Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Design Study, Font Follies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fluctuating font sizes are but one of several problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

More chaos, more incoherence.

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

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

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

The alternative is to produce a careless piece of shit.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Design Study, Various Elements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now let's look at "Emulsion":

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the very last portfolio intro page:

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

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

Here's another one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am about half sure that Chris had someone do that first page for him. The line on the bottom is a tell, that someone had a hand in this who had least had some rudiments of what design might look like. The rest of the thing looks like the work of a middle schooler who just opened InDesign for the first time.

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

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Design Study, Concept/Editorial Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give your editor some elbow room.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Design Study, The Phoblographer's "Emulsion" Zine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Art considered as a Tweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Is Photography Ready for Compulsory Licenses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 17, 2018

Identity and Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Periodic Reminder

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

You can buy my stuff here.

Friday, September 14, 2018


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

Previous remarks still apply.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Followup (Street Photography)

The previous remarks are, as everyone seems to have noticed, satire. The picture was in fact shot with an 8 year old Nikon D3100 (bottom of the line even then, a whopping 14 megapixels), and I wish I could say I nailed the exposure, but my exposure is generally pretty haphazard.

While the previous piece isn't a specific mockery of a specific "street" shooter, my broadly based satire was triggered by a specific piece by a specific hapless victim. This is the true story.

One my my regular readers (Thank you, DM!) directed me to Patrick Laroque (I guess I should just call him laROQUE, though) who appears to be a deep well of unintended comedy. Yesterday I read this piece of his, because I like sequences and process, and the title seemed to suggest something about that. It wasn't.

He begins by explaining how he keeps moving, doesn't set up someplace and wait, and then he gives us a sequence of photographs he took by setting up and waiting. Which I found odd. He claims to have shot his sequence in 11 seconds, but given the degree to which the shadows move I have to admit I am dubious. I mean, these things weren't shot 20 minutes apart, and anyways it depends on how far the shadow is from the thing that casts it. But I am dubious.

I was also struck by how deep the shadows in his pictures are, and I was reminded that this is a thing.

Being attuned to this stuff I happened to notice a strong shadow on a wall, while on my way to do a little shopping. Self, I said to myself, in a couple hours those are going to be strong diagonals. And so a couple hours later I took 15 minutes from my busy day to walk back over, and spent 5 or 10 minutes shooting. Despite the cars and my inability to remember how to stick my camera into multi-shot mode I got a solid half dozen frames out of 3 or 4 people walking through my little setup. The one in the previous post was the most dramatic, which I then cropped square (natch), plunged the shadows into the very pits of hell, and finally oversharpened a bunch.

No instincts at all. No luck at all. Nothing but an understanding of how to grind out a certain trope.

In reality the scene looked a lot more like this:

In real life shadows cast by the sun tend to be pretty open.

Backing up. This is a trope that a lot of would-be street photographers deploy. The deep, and sharply defined shadow, slashed across the scene, and the human figure in it. It looks dramatic as hell, and you can wrap some story around it about isolation in the urban environment or whatever. You could name any number of internet-famous "street" photographers who roll this thing out constantly.

The world doesn't look like that. In real life shadows cast by the sun tend to be pretty open.

I think these things appeal to the gearhead camera owner, because they're pretty algorithmic. There's a well defined process you can simply follow, and you get this great modernistic feel, this sense of design and precision that appeals to your gearhead following for the same reasons it appeals to you.

They're also very very easy to do. All that is required of you is to recognize a strong graphical setup of shadows, or the potential for such a setup. Then you go there, and you wait until someone walks into the frame. Then you press the button. You can do the same thing with blotches on walls, with road markings on roads, or with advertising posters. You recognize the setup (which requires some practice) and then you wait.

If you do it with enough megapixels, and enough blather about shot discipline or about honed instincts or deep study of old masters or cinematography, you can get some people to sign up for your workshops.

The easiest things to shoot are just the things in the world. Things don't move around much, and they don't complain, and they don't present the worrying prospect of interaction or confrontation. The perfect subject for the shy street photographer. I do this a lot, and I can attest: easy.

The next easiest things to do are people in the environment, because you find the environment and then just wait for a person to happen along. This is basically an entire genre of "street" photography, because you have to have people in the frame but you don't want to get too close to them.

What's actually hard is human interaction, human emotion, because you've generally got one chance. There might be another chance for a different shot in a minute, but that shot is gone.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Street Photography

Since the availability of Phase One's new 150 megapixel system hardware, the prices on lesser equipment have fallen surprisingly. I was therefore able, recently, to purchase a lightly used Hasselblad H6D-100c, with a couple of lenses, at a relative steal.

As an experienced photographer (most of you know that I have been shooting for 2 years now, professionally for 18 months of that) I was able to master the intricacies of the new system almost immediately, and having done so I set out as is my wont to wander the streets looking for meaning in the play of light, shadow, and the human spirit. As I passed under a bridge a few miles from my home, I noticed in my peripheral vision a graphical design cast by the momentary clearing of clouds, allowing the sharp, slanting rays of Sol to cut some interest into the wall. Of course, there were cars passing, the view was obscured. No shot I sighed to myself.

Still, unconsciously, I broke my stride, pausing for a moment as a pedestrian approached, passed across the light region behind the stream of automobiles, and then for a split second there was a gap in the traffic.

By pure instinct I brought the Hasselblad, married for this perambulation to the superb HC 3,2/150mm lens, to my eye, by feel working the aperture to the optimum f/8 as I did so, and pressed the shutter button trusting to the exposure meter to get me close enough to work with. And then the moment passed. Gone.

I was unsure if I had gotten anything, of course, but I felt that perhaps there was something there. I continued as flaneur, returning home after 3 or 4 more hours, and only then loaded my take into Phocus version 3.3 to examine it. Chimping on the rear of the camera, even with the startling excellence of the H6D-100c's 920k pixel touchscreen, simply isn't worth the time.

Of the two frames I shot during the 5 or 6 hours I spent searching the streets, this one, the instant described above, is clearly the best.

You can see how effortlessly the H6D-100c's autofocus system nailed it. The incredible bit depth of the 100 megapixel sensor allowed me to retain detail in those deep shadows, and to separate the pedestrian's body, although shadowed itself, from those deep shadows, while retaining detail far into the highlights despite the extreme contrast of the scene. The creamy texture of the midtones feels filmic to me. This is, obviously, impossible without a medium format sensor, and a good one at that.

Was this pure instinct? Perhaps a little luck, I think together with my well honed instincts. I have simply shot so much that my unconscious mind appears to grasp possibilities a second or two before I even know it. Without that hard-earned instinct, these shots would be impossible, the moment simply passes too quickly to be consciously grasped.

This, then, is the essence of the street photographer.

Admin Note: Comments

I have received word that comments may be getting dropped. I have not moderated out any comments in some months for any reason other than obvious spam.

So, if you are seeing your comments vanish, it is not because I hate your stupid face. I mean, I might hate your stupid face, but that is unrelated to the vanishing of your comments (unless you have actually been trying to sell me wedding photography services in India).

I have checked the Spam folder, and they're not there. They're just plain not showing up.

Drop me an email if this is happening to you. amolitor@gmail.com

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Weird Thing

So apparently there's a new magazine launching. Well. It's an eMagazine, so technically it's just a web site. But it's about Medium Format Photography I guess. And it's $249 a year ($195 if you sign up now!)

What's weird is that the pre-launch web site is a one page web site with a popup thing to take your credit card number. No information about the publisher, the staff, who the hell these people are. Just a list of names of contributors.

It appears that Ming Thein is actually linking to it and is a contributor.

Now, call me a cynic, but if I was looking to make a fast few thousand bucks, I might recruit some of the more egotistical bloggers out there to write a column for my magazine, I'd throw up a fast web site like this one and get them to promote it a little for me. And then I'd bugger off. Total effort, a dozen emails and an afternoon setting up a web site.

Maybe I am missing it, but there is literally nothing on this web site: Medium Format that provides any checkable background, or even uncheckable background. Most of the cited "columnists" don't even mention this thing on their blogs. Indeed, Ming's link is literally the only link I have discovered.

There isn't even a launch date.

Context Matters

Recently both Nikon and Canon released new camera lines. Nikon released two cameras, small and large, and Canon released one camera, a medium. The Canon model fits both in terms of specifications and price squarely between the two Nikons. Otherwise the cameras are all essentially identical. Yes, Canon uses 10% more nickle in the carburettor spigotry leading to theoretically superior electropassivity in the encabulator, but otherwise they're pretty much the same.

What is interesting here is that the zeitgeist on this Nikons is "utter shit, unacceptable, FAIL" and the zeitgeist on the Canon is "not bad, not bad." The difference appears to be that Nikon launched one afternoon in a warehouse in NYC, whereas Canon flew a crapload of pundits to Hawaii where they wined and dined them, and let them talk at length to experts, etcetera and so forth.

Now, there are certainly grifters out there blowing in the wind on youtube. But, honest reviewers are also in play here. The fact is, they liked the Canon better, for real. But not because the camera is much different. They liked the context. It was warm, they had a belly full of beer, and there were glib experts drinking colored water and persuading them gently that all the design decisions which were so wrong for Nikon were ever so right for Canon.

Context matters.

At this very moment, my name has been cited in vain on some internet forum, and fans of Ming Thein are hate-reading my posts from a few years ago skewering their god.

Among other things, they don't like my pictures. Interestingly enough, people who like me often find my pictures engaging and interesting.

Again, these are basically honest opinions. With a belly full of rage, it's hard to like a fellow's pictures, and the opposite. Context, in short, matters.

The common thread here is that none of these opinions stand up under genuine self-examination. I don't claim to be perfect at this myself, but I am certainly better at it than the average schmoe on the internet. I examine myself, and my prejudices, and my motivations. I try, with some success, to peel those layers of context away to get at what's really there. While I have a great deal of distaste for Ming, I have successfully found things to like in his output which I take as evidence that I am doing the job properly to some degree.

The critic, the reviewer, sits in a different notional locale than the user, the reader, the viewer.

As a regular schmoe, one simply reacts. If it's warm and sunny, and you're slightly drunk, you're likely to be fonder of things than if otherwise. That context shapes your reaction. This is neither good nor bad, it's simply reality. If I am launching a camera line, or promoting a book, I should be mindful of these facts and attempt to get people slightly drunk before I show them my whatever-it-is. And, more seriously, I should manage context. Get the cover of the book right, get the venue for the launch right, get the colors in the gallery right.

If on the other hand I am a critic or a reviewer, I need to realize that the context in which I am consuming whatever-it-is may not be the context in which you do. It is my obligation to mentally subtract the context and examine the whatever-it-is on its own terms. I must examine myself, my own reactions, and strive to parse apart the bits that are simply me being a little drunk, and the bits that I would feel the same about regardless of context.

The point of this here is to find the parts that remain the same regardless of context, to find the parts that might be same for you in your context as they are for me in my context.

Of course, product reviewers have a more complex relationship to work with. If they fail to deliver more or less positive reviews, if they are too diligent in their job as a Reviewer, they will quickly lose access, and thence lose the ability to even do their job. And to some extent likewise critics.

Both reviewer and critic normally belong to an ecosystem, wherein things are in balance, and everyone is obligated to everyone else, making the job of self-examination that much harder.

Except, of course, me. As far as I am concerned, camera makers, art galleries, and book publishers can all go to hell.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Women in Photojournalism

Note: I am unable to find a citation to the effect that Gerda Taro may have taken the "Falling Soldier" picture, and it's possible that I imagined this. PetaPixel has published a version of this piece, and I worked with Michael Zhang there to make a couple of improvements to it. That version can be found here.

In the last couple of years (has it really been that long?) we've been hearing revelations of the trials of female photojournalists. Nothing, unfortunately, too unexpected. Every time around someone writes another version of the standard essay on this topic covering much the same appalling ground every time. See, for instance, this recent iteration here.

Women in the field of photojournalism are routinely harassed, hit on, and groped by their senior male colleagues. The managers who assign journalists to assignments are loathe to assign women to this story or that, for reasons that are at best vague and at worst perfectly clear. Many women graduate from school trained as photojournalists, and very few are able to make a career out of it.

As I say, this is expected. Depressing, but expected.

The standard essay, written every few months, covers all this ground. It's a pretty burly argument. Women probably have a right not to be fondled on the job, or at job related events. If this argument doesn't cover it, we're probably in the territory where no argument is going to make much impact. Right? I mean, is anyone actually willing to stand up and say that these things are OK?

Unfortunately, the standard essay never seems to stop there.

The point is raised that photojournalism is, to a large degree, performed by by white men, and therefore reflects a white male viewpoint. So far, so good, that seems very reasonable. The next step, though, is to assert that women's photographic voices are inherently different, and that by having more women doing photojournalism, we would see different pictures made in different ways about different stories.

Somewhere in here two separate problems arise.

Beatrice and Mom, by Andrew Molitor

The first problem which arises is that there isn't much evidence that women do in fact shoot much differently than men do. Insofar as there are differences, it is at least in part due to the pressures on women to take those specifically female pictures. We see lots of baby pictures made by women. This is an acceptable genre for women to work in, for myriad reasons, and so it is dominated by women. Men can do it too, though.

Most pictures of explosions are taken by men, not because women can't do it just as well, but for social reasons very much related to those that cause the baby photo business to be dominated by women. In the early days of advertising photography, when women were employed it was invariably to shoot "those female things" like soap, cleaning products, fabrics, sewing supplies, and so on.

Robert Capa (male) and Gerda Taro (female) shot the Spanish Civil War together, and there's considerable confusion about who shot what. Enough confusion, at any rate, to suggest that the female photographer's work is not easily distinguished from the male. There are suggestions that this picture might have been shot by the female member of the pair:

Falling Soldier, Gerda Taro? Robert Capa?

Let's not confuse a single example with truth, of course. The point is not these particular two people, it is not this picture or that one. The point is rather that across all of photography it isn't easy to distinguish the men from the women, and when you can, like as not there was some editor assigning women to shoot soap and men to shoot cars. Photographers influence one another at a furious pace, men influencing women and vice versa. This influence, together with individual style, seems to almost completely obscure any gender differences.

The second, and to my mind more serious, problem that arises is the risk of saddling would-be female photojournalists with some sense of obligation to be the voice of women. Arguably, the standard essay on women in photojournalism pressures women to stick to "those female things."

Women can shoot explosions, violence and death, those so-called white male topics, just as well as men can.

Catherine Leroy, Vietnam, "Corspman in Anguish" is a pretty important picture. Is there something inherently "female" about this picture? Not that I can discern.

While I think it is vitally important to bring cultural problems of harassment and assault to light, I think also we must be wary of perpetuating a different set of flawed ideas as we do so.

Having more women in photojournalism would be good, it would add new voices, new viewpoints. But let us not suggest that women can't photograph explosions, or that men can't photograph sewing supplies. They can. They do. And they ought to keep on doing it.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

From forest to trees, Pre-visualization

Back to my recent theme of "In order to make photographs, we must be simultaneously deeply aware of the forest, and be completely oblivious to the forest."

It occurs to me that part of the function of pre-visualization, as espoused by Mr. Adams (for example) is to make this leap. I think you can argue that the process of pre-visualization is in fact specifically to make the leap.

One wanders through Yosemite, with the portfolio as a whole in mind, feeling that emotional response to the rocks, the trees, the water. One stumbles across something, or perhaps visits for the 1000th time something, and feels that it might belong in the body of work. One feels the right things there. The process of pre-visualization takes the pre-existing style notes of the portfolio as it stands, together with the emotional response one feels in the moment, together with the scene itself, and attempts to boil that into a singular object, a photograph.

In the process, one sheds temporarily the larger picture. The forest (both real and metaphorical, here), I think, fades into the background and brings the trees into focus. Ones view narrows to the single picture. It's not Miksang by any means. Adams took as very technical view of all these things, but I think that he saw it first, and derived the technical details from his hallucination of what it might be.

I've written about pre-visualization in the distant past, treating it then as a process of directed inspiration. One has to, I believe, make a creative leap from the needs of the photograph to the actualization of it, and that is not a trivial process.

An interesting, but I think accidental, connection arises here.

Creative inspiration is a well understood process. You can to a degree manage that "Eureka!" moment, by alternating between thinking very hard about the problem, and stepping away from the problem. Both are necessary. One examines the scene, the idea, and tries to fit ideas, solutions, to it. Perhaps futilely. Then one gives up, takes a walk, takes a shower, a nap. Then back to the problem, another break for an hour, a month, a year, and so on back and forth. It appears that the unconscious works away on the problem in quite different ways as you are resting. At some point, if you are lucky, the solution simply pops up fully formed.

The characteristics of this kind of inspiration are that the solution is more or less fully formed, it arises out of apparently nowhere, and finally that you are quite certain about it.

This resembles superficially the dance back and forth between the portfolio, the project and the individual photo.

So, currently on my mind: What is up with these fluctuations, these rhythmical back-and-forths that seem so necessary to creativity?

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Up The Garden Path

In about 1953 Nicholas Monsarrat published a short story entitled "Up The Garden Path." My precis might be off in a few particulars, it has been some time since I read it. It goes roughly like this. A successful writer meets with a young man who wishes to become a writer, and who has a chapter written which is excellent. The successful writer lends the young man money to support him while he finishes his novel. Then he lends him more. The touches keep coming, and eventually it is revealed that the young man has been partying quite vigorously on the money, and at the same time has been borrowing funds from other successful authors and so forth on the strength of the same chapter of writing he's been showing around.

There is a falling out, naturally, shouting and tearing up of agreements and so forth. Some time later, the young man's novel appears. It is brilliant, it is vast, and it relies on among other things an in-depth experience with London nightclubs and the party scene therein. It becomes clear to the successful writer that the young man had in fact been writing, researching, working his ass off the entire time. There is an awkward meeting, and the story concludes.

The point to take away here is that this particular work, the novel the young man was writing, was built upon actual experience, on a life fully lived, which when combined with his artistic skill and a great deal of hard work, produced something great.

Looking over work by all the young turks of the sort that Jörg Colberg is so fond of, and having examined to some degree the world they inhabit, I get the notion that these people in general have no particularly rich life to draw on. They hang around with other young artists, occasionally trying to suck up to publishers, curators, and so on. They design one another's books, they host little pop-up galleries of one another's work (I'm not just an artist, I'm a curator!) They hustle, constantly, to get little grants and fellowships and whatnot.

On the face of it, their world appears to be extremely narrow, and rather insular. Or at any rate it is consistent with generally available information that is it so.

While it is possible that they are, some of them, living lives filled with breadth and richness, it is not clear when exactly they are fitting it in. Further, it does not turn up in their work at all.

All that is required here, though, is that a critical mass of them be basically boring people with narrow lives, fully immersed in the incestuous circle jerk. If enough of the players live this way, their work will set the tone, will circumscribe the set of tropes and ideas that can be deployed. And thus we end up with endlessly self-referential work that is about the artists, and occasionally about Art. Very little about bigger ideas, or even small ideas that exist outside that narrow world.

Occasionally work pops up which boils down to "I took a field trip to the real world, here are some snapshots of the horror that exists out there."

It strikes me that the names Sally Mann and Cindy Sherman almost never turn up in these circles. If there's a sufficiently large list of female photographers being constructed generally one or both will make the cut. This seems on the face of it to be rather odd. If we are obsessed with ideas like Female Gaze and Women In Photography and feminist ideas and so on, as every single person in this little social set is (or at any rate claims to be) surely these two names would pop up a lot. Cindy Sherman especially, who has mined these exact areas out in depth for decades.

It cannot be that these people are unaware of these artists, who are both predecessors and contemporaries.

Regardless of the reasons for the narrowness of the work, it is worth suggesting that if you wish, yourself, to make work that is not narrow, you should get out and live a little. See things, immerse yourself, have experiences. Absorb them fully, a quick field trip does not count.

And then work.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Photographing Artifice

I'm mildly obsessed with photography versus what is real, true. As a consequence, much of what I talk about presupposes that whatever you're pointing the camera at is real, true. As a general rule, though, this is obviously false. Lots and lots of photos are of some sort of artifice. A still life, an advertising shot, photographs of a play, or of performance art, virtually everything anyone posts on social media, and so on.

Consider a play. There's probably a story, a literal narrative. There might be a moral, or some sort of life lessons, or some other larger art-like experience in the play. A play, being built around dialog and motion, is not likely to translate particularly well to photographs. Your photographs will, if well done, accurately illustrate what the play looks like and convey in some way the experience of watching the play, but they are unlikely to reveal the narrative or larger meaning of the play. The story that we might find in the photos is different from the story we might find in the play itself. The photograph is, as it were, a picture of a mask, you cannot see the person behind the mask.

On the other hand, consider Gregory Crewdson, who arguably stages things that look a lot like a scene in a play. His set pieces are designed to be photographed, there is no dialog, no action. They look like a moment pulled out of a play, or a film, but are distinctly not -- specifically because you can read the underlying psychodrama in the photograph itself. You can, as it were, deduce the absence of dialog and action from the very fact that you can see the underlying story in the photograph. Crewdson gives us a transparent mask, allowing us to see past the notional play to the underlying story.

Take these are two endpoints.

An advertising photograph strives to be Crewdson-esque, in that you are supposed to see the story in the scene. You are supposed to see a photograph of a beautiful woman and a fast car, and to feel that story, to imagine yourself with them, driving very fast and having a great deal of fun. You are not supposed to see it as a photograph of a set, in the manner one might see a photograph of a play. Sometimes these things work, sometimes they do not.

Cindy Sherman also comes to mind, and again with mixed results. Her original work, of Untitled Film Stills was very much in the mode of Crewdson, except that instead of imagining something ambiguous -- maybe a play, maybe a film, maybe real people -- she specifically insists that we imagine a film. Later work becomes more ambiguous on this axis, we are to imagine some abstract larger story, and yet we recognize Cindy and know therefore that it is artifice.

In terms of larger meaning, this gives us a number of possibilities.

You might photograph a play in order to tell the story of going to the play. Or, if you are in Austin, perhaps you do it because apparently all theater actors in Austin are ludicrously beautiful people. Anyways, the story of attending a play is a perfectly reasonable story in the larger sense to tell. You could critique the play with photos, you could react to the play. All of this is quite separate from the story the play itself embodies.

More difficult is the game Crewdson and Sherman play. The artifice is clear, but they want you to see through the photograph, and then again through the artifice, to see a single underlying story (again, in the larger sense). Cultural criticism, feminist theory, whatever. They need to guide the viewer through not one but two separate layers of translation. They succeed, I think, because of the maniacal singularity and intensity of their underlying idea. Like a nova, if shines through layers of interpretation and nails the viewer between the eyes. Advertising seems to be to succeed or fail on roughly the same grounds, the intensity of vision in play, with a side serving of ability also required.

This brings us around to the item that triggered this whole thought process, a book reviewed by Colberg, which you can look at in its entirety by watching the video at the book's web page, or directly on Vimeo. Jörg's review is lightweight, of course; he sees a female photographer doing sexuality stuff and falls over himself, because, academia.

This is a book of pictures of performance art, of artifice. If you think any of this is remotely spontaneous, look at the colors. These are intensely styled pictures. In particular, the picture the book and Jörg both lead with, the nipple pinch, count a) the total number of colors in the frame, and b) the number of patches of color that match her shoes. For all its snapshot/selfie aesthetic, this shot (and most of the rest of the book) is styled with the intensity of a Gucci advert. Look at the labels hanging from the blinds.

So the question is, are we able to read through the artifice to an underlying story? Well. To my eye, not really. Sure, there's some muddled ideas of sexuality in here, quite a few of the pictures seem to be mining some "submissive man" motif, but by no means all. There's a lot material that seems to have been included simply because it's odd, or fun. While I agree with Jörg that it looks like fun, that is rather spoiled by the insistence of the actors on staring, dead-eyed, at the camera. The overall sensation that these are boring people with no ideas, who are nonetheless Deadly Serious About Their Art does this book no favors. It is possible that the thing is a wall of cultural references that I am simply not getting, but if so that makes the book mostly an in-joke, which is just another kind of boring.

If these is some radiant blaze of an idea in there someplace, it is buried under the Yoko Ono mannered weirdness flavored with a demand to be taken seriously.

If this were presented specifically as a bunch of pictures of performance art, that would be one thing. Pixy Liao seems, unfortunately, to be striving for more of a Crewdson/Sherman "through-reading" and not hitting it. Instead she's substituting in a bunch of modern tropes and hoping simple minded reviewers will assign profound thoughts to her.

I will say that while the content is pretty dull (this stuff hasn't been transgressive in decades, even in the USA, move on, Art Students) the styling is excellent. The consistency of look, the use of color, all these things are pretty great.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Shot Lists and Shooting Scripts

I am definitely fumbling my way here, so even I'm not sure any of what follows is right.

In my previous remarks, I closed with the notion that to really photograph well one needs to be simultaneously exquisitely aware of "the forest" and oblivious to it.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

Now, F. Scott Fitzgerald may have been on to something here, but in the first place I am perhaps not a first-rate intelligence, and in the second place that is to kind of miss the point. Adding further clutter to the mind does not in any way I can see aid us in the contemplative seeing part of the business. I dare say Fitzgerald did not have writing in mind when he wrote this, either.

I think that in practice the two opposing principles are stances that we switch between. In one moment, we have in mind the forest, the context and story to which we are directing our attentions. In another moment we are meditatively gazing through or at the finder, looking for that juxtaposition of forms, that expression, that play of light.

When you're in the second condition, though, you need to somehow carry with you the homeopathic imprint of the former state, otherwise you're just shooting vacuous exercises in form again.

I use shot lists, shooting scripts.

For my current long term project, documenting my alley, it has occurred to me that the cats are part of that gestalt. And so, from time to time, I pick up the camera to take photographs of cats in my alley. When I'm framing up the cat, I am interested in placing the cat against a fortuitous background, in getting close enough to the cat but not too close, in waiting for the fortuitous gesture from the cat. I have learned that the cats, which I think of as "in the alley" are frequently not in the alley but rather on someone's back steps, or curled up in a car port. I am contending with this - do I expand my scope outside the literal alley? Or do I focus on those moments when the cat is in the alley proper? Should I focus on the cats in motion, to suggest that the alley is a route rather than a resting place? Etctera.

My shot list grew to include "pictures of cats", which was the imprint of the story I carried with me into the alley, camera in hand. I shoot the cats, as contemplatively as possible, ignoring the forest. And then I learn that the forest is not quite what I thought it was, and around we go.

On quite another note, a friend requested some head shots of herself, for a small business she is re-opening. Her hair is different, the old ones won't do. We met at City Hall, which has a 30 foot wall of glass block and therefore the most beautiful light. I brought my five year old, having no place to park her anyways, and I felt it would add some energy to the situation anyways. We talked (the "client" and I) about what she wanted. Not formal, smiling, open, friendly. My friend, like so many people, is awkward in front of the lens, and dislikes looking at the camera.

My shot list, my shooting script, was simply to get an open, friendly, expression, looking directly at the camera.

At this point I tried to be that contemplative guy, just looking for the moment. My friend was watching my kid run around, and talking to her. I learned that if I spoke to my friend, engaged her, she would turn momentarily to the camera, to me. So that's what I did. I let the friend and the kid interact, and every now and then I'd ask a question, engage, and snap that moment as she turned, still smiling. She likes my kid.

So in both cases here, and this is typical for me, step one is to attempt to get the story straight ("be aware of the forest"). Then take pictures, without thinking much about the story ("oblivious to the forest") but only about what moment, detail, element I am looking for.

I am pretty sure this is more or less the template for a large variety of successful projects. Roy Stryker used shooting scripts to direct the FSA's photographic project, and probably borrowed the method from his earlier work. It turns up commonly in the "creative brief" component of commercial work. I think many a long term fine art project is driven by such a thing as well, albeit perhaps somewhat informally.

When it's really working well, I think the shooting script is organic, it changes as we shoot and learn. But the shooting is separate, it is contemplative and in the moment, and it is only later (perhaps a second later, perhaps a week later) that we realize something important, and the shooting script evolves.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Dilemma, or Something?

Long time readers will know that I am moderately obsessed with various ideas around the notion of "being present" in, perhaps, a Zen Buddhist way, or in the quasi-religious practices of various first nations like the Navajo concept of the "smooth mind" and the Polynesian navigators. These are all variations on the theme of dismissing thoughts concerned with the past, the future, with externalities, in order to focus on the here and now.

Miksang, the zen photography technique, is recognizably just weaponizing the methods of zen walking meditation to the purpose of photography, and examples of it lay bare the essential problem here, about which I will have more to say shortly.

I firmly believe that something like these methods is necessary to take good individual pictures with any sort of reliability. In rough terms, you need to see what is truly there in order to make a good picture of it, and in order for that to happen you have to be exquisitely present. So, something that stills your interior monologues, that centers you in the here and now, is more or less a necessary technique.

The problem that most work produced through the methods of miksang makes so clear is that the pictures are not connected to anything, and are largely vacuous exercises in form.

The wonder of photography is that it is real. The photograph selects an instant in time and a little window on the world, but when we look at the photo of the tree, we believe in the forest just outside the frame profoundly, because the forest just outside the frame was actually there. Photography's power, as photography rather than simply as any old picture-making method, comes precisely from this reality, from that forest just outside the frame and from the events that occurred just before and just after the shutter snapped open for an instant.

In order to make powerful photographs, or collections of photographs, it is this power that we must use, because it is the lone tool that is in the box, ultimately.

If your ambition extends no further than to make visually striking photographs, well, more power to you and you probably need read no further. If, like me, your ambition extends further, to do more with your pictures, I may have something for you.

Indulge me and allow me to use the word "story" very broadly in this piece. Perhaps it's a literal, linear, story you want to tell. Or a series of facts and situations. But perhaps instead you have in mind something larger than a visual appeal, but ineffable, something you cannot even put in to words. A feeling, a sensation, a non-verbal gestalt of ideas and emotion. Call this larger purpose, whatever it is, the "story."

The story is carried by the interconnections of your photographs, with one another and with the world they imply. Photography's strength is in those connections, drawn from the underlying reality from which the photos are snatched. Even if your story is a marketing campaign, that is still a real car, a real model, with a real half-smile playing across her lips. While she may not truly love the car, her reality makes it easier for you to visualize yourself at her side, one hand on the car door, and keys in the other. If you're telling a gritty story of war and violence, that is a real gun, that is a real fire, that is a real bomb crater or at least a real hole. And so on.

In order to make these pictures, you have to be aware of the larger story and the world into which it is embedded. You cannot simply be lost in this instant, this moment. You cannot just wander the streets, amnesiac, drifting contemplatively from moment to moment, and construct a story. Or at least, I don't see how that would work. You need to retain the context, at least roughly, of what you are trying to accomplish.

The story may change as you work on it, of course. It is organic, it grows, shrinks, and changes form up to the very last moment when ink hits paper. But present it must be in order to inform, to direct, the photography.

And this, truly, is the dilemma. In order to make photographs, we must be simultaneously deeply aware of the forest, and be completely oblivious to the forest.