Saturday, June 23, 2018

Could vs. Would

The most common questions photographers ask about a photograph, or another photographer, boil down to could questions. What skill, technique, what tools do I need, so that I could take such and such a picture? How can I become a photographer who is capable of such and such a photograph?

The filp side if this is the would question. How can I become the photographer that would choose to make that picture? Would choose to shoot that photograph, or that one?

This question is almost literally never asked. It's approached perhaps obliquely in videos about how to develop your style, or whatever, but only obliquely.

This matters, because all the could questions are relatively trivial.

I see people buying mannequins so they can practice their lighting. They want to become a photographer who could set up loop lighting, or Rembrandt, or broad, or high key, or whatever. What they miss is the would question which is really, becoming the photographer who is tuned into the subject enough to take the picture that's right. It's about becoming a person who would do something as much as anything else. Screwing around with a statue to learn how to shoot portraits has got to be one of the most tragically wasteful exercises ever.

When you're in front of a person with a camera, there are 1000 pictures you could take. You could take 24 frames a second. But which one or two or three would you take, would you choose? Do you even have an opinion? You should. And it shouldn't be based on a bunch of technical posing or lighting bullshit. The ability to work with a person, to develop an opinion about which picture you would take, might be the entire point.

And so with everything else. What landscape would you shoot? What still life? Which photograph of Formula 1 cars would you take?

All those could questions are things you can answer pretty easily. Don't overthink 'em.

Become the photographer who would take the pictures that carry some weight that matters to you.

Saturday, June 16, 2018


Commenter JG raises an interesting point with regard to the work I put up in this blog post which I will interpret perhaps somewhat freely (don't ascribe anything I say to JG, especially not anything dumb that I say).

First let me make clear that I think I am on solid ethical ground with respect to the subjects. I made it painfully clear to all that they had the right to withdraw, demand edits or changes, and so on. Their approval, I said repeatedly, was mandatory, because I am attempting to in some sense tell a truth here. In all cases, the subjects at any rate had the opportunity to review the final picture, check the words, and so on. In a couple cases I got no reply, so I cannot swear that they looked, saw, and approved, but in most cases I got a clear thumbs up and in the others the opportunity was there. In all cases the subjects very much projected an attitude of "hey, you do what you feel is right, it's all good" from the very beginning.

I am very comfortable that I treated my subjects well.

This leads around to the viewers, however.

I elected to use handwriting rather than print for the quotations, primarily to lend a sense of veritas to the thing. There's also a stylistic element, there are a few other elements in the book that are also hand written, so the book has the main theme in print and the counterpoint in handwriting, but that is distinctly a secondary use.

I could weasel around and say that it's obvious that the people didn't write it themselves, Jackie and Clove mysteriously have the same handwriting and there are a few other tells, but that's bullshit. I mixed up the writing styles for visual interest, but also to lend a little weight to the notion that these at least could have been written by the subjects. I certainly, willfully, leave the door open for you to believe that. It wasn't a fully conscious choice, but it was without question a choice I made.

So while the pictures are of the real people, and the words are the words they spoke, I have not only selected a few of the words they spoke, and I have written them out in my own hand as a device. The result is a blend of truth and artifice, with the line between the two made vague, and made so on purpose. It isn't the main purpose, it wasn't a part of some nefarious master plan, but I made those choices, and there they are.

Still, there is always a lot of artifice in photography. There is the usual litany of elements: the pictures are not in color, they represent a slice of time, they are of a pose, they are cropped. The quotations are "cropped" as well, and I led the people through an interview which surely skewed their words, and anyways those words were spoken then at a specific moment in time. Those people are all slightly different today. Etcetera and so forth.

I can live with one more element of artifice, but as JG notes (I think), it is artifice, it is a falsehood, smuggled in somewhat under the cover of darkness.

How does it compare with, say, photoshopping out a lamppost? (something I would never do!)

Friday, June 15, 2018


Having recently made some photographs that feature quotations, I was struck by the resemblance of a quoted remark to a photograph.

If I talk to you for a while, or read something you wrote, I might pull one of two lines of material from that. A sentence, a phrase, a short paragraph. By selecting what of that which you chose to say, I act in a role equivalent to that of the photographer. The photographer and I each select a single limited snippet of a larger whole, and display it.

This could be my best effort to represent the whole. It could be completely slanted, up to and including being the precise opposite of your actual intention in your words.

I am, in effect, "cropping" your words. This inevitably will emphasize certain aspects, de-emphasize others, and thus shape perceived meaning. In my previous post, I showed you some photographs and some quotations. The quotations, while verbatim and literally true in that sense, represent a conscious effort on my part to cast the photographed person, or people, in a revolutionary mold. I tried my best to balance the actual intended meaning of the interview as a whole with my desired narrative, and I am convinced that I dealt fairly with my subjects. I did warn them, every one, that the intent was to select quotes and to shape meaning.

And so I did that. I shaped the meaning of their words.

And then I superimposed those words, with their shaped meaning, on another object (the photo) intended to increase the perception of veracity.

I have made things which appear very true: This actual person, who you can see, spoke these very words.

And yet, the meaning was shaped. I bent the words spoken to suit my artistic goal. Not, I hope, too far. Not, I hope, beyond what the subject might reasonably have meant.

Indeed, I hope that by shaping their words, I can in some small way influence my interview subjects to adopt the slightly radicalized, the slightly more pointed, position that I imposed upon their picture. I will be giving a copy of the book to each of them.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

More Work

Some time ago I wrote this blog post about America's obsession with Guns, Cars, and Money. I even threw it into blurb's book making tool at some point, and fiddled around with it and tried to make sense of it.

Gloomy, depressing, and not necessarily with much of a point to it.

Eventually as I reported earlier I decided to interview younger people and see what they had to say, maybe build a more optimistic counter-narrative to go with the gloomy essay.

These are the results of those interviews, and the book is now in production. An edition of TWENTY FIVE which is a record for me. I'm going big.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Knowledge and Stuff

A friend of mine blogs on what I think I can fairly call a virulently anti-religious web site. While my friend is a bright fellow who is working hard to figure some things out, the community present there is... not. There's a lot of talk about how objectively stupid it is to believe in God which devolves rapidly into a competition to see who can most quickly illustrate their total unfamiliarity with the Old Testament while simultaneously saying the most horrible things about Christians.

I am not a devotee of any religious faith, but I find this sort of thing incredibly boring. Still, as this sort of thing does, it got me to thinking. "Why, exactly, is it objectively stupid to believe in a diety?"

So, my rough and ready grasp of mathematical philosophy in hand, I spent some time with Wikipedia's page on epistemology. I understand philosophy the way a welder understands ship design, which can carry you a surprisingly long way.

My rough and ready summary is that Epistemologists are concerned with the difference between a Belief and Knowledge. The latter is distinguished from the former by a process of Justification. Justification takes several forms depending on which school of epistemology you hew to, but in general comes out to a correspondence with the real world, in the sense of having predictive power.

Knowledge is the collection of beliefs about the strength of metal that allow us to build a bridge that will not fall down when the train passes over it. Whatever the process for justifying our beliefs about metals, welds, truss shapes, and so on, they are justified, the proof of the justification being observed when the train passes over the bridge without a collapse.

Knowledge is great stuff, I approve of knowledge. I was trained as a mathematician, and spent 20+ years writing software. I love predictability and correspondence with the real world.

But the religious believer, confronted with this and asked to provide Justification for their Belief in a God, correctly responds "but I'm not trying to build a bridge here." The sort of half-assed rationalist program that insists belief in a deity is "just objectively stupid" is itself simply on the wrong track. Predictability, correspondence with the real world, all those things that distinguish Knowledge from Belief, are simply not on the table. Someone in the conversation is definitely objectively stupid, but it's not the believer.

As a non-believer myself, what the hell does this have to do with anything, let alone photography?

Well, I suspect that Art falls into the same general camp. We're not trying to build bridges here. Predictability and correspondence with the real world are not relevant factors here.

We're trying to create experiences, feelings, emotional reactions. We're trying to create impressions and ideas. We know we're not going to get through to 100% of the viewers. Some artists might not care to get through to any viewers at all. Some would be content with half. Even talking about what percentage will "get it" seems to miss the essential point, somehow.

While human vision, sensation, and the human brain are (we suppose) just physics when all is said and done, this does not mean that some rationalist approach is going to get us anywhere. We might as well try to predict the weather by modeling the atmosphere as a shitload of molecules. We might as well try to understand biology in terms of Quantum Physics. None of these programs work, and so I theorize that any sort of rationalist approach to Art is at least as doomed to failure.

Arnheim and people like him have made credible cracks at nibbling away at it from a rationalist stance, but in the end they have not turned Art into a Science. They have built or discovered a handful of rules of thumb, perhaps a staff to lean on as we embark into the wilderness. The staff does not render the wilderness tame.

Luckily, we don't have to model the brain as a vast collection of interacting molecules. It happens that each of us possesses a more or less functioning brain of our own.

We have the capacity to feel, to emote, to imagine. Vast portions of our brain appear to be devoted to guessing what someone else's brain is up to based on facial expression, body language, eye movements, and so on. We can use our own brain to feel around what others might feel. If we let go of the Justification demanded by Knowledge, we can do something lovely, something that has its own, forgive the new-agey verbiage, its own truth.

Good work is done, I think, by following pure, unjustified, Belief, wherever it may lead.

Photographers, and I count myself among them, are perhaps alone among Artists in seeking some sort of rationalist underpinning to the enterprise. They want to know what the effect of moving the light up a little will have. They want to know how to make pictures that people will Definitely Like. They want the predictability of Knowledge.

This shows up in endless books about how to take better pictures. This shows up in the fanatically metric driven sharing web sites, in the burgeoning cottage industry of AI software that will Judge Your Picture or Fix Your Picture.

Photographers want Knowledge about photography. They don't want to Believe things, they want Justification. They want to be able to stamp out Good Photography in a predictable way. Photography in popular culture, in the magazines and web sites, proves over and over and over that the rationalist approach to Art is utterly bankrupt. It leads nowhere.

But we're not building bridges here.

You're on the wrong track entirely. Look more. Feel more. Just wing it sometimes.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Female Gaze II

I may have been slightly hasty in my previous remarks. Go figure!

I spent some time this morning just plain poking around to see what "female gaze" seems to mean out in the wild. The primary usage is in movies and TV shows, in narrative motion picture world. It makes a lot of sense there. These objects are built on a story which can be -- for instance -- literally told from a woman's point of view. There is a wealth of telling detail in the plot, the script, the set decoration, the direction, which can make the whole thing read as "real" at least in theory. Usually female gaze implies some degree of female authorship; the writer, the director, or both may be women. But the staff as a whole is assumed to be mixed, which helps to dodge a problem I'll go in to shortly.

I will believe, at least tentatively, that there are movies and novels which could only have been made by a woman.

If you restrict your search to "female gaze photography" you seem to hit a pretty short list of things. All of them are photographs of women by women.

Some pieces you'll see are retrospectives, which more or less reiterate the basic notion that women tend, slightly, to have a more emotionally open take, a more sympathetic eye. There's usually a sniff of "woo, women photographers, so special" but it's not overt.

Some pieces you find work on an overtly feminist narrative, usually talking about new and upcoming female photographers who are expressing a new, distinctly female, view of the world. This is where you find the nudes, but you also find a mass of outré gimmickry. Let's throw grass on the naked model, to subvert the patriarchy! Sherman gets dragged out in these pieces pretty routinely. The trouble with this work is that there's nothing particularly female about it, it's just outré pictures of women with some feminist text attached about how the gimmicks are actually bold attacks on heteronormativepatriarchy. Think up some gimmicks and you can do it too.

There does not appear to be anything here that is the equivalent of the mass of telling detail we might find in a movie written and directed by women, a mass of detail inaccessible to most men, a mass which renders a distinctly feminine take on the story. It's just grass clippings and blank expressions.

The last major thing we find is book projects. Again, pictures of women by women, which may include some of the material mentioned above, or may (as in the case of, say, Rayon Vert) be more or less just perfectly nice pictures of beautiful women, portrayed sympathetically, but not unusually so.

Notably missing in all of this is much of any reference to Berger's idea of portraying woman as they are, as their true selves. I, a white heterosexual male, have more truthful pictures of my wife than anything I saw in my morning's research.

Notably missing also, at least to my eye, is much sense of these works being things that could only have been made by a woman, or by women. If you weaken the proposition to would only have been made by a woman, it's not quite as bad. But still, nude women looking emo, blank-eyed models staring neutrally at the camera, lesbians holding hands, seem to be things that not only would have been made by men, but have been, ad nauseum.

The rebuttal to my position is likely to be something along the lines of "Andrew, you're just not seeing what I am seeing" which is possible. I am not, however, a wildly unsophisticated viewer of photographs. If I can't see it, you can be certain that many many many other people can't see it, and you should probably be open to the possibility that whatever it is you see is not actually present.

A common thread through the whole mess is this high risk strategy:

The use of the phrase female gaze is invariably used as part of a program to carve out a women-only space in Art. In cinema, this seems to actually make some sense. Complex narrative does genuinely reflect the lived experience of the author, and at present men and women experience life differently.

In photography this simply is not true. Your lived experience turns up, perhaps, here and there in small ways, but there is no monopoly on any of the material. It's simply too easy to copy tropes, and to borrow ideas, even unconsciously.

If, as a man, I attempted to write a novel or a movie from a woman's point of view, it would be a pastiche of lifted scenes detailing what it's like to check one's makeup in the mirrored walls of the elevator, and so on. The seams would surely be visible, and the whole would surely read as both false, and plagiarized. I can lift a photographic trope seamlessly, however. I don't have to stitch 100s of the things together to make a movie, I just need to borrow a couple to make a series of 20 pictures.

Female gaze in photography, as an attempt to carve out a women-only Photography, has two basic problems.

There doesn't seem to be anything particularly "female" or "male" in photographs, beyond a barely discernable subtle trend. Thus, this Photography risks (and is well on its way toward) becoming a set of tropes that you simply bang out. When men copy it, you can yell at them, and dismiss it as bullshit because they "don't get it" but their pictures will be indistinguishable from the "real" ones.

While I will stipulate that there may be a distinctly "female" way to make a film or write a novel, photography feels a lot more like carpentry to me. While there might be a female way to drive a nail, in the end the house will look much the same whether built by men or by women. So with the photograph.

The second problem is that once you segregate Art into "women-only" and "everything else" you set up to be attacked. The very next step in the program is for the power structure to start tearing down the women-only Art as inferior. If you've let it fall into the trap of simply being a basket of dunderheaded tropes, the attack is going to work, and by god it should work.

By all means, celebrate, uplift, encourage, and above all pay the female photographer. But don't pretend that her vagina magically imbues her pictures with some special, indefinable but clearly visible (albeit only to the anointed) way. It doesn't. If you see anything, you're almost certainly just seeing a handful of the emerging basket of easy tropes that are well on their way to defining the "female gaze" genre of uninteresting pictures.

If indeed we do end up with a simple basket of easily ripped off tropes being "female gaze," well, that's going to be a tremendous waste of a lot of things.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

"Female Gaze"

I'm not sure I actually have much to add past what I wrote some time ago back here. But I am going to take a swing at it, because I've been reading and thinking for a while now.

The executive summary is: I think the phrase "female gaze" is, mostly but perhaps not entirely, code for "pictures of boobs but it's ok to enjoy them because female gaze" which is basically a scam. The goal is to make pictures men will like (boobs) while giving them an escape hatch from just being pervs.

I've been slowly working through a couple of volumes on the history of women in photography. Essentially, it seems to boil down to "same as it ever was." There have always been opportunities (variously limited), there have always been female photographers (sometimes more, sometimes less, never as many as male), there is often pushback, there is lower pay, there are specific genres that tend to be female dominated. But always, there are a few, a very few, who break into the most male dominated corners of the profession, of the field.

Having looked in the last weeks at many hundred photographs exclusively by women, I am slightly more firm in my notion that I could pick photographs by women out at a rate slightly better than random. Designing a proper test, though, remains intractably difficult. At this point I would simply recognize a lot of the pictures by female photographers that you could dig up easily.

Still, there does seem to be a slight tendency toward better emotional content, a more open, perhaps tender, approach. A difference more felt than seen, and correspondingly difficult to get your arms around -- and therefore quite possibly a chimera after all.

Whatever the differences, they are slight, unreliable. Men and women take, mostly, the same pictures. The difference between Artist A and Artist B will always be far far greater than the difference between Woman A and Man B, as photographers.

Back around to that male gaze thing.

As noted in the comments the last time I visited this, John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" is relevant. Notably, Episode 2, which centers on The Nude. I spent some time watching and rewatching this thing lately, to try to extract from it Berger's way of thinking of these things and see how that fits with my own. I think I am largely aligned with him.

As I understand it, Berger's position and the approximate position of the women he interviews in the latter half of the segment, is that women are visually judged as if they were being examined by a man. There are ideas of availability (for sex), of the woman waiting for the man, and so on. This particularly appears in The Nude (The Nee-ood) in which the woman is explicitly displayed, is wearing in some sense a costume of her own flesh, posturing submissively for the male viewer. Even other women will judge a woman on these same criteria, because (as I noted in my earlier remarks) this whole mess is a long-standing social construct.

Berger notes that, occasionally, a woman will be depicted in a way that actually suggests herself, on her own terms, as she actually is rather than as she is objectified.

All of this material seems to swirl around the same set of ideas I favor when thinking about portraiture, the idea of the various masks we wear. There are the unguarded moments, the subject at ease just before perceiving the camera. There is Arbus's favorite instant, a moment later, when the face closes. There are various other masks that the poor portraitist imagines is his art -- the "camera face", and then there are the other poses and masks that appear later as the subject and portraitist work.

Berger's discussion, while never using the phrase, is clearly about "male gaze" probably because that phrase does not appear until 3 years after Berger's show. What makes it interesting and useful is that he provides a useful, if largely hypothetical, notion of what the opposite might be. If the underlying idea is of the woman posing or being made to pose, as an object for the judgement and pleasure of an abstractly conceived male viewer, then the opposite is the woman not so posing. In this, the woman appears as herself, as some kind of truthful representation of herself.

This, now, a bit sticky. Is this something that even makes sense? Is there a singular true Self that might shine through? I am not certain. I am content, though, with the notion that a picture might reveal more or less of some True Self or another.

The simplest case here is surely the action shot. The nude dancer, the nude rock climber (see Stone Nudes) are at any rate surely too busy to be doing much submissive posing for a notional male viewer.

As an aside, occasional commenter Eric Kellerman, accomplishes this is much the same way. He's doing some abstracting, and in that way objectifying his subjects, but they certainly are not "posing" in Berger's sense, they're not focusing on appearing available to the notional male viewer. They're quite busy making abstract shapes, they're fully engaged in something else. In a way, the game here is to override the default, easy "pose" of available-to-male-gaze by insisting upon another pose, one that demands the entire attention and body of the model.

Just as I imagine I see a specific moment in an Arbus picture, a specific mindset in the subject, one might imagine a similar phenomenon in a more passive picture. Berger makes the case for 3 paintings which he characterizes as quite different from the usual European nudes, which he feels depict the woman as herself rather than as the object of the man's view. Looking at these, I see, I think, what he means. The women, while more or less in repose, feel more introspective, they feel as if they are perhaps not posing, posturing, intimately aware of the painter's gaze. The subjects appear to be in themselves, inhabiting their own bodies as it were, without much concern for the viewer. They are, in a way, just as busy as the Stone Nudes, but with their own thoughts and emotions rather than with The Wall.

Which leads us around to Jörg Colberg's latest, a review of yet another bunch of sexy pictures of young women, by a woman, supposedly under the safe umbrella of the female gaze. Now I don't know what the hell Jörg means when he says "female gaze" and I am moderately certain that he doesn't either. He could no doubt write or speak a torrent of words about it, but they would not mean anything.

Let us examine the sample pictures from Rayon Vert through the lens of my interpretation of what John Berger has to say.

I dunno about you, but I ain't seeing it. These women appear to be completely aware of the gaze of the camera, indeed they appear uncomfortably aware. They strike me as struggling to pretend that it's not there, while simultaneously posing in the usual ways. The first one, in color, might be a moment as the model is in motion, or any number of things, but what it appears to be is a model literally thrusting her nipples toward the camera, while demurely looking away in a transparent and clumsy sham of introspection and unawareness.

This is soft-core porn dressed up in the guise of 3rd wave feminism, with a bunch of words about rejecting the patriarchy. This makes it ok for people like Jörg Colberg to look at some pretty young tits while allegedly not being patriarchal assholes.

I like looking at pretty young tits, whether they're posing, posturing, oblivious, or something else entirely. I decline to feel shame about this. I also decline to be taken in by some would be artist "giving me permission" as long as I toe the line on a bunch of post-modernist bullshit. I don't need your permission, and I don't need your po-mo bullshit either.

Now, I dare say it is possible to truly photograph a nude woman, in repose, at a moment of un-selfconsciousness. A woman, perhaps still posing, but at any rate not posing under the aegis of traditional male-based ideas. It might be easier to photograph such a woman simply pretending successfully, it is after all, called "acting" and I suppose it's possible. It's bloody rare.

I can think of a small handful of such pictures, maybe.

What seems to be all too common is female artists photographing naked women, often but not always beautiful, and then writing some nice sounding text that lets men off the hook because "female gaze", which allows the men to quietly and yet publicly enjoy the tits, leading the men to say nice things about the art. That's one way to get a grant, a show, or a book deal, I suppose.

Monday, June 4, 2018

A Case Study, of Sorts

For a project that's growing slowly closer to completion, I am photographing and interviewing younger people.

The most recent interview was with a couple of my neighbors, a young couple that I had first thought were lesbians. After I met them (we have dogs, and thus meet from time to time in the natural pattern of walking the dogs) it became clear that there was something more subtle going on. This is not my first rodeo, so I didn't bother trying to guess exactly what, simply filed them in to mental "nice dog people, some gender thing going on" folder which, I admit, is empty at the moment except for them.

Recently I accosted Clove, one of the two, and requested an interview/photo session, which was granted, huzzah! In the course of this discussion, Clove clarified that they are "gender non-binary" and prefer the use of the pronouns "they/them" and that I should refer to them as such in any completed work.

As an aside, I appreciate profoundly what appears to be a trend in the non-binary community to use "they/them" pronouns rather than any of the neologisms "ze/zir" and so on. I never could get the neologisms straight, but even the AP accepts "they/them" as gender neutral singular. Thank you, gender non-binary peeps!

Anyways, the work I have in mind doesn't actually refer to the subjects in the third person, so it was a non-issue.

What's not a non-issue is the mugshot that accompanies their testimony. It occurred to me that since neither Clove nor Jackie typically project much in the way of masculine cues, I (and presumably other people) tend to read them as feminine. Thus a photograph of them together is likely to read as "lesbian couple" which is not correct. OMG! This "coding" business is actually real. Since the point of these pictures is to present truthful testimony, I think it's important that the photographs be truthful.

As another aside, I find it interesting that "not masculine" seems to come out "feminine" in my brain. Would "non-feminine" read as "masculine" to me? I don't know. Jackie and Clove do present, I think, a few feminine cues. But subtly, and not all is clear to me.

So, I put my mind to it, and shot them as neutrally as possible. Even shoulders, looking straight on, neutral expressions.

I think it worked pretty well. It reads, to my eye, as ambiguous and distinctly neither masculine nor feminine.

Since I haven't asked for permission to use their pictures generally, I won't share here. The Final Project will be viewable as a book preview on blurb in a few weeks, and I might do a blog post with the work presented as itself earlier. I will cite this post as suitable.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Digital Flow

In my previous remarks I pointed out that it is possible, even easy, with a digital workflow, to fall into a pattern of crowd-pleasing.

This, I am coming to think, might be a more general problem. I see people saying things like "color? Or black-and-white?" and they throw up some picture with a black and white conversion of it for comment. Others weigh in, invariably about 50:50 color versus black-and-white, with the usual inane blur of trivial suggestions. Take this as a proxy for myriad similar conundrums.

Not that I am some film zealot, but if you shot a roll if Tri-X or TMax "back in the day" you pretty much had one choice, which was black and white prints. After a while, even if nobody pointed it out, you'd notice some things, at some level. Perhaps not even consciously. You might notice, for instance, that without some care in framing the thing in the foreground would get visually muddled up with stuff in the background. You might start to place tonally light subjects against dark backgrounds, and vice versa, or some other things.

In these modern, degenerate, times, you have more choices. You can try color, say. Maybe the subject is red, and the background is green. In black and white the foreground and background are an indecipherable muddle, in color they're distinct. You can't put your finger on it, because you just got your camera, but you like the color one better.

I suspect, rather strongly, that the vast flexibility of the digital workflow presents myriad opportunities like this one to do what we might think of as the opposite of learning. Because you can so often bang away on the sliders until it "looks good" and because even if you can't, you can simply move on to the next frame in a fraction of a second, you can avoid learning anything. I am constantly surprised by how unclear many people are about what the sliders even do.

The slower and far more limited processes of film made us stop and think. You were far less likely to simply try some random thing, because even if you had the negative mounted and the chemistry mixed, you're still looking at a commitment of several minutes to try your idea out on a single test print. It paid you to think for a moment. Now you can grab the slider and start moving it before you even consciously decide to.

I am, by the way, intimately familiar with this dynamic because my biggest failing in the darkroom is that I don't sit and think about the print enough after it comes out of the fixer.

Now, you certainly don't have to be a dope and simply mash sliders. When I go to work on some picture, I generally have a very clear idea of what I want, and I just do that. I am time constrained, and have no interest is simply milling about in folders full of pictures tinkering with them at random. There are loads of people, though, who seem to find precisely this to be a jolly way to spend an afternoon.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Critique: Yea or Nay?

I'm on the record as believing that no artist should ever pay the slightest attention to any commentary on their work.

I am also on the record as believing that an artist should definitely listen to what people say about the work.

So. Yeah. People have even noticed this.

In what follows I'm going to talk about what is commonly called "critique" as, instead, "review" because I want to avoid confusion with criticism, which is to my mind something quite different. So, the model goes: you show someone some work, and they offer you "review" in reply, addressed specifically to you, regarding specifically the work they have just seen.

It seems to be that there are really two distinct axes to what you might observe in these reviews. The first is a personal response:

"Great shot!"
"That model is super hot!"
"What a beautiful castle!"
"That is an insightful critique of Nationalism!"

Buried in here is, as often as not, a purely social function. Here is where we see the brisk trade in ego strokes, we see expressions of friendship -- or enmity, we see admiration -- or detestation -- of the subject matter, and we even see something of what I might consider criticism.

Nowhere on this axis do we find suggestions, or attempts to teach.

That's the other axis. That's where we find suggestions, things the photographer might have, or might yet, do differently. This is where we find the admonitions to lower the light a few inches, to clone out the leaf, to shoot at a different time of day.

On this axis there is inevitably an element of a power play. A question inevitably present in the reviewer's mind is "will they do it?" and the corresponding question "ought I do it?" will occur to the reviewee.

The most dangerous, and most common, suggestions will concern post-processing. "Clone out the seam" is many things, among them a direct challenge: Go do it now, and show me the result. There's a good chance the reviewee will have Lightroom of Photoshop or whatever up right now, and can do it immediately. If they do, they will likely be rewarded with ego strokes, and will be given more instructions to follow.

This is natural. We are all of us delighted when someone takes our suggestion. It's evidence that we are respected, that we are to be obeyed. It's evidence of our power. The very next thing we are likely to do is test the limits of that power, that respect, that obedience. That looks great! I think maybe crop a little off the left to balance the frame? is going to be the very next thing we try out.

The reviewee is developing a habit of obedience, of pleasing the viewer by complying.

This is terrible.

It is a process vastly enhanced by the modern digital workflow. Vast arrays of changes are a few clicks away. It's easy to comply and to get your attaboy reward. It is the most natural thing in the world to fall into a loop of review, feedback, and compliance. Once they've got you cloning stuff out and adjusting color balance on command, you're a short step away from putting the lights where they tell you to and shooting the subjects they like.

To be fair, this has always been with us. Back in the Dayes of Yore, though, review was offered on wet prints, proofs if not final results, and the reviewee naturally had a certain amount of resistance. Compliance was simply more difficult and time consuming. There was time for contemplation, time to digest and internalize the suggestions. Time to synthesize several suggestions into a coherent whole, rather than simply knocking them off obediently, one by one.

This, really, is the crux of the matter. Specific suggestions for what the photographer could have, or yet could, do, need to be digested and internalized. Ultimately the reviewee needs to please themselves first, and the reviewer, well, perhaps never. The reviewee needs time, emotional distance, to do this work, time and distance that are often simply not available in the hurly-burly world of digital/online/media.

The first axis of review I mentioned, the personal response, is less problematic. It contains no particular actionable advice, and so won't necessarily lead to a cycle of obedience. It can contain rewards and punishments, which drive the cycle, though.

I have no particular problem with Art made exclusively for the Artist, that can be a fine thing. If, as many of us do, you harbor at least some vague notion of touching other people with your Art, you do need some kind of connection, communication, contact, with the people of the world. And yet, you cannot obey them, you cannot seek particularly to please the people of the world without losing your own way. The challenge is to balance the opposing needs: to make contact, and to retain self-reliance.

What does this all mean? I think it means that we should take care in how we offer review, in how we seek it out, and how we accept it.

Show, as far as possible, finished work.

Offer, as far as possible, generalities rather than specific actions to be taken.

As far as possible, take time to digest. Commit to not placing hand to mouse for, say, 24 hours, and then do so with the intent to serve your own impulse, your own impression, your own idea, first.

Friday, May 25, 2018

I Don't Like Cameras

There it is. I don't like cameras.

Well that's not entirely true. I like fiddling around with precision equipment bristling with buttons and dials as much as the next fellow. I have in the past enjoyed testing these things, working out the challenges of how one might squeeze sharpness out of the lens and so on.

But as actual picture making tools, I don't like them much.

I find that I separate the two tasks of fiddling with the camera, and of taking a picture. The two are almost unrelated, and when they do collide, it's not fun, it's frustrating. On the best days, I am sufficiently competent to avoid having to do any conscious fiddling, so the camera is mostly not in the way. Other than physically. On the bad days, when some damned setting or another is in the wrong place, or I've forgotten which way the lens turns, or whatever, the camera and all its buttons and dials is merely an impediment.

I get the impression that for some people there is real pleasure in blending the two activities. Smoothly dialing in just the right set of parameters for the situation at hand with a swift sequence of motions, like a small boy solving a Rubik's Cube, and then BAM nailing that picture of the great blue heron taking off, I suppose I can imagine, kind of, the pleasure inherent in that. But in real life, I haven't much interest in Rubik's Cubes either.

I just don't like cameras very much.

Saves me a lot of money.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Art's Easy

Art is easy.

All you have to do, really, is look inside yourself and find some sort of emotion, idea, a feeling, something, of roughly galactic mass. Then you drag that out where you can see it.

Then, by a process I can tell you nothing about because you must discover it yourself, except that it will involve astronomical amounts of effort, you translate that galactic mass of whatever-it-is which is meaningful only to you, in to something that might be accessible to others.

I was watching a Sally Mann interview (I swear to God I do not do this all that often, just every now and then) in which she, as she often does, insists that she possesses not one scrap of real talent or genius, or even technical skill. She chalks it all up to luck and a lot of trying.

While I may have a few quibbles with Mrs. Mann on the first couple of points, it is worth noting that the really great artists work like rented mules. Mozart, who Mrs. Mann cites as an example of actual genius, was certainly a party boy. Lazy and incompetent. Still, he worked endlessly when it came to writing down music. In a working life of something like 20 years he wrote something like 200 hours of completed music, arranged, orchestrated, often with vocal parts and so on. At a wild guess, this works out to something like 1000 pages of music per year. Granted, it seems to have come into his head fully formed, so in a sense all he had to do was write it down.

Still, no matter how you slice it, Mozart's brief career involved a shocking amount of simple dumb labor.

There was evidently a famous rock climber, one of the early greats of Big Wall climbing, name of Warren Harding. He was one of the team that first climbed El Capitan in Yosemite, an ascent that took 27 days. Nnngh. On a later ascent on a different route, also many days in length, he and his partner seem to have finished the last couple of days without food or water. Possibly I mis-read it, and they had water.

Regardless, Harding's main useful trait seems to have been simply endurance. Endurance being useless without it, one can assume that he was also staggeringly stubborn. He simply wasn't a particularly good climber. Better than me I assume, but compared with his contemporaries, not top drawer at all. But he could really hang in there.

Harding, according to Wikipedia, related a story about climbing with an extremely skilled and technically competent British fellow who at one point exclaimed in frustration, "My GOD, Harding, you can't do anything!" to which Harding claims to have replied, "I know! But I can do it forever!"

And that, in a way, perhaps, is what Art is about in the end.

It's easy to start something. Much harder to finish it. And maybe, just maybe, the harder it is to finish, the better it is. Sometimes.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Photographing People

Just a short update, I think. I've been busy with many things.

One of the things is work on a project that has lain fallow a while, because I couldn't figure out how to finish it. Eventually I realized that the way forward (well, one of the ways forward, and the one that works for me) is to interview and photograph people. So, yeah, pretty much getting right up close to people, interacting in several ways, and so on. I actually have an audio recording device, and a camera, so it's pretty invasive.

I've been working on people I know or kind of know, or at least have exchanged words with. They need to be young, so there's at least a 20 year age difference which honestly means that I don't know them that well even if I know them some.

So, it's a bit fraught, a bit stressful. I have to screw up my courage.

But it's going well. Thankfully, the pictures don't need to be anything more than mug shots. I am having trouble remembering that I need copy space, but thankfully I have a habit of framing too loosely anyways, so there's that.

Hope to have something to show off in a week or so.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Modern Pictorialists

I am inspired here by a recent article on Luminous Landscape: A Moment of Clarity which I think is members-only, but you can still look at the pictures. I will, as an aside, remark that despite the title and the pictures it is not about simply slamming the Clarity Slider all the way to 11.

No, the piece is about a technique in which you nail your camera down firmly and then take a bunch of pictures of the same thing, doing the usual HDR dance of multiple exposures to capture loads of dynamic range, and then more pictures to get dramatic lighting, and then layering it all together in photoshop to produce a composite. The line that caught my eye was "Skies can be taken anywhere and dropped in" which is a classic bit of Pictorialism (against which the Pictorialist Emerson railed at thunderous length, to be sure). The result is, by the way, invariably a sky that looks pretty good but doesn't quite work. To my eye, David's pictures look like composites, and I think it's because the light doesn't quite work. It's close, but not perfect.

This sparked a memory of a visual artist and photographer who gets talked up a bit here and there, Antti Karppinen who has a variety of weird techniques in his composites, notably hue-matching various random elements. Which certainly creates a strong unifying force, but makes the results look ridiculously fake (albeit very painterly). Note, for instance, places where someone's skin tone is actually the same hue (although different values) as the wall behind them. Say what? That's just odd. Again, this strikes me as philosophically very Pictorialist.

But let's back up a bit and think about Pictorialism more.

In these degenerate times we think of it as mainly just scratching negatives and mashing on gum-bichromate prints until they look like lousy paintings. Maybe a bit of soft focus thrown in for good measure.

Pictorialism is, though, much more than that. It is the idea that photographs might usefully be designed to look like paintings. It is a set of techniques devised for accomplishing that. It is Impressionism re-cast in photographic terms, the idea that the photograph should "give the impression of" whatever you're trying to depict. It is the idea that the photograph should not precisely reproduce the world, but that it should re-create the experience of seeing that world.

This brings us naturally around to a completely different thread of Modern Pictorialism, namely Sally Mann.

I think this reveals an interesting bifurcation in the ideas that made up Pictorialism.

While people like Antti and David are, essentially, using a set of techniques to produce pictures that look cool, people like Sally Mann are using an almost 100% disjoint set of techniques, also recognizably Pictorialist, to make pictures which are.. something else. Perhaps Expressionist. Which overlaps, as nearly as I can tell, with Impressionist but which isn't quite the same thing.

This, I think, faithfully recreates the scope of the original Pictorialist movement.

On the one hand we have work that is, well, how to put this kindly: conceptually thin? Yes yes, I get that it's Cupid and she must be Artemis, but what's the point? Is it really just to cram in classical allusions? I'm going to rudely lump Antti and David in here. Overwrought, in a fairly literal sense, kind of twee. One of more sort of thin ideas, mainly just visual ideas, thrown down onto the page into what boils down to a fairly fake looking pastiche. Cool as hell, but not really something you're going to spend a lot of time with unless you're trying to deconstruct the photoshop methods used to make it.

On the other hand, we have conceptually fairly rich material. Usually less overtly over-worked, presumably because in general when you've got actual ideas and emotional impacts to make, you spend less time screwing around trying to mashing meaning and weight in with your fists.

In a very real sense, I think we're looking at a case of same as it ever was here. It's tempting to, again, throw the baby out with the bathwater and insist that only Straight Photography is worthy, and we certainly see an exuberent school of that line of thinking.

Perhaps, though, we could strike a path based not on the methods and "the look" of the thing, but rather on whether or not the artist is successful in imbuing the work with something worth being imbued with.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Hi Jörg

So take a gander at Jörg Colberg's latest, which is playing very well with the "woke" art community, right over here: "Picturesque Photography" and then look me in the eye and tell me that our friend isn't reading my blog. So, hi Jörg, glad you can find some ideas here you can use.

It would play a lot better if his indictment didn't apply pretty much just as well to him as it does to lots of other people. Much of the tripe he's praised roundly in the last few months falls under exactly the same aegis.

As a nice young woman I spoke to on Wednesday said, "It's like Orientalism, but for the midwest" and while Jörg may be slightly less guilty of it than some, he's certainly guilty.

Friday, May 4, 2018


Let's suppose that you're photographing some basically human things. So, we're setting aside Landscapes, Abstracts, Still Lifes, Macro Photos of Bugs, and so on. This is a lot of stuff, to be sure. But let's suppose you're shooting Street, or Documentary, or something like that.

The essential hurdle photographers run in to here is People. Can you, or Can You Not, photograph people from up close and personal?

People have a sort of bubble around them, I imagine it shaped a bit like this:

The edges of the bubble are vague, the size and the fuzziness are personal and contextual. The point is that the closer you get to someone, the more likely you are to have to engage them socially. You can get closer from behind than from the front. As you approach, at some point there's a chance of eye contact, of registering your presence. At some point there's an obligation to acknowledge the other person. At some point someone's going to have to say "Hi" or risk a horrid awkward silence.

There is, for everyone, a cost associated with entering the bubble. It's going to take effort and energy. In the first place you either need to interact socially, or consciously thrust down that urge. In the second place, there is risk of rejection, of a negative social interaction. This is true, I think, for everyone. Except, perhaps, for sociopaths of a certain stripe. We're social animals, and this is part of that.

Some people can and do enter those bubbles constantly, other people never, ever, enter the bubble. The latter take a lot of pictures of people from behind, or in the distance. The latter will often have a line of patter about how they want to abstract the humanity of the scene or photograph something Universal rather than specific or whatever. And, sure, that could be a thing. Those are legit pictures too.

I have a hell of a hard time entering The Bubble myself. I'm socially competent, but not very gregarious. I'm an introvert, so these things consume quite a bit of energy.

But here's the rub. If you won't enter The Bubble, your camera isn't in The Bubble either. And that in turn means that people looking at your pictures are not in The Bubble. They're outside. People in the frame are beyond the boundary of social interaction, they are safely distant. They might be far away, they might be turned away, they might simply be distracted.

Be keeping yourself emotionally safe, by taking pictures from that safe emotional distance you make pictures which are -- duh! -- emotionally distant. It's baked in. You can't fake it. We're social animals, we know intimately, powerfully, when we're inside that emotional-engagement zone, and when we are not. A long lens is not going to make up for your timidity.

As a consequence of this the emotional palette of your pictures is limited. You can go all the way from "dystopian hell" to "neutral." If the scenes are of a sort in which we expect social things to occur, and there is nothing social in the pictures, it's going to feel off. If you simply leave people out, you're likely to end up with an "abandoned" vibe, although it's just as likely you simply waited for the moment when nobody was in-frame. If you photograph people from behind, or from a distance, it will feel anonymous, distant. Even a crowd can be photographed as distant, aloof, unsociable.

Suppose you want to photograph human scenes, pictures in which we expect some sort of social engagement. Suppose you want to project a positive mood. Well, you're going to need to get into some bubbles and engage some people. Your camera needs to be engaged, so the viewers of your pictures feel engaged.

Perhaps this is what what's-his-name (was it Capa?) meant when he said something about "If your pictures aren't good enough you're not close enough."

Thursday, May 3, 2018


Mike Chisolm reminded me obliquely that Jack Kerouac wrote a lot of haiku, and that these are easily my favorite things in his oeuvre. So I went and got out my edition of these things and whiled away a little happy time.

And then I made a picture.

The sound of silence
     is all the instruction
You'll get

I call it incisive lens-based criticism of Kerouac's poem but you are welcome to consider it this picture that popped into his head after he read the poem which I think means the same thing.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

AmeriKKKa Sucks Porn

I ran across this thing this morning: Susan Lipper, trip: 1993-1999 which has, I suppose, its merits. Blah blah uniquely female perspective feminist etc etc. What it shares with a lot of other work we've seen is this vision of an America that is terrible. It is probably an "incisive critique of Trump's America" or some goddamned thing. We see way too much of this shit, because coastal elites and Euros love it.

Even middle Americans produce this garbage for the slavering effete. I'm looking at you, Alec Soth.

So I said to myself, "Self, this stuff is not only shit, it's lazy. Let's prove it."

This morning I went down to Railroad Avenue in my small city of Bellingham. I spent about 50 minutes shooting, about 1 frame a minute. The goal was to produce two completely different views of the Bellingham. I am intimately familiar with the visual landscape of this street, so I knew it would easily generate the breadth I needed, so in that sense I cheated. But really, I spent less than an hour, shot less than 50 frames, and came up with two miniature portfolios of 5 pictures each.

Portfolio A:

And Portfolio B:

I could, of course, have rendered either or both of these in high contrast black and white, probably a bit muddy. I am stretching my wings.

Now, one of these things is a profound and insightful critique which engages incisively with the problems of Fascism and poverty in America, which is populated by fucking cannibals and losers. The other is a more upbeat sketch of a fairly vibrant community. Which one is which I leave as an exercise to the reader.

Neither one is a true representation of my 55 minutes of wandering on Railroad, although that time was more pleasant than not.

It's all in the edit (both the "edit" of the sequence, and the edting the pictures), and it's not that goddamned hard.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Kitsch Machine

If you gave a budget and some sort of control over policy to an architect, you would not be surprised when many of the solutions produced by that office involved building something. Replace the architect with a sailor, and boats will start to appear in the office's projects. People tend to fit the tools they have to the problems they need to solve.

When you purchase a camera, more often than not you will attempt to buy the "best" one within your constraints of budget and other preferences, which usually means that you're buying the camera with the most megapixels you can afford. Lately, less so, because everything has too many megapixels, and even the least interested consumer is starting to realize it.

Regardless, you probably know roughly how many megapixels your camera has, and you're probably roughly aware that the more you've got, the sharper your pictures will be. Or, more properly, can be. Might be. If you do the work properly.

One of the consequences of this is that people want to make sharp photographs. In general, they spent money for the sharpness. The tool they have in their hand has, still, a single Most Important figure of merit, which is how sharp the pictures it makes can be. Like the architect above, we're drawn to making sharp pictures. We know, or are rapidly taught, the importance of obtaining correct focus, of using an appropriate shutter speed, of using a suitable aperture, all in the pursuit of sharpness.

Naturally, we saw all these things in the days of film as well. Group f/64 was all over this stuff.

I think, though, in the days of film, there was more space left in the minds of photographers for the option. Many chose the route of sharpness (curse you, Ansel Adams, and your clear, accessible books). Not everyone did.

In this era, it seems to me that sharpness barely a choice. To make an unsharp photograph on purpose is as absurd as trying to sew a shirt with a knife, the tool simply doesn't fit the job.

It requires an effort of will to conceive of and shoot this picture:

Exhibit B. My camera has a feature which is widely enjoyed by other cameras. It has a cluster of focus points, which I think of as magic dots in the viewfinder which can be used to select what the camera should focus on. You can set the thing up so that the default focus point is one of them, whichever one you select. But, here's the cool thing, set it up right and you can focus on a thing, and then as the thing moves in the viewfinder the camera will follow it. The magic spot in use will follow the child, the car, the bird, as it and the camera move. Focus, ideally, will remain locked on the thing more or less whatever it does.

Once you discover this feature, and learn how it works, you're likely to start thinking about ways to use it. It might occur to you to go to a racetrack, just to shoot cars, Because, your camera can do that. I tried to use it with kids, but it turns out that it can't maintain focus on children that have left the frame, which they always do, so it's really more of a sports-mode feature.

I have no solid read on how many people went and spent a bunch of time shooting sports of various sorts because their Nikon camera was particularly good at following cars and players around, but the answer is unquestionably more than zero.

Compare the modern camera with the ancient. The view cameras and box cameras of yore were simple devices for projecting light onto a rectangle of film. The design made little to no judgement about focus, about sharpness, about really anything. Project light however you want, it's up to you.

The modern camera adds to this a motley array of conveniences which, in their design, implicitly judge. They meter tells you what your exposure ought to be. The autofocus module tells you that your focus should be sharp. Some cameras will warn you if they think your shutter speed is too low. The design drives toward a common singular goal of the sharp and colorful photograph, whatever the circumstance. Of course, this is because that's what the market wants. It is in general what people want: a sharp and colorful representation of what's in front of the frame.

The design has enshrined this general preference of the buying public as the ne plus ultra, as the actual defining characteristic of a good photograph. The general preference of the public has become the standard by which people who ought to know better (serious photographers, whatever that means) judge pictures. Arguably, the modern camera is literally a kitsch machine.

Say what you will about my bamboo picture, you're unlikely to describe it as kitsch.

I do know that we have way too many pictures of pee-wee football players in perfect focus, and way too many pictures of brightly logoed cars whizzing by a camera on a racetrack that looks like any other racetrack in the world.

Now, for many people it appears that this is photography: learning the capabilities of the machine, and developing the skills necessary to use those capabilities to the utmost. This is a perfectly good hobby, and I don't grudge it to anyone.

It's a bit like jigsaw puzzles (and I love jigsaw puzzles, to the extent that you probably should keep me away from them since I cannot stop once I start assembling one). Every camera presents new challenges, new features that can be learned, and in the end you get a picture that shows off your success with the new one.

It doesn't produce pictures that are interesting to look at, except as evidence of the hobbyist's degree of success, and I don't care about anyone's panning skills, or their ability to correctly use Back Button Focus.

It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, nobody really wants to look at the picture you made at the end. It's just kitschy evidence that you can perform a task.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Against "Craft"

Perhaps I've been reading too much LuLa lately, but it strikes me that we're constantly subjected to a drumbeat based on the notion of "the craft of photography." You can probably visualize the old bearded guy with the meaty, moist, lips rambling on tediously about "crahft" and reminiscing about the darkroom and The Fine Print.

Now, to be sure, I am not opposed to craft as a general idea. Doing a decent job at taking and printing pictures is great, and far be it from me to judge someone who wants to devote what seem to be absurd efforts to getting the smallest details Just So. It's your Art, make it the way you want it to be.

The trouble is that "crahft" is used to smuggle in a bunch of unsavory stuff, and it's that stuff I object to.

The first thing is that "crahft" discussions usually lead more or less directly to tools, and we learn about how craftsmen, true craftsmen, insist on the very best tools. Craft, after all, is about precision, attention to detail, an obsession with the smallest elements. Which, to an extent, is true. Except for the part about the very best tools.

While there are certainly craftsmen who have carefully organized shops filled with the best tools, this more accurately describes the moneyed dilettante. More often than not, a proper craftsman's shop will look like a shed into which garbage has been shoved for 30 years. Sally Mann, in a short film attached to her current show, describes with evident delight how she broke her ground glass, and now uses a piece of ordinary clear glass which she has covered with scotch tape. I am not making this up. I saw this object in the film. Now that's a craftsman.

So, when some old bugger with a long white beard and thick moist lips slips inevitably from "crahft" to discussion of how important it is to have the latest Sony A17 WhateverTheFuckIII, he's pulling a fast one. Either he doesn't actually know anything about "crahft" in the first place (likely), or he's selling something (probably), or he's justifying his own recent purchase of some silly gizmo (almost certainly).

Onwards to the second thing smuggled in with the discussion of craft.

If it's craft and highly technical and you need the best tools then surely it is also very hard. Right?

It's not.

I know how to do a lot of things toleraby well. I can bake a loaf of sourdough bread, I can cut dovetails, I can paint a wall, I can write, illustrate, and bind a book. Some of these things are harder than photography. None of them is easier.

Photography is pretty easy. Sure, you can work away at it, and get really really good at it (which I am not, particularly) and things come more smoothly and easily, and you get to the right answers faster than I do. Just like anything, you can always expend effort and get better. Just because you spent 1000 hours learning how to light and are now truly, legitimately, really good at it, doesn't mean that it's inherently hard. If you'd spent those hours on making cakes, you'd be damned good at making cakes. If you'd spent that time learning how to cut dovetails, well, let's be honest, you probably still wouldn't be that good at cutting dovetails unless you're some kind of dovetail savant.

The old bugger talking about "crahft" might not be selling a WunderCamera 2000, he might be selling you a workshop.

I print about as well as I do a bunch of other things, which is to say, "not bad, not brilliant, but not bad". I came into photography in the glory days of roll film, when the best emulsions ever were being introduced, when multigrade papers were getting really good (another thing: Sally Mann uses Ilford MG, so there) and so on. I can find my way around a darkroom, and honestly, it's not that hard. See above.

These days, almost nobody wants to go back to the darkroom. There's a lot of excuses, but the answer underlying it all is that digital is a hell of a lot easier.

Back in ye olde wet plate dayes, sure, there was some serious technical stuff, some real physical skills to master. By the time I started in, if you could follow simple recipes, you could shoot, develop, print, just fine. At least black and white. And now things are much much easier.

It's just not that hard. The degree-of-difficulty has been steadily trending downward since 1840, and we've reached the point where anyone can do it.

So, when someone starts talking about "craft", or worse, "crahft", just tune out. No need to be mean about it, but you don't have to pay attention either.

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,