Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Consider The Nazi

Indeed, consider him. It's usually a him. No, not the efficient cog in the late 1930s horror machine based in Germany, I mean the essentially powerless portly fellow with the swastika tattoo and the bizarre opinions about Jews.

He holds some odious opinions. Opinions which, even in this post-God postmodern era without those firm nails of divine judgement and moral certainty upon which to hang my rhetoric, I could argue cogently are evil, wrong, opinions. Let us anyways stipulate that Nazi-ism is not merely stupid but objectively wrong.

Still, the Nazi is a human being and as such agrees with me on many points. Do we want a warm place to sleep tonight? Yes. Enough to eat? Assuredly. Do we want the same for our friends and loved ones? Of course. Do we like fried foods? Probably. Beer? Likely. And on and on. The Nazi is a fully three-dimensional human, and in the same way we share DNA with our hairy cousins the apes, he and I (and by implication, he and you) share an immense amount of stuff. Banal, human, stuff.

Being human, the Nazi has within him the capacity for change and could, at least hypothetically, alter his (again, thoroughly odious) opinion on Jews some day.

I do not intend to apologize for his odious beliefs, nor to rationalize them. They are odious. But he, he is human.

Let us now examine Jörg Colberg's most recent review. I don't have the book, I don't know what the book really says, I have no opinion. I have perused the publisher's advert, which you can as well. So, what I know, is Jörg's position on the book, and also the way the publisher is pitching the book.

Now, Colberg's discussion is something to behold. While there's a little more to it, he casts this book as a Lovecraftian story about Small Town Germany, referring more than once to a sort of hidden underlying horror and dread that characterizes, if not actual small towns, at any rate the Mahler's vision of small towns. Small towns which, according to the thumbnail bio Colberg offers us in this piece, he appears to have precisely no experience with.

Having lived in some small towns in America, I can report that I at any rate never actually was aware of any such lurking horrors. But perhaps Germany has a Cthulu or a Shub-Niggurath slumbering under every town with a population in the range of 5,000 to 20,000 souls. I confess myself doubtful.

The publisher's pitch provides us with an unrelentingly depressing series of pictures which, to my eye, do not support Colberg's hidden horrors, but do support the idea of the young people as a kind of freak show. I do not see how to read the picture of the two girls with their clutches as anything other than pathetic, as rubes out of place in their home, but equally doomed to be out of place anywhere their cute clutch purses would fit in.

Not that anyone who's in these pictures is likely to read Colberg's review, or to flip through the publisher's slide show. A few might see the book, which might itself support or not the ideas that appear on the web. It's possible that they would be distracted by the pictures of themselves enough to not notice, even if the book does indeed expound these self-same themes.

I do not see any way to understand Colberg's remarks, or the publisher's position of this book, in a way that is particularly flattering to the people in the book. There is, probably, some truth in the book. But it is not a full truth. There are almost no circumstances in which people do not, from time to time, laugh. Surely small town Germany has more hope and more joy in it than we are led to believe? Surely these small town rubes are fully three dimensional human beings, rather more like us than different from us?

Colberg's review of the book, and the publisher's pitch on the book, both characterize this book as one which fundamentally declines to offer up its subjects as fully human. I am inclined to suspect that the book does, in fact, offer us up caricatures, a litany of two-dimensional (or less) freaks and rubes. It's certainly the chic thing to do. If you want a book deal, you'd better pin all your pictures to the wall, and throw out all the ones with someone smiling.

While there is more to it than simply this, Colberg and the publisher (and maybe the Mahlers as well) are offering up the rural and small town people of Germany yet another tiny insult, another in an endless barrage of small cuts offered by the self-styled urban sophisticates to those who have not been able to "escape" from the "lurking horror" of not being a cool Berliner in cool Berliner clothing drinking cool Berliner cocktails in a cool Berlin club playing very loud, but cool, Berliner music.

Is it any wonder, really, that when the jovial fellow from Alternative für Deutschland turns up with his brochure full of horrendous ideas, there these people look at the brochure with some interest?

"The Jews, you say? What's exactly is a Jew, anyways?"

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Off Topic

Jen, who is a friend of ours, and an awesome cool theater nerd married to Brian who told me everything I know about the inner workings of art museums, had a stroke. Which sucks. There are expenses.

So, there's a gofundme campaign.

To be honest, I don't particularly expect any of my tiny band of readers to contribute anything, and that is perfectly OK. But maybe you know someone who has a Thing about strokes, or is wealthy and looking for an opportunity to place a few bucks in the hands of some decent people, or whatever. If you do, it would be lovely if you passed the link on.

That is all!

UPDATE: I am humbled. Thank you to all of you. If you put up with my writing, you have already earned my affection, but I was startled, delighted, and deeply touched that some of you also are willing to give money to some strangers in need. Thank you.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Synergy II

Normally I eschew discussion of technique because, honestly, I am not a brilliant technician. I muddle my way through things.

But, here's an example of some ideas colliding in my brain.

A common thing that happens on the Internet where n00bs appear is that a n00b shows up with a need to take some photographs of products. His girlfriend is making artisanal crack pipes or something, and he has foolishly agreed to do her web site. He's got some setup and he's not happy with the results.

At some point some lighting hero will point him to a book or two, to the strobist web site, and someone will explain that you can't do product photography with continuous lights, you need to use strobes, because you need power to freeze that stationary crack pipe apparently.

Another pretty common problem that arises for n00bs as well as not-so-n00bs is shooting glass or reflective objects because, well, the reflections. This is legit hard, because you have to manage the reflections and not get a picture of your camera and a bunch of lights. You end up encasing everything in black material, and then using strip lighting or whatever to try to get highlights that reveal shape, and then you have to play games so your strip lights or reflectors don't end up reflected obviously, and then there's your camera reflected there too, arrrg.

So, obviously, anyone who isn't an idiot knows you can shoot product with continuous lighting, in fact in damn near total darkness if you have a tripod. Products don't move. You just have to use very long exposures. At this point, it popped into my head that you could use light painting methods to make the problems of shooting glass a lot easier. When you move the light around, it's not going to turn up as a sharp reflection of a light, it's just going to be a highlight; and if the room is basically pitch black to start with there's a lot less stray bullshit getting reflected (like YOU and like YOUR CAMERA).

So I hung up some black horse blankets, wiped down a bud vase, and busted out a flashlight. After a couple minutes of experimenting, and watching what was happening, I bounced the flashlight obliquely off a large chunk of paper to create a vertical strip of light, pointing the flashlight up so the spill would come back down off the ceiling. Then I used a 6 second exposure so I could waggle the paper around, to conceal, in the reflection, the nature of my ghetto "strip light." With a little experimenting you can create pretty much whatever pattern of highlights you want, and there was enough spill to light up the rest of the glass.

While it was not pitch black in there, it was pretty damn dark.

I did end up with a very slight reflection of the camera (I think?) which I burned down when I cleaned up the glass a little. Start to finish, 30 minutes, including ironing the black fabric under the vase. In addition to minor cleanup cited, +1/3 EV in post, to render the support slightly visible.


I have opined once or twice here and there that "female gaze" theory may be tending to place female photographers into a fairly narrow box. While men are expected to do whatever the hell they want, women are to one degree or another find some "female angle" or to roll out some "female" tropes. This is eerily reminiscent of the early 20th century when women could certainly work as photographers, but were expected to take pictures of soap and so on. The revolution then was when women ditched these "female gaze" kinds of things and just shot what they wanted.

Anyways, this, and the rest of the narrow and weird little world of MFA Student Photography is not surprising at all. The academy moves, inexorably, from one fad to another. "What, you're a structuralist? We will have none of that, we only do post-structuralist things!"

Indeed, when I was a graduate student, I was cautioned that point-set topology was a discipline on the decline. Publishing was going to be hard, a career hard. I persisted anyways, and for a variety of reasons failed to make a career of it. As far as I know, nobody publishes papers in point-set topology any more, 25 years later.

But anyways, set that aside. One of the several basic ways to get fruitful results in mathematics is to take from other, sometimes moribund, disciplines. Sure, analytic number theory may be your bag, but sometimes what you need is a little graph theory. This is why mathematicians drink a lot together, and collaborate across disciplines quite a bit. Now, it's a little easier to hide your borrowed Impressionist ideas inside your Expressionist painting, so mathematicians tend to be pretty up-front about borrowings than I suspect artists are.

It is certainly true that simply randomly jamming two separate disciplines together only rarely produces a good result. Sometimes that's all you've got, so you smash them together and see what happens. Maybe you learn something, maybe not. Maybe you get an idea for something better to add into the mix. Sometimes you start with a clue about what another good ingredient might be, and you follow that up. No matter how you slice it, it's a bit his or miss.

I made a series of photographs of flowers, once, which I handled the way one might handle one of those "fine art nude" photos. These things have turned up on this blog now and then, and here's a couple more.

Are they successful? Well, nobody has offered to buy enormous prints of them, nor have I offered such for sale. I have won no awards, nor entered them in competition. Many of the pictures that resulted are very beautiful. This was the project that, in the end, convinced me that I would not find that which I sought in the studio. These pictures are pretty, maybe even witty, but they move me not in the least, they represent nothing I am interested in.

But it was a very interesting experience, and I think that applying these kinds of sensual tropes to flowers is a pretty good idea. I am simply not the man to make any sense of it. (Arguably Mapplethorpe was.) I think it's a good idea because our experience of flowers is essentially sensual, and in western society cut flowers are all caught up in our sexual politics.

Anyways, this has something to do with the Female Gaze tropes and MFA tropes I've been talking about.

These ideas are not terrible in and of themselves, although they are a bit limiting. It's not a terrible idea to go down a rathole for a while and explore the limits of said rathole. But, what is a good idea is to come back out after a while, and see if you can add something to the mix.

What did you learn down the rathole, and what might combine in interesting and fruitful ways with that? What ideas can you borrow or steal, to add to your sea of mopey women with 1000 yard stares, to make better art? Or at rate to make art that suits you better.

When your situation and career places you inside a narrow box, this is a way out.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

"Firecrackers" - the MFA Crowd

There's a group, a kind of collective, I guess. It's some kind of organization which supports female photographers through grants, by showcasing their work, and maybe some kind of collective work. Anyways, you can poke around the web site here: Firecracker and try to sort it out yourself if you like.

To be clear, I think this is a fantastic mission, and I support it wholeheartedly.

My job, though, as I see it, it to point out not only what is good, but what is a bit dicey, what is true as I see it, setting my personal support aside. I ran into this outfit through a book, entitled Firecrackers, which is an in-print collection of women photographers. Available at good bookstores everywhere, I suppose? It's been an interesting read, and interesting look.

If, as I do, you make a studious effort to read the front matter, there's a good chance you'll make it through this one without giving up. The remarks are fairly short and not too turgid. A remark that caught my eye was that the editors sought to expand their reach beyond Europe (where Firecracker is centered) and include a more international group of women, without simply "box-ticking" which is a really commendable goal. Later, if one recalls this, one wonders "why on earth do all there pictures look the same?"

Which isn't quite fair, because there is a lot of breadth here. But there is also much sameness.

If you attend to the little introductory remarks for each photographer, one soon realizes why. While it is true that these women are from all over the place they have, for the most part, gotten some sort of BFA, MFA, or other degree in Art Photography from some western school, or they have won some sort of recognition from Magnum, that self-licking ice cream cone of photographic influence. This last makes sense when you realize that the founder of Firecracker worked at Magnum for a while.

At the moment the first artist featured on their web site is Raphaela Rosella, with a photo essay about women in a small town in Australia, where she grew up (if I am reading the text right). This women are First Nations (which I guess we used to call Aborigines?) and they are having a tough time. Racism and poverty is No Fun and shit be awful. You might, naively, think that since the artist grew up there that she is part of this community and photographing, as it were, from the inside. But no, as near as I can tell she's a white girl who went to Art School (BA Photography, Queensland College of Art) and a social worker.

Now, this is not an indictment of the work, far from it. The point, though, is that this artist as far as I can tell literally has more in common with me than with her subjects. Ms. Rosella, whatever her virtues, and despite growing up in a small town in Australia, is not substantively adding to the diversity of voices represented by Firecracker.

This is, in the end, a small and insular group of photographers. They all know each other, or at least know people who know people. They all either went to Art School in the 2000s, or hang around with people who did, or at the very least have been thoroughly vetted by people who did. So of course there is much sameness here.

This doesn't mean that it's bad. It's quite variable, and there are a couple of pieces in the book that I found excellent. Which, as always, means that you, and you, and also you, will probably find a few of the pieces excellent as well, and not necessarily the ones I did.

There are basically two things I want to talk about here, the first is a set of stylistic tics that turn up (and which you can see for yourself on the web site), and the second is the actual work in the actual book. So, at some point in what follows, I will switch gears. Try to pay attention so you don't miss it!

I have argued in the past that perhaps there is no such thing as a "female gaze" but rather only the absence of a "male gaze", and here I am, in a way, proven wrong. In fact the Art Schools of the west have constructed a kind of female gaze, in the form of a couple of tics that women can use to indicate that they are Serious About Women Stuff. Men could roll these things out too, but it would take a certain amount of courage to engage in such poaching, and I dare say the establishment would punish you savagely.

The first tic is: women staring neutrally. They may, and often do, stare at the camera, but optionally they can stare into space. If you lard your portfolio up with a whole bunch of these, then you can say anything you like about women's issues, and it will "read." You can talk about oppression, repression, empowerment, whatever you like. Since the faces are blank, serious, and maybe a little mopey, you can project any and all of these onto them.

I guess you can't say "it's awesome being a woman!" and have it read against a sea of depressed stares, but this is not a grant-winning message anyways. MFA students only make depressing photo essays. Well, the world is a kind of depressing place, I guess.

The key here is that there women are not having a good time, no smiles are allowed. Of the 110-120 odd photographs that include a female figure, maybe a dozen evince some evidence of having a good time. You can intermix these things with pictures of whatever. Maybe local objects and scenes that are related, maybe pictures of nothing, random roads, buildings, hands, a chair.

The second tic is: dress yourself up in costumes and place yourself in contexts that can be read as some sort of comment on feminine stuff. One dresses up in hijab made out of candy, another paints herself in various brightly colored settings, another poses in a honeymoon suite. Again, these can be read as whatever you want to say, as long as you (the model) make sure to maintain a neutral expression and posture, and deploy a good 1000 yard stare.

Now, probably only about half of the book consists of this stuff. And, to be fair, these are just tics and sometimes they work just fine.

It is only a matter of time before some male photographer drags out the first of these tics under a female, or gender-neutral, name, wins some stuff, and then is outed to the horror of all. Many will quickly delete a lot of tweets and say they knew all along.

Onwards to the book itself. The bit I liked the best deploys tic #1 in spades, made by Endia Beal (MFA, Yale). This is a series of portraits of young black women who are finishing school and preparing to enter the workforce. Beal has them dress and present themselves as "professional" and the results are both fascinating and disheartening. While a few of the women genuinely look professional, more than half are wearing very tight clothing with skirts that hit above the knee. Every single one of them looks great and at least half of them have no idea what to wear at the office.

It's a powerful commentary that unpacks in a bunch of ways if you're attentive. On the one hand, I am a hell of a lot more like their likely hiring managers than they are, and I would substantially mark down a lot of these young women purely on their clothing choices. Am I right or wrong? Not only does this make me despair for young, educated, black women, it (on the other hand) makes me question myself. What, exactly, is wrong with tight dresses with hems above the knee, eh? So, that's all good! Good work, Ms. Beal!

Another piece, by Katrin Koenning, which I radically did not like in this book, but which I recognized as something I'd talked about before. This illustrates the problem with books like Firecrackers. Koenning's piece has exactly zero chance of working if you don't give us most of the pictures. Nine pictures selected from the project completely loses the flow of light to dark to light to dark, it loses the fucking point. It comes across like a handful of junky snapshots of nothing, which is exactly what it is. If you chop my arm off, it's just meat. I get their desire to include her, because BA, Photography, Queensland College of Art, which appears to be one of the nexii from which Firecracker draws its people.

There's a glorious profile of a Russian weatherman living alone at 69 degrees north, shot I think in summer but with the perfect flavor of the light of northern winters. Just beautiful, emotionally evocative, etc. And none of the "female gaze" tropes whatsoever to muddy things up, just a tender, light, touch, the kind of thing that is, while gender neutral, perhaps more likely to be shot by women. The artist even allows him to look happy. (surely she didn't go to Art School?!! But she DID, ICP, New York. How?!! What?) I will go so far as to suggest that you look up Evgenia Arbugaeva, as her work is at the very least beautiful to look at.

And then there's a handful of tic #2 (the Cindy Sherman trope) which mostly don't work, because Cindy can act and these woman can't do anything except stare vacantly, as they have been trained to do in Art School or by their Art Schooled peers. There's a few other things that look like a bunch of junky snaps of nothing which could, I suppose, but broken fragments of better work like Koenning's, but to be honest the book does not motivate me to go find out. Which is sort of sad.

The "For Birds' Sake" work appears, as noted previously, in this book. I'm honestly not sure if I like it or not, but it's pure gender neuutral MFA material. If you look at the copy online, over here and scroll down a bit, you will find a picture of a dirt road.

This is classic MFA "documentary" style. This road means nothing, it could be anywhere. It's stuffed in there to provide evidence of the Serious Documentary Nature of the work, and perhaps also to provide some sort of visual cue. It could have been shot in North Carolina. It is unexplained. It's supposed to suggest... well, a road (or a hole, or a chair, or whatever) can suggest anything, isolated like this.

What makes this photo interesting is that someone involved in making the book decided to put a copy of it up front, facing the opening essays.

Now, I am prepared to admit that I might be missing something. But from where I sit, my tentatively formed opinion, is that this shot is a bunch of bullshit signifying nothing, and that very mystery is why the editors(?) chose to lead with it.

Duchamp's "Fountain" appeared to be nothing, but was in fact making a bold and powerful statement. This seems, over the last century, to have been converted by the mysterious alchemy of human stupidity and postmodernism, into the notion that anything and everything which appears to be nothing just might be something, and if someone is standing behind it mugging wildly, it probably is something.

Sometimes a road is just a road.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The MFA Crowd

John Edwin Mason, who is a historian at UVA, cited some work, saying "It's terrific work" and so I went and looked. Mason is a guy who teaches the history of photography, knows a lot of stuff, tends to be a bit on the identity politics end of things. He's interested in many of the same things I am interested in (race, power, politics, and what photography has to say about that), and is a genuine scholar. I attend to what he says, but agree with it only part of the time.

What he cited was this: You Don't Look Native to Me which I am pretty sure John likes not so much for the pictures or ideas, but for the "OMG a marginalized people" content. You know, which is a real thing. It totally sucks to be marginalized, and lots of good work has been done about this kind of thing.

I have written several essays about work in this vein that could accurately be described as "glowing" or perhaps even "hagiographic" so if it has occurred to you that I just hate pictures of poor people, nope.

This is not particularly excellent work. It is the standard output of the MFA crowd, better than some, not quite as good as others. All the pictures are willfully vernacular, and some of them seem to have no point whatever. The bullet riddled stop sign means nothing other than "rural" and the vaguely New Topographics pictures of the small cheaply built homes are not particularly on-point. I suppose we are to assume that these people are low-income? We see pictures of the marginalized people, and we see a few bits and pieces of how they live. Which is to say, exactly like all the other rural teenagers in the USA, except they have more Indian Stuff on their walls.
The color palette looks kind of like Portra film, which is another standard MFA trope. It says "I use film, but not like those lomography lamers" even if they're not using film.

In part this is simply "holy shit, rural people, so weird and poor" porn, very chic. In part this is "holy shit, marginalized people, I feel sad, we should do something" porn. Again, très très chic.

So, having established this work's place, now let us look at more of Maria Sturm's work on the same web site, in particular: For Bird's Sake which is about another somewhat marginal population on the other side of the world. Again, it's not terrible, but not great.

But look at both of these things side-by-side. They are almost literally the same photo essay down the neck tattoo.

The second one, about birds, I met a few weeks ago in a book, attributed to Cemre Yesil rather than Maria Sturm. If you look closely in that book, and on the web site I linked to above, you will discover unobtrusively noted that this is a collaboration between the two.

But what is interesting here is that the two photo essays deploy precisely the same tropes on really quite different groups of people. Both are on the outskirts of society in one sense or another, but otherwise they are radically different people.

This suggests that Sturm is deploying what we might call "her style" as a way to tell every story, rather than sorting through the situation and crafting an approach that will be well-suited to the story that she wants to tell. It feels like a novelist who decides "fuck it, I'm telling everything in first person flashbacks, because I know how to write that" which might be good or bad, I dunno.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Pictorialism Meets Gearheads

Note to Anonymous commenters: Random name calling by an Anonymous commenter is likely to be attributed to mrca, who has been banned from commenting (with one exception noted below) so if you're just some other random dolt, that's where your comments are going. Sorry.

I made a little page just for you clowns hate-reading me from The Photo Forum. Fuck off, stop reading my blog, there's nothing here you idiots are going to find interesting. I will try to link to this page each time in future I refer to your forum, so you morons have some context when inevitably your little spies alert you to the Mean Blogger.

In my occasional wanderings through the seedier sides of the internet (no, no, not the MFA people god forbid, just the forums) I happened across this interesting thread, which you may peruse or not as you prefer.

In this thread (there is a history of these dolts harassing me with DMCA takedown requests, so I won't be posting the picture here) we start with a photograph of a man holding a Mamiya RB67 in the manner of Hamlet interrogating Yorick's skull. There's a HUGE pile of text that explains in laborious detail why the picture is so great, followed by a number of comments agreeing that it is extremely great. The point of the picture was to show how wonderfully sharp the Nikon D850 camera paired with Zeiss lenses is, an exercise in absurdity because you can crank out just as pointlessly crunchy a picture with practically any camera and lens today.

Be that as it may, the point of the picture is to show off technical chops, and by god it does that. Well done, whatever your name is.

Following down a little we find the spoiler. Some other poster remarks that with all those goddamned lights the result is kind of flat. To this I will add that the subject appears to be floating, or glowing, because there's so much light splashed around on him against the relatively dark background, and also I don't believe that you intended the specular highlights on the camera to look like that.

This is of course met with fury and vitriol, which is pure delight to read.

Anyways, the spoiler is perfectly correct. While this thing is a technical tour-de-force, it looks outright weird when you stop admiring the rim lighting and whatnot, and actually look at the picture. This is a picture photographers love, but nobody else does. To everyone else, it merely looks "sharp" or possibly "clear" and a bit... off.

Stepping back slightly further, we can examine the idea. Yes, yes, the lighting hero has some story about an analogy between Hamlet's contemplation of his own morality[sic] and the dominance of digital photography over film, but that's pretty forced and wrong-headed. He's just sticking a literary reference in there to be cute, and to borrow some of Shakespeare's mojo for his own. Obviously it worked, the picture is Award Winning, after all! But I am not buying it, and neither should you. It's just an arbitrary random reference signifying nothing, it has no more weight than name-dropping Roland Barthes in your essay about photography.

This is exactly the sort of thing the Pictorialists were rightly panned for. Rather than having any ideas at all, let alone photographic ones, they would simply stick in a literary or mythical reference, and hope for the best. Look, this isn't just some naked chick, it's Aphrodite! Indeed, I would be astonished if you could not relatively easily find some gum-bichromate mess from the late 1800s with pretty much exactly this scene in it, albeit with a skull. Possibly a teapot, if you stumbled across some would-be wit.

So, this particular photograph is fascinating because while it is essentially just some gearhead flaunting his gear and his lighting skills, it nonetheless is essentially a near-perfect example of the errors of Pictorialism. While it is vaguely painterly, no painter would ever have so grossly misunderstood how light falls, and indeed neither would any Victorian-era Pictorialist. It was left up to modern photographers, with their baskets of lights, to mess up the fall of light to thoroughly.

This all suggests to me that the errors of Pictorialism are basic just human errors. Most of us simply aren't clever enough to say anything particularly interesting, so we reach for the same gimmicks regardless of era. Photographers still ape painters, badly, and still borrow cheap references in lieu of anything interesting 100-140 years later.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Broad Field

One of the things that fascinates me about photography and photographers is how broad the population is. There are all these little (well, enormous, often) cliques and regions of the field. There's photojournalists, amateur snapshooters, fine artists, and so on.

Just sticking to the Fine Artists, we have:
  • modern fellows like Alain Briot and so on who sell brightly colored landscapes in shops they refer to as "galleries."
  • closely allied but not quite the same, the black and white Serious Photographs who appear in LENSWORK and that Mike Johnstone likes.
  • the even more serious artists, who get big gallery shows. Sally Mann, Thomas Ruff, Cindy Sherman, etc.
  • The random crew of people I dig up from time to time, which surely represents 1000s of artists, very serious, very good, but obscure.
  • the MFA crowd who take themselves terribly serious but mainly turn in derivative lightweight muck that's trying to be political. This is mainly where Colberg hangs out.
  • the digital artist crowd who are mostly in it for the social media likes and maybe do ads as well. Google up Antti Karpinen.

What is curious here is that even in this narrow world of Fine Art photography, within each we have very little acknowledgement of the other groups in it. Most of these groups don't talk about antecedents, heroes, sources of inspiration except in terms of one another. Mostly, each group behaves as if Photography consists of their kind of work, and a bunch of irrelevant snapshots nobody cares about. The most serious group is the best at acknowledging their antecedents, and as you get into crappier and crappier art you get less and less talk about antecedents.

I am working my way through a book of contemporary female photographers, Firecrackers, which truly has much to recommend it, and which I will have more to say later. It is entirely the MFA crowd, being a diverse and multinational group of artists who all went to the same very very short list of schools.

At least three of the artists are dressing up in costumes and photographing themselves in constructed scenes in order to comment on some aspect of the feminine in culture. Anyone who had not been under a rock will recognize this as Cindy Sherman's schtick. Sherman, of course, is cited exactly zero times. The editors manage to equip the Ethiopian one with one antecedent, Malick Sidibe, who worked in a completely different country, 60 years and 2000 miles away, and whose work I hardly need to say has exactly no resemblance to the artist's other than being pictures of African people. This is roughly like saying that Ansel Adams pictures shows clear signs of the influence of Julia Margaret Cameron, because they're both white and sometimes photographed people.

As an aside, I find this particular reference to be very dubious. It is as if the editors could only think of one other African photographer, and so decided it was fine to lump Ethiopia and Mali together in this way.

The MFA crowd in particular seems to be very distinct. They acknowledge nobody else, and nobody else seems to pay the slightest attention to them.

The lighter weight but still serious landscape people seem to intersect pretty much at Ansel Adams, more or less universally claiming him as an inspiration, but otherwise ignoring everything and everyone else. The lighter weight but still serious everything-else people usually acknowledge 2 or more from a standard short list: Cartier-Bresson, Kertész, Koudelka, less often Capa, almost never Smith, and that's about it.

The digital artists don't acknowledge anyone because they're free, man, to do whatever the want, man.

The actual major players can, in general, speak at some length to their antecedents and who they attend to, where they came from, and where they are going. Some of them aren't going anywhere interesting but they are at any rate thoughtful about it.

It may be a wrong-headed feeling I have, my I cannot shake the sense that the more an artist knows and cares about their own historical context, the better they're likely to be. It's not a road to awesomeness, but it does feel like a necessary pre-condition.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Photography: AI Everywhere

To my longer-term readers: this is a pulling-it-togther post largely, but not entirely, redundant with other recent posts. It is intended for a somewhat larger audience.

There are two major trends in photography today.

The first is the ever increasing numbers of photos being made. I can't even be bothered to look up how many billions of photos are being uploaded to Instickrbook every minute or every day or every year. It's a lot. This is usually talked about in terms of how many photos there are, and how we are drowning in them.

This isn't quite right. Unless you're an instagram addict, most of the pictures you see in a day are still mass media: ads, news, entertainment. You see maybe a few hundred of those billions of snapshots. A picture of a movie star might be seen by a billion people, whereas your picture of your cat, or even of that pretty model, might only be seen by ten. The billions don't affect us much on the consumption side.

The billions are a reflection of how many people are now picture-makers. 50 years ago, maybe 1-2 percent of the world's population was a picture maker. Now, it's more like 20-80 percent, and rising. Is it reasonable now to say that basically every person on earth has had their picture taken? Has almost every object, every car, every hill, every waterfall, every beach has been photographed? If not yet, soon.

It's not really so many photographs! it's so many photographers!

A selfie styled using an AI, duplicated by cloning

Hold that thought while we take a look at the second trend: AI, neural networks.

All the top-end phone cameras use neural networks for something, be it Apple's Portrait Mode, or Google's low-light photography. We're changing from a world in which you pull pixels off the sensor and manipulate them in-place, leaving them fixed in their rigid rectangular grid except maybe for a little bit of cloning (usually). In the new world we will dump one or more grids of pixels (frames, exposures) into a neural network, and what pops out is something new.

Perhaps soon we'll see sensors designed to be handled this way.

Perhaps sensors will have some big photosites for high sensitivity, and some small ones for detail (noisy). Perhaps the Bayer array will be replaced by something else. Perhaps it would be reasonable to skip demosaicing, and let the AI sort that out. Take a couple of exposures with this crazy mass of different sized pixels, some noisy, some not, some overexposed, some underexposed, some colored, some not. Throw the whole mess into the AI that's been trained to turn these into pictures. At no point before the AI starts working is there anything that even remotely looks like a picture, it's twice as raw as RAW. Maybe.

But whether sensors go this way or not, AI/neural networks are with us to stay.

As a simple experiment I used one of the online AI photo tools to uprez a photograph of some fruit, which I had first downrezzed to 100x80 pixels. The tool gave me back a 400x320 pixel picture which it created.

It looks a bit soft, but it's not bad, and it's much much better than the 100 pixel mess I gave it to work with. Here is the original, downrezzed to a matching 400x320 picture:

We can see that the AI was able to re-paint convincing-looking edges on the fruit, which were formerly jaggies from the downrezzing. The AI did not put the detail in the surface of the fruit back, obviously. How could it? While this is a pretty simple system, it is essentially painting a new picture based on the input (jagged) picture, and its "knowledge" of how the real world looks. Most of the little defects and splotches on the fruit are pretty much gone in the reconstructed one.

So, here's the key point: The uprezzed picture looks pretty real, but it's not. It's not what the fruit looked like.

There are really two areas where AIs can do things we don't want, and they're really simple. One is "what if they work wrong?" and the other is "what is they work right?"

Wrong is easy, everything gets rendered as a huge pile of eyes or kittens or whatever. It's amusing, maybe, but just wrong. What if the AI takes in a blurry picture of a toy gun, and repaints it as a real gun based on what it "knows" about guns? It's funny, or irrelevant, right up to the moment the picture turns up in a courtroom.

What about when it's working right? What happens when your phone's camera insists on making women's eyes a little bigger and their lips a little fuller and their skin a little smoother, and you can't turn it off because the sensor literally won't work without the neural network? Is this good or bad? It depends, right?

Apparently "snapchat body dysmorphia" is already a thing, with people finding dissatisfaction with their own bodies arising from their self-image as seen through snapchat. Retail portraiture often renders the subjects as a sort of plastic with worryingly intense eyes, but imagine what happens when you can't even obtain a straight photograph of yourself unless you know someone with an old camera.

Now put these two trends together.

Five years from now, maybe, pretty much every camera will have some kind of neural network/AI technology in it. Maybe to make it work at all, maybe just for a handful of shooting modes, maybe something we haven't even thought of. This means pretty much every picture that gets taken is going to be something that an AI painted for us, based on some inputs.

This means that in 5 years, maybe 10, not only will everything and everyone be photographed, but also every one of those photographs will be subtly distorted, wrong, untruthful. Whether we want them to be or not. Every picture of a woman or a girl will be subtly beautified by the standards of some programmer in Palo Alto. Every landscape will be a little cleaned up, a little more colorful. Every night photograph will be an interpolation based on a bunch of very noisy pixels, an interpolation that looks very very realistic, but which shows a bunch of stuff in the shadows that is just flat out made up by the AI.

We're going to have billions of cameras, from a dozen vendors, each with a dozen software versions in the wild. If there is a plausible scenario for something that could go wrong, at this kind of scale you can be pretty sure that somewhere, sometime, it's going to go wrong. Sometimes the AI will simply behave badly, and at other times it will behave exactly as designed, with lousy outcomes anyways.

The thing that makes a photograph a photo and not a painting is that it's drawn, with light, from the world itself. Yes, it's just one point of view. Yes, it's a crop. Yes, some parts are blurry. Yes, it might have been cloned and airbrushed. But with those caveats, in its own limited way, it's truthful. The new world, coming with the speed of a freight train, is about to throw that away. Things that look like photographs will not be, they will be photo-realistic paintings made by neural networks that look a lot like what was in front of the lens.

They'll be close enough that we'll tend to trust them, because the programmers will make sure of that. That's what a photograph is, right? It's trustable, with limits. But these things won't be trustworthy. Not quite.

These magical automatic painting machines, will be trained by the young, the white, the male, the American, by whomever, for use by the old, the non-white, the global. Even if you object to "political correctness" you will some day be using a camera that was trained to paint its pictures by someone who isn't much very like you.

There will be consequences: social, ethical, cultural, legal. We just don't know entirely what they will be.

Instagram Changes!

Instagram is making changes to allow alt text for the visually impaired. At first I thought "wow, that makes no sense" and then I realized that text is searchable in ways that pictures are not.

This initiative (powered by AI/neural networks again, by the way) has nothing to do with the visually impaired, and everything to do with making their pictures ever more searchable, every more advertisement-capable. It's another place where people can shove brand names of products they're definitely not being paid to endorse.

Will the automated/AI-powered text descriptions recognize brands? That would be awesome. Even if not, the manual variation will surely allow it!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

So. Many. Pictures!!!

It's probably been written about so many times that these articles are actually tailing off. I am pretty sure I have taken a swing at it a time or two myself, and probably said some dumb things.

As everyone knows, a billion or a trillion or a godzillion photos are uploaded to the internet every minute or day or year or something. So many photographs. It must mean something, it must have some impact! Usually people say that it's causing us to devalue photographs in some sense, because we are so very very awash in them.

Except, here is the interesting thing. We are not awash in these pictures. Depending on your habits, you might see 10, 100, maybe 1000 of these photos uploaded by the phone-waving unwashed masses. A billion photos are uploaded, but you are not looking at a billion photographs. One photograph of the Duchess of Cambridge gets viewed a billion times. Your photograph of a cat is viewed 10 times. A billion photos of cats has, from the consumption side, the same weight as 10 photographs of Kate.

My personal consumption of photographs is, like everyone else, almost entirely mainstream media: ads, entertainment, news. These are thrust at me a dozen at a time, every few seconds that I spend online. Only when I go to social media do I see anything from the much-talked-up billions, and then at a remarkably slower rate. Even a devoted instagram-scroller is consuming a 1 photo every couple of seconds. At 10 hours a day, this insane slob is consuming 18,000 photos from the billions.

Flip through a print magazine, and you'll get, I dunno, a couple hundred pictures. Flip through a news web site, at this very moment there are something like 60 photos on the front page of If you're like me, you're seeing a few thousand photos a day. Mostly mainstream media, a few Serious Photographs (I usually have a photo book or something lying around for a bit of a read for a few minutes here and there during the day), and a few hundred of the social-media photo storm. If you broke every phone camera on earth at this very second, my consumption of photographs tomorrow would remain numerically much the same, and probably a little bit more pleasant.

No, the substantive change is not on the consumption side. There is no "devaluing" of photographs because we're exposed to so many of them. There isn't even any substantial extra exposure to photos.

The substantive change is on the production side. It is not that we look at more pictures, but that we take more pictures. In the 1970s there were sold a few million cameras a year. There might have been in 1980, I dunno, if we're generous, 100 million people with the capacity to take a photograph, or about 1 person in 50 on earth, about 2%. Now there are something like 70% of all humans own a cell phone, which means that not only can they take a photograph, they can probably upload it to somewhere. Even if we restrict ourselves to active Facebook users, it's something like 25% of the world's population.

It feels like the change from 2% photographers to 25% photographers is a lot more significant than a change from seeing 2000 photos to seeing 2200 photos per day.

What does that mean, though? Something to ponder.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Oh No! The Index!

Long time readers, as well as n00bs with some exposure to the right sorts of rather pointy-headed theory, will recall that straight photographs are considered as "indexes" of whatever the camera was pointed at. In general, you can take an arbitrary speck of tone or color, and trace it back to the original scene and say "that bit comes from that bit" for every bit. Slightly more generally, you could probably say something like this:

There is a breakdown of the index into a large number of very simple units, which breakdown has the property that each of the units can be uniquely identified as coming from a specific very simple, equivalent, aspect of the original scene.

So this covers raw files, but also things like spectral decompositions and so on.

The point of the idea of "index" is that is exactly captures how much truth there is, notionally, in a photograph. A photograph faithfully and truthfully records certain tone and optionally color aspects of a scene at a moment in time, from a certain angle. A photograph is not isormorphic to the world, but it is isomorphic to that and that is what makes photos photographs and not paintings, not drawings, not whatever else you might imagine.

It is from this extremely limited isomorphic correspondence that follows the so-called Truth Claim of photography which in its most straightforward expression is that a photograph is what it manifestly is -- an index.

All this shit is basically tautological. An index is more or less defined to be whatever the hell it is that a photograph is, and the "truth claim" is that a photograph is an index. Wow. Deep. But the point is to pick apart what the hell it is that makes a photo not a painting. That picking apart actually does turn over a few interesting rocks. So, attend to the rocks we just turned over, above, rather than the circle of definitions.

Enter machine learning, neural networks, and contemporary high end phone cameras.

Google and Apple at least, and the rest cannot be far behind, have built some cameras that use one or more physical cameras which, depending on mode, each take one or more photos in the sense of indexes, and dump this pile of bits into a thoroughly trained neural network to produce an output JPEG (or raw) file.

Now, I ain't no expert on neural networks, but I am pretty confident of this: You shove a bunch of data in, and a bunch of data comes out. The stuff that comes out is strongly and... somewhat predictably... related to what went in. But the relationship is very holistic. There is no "this pixel came from.. " in play here. Each individual pixel of output comes from all the pixels input, in ways that are often profoundly not obvious.

What comes out of these modern AI-driven cameras is not an index.

It looks like a photograph, it looks like an index. But it's not. And there are tells. Girls look prettier, with fuller lips and larger eyes. The tonal range looks a little funky, because it's actually built from a shitload of pictures made in total darkness. The colors are almost psychedelic. Whatever. Occasionally there are hilarious fails where the AI gets confused and renders everything as heaps of kittens. Ok, not yet, but we all know they're coming, don't we?

Ok, so what? We're pretty used to doctored pictures these days, right?

Here's so what: In five years a device that actually produces a photographic index is going to be a special purpose device, purchased for that purpose, by retro weirdos who produce very few photographs. Virtually every photograph we see five years from now will not be an index in any meaningful fashion.

When photography was introduced, it was a bit of a surprise that the indexing properties turned out to be important. Sure, some people quickly (10-20-30 years) skipped past it's an easy way to paint to this could be used to teach, or as evidence, or something. I'm not sure anyone saw the general public trust in photos coming, though.

Now we see that trust being thrown away not merely here and there as a conscious choice of the Photoshop-hero, but as a basic operating principle of actual device we call a "camera", and it's not clear what the long term effects are. Let's repeat that: Photographs, as cultural objects, are on the cusp of collectively ceasing to be indexes. The circular mess of definitions we started with is about to collapse.

We're already seeing people experiencing body issues because not only all the photos of everyone else online are weirdly beautified, but the photos they see of themselves on snapchat or whatever are beautified by the service.

What happens when it becomes literally impossible to get a straight photograph of oneself?

What happens when journalists ("citizen" or standard-issue) are all using AI-powered phones? Is Putin really sneering or did the AI just try go make him handsome?

Will someone start building special "forensic" cameras to produce photographs admissible as evidence? What happens in the inevitable 20 year interval while the legal system catches up, and people are getting convicted on the basic of AI glitches (or freed on the basis of postulated AI glitches)?

What other social consequences will there be?

Me? I am perfectly aware that I am a fat, old, white man. There's basically no way to worsen my body image, but what about all the young pretty people? Why won't anyone think of the kids?

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Art? Or Artists?

This piece in the New York Times is getting passed around in the usual circles: 8 Artists at the Paris Photo Fair Who Show Where Photography Is Going.

So, there's a bunch of problems with this piece. Not least it the fact that the piece makes no convincing argument whatever that this is the future of anything, we see nothing even remotely new here. These are all safe, comfortable projects retracing familiar, safe paths.

More important, to my eye, is the fact that almost nothing whatever is said about the work beyond how it is made. There is nothing (ok, there's 1 sentence, I think) about what the work might mean, what it is about. One could argue, I suppose, that since the piece is actually about the artists this makes sense, because there is a certain amount of material on the artists. So and so is gay, so and so is mixed race, and so on and so forth.

But that doesn't explain why there's so much material on how these objects are made.

To my eye it appears to be about equal parts "how it was made" and "who is the artist" with almost but not quite nothing about what the work might actually be about, what the point of making these pictures might conceivably be. While the work might be meaningful, powerful, insightful, I think it is telling that the way the work is being pitched is essentially "cool people using cool processes to make, well, whatever, who really cares?"

Now, this is the New York Times, which has long felt that whatever goddamned random jumble of words they choose to commit to paper is essentially the only thing that matters, but this piece seems especially egregious.

There's also the problem that John Steinbeck didn't live in the Central Valley, so I dunno what Louis Heilbronn is on about. Some combination of wanting to namedrop the big name, and confusion about details.

Anyways, this all seems to play into some kind of Warholian school of brief fame, as opposed to anything about making art that's worth a damn.

When you're talking about Art it's probably not sensible to ignore the presence of the Artist (most of the time). The Artist is hanging about the place. The processes are also lurking around. It makes no sense to talk about a sculpture without acknowledging that it is a sculpture with all the whatever-it-is that might imply in your discussion. Similarly, photographs. Or photographs printed on mulberry paper, wetted, and then sculpted. Sure, these are all real things, and we should not ignore them. They help us to define the edges of the work, if nothing else, in the sense that we don't wind up using the standards and ideas of, say, theater, to talk about a painting.

But you cannot substitute some things for other things. In the end, Art that doesn't provide an Art-like experience is lousy Art.

If you're attempting to generate that Art-like experience through the interestingness of the artist and the process, rather than via the work itself, well that's all well and good. Also, that's called Performance Art, not photography, not sculpture, not painting. Performance. Art.

And even then your performance ought to mean something, ought to have something to say, an opinion, an idea, an emotion. All too often even this is not the case. The name of the game, often, appears to be to dazzle the audience with enough confusion about just what the hell is going on here that they somehow miss the fact that there's no point to the whole operation.

Related to this are some remarks I made on Khadija Saye some time ago. We can discern in the love affair the European Photo Elite had with a bunch of tintypes she made just before her death much the same set of stuff. I argue, convincingly I think, that the very best we can say of these pictures are that they are almost completely opaque. For white euro-derived people like me all we're likely to extract from these pictures is a re-iteration of that oh-so-healthy "Africa! Mysterious Continent!" reaction.

But god damn the Artist has such a Cool story, and the Process is also Cool, and the pictures, well, whatever. Tellingly, all the discussion of this work was about the Artist, her tragic death, and the coolness of the process. Nobody seemed to have a clue about what the pictures might mean, how they might enlarge us, educate us, make us feel. They're just there and let's get back to the tragedy of Grenfell, ok?

I consider it perfectly possible that the work was in-progress, and that had it been completed it might have become a thoroughly remarkable piece of important art. But, as it stands, being a handful of tintypes of things I do not comprehend, and which I see no reasonable way to learn enough to comprehend, I am not seeing it.

If the point is "Hah! Got you, white boy, and your Orientalist reaction!" well, sure, but it's not as if we're lacking in pictures that do that. National Geographic produced 100s or 1000s of magazines filled with Africa! Mysterious Continent! And, to be honest, whatever there is in Saye's pictures, they feel far more sympathetic than that. I don't comprehend them, but they look a lot deeper than some cheap shot against racism, they appear to me a well of meaning that is beyond my grasp. But, I could be wrong, because at the end of the day I don't grasp a single syllable of it. Just as I am pretty sure the Voynich Manuscript isn't a collection of ribald jokes, I feel that Saye's pictures aren't just a cheap shot.

More importantly, nobody else seems to have any idea, and they mainly don't seem to care.

In contrast, I am currently working my way through this photo book, Firecrackers, which while by no means perfect does in fact manage to strike something of a balance between Artist, Process, and Meaning. It's a survey, and some of the work strikes me as better than other work, but in virtually all of it I am getting something out of the pictures. Supplied writing about the Artist and Process, while occasionally swerving dangerously near to the mire of Arty Bollocks, fills in the picture in interesting ways.

So, anyways. It can be done. Maybe not by the NY Times, but it can be.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Gap between Expectation and Reality

Luminous Landscape published more or less the standard piece (albeit a good instance of it) on why manipulation in photographs is OK. There's the usual business. Viewers ought to be OK with manipulations, because, reasons in this context or that although of course not in newspapers heaven forfend. This segues as expected into well all photographs are manipulated in a sense, right? with the implied result that a little Photoshop cloning when we've already adjusted the saturation, eh?

All this is generally just rationalization for whatever the photographer wants to do. Disagreement is interpreted, usually, as an attack and we're off to the races!

All the usual discussions are simply smoke, covering fire to prevent people looking at the real issue which is, as my title here suggests, the gap between expectations and reality.

There are times when a person approaches a photograph expecting it to, in some meaningful but squishy and difficult to define way, look real. Ansel Adams made photographs that did not objectively look real at all, but at any rate his goal was to make them feel real. If you've seen his pictures and also been to Yosemite, it's possible you have observed that his pictures do not look real, but the place does kind of feel like that, and people like his pictures. So, what truth, what reality people expect has a fair bit of wiggle room.

I managed to disappoint one of my readers (who we may safely assume stands in for a larger group, possibly notional) by taking pictures of people and hand-writing -- in my own hand -- testimony from those people onto the picture. The nature of the picture does indeed suggest that the writing is in the hand of the person in the picture, and mine are not like that. The expectation did not meet reality, resulting in unsatisfactory results for all of us.

It depends on the context, it depends on the viewer, but I think that to a very large degree it depends on the picture. If the damned thing is sharp and not obviously composited or distorted, odds are the viewer is going to think that whatever you pointed the camera at looked like that. Their expectation is for a certain degree of reality, and if they find that you cloned out a highway they're going to be disappointed to one degree or another. No amount of explaining how they ought to feel is going to change that, all that's likely to do is make the photographer, who feels attacked by the disappointment, feel better about his heavy-handed cloning.

This happens to connect up neatly with John Maloof's work on his archive of Vivian Maier's negatives.

Here again we have books which, to my eye, set certain expectations. Their authorship being attributed to Maier, we are led to believe that these things are somehow connected to her. These are perhaps the books or portfolios she would have made if only she'd had the chance. These are the collections that represent her, perhaps. There's any number of ways to interpret these things, but an intimate connection with the photographer appears in all of them. The expectation is that these are somehow, inherently, the work of the photographer or at any rate a best effort at it.

The reality, on the other hand, is something quite different.

First of all we know exactly what she would have done, which is nothing. She had plenty of opportunity to do many things, and simply had different priorities. The story of her demise in destitution is carefully laid out so that the reader will naturally extend it over her lifetime, leading us to imagine a stunted life of limited opportunity. In fact, Maier's life was more complicated, and she wavered between firmly middle class for much of her life and, for a time, was mildly well-off.

This leads us around to whether or not, supposing she had made different choices, how would she have chosen to represent herself? Or, how can a third party reasonable choose to represent the artist here? As detailed at great length in previous remarks here, or in the more recent posts focusing on Maloof, we can be pretty sure that the books we're seeing are none of those things (with the possible exception, I think, of the Selfies book which I suspect is roughly the last things she would have published, but might actually represent her as an artist best of all).

It's not that these are inherently bad books. In a way, a collection of vernacular photographs that show strong stylistic resemblances to the Great Photographers of the 20th century is a fascinating and wonderous document. It's just not Vivian Maier.

But, the gap between expectation and reality is large, here, and it should be noted and deplored.

Monday, November 19, 2018

fujirumors wtf

I am getting a lot of hits from the Fuji Rumors web site, which makes exactly zero sense. Is this just some robot faking a referrer to drum up traffic for Fuji Rumors, or is there actually, in defiance of logic and all that is holy, a link from there to here?

I'm not even sure why there would be a web site devoted to rumors about a mountain. How much gossip can there really be?

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Whence Greatness, Again

The title here refers to a post I made some time ago which long-time readers may recall at least a little. That post is still perfectly spot on, in that it more or less perfectly encapsulates my thinking on this. It might also provide relevant background for these remarks. Like every word I have ever written, it is pure gold, worth revisiting regularly.

Consider, if you will, the following thought experiment. Suppose one constructed a simple robot, which simply rolled about the streets of a reasonably sized city, taking square photographs with a normal length lens from about waist height. Yes, black and white, of course, what sort of animal do you take me for? Let say about one exposure, autofocused on something roughly near the center of the frame, every 5 seconds.

Turn it loose for for 700,000 seconds. Call it 20 days if we stick to about a 10 hour shift during the daylight every day. This produces an archive of, what hey, 140,000 pictures.

Will there be some good ones? Even stellar ones? Yes. There will be. Likely you would be startled by the occasional quality that would turn up. Before you get too het up, let us consider how these pictures would differ from those of the amateur with 100,000 photos on a huge RAID system, who to be honest probably has far fewer really good individual pictures. Our amateur, regrettably, almost certainly has any number of bad habits. He almost certainly "works" a scene, taking 10 bad pictures where 1 would do. He almost certainly has some stupid ideas he has borrowed from flickr, or instagram. He is quite likely burning exposures "practicing" things by photographing his cat using his new beauty dish.

Our robot, on the other hand, takes no duplicates at all. Because it is not fumbling with autofocus and exposure modes it does not understand, it generally gets pictures that are more or less properly exposed and properly focused. But mostly, in its little robot heart, every picture it takes is a brand new unsullied and completely earnest attempt to take a good picture of whatever is in front of the lens.

This is how I know that the robot would produce good work, albeit at a very very low rate: I have made myself into that robot. I have set aside my preconceptions, my bad ideas, my stupid tropes, and simply blasted away. The results were fascinating. If you have not performed this experiment, I highly recommend it.

Based on this, I feel comfortable asserting that while the rate will be low, there will be many hundreds of pictures which, with perhaps a moderate crop to account for the robot having not even the rudiments of framing but simply pointing at random, are pretty good. This one might look a bit like that one Stieglitz, that one a bit like an Arbus, and so on.

Now, there is no artist here. So of the three options I suggested in my previous remarks: 1. Find the artist, 2. Create a fake artist, 3. Pull out the greatest hits, only the last two are available. I am certain that the last two would be completely available, though. You could certainly pull out 10 or 20 things that are sufficiently reminiscent of "great photos" and mix them in to another 100 things that are generically pretty good and vaguely in the same style, and produce a book indistinguishable from Vivian Maier: Street Photographer. You could also produce probably several books that appeared to be coherent bodies of work by selected accidental repetitions of tics, tropes, ideas, and sequencing the resulting pictures carefully. The latter books would be far less marketable.

What is unlikely to happen is that you are able to extract a portfolio of work that is both coherent and appealing. God knows that the vernacular photography crowd can manage coherent, and occasionally they hit upon a particular tic that is humorous enough to carry a project. I am thinking in particular of one project (book? show? maybe just someone's inspired tumblr?) in which every photograph includes the cast shadow of the photographer. This, it is worth noting, means that all the photos are lit the same way, in addition to "including" the photographer, so there's a great deal of stylistic coherence here. And, it's kind of witty. But it certainly isn't great, or even important, or much interesting past a few chuckles and a flip-through.

Why do I think it would be hard to extract a portfolio that was both coherent and appealing?

It boils down, essentially, to statistics. If 1 in 100 photos is, at least a little bit appealing then we have 1400 candidates. Say portfolio needs to contain at least 50 photographs to be a meaningful "body of work" for an imagined artist. It's pretty easy to pull a coherent collection of 50 when we have 140,000 photos to choose from. It's lot harder when we have only the 1400 (or fewer) appealing ones.

This applies far more broadly than our little notional robot, by the way. With all these photographers running around with digital cameras, we see tons of people grinding out more or less appealing pictures that are more or less copies of other appealing pictures. The hand of the photographer is largely invisible in these, completely overwhelmed by the hand of whatever influences are driving the stupid pictures. More rarely, we see photographers grinding out coherent collections of pictures built around some sort of shared notion, some sort of an idea and very often these pictures are not particularly appealing.

This, fundamentally, is why the pre-1950 idea of the single great "image" is an idea that deserves to die.

In 1850 a good photographer was one who could reliably get any kind of picture whatever to appear on the plate. 50 years later this is now easy and the bar rises, you have to be able to place forms and tones and so on, to create a single appealing picture. This sticks with us as the underlying conceit, even though increasingly artists are in fact producing coherent portfolios of appealing (in some sense) pictures. There's a bit of a glitch when color becomes dominant, and then digital shows up. The bar rises again, because now literally anyone can take as many "good ones" as they like. Exposures are free, so just make a lot of them.

The fact that so many photographers somehow manage to produce no "good ones" at all is a social problem, as noted above, not a technical one nor one of talent/lack thereof.

Even I, saddled with my own set of bad habits and foolish tics, can manage to produce a couple of appealing pictures, a couple "good ones" in a year of a few thousand exposures, pretty consistently. Very few of them are worth a damn, though, because my ability to combine appeal with idea remains low.

No, the bar has risen, and the measure of a good photographer is now: can produce bodies or work that are both more or less coherent and appealing, around ideas that are at least roughly interesting.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Curator of The Estate

I was going to update this with a tl;dr executive summary, but then I said to myself "why would I do that?" and so I am not.

There are many things a curator might do, depending on circumstances. But, in one case in particular, a case of some interest to me, the curator is limited to precisely one job.

Suppose that you come in to possession of a collection of disorganized... stuff... as the result of someone's death. You might be Max Brod suddenly saddled with Franz Kafka's papers. You might be one of the several people who somehow managed to get the right to paw through Emily Dickinson's papers. You might be John Maloof, or John Szarkowski, with an immense pile of someone's undeveloped film. In all these cases, and many more besides, it might occur to you to whip this material into shape and publish something under the name of the original author.

It is this case that I am interested in, and in this case the curator's job is severely restricted. If you intend to publish Disckinson's poems under the name "Emily Dickinson" it is essential that you publish what is actually the work - the final result of the process of writing poems - of that person, as best you can. If you make up a bunch of your own poems, or edits hers into something quite different, then you are telling a lie when you publish the work under her name. It is immoral and wrong to do that.

Let me state it clearly, then: If you are the curatorial executor of someone's disorganized mess, with the aim of bringing to the public that someone's creative "work" you have a very precise job, and there is no wiggle room: To locate, within that disorganized mess, the artist, and to reveal that artist to the world through their work.

It may turn out, when you try to do the first part, that you cannot locate the artist. Perhaps there is no artist, perhaps it's just a mess. Perhaps it is beyond your power to locate the artist. This must surely happen a great deal. For every Dickinson there are thousands, or millions, of people who leave piles of paper with writing on them. The first couple of curators of Dickinson, if wikipedia is to be believed, performed their work shoddily.

There are indeed several risks here, and one of them is greatly magnified in the world of photography: whether or not there is anything worthwhile in the mess, it is altogether too easy to construct something out of it that is not the artist.

Don't believe me? I direct your attention to the seemingless endless masses of work being churned out based on "found photographs." If someone can build a coherent book around a collection of a few thousand Polaroids they have collected over the last decade or so, I can assure you that it would be as nothing to produce a dozen completely different but equally coherent books around Vivian Maier's negative stash. Alternatively, go out into a city and shoot 1000 frames without much concern or care, and then go home and see what you find. Suffice it to say, it is manifest and obvious that an insufficiently delicate curator could certainly manufacture something completely false out of a large stash of pictures.

Let us suppose then that you are able to locate the artist in there. This is a gestalt of stuff hard to categorize completely, but it certainly includes choices of subjects, stylistic tics, and bigger ideas. One might find several groupings of stuff, and thus end up trying to tease out this thread or that theme. I dare say it is difficult work, and the diligent worker will inevitably be plagued with worry that they are missing something, or that perhaps they are actually just inventing an artist by accident.

Indeed, what comes out cannot even at its best fail to be something of a hybrid. Even if you were gifted a completed, brilliant, novel and found a publisher for it there would still be the copyedit, and still commas would be removed by, well, by someone, commas that the original author might have firmly marked stet, let it stand.

And then we come around to John Maloof and Vivian Maier.

She left behind something like 140,000 exposures, of which John has, I forget, a lot. Could John have created any number of entirely synthetic "photographers" from this collection? Easily. Identify a handful of stylistic tics, pull all examples of those and put them into heaps. Cull a couple of the bigger heaps for related collections of subjects or conceptual themes. Done. This is literally SOP in the vernacular photography world. They do it every single day of the year, more often on holidays.

Now, this also is almost exactly what you do when you are as I suggest above "locating the artist" within the mess. The difference is that your time with the archive convinces you that the stylistic tics and subjects and concepts are genuinely indicative of the artist.

Consider this picture:

This definitely looks like something. The juxtaposition of the woman's legs in motion with the newspaper headline, it feels weighty. And sort of familiar, but let's set that aside. If we kept stumbling over these downward looking juxtapositions, that might suggest something. If we kept running in to feet next to other things, maybe. Or whatever. Based on what little is available, though, what I suspect is that this is a picture of a newspaper headline and the woman's feet are an accident. Maier liked headlines, she shot a lot of them. It's possible that she shot one at the end of every roll as a sort of date stamp, to be honest.

What makes the picture interesting, what will certainly cause the fans to coo, is the juxtaposition. Listening in, we'd be treated to breathless essays about the genius of the photographer, essays as free of ideas or content as they are of breath. We will never see another picture of this sort, however. Instead we will see a glum midwesterner seated vacantly behind washed out balloons. And then a man inexplicably hidden in a hedge. And then, just a newspaper. And then silhouettes on a green translucent texture that looks like a cheap copy of something Jay Maisel made. And on and on, no two photographs showing the slightest sign of being made by the same hand.

Lest you think it's just me, allow me to quote the Roberta Smith writing in the NY Times:

Maier’s photographs lack the consistent, indelible style of Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand or any number of her contemporaries. Instead they may add to the history of 20th-century street photography by summing it up with an almost encyclopedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction. Yet they maintain a distinctive element of calm, a clarity of composition and a gentleness characterized by a lack of sudden movement or extreme emotion.

Yeah. What she said. But you know, Roberta, there might be another explanation...

Whether or not there is an artist to be located in the Vivian Maier archives we may never know. What we do know for certain is that John Maloof has neither located, nor created, an artist. He has simply extracted a set of greatest hits, a marketable mess of unrelated gibberish which feels so familiar that we're willing to mistake it for excellence. He's simply pulled out the good ones, without any effort to pull out a coherent oeuvre (whether real or imagined).

The only reason this works is that so many photographers and viewers of photography remain locked into the notion of photography as the act of finding "the good ones." They, we, our community, tend to think of even a body of work as nothing more than a collection of excellent single pictures. It therefore does not jump out at most appreciators of the work, even the well educated and erudite ones like Mike J, that these collections are incoherent. Many of the individual pictures are excellent, after all, so it escapes notice that every picture might as well have been shot by a completely different photographer.

Maloof has not given us the oeuvre of an artist, even a fake one, he has given us the result of an editor pulling the best single frames from a gigantic pile. The output of an artist, even a poor one, does not look like this.

It is perhaps worth recalling, as a sort of aside, that John Szarkowski seems to have had difficulty locating Winogrand in those last few thousand rolls. I had a look myself, and I couldn't find him either.

Maloof has not merely failed in his duty as the curatorial executor of a woman's mess of stuff, he has not merely put perhaps too much of himself into the artist he's created, he has failed even to produce an artist at all. He's made a lot of money, though.

And therein lies the crux of the whole scam. A fellow accused me of hating on Vivian Maier for "transparently self-serving" reasons, but I assure you that my opinions and the expression of them have failed to serve me in the slightest. Nobody has given me any money, or even a light snack. I have received no invitations to speak, nor fellowships. As nearly as I can discern, no benefit whatever has accrued to me for expressing these notions.

Allan Sekula, however, no doubt received a small honorarium for his hagiographic essay, and there is no doubt in my mind that Meyerowitz also accepted a little money to write a foreword for the new book of color. Indeed, there is hardly a person involved who is not in a position to profit, here. A gallerist might stand up and say "this is a sham" but what would it profit him? Not one sou. If you're not making a profit off this very popular character yet, just wait, perhaps you will next year. There is literally no up side to pissing in to this particular breeze, so it is hardly surprising that we see very little pushback.

And, to be honest, I cannot shake the notion that guys like Sekula are willing to play along because whether or not they're even paying enough attention to notice, they do know that Maier is not important in the ways that matter. She's popular, she's a money-maker, but she's not going to be influential, she will never have any students, her work will spawn no theory, no schools of thought, no new insights real or imagined. All the essays are the same, simply droning on in vague terms about her skill, her observational power, her mysterious past, and so on. Her impact on photography as an art, as a practice, as a business, will be nil. Her impact on the business of making money off dead artists might be slightly larger, but seriously, even there it's pretty much business as usual.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

- Upton Sinclair

Friday, November 16, 2018

Photographing Poverty

I am making a little project of reading the LIFE essays by Gordon Parks, the black photographer and writer who produced quite a few important studies of the situation of black Americans for that magazine. Most recently, I read through "A Harlem Family" from LIFE Magazine's March 8, 1968 issue. Google books, happily, seems to have all or most of LIFE available online. It's a bit of a hassle to read this Enormous Format magazine on a small screen, and anything printed across the gutter has to be mentally re-assembled, but we make do.

Gordon Parks was sent out with a couple other journalists after the race riots of 1967 to go figure out, and then explain to LIFE's readers, what the hell was going on in the ghettos. Parks found a black family willing to be his subjects, the Fontenelles, living in Harlem. Over a period of some weeks he spent time with the family daily, learning their habits, moods, the patterns of their lives. He photographed these things, after a little while, and wrote a rather moving essay to go with it.

The piece put me in mind more or less immediately of the assignment from Fortune Magazine, given to James Agee and Walker Evans, to go out and similarly study the Tenant Farmer of the American South, and to similarly explain it to that magazine's readers some 30 years before Parks did his project. Both mothers, tellingly, despair vocally about their inability to make their homes "pretty."

The similarities are almost startling. Both are in-depth studies, performed on a timescale of some weeks, of more or less a single family (in the case of Agee/Evans it's an extended family spread over three nuclear families, but in a very real way it's still one family), living in abject poverty. The results are both very very similar, and also substantially different.

First, the families themselves. In many ways the Burroughs family (the center of Agee's study) is much more abjectly poor than the Fontenelle family. Their clothing is far worse, they have as near as I can tell no cash money and no friends who have cash money (more on this in a moment). Death is always very near: it is normal that many of your children will die, a serious injury is likely to end in death as no medical care worthy of the name is available, every service you might want to use or item you might want to buy is miles away and mostly you walk. On the other hand, the Burroughs have ample, albeit bad, food. They have work, much of the year. They have, curiously, access to quite a bit of credit from their landlord. The Fontenelles, in contrast, have access to medical care (although I dare say it's expensive). They can get to government services, which may or may not help them. When Mr. Fontenelle is out of work, he probably has friends who are working, and who therefore have a little money. This in turn allows him to get drunk.

Both live in deplorable conditions, with rats and other vermin. Both live in profoundly inadequate housing, with actual holes in the walls.

The Fontenelles enjoy what can be viewed in a way as a luxury: Mr. Fontenelle can beat the hell out of his wife, who can then throw boiling water laced with sugar and honey on him, sending him to the hospital. The Burroughs must consume all their energy with work, at least in the summer, it is not clear that violent relations are even possible. Mrs. Burroughs has no honey, nor sugar, and would not waste sorghum so. If either were to become severely burned, the consequences would be catastrophic for the entire family, and likely the person with the burns would simply die. Mr. Fontenelle can get drunk, Mr. Burroughs cannot, no matter how much he would like to, because access to both whiskey and the cash to buy it are simply out of reach.

The truly common thread here, which is shared entirely with their modern counterparts who live otherwise in circumstances both the Fontenelles and the Burroughs would surely consider unimaginable luxury, is that all families in poverty are trapped. They live within a system that demands all that they have in order simply to maintain their tenuous grasp on their living situation. Screw up, outside of whatever the acceptable boundaries are, and down you go to a level of poverty that is unimaginably terrible to you, and possibly to your death fairly soon.

So there we have the thumbnail. Poverty has very little to do with what little luxuries you can or cannot afford, but with a state of mind that arises from the fact that you are trapped, that you are expending all your effort merely to avoid falling, all with little hope for advancement.

But what about the photography?

This is very interesting, it turns out!

Both Agee in his words, and Evans in his photos, are at great pains to ennoble their subjects. Agee doesn't like Mr. Burroughs, but nonetheless waxes lyrical about the beauty of the endlessly patched and fragile garments the man wears. He mentions how lovely the cornshuck hats made by one branch of the family are -- beautiful but indicative of a very low social status, and so despicable. Agee shows the labor as crushingly hard, but even so seems to find a sort of mythic beauty even in that. Evans photographs of the family are likewise ennobling, showing them as tall, strong, charming, handsome, animated, curious, thoughtful. Evans depicts the interiors of the houses as a series of sort of shrines and elegant still lifes.

One comes away from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men not only appalled at the horrendous, crushing, poverty and the cruel system that inflicts it on these people, but also in a sense thrilled at the heroism and essential spirit of the people in the story.

In contrast, Gordon Parks work for LIFE does not ennoble the Fontenelles particularly at all. The pictures are dark, and ruthless in their cataloging of the depravity of the conditions in which the family lives. We see holes in the walls, we see rags and filth. We see Evans-like details, especially of the mother's inevitably fruitless efforts to make the home "pretty", but rather than Evans' reverential treatment we are shown the pitiable side of the business. We see huddled children, staring blankly, rather than the animated and curious faces of the children Evans photographed.

Interestingly, to compare Agee's writing and Parks' we might well conclude that the Fontenelle children are in reality far more engaged and animated than the Burroughs kids, but the pictures imply exactly the opposite story.

Insofar as Parks ennobles anyone, it is Mrs. Fontenelle who by his account is the only thing keeping this thing going at all. She is beaten, both in the literal sense, and in the sense of having lost, utterly, and of being exquisitely aware of that. And yet, she carries on, more or less because there isn't anything else to do. Agee suggests that, contrariwise, every member of the Burroughs' extended family carries on, beaten, because there isn't anything else to do. Some of the Fontenelles, one imagines, feel they might somehow have options, but none of the Burroughs do.

And so we have two stories, of two families. The family who is, in the particulars of living, objectively better off albeit just as trapped and just as essentially poor, is depicted in a tone and manner than suggests a far worse situation. The earlier family, in most particulars objectively far poorer but again just as trapped and just as essentially poor, is depicted with a tone and manner that makes them seem better off.

I find it fascinating how some things are reversed from reality in the reportage, and yet how the essential underlying reality of poverty is perfectly discernible in both cases.

Searching for explanations, one more or less immediately comes across some facts.

Parks grew up poor and, of course, black. He could more or less instantly identify with the Fontenelles, their story is his story. He escaped, as people occasionally do by some combination of good fortune, talent, and hard work. One could be forgiven for supposing that Parks displays his subjects without much nobility because he knows full well there is no nobility here. His sympathy seems curiously muted, but there you have it. These people are, for Parks, exquisitely real, as is their situation.

On the other side, both Agee and Evans are children of money. They are well educated, well off, and both quite definitely absolute snobs. The Burroughs family is something beyond their comprehension (in the same sense that it is beyond mine, and most likely beyond yours -- we can master and deplore the facts their story, but after some point we are unable to feel it and grasp it essentially, our empathy can carry us a ways, but not to the end of it.) It is reasonable to suppose, but unprovable, that they both chose to ennoble their subjects as a way of coping with the reality their noses were being rubbed in. Perhaps it was a way to find some sliver of good in what was so obviously unrelenting cruelty. Or maybe they were both just kind of effete idiots, prone to such blathering.

Anyways, there you have it. Perhaps by comparing these two things we can learn a little something about the condition of poverty, I don't know. I feel like I am a trifle wiser for it, perhaps.