Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Gear Gear Gear Gear Gear

Almost on cue after my previous remarks we find this piece up on LuLa: The "Real" Factor. It's members only, but don't worry, the text is just a rehash of Ming Thein's "transparency" argument for why he needs a bajillion megapixels, except Harvey calls is "real factor" and uses less pseudo-academic language.

You can look at the pictures whether you are a member or not. These are pictures that Harvey claims illustrates this essential reality he's achieved in an extremely small number of pictures in his career. He talks about sharpness, color, and tonal rendition. Well, he's got 4 criteria, but sharpness is two of them.

So, look at his pictures and judge if they look "real." I'll give you my answer in a moment.

...

...

Nope. The colors are absurd, the shadows are ridiculous, and so on. These are highly marketable, highly stylized, kitsch. Harvey is an award winning photographer, and of that I have no doubt. This sort of thing attracts blue ribbons like crazy, if it's well executed, and placed in the right venues. I am certain Harvey executes and places them with consummate skill.

This entire concept of "real" or "transparent" is fundamentally flawed. I've written about it before.

In that piece I go on a bit about how a photograph is in no way going to literally fool anyone into thinking that it is "real", that it is a transparent window into the scene. Then I get sidetracked into Impressionism (for good reason).

Of course the photo won't fool anyone. And of course a very very sharp and detailed photograph does not particularly mimic how we see. We see rather blurry little bits and pieces, and then our brain invents a great deal of material to fill in the blanks.

I guess there is an argument that the real world is very very detailed, and that therefore a very very detailed photograph, when "seen", will better mimic the experience of "seeing" the real world. This doesn't explain Harvey's boosted shadows (which are emulating NOT the real world, but rather the way we apprehend it, adjusting our eyes to the darkness and penetrating the shadows, adjusting back for the brighter areas). This doesn't explain Harvey's boosted colors, which are pure impressionism.

Harvey's text makes it pretty clear to me that he's not sure if he's being an Impressionist, or a Realist. While you perhaps could navigate some compromise position between the two, to my eye, he does not.

While I am certain that Harvey's pictures are exactly the way he wants them to be, his philosophical basis for his choices strikes me as flawed. On the one hand, he elevates one aspect (sharpness) because it emulates reality and therefore will be seen as real, but on the other hand he fiddles with color and tone to represent it as it would be seen in the real world.

The truth is that we apprehend photographs and the real world quite differently. Depending on how big the print or screen, we do more or less scanning. We never have to refocus, things that are "far away" are not. We generally do not have to adjust our pupils for light (although it's possible that someone will build, or has built, some crazily high contrast screen, it's not generally the case).

While I'm not going to particularly begrudge someone their megapixels, I think it behooves us to understand what the megapixels are actually doing. They are not, in particular, making your patently unreal object (photograph) look real.

My experience with "sharp" photos versus "not sharp" photos is that the former do tend to focus the attention on the subject matter, while the latter tend to focus attention on the photograph itself. In that sense, perhaps, a certain transparency is present? I'm not sure if more sharpness produces more of this effect, to be honest. It feels to me as if, once you get to the standard acceptable sharpness, any further detail doesn't really do much. If anything, it creates an impression of a sharp photograph and, depending on how it's handled, risks drawing attention away from the subject matter and back to the photographic object itself.

Groping my way forward here, it strikes me that there is a sort of envelope of what a "normal photo" looks like, about so and so sharp, colors about like that, and so on. Black and white photos can also appear "normal" at least for some of us (younger people seem to be put off by them).

Inside the envelope of normalcy, the subject matter dominates. Outside this envelope of normalcy, the photo-as-object begins to assert itself.

Harvey Stearns photographs strike me as near the edge of that envelope. Stick them up next to a bunch of my crap and they will look completely crazy. Stick them up in a hotel lobby with a bunch of other candy-colored landscapes, and they will look perfectly normal. Presumably, in that context, they would look 'real" in some reasonable sense. Not, I maintain, because the color science in the cameras is particularly awesome, or because there are so many pixels, but merely because the pictures look "normal" and therefore the photo-as-object intrudes as little as possible.

All in all, whenever I see one of these transparent apologias for "why I have to keep buying the latest camera" I find the whole thing exhausting, but always want to rouse myself to respond. And, from time to time, I do.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Just Stop!

Mike over at ToP has a post up which you can read here in which he talks about missing photography.

Now, to be fair, Mike is in a business. He writes about photography for a living, online, and that basically means that he has to bend a knee now and then to the gearhead. If you want clicks, you gotta talk about equipment, toys, software. But, Mike is talking about something that's more generally applicable. If you feel sometimes like Mike, my advice is: Just Stop.

You don't have to buy a new camera, a new Pocket Wizard, a new strap. You don't even have to know about these things. You don't have to read about this things (unless, like Mike, you write about photography for an online audience, for money).

In fact, it's harmful to spend much effort on these things. You can spend 6 months "mastering" a new thing, only to find that for your kind of photography, what you really need is a few more cross-type focus points, so, damn it, now you have to buy the new new thing and spend six months mastering that.

You don't have to. People used to manual focus the things you "need" the better auto-focus module for, you can probably make the thing you just bought work.

You don't even have to "master" the thing you have now. You only, really, need to find one or two ways to use it that are good enough for whatever pictures you want to take. I own an 8 year old bottom of the line Nikon, and I still don't know half of what it does, and I don't care. I spent some time drinking with an award winning photojournalist who worked with a "Canon 1-something, I dunno what" that he used exclusively in manual. He knew one way to make it work for him, and that was enough.

Time spent reading reviews, time spent monkeying around inside your camera's manual, time spent "testing" and "mastering" this feature and that, this is all time spent not taking the pictures you want to take. It's just a distraction. Just Stop It.

Now, distractions are not all bad. Sometimes we need a mental break, something fun to do to take our mind off the problem at hand. Maybe dorking around with metering modes is a good way to free your unconscious for an afternoon. Ok, fair enough. Maybe you'll even learn a useful thing, maybe not. Maybe you really do want to make something that requires a different camera or a different lens, in which case a little research would fit in.

The people who do really good work are, as often as not, almost but not quite completely stopped on the gear acquisition train. Every now and then they add something new to the quiver, but mostly they're working with what they've got and have been for years. There are exceptions, of course. A few really capable people are also gear buying maniacs, and a few haven't budged since 1962. Most, though, move very slowly and surely through the acquisition of new (or old) tools and methods. A sort of peripheral vision, keeping tabs on what's out there, what's possible, but without too much interest. A little testing now and then, and, more rarely, a new tool taken up.

Ming Thein and Kirk Tuck both talk about "sufficiency." The latter is currently on a journey in which he appears to be learning that "sufficiency" is available on a much larger collection of cameras than is commonly thought. God damn near all of them, I'm starting to think. Thein has somewhat different ideas.

Me, I think that "sufficiency" can be found with god damn near all of them.

There was an obnoxious asshole I ran across once (no, not me, not this time) who explained that you don't actually need a billion millimeter lens for shooting, say, wild birds. At least not if you work at it. He showed off some startling pictures of small birds taken with a 50mm lens. He's just worked out how to get Really Close. He may have been obnoxious and stupid, but that single remark was worth the price of admission. You can do a lot more with the gear you have than you think, if you just work at it harder.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Lead with the Idea

I think something every photographer struggles with is this: My pictures look like everyone else's (or like that person's). I've talked about it, albeit in the distant past. At that time, I made the remark that while all pictures have been, in some sense, already taken, not every picture has been placed next to every other picture.

This leads me down two separate paths. The first is that it is in fact not necessary that your pictures look like someone else's. Sally Mann makes pictures that look different, because she makes aesthetic choices that would strike virtually all other photographers as completely insane. Many of her pictures look like a horrible mistake, or just rotten judgement. It is only when you assemble this battalion of catastrophe that it begins to fall together into something.

The second path is that it doesn't matter if your pictures look kind of like someone else's, but there is an If here. And it's a pretty big one.

Before I get to that, I will update on my P52 project: Languishing. I have discovered, again, that I am unfit to work in this way. By starting from pictures, and searching for the idea, I got only kind of bland ideas that I had no particular will to pursue. The best ideas were watered down versions of ideas I am already pursuing in other ways. For me, at any rate, walking around with the camera and looking for something to make of the pictures simply does not work. Or at any rate it does not work as well as starting from something I feel some real passion for.

Sally Mann, again. The work I saw in DC, "A Thousand Crossings" is in some sense a remix of work she already did, for a variety of reasons, with a variety of ideas. What I perceive as the core of the success here, though, is that all those various ideas sprang from a common place, Mann's love for and relationship with The South. There was, underneath Immediate Family, underneath Proud Flesh, underneath Battlefields, an abiding love and a complex set of emotions toward The South, and it is this that she extracted from the earlier work. Notice that Still Time, At Twelve and much of the more macabre death-related material does not appear (for example, there are probably other swatches of her oeuvre missing as well). That work did not share that common underlying theme.

So, the work was not particularly made with a conscious connection to the idea that eventually came to be the core of the thing I saw. But that passion was there, tucked away, supporting.

I think that really good work often (always?) comes from such wellsprings. I think, in the end, the best work is driven by some underlying passion, something that the artist deeply believes, that the artist is fascinated or obsessed with. The artist may or may not be conscious of it.

This is the big If referred to above.

If your pictures look like everyone else's, don't worry about it. Worry about whether there's any fire in your own belly. If you're just walking around taking pictures that are vaguely interesting, well, so be it. Perhaps you're honing some skills.

If you're just walking around taking pictures which you find yourself weirdly in love with, well, maybe there's some passion. Don't force it, but it might be worthwhile gently teasing it out into the open so you know where you're going. Or maybe you'll archive the pictures and find them again in a decade or two and it will burst upon you like a thunderstorm what you were actually doing.

A depressingly common case among artists seems to be walking around taking pictures that support some thesis the artist doesn't much care about, but which is in vogue. This work isn't very strong either, but it looks strong to the Art Community because it supports a chic thesis.

If you're driven by passion already, great. You're ahead of the game.

No matter how you slice it, I think that if there is a passion, a love, an obsession somewhere inside you as you're making your pictures, it simply doesn't matter if they look like someone else's, or like nobody else's. It doesn't matter if they're sharp or blurry or dark or botched. As long as they're the right thing, as long as they feed that fire, your work has a shot at coming together into something distinct and valuable.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Few More Random Notes about Sally Mann

There are a handful of other observations I want to make, which didn't fit into any sort of "review" framework.

The first is something you're unlikely to notice in other showings of her recent exhibition, but in the Washington DC show the audience was almost exclusively white with a few asians, and the guards standing around directing people and keeping people from touching the pictures were 100% black. Not mostly black, every single one was black. In fact, all of the security personnel in the National Art Gallery are black, as far as I observed.

Washington DC is a town in the South of the USA, at least in a sense. It is largely African-American. There is a sort of existing population, that is largely black, and a more transient and affluent population of politicos and bureaucrats (and, of course, masses of tourists) who are almost exclusively white. These lines are not absolutely strict, of course, but the population demographics are extremely distinct.

It was telling to have right in our face the reality of the USA so lovingly depicted in the photos. I have to wonder what percentage of the attendees noticed this.

The second random note is this. These two photos both appear in the show:





The first one is the riverbank where Emmett Till's body washed up. The second is a picture of Emmett Mann and his family digging and playing in the mud along a different river.

This is a coincidence. These pictures were made 15-20 years apart, the provenance of each picture is well known, and (given that provenance) I don't see any real way that one could have been deliberately built to look like the other. Two Emmetts, two rivers, two ditches. Funny, that. I dare say Mann has noticed this too. I wonder what she thinks about it.

The third note is that the missing picture of Emmett Mann at the end of the show does appear in the show catalog. Which, in a way, is nice because we get to see it. I don't know if they simply ran out of space, or if Mann made a late change to what she was willing to hang, or a bit of both, or something else entirely. But there it is.

The show catalog, by the way, as I have mentioned(?), is excellent and inexpensive. The essays are by and large crashingly boring, navigating that worst possible course between academic and accessible. I guess someone's got to have a whack at Explaining Sally Mann in one of these things. Of the multiple essays I have been bored into stopping on all but one of them. They're not bad as such, they're just far too long, they're basically kind of dull, and many of them are unconnected to the pictures in hand. We get a lot of stuff on Sally Mann, we get a lot of stuff on Wet Plate, but not too much on what the hell Mann is on about here.

It's worth it just for the pictures, though.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Thousand Crossings, the Sekrit Decoder Ring

As long-time readers know, I am very interested in how multi-picture presentations are constructed. So, when I was at the Sally Mann, I noticed certain things and made some fairly detailed notes. In this bit I will discuss what I observed! It might be of interest to you if you're planning a book or an exhibition which has more than a single theme. If you're not, well, maybe skip this one. I'll get pretty detailed, and probably will be "seeing" things that are, well, not necessarily there.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Show Review: Sally Mann, A Thousand Crossings

The executive summary is: go see this show if humanly possible. With the caveat that it is Art and you need to be open to that. If you go in with some thickheaded photographer's eye getting all judgey about sharpness or technique (Mann is a better technician than you are, shush), you will be disappointed, and you will miss the point. Ditto if you enter all fascinated by collodion processes.

The curators will try to distract you with chatter about process in a couple of the show elements. Ignore the movies, at least initially. One is a distraction, and the other two are interesting as codas, but not integral to the show.



The show travels, and here are the other venues:

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem
        June 30–September 23, 2018
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
        November 20, 2018–February 10, 2019
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
        March 3–May 27, 2019
Jeu de Paume, Paris
        June 17–September 22, 2019
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
        October 19, 2019–January 12, 2020


The catalog, at $45, is an insane bargain. It reproduces the show in full, I think, and contains a lot of other pictures and a tremendous amount of commentary some of which is, I assume, interesting after a fashion. I admit there's a certain amount of droning on about wet plate processes, as if that mattered. But the pictures are excellent and the book is enormous.

Further discussion "after the jump" as they say,


Thursday, April 5, 2018

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings

I've just had a quick walk-through of the Sally Mann at the National Art Gallery, more to come.

This is a public service announcement, though. Go see this.

If you're interested in the kinds of statements and explorations photography can do, this is not to be missed. This is a more nuanced, more coherent, statement than any of the books I've seen from Mrs. Mann, and she's done some mighty fine books.

If you have been thinking "hmm, maybe" the answer is "yes, definitely." If Mann is at all your cup of tea, this is worth getting on a plane.

It's political, it's personal, it's a force of nature. It's in some sense a retrospective, but it pulls things together and says some stuff. It's not just a greatest hits show, at all, although it has some of the greatest hits on it.

See it if you possibly can. If you can't, at least buy the catalog. The show strikes me (after a quick skim of both book and show) better. Fewer words and I think I like the way it's put together better. But the book is also good.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Trip to DC

As noted earlier, I will be in Washington DC on vacation this week. So, no blog posts, but I swear I'm thinking of stuff. Like, what could I actually tell someone that might be useful, if they showed me a picture?

Drop me an email if you want to hang out. I'll be in town mainly Wednesday and Thursday, checking out the Sally Mann at the National Art Gallery.

If you think it might be a good time to rob my house and see if there's anything of value that my kids haven't busted yet, be advised that my wife and the 80 pound pit bull mix are still home. I dunno what the dog would do to an intruder, probably nothing. She's very lazy. But she's still a 80 pound pit bull mix, so, you know, take your chances.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

UPDATE: Frédérick Carnet, The promise of a better world?

Because M. Carnet's work delights me, and because he honors me by keeping me up to date on projects which he judges will be to my taste, I quote a comment he left on a somewhat earlier post, referring to his project The promise of a better world?. Because I think you should know this as well.

The serie is no more in "work in progress" section ! ;-) I just added 3 more pictures and the serie won't be touch anymore. We can consider it as "completed". Or may be...it's the first part of a trilogy ? ;-)

Friday, March 30, 2018

Hey Joe where you goin'

I've mentioned that I poke in to Lula's "User Critique" forum from time to time. But then I leave, because the only thing that ever comes to mind about any picture is "well, what were you trying to accomplish?"

Most of the time I can guess that the answer is "I was trying to make a Good Photograph" and so I don't even ask the question. There are people for whom, I guess, that actually means something. I think it means "it complies with a collection of unexamined ideas that live in my mind someplace" but I'm not certain.

What I do know is that the idea of a "Good Photograph" is meaningless to me. A photograph is no more good or bad than is a stone.

I take a certain delight in fashion photography, not only because it is fabulous, but because I can imagine what Internet Forum People would say about many of the pictures. Boy oh boy, some of these pictures would attract some serious hate. There's at least one design house that's using a lot of straight-up out of focus pictures. Underexposed, muddy, blurry. Gorgeous.

These guys aren't idiots, they're getting exactly what they want. There's a whole process here for figuring out what the Brand wants and converting that into a vision and converting THAT into photographs.

Kirk Tuck wrote a long piece very recently postulating that there's not much room for individual vision in photography, and to an extent I think he's right. Perhaps all the way out to where he intended his remarks to apply, it's not at all clear he means them in an absolutely universal way.

It's certainly true that people who are plugged in to social media, formerly to internet forums, before that Usenet or BBSes or Camera Clubs, surely are guided by what they see. In this modern era Kirk is 100% right, anything that gets any "traction" will be instantly duplicated. Hilariously wrong how-to videos will be posted by people who literally cannot see photographically, followed a little while later by how-to videos that work, presumably by people who can see.

It is certainly true that brands which care about "social media traction" will want to leap wildly from bandwagon to bandwagon.

Fashion, delightfully, is full of players who do not give much of a damn about social media traction. Some of them actively Do Not Give A Fuck. Dolce and Gabbana at the moment are in a sort of mode of actively chasing customers away. Not quite in a GET OUT sort of way but an "oh darling, I'm sorry, but you weren't invited, you can't buy anything this year." D&G adverts are glorious. And they're not even the weird ones. Bottega Veneta is in strong competition for the weird ones, but they're not the clear winner. Their twitter feed is, to put it mildly, iconoclastic.

Of course there's tons of perfectly ordinary skinny models pouting boredly at the cameras. It's not like it's 100% beautiful strange visions. The point is, there's a certain amount of strange vision going on.

Anyways. These people know where they're going. They have a clear articulation of brand identity, and a cloud of values that they want associated with it. They boil that down (at least on good days) to a mood board for a particular campaign. Mood boards are cool, I first ran into these things only a couple years ago, so you can see that I'm either woefully late to yet another part of the game or, more optimistically, Always Learning!

Note that the mood board might well include a bunch of stuff from instagram or wherever. It is here that the Art Director can "wire the project" to simply jump on board whatever the latest trending thing is. In the long run, it's a bad idea, because you're necessarily diluting The Brand in favor of the Whatever's Trending. Branding is the long game, Trending is the short game. It may be necessary to balance the two in your day to day, but you gotta keep your eye on the long game or you will eventually lose.

From the mood board it's pretty standard Creative Work to develop specifics of photographic style. You can't logic your way through it, you feel it, but this is literally what you hire Creatives to do. So they go and do that. Individual style notes combine with the mood board and produce ideas for pictures. Then the team executes those pictures. It ain't rocket science, but it is complicated, detail-oriented, labor-intensive, and sometimes it blows up on the pad.

Even at standard day rates plus catering, though, it's considerable cheaper than actual rockets.

At any rate, this is a process which produces, more or less repeatably, photographs and other design elements that are well-suited to a well-defined purpose. Here I mean a "well-defined purpose" that can certainly encompass more than some dunderheaded utility like "sells more purses" but things more aesthetic, more emotional.

Compare this, though, to the hapless fellow posting on some forum for Critique. As I've suggested previously, some genres are more or less self-decribing, the desired goal is more or less obvious in the picture.

Perhaps some fellow posts a black and white photo of a nude young woman, clearly lit by some enormous octoboxes. Suppose, though, that she looks very awkward, doesn't know what to do with her hands.

Most of the critique will take the form "amazing!" and "great tones!" because it's a naked girl. Naked girls always have amazing tones for some reason.

The next bits will be things like "you should move the octobox on the left up an inch because reasons."

The one thing you can be sure of is that nobody is going to say "dude, the girl looks miserable and awkward."

Looking at the picture we might guess that the goal, however poorly articulated it might be in the photographer's mind, is probably to produce something in the serenely erotic genre. The pool of calm with the elegant body centered in it, erotic but also aesthetically pleasing, beautiful. It doesn't quite work because the model's hands are awkward and her body language screams "I AM NOT CALM."

Ok, maybe the artist is making some other statement? Or maybe the artist is attempting the first thing, but will end up doing the second thing when he realizes that he's not capable of generating the serenity necessary for the first thing.

Either one of those is possible, so even now we can't really judge the picture without specifically answering the question "where are you going here?"

Unfortunately, this is an all too common scenario where the amateur can be ruined by sloppy critique. They will learn that they're geniuses (because they can hire models willing to work nude) and that they need to move the octobox on the left up by an inch.

A sufficiently introspective artist might, if kept safely away from such dunderheads, eventually find a path forward that produces something other than an endless sequence of ambiguously nervous unclad young women. Or an artist lucky enough to find someone who will look, will actually see, and then will speak.

While you don't need to start with a Brand, and then make a Mood Board, and then brainstorm shooting scripts if you want to shoot serene classic black and white nudes, at some point you're going to have to nail down what the hell it actually means to shoot a good one. There are many paths here. You gotta take one of them.

Unless you're cool with a lot of "great shot", "move the octobox an inch" and nervous girls. Which, I guess, that's not the worst way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Not quite my cup of tea.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Coleman on White

The reliably sycophantic Colberg tweeted a link to this review A.D. Coleman wrote in the early 1970s of Minor White's project "Octave of Prayer". You can admire the three parts here, here, and here.

Minor White curated an exhibition, and did a book based on it. The summary is that Coleman doesn't like it. Boy does he not like it.

On the one hand, I will always love Coleman for using the phrase "a fucking seagull" in this piece. Serious writing needs more cursing in it.

On the other hand, there are... problems.

First of all we have Coleman's fairy tale about quitting because some substitute editor got shirty with him. Having quit a few jobs in my time, I can assure you, there's more to this story. Coleman is simply painting himself as a hero utterly devoted to his criticism, willing to literally die on that hill over one piece that a temp editor asked for some revisions on.

But this isn't the really tasty part.

Hop on an internet forum and propose the idea that anyone can shoot a meaningful picture, and insist on talking about what a meaningful picture might be. Odds are, you'll get panicked angry pushback. The various nerds will go on about the importance of "craft" and insist that meaning is all subjective and and and they'll crack jokes and generally do a vigorous dance to make the bad man with ideas go away. I dare say that in the 1970s you could have extracted precisely the same performance from most Camera Clubs.

Coleman cannot be accused of rejecting the idea of meaningful pictures, but on the idea that anyone can shoot, that a good dose of mysticism and raw emotion might be a good idea, he is quite clear: angry, panicked, rejection.

In his review of the pictures, he says that all the pictures are subsumed to White's vision, no artist retains a voice. Well, except for the ones that do. Only one, Coleman says, really stands out. But that artist he cleverly eliminates from his thesis by claiming that White clearly just didn't understand the pictures. Let that soak in for a bit. Does that make any kind of sense?

While I get his point, his argument comes down to "there's only one kind of cheese in the world, cheddar, I looked around and all the cheese is cheddar except the ones that aren't, Q.E.D."

Coleman thrashes around some more, angered that White merely curated this thing, didn't shoot anything in it, and even works in what appears to be a swipe at White's homosexuality.

But what really gets him going is the writing, that mystical, "inane", writing. Well, ok, it looks a little out there to me too (although I am sure A.D. is picking out the best bits) but mysticism is kind of like that, bro. It's gonna get lyrical, it's not going to hold together logically, rationally. It seems clear to me that A.D.'s beef here is with the mysticism itself, not the writing per se.

In the end, what we have is the cerebral guy deeply upset that a major player is proposing the idea that maybe cerebration isn't the answer. Maybe raw feelings and a little magic are a good idea.

As someone who fancies himself a bit cerebral on good days, I gotta go with White here, at least in broad strokes. The book and the show might have been utter crap, but I agree that a little emotion, a little magic, would do photography a lot of good. Today as much as any other day, the technicians, the Masters Of Craft, are dominant and could use taking down a peg or two.

In fact, I will put this statement out there: a photograph that doesn't have a bit of the mystical in it is probably shit.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Singles and Groups

Dan Milnor's webinar was excellent, and I will likely have more to say about it in the next week. One of the things that popped out, though, was what Dan calls Singles which are what I call (sometimes ironically) "the single iconic image." These are, as Dan notes, what most "serious" photographers spend most of their time trying to make. Pictures that stand alone, that you can stick on your wall with some degree of satisfaction.

As regular readers know, I waffle between declaring these things Too Hard and declaring them Dead. I am a fanatic devotee of Groups of pictures.

So what about these Singles, anyways? We can certainly integrate them into Groups, but then we've got a Group of pictures, about which more in a moment. Consider the thing in isolation.

We used to be able to get some insights by looking at internet forums on photography, which usually have a critique forum. I used to peruse LuLa's fairly regularly since it was, in ways I will examine in a moment, relatively sharp. Looking in now I see that some time in the last year or two even it has devolved into "nice shot!" which often looks suspiciously like "I like you, and you have made some pictures I liked, I will assume this one is also likable!" which I guess is sort of how they all land.

Setting aside the social aspects of Critique which tend to dominate in almost all cases, there are things people can say. They can apply various standards of composition, talk about diagonals, foregrounds, breadth, modeling, and so on. They can talk about, basically, how closely the picture hews to local norms ("you fucked up the loop lighting, this portrait sucks" and "that is a sharp picture of a tree, and since we like trees, I declare your picture good").

The standard fare critique of singles boils down, usually, to applying some sort of external standards to the picture. Everything from warm (or cold) feelings toward the photographer to "rules" of composition.

All of these ignore the reality that externalities are largely irrelevant.

To me, the difference between a Single and, well, anything else, is that the Single contains its own criteria for success. You can look at one of these things and, for various reasons, determine immediately what the picture is trying to do. A portrait is supposed to give the illusion of insight (or perhaps, give real insight) into personality and character. A landscape, often, is clearly intended to evoke a sense of the sublime. And so on. If you can hazard a reasonable guess, just by looking at the picture, what its purpose in life is, then you can next ask whether it succeeds.

A Single can, therefore, fail in at least two ways: It can fail to explain itself (in which case it's arguably not a Single at all), and it can fail to live up to the work it claims to be attempting.

This is, really, what User Critique is supposed to do. It is all too often boiled down to rules and criteria that have nothing to do with the picture. For example, a strong diagonal is a good idea, often. Many photographs could use a good dash of dynamism and drama. And so, the diagonal gets enshrined. Photos like Sugimoto's seascapes might be judged by the usual denizens as lacking, they fail to follow almost any rule or criterion you might care to name.

Still, these same pictures are very readable, it does not take a genius or a degree in Art History to "get" these things in some useful way. Then we can ask "do they succeed in their self-appointed mission" and the answer, for many people, most of us even, is "yes they do." Sugimoto's seascapes not only explain themselves pretty well, but also live up to their self-declared standard. They "succeed" as Singles.

Onwards to Groups.

I have long maintained that a group of photos is easier to grasp, easier to get your arms around. Considering it in the light I am shining around on things right now, it seems at least rasonable that a group of pictures is likely to do a better job of explaining itself.

Dan made a casual remark to the effect that if you just make a book of Singles, you don't have a "book" as such, what you have is a "portfolio". In my terms, each picture in the portfolio carries its own explanation, it's own criteria.

A book, a proper non-portfolio book, is made up with at least some pictures that do not explain themselves. These pictures rely on other pictures, on the entire gestalt for explanation.

Naturally, a Group of pictures in this sense can also fail to explain itself, and also (if it succeeds at least in that) can fail to live up to the goals it sets itself. Again, externalities are largely irrelevant or at least a step removed.

The power of the Group format is that you, as the artist, have a lot more room to work. You can sequence things, you can arrange the pictures physically, you can add text. And, of course, you still have all the tools available to the maker of the Single: You can edit individual pictures in exactly the same ways.

You can throw pictures out, you can insert pictures. You can shoot new pictures. It's not painting, but it has much of the same malleable, formable, character. You can mold the work to fit the message, and you can mold the work to clarify what it is you're trying to do in the first place.

What interests me here, at this moment, is that we can divide the job up. First, we can try to make our book, our Group, clear in its intention. Second, we can try to make our Group perform well, fulfilling the expectation set by that clear statement of intent.

Is it easier? Well, I sure think so.

But then, I have come around to mostly disliking Singles. Anything I offer that smells like critique tends to take the form "ok, now, if this picture was in a Group..." which is pretty unfair. I am, apparently, just not much interested in Single as such. They can be fine decor, they can document things. My kids are very cute. But I'm not going to try to say anything with a single picture any more. Haven't for years.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

PSA: Blurb Newsletter

I actually voluntarily signed up for blurb's newsletter a year or two ago, perhaps the only eNewsletter I have voluntarily and with forethought subscribed to.

I get ALL the coupon codez. Blurb ain't particularly shy about tha codez, but still.

I also get invites to webinars. Initially I was writing this post as a "hey, Daniel Milnor is doing a free webinar this morning" thing, but I cannot find a signup link anywhere outside my newsletter, and my newsletter's link appears to be Personalized in some fashion, so I am loathe to share. Sorry.

ANYWAYS. If you have used blurb, or if you think you might you blurb, or if you think an hour every now and then watching some jamoke(s) talk books in your web browser might be well spent, you otter subscribe too.

Monday, March 19, 2018

I mean, my god, LOOK at these

I am reading a history of women in photography, and portraits turn up from time to time in reproduction. These are literally just snaps from the pages of a book. Just grabbed at random. Flipping back through the book to snag the captions I found handfuls of pictures of people I liked even better.


Trude Fleischmann portrait of Alban Berg


Florence Henri, Woman with Three Bracelets


Madame Yevonde, self-portrait


Lucia Moholy (Moholy-Nagy's decidedly better half), portrait of Florence Henri


Gertrude Käsebier portrait of Robert Henri


Julia Margaret Cameron (duh) portrait of George Frederick Watts


Now compare there with, for instance, anything whatever you find on Frank Frost's web site. Frank is mostly famous because his wife (or, possibly, Frank himself) writes "satire" under the pseudonym Missy MWAC, in which she promotes trained professionals with years of experience (i.e. Frank) over lame-o amateur craigslist photographers. Now, the latter may be terrible, but if you gave me a portrait by Frank I would slide it quietly into the trash.

While I don't know for sure, I suspect that Frank and Cheri would be literally unable to see what it is about the attached portraits that makes them so much better than anything Frank has ever dreamed of shooting. Frank knows how to place lights and sharpen eyes until they pop. He doesn't know anything about engagement, and I suspect that he can't even see it.

Even if Frank can, there are 1000s of very similar practitioners that cannot. All they'd see in the photos above are blocked up blacks, exposure issues, focus issues, and lighting problems. And that is why they're stuck. That's why Frank is reduced to having his wife write angry rants about what losers his competition is. It's because Frank is constrained by his lack of vision to a narrow market in which literally anyone can credibly compete.

Visiting DC

I'll be flying out to Washington DC at the beginning of April with my kids to see the Sally Mann at the National Gallery, and to visit with family and friends.

My dance card is pretty full, but I intend to be at the gallery for a few hours on each of April 4 and April 5, and would not object to some company. I might even stand you a cup of coffee on the mall. I might or might not bring a camera.

Drop me a line if you want to go look at pictures with me. The contact page should hook you up with an email address that works.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Drew Harty: The Retail Landscape

In 2016 I wrote about this project, after it had received a Luminous Endowment grant:

"The Retail Landscape" from Drew Harty seems to be "Twentysix Gas Stations" all over again. This artist is right - the project needs more depth. Also, I think the assertion that in 1964 the USA had only 7600 retail spaces is absurd. This might be a typo, the correct number might have been 76,000, but that renders the cited current number of 107,773 less shocking. Not sure what's going on here. The work itself is perfectly serviceable, the project's agenda is more or less worthwhile, but I don't see anything new or interesting here, ultimately.

I am pleased to report that Drew's plan to get more depth has succeeded, in spades. At the moment, and one hopes forever, the Luminous Landscape article is public access.

In it you see a project that, while it continues to have strong echos of "Twentysix Gas Stations", has its own voice, its own ideas. This is a pretty robust commentary on an aspect of America which I recognize. These scenes are an America I Recognize, as it were. The obsession with clouds feels a little forced, but he has a strong general idea of presenting something which we all recognize and know in a way that emphasizes both the inherent problems with them but also in a way that reveals them as beautiful.

The aim, I think, of the clouds, it to juxtapose some element of natural beauty against the man made landscape, to emphasize the essentially destructive nature of these artifacts. Well, I get it. I'm not sure, honestly, that it's necessary. The fact that he's using tonal ideas lifted pretty much lock stock and barrel from Ansel Adams, Mr. Natural Beauty, probably helps to get the point across.

Anyways. These objects in the frame have a certain beauty, but ultimately they are a blight on the world in their car-centric vastness, in their mind-numbing retail-ness.

Contrast this stuff with this one, recently reviewed by Jörg Colberg: Chikara Umihara's Whispering Hope which I recall mentioning in the past, but damned if I can find my remarks.

Visually, these seem to have some relationship. There's the same desolate commercial landscape, and in a way I recognize these pictures, this America, as well.

Perhaps it's the sheer mass of artifice, the Greyhound Bus Trip, the use of Film, the washed out bullshit, the use of teeny little square pictures lost on white pages with double-trucks of the landscape zipping by through the window. If there was a gimmick to throw at it, Chikara threw it, and that's not a good foot to start out on.

Still, there are two basic problems with Whispering Hope, to my eye.

The first is that while I recognize these things, after a fashion, this in no way matches my memory of Greyhound Bus Trips taken as a whole. My experiences are a couple decades old, and I am a moderately gregarious white guy as opposed to a Japanese guy. Still, I missed a lot of stuff. I've almost certainly ridden a lot more Greyhound Buses that Chikara. Where's the young couple having sex in the back seat? Where's the talkative guy who won't shut up about his life? Where's the sad girl staring out the window for 800 miles? Where's the overhot bar-and-grill where the bus stopped for lunch? Where are the crowds and long lines at the busy stops?

Chikara has taken an experience that has a lot of people in it, and removed all the people in order to show us a really pretty gloomy picture of America.

I recognize Chikara's America just as much as I recognize Drew's, but Chikara's view is so narrow, so edited down, as to be untrue.

The second problem is that the photographer pretty obviously set out to replicate the popular coastal fantasies about how shitty the middle of the country is, and by carefully choosing his subjects, brought back that fantasy. While it's possible that there are essential differences between Chikara's trip and my trips, there's no way that it's gotten as uniformly deserted, ugly, and washed out.

What's the difference?

Drew Harty's photographs are also largely unpopulated. This, however, is because he's showing is a world populated not by people but by automobiles. Parking lots and gas stations and roads. Harty is also giving us the ambiguity of the scene. There is still natural beauty, although you may have to look at the sky to find it. There is beauty in these structures and artifacts, although it is a beauty of glib, unnatural, human design. And, also, there is the destruction and, in a sense, ruin brought by these things. Drew's pictures speak a certain truth. Drew's vision is of a slice of America, but within that slice it speaks of a certain truth, with a certain depth.

Chikara's work strikes me as having none of that depth. It's a simply "holy shit, look at this horrorshow, I can't wait to get back to Connecticut and civilization."

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Makin' Memories III

So what's the point of all this noodling and rambling on about the philosophy of photography and its fascinating relationship with <yawn> contemporary social conceptions of <yawn> portraiture?

Well first of all, welcome to my blog, you should be used to it by now. But also there might even be a useful nugget in here.

Business people, the good ones, know that you need to know exactly what the hell it is you do as a business. It's not delivering shareholder value, it's not building the finest automobiles. What is is that you actually do? What problem are you solving, how are you doing it, and for whom do you do it? This informs almost every aspect of how you should run your business.

You can also retask this sort of exercise to a hobby, or a passion. What, exactly, are you trying to do here?

Let us suppose that you are a product photographer, or would like to be one. What do you do?

I take pictures of products.

Well, sure, but drill down. Anyone can take a photograph of a widget or a candy bar. I can do it with my phone.

I take pictures of products that make the product look good?

Better. Look good to whom, and how? What does "look good" mean?

I take pictures of products that reflect the client's brand identity, and which make the product look appealing to the client's potential customers.

Now we're gettin' someplace. This is a statement that not only reflects what problems you're solving for your customers, but also suggests some things you might do to up your game, to do a better job at what you do. For instance, you could go study up on corporate branding and identity. If you read a book or two on Branding, suddenly you're talking the same language as your clients in a new, important, dimension. You can make suggestions that are aligned with what you actually do.

Let's get back to these businesses that take photographs of people performing. Engagement sessions, wedding photographers, Senior Sessions, that kind of thing. Once you've identified your job as:

I take pictures of people performing improvised scenes based on their real lives.

again, you're in a position to up your game. Sure, you could spend a couple grand on a Sigma Art lens for even more creamy bokeh. But let's say you've only got $180 this quarter. Let me make a suggestion: Hop on MasterClass and buy yourself a 1 year subscription. Then take the online course from Ron Howard on Directing. Yeah, Ron Howard, the guy that made basically every movie. One hundred and eighty bucks.

I have no affiliation with Master Class, they've never heard of me, and, god-willing, never will.

But unless that course consists of Ron Howard silently staring at the camera while picking his nose, there is basically no way you won't get $180 worth of value out of the class. Or, if you don't have $180, see if your local library has a couple books on film-making or directing.

If you're basically a photographic taxidermist, like so very very many of these store-front portraiture operations from the 1980s (or run by people who learned at the feet of a 1980s era taxidermist), there might be no hope for you. But then again, Ron Howard's a damned engaging dude. Worst case, it's probably $180 worth of sheer entertainment.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Makin' Memories II

Carrying on. I think what I'm really picking at here is what people are and have looked for in things that resemble formal portraiture.

From time immemorial, people have commissioned painted portraits, and they still do. It was, and remains, a act that carries a couple of meanings. On the one hand, it's a projection of wealth and power, and on the other hand it preserves a likeness of the subject. The subject demonstrates wealth, and has a shot at a kind of immortality, if you will. Poor people never had a likeness made of themselves, of any sort.

Fast forward to the 19th century. There's an explosion of portraiture with the advent of the photograph. Even though the various processes were tedious and in modern terms expensive, the ability to have a likeness made became accessible to the middle class, and then even the relatively poor. While it may have maintained a thin veneer of social status "Oh, what a lovely quarter-plate tintype. You know, I had a half-plate done." it mainly shed that aspect of wealth projection.

Of course, we still have even today the social status, but it's landed on a handful of practitioners. Getting shot by Snowdon or Leibovitz would certainly be a social feather in the cap, as well as an obvious "tell" of wealth and power. As a general phenomenon, though, general portraiture shed that in the Victorian era.

The purpose in the Victorian era seems largely to be simply creating and possessing a likeness of the subject. As commenter remarked on the previous, on the memento mori photos of this era in which the dead are photographed with the living. If the point here is not a shot at immortality in some sense, I cannot imagine what is. The point here is to preserve a likeness, to remember the subject's appearance. Sally Mann had some interesting remarks on memory and photographs which might be a sort of salient side note here, the bit where photographs destroy memory.

This is, as near as I can tell, roughly the state of affairs through the 20th century. People go to "get their pictures done" with gradually decreasing enthusiasm for the next 100 years or so. More and more people are taking snapshots, but the results can be a bit unsatisfactory, there are no guarantees because you're an amateur using film and, let's be honest, not everyone is that in to it. Still, vernacular photography arises, and people get used to the idea that "lots of pictures of the kids" isn't a weird thing, or reserved to the wealthy, or any of that.

Enter digital. Everyone's a photographer now. There isn't any cachet whatsoever left having a photograph made of you, it happens more or less constantly. There's no rational reason to look for more likenesses of anyone. If we want to remember what so-and-so looks, or looked, like, we can just hop on Facebook or Instagram and see 100s of pictures.

The forces that drove the Medici to have their paintings made have vanished completely, except, one supposes, for inertia.

At the present time people taking pictures for money are all having a rough time, you have to find some angle to make it work. The standard line appears to be something about "quality" with some vague handwaving about equipment, experience, and passion. That doesn't actually work very well, but there are some things that have some traction.

By tying this portraiture business to specific times of life, to events, you can brings in some customers. "Seniors! Get your pictures done! Preserve the memory!" "Engagement Sessions" and so on. Almost any sort of specific reason, beyond "get your picture taken", will pull in some customers.

That said, standard portraiture is a thing you can still buy.

Let's interview me, I'm right here after all.

You could pay me to go down to one of the local studios, but my hourly rate is still north of a couple hundred bucks.

But I'd sit for Kirk Tuck in an instant, and if it wasn't tremendously inconvenient to get to his studio, I'd probably have pestered him to shoot me already.

The difference, for me, is that the shoot at the local studio is likely to be an itchy, boring, experience in which I stand in front of a mottled colored backdrop from the last century while some perfectly nice but dull fellow fusses with lights and waits for me to put on my Camera Face so he can shoot. The experience with Tuck would involve tea, conversation, and mostly no mottled backdrops. It would be interesting, because Tuck is an interesting guy, and because he knows that the pictures aren't going to be any good unless he makes it interesting.

The result would be in some sense just another likeness of me, of which the world already has an excess. It would be, if we had the wind at our backs, also insightful and in some way revealing, it would be in some sense beautiful, and the memory of making it would be of an enjoyable collaboration. Not itchy at all.

Also, I am a weirdo, so this sort of thing appeals to me even though as an introvert I find it exhausting.

As for events, I have one (1) photograph from my actual wedding, which I like a lot. It is an artifice of sorts, in that we all piled together into a sort of Last Supper arrangement for a Group Photo. It is also a real moment, because there we were at the wedding, just married. The photograph serves to evoke the memory of that terrifying day when my life changed and became what it is now. I'm glad I have that picture, but I don't need any more. (more were taken, that's the one we chose to print and hang)

So there has been, socially, a pivot. We're no longer getting from our portraits anything of what the Medicis' got. What we're getting now is much more tied to events, to times and moments in life. To be fair, there is a genre of painting which we might loosely characterize as "The Duchess McStuffing On The Occasion Of" which was likewise tied to events, way back in the day, but I dare to speculate that it wasn't the Main Thing driving painted portraits.

Now it is. There's an entire genre of retail photography with all the itchy posing weirdness of a painting (albeit on a somewhat shorter time scale) that is intended to evoke specific memories of a specific time -- which often isn't the time the picture was taken.

At this point we have this curious phenomenon where, a great deal of the time, the role of the professional photographer is to direct the subjects through a sort of play, which is then recorded by the camera. It's a sort of documentary, but with a great deal of re-enactment. It feels natural to people, possibly because we're steeped in it. This is after all also the essence of a great deal of commercial photography.

We've arrived at a curious juncture in which the camera, whose claim to fame is that it records reality and truth, is called upon to record instead artifice and re-enactment. While it records, naturally, a likeness, the point of the exercise is to record the artifice.

Personally, I don't much like it, I think the seams are altogether too often much too visible. I believe that the reasons the seams are too often visible is because the entire enterprise flies in the face of photography, philosophically, and that therefore to pull it off well you need a great deal of skill in areas that all too often the photographers don't even recognize as areas of expertise.

While satisfying to the customers, it looks fake, because it is fake and because the photographer doesn't have the directorial skill to extract something else.

To be fair, extracting naturalistic performances from people is widely recognized as monumentally difficult. Ask your theater nerd friends.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Makin' Memories

Note the discussion below regarding the missing photographs. I have reason to believe, but am unable to confirm, that John Penner filed a DMCA takedown notice against my use of his picture here. I filed a counter-claim, but have yet to receive notification of legal action from John. I assume that he's dropped the matter. At this point it would be reasonable and proper for me to re-instate the pictures I used.

I will note further that as part of filing his claim, John had to check a box under "Sworn Statements" next to this text: I have a good faith belief that use of the copyrighted materials described above as allegedly infringing is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law. Note the last phrase.

So, yes, John probably made a sworn statement to the effect that he had a "good faith belief" that the use of the copyrighted materials were not authorized "by the law", that is, that my usage here was not a valid Fair Use. Since I had informed him that I felt that my use was a case of Fair Use, he had the opportunity to do a little research. Whether he elected to do so, I cannot say.

In any case, there are grounds upon which I could pursue John for wilfully making a spurious claim here. Either he is profoundly ignorant of copyright law, a real possibility, or he understands Fair Use and chose to make a sworn statement that he knew to be false in order to harass me. Either way, he could be subject to the full force of the law. Given that it would cost me money and time, and that the odds of collecting are essentially nil given that John resides in another country, I have elected to let it lie.

The pictures will not return because, to be blunt, I cannot be effed to look them up again, and nobody's likely to read this post again. Go look at John's web site for the full horror, if you must, o rare and gentle reader of my back catalog.


People say that photographs preserve memories. It's a trite marketing pitch. It reminds me of the curious little exchanges that occur when someone dies, let's say, skydiving. Someone will say "at least he died doing something he loved" and then some wag, usually me, will express surprise that he loved slamming into the ground at 120 miles per hour.

When you go get your photograph taken, you're not actually there to preserve a memory. The memory would be of being photographed, after all which is generally not what is depicted, and generally not the memory we're looking for. At least not with formal portraiture.

Here's a picture from John, who lives in Sooke, BC (which isn't quite as remote as it sounds, it's just around the corner from the provincial capital, which I must admit, is kind of remote).

Picture removed per DMCA takedown notice filed by John Penner, the photographer in question. I have filed a counterclaim on the grounds that my usage here is clearly Fair Use as a transformative commentary, in the meantime you may admire John's pictures at John's Photography. At any rate, I think it's John Penner based on evidence I have in hand.


Now, John is a professional with 30 years of experience, and he helps out on one of the more dysfunctional internet forums I know of, but he can stick lights into places, and achieve accurate focus. This picture makes my teeth itch. I hate this sort of crap so very very hard. Not only it is wildly dated and weirdly framed, the guy in the picture is just doing his Camera Face, with his mouth hanging dopily open. There's no precious memory here, there's just a horrible picture, and probably a sort of tedious afternoon. I dare say the customer is perfectly happy, basically because it's "clear" and it looks like him.

The picture surely pleases him, he's got all his stuff in the frame there and whatnot. The specific memory it evokes is tedious, but the general associations are probably pretty positive.

Here's another photo, probably some engagement session:

It occurred to me a little later that the takedown notice is in fact unclear what the notice was about. It is possible that the other photographer, whose photograph I used under the same fair use criteria here, was in fact the filer. In order to comply with google's ToS to the best of my ability, I am removing all material to which I am making the fair use claim from this post, pending the results of my counter-claims. These photos can be found at James Tang Photography.


Again, we have the artifice of a "photo session" in play here. Most likely the couple has dressed up specially for this photo shoot, most likely the photographer is directing/posing (you can take courses on how to pose Happy Couples so that they Look Happy). Still, it is at least taken at that time of life, when the whole relationship genuinely does have that flavor, the freshness and excitement of the recent engagement. While the couple is in truth playacting for the camera, they're at least playacting a scene they believe in.

Again, the customers are without a doubt delighted. They've got, probably, exactly the pictures they had in mind.

They went out that day to help make these pictures, they worked at it, and here they are. The salient memory is of work, of standing in a field trying to hear the photographer's instructions while also trying to look beautiful and feeling a little weird and itchy wearing these clothes out in the middle of a field. The work, however, was successful. Why in God's name you'd want these pictures is a bit of a mystery, but they are a thing people seem to genuinely want.

Anyways, it is much the same deal. The specific memories evoked are likely tedious and not very comfortable, but the general sensation, the idea behind the pictures, is pleasing. At least for the moment.

I do these things with kids from time to time, with some moderate success, and never for money. So, I, too, am guilty here. The pictures made are quite nice, and record the appearance of the child, and even a flash of personality on good days. The process is awkward, not fully pleasant. The specific memories associated with the pictures, probably not wonderful, but the general era evoked is, well, it is whatever it is, no?

Twenty years from now, I dare say the memories of the "photo session" will be vague, but perhaps the memories of that time in the relevant lives will pop back in to focus when the subjects gaze upon the pictures? That's certainly how it works for me. Pictures of me as a kid evoke no recollection at all of being photographed, but to be fair often very little to no recollection of that time of my life either. A few later pictures evoke the time, without evoking the photographer.

Anything resembling a formal portrait, though, evokes memories of itchiness, discomfort, a generally weird sensation. We didn't do much formal portraiture.

What about a successful proper portrait session, as opposed to some low rent retail shop?

Ideally, this is going to land someplace a little further in the territory of an actual pleasant memory. Here's a guy I know, a stained glass artist I did a little fluffy interview with for our neighborhood "newspaper":



What's Erin's memory of this experience? I don't know, but I will hazard that it was a little sensation of being "on the spot" a little "arg, there's a guy taking pictures" but also a memory of a mildly pleasant conversation about his work. Erin was working as I shot, I have a bunch of pictures of his hands, his work, and so on. This is just a moment when he felt the camera come up, and so "posed" for just an instant, gave me a bit of a camera-ready-grin, and then went back to work.

We didn't go to a place where photography is done, I went to his place where stained glass is done. And then I made him a bit uncomfortable, certainly. But surely not as awkward as the fellow in the uniform up at the top. And it certainly wasn't as big or intrusive a production. The result, I am biased enough to say, is about a billion times better even though the lighting is a bit iffy and, to be honest, the focus is not in the right spot at all. Kirk Tuck would have hit the technicals much better, and most likely done at least as well on the "moment of genuine personality."

Next up we have candids, or near-candids. These girls are just hanging about enjoying a sunny day. Only one of them even sees me, she said to her friends "he's taking a picture!" immediately after this, to get them to look up and smile. I took that picture too, but it wasn't as good.



The memory here would probably be of waiting around with girlfriends on a glorious sunny day for, well, whatever they were waiting for. I hope they were having a good time, and I like to imagine that the guy with the camera was a bare ripple on their day.

Anyways, the point is, assuming I have one, that the "memories" associated with a photo are kind of all over the place. There's memories associated with the actual taking of the picture, but also then memories of that era of life, of whatever the picture was intended to capture and preserve. It's complicated.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Olde v. Newe

I read, when I read, quite a lot of photographic history. I get exposed to a lot of old photographs, therefore.

Man, portraits then look nothing like portraits now. I think we've definitely lost something along the way. Not only do I like the vintage style pictures just plain more (that is, I think they're flat out better) we've lost a lot of vocabulary along the way.

Now the only question is what appears behind the sitter. Is it out of focus? And by how much?

There's no question of whether the sitter's face should be sharp. Of course it is. You have to nail the focus on the eyes or your picture IS A FAILURE. You can't bury stuff in shadows, especially not parts of the subject! You have to fix the skin! You MUST! It's no GOOD if you don't fix the skin!

To that end, I have been practicing, off and on, producing things that look vintage. Yeah, yeah, it's a bit twee, a bit overdone. And yet, it's not done at all, except in stupid Olde Weste Portraite Studioes where everyone has hastily donned ill-fitting period garb and is mugging like an idiot.

My four year old (mugging). Olde and Newe.




Olde obviously has the advantage that you can conceal a host of sins. But I'll be damned if I don't just like it better, too.

The Bolt is not The Ship

Bolts are cool. There's a surprising amount of engineering going on there, and a lot of stuff to talk about when you've got a bolt and an application for it. There's tensile strength (how hard it it to pull apart lengthwise), shear strength (how hard it is to tear sideways), stuff about threads. When you tighten down the nut to a specific torque, you're applying tension to the shaft of the bolt and "using up" some of the available tensile strength, but there are reasons for why you might do that, and so on. There are probably entire textbooks on the subject.

The stuff we build, like ships, uses a lot of bolts. Naturally, when we're designing a ship, we spend a certain amount of time thinking about bolts and bolt engineering. Actually, a surprising amount of time. We don't want the damned thing to fall apart, after all. That's super awkward.

But the ship is not the bolt, nor vice versa. When we're designing a ship, we're doing Naval Architecture, which is a complete discipline. It includes much, only a piece of it is strength of materials, only a little bit of it is about bolts. The Naval Architecture piece allows us to calculate the way our bolts will be loaded, which enables is to do the right bolt engineering.

Again: the Naval Architecture is what we're doing. The bolt stuff arises as a consequence of the ship's demands. Occasionally, we might find that our ship doesn't even use bolts. Everything is glued or welded.

And so it is with the photograph. There's a lot we can say about the photograph, about groups of photographs, about how these things work. While these notions are often necessary to understand how, say Instagram works (as a social construct, how it works "in total" as it were), or how Law Enforcement Surveillance works, they are not sufficient.

In order to make sense of how law enforcement's gradually increasing photographic surveillance works, you need to know quite a bit about law enforcement, social systems, bureacracies, and also a bit about photography. The last one on the list is not going to magically imbue you with enough understanding of the previous. Indeed, we will only really deploy our understanding of photography when it becomes salient as we work out what the hell is up with the police. We might find, sometimes, that while visuals are in play, they're not even particularly relevant. Our dissertation on "index and representation" never even gets pulled out of its drawer (to our vast disappointment).

I am, naturally, as guilty of this as anyone else. But I try to be conscious of it, and I try to do Naval Architecture as appropriate, rather than hoping that my understanding of bolts will carry me safely through to the complete ship design. Probably not 100% though. Dang it.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Reading The Pictures on Trump and the Media

More or less intelligent people are passing this... object... around. In it, Michael Shaw of Reading the Pictures does, well, he does something or other. It is worth noting that a great deal of what he's doing in this piece of quoting himself. While he mentions at the beginning that

Note: Many of the examples were analyzed on the Twitter account for Reading the Pictures, a non-profit media and visual literacy site I publish.

You actually have to be paying attention to notice that the bulk of the article reads like "here's a tweet, look what it says. SEE?!" where the cited tweet is actually just the author all over again. This is a disingenuous technique, at best. Rather than quoting your own pen name as if it were another person, just re-state what you said before, bruh.

Michael Shaw, as usual, appears to have no thesis, or indeed any organized idea of what his point is. He's just blathering TRUMP SUX which, ok, Trump does suck. But we knew that.

This appears to me to be a set of cherry picked photos that Shaw feels create some impression of our sitting president.

Is Shaw saying this is a true portrait of the man? Not as far as I can tell.

Is Shaw saying that the media is constructing this portrait of a man? Maybe. Maybe not. If he has a thesis at all, this is probably it. He seems to be promoting this as "what the media is portraying" whatever that means (obviously there are large and powerful elements of The Media that are doing no such thing).

If this portrait of the man be false, then where arises the falsehood? Is someone manufacturing it, and if so, for what reason? Is the media building this image of Trump, or are they merely reflecting some current widely held notion of Trumpness? Is there any analysis in here at all?

In reality, of course, Shaw is simply constructing an image of Trump out of selected pictures, and then quoting himself as evidence that this is how Trump is being portrayed. It would be silly to ask any of the questions above, because they're all irrelevant. This is Shaw engaged in pure intellectual masturbation, and publishing it in an allegedly real journal.

I did not know that Columbia Journalism Review was a proper venue for reviewing ones own tweets. I wonder if they'll give me a column?

Monday, February 26, 2018

Fetishizing the Digital II

In the light of what I intend to write here, you could argue that I am outright contradicting some parts of what I said in the previous remarks. You could make that argument. I'm not gonna make it for you, though!

So there's another aspect to "the digital" that gets dragged out which I am going to pretend I was saving for a later post, rather than outright forgot about. That aspect is that the digital photograph is machine readable. Which isn't in and of itself a huge paradigm shift. You could probably have built something or another in Victorian era that would "read" a picture in some whacky sense or another, although I dare say nobody did.

Be that as it may, whether by a series of tiny steps or in one giant and shocking step, we do find ourselves increasingly in a world in which we, and our things, are photographed automatically and the pictures fed to a machine. Your automobile license plate might be photographed at toll points on roads or bridges, or by police officers, the numbers on the plate to be fed directly to a computer for billing or various law-enforcement searches. We either are at or on the cusp of our faces being photographed and fed into facial recognition systems constantly and for various purposes.

Something I probably won't talk about now is that much of what we shoot ourselves is also fed directly into the machine, but let's stick to the pictures machines take for the nonce.

At this point we've arrived at the usual point, in which boffins are inventing new ways to ingest photographs and process them for no reason except that boffins gotta boffin and "I have a cool idea!" The shady buggers hanging around the boffins are yoinking the ideas and deploying them for shady purposes. Extending state control, expanding the neoliberal agenda, or the fascist one, or simply trying to turn it in to (more) money.

This can be viewed, and is in fact very neatly viewed, through the ideas of index and representation.

In general, the index is in good shape. These photos are automatically shot, and index whatever they're pointed at. Probably the indexing is a bit shoddy, the quality of these pictures is likely to be lousy, so, while the facial recognition program by god gets a fully indexical thingy of your face, it's done in bad light, it's low resolution, and so on.

Hold on to this point, it's going to become important in a moment.

At this point we have something like representation, but it's of a different sort.

Rather than worrying about how the index (which lies by omission) hits the human/social mind, we worry about how it hits the opaque algorithm. The algorithm works nothing like a human mind. Despite the cries of "AI!" and "neural network!" the algorithm in fact resembles a mind in almost no meaningful way. But, like the mind, the photograph interacting with the algorithm -- call this action machine representation -- can produce real world results.

Let us not lose track of the fact that the algorithm is in general but one piece of a human/machine system. There are always people involved, someplace. The point, though, is that the picture hits the algorithm first.

A friend of mine was driving his vehicle in Pennsylvania, when some cops pulled him over. They were pretty sure the car was stolen, their license plate scanner had pulled up a "stolen car" notification. Things got tense for a bit. Then the cops fiddled with their computer, grumbled, waved guns around, fiddled some more, and then told my friend he could go. He said, because he is smart, "Wrong state, right?" and the cops grumbled some more and nodded sourly.

So what happened here is that the index was perfectly adequate. The numbers were sufficiently rendered, the missing material inherent in the photograph was not relevant. The representation sucked, though. Interestingly, in computer science we also use the word representation to describe how a real thing, like a license plate, might be summarized in a chunk of computer data. So in this case, the representations were misaligned. Either the scanner or the database failed to note the state, and my friend suffered from having a Pennsylvania plate with the same numerical component as a Virginia plate on a car that had been stolen.

The index is the photograph. It is not "Washington State AUC4915."

The photograph, which is just a picture of the ass-end of a car, hits the algorithm. The algorithm them attempts the first steps of representation, and might come up with "AUC4915" or "Washington State AUL4915" or any number of things that are not in fact my license plate number. The action of representation proceeds through the system, representations being processed, altered, and matched against a database that might contain "Virginia AUC4915" or just "AUC4915" and continues with "STOLEN" and then the human part of the system wakes up and starts waving guns around. An arrest may ensue, or not.

In general we're going to see more of this. Face recognition will yield mistaken identity, and the wrong people will be detained, sometimes arrested, and occasionally shot.

You can draw a somewhat shaky line from this notion of machine representation to the traditional one, because in these degenerate times people are doing all this stuff with neural networks, which are trained with sets of existing pre-analyzed photographs. Those photos, the so-called training sets, are analyzed by humans with all the problems of representation that go in to that. Famously, google was identifying black people as gorillas for a while, a case where the generally accepted theory is that representation informed machine representation leading to results. More generally, machine representations are designed by people.

First of all, note how neatly the old and tired theory from the late 20th century seems to be working here, once we disassociate representation from its contemporary day job of supporting identity politics.

So, really, we have three things in play here that seem relevant:
  • Representation, in the human-mind sense.
  • Machine representation, the analog of of representation with the mind replaced with the algorithm.
  • Data representation, the actual structure of database records referred to by the algorithm.

These are all in play, given that the first one tends to inform the third one and, to an extent, the second one.

So what? Who cares and why should we care?

Well, as usual, I think there's value in having things parsed out to teeny little details, because I am me. Secondly, though, this gives us a pretty firm framework for understanding the social/digital mechanisms here. A dash-mounted license plate scanner in a police cruiser isn't a singular object. There are the policemen in the car, there is the database off someplace with the list of all the stolen cars, there are the contractors who wrote all the software, and so on. There is a complex of people and machines involved which, from time to time, produces a traffic stop, an arrest.

The photograph is the input that brings the machine to life, leading to the arrest. In the process, representations collide and interact. If they interact properly, the person arrested in fact committed the crime. If they interact badly, the wrong person is arrested. Or shot.

In computing, we call this systems architecture, but in these cases we need to be roping the human beings and the raw elements of how photographs function into our architecture. We need to understand how these things work. The ideas of the photograph, the index, and the three representations above all need to be grasped at some level. The interactions between them need to be explicitly mapped out and understood if we are to understand where errors are going to creep in, and how to fix them.

And that's just to get the system to work as the designers intend.

We also have questions of whether such systems are good ideas at all. Again, a thorough understanding of what's actually going on, how it works, how it fails and how it succeeds, are useful tools in the arguments against (or for) such systems.

In terms, for instance, of license plate scanning systems we can probably argue that the ship has sailed. The license plate is explicitly designed and intended as a key into a database (a filing system), so arguments that it should not be used as such are probably going to go nowhere. Arguing, though, for correct design, as well as enabling correct design, is still in play.

Perhaps the system my friend was caught up in was designed, in part, by people in a country where there is no state designation on license plates. Perhaps in India, or The Philippines, license plates are issued at a federal level and the numerical content is indeed a unique nationwide key. Perhaps the designed a database record format that did not include the state at all, and instead simply had the plate number indicated as a UNIQUE KEY. When deployed, the American users simply shrugged it off and worked around it, but not well enough.

This would absolutely be a failure of representation, possibly in all three senses. An understanding that representation as discussed in this essay is as much social as technical could have uncover that (hypothetical) problem earlier. An understanding of index might lead to the realization that the photographs weren't good enough to reliably capture the state information, which in the USA can be a bit of a bugger. And so on.

In a way, google's problem with identifying black people as gorillas is falsely comforting. It suggests that if only we have a more diverse community of engineers training our neural networks, then the system will work perfectly.

This is untrue. Machine representation proceeds through a dizzying set of transformations and computations. Google's problem was easy to spot. The sheer complexity, and the sheer mechanicalness, of machine representation is likely to produce far more subtle problems in representation, problems that are deeply inhuman, problems we will not recognize.

Just sitting here mulling this framework around, I can imagine pretty much endless scenarios in which face recognition systems could go wrong, and I can point to exact causes of the failures.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Fetishizing the Digital

I was running through a collection of essays over here: "Photography and the Essay" which is something of a mixed bag. Several of the essays are simply weak. Daniel Blight's is just a pointless dribble of namedropping and citations that says nothing and goes nowhere. There's some others that are pretty good but fail to make obvious connections and talk about the obvious things. Down at the bottom there's a sort of point/counterpoint on 21st century photography. Maybe there is a point and a counterpoint but to be honest I was not able to discern either.

Back up.

As a mathematician I had a certain amount of mathematical philosophy shoved down my throat, which is not the same as philosophy. A mathematical philosopher might remark that there is such a thing as a cat, and that there is a word: "cat". There is also, noted in passing, the "idea of a cat" and then you can go on to build a tower "idea of the word 'cat'" and so on ad infinitum but perhaps to no particular purpose. Philosophers in general, and practitioners of the Humanities in general in these modern times, seem to take special pleasure in muddling these things up:

After all, can we truly distinguish the word "cat" from the cat itself?

they might bloviate. I respond thus: Yes.

But they do not. Instead they conflate the thing, the word for the thing, the idea of the thing, the idea of the word for the thing, the phrase meaning the idea of the word for the thing as busily as possible, and then write another 20,000 or 200,000 words of bullshit originating from the mistake. This is, basically, the first portion of Sarte's Being and Nothingness with "cat" replaced by "nothingness" so as to make it sound cooler.

But back to the correct consideration of the relevant layers of reference, the world in which we know that the cat, and the word "cat", are two different things, one of which refers to the other.

There's actually a fairly respectable collection of theory around photographs that resembles this, in useful ways. First of all, we might have a cat, and then a photograph of a cat. Embedded in the photograph we have what we call an "index" of the cat, the photograph is indexical. There is a strict correspondence between the photograph and the cat. This bit of the photo corresponds to that bit of the cat, the cat's eyes are beside one another thus on the cat and also in the photo, and so on. We can think of an "index" as an abstract thingy that refers in a specific way to the subject, the thing it "indexes". In a useful sense, it's what a photo is when you remove consideration of the paper, the gelatin, the pigments and silver, and consider only the cat-ness aspects.

An index is more or less by definition truthful, without being complete. It lies, but mainly by omission. It is truthful as far as it goes. (this is the "truth claim" of photography, which is rather chic to dismiss, but it's not really dismissable. Dismissing it is just sophistry, like dismissing "red" because some things are not red. "Red" doesn't care, it carries on.)

The index leads to the idea of representation which is, roughly, what happens when index meets eye-and-brain. It's how the photograph creates the idea of the cat in my mind, in your mind, in the collective consciousness of society. These days representation is generally only discussed in the context of people of color and of women, not because it doesn't apply equally well to cats and vases, but because nobody in the Humanities wants to talk about anything except people of color and women. Which, you know, is fine. There's some stuff to talk about there.

(representation is actually broader, it makes sense in the context of a lot of things, not just photography, but it is concerned with both truth claims of the relevant media, and how those play out as people look, or hear, or feel, so the idea of index is intricately tied up with representation as applied to photos)

There's the rough sketch of the bones of contemporary theory on photography. Much of what people do in writing these days is lay it out again, and then say things like "representations of women are, wow, so problematic. definitely a problem. we should engage with this terribly important question" and then they kind of dribble on for another few thousand words, not addressing the question, and then they're done. Off it goes to 1000words.com or wherever, and you stick another publication on your CV. Perhaps some day you will rise from Associate Sub-Lecturer to Assistant Sub-Lecturer, and get yourself a rise of 2 quid per annum, if you write enough of these bloody things.

I could talk about studium and punctum from Barthes but in the first place these are idiotic ideas and in the second place I have literally never seen a reference to these ideas that was not merely namedropping Barthes. These are ideas that lead nowhere, that produce no body of work, they provide the basis for exactly nothing in the way of ideas, theory, models for thinking about things. Because, let's be honest, punctum just means "that special something in a few photos, the important photos which you, being a clod, dismiss as mere snapshots, that special something that only I, Roland Barthes, being extremely sensitive, can detect."

This is not a concept that's gonna go super far as a basis for new theory.

I will leave punctum out of my thumbnail of theory, therefore, despite the fact that it turns up constantly.

Anyways. The whole index/representation thing is getting a bit stale in some people's minds, and the other big and truly modern genre is the subject of this particular essay here. That is to fetishize the digital.

The academic commentators on photography have noted two things:

First: there's a great deal of digital activity going on in the world, a sort of invisible (except to the governments) activity which controls or effects a great deal of our lives. There is banking, corporate communication, political posturing. There's social media. One of the essays referred to at the very beginning even makes the fatuous statement that this is the "real" world, which is just the sort of hyperbole calculated to impress the idiots in your class, but which just seems silly to grownups. What the author means, obviously, is merely that the digital is pervasive, important, and more or less omnipresent.

Second: photographs are digital.

Then the goal is to strive to make some connection here. First you say something like "the idea of 'index' simply isn't relevant any more" and then you say something about 1s and 0s, and say some words about networks, digital communication, and neoliberals. Then you say some words about photographs being digital. Then you silently hope that the audience doesn't notice you have completely failed to make any substantive connection. And then you pronounce the need for new paradigms, new modes of thinking, in this new world of digitalness.

Do you then propose a new paradigm, or a new mode of thinking? Good god, of course not. You go back to talking about 1s and 0s or something. Perhaps you lurch sideways into government surveillance.

This is roughly equivalent to Gene Smith attempting to make some connection between photography and Chisso, on the grounds that both are chemistry things.

The reality is that these guys don't have a clue about the digital world. I worked as a computer programmer for 25 years or something, and I never gave much of a shit about the 1s and 0s. Yeah, they're down there someplace, who cares? They might as well be ants, or 0s, 1s, and 2s, or little tubes of mercury sloshing about. It turns out that 1s and 0s work better than the others, but the entire point of the discipline of computing is to make that irrelevant.

The old stale ideas of "index" and "representation" work just fine, it turns out. They're not terrible ideas. They're kind of basic, they're pretty much baked in to opto-mechanical imaging systems.

The mysterious blob of 1s and 0s, which requires an Algorithm to turn it into an Image, which is then Ephemeral, is just as much an index as a photograph. This little cluster of 1s and 0s corresponds to that bit on the cat, and so on. The blob of 1s and 0s is as we mathematicians might say "isomorphic" to a print, because we can make one from the other, and then make the first one from the second (OK, a scan of a print won't make a perfect copy in practical terms, but one could certainly make prints and scan them perfectly, with effort. You'd probably want to use TIFF not JPEG and there would be technical considerations, blah blah blah). If there is a mechanical transformation that converts one thing, reversibly, into the other, well then stuff that's true about either one will also translate pretty well.

What's interesting is that the properties of a JPEG file, as a blob of 1s and 0s, considered as representation, are a trifle problematic. While the file is isomorphic to the print, we can't actually see it. This feels like it might be very deep, but really, it's pretty much the same thing as turning the print face down. How, essentially, is printing a JPEG file onto a piece of paper, different from the action of turning a print face up? It turns out that an index is an index even if you can't see it. Representation is tied up with the seeing of the thing which is an index. This isn't particularly new, but it's not something we thought of a lot with prints, because the operation of turning them face-up was automatic, invisible.

This feels a lot like the cat, the word "cat", the idea of a cat, and all that rot, no? But if you're tediously careful and you keep all the moving parts sorted out, you can actually use these ideas to make sense of new stuff. Like digital photography. You can answer question like "how will the digitalization of photography impact our society?" with actual thoughtful responses, because now you can see what's actually new, and what's the same old stuff.

This is actually why we invent things like "index" and "representation", not so we can throw them out wildly to impress our friends, like Hendrix smashing a guitar, but so we can use them as a method of understanding new things. Sometimes we have to modify the underlying ideas to accommodate the new thing and, often as not, we learn something new about the old thing when we do. Just like the "print face down" thing above. Occasionally you have to toss the whole thing out. Not very often, though.

The impact of the digital world isn't that photographs are somehow suddenly connected, by the alchemy of 1s and 0s, to a neoliberal agenda. The impact of digital is very specific: it renders the index less reliable, less trustworthy. It renders larger the space in which the underlying "truth claim" of photography is falsifiable, there are fewer pictures that are in fact indexical, and many more that are constructs, that are non-indexical, partially indexical, or -- and this is the really important -- less indexical than they appear to be. Doctored photos are now the norm, not the exception.

In addition, digitializing makes reproduction a lot easier, so there's a lot more of it about. Sheer volume has its impacts.

That's it. There's nothing magic in the 1s and 0s, and the fact that the essayists in contemporary photographic "theory" think there is merely shows how little they understand either of photography or of how digital things work.