Now, I think cops shoot too many black people in the USA, let's stipulate that. Let us also stipulate that I could be mis-reading this installation, missing out on something.

That said, this does not strike me as a subtle work that enlarges our understanding of anything. While it is complicated, a lot of material had to be assembled, records had to be made, and so on, it is not particularly illuminating. This installation does not appear to offer any nuance, any alternative or more complex view of anything. The function appears to be, entirely, to validate the already held ideas of whoever might go see it.

This exhibit, in short, appears to be functionally equivalent to a tweet: WAKE UP PEOPLE #BlackLivesMatter

The tweet is about standing up and being counted, about taking part in what one hopes creates the appearance of a wave of nearly unanimous or at any rate large and dominant public opinion. This notional tweet ain't wrong. I support it. I probably have tweeted stuff like that myself. But the tweet, busting out my schoolboy arty bollocks, does not critically engage with anything.

Side note: the "with" part of "engage with" is redundant. I only ever say it ironically or by mistake.

American Monument, quite apart from the kerfuffle over the firing of the director who commissioned it, appears to be an incredibly complicated way of doing essentially the same thing. The artist is working that sort of comet's tail of the avant-garde, in which she can simply make elegant, complicated, work that validates the ideas the critics already hold, and can thus more or less rely on a positive reception. Nobody ever went broke telling The King that he's right.

Compare with Lewis Bush's work on the tax haven that is Jersey, which you can see a few sample bits from here. I've seen some other things, and the exhibited work is a bit more complicated, he's sticking diagrams on top of some of the photos and whatnot, so it's not just a bunch of rectangles on a wall.

Now, Lewis certainly could have thrown up a bunch of shit that boiled down to a tweet: CAPITALIST NEOLIBERALS SUCK #ElectCorbyn

He chose not to. He appears to be taking a more nuanced view. He's showing us things we did not know, he's digging into a narrow slice the neoliberal/capitalist clusterfuck and revealing it in ways we did not expect, did not know. We come away, perhaps, enlarged, smarter, changed.

Now, to be fair, I have seen neither American Monument nor Trading Zones, so I am guessing a lot here. But if my guesses miss the mark, they at any rate delineate the kinds of things that can go on, and my conclusions could as well be applied to other things.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Is Photography Ready for Compulsory Licenses?

In the world of music in particular, there has long been in place a system of compulsory licensing. That is, anyone who wishes may create, record, and sell a recording of a song or other piece of music without the permission of the copyright holder provided that they pay a fee to the copyright holder. A whole system exists to move that money around. This has enabled broadcasting, as well as much of the modern music industry. It was designed, I gather, specifically to break up the possibility of a corporate monopoly on recorded material.

Also, I suspect, it was simply intended to regularize what was already happening. You cannot prevent people from learning and playing a song. The better ones might record their version. You can run around punishing them piecemeal, or you can (as Congress elected to do) simply grant everyone a compulsory license and require reasonable fees to get paid.

A knock-on effect of this has been bring the normal course of a musician's development in under a legal umbrella. Kids with guitars start out, inevitably, playing covers of their hero's songs. They play gigs. They learn and develop their craft, and eventually graduate (sometimes) to writing their own material. This is normal, and with the system of compulsory licensing, it is also legal, and fair.

These days we're seeing three trends that seem relevant.

First, since the advent if the <img> tag on the web, there has been a great deal of appropriation going on from the highest levels of fine art (Richard Prince, and many others) all the way down to instagrammers stealing one another's pictures. This is reality, there seems to be no putting that cat back into any kind of a bag of any sort. Sometimes, not always of course, but sometimes there appears to be some legitimacy here. Not legal as such but reasonable in some sense. Some kid is learning photoshop, a talented artist is making a serious statement. Neither of those are something we ought to be suppressing, but the original photographer has rights as well.

The second trend is the consolidation of stock agencies. We're not very far away from a world in which your choices for acquiring imagery are: the sole remaining microstock agency (whichever one that is), hiring a photographer to create original work, or stealing it. This is exactly the scenario compulsory licensing for audio recordings was intended to prevent.

The third trend is the ever-increasing "do it for exposure" business model, which is driven in part because photographers often lack a convenient way to bill, and have little to no experience pricing their work.

With a compulsory licensing scheme, the world shifts radically. Anything online can be downloaded, used, remixed, republished, as long as you pay the fee, and supply the credit.

The boring and stupid legal cases mostly go away (this puts Richard Prince out of business, because his art isn't remixed photos it's lawsuits). Getty Images collapses immediately.

Theft of imagery goes down, because the process of paying a fee is easy and inexpensive, and the penalties are more organized. Rather than trying to hide behind a half-baked fair use defense, commercial or other uses would simply pay the fee. Photographer earnings go up.

Are there technical details to be worked out? Yep. There are also legal ones, the Berne Convention seems to call out audio materials for this type of licensing, but not visual ones. How do people pay? How do people get paid? I don't know, but I am confident that solutions can be worked out.

The music industry provides, not all the answers, but anyways a handy template.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Identity and Photography

There is a whole class of people who argue that ones Identity must inevitably shape ones Photography. Women photograph one way, People of Color photograph in accordance with their ethnicity, and so on, White Men photograph their own way (which is generally Bad but let us set that aside), and so on.

As with most claims that come out of Identity Politics, it's not entirely clear what the claim is. On the one hand, obviously an artist can make their Identity as a woman, an LGBQT person, and so on, central to their work. Cindy Sherman has done a lot of overtly Feminist work, and it is perfectly reasonable to say that her Identity As A Woman strongly informs her body of work. Is the claim simply that some women might do this? If so, well, obvious, but not very interesting. Also, there is the problem that anyone -- even a man -- could lift Sherman's tropes and grind out more work in the same vein. You could pretend that, as a man, it wouldn't "read" but I think that is nonsense. If it has not already happened, someone will surely produce a body of work under an assumed Identity, as a piece of performance art.

No, the claim feels, albeit vaguely, as if the notion is that Women's Photography taken as a whole ought to "read" as somehow feminine. While some women might produce distinctly masculine work, taken as a whole the overall shape of the body of work made by women should have a detectable character. Ditto African American, Transgender, Gay, and so on.

This is a very attractive notion. It is one that I feel attracted to, it seems as it it ought to be true. And yet, it appears to be generally false. I should note that while I find the notion attractive, at the same time I find it offensive. Replace the phrase "Women's Photography" with "Negro Photography" and see how that works for you. Less well, I think, and not entirely because of the exact word choice.

I can see that ones Identity shapes much of what one does, what one thinks, what one feels. There is no question in my mind that "lived experience" colors a great deal. Women are socialized (at least) in certain ways that lead, I am reliably informed, to different approaches to teamwork, different approaches to problem solving. There is more basic stuff: I have heard tell of a health tracker app that had no way to track menstrual cycles. Too many bros, not enough, umm, women on that design team. And so on. I do not think there is any way to conveniently enumerate the ways in which ones Identity, and ones Lived Experience are likely to pop up and affect something about you, about what and how and why you do what you do.

When you're talking to people, interacting with people, I believe that your core, your experience, your (as it were) true self tends to come through. You can fake it, an introvert can playact the extrovert, the feminist could playact the misogynist, but it's acting. It requires constant labor to keep up the facade. In other walks of life, photography let us say, the default position is reversed -- the easy thing to do is to simply copy other people's stuff whereas what is hard is to produce something that reflects that true self.

Even if you, as a photographer, are not merely aping someone else's work, your work will be shaped by myriad influences. You will tend to borrow a visual trope from here, get a subject from there (maybe an editor, maybe a client, or maybe something you saw on instagram). Certainly also your true self in all its facets, including any Identities you have, will also color the work.

The question, though, is whether that true self, and in particular those Identities, will be consistently visible across the work of a bunch of people.

The answer appears to largely be in the negative, "no," and the question is "why?"

Imagine, if you will, that your team leader at work is gay. Some such leaders would be very up front about their sexual Identity, telling you on day one. Others might be deeply closeted, and you might never find out. In between, and this covers most of the gay people I have worked for, it's not important, but eventually you know. It comes out, organically, somehow. This reflects, I think, a normal range of attitudes. A Gay Artist might choose to center their work around that Identity. Many Gay Artists, on the other hand, might simply have other things they'd like to explore. Some will try very hard to hide that Identity.

I think in the end we all have a tendency to fake it in all our interactions. We try to come across as smarter, more pleasant, more fun to be with than we truly are. We try to make photographs that look like something else excellent. And so on.

The difference is that when you're leading a team at work, or having a long conversation, the act just doesn't work, it's simply too hard to keep up a facade in these situations where there are 1000 ways your true self can leak out. When you're taking pictures and printing them out, or putting them online, it's dead easy to fake it. You can hide behind your copies of Ansel Adams, or Garry Winogrand, or your pastiche of Arbus, Sherman, and Gurksy, or whatever. You can hide behind your use of the wet plate process. Rather than 10000 ways your Identity can leak out and be noticed, there are a 1000 ways to conceal it.

Even when we are ostensibly trying to reveal ourselves, we inevitably produce an edited version, the bits we secretly don't want to share are carefully elided, the bits we like best are exaggerated. We can see this in all the overwrought confessional work we're seeing these days. It reads patently, obviously, false in spite of its supposed openness.

Because of the great distance between Me and You when I am communicating with a photograph, or a photobook, whatever facade I want will serve perfectly well. Indeed, I am going to have a hard time selling even the facade. The true me is surely absolutely inaccessible.

Getting my Identity out there, visible in the final product, is going to be very very hard. And, generally, it's not likely to "read" that well.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Periodic Reminder

I have books for sale. Go buy something. I mean, if you want. I hope someday to hit blurb's $25 profit point at which they send me money. It's a big dream, but it's my dream.

You can buy my stuff here.

Friday, September 14, 2018

mediumformat.com

Based on the twitter account @Medium_Format and the Facebook page, which I dug around a bit for, Medium Format Group, this thing appears to be a spinoff of FujiLove.com, operating in "stealth mode" at the moment.

Previous remarks still apply.