Saturday, August 18, 2018

Wonk, wonk, wonk

This might be my most wonkish post ever. I don't think I've included diagrams before. But, as happens, I got to thinking on day.

Say we have some scene, a tree perhaps. When we look at the scene, we get a mental thing, a perception which is a fairly shoddy representation of whatever we're looking at. We, insofar as as we are even separate from the perception interact with that mental thing, our reactions and emotions affect, modify, the perception, there's a back-and-forth interaction here.

When we take a picture, we index the scene and create another viewable object, a photograph. A viewer, which might well be us, has exactly the same relationship with that object as we do with the original tree, the original scene.

Roughly speaking, we, at point A are trying to interact with a viewer at point F and to be blunt we're kind of a long way away. We're trying to spoon soup into someone's mouth, handling the spoon with tongs, which tongs we are manipulating with another set of tongs.

Most of the methods employed in photography can be viewed as trying to effectively shorten then length of the path from A to F

I think that an argument could be made that most gear acquisition is trying to shorten that index line, from C to D by making the photograph sharper, or more colormetrically precise, or whatever. Rules of Composition can be viewed as an attempt to jump the line directly from A to D from photographer to photograph in some partial sense, and they're usually justified by an appeal to the path from photograph to viewer with things like "people tend to find diagonal lines cooling" or similar rot.

Post-processing, which is not "photography" as such, places us into the position of the viewer, so we have a perception of the photograph, which we react to and so forth, but we add in another interaction in which we manipulate the photograph at D through photoshop, or by mashing the gum-bichromate, or painting on the print, or whatever. Again, we're jumping the line directly to point D in an effort to get closer to the ultimate viewer.

A consequence of post-processing of whatever sort, of these manipulations of the photograph, is that we extend the line labeled index in the first figure, the final print is farther and farther away from the original scene, farther away from our original perception, farther away from our original reaction to the scene. Now, the argument goes that in post we're actually trying to recapture our original perception of the scene, and to some extent or another that's true. But still, we've placed ourselves on the other side of the index line, so we are still in some sense both closer to the viewer (good) and farther from the original perception of the scene (bad). We are farther away from the original "selection" of whatever it was that was interesting.

I have argued in the past, and argue again here: photography is the bit on the first line of the first diagram above. It's the bit from A to C and extends along the index line a bit. It's the selecting part. Everything that happens after that could be done just as well to a drawing as a photo, and the result would still be a drawing, whereas without any of that a photo remains a photo.

This is not, as always, to suggest that post processing is evil or wrong, it's just not part of the essence of photography as such.

This is the Big Idea here: to shorten up that path from photographer to viewer, photographically, we need to shorten up the lines between A, B, and C.

Which is another way of talking about truly seeing, of actually perceiving what is in front of you.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Another Essay from Mr. Blight

When I was a mathematician, the primary tool I used was a thing called duality theory. In pure mathematics we are generally thinking about some class of objects, "groups" or "topological spaces" or what have you, and trying to figure things about about them. Surprisingly often, there is a duality in play, which means simply that if you have one of these things, any one, you can turn it into quite a different kind of object (and back again) in an extremely precise way. Now you have two things that you can think about. Properties in one class of objects translate precisely into other properties in the other class, and back again.

In a way it's a hyper precise version of an analogy. "A lemon is like a malamute" one says, meaning something or other, and then perhaps by thinking about malamutes we can gain some insight into lemons. A truth about malamutes might be much easier to perceive and to prove than the corresponding, equally true, truth about lemons. Ta da! It's a bit of a magic trick, and can be astoundingly productive in mathematics.

Daniel C. Blight, who has graced these pages before when I disassembled a blindingly stupid essay of his, will now re-appear. I regret that I will not be turning him in to a smarter and more interesting object in order to reason about him. Instead, he has attempted to deploy the power of analogy himself, with poor but entertaining results.

He starts out fairly strong. This first bit from Daniel:

Photographs view the world sideways, at an angle, elliptically, but never straight on, as much as one might hope.

suggests that he's seen Emily Dickinson's poem, or at any rate the first line of it:

Tell all the truth, but tell it slant -

but has forgotten the referent. Daniel is certainly not the first to bring up this notion in regards to photography, I am nearly certain that Sally Mann did so in Hold Still but Mann and Dickinson are practically the only names Daniel does not drop in this piece.

He proceeds onward to the notion that a photograph is like an essay, which is a good analogy to make. It's not clear that Daniel figured this one out on his own or not. Despite citing an astonishing 47 names (several of them multiple times) in a 3700 word essay for a name dropped about every 70-80 words, it is quite difficult to sort out which ideas are Daniel's and which one's he's simply quoting from other writers.

Anyways. It's a good idea. An essay and a photograph are both essentially rooted in some notion of reality, of truth, and proceed from that to somewhere else. Both are fragments, both are filtered through a lot of stuff. One is visual, and an index, the other is not, so the analogy is not precise. Still, let us see what Daniel can make of this, and what we can learn by examining this relationship.

Well, obviously, Daniel learns nothing and tells us nothing. He leaves the analogy there, and talks around it a bit, and that's pretty much that, because like all the other dolts in his little circle he has literally no idea how to discover new ideas. All he can do is rehash other people's ideas and stir them together in a pot trying fruitlessly to synthesize something new.

No, Daniel is going somewhere else. He wants to talk about essays about photography. He tries manfully to make the leap from the analogy of Photograph::Essay to the subject he's actually interested in, but does not manage it. He does this weird thing, though:

The relationship between the ways in which the photographic might describe literature, and the literary might describe the photograph is a regular occurrence in the history of photography, as we shall see. [...] Virginia Woolf writes of Julia Margaret Cameron that her photographs ‘reflect her literary friendships and tastes’

In this section it is notable that none of the three examples he provides can reasonably be considered to be photographs describing literature or vice versa, as he promises us. Photographing an author, which Cameron did from time to time, is not making a photograph that describes literature. No. Neither is referring to Proust's writing as "photographic." Daniel is unable to distinguish between two different things being more or less near one another in a paragraph or sentence, and two things behaving in the dual way mathematicians are fond of.

Apropos of nothing in particular, we have this gem:

Various historic conceptions of the photographic image have seen it described as the act of “writing with light”. One interpretation of the etymology of the word photography in Greek translates into “light writing”. In considering photography (Greek: fotografía) is the production of images made with light (Greek: phōtós) and finds a relation to the word writing (Greek: grafí), it is no wonder that various photographers have had literature in mind when making images.

Which is frankly bizarre. He makes it seem as if the etymology of the word photograph is subject to interpretation, that there are perhaps multiple conceptions of what this word means and the manner in which it arose. That is wrong. The word was coined by Herschel and introduced in a paper read to the Royal Society on March 14, 1839. There's no conceptualizing, there's no interpretation. There are verifiable bare facts on the table here.

Daniel seems to be unaware of the fact that the modern Greek word is a borrowing from English of a word constructed from Greek roots, none of which matters because regardless of borrowing back and forth the fragments mean, and always meant, and were mashed together because they meant, writing with light.

Daniel blunders on, listing more accidental coincidences of literature with photographs. Stieglitz (photographer) and William Carlos Williams (writer) knew one another, and so on. He tries to make some hay out of the grafia part of photograph to suggest a further link between writing and photography, but it doesn't come out to more than simply stating grafia means writing, see? writing and writing. But with light not ink. Wow.

If we found that Stieglitz also knew a plumber, could we then assert that there is some wonderful and meaningful connection between plumbing and photography, without actually exploring it even slightly? Well, yes, we could, I suppose. But it would be obviously stupid.

A brief and pointless side trip through the layers of meaning that a photograph might have follows. It's an index, a representation! It's 1s and 0s! But it's also a reflection of social constructs and interpreted/seen through the filter of social constructs! Zowie! This is yet another opportunity for some sort of dualistic analysis which Daniel completely missed, preferring instead sprinkle names wildly about.

Finally, agonizingly, Daniel drags himself around to what he seems to really want to talk about. Essays about photography are and always have been written almost exclusively by white men. Daniel C. Blight is, as nearly as I can determine, a white man, so he's carrying on the tradition, but apparently unhappy with it. In the midst of his lengthy complaint, we find, more or less as a representative example, this sentence:

This position is not to be confused with an anti-intellectual polemic against the stylistics of “literary sophistication”, but instead to make a socialist point with regard to the inclusion of various idiolects in coming to an understanding of what writing on photography has been, and might become.

Which says, roughly, look I'm not complaining about how white all these essays are, but I do think we need some essays about photography that aren't just a white man banging on in pseudo-academic cant in what might possibly be the pinnacle of the style "white men banging on in pseudo-academic cant" in an essay about photography. At this point one begins to wonder if this is just some sort of complicated joke, or if Daniel is actually so staggeringly unaware of himself and of the words that his flailing fists are mashing onto the screen of his computer.

Now, to be fair, Daniel's not wrong. Writing about photography is almost exclusively done by people like him, and like me, and like Colberg and so on. There's a few black guys like John Edwin Mason running aroound, but they write in exactly the same cant.

On that point, though, I think I can make one of those dualistic analogy deals here. Writing about photography is a bit like competitive adult hopscotch. Now, I don't know if the latter is actually a thing, but I bet it is, and I bet it's played entirely by ironical white men with tattoos and ridiculous beards. The fact that adult people of color and women don't play competitive hopscotch, while definitely skewed, is arguably not a problem. Hopscotch, like writing about photography, is not a discipline which leads to wealth, opportunity, or really anything interesting.

Arguably, women and people of color don't write about photography and don't play competitive hopscotch because they don't give a shit about essays on photography or hopscotch. And more power to them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Wall

I have have been reading a book on book design (Adrian Wilson's The Design of Books) which is quite wonderful. It provides a lot of information, a lot of detail to think about, a lot of ideas and concepts, and nothing specific in the way of rules. There are no dicta. He says things like "these fonts have a traditional look, so think about it before combining them with modern design ideas" (not an actual quotation).

In general I am struck by how frequently creative people who are actually good at creative things decline to boil things down to rules of thumb, dictates, and the like. There's far more discussion of what is possible, and what, in general terms, the various bits and pieces are likely to do.

I recently got into a discussion about rules of composition (again) and as always happens, it devolved into me and a few people like me staring goggle-eyed at a handful for people who cling to the Rule of Thirds and so on with a desperation that drives them into waves of fury when someone points out that these rules are based on exactly nothing, and are the contemporary inventions of people who would teach photography to camera owners.

While the rest of the world worries that Photography is being ruined by the fact that everyone has a phone and can take pictures, I suspect that far greater is the damage done by people who want to sell glossy softcover books about Improve Your Digital Photographs and people who want to draw clicks by cutting and pasting material drawn from other unsuccessful web sites.

I would rather know about a billion people just reaching out and shooting a flower because it's pretty than about one schmo lumbering through his way through one Formal Composition Based On The Golden Spiral after another. The latter, unfortunately, seeks to shove his ideas into the former, and pretty soon we have fairly pretty flowers all slavishly placed at the same location in the frame until all the beautiful flowers blend into one another and it's all garbage. There are major web sites literally filled with these things.

It feels like a wall has been erected.

You get a phone, you start taking pictures with the camera. They may be no great shakes, but they have a certain verity to them. See also this post from a while back, about a somewhat enigmatic snapshootist.

If you get interested, you start poking around the internet, or maybe you try to find a book. This is where the wall is. You will, inevitably, start to find "information" about how to put objects into the frame. Rules of thirds, Power Triangles, all kinds of shit. If you follow these dictates, your pictures will start to look like the other pictures you have seen and admired. In fact, they will start to look very much indeed like those pictures. Practically identical, often. Perhaps this delights you, satisfies you. I suppose there would be nothing wrong with that. It has, in some circles, become the established taste. While they claim it's all basically just da Vinci and Micheangelo, it's not. It's just some bozos trying to sell How To books, the ideas escaped, and became this sort of self-licking ice cream cone, a sort of cult of ideas that exist only in the world of Serious Amateur Photography.

But maybe you got sucked into it, because these ideas are ubiquitous in that narrow world which is probably where you looked, and you are now trapped at a wall.

People who have been photographing for a year or two or three will, from time to time, complain that they are "stuck" and curious as to "how to progress". Their peers will tell them to buy some stuff, and I suppose sometimes this works. But that's not the problem. They're trapped at the wall.

I don't know what percentage of photographers can feel that they're trapped. Maybe only a few. I kind of think that even one is too many though, you know?

The trouble is that the wall is tough. Many photographers who are, knowing or unknowing, stuck at this wall are the ones who will fly into a rage when you say things like The Golden Triangle is a modern invention, based on almost nothing. It is bullshit, and you should forget it, substituting instead actual looking, actual seeing, and actual feeling. If a fellow is one of those, well, I don't see how he's going to get past it. He's willing to fight a pitched and angry keyboard battle to avoid getting unstuck.

What's worse, is that this doorknob is promulgating this same crap. While one chap might be perfectly happy with rules-based pictures, and more power to him, he's creating more people similarly bound, and some of those people are going to hit the wall, they're going to feel it, they're going to know it, they're going to be frustrated by it.

Then when they ask their mentor, doorknob guy, how to get unstuck, he is going to suggest buying a macro lens and experimenting with oil drops on water, or something. The doorway to some totally new domain of crappy copies of utterly uninteresting exercises in technique.

Way to go, doorknob guy.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Luminous Endowment

I am disappointed to notice that The Luminous Endowment appears to have, if not folded up shop, at least stalled out. No grants since Novemeber 2017, and only a brief announcement that 3 of the 10 or so listed grants have been closed because of lack of funding.

The DxO grant might have been impacted by the financial implosion of DxO, but I have no guesses as to what has happened with the other grants.

All grants are currently listed as "Closed" on the Grants page.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Bowen Island, British Columbia

My family took a short vacation to this place, not too long ago, the details of which are neither here nor there.

I took some photographs and there were some things happening, which have prompted me to do a little research and think about some things, and so here we are.

Bowen Island is located at the mouth of Vancouver's outer harbor (Vancouver, British Columbia, west coast of Canada), in a sound (Howe Sound) that leads north. Vancouver proper is south across the harbor, and further in to the east a bit. About 10-15 miles by water, depending on where you're going. In the early twentieth century, the island was a tourist destination for people from the city, with multiple steamships heading out there daily. At various times various vacation indulgences were available. Day trips to sunbathe and ride a carousel, overnights, evening dinner and dance trips tucked back in bed at home by midnight. Other times, other people, stayed overnight, or for a week, or the whole summer long.

This was a common theme at least in the United States. On the east coast, people with sufficient funds (this went down as far as the thrifty schoolteacher) would vacation at "the lake" or "the shore" depending on their tastes. Coney Island to the Hamptons. My in-laws began visiting Lake Winnipesaukee in those days. Vancouver in the same era had Bowen Island.

More or less between the world wars, cottages were erected for rent. By the week, by the season, or year around. Small, 1 or 2 bedrooms, a common area, a tiny kitchen tucked out back under a shed roof. Tons of charm, comfortable and quaint. Sometimes with water views. Often, I dare say, with water views. Bowen is essentially a low mountain sticking out of Howe Sound, you have to work a bit to avoid sightlines that touch the water.

In the 1950s car ferry service arrived from Horseshoe Bay (the ferry route indicated in the map, above), first from a private firm, and then from the "nationalized" version of the same firm (the province bought them after a strike). This service has a different character, as it originates from more or less the furthest point west in the metro Vancouver mainland, rather from the centers of population. Today, this is the only service to Bowen Island, and it is essentially an extension of the highway system. The modern British Columbian ferry system is built entirely this way, to maximize the time on roads and minimize the time on water. While efficient for cars, it leads to a very car-centric system built around ferry terminals in far remote locations.

Artists of one stripe or another have been living and working on Bowen Island since the earliest part of the 20th century. At present, they represent something of an "old guard" of residents on the island. While the old guard is surely not all artists, the artists are more or less entirely old guard. They are part of what make the island desirable, fun, and interesting. There are no shortage of places to purchase poorly made pottery, a slapdash painting, or some trite photographs of tall birds standing in short water.

This old guard is, of course, in conflict with the newcomers. Since Vancouver began spiking wildly in the 1980s or so, Bowen Island has increasingly been the weekend getaway spot of the white and affluent. They don't want a quaint cottage, they prefer to own a modern home in what resembles as closely as possible a modern suburb, except with a better view and maybe a place to put their boat. And so they do that. The artists, on the one hand, like selling slapdash paintings to wealthy dolts, but dislike both modern suburbs and large boats, to say nothing of deplorable wealthy dolts.

As you can imagine, this leads to friction. The wealthy dolts and the old guard exist in an inextricable and not entirely friendly symbiosis, in the same way gentrifying dolts and sloppy artists live in every artsy little district undergoing gentrification (i.e. all of them).

This has manifested itself in the Davies Orchard.

At the ferry terminal, in Snug Cove on the island, a man named Davies planted an orchard, 100 years ago or thereabouts. This orchard now lies, according to the historical society Bowen Heritage, in the heart of the village of Snug Cove. I can attest that while this is true, it also lies on the outskirts, and indeed somewhat outside that self-same village, on account of the village being very very small indeed. Davies rented tent platforms to campers in the very early days of Bowen's tourist industry. In 1928 a group of cottages was built in the orchard itself, and the remains of this group is essentially the last of the historical cottages which formerly dominated the island.

When we arrived on our vacation, 9 cottages remained. 4 are available as rentals by the week. One houses Bowen Heritage, and another houses a museum.

When we left, there were 6 cottages remaining, as the 3 not counted above had been stripped hulks when we arrived, and were demolished when we left.

The old guard, the hippies, had left a single sign printed on two sheets of letter sized paper expressing their disappointment with the failure of the various relevant organizations (they are legion) to preserve the vital and significant history blah blah blah, but nobody bothered to show up for the demolition. Nobody lay down in front of a bulldozer. Bowen Heritage has a web site which has not been updated in at least two years.

The fight for history appears to be over. The orchard and much of the surrounding area is being folded into a large, already existing, park well suited to day activities. There is a softball field, where the local men play softball (men's softball? say what? they're very very in to it on Bowen Island, uniforms and the whole bit. Recall that, these are for the most part affluent white people.)

It's still a great spot to go for a day or a week. The island is no longer filled with quaint cottages, but it is filled with AirBNBs, VRBOs, and honest to god Bed & Breakfasts, invariably in four season modern homes in modern suburbs, but usually with a good view and access to a beach. Mainly you drive there, the ferry ride a short blip in which you are not actively piloting your vehicle for a few minutes, before you drive off the ship and into the thoroughly modern suburb where you will vacation.

You can purchase some art, take short hikes through classic Pacific Northwest Forest, walk your dog, buy an ice cream cone or a latte or, no doubt, some fudge. It is Island Living, still. But different. The frenetic and highly social days of closely packed cottages and dance floors with live bands on the waterfront are over. The carnival atmosphere, if it ever truly existed, is gone, each of us vacations in our sealed bubbles. Perhaps we exchange a few words over breakfast with the elderly couple also staying at the Bed & Breakfast before going to do our own thing, purchase our own blotchy mugs and splatchy paintings, hike our own dog around the point, and rent kayaks with our own family for a clumsy paddle in the afternoon.

The cottages, though, are largely gone. And not without reason.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Enlightenment! Truth! Propaganda!

Across the world we have people complaining about Donald Trump. Politicians, software engineers, artists, photographers. Colbergs.

A not uncommon theme is the notion that Enlightenment Values of reason and logic have abruptly fallen by the wayside, discarded by a madman, and replaced with wild delarations about FAKE NEWS and whatnot. The world, in the minds of many, is divided in to Before Trump and After Trump, and in the BT people were swayed by reason, by common sense. Why, a man could effect change with a properly formatted syllogism!

This is utter BS. What makes Trump distinct is that his lies are misaligned with the lies his own administration drags out. His wild-eyed and nonsensical stories are, as often as not, the exact opposite of the wild-eyed nonsensical stories peddled by his own staff. That's genuinely interesting and new, but the lying part isn't new at all. These are, and long have been, people for whom truth isn't an interesting idea.

What is infuriating to see from the Colberg set is the hand-wringing "whatever shall we do? this is unfamiliar territory!" narrative. Are these dopes so dumb as to be unable to make the leap from the fact of propaganda in general, and the Farm Security Administration photographs in particular, to this modern context?

There are reasons that those in power find the idea of Truth to be uninteresting.

The first is that it is devilishly difficult to actually get your arms around. My daughter knocks a cup off the table, and it shatters. That is a fact. But what is the true story here? She was riding her scooter in the house, too fast, and not completely in control. But also my other daughter left the cup on the edge of the table, on a placemat. The placemat had slipped partially off the table, so a corner was hanging over the edge, because Dad was distracted by the dog's whining to go out as he tidied up the table. It was that stray corner of fabric that the younger daughter brushed as she scooted past.

Is it the dog's fault that the cup was broken? Or was the root cause Dad's carelessness? Or is it the older daughter's failure to bring her cup back to the kitchen?

These things unpack indefinitely, back to the Big Bang, if you're not careful. A proper and Truthful Account of the Incident of the Cup unravels things to a degree, but not to the ultimate degree, and assigns cause in a just fashion. I am put in mind of the accident reports produced by the NTSB (which investigates transportation accidents here in the USA, with a degree of rigor and, well, taste, which simply has to be read to be grasped.)

The second reason power finds Truth uninteresting flows from the first. Given the inherently squishy nature of these things, the world lends itself to selective telling. If you're good at this, you can stick to factual statements, and still shape the tale to your own ends and give, ultimately, an impression which suits you best. It may or may not resemble the actual state of affairs as others might see it.

Power, having ends to which it would like to shape stories, finds this irresistible.

The official story of the killing of Osama bin Laden and Seymour Hersh's story of the same agree on almost every single factual detail, but are completely different stories. The former, naturally, makes the government of the USA look a lot better.

Imagine, if you will, a boxing match between Bob and Abe. Bob was awarded the win by the judges, having handily beaten Abe in the first two rounds, and finally knocked him out in the third round. How might one mis-report this?

One might report this with a photograph that was completely contrafactual. One might photoshop Abe into a frame showing his arm held aloft by the referee, indicating victory.

One might report this with a factual photograph taken in the first round in which Abe is shown smashing Bob in the face, Bob reeling backwards with his his face distorted by the force of the blow.

One might use a series of pictures, which the viewer would take as a representation of the ryhthm of the fight. You could show Abe consistently beating Bob down, with Bob finally landing a lucky shot in the middle of round three, apparently winning almost by accident.

The first would be the Trumpian mode. The judges, if they saw your report, would say "But.. that did not happen." The others would be the mode of a competent world leader. The judges would be unable to say that none of the pictures are true, but would likely hem and haw about "it wasn't like that" but would be easily discredited by demanding that they point out exactly which picture it is that's untrue. The truth, NTSB report style, is a subtle and nuanced thing, too complex to be grasped quickly, too complex to be summarized in a few sound bites, a few photos.

Now, you could argue that if you simply photographed Bob with his arm held up by the referee, indicating his victory, well then you'd have the Truth. And certainly that would be more true than the false reports I suggested. But it would not in any meaningful way be The Truth, it would simply be a shorthand easily grasped symbol that happens to align with what a sensible person would agree to be The Truth.

In the real world, few things have as clear and simple an answer as "to which contestant did the judges award the victory", the real world, especially the political one, has rather more issues which take the general shape of, "So, tell me, how did World War I start?"

In this sort of world, there is no simple summary. There is no single thread of story that sensible people would agree is true. There is only the mass of detail, of nuanced and subtle analysis.

Why did Hillary Clinton lose the presidential election? Was it because she labelled a mass of people "deplorables?" Was it because she did not campaign in the state of Wisconsin? Was it this? Was it that?

There is a long list of things which, if she had done any 1 or 2 or 3 of them differently, she might have won. If there are 50 things on that list, which one can you reasonably describe as "the cause" of her loss? What, in reasonable terms, is "the cause?" Well, none of them and all of them. There is no glib answer here, there is only the mass of detail.

When you have these masses of detail, these stories in which The Truth if present at all is multi-faceted and complex, there is an opportunity to carve out a narrative. Any selected thread through the mass will be, in a sense, a lie. If it be not a lie, well then it certainly is not The Truth.

Confronted with these complex and subtle stories like "Why did WWI start", "Why did Hilary lose?", "Why does Poverty Happen?" and so on, we can imagine that a person might dig through the mass of material and analysis, and having carried out a complete survey, develop a sort of gestalt understanding. Then we might imagine that many people did this, each arriving at their own gestalt.

Do these various broad understandings, arrived at by honest, earnest, and reasonable people generally agree or not? One might imagine a sort of cloud of these understandings, one point representing each person's view. Is that cloud diffuse, spread out all over the place? Or is it a dense mass? In the latter case, one might say that there is a sort of Truth to the whole thing, a fairly clear, more or less agreeable-upon notion of What Happened. In the former, perhaps there simply isn't.

And so when we carve out a narrative, a single thread, a voice, which takes on a particular viewpoint, is there even a Truth for that narrative to align with? Perhaps there is, perhaps there is not.

If that cloud of hypothetical gestalts of understanding be diffuse, then there really does not seem to be anything one can do except tell this story or that, according to your lights. There is nothing in play that really resembles a Truth. No judges agreed that Bob won, there's really just a mass of material and myriad interpretations of it, peppered through with the occasional fact like "the bridge collapsed" and "the dog died".

If that cloud of hypothetical gestalts be dense, coherent, then perhaps there is a Truth, roughly speaking, that one's narrative might align with.

That narrative would not be true, such a single thread, a single opinion, a single slice, will not an any meaningful way explicate the truth of the matter. At best it will be a symbol, a representation, which might align with some notion of Truth, if these even is such a thing.

Life magazine, it is generally assumed, provided us with wonderful picture-drive narratives that aligned with truths, where possible. I have in my hands an issue for October of 1946, with a little photo essay on the death sentences handed down at Nürnberg. We see before and after photos of Göring, Ribbentrop, Funk, Streicher, Raeder, and Hess. The before are generally official portraits from during or before the war, the men look well fed, arrogant, proud. The afters are from the trial period, and then men invariably look desperate, haggard, usually thinner. We have a photo of the transcript room, essentially a sea of paper, and a caption referring to millions of recorded words.

Turning the page we find photographs of the wives and children of some of the convicted, along with a few more or less random personal notes. So and so was a minor actress. So and so was rude to the other wives. A little personal touch.

In 4 pages, 18 photographs, and a few lines of of text, Life gives us the Nürnberg trials. These men, bad men (Striecher is a "Jew-baiter", Göring shifty, Life is not pulling its punches) have been tried, at great length and detail, have been sentenced to die, and have already paid a substantial toll. Their wives and children are ordinary women, suffering as well, grieving as one might expect. These men were not only architects of great evil, but also were people with wives, children. Parts of their existence were quite ordinary, parts were extraordinary, and their end will also be.

Is this Truth? Sure, the pictures are indexes, the facts described are factual, and even the overall impression is probably not something any sensible person would disagree with. Is it complete? Certainly not. Is it almost hilariously trivializing of a monumental moment in modern history? Yes. Yes it is.

The FSA photo archive is, I suspect, one of those veins of narrative drawn from a mass of detail which itself admits no agreed-upon truth. There is only the detail of the depression, of the plight of the American Farmer in that time, of the dust bowls, of the migrations. Nonetheless, drawn from this mass Roy Stryker drew a tale of the basic resilience and strength of the American, especially the rural American. He drew a story of trials faced with iron will, of struggle, of difficulty to be, inevitably, overcome. He drew from the mass of detail, a strong and clear argument for the power and influence of the Farm Security Administration. It is well documented that he did so deliberately, with real ability, according to a set of methods that were in no way mysterious.

Again, the pictures are indexes, the facts are (mostly) factual. The story given is in no meaningful way Truth, because there is no meaningful over-arching Truth here, there are only details and situations, individual stories, and the facts of the weather, the price of cotton, and so on.

And so on and so forth.

What is missing in this modern era is not an understanding of the methods. What is missing is the organization skills to make something happen. We see occasional photo essays here and there, notably the New York Times occasionally puts together a handful of pictures. But the NYT has sold its credibility with the masses long ago. We're left with dipshits like Reading The Pictures with their endless sneering pseudo-academic virtue signalling. We're left with dipshits like Colberg, bleating about how awful fascism is (again, mere virtue signalling).

Nobody is taking a strong editorial stance, backed up with credibility, to carve those stories out of the mass of detail. The press is trapped in some hideous middle ground between toadying to corporate masters and some half-assed attempt at even-handedness.

It's some sort of minor scandal when some photograph of a weeping child turns out not to have been one of the children forcibly removed from its parents by the recent catastrophic ICE policy here in the USA. Who cares? There were children removed, and they wept. This is not a picture to back down on, this is a picture to double down on. Why are we not seeing strongly positioned photo essays produced on a daily basis?

The methods are clear and well known, the motivation appears to be there, if we measure by the sheer tonnage of pearls being clutched.

The left appears to be in the hands of basically stupid people focused on their careers. Virtue signalling is the proper path to career advancement on the left, not strong editorial positions skillfully executed, unfortunately.

Friday, August 3, 2018


We're seeing a lot of discussion online about Nikon and Canon introducing new mirrorless camera lines shortly. As is typical, there's a lot of chatter of the form boy they have a hard row to hoe, they better come out with someone incredible if they're going to stem the Sony tide. This is silly and wrong.

This is akin to suggesting that when Chevrolet was planning to introduce automatic transmissions that their cars had better have wings and jet engines in order to stem the inevitable onslaught of Oldsmobile's Hydra-Matic. Of course Chevy didn't have to do anything of the sort. What Chevy needed to do was quite different. They needed to convince the buying public that a Chevy with an automatic was still a Chevy. Chevy merely needed to persuade people that whatever it was that made people buy Chevy cars (good value car for a relatively inexpensive price, sufficiently reliable, and so on) was still present in the version with the automatic transmission, and that the automatic transmission made the whole experience sufficiently better to justify the additional cost for at least some buyers.

Chevy was an established brand, with a great deal of what is termed "goodwill" in business parlance, when the automatic transmission was introduced. They had an established base of existing customers, and a large base of potential customers who, while they may never have bought a Chevy, had a clear idea of what "Chevy" means and could potentially be induced to buy at the right moment.

Mirrorless technology, with electronic viewfinders, has been coming for a long time. Right now Sony has been doing well with a line of these cameras in what is termed the Early Adopter market, the technophiles, the people who want to have the latest and greatest and are willing to suffer a bit for it. Sony cameras are, to be blunt, notoriously a pain in the ass. They're too small, they're buggy, they're difficult to use in myriad ways. And, they get talked up among Serious Camera Owners.. excuse me Photographers... as the second coming of Jesus. This is classic Early Adopter stuff.

Canon and Nikon, to be blunt, don't give a shit about Early Adopters. They want the mainstream.

It looks from here in the cheap seats as if the big two have decided that this is the time mirrorless makes the leap to the mainstream. The technology is mature, the Early Adopters have done their work, creating a zeitgeist of "mirrorless is the future" which is starting to resonate with the mainstream buyers. Mainstream buyers are, to some degree, starting to look in to maybe making the switch. They're suspicious of Sony, because when they dip into the photo press it's a mess of obvious hype and bug reports. And the cameras just look weird. And doesn't Sony make radios, microwaves, and movies?

Canon and Nikon have to be Chevy, today, and persuade people that these are genuine Canon and Nikon cameras, with all the goodness that goes with those names (whatever that goodness is), just slightly updated to the latest technology to make the picture taking experience a little bit better, a little bit more modern. The can still botch it, of course, there's no guarantee that they'll succeed. Sony could make that leap to the mainstream and become the dominant player.

This is not a technological competition at all, this is a product marketing competition. Can the Big Two build solid "whole products" that integrate into the brand well? Can they translate their goodwill into the new area? Can Sony build a good "whole product" and persuade the mainstream that their cameras and the accompanying ecosystem are mature, seamless, reliable, easy to use, and appropriately priced for the mainstream market? Can Sony overcome the "but they make microwaves" barrier?

Any outcome is well within the realm of possibility. Anywhere from 0 to 3 of the players (Canon, Nikon, Sony) could end up with a substantial mainstream market in mirrorless cameras. The current positions of the companies mean that Sony's path to success is quite different from Canon's and Nikon's.

But the big kids do not have to produce some astounding wunderkamera, and to do so would be a mistake. They need to make the same-old-same-old, only better. And they have to do their marketing properly.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Actually Seeing II

Related to the inherent difficulty in seeing, in any kind of completist way, what we're looking at we seem to suffer from a deep desire to simplify what we look at. Perhaps it has something to do with the need to see the tiger rather more than the forest. Regardless, we're constantly simplifying and summarizing as we look around ourselves, extracting what we think are salient elements, "my wife" "a boat" "a fire hydrant."

A finished photo is typically both small (relative to the world) and persistent, static. We take the thing in in all its detail (ok, maybe not quite all, but some). We take in the details more readily, in any case, than we do the details of the world. The commonest mistake in photography is to see Grandma and to miss the background, which background becomes glaringly obvious in the picture, later. Photographers deal with this is myriad ways, mostly harmful.

The more sophisticated photographer seeks to solve this problem not by looking at the background particularly, but by controlling it. One "checks" the background, one does not look at it. Place Grandma against a blank wall, a painted backdrop, or simply open up to f/1.4 and drop the whole thing into an incomprehensible blur. The background problem is solved by eliminating it, rendering it irrelevant to actual seeing.

Lighting is treated, often, in much the same way. You simply move the lights around as shown in the diagram until the shadow under the model's nose matches the diagram. When you're attending to the shape of the shadow, it is incrementally harder to attend to the model's expression and body language.

Much of photography as it is actually practiced by more or less serious practitioners is simply pattern matching of this sort. Do this thing until whatever you're looking at matches the diagram. All compositional tricks follow this template, the rules of thirds, leading lines, and so on. You simply move yourself or the subject around until the pattern is matched, and then you press the shutter. It becomes almost unnecessary to actually see what's in front of the lens.

That sounds rather flippant, but let us review that seeing what is actually in front of the lens it remarkably difficult, it is no mystery why we seek frantically for shortcuts.

Allow me to draw a somewhat artificial line. There are perhaps two schools of photography, one of which seeks to simplify the thing in front of the camera until it can be more or less "seen" while photographing it. The other seeks to find some sort of essence. Ansel Adams talks about an authentic emotional response, but is silent on rules of composition. Naturally, in the real world, one partakes ideally of a bit from column A, and a bit from column B. There's certainly nothing particularly harmful about isolating a subject, if that makes sense. There's nothing inherently harmful in moving lights around until the shadows land in the right places.

The harm is when, by paying too much attention to column A, you lose the things in column B. Column B, that essence, the emotional response, that largely indefinable thing which you only know when you see it. I submit that it's column B that matters more.

When I take a picture, my aim (rarely executed well), is it first feel it, to first get a firm grip on what it is I want to photograph, what matters here, what is the essence. I try to see, if not fully, at least thoroughly, and grasp what I am seeing and what I think about that. After that, I move and wait until there is at least some slight compositionally fortuitous arrangement. Sometimes it works pretty well.

This is basically the process the Miksang people talk about, but it is also arguably Light, Gesture, and Color as well as innumerable other sources.

Column B first, then column A.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Rogue Photo 2: Alleys

Rogue Photo is a sort of notional imprint that I am starting to organize projects under. Pictures and text together, intended to be made into a cheap mass-produced book. Content over finesse. This is the second such project, and it aims to be more detailed, less political than US, the first one. This project is about alleys, alleys in Bellingham where I live, and in particular the alley behind my house. This is a rough draft of some introductory material.

Bellingham, old Bellingham, by which I mean the Bellingham that is about 100 years old, is a town of alleys. This is not all of Bellingham, there is much that is newer, more modern, with back yards and back lots directly against other back yards and lots. Modern Bellingham has the same curved street suburbs, the co-called coved design which allows more houses with less street, the very opposite of the alley based designs of a century past.

But downtown, and in the neighborhoods near it where I live in one of those throwbacks, every block in sliced down the middle by a narrow, little used roadway littered with whatever bits and pieces concerning the uses it was then and is now put. Gas meters, dumpsters, electrical connections, cooking oil disposal, recycling bins, storm water drains, cable television boxes, telephone connection boxes, access doors for people, access doors for trucks, access doors for cars, parked shopping carts laden with the belongings of the unfortunate, with bollards and concrete aprons and iron grates higgledy piggledy as necessity has dictated over the last century.

There are alleys downtown, with commercial dumpsters and the remains of streetcar tracks, with large-sized gas meters and massive interconnects for anything that needs a massive interconnect. Further out, there are the little alleys behind the 100 year old homes on the tiny lots. Alleys that sometimes provide access to the one car garage, or for household garbage, recycling, and compost pickup. Alleys that provide a little cover for the unfortunate among us to move less visibly about the neighborhood, as well as providing a foraging ground for those who gather cans to recycle for cash to ease whatever pains they have.

In some neighborhoods the alley is little more than a walkway and bike path, all essential services being streetside, to the front of the house. In others, where the alleys were laid out a trifle wider, the lots a little larger, the buildings set back a little farther, garbage pickup happens on the rear of the house and the Garwood compactor trucks thread their way through the maze of haphazardly parked cars and haphazardly set out bins, early in morning, as an occasional householder charges out in a bathrobe just ahead, or sometimes just behind, the truck to roll the bins out hastily, hopefully, to schlep the recycling crates to the appropriate edge for pickup.

In winter the alleys are dark and wet, in summer they are hot and arid. Always, they are a little tucked away, a little hidden. Only the people who live on the alley, really, use the alley, except for the occasional trash-picker, dog-walker, shortcut-seeker. Neighbors meet and chat for a few moments, one parking a car the other tossing a bag of trash into the bin, both with a little free time. More often in the short summer of endless sun, less in the wet winter with her brief, damp, overcast days and endless chilly, wetter, nights.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The End of it All

Yesterday I saw Jörg going on about how terribly exhausted he was with the lazy narratives surrounding the ubiquity of photography and what photographing means. Not, of course, that he or any of these other dabblers has much of anything to add beyond lounging about in flouncy dresses dabbing exhaustedly at their own foreheads.

The trigger for him was a short piece somewhere about a picture of a crowd in which it appears that almost literally everyone is viewing whatever is happening through a phone. It was one of the ubiquitous pieces about "wow, we photograph everything, and directly experience nothing" which, sure, we've seen that before. But the reason we keep seeing these lazy narratives is that nobody's got a handle on it, and everyone feels like there's something important going on here.

So here's some thoughts about that.

Some years ago I recall Mike Johnston at ToP telling a little parable that went something like this. In the old days one might have thought "I would like to do something with yard sales" and then you'd go out and spend a year shooting yard sales most weekends, shoot a couple hundred rolls of film, and then pull together the best ten photos. Nowadays, in this era of flickr and instagram, you go out one weekend and shoot 50 pictures, and show off the best 30.

Let's set aside the truth that Mike is prejudiced toward the fine print, and that his model of photography is a small portfolio of beautifully made black and white prints, either 8x10 and 11x14, and that this is a large part of what drives his parable.

Beyond that, Mike was on to something there. There are two fundamental differences in play here. The first is that by spending so little time actually at yard sales the photographer has no time to develop an idea, a position, an opinion about yard sales. The 50 contemporary shots from one weekend will have no point of view. The best you can hope for is that they document in some straightforward way some aspects of some yard sales. More likely they will be clumsy copies of something the photographer saw elsewhere.

The couple hundred rolls of film photographer probably developed a real point of view, and is far more likely to have something to actually say about yard sales. The first few rolls will likely be clumsy copies of other photographs, but rolls 150 through 200 might have something interesting on them.

The second problem is that there is very little selection going on in the second photographer's world. This is connected to the first problem in that the photographer selects, ultimately, where to point the camera and when to mash the button based on that point of view, that opinion, so painfully developed. But also there is far less material to select from, far less material was placed in front of the lens to be shot and far fewer frames are available to select from.

If photography is, as I assert, an act of selection which is morally on the same plane as but different from creation, then the second photographer is simply doing far less of it. Insofar as photography is creative, a making, the second photographer is on firmer ground. But it is not much that.

Consider a world in which each of us simply wears a camera which takes a photo every 30 seconds and uploads it to Facebook. There is no selection at all, except in where we choose to place our bodies. Everything is photographed and shared.

Is this photography? I don't think it is, in any but a most literal and dunderheaded sense.

In this world, there is no selection. There is no privileging of this scene, this moment, this object, over any other. As Sontag noted god knows how long ago, we make things special by photographing them, and in this imagined world everything is made special, and therefore nothing is.

So what is different in the actual modern world?

We have not arrived at the dystopian world of the camera which automatically takes a photo every 30 seconds (although there have been periodic attempts, see Google Clips). But, we are nudging in that direction, we sniff at things that are similar, we can feel the presence of that world in the wind. We may never get there, but we're in the neighborhood.

I think perhaps what we're feeling about the current ubiquity of photographs is that end-game. We're feeling that when everything is selected, when everything is privileged to be photographed, then there is no photography, the world is flattened to a single two dimensional plane of specialness, of value. Your cup of coffee, his new shirt, that pretty girl doing yoga outside a Sprinter van she pretends to live in, and the death of the Hindenburg are all pretty much the same.

What happens next? Do we push every further, asymptotically approaching the dystopian world of "a photo every 30 seconds" by photographing ever more the banal? Does some radical convulsion change everything? Do we arrive at a steady-state in which we're pretty much photographing with a constant density -- now, after 150 years of steady growth?

Having enumerated the names of God, does the world end?

It is this feeling that the final drops are being squeezed out that incites the think pieces. These complaints about how every dolt is a photographer, and photography is ruined, have indeed been going on for 150 years or so.

But today an argument can be made that we, if not at an end, surely wandering fairly close to some kind of border.

It doesn't worry me, or bother me, particularly. But it is kind of interesting.

Thursday, July 12, 2018


I'm just going to point out a pretty good article over here: #DiversifyTheLens: Why Your Brand Should Hire More Female Photographers more or less as a PSA.

The piece does contain the implication that you will get different photos if you hire women, which I am on the record as finding suspect. Still, it's a good solid cause in general, and it aims to actually make it easier to find those good female photographers. Half the trouble, at least, has to simply be "we always hire Bill" and having easy access to a solid stable of alternatives to Bill is strategically sound.

This is very much the same thinking that drove some acceptance of women into advertising photography in the early 20th century, according to one reference I read recently. It was a successful argument, to a degree, but female photographers wound up in a niche and mostly did ads for soap and whatnot. If successful, the contemporary version of the argument can end up blocking women out of work targeted at men.

A better argument, in my opinion, is that women are just as good as men, so why on earth would you ignore a huge chunk of the talent pool simply because you like working with Bill? It would be even stronger if you can present a narrative that sounds like "everyone else is hiring women" or at least "many major players are" which you can probably do with a little cherry picking. If you can present the story that there's an imbalance, but it's caused by bush-league loser companies mainly hiring men, you're gettin' someplace.

This piece was already re-published on PetaPixel, where the comments are, predictably, turning into a god damned dumpster fire as every fat-ass basement dwelling asshole who pretends he's a professional photographer weighs in with his imbecile misogyny. I urge you, also, to send email to applauding their republishing the piece, and abhorring the dumpster fire that is the comments. Check first to see if the comments are still a dumpster fire, though. I expect Michael to turn comments off shortly.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Actually Seeing

When I look at my refrigerator my first impression is of a stainless steel box, two doors, with various pieces of paper attached with magnets. I think lists, coupons, children's art. But that's not what is really there. As a summary it's not wrong, but it's exactly the kind of thing that our brains come up with as a summary. It's incomplete, and based on memory as much as the visual input. If someone attached a ransom note in the middle of the night, I might not see it.

I school my brain, and look closer. I see lists. I think, ah yes, the list of tools we ought to acquire some day for the garden and my mind wanders off to the hardware store. I drag my mind back and see another list. I see my daughter's summer reading challenge paper, with little squares labelled things like "biography" and "I liked the cover" to indicate the kinds of books she might read. If she fills in enough squares, she gets some little award from the library. I had forgotten this, and therefore not "seen" it in my first impression.

Looking again, mentally stepping back, I see the pattern of rectangular scraps of paper at this angle and that. I see various colors and shapes of both paper and magnet, and how they form a haphazard design, against the two handles of the doors and the other features on the face of the 'fridge. I've lost the lists, I see shapes, but I have no notion in the moment of what is on each piece of paper.

I see the design but have lost the content.

The whole thing is a slippery chimera, the many layers of material slipping away, retreating and then advancing, as I focus on this or that. I can't really see the thing all at once. My mind intrudes and distracts with thoughts of shopping, of the library. I can't hold both the details of the papers and the pattern they make simultaneously in my mind. Only just now at this very moment did I even notice the way the lights in the kitchen create streaked highlights slanting diagonally over the handles, and I just lost awareness of everything else about the thing for a moment.

In short, seeing in a deep and meaningful way is not easy. Even a relatively modest and familiar object is an intractable mass of layers of detail.

Photography is, in essence or at least at the initial instant of exposure, the act of selecting from this intractable mass.

There are other kinds of selection. Selecting from a group of foals which one will, at the age of 3 years, be able to run a mile the most quickly, is difficult. If you can do it with anything better than random results, you can make a great deal of money.

Nobody claims that the act of picking out the right foal is creative as such, although the subsequent training, the moulding of the animal into a champion, arguably is. Everyone sensible agrees that selecting the right foal is difficult, that it takes a degree of wild talent to do it well, and so on.

Nobody (much) claims that thoroughbred horses are Art, either. They do not generate what I refer to as an Art-like experience. While seeing a champion run can inspire great emotion, it does not have the enlarging quality of Art, it does not induce reflection particularly, it does not expand us. Not much, anyways. Thus, it is not particularly Art.

Art is that which generates that Art-like experience. Duchamp demonstrated that there need be nothing creative in the process, one need merely, with some authority, declare that a certain thing is Art, and lo, it generates the Art-like experience. At least, some of the time. We see this repeated in this amusing anecdote related in the New York Review of Books. In this story, Janet Malcom all tongue-in-cheek declares what she considers an objectively bad photograph to be Art. She is subsequently surprised and amused to learn that her designation has, to a degree, stuck.

It is an amusing story, and it reveals something to us (again) about Art and the nature of that particular social construct. But, it is the same thing Duchamp was at some pains to teach us in 1917, and which we, really, ought to have grasped by now.

If we say that photography in its essential state much the same as the act of selecting a thoroughbred colt, if we say that it is much the same as selecting a suitable urinal to display, then we must say also that photography is not creative as such.

There is often plenty of creativity, making, in what happens between the exposure and the display of a final print, but none of that is really essential to what photography is.

But this does not mean that it is not Art. All too often people assume that Art must be creative, that the artist has to actually make something, and this is simply not the modern conception of Art at all.

Photography, despite being neither particularly creative, is neither easy nor not Art. None of these properties implies any of the others, they are all independent.

Is there a word for the act of picking out the right thoroughbred colt? Is there a word for that kind of talent? Other than simply "talent?" I don't know of one. I wish there was one.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Impostor Syndrome

I was noodling around last night, after writing the previous post on Copyright, thinking about what it is that photographers think they own. These guys who say "it's miiine" in a sort of vague and formless way, arguing against things like fair use and so on. They want total control of their pictures. But what is it that they think they actually own?

Obviously, everyone knows, one can own an embodiment of a picture and one owns only that embodiment. If I own a copy of a novel, I own a pile of paper with marks on them and that's it.

Some people, particularly photographers, imagine a sort of Platonic ideal, a notional object with no physical form of its own, which "is" the picture, or the novel. Some sort of essence of the thing. I suspect that this is, in sort of vague terms, what photographers think they own.

Unfortunately for them, property and ownership are social constructs, and society is when pressed unwilling to define "ownership" of nebulous bullshit. Therefore we have created the idea of a copyright, which is a bundle of rights surrounding the right to produce new embodiments of the whatever-it-is that we can't really define very well. If you're going to own something, it's going to be either an embodiment (a print, a physical book) or a copyright. You can own both, but they're two different things.

It turns out that this is pretty clever. Coming up with a formal, definable, thing which does a reasonable job of capturing the important parts of the abstract Platonic thing is not so easy, and copyright does a fair job of it.

Photographers strike me as particularly grasping and whiny about copyright specifically, and "ownership" of the abstract Platonic object in general.

I think this is, ultimately, because photographers tend to feel a bit like impostors.

There's a strong historical precedent for this. The whole Victorian era hand-work mess was, essentially, a reaction to the idea that photography is not sufficiently creative, it does not involve, let us be honest, all that much actual creation and therefore many of its practitioners decided to do some creating by painting on negatives, mashing gum-bichromate prints with their fists, and so on. We continue with this today, altogether too often we find people saying in a rather shrill voice that they do not take pictures, they make them. Usually by positioning lights, by extensive post-processing, and so on.

"Hey, nobody applies Lightroom presets in the same way I do! I make pictures, I don't just take them!"

In the end though, photography when distilled down, is just choosing a rectangle out of whatever happens to be nearby. At the end of the day, you're just throwing up index finger and thumb on both hands, and cropping out what's there, and then doing some technical whatever-the-fuck to fix that into some persistent embodiment which (let us review) is not the actual Platonic thing.

It's just plain not that creative, in the sense that you're not creating much of anything.

This doesn't mean that it sucks, or that it's easy, or stupid, or lame. It's astonishingly difficult. It's just not, you know, creative in the sense of creating something.

Photography, it seems to me, is very much its own thing here. Sure, you can go to work on it and be a failed painter with photoshop, or whatever. Feel free to run off a gum-bichromate print and do a waltz on it. None of that stuff is photography, although it may be very creative and it may be Art it's not photography. It's dancing, or painting, or scratching at negatives, or whatever. Which is lovely and fine. But not photography.

Indeed, much of this sort of thing is excellent. There are excellent painters out there. I've seen a fair number of collage-y things I quite like.

And no, the line is not clear. Where photograohy ends and other, more creative things, begin is not a precise line. The fact that the line is vague does not mean we cannot distinguish things on one side from things on the other. It's not as if you can no longer distinguish the castle from the invaders merely because the moat is rather wide and muddy, after all.

Photography in its essence is selecting, not making.

You can argue that it is creative after all, and drone on about the various tidbits of creativity you personally do in your work, and try to use that as a justification for whatever.

This is to get hold of the thing by the wrong end. Jut because photography isn't particularly about creating anything doesn't mean that it isn't worthy. Observing, seeing, is a wonderful thing. The ability to say "hey, look at that" and simply point out something worth looking at is pretty marvelous.

Just pressing the button at the right time is a fine thing to be able to do. We're not impostors!

Thursday, July 5, 2018


There's a piece going around about some judge's opinion of a certain usage of a certain picture as "Fair Use". I saw it first on PetaPixel, but it's been on reddit and dpreview, and no doubt is all over the internet everywhere. If you look around for "Violent Hues Copyright" I dare say you will find 400 places where it's being talked about.

The comment threads this thing has spawned are both fascinating a depressing. Mostly people have no idea what they're talking about, and there's a whole muddle around some side remark the judge made about the alleged infringer "not knowing the picture was copyrighted" which is being utterly misconstrued. Violent Hues (the alleged infringer) clearly knew, by the time they claimed "Fair Use" as a defense, that there was a valid copyright in play (see below). The "not knowing' issue is very much a sideline, either entirely irrelevant, or at best speaking to the basically decent and fair-minded intentions of Violent Hues.

In the first place, it's clear that many photographers out there who pretend to understand copyright don't know what Fair Use is at all. While it's complicated, an essential and easy feature of it is that it applies to copyrighted works. If I claim to be using a thing "as a Fair Use" I am acknowledging that a valid copyright exists. If a judge rules that something was used as a case of "Fair Use" the judge is likewise acknowledging the copyright. There seems to be a lot of notion that Fair Use is somehow the opposite of a copyright, and that since photographs are all copyrighted by default there can be no such thing as Fair Use. This is exactly wrong.

The second, larger and more interesting, theme is that photographers seem to feel that Copyright is essentially the secular law recognizing some kind of unalienable right, one imagines granted by God, perhaps in the form of some stone tablets, to total control over any and all uses of the copyrighted object. Copyright is, in the eyes of many a photographer, simply the law of the land regulating their infinite and just power over the picture (oh, excuse me, the "image") they just made.

This is also wildly wrong.

Copyright exists to provide incentive to people to create those things which are subject to copyright, by allowing them a good and just portion of the usage of that work. It is not an infinite box of power. It is an agreement with the creator, that the creator will create in exchange for a certain, large, degree of control. The reason society enters into the agreement is because society, as a whole, feels that it is a good thing that creators create. If the creator were to simply have infinite control, the benefit to society would be curtailed. Society, in effect, exchanges the control granted by copyright for certain social benefits, which turn up as limitations on that control.

Copyright on photography is particularly problematic, because it seems that only photographers seem to think that the photographer is, as a rule, the sole creative force in play. The model? No rights. The architect? None. The park service which maintains the landscape and the trails that lead to it? Nothing. The guy who presses a button? All of it. Photographers, let us be quite clear, are jolly well lucky to enjoy the protection of copyright.

The doctrine of Fair Use is one of the limitations on the control copyright holders enjoy. Compulsory licenses are another limitation.

As a some-time critic, I happen to think Fair Use is a really good idea.

More generally, the creation of the new often rests upon what was created before. If all creators were permitted to simply retain their work entirely within a sealed silo, without connection to anything else, then not much new would get created at all.

Also, Internet Photographers are idiots.

Something Mystical

When I started writing here, more or less, I think I was obsessed with inspiration and how it works. There's a bunch of neurology on this, how our big fat brains manage to pull startling answers to problems kind of out of the æther. I felt then, and I still think, that this is a useful tool for sorting out how to take a picture of something.

I have come to believe that there's more to it than that.

Sure, if you have a clear idea how what you want a picture or set of pictures to convey, then you can sit around poking the triggers for inspiration and trying to work out the right thing to do. And when the solution arrives, if it arrives, it will likely appear more or less fully formed from essentially nothing. You'll just see it, and the answer will be obviously right, because that's how your big fat brain does that. That's inspiration. That's the "Eureka" moment, and you can in fact learn to manage that after a fashion.

There's more to it than that, though. Maybe it's the same neurological mechanism, maybe it's the voice of God, maybe there isn't even any meaningful difference between those two things.

There's a whole process of seeing and being present. To know even what you might want to convey is a bit of a puzzle much of the time.

Where am I? What is there here? What can I see?

The Miksang people have a piece of this, and a whole detailed process for noticing things. I think they're got hold of the wrong end of the horse, because they all seem to notice the same trivialities, and they have a bunch of other weird strictures that tend to drive the results in the same direction. Still, the underlying idea of stilling the inner voice and simply seeing strikes me as solid, although there was some disagreement in the comments when last I wrote about this.

There is a long series of books entitled The Inner Game of ... where the ellipsis can be replaced with god damn near any activity. Skiing, Music, Cards, Philosophy, Welding, I dare say. The idea in all these books is the same. In your head you have not one but two monologues running, as you try to do something like ski or play the piano. One of the monologues is pretty positive, and the other is quite critical: You're going to fall! What note comes next?!!! and so on. The Inner Game books all teach you the same methods for stilling that second voice, and in this way they quite resemble the Miksang book.

Getting the monologue about how should I shoot this? maybe rule of thirds... if I bend my knees and move to the left then... to stop is an excellent first step. Tragically, the bulk of what passes for photographic education is about adding more material for that annoying voice to go on about. This all interferes with actually seeing what's there. You're too obsessed with the sign "growing out of" the model's head to notice that she looks miserable.

The first thing, surely, has to be to see. To free your muse, your soul, your emotional self, your right brain, your Buddha. A commenter on my earlier remarks on Miksang suggested that the inner monologue is critical to their working, and I am going to interpret that perhaps too liberally: It's perhaps not about complete silence in your mind, but allowing the proper voice to speak. Not the voice that drones on about focal lengths and apertures, but Buddha's voice, the voice of the muse.

With that mystical, or neurological, connection you have a chance of seeing what is actually there. You might notice the miserable model as well as the signpost behind her. You might also have some insight in to what you feel, what you believe, what the point of this exercise even is. You might even get a little nudge of inspiration about how to do it.

This, ultimately, is where I am going. Or at least the direction I am trying to go. I admit that I spend perhaps more time wrestling the horse back onto the path than I do actually, you know, proceeding down the path.

I want to see and to feel first. For a moment, now and then, I can really see what's in front of me. More rarely, I can translate that into something with a camera. I'm trying to shed the engineer and become the artist, to spend more time in the magic and less in the technicalities.

I want to be Buddha, now, if I can just figure out the right algorithm...

Monday, July 2, 2018

Light is Beautiful

I went camping with my family this weekend. Including our large dog, who loves playing in the water, and chewing sticks. The lake at the campground was full of sticks, so it was basically heaven for the dog. Thus, I spent a fair lot of time watching the dog, which equals standing quietly and noticing when the dog has rambled out of view. Then you call her back.

I spent some time being present. Which is perhaps an organized way of spacing out.

A common theme over the years, as I mull over the act of photography, and what makes photographs good, is some sort of search for something mystical. There are Buddhist ideas in my back catalog, I looked at Miksang in a little detail once. Periodically I circle back to the ways people in traditional cultures connect to their environment, are aware of the world immediately around them. I don't know if it's mystical or neurological, and I don't much care. It's something I aspire to, something I practice, and something I occasionally get a little flash of insight in to. It's diametrically opposed to my education, my former profession, and that's on purpose. Software engineers take the worst photographs.

In a small way, that's what I was practicing. The weather was overcast and drizzly. The kind of weather with the ceiling a few hundred feet up, and a couple miles of thin fog above that, enough humidity in the air to scatter the light around you. There was no directionality to the light at all, except that the ground emits no light, and the clear space over the lake allowed a somewhat brighter region that-a-way. The sides of trees away from the lake were slightly darker than the sides facing the lake, and this never changed all day. There was a sort of silver blue cast to the light.

The light wrapped absurdly. Small details on the tree trunks showed no shadow, no modeling whatever. Larger forms were modeled very very softly, very little contrast from the shadow side to the light side, and the change from light to shadow an almost imperceptibly slow shading.

It struck me that this would be rated as Very Poor Light by most photographers, and that many would then ramble on about The Golden Hour and the differences between Beautiful Light and the other kind.

But that's all bullshit. All light is beautiful. The harsh mid-day sun. The wildly diffuse foggy stew I spent the weekend in. And, of course, The Golden Hour and The Blue Hour and all that crap. The world I was inhabiting, that I was working at being fully present in at that moment was painfully beautiful, rich. To say the light was bad would be to utter a vile slur, an absolute falsehood.

But let's be precise. Light is invisible. We don't see light, we only see what it reveals. Light passing through empty space is nothing, light striking things, now that's something. Light is beautiful and interesting because the world it smashes in to is beautiful and interesting. The revealed things are beautiful, and also the way in which they are revealed.

What The Golden Hour does for photographers is that it reveals the world in a way that is photographically congenial. The contrast range is manageable, there's strong directionality to the light, so that the the use of chiaroscuro reveals shape, depth, there's probably a little diffusion to smooth out the skin a little (all photographers basically want to shoot pretty girls in, or out of, bikinis. On the beach. At sunset. So making skin look smooth is a concern.)

What this means is that for me in the fog, looking at this maze of mossy tree trunks in the silvery blue light, is that I had a photographic problem. I did not attempt to solve it. In reality, there are a host of problems to solve here. Making a picture that does justice to that moment is very very difficult, because the moment was sublime, but the view was in the end just a bunch of moss covered sticks. Photographically it looked flat, so among the many photographic problems was how to represent the depth of the forest receding into the distance. But that, surely, is almost as nothing compared to the problems of revealing the sublime moment, the awe inspiring beauty that a repetitious bunch of vertical mossy sticks illunimated by a soft silver light evokes.

How do I tell you about the 100 year history of these trees, the way the air felt, the sense of time suspended? How do I tell you about the woodpecker pair rat-at-at-atting behind me? How do I tell you about the wild unbridled joy of the dog descending like a Valkyrie to the lake below, and racing back up what seemed a vertical slope at my call? The delight of my children at the campfire, and at smores?

It's all there, somehow, in these flat sage-gree tree trunks marching away forever and ever into the endless distance to the road a few hundred yards away out of sight.

These are the problems that the photographer must solve. That they are hard does not mean that they're not to be solved. I did not, could not, on that day and in that moment solve these problems. I didn't try. But I knew then, as I know now, that the job of the photographer in that moment was to solve those problems.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Pure whimsy

I mostly dislike taking photographs that mean nothing and are purely decorative.

Still, there's a neighborhood thing, and people are setting up stuff in their yards early in July one afternoon. Yard sales, art shows, live music. I decided I'd set up a table and see if people wanted to buy some books. But that's boring. So I figured I'm make some "art" and put out a box of it "make a donation, grab a print" with donations to go to the local elementary school's PTA. Books also available at very affordable rates. We'll see how it goes.

Anyways. I've been experimenting with a kind of fake mimeograph process. I've seen some stuff printed with two or three colors using something like a mimeograph machine (I think it's actually called another thing, but it looks like, and apparently is related to, mimeograph). It's kind of fun, and with the right subject matter is has a sort of weird appeal. Plus I can bang these things out in a few minutes from pressing the button to saving the file.