Monday, July 22, 2019

Photo Pedagogy for Kids

Inspired/motivated by some things A.D. Coleman wrote on his blog, I decided that I ought to take a whack at teaching my kids some visual literacy stuff. I have a 9 year old, and a 6 year old.

I am starting with the older one.

First thing I showed her was this bad boy:

Which blew her mind, and then we talked about how a photograph is just a piece of the world, stuff gets left out, and sometimes that stuff matters.

Next up (the next day) I took a couple more or less identical photos with the focus point set on different objects. In one this thing is in focus, and that is blurry. In the other, this thing is blurry, and that is sharp. Then we talked about what you're "supposed to look at" in these two pictures. Again, she got it easily, and I think she learned a little something about how the photographer can manipulate your attention.

This led into a discussion that kind of stretched my mind out a bit. It occurred to me that it's probably not obvious to a kid that there's a plane (more or less) at a certain distance from the camera that's in focus. Why not a sphere? Why not a a blob that's all sharp? Well, you and I know the answer is something something optics shut up kid but anyways I laid that out for her. She did not ask, to be clear, but I realized that this was a point worth making explicit.

The next lesson was manually focusing a lens on my camera, using the built-in rangefinder thingy (it's just arrows that say "turn it this way" and "turn it the other way" with a little "nailed it" indicator), and the ability to move the point where it's focusing ON around.

So now, I think, she has a rough grasp of what focus is, and what focus can do.

Next up, a very short sketch of depth of field, and I'll have her take some pictures.

I had a discussion with my sister-in-law who spent many years teaching photography and media literacy to kids, and she feels that hands-on is very important. So, we're going to experiment with that.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Invisible People

Most homeless people in the USA are not the panhandlers, begging for change, trying to raise enough money to get a can of beer, a smoke of crack.

Most of them just had one too many spots of bad luck to many to remain in a home, and many of them will, perhaps with a little help, struggle back up into the ranks of the barely housed. Until then they live in shelters, clapped out RVs, minivans, tents, or when they can, with a friend.

They are largely invisible, unless you notice them stepping through the doorway of one of the many organizations that try to offer them the help they need to make that desperate lunge back up the socio-economic ladder, into the ranks of the not-homeless.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Richard Prince is Right

I don't mean Prince is right about every little detail, but in broad strokes, he's right. Let me clarify that: Prince was right about everything. Every. Single. Thing. Richard Prince, on the other hand, might not be right about this detail or that detail, here or there, although he is in broad strokes right.

First of all, let's clear away some underbrush, and then I'll get in to exactly what I mean.

The standard photographer position on intellectual property is, roughly, that photographers should be allowed to practice their craft pretty darn broadly. Photographing anyone, anywhere, any time, perhaps within some reasonable and not very stringent limits ought to be permitted. This results in pictures, which belong in every conceivable sense to the photographer and only the photographer, regardless of the nature of the pictures. Turning this around a little and rephrasing, photographers seem to think that intellectual property rights fall in to two categories: Mine and Irrelevant.

Ok, maybe there's a hint of cynicism there. But that is kinda what it feels like. Your face? Your building? Your car? Your house? It's mine. My photos? Also mine.

Ideas like Copyright showed up in an era when it was possible but not easy to copy things. Things like books, and plays, and engravings, and paintings. Later, the idea was extended to photographs, recordings, movies. Each of these objects also took a certain amount of effort to copy.

The idea of Intellectual Property was conceived to provide incentives to creatives, it grants creatives an enforceable basket of rights, rights which they could use to generate money, or simply hold on to. The idea was to encourage creatives to continue to create. If a writing a useful or popular book resulted in no positive result for he author, the author might reasonably take up another trade, and some did before the idea of Copyright arose and was passed in to law.

These ideas slammed into the digital age at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, producing a great deal of heat and light, but nothing much good has resulted.

First of all, the enforcabilty has simply evaporated. There is essentially no hope of enforcing copyright. Anything anyone actually wants is available. Someone has already copied it, and made it available. Some industries have shrugged this off: music, movies. Their model is to sell it to you streaming, which is actually easier than stealing it at a price point that is close enough to zero that most people will simply pay.

Other industries, like photography, are flailing, in part because it cannot invent a way to sell product that is easier than stealing it, mainly because stealing a photo is absurdly easy.

Secondly, the ability to turn your work in to money seems to be largely separate from copyright in this day and age. There are photographers making a living, and the abject failure of copyright enforcement doesn't seem to be an issue for them. The market collapse of photography is related to the fact that the cost of entry is nearly zero, not due to the collapse of copyright.

Which leads us around to the last point which is, in our modern and relatively affluent society, motivating people to create by offering them a livelihood seems to have fallen by the wayside. Authors seem to lose money at least as often as they make it, and yet books continue to be written. There certainly seem to be a lot of photographs made. Very few painters make any money at all, and yet there is a lot of painting going on, and so on. The road to music success is to record songs in your bedroom and stick them on YouTube, and if you are very very very lucky you will make money eventually doing live performances (rarely on selling recorded music.)

So, on many axes, in many dimensions, the century old concepts of and rationales behind copyright and intellectual property have collapsed.

Copyright at this point is largely used (successfully) by large corporations to prevent smaller players from re-using material held by the large coroporation, which may or may not have had anything to do with the creation of the material. Try obtaining the rights to use a poem, a quotation, or a photograph in your book. Try using a song in your movie. It rapidly turns into a nightmare, and is hit-or-miss at best.

So, copyright does not seem to be doing much to stimulate creativity, but it is stifling it.

You could probably jump in here and tell me about your cousin's friend's sister who something something whatever and so, but that's not the point. The point is that an argument, a good argument, can be made that in broad strokes copyright specifically, and intellectual property in general, is doing more harm than good these days. It is stifling creativity rather more than it is stimulating it.

For reference, I didn't invent this argument, it is an argument other (better) creatives than I have been making.

Intellectual Property (don't get me started on patents) is upside down and backwards. Intellectual Property is a concept that is overdue for a good thorough rethink.

Which brings us back around to Richard Prince.

Whatever else his art is about, it is at least a kind of performance art based around litigation (not unlike Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "wrapping things" projects.) The performances are often aimed at criticizing contemporary ideas of Intellectual Property, and of exploring the limits, legally and morally. He appears to be contesting our ideas, here.

Someone needs to take a good hard go at punching contemporary ideas about Intellectual Property in the nose, since they're not working for anyone. Prince, whether you agree with this project or that, is definitely standing up there and trying to bloody that nose, that nose that needs to be bloodied good and thoroughly, so we can get to work on something that might actually work.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Photo Critiques

Sometimes I torture myself by going in to Critique sections of internet forums. I recoil in horror, but I think this particular mess is not restricted to forums. I have this notion that camera clubs do it, and that it is somehow related to things that actually happen in photography school, which boggles my mind.

Someone posts a perfectly innocuous picture, like this one:

Critique begins to roll in. I would crop a little off the right, because blah blah blah:

I would crop left, which would something something whatever:

What about a square crop?

I would crop and then clone out he bright strand which kills the picture:

Did you try it in color?

And so on.

All of these and more are perfectly nice pictures, and they're all different. They will all feel subtly different.

None of these things are going to change the fact that it's a perfectly nice picture of a sweet pea, nothing more. Any of the pictures will do for decor, if that sort of decor suits you and the relevant wall.

There are a couple of underlying assumptions here. The first is that the name of the game is to create Single Great Photos. Which, sure, that can be a goal, I guess. Good luck to you. The second and more insidious is that by taking a decent picture you can hack away at it and make it, if not a Single Great Photo, at any rate maybe close to a Great Photo. And, somehow, by so doing, you learn something, maybe, about great photos?

It's not true. None of these crops is substantively better than the other, absent some specific purpose. As a standalone "pretty good picture" without any notion of a purpose, any crop will do, they're all much the same.

Compare this will Sally Mann shooting "The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude." By her own account she marched Emmett out to the river and shot photos of him over and over and over. This shot was from too high, that one from too low, this one is framed wrong, can you turn a little, try resting your hands on the water, and on and on and on.

Each of these pictures looks a bit like any of the others. It's a fair bit like the kinds of advice people give in Photo Critiques.

There are fundamentally two differences, but they are crucial.

First, Mann knows that somewhere in here is the picture she wants.

Second, she knows it when she sees it.

With my sweet pea, there is no picture in here that I want. I had nothing in mind but to shoot a technically competent and vaguely pleasing photo for no purpose except to write this blog post. Most people posting photos for "critique" shot their picture for even less reason than that, and they certainly have no notion that greatness is lurking somewhere nearby. Further, suppose I had shot this thing searching for some rightness, whether definable or not, whether articulable or not. Why on earth would anyone imagine that someone else is going to be able to help?

Even if I could find whatever it is, it's something of a gamble that you'd see it even then, and if I haven't found it yet what gives anyone the idea that you're going to be a useful guide?

I suppose if you've never cropped a picture, or cloned a thing out, or whatevered, these suggestions might not be useless? I dunno. The whole thing makes me sad, so I leave critique forums pretty fast.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Epistemology of Global Knowledge

A friend of mine recently completed a project, a documentary film about how the US faked the moon landings. Essentially, he and a friend (not me) went around recruiting people to be "interviewed" about their role in faking the moon landings, wound up with a lot of hours of awesome footage, and cut it together a documentary that is much better than the rot pulled together by the weirdos.

I believe that the USA's space program did drop some dudes on the moon, it happens.

It is tempting to say that I believe this because I am rational, and have thought through what would be required otherwise. Now, I have thought that through, and do understand what would be required to have faked the moon landings, and I find the idea ridiculous. But that's not why I believe we landed on the moon. My belief predates my rational analysis, by decades. I believe we put guys on the moon, because my dad told me we did.

I believe that anthropogenic global warming is real, too. I have conducted a similar rational exercise, but again, my belief came before my analysis. Essentially, I was raised to believe that burning fossil fuels is a rotten idea, and I was therefore primed when Al Gore said some stuff I still don't really understand about carbon dioxide.

If we rewind a few thousand years, and imagine that world, we can guess pretty reliably that in those days almost everything anybody knew was local knowledge. We knew about things our relatives did, experienced, and needed. We knew a local history. Probably also, we knew some mystical things, things about Gods and Demons, and whatnot.

There simply isn't any reason for a tailless plains ape to know a damned thing about the antics of similar apes 1000 miles away, and indeed as far as we can tell baboons continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance about distant baboons. There does not seem to be any obvious cognitive machinery in place for handling things like Moon Landings, Donald Trump, Brexit, and Climate Change. We are, it strikes me as likely, re-tasking some other mental systems when we imagine we're understanding this kind of thing.

Your experience is maybe different from mine, but I find as I examine myself that in every case my belief in some piece of "remote" knowledge of this sort precedes my rationalization. I'd like to imagine that I don't think vaccines cause autism for rational reasons, say. After all, I say to myself, I don't trust pharmaceutical companies one bit. Surely it was logic, pure reason, that changed my mind. But I was raised to believe that sacrificing oneself for the greater good is a virtue (one of the great virtues) and vaccines are, ultimately, about accepting a small risk in exchange for the greater good. I suspect that my belief in the virtue of vaccines simply outweighs my distrust of industry.

What, you are probably asking, has this to do with photography? What desperate thread will this idiot grasp, to connect these ideas to photographs?

Knowledge of faraway things is intimately tied to mass media. Prior to the newspaper, we learned about the happenings faraway literally by way of some guy walking to our town with a lute and then singing us a song about the faraway happenings. The newspaper allowed at least the ideas to come along in a more wholesale fashion, and when decorated with drawings gave us some visual anchor.

The photograph, and shortly after the methods for mass printing of same, gave us direct, visceral, access to faraway events, places, people. The invention of the photograph, it seems to me, more or less exactly aligns with the moment in history when humans began en masse to seriously grapple with believing in, and understanding, faraway events, people, places. I think it has been argued by wiser heads than mine that this is a causal relationship.

I am fond of rattling on about "the index" and the truth claims of photography, and how the photograph captures a kind of truth. But perhaps I have it all wrong. Maybe the point is that the photograph, whether faked or not, gives us visceral access to things we already want to believe, or to disbelieve.

Certainly there are photographs and video which, to the uninitiated, are just blurry messes which signify nothing but which, to the initiated, clearly show either a police officer using excessive force on a helpless victim, or a police officer justifiably defending himself from a violent attack, depending on which way your politics lean. The indexing properties of the photograph appear to be more or less irrelevant here.

People like me worry about the increasing ease with which photographs can be faked, but perhaps that's all beside the point. Arguably, we have always been able to identify fakes: they're the ones that conflict with our preconceptions, obviously. The ones the support our belief system are not faked. Ok, they might have been 'shopped a little, but essentially they're real. The ones that conflict, well they might be straight out of the camera, but the scene was probably staged, or carefully selected.

We finds ways to accept a fake, and to dismiss a non-fake, almost without effort.

The photograph serves, primarily, as one of many tools we use to justify our beliefs and ideas.

Smart players know this. That piece on the autism-vaccine link is vastly strengthened by adding a photograph of a kid, and a photograph of a hypodermic needly, dripping malevolently. The pictures are factually irrelevant. The child in the stock photo probably is not autistic, the hypodermic is filled with tap water. But the piece punches above its weight, because believers want to believe and the photos give them visceral access to the ideas they desire.

We find things to believe or to dismiss based on a handful of things, none of them rational, none of them are based in reasoning. After the fact, we seek to justify our findings with reason, but a depressingly large percentage of people literally do not know what reasoning looks like. They cannot tell the difference between a correct argument and a jumble of words. The process of rationalization seems to often reduce to checking the conclusion, to see if it is the proper one, and examining the authorship to see if it is one of our guys, or one of theirs. The words in the middle are, often as not, literally not even read (although the busy rationalizer would deny it, they will still fail a basic reading comprehension test on the material.)

There's a whole 'nother issue here, which is where these ideas actually arise from. Certainly from our parents and friends, but ideas do evolve and we do believe things that are different from the ideas of our family and friends. There is another entire stratum, which I think of as the everybody knows layer, consisting of stuff that we think of as common knowledge. It is one of the paths we take to diverge from our parents: Mom thought such and such, but it's 2019 now, and everybody knows...

Photography in particular and mass media in general play a substantial role here, in shaping that corpus of things that everybody knows and this is the basis of propaganda (marketing).

We are susceptible, maybe, to reasoned argument and logic when talking about local events, local people. We can, maybe, accept the argument of another baboon when we're talking about related baboons, and events down at the water hole. Why, Marge could never, you know she does her shopping Wednesday morning, so she couldn't have! might not fall on deaf ears.

For these kinds of remote, global, knowledge where, curiously, reason and logic would appear to be surely the first and most important tools, they are in fact almost worthless. To shift a global idea around the defenses of our preconceptions, the only obvious route is by way of everybody knows.

To persuade, to change, you have to access the everybody knows stratum. Photographs, maybe, should be calculated not to vigorously promote a viewpoint, but rather to gently lay groundwork. A vigorous photograph is simply rejected by those who disagree, and accepted by the choir (who already agree). A subtle photograph, a photograph which takes no particular position, lays groundwork. It's neutral, there is no reason to reject it. 1000 neutral photographs create a little world. 10,000 photographs create, maybe, a ground state that everybody knows.

I think you could probably photoshop the hell out of every single one and it wouldn't matter a bit.

Monday, July 1, 2019

"Looks Like" vs. "Is"

John Berger was at some pains to tell the world that the invention of perspective drawing was not some great breakthrough that suddenly allowed the painters of Western Europe to stop sucking and start making awesome art. It was simply a way of seeing. A way that privileged the eye, the single viewpoint.

At this point, in our western Europe derived culture, we are literally taught that a picture is "correct" if it drawn according to the rules of perspective. Anything else is either "wrong" or possibly "artistic" with a bit of side-eye to indicate, sotto voce, that what we mean here is "wrong."

Into this mix arrives the camera which automatically produces "correct" pictures, huzzah. No more shitty art!

But in the end, all this does is enshrine more firmly the notion that the proper and correct way to depict a thing, a person, a scene, an event, is to depict it as it appears to the eye, in a single moment. It enshrines and enforces this peculiarly modern, peculiarly Euro, way to seeing as the default and correct way. I could wander off into a discussion of colonialism here, but I won't. Not this time,

No, instead I want to talk about what artists generally hope to accomplish in their depiction of things, people, places, events. What we want, generally, is to show what the the thing is in some meaningful sense. We are, or were, present. We experienced something, something we feel is worth rendering as a work of art. A photo, a painting, a sculpture, a film. It mattered to us, enough to want to make something of it. What a thing is can be construed in, maybe, an infinitude of ways, but what it surely is not is merely what it looks like.

What we want to encapsulate in our work is, surely, more than the appearance of the thing. Surely we want to reveal something of the essence of the thing (or our experience, or whatever) something of what it is or at any rate was. We have been tricked by the tradition of perspective drawing and its sequels into thinking that if we can only render the appearance well enough, we can reveal this thing itself, and this is a great, tragic, lie.

Even the painters, drawing in perspective, did not believe this. Paintings, whether in perspective of one point, two points, or no points, are as often as not larded with with objects themselves laden with symbolism. The lordling is surrounding by hounds and expensive crap, and what's with that girl's earring? But somehow these tricks got lost as Pictorialism was jettisoned. The Modernists strove to show us what the thing is by, apparently, sheer strength of will. This in turn got translated into, somehow, maybe if I just make it really really sharp, and use a full range of tones, something good will come out of it all.

This is, if not the root, at least one of the roots of the great search for better equipment. Perhaps with the right camera, the right lens, the right lights, I could get more of the appearance of the thing into the digital file, and then, somehow, I could reveal the thing itself. By getting enough of what it looks like into the RAW file, I can capture what it is. Phrased this way, the falsehood is, I dare to suppose, instantly obvious.

At this point, though, trotting out theories like you want to show what it is not merely what it looks like in, say, an internet forum (or, I dare say, a camera club) is likely to draw a mixture of blank stares and savage attacks.

The cubists threw perspective away, and painted the thing from several sides at once, which isn't a bad idea. Dopes like me hope that by combining a sequence of pictures with, perhaps, some words I can overcome photography's obsessive looks like enough to get to the is at least a little. The portrait photographer hunts restlessly for the combination of light and expression that brings the is out into the looks like where the camera can access it.

The fundamental limitation of the camera is that all it can ever do is show you what a thing looks like, never what it is.

It's up to us to, somehow, badger the photograph into transcending its own nature, into, somehow, showing what the thing photographed is in spite of its appearance.

More precisely, we need to badger the photograph in to, despite revealing mere appearance, causing the viewer to perceive what the thing photographed is.

This is more than sharpness, more than technical detail, for those improve only the appearance of the thing. Somehow, the appearance needs to be bullied, supported, buried and dug back up, so that it can allow that perception of what is over what seems.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

This is Steve

This is Steve. Steve is a friend of mine, within a somewhat limited definition of that term.

When I took this picture, Steve was sitting at the end of the offramp from I-5 into Bellingham, holding a sign, panhandling. It's what he does. When he gets enough money for beer, he gets up and goes to buy beer.

To take this picture, I sat down with Steve, and asked if I could, and he said I could. He was a little drunk, but not as bad as he sometimes is. Slightly past lucid. He admired my wedding band (plain gold, the ring my father married my mother with) and showed me his wedding "ring" which is a tattoo on his wrist. It's mostly a scar now, he burned it off with matches (he told me) after the marriage broke up. There was also a proper ring, copper, tin, another metal. Braided, maybe. Custom made in Pike's Place in the 1980s. That one may have gone missing in the aftermath of a fight. This story, as with most of what I know of Steve, was given me in bits and pieces.

His wife's tattoo on her wrist was positioned so that when they held hands, the two tattooed patterns formed a whole. Steve's tattoo is mostly gone, I don't know about hers. The first match is pretty easy, but after you burn off a few bits you start to get pretty shy of the matches, so there's a few strands of Steve's tattoo left.

Anyways, within some limits, Steve is a friend of mine. I like him, he likes me. He knows my name, the names of my daughters, the name of my dog. I wouldn't trust him to look after my dog, or my kids, or my car, unless I was really up against it. It's not that Steve wouldn't try, but he drinks, and when he drinks he doesn't always exercise good judgement. And when he doesn't drink, he very very much wants to drink, and so again, doesn't always exercise good judgement.

We know Steve in this way: the elementary school is on the other side of the highway, so my children and I, and sometimes the dog, walk to and fro under the highway underpass every day during the school year, and thus we cross the offramp where it meets the street, waiting dutifully for the walk signal twice a day (four times for the parents, who walk both directions for each trip.) Steve is not always working that spot, but he's there pretty often. If we don't see him for a while, he's probably in jail. We always hope that he's not dead.

Steve spends a few weeks in jail every year. His main crime is stealing beer, which he needs and sometimes cannot raise enough money to buy. Perhaps he loses the money, or likely he shares what he has more freely than his alcoholism demands he ought. However it works out, Steve steals beer. When he gets caught a few times, he is then banned from premises, which means that he also gets busted for trespass when he goes to get beer, even if he is in funds and intends to purchase beer. There are not too many places left that Steve can be without risking a citation for trespass.

One of the many tiny tragedies of Steve's life is that the court hears his case some months after the crime, and if he is sentenced to time in jail, that will occur sometimes quite a while after the rigmarole of the courts. This makes any sort of self-improvement a bit tricky, as Steve generally has at any given moment something close to a year's worth of hearings and punishment stretched out in front of him.

Steve was married, I think he married quite young. He's about my age, but wed some decades before I did (I was rather late.) He has two boys, grown and living, I think, in Alaska. I don't know anything about his wife. Steve was a welder by trade, building ships up and down the coast of Washington. He took up the trade some time after getting married, worked at it for some time. Eventually he worked his way up to being a crew boss, running a crew of welders on the night shift. Steve was a rotten boss, though, because he'd weld too even though he wasn't supposed to. He likes welding.

It is true that welding is easier and better if you do it when you're a bit stoned. It's not great, though, if you drink.

There were, I suppose, episodes involving drink, and then recoveries in addition to Steve not being great at not welding. Then the alcohol had a serious conversation with Steve and laid down some rules. One of those rules was that Steve doesn't work, he drinks. Nowadays, Steve is pretty single-minded in his pursuit of being drunk.

Having run in to him from time to time during some stints in recovery, I can attest that sober Steve is pretty rough. He does not track well, his personality is almost completely blank.

I like Steve, and I think he likes me. I know he's not mean, or vicious, or stupid. He's an alcoholic, and he's not very good in groups, which makes it hard for the systems which attempt to help homeless alcoholics get better to help him much. They're all about the groups. Groups in shelters, groups in halfway houses, groups in therapy. Steve isn't very good in groups. Attempts at recovery run in to, I suppose, more problems than that, but still, Steve isn't good in groups.

So, between stints in jail, and less frequent stints in recovery, Steve lives outdoors. There's a shifting, loose, association of mostly men who look after one another, share a bit of this and that, occasionally get in fights. Steve used to hang out of Lyle, but I think Lyle's in a pretty decent run of recovery now. Steve's been hanging out with Michael and his wife a fair bit, they're First Nations (Indians) and generally pretty sober near as I can tell. Seth and Chris kind of circle around the edges of the same crew. I think they get along with Steve, but not with Michael and his wife. There might be a bit of racism here, I don't see much of anyone but Steve with the Indians.

Sleeping outdoors is pretty tough. I know I'm not all there even after a couple days of camping and these fellows do it month after month after month with vastly inferior camping gear, except when they're in jail, in recovery, or maybe on the very coldest nights when they'll unbend enough to go down to the Mission and sleep inside, with all them people. That does't add up to too many indoor nights in a year. Some of the guys may actually be housed, I'm not certain. Steve, I am pretty sure, is generally outdoors.

Being outdoors always, and drunk a lot, isn't good for you. You can see that Steve's nose isn't straight. I don't know if that's a fight or a fall, but my guess would be "yes." Several of his fingers are permanently mangled, crooked, from being broken and never set properly. He has no idea how the little finger on one of this hands (right, I think) came to be at right angles to its normal position one day this spring, but there it is. It looks better now, but it's not right. Still, Steve is slim and upright, a fine looking figure of a man. When he's sober, or too drunk, he shambles a bit, but with right blood alcohol level, he strides along steadily with a spring in his step, a regular man about town.

Steve looks mighty serious in this photo, and he was pretty serious that moment. He does laugh a lot, and smile a lot. He needs a fair bit of beer in him to bring a smile, but that's just because it hurts quite a bit until he's got a bit of a load on. When he can get that pain down to a dull roar, he can be a pretty happy guy. Sometimes he's pretty chatty, I've heard a lot about Steve in little bits and pieces over the years, in those times when I've met him drunk enough to talk, but not too drunk to talk.

Steve has regrets and sorrows, but at the end of the day, of the possibilities available within the constraints of our world, this is the one Steve wants. He's pretty clear-eyed about that. It's not great, and sometimes it's terrible. But the alcohol won't let him work, and he's not good in groups, and this is pretty much what's left. One of his case workers told me that he thinks Steve (and guys like Steve) have something of a death wish. Steve told me that this case worker is a complete fuckhead.

I wouldn't say that Steve is happy, excepting now and then, but he is positioned in the place he wants to be, of all the places that are available to him and the beer.

He gave my wife some tulips once. He gave my dog a ball once.

I gave him $5 after I took the picture. I don't usually give him money, I give him attention instead which is harder for him to get. I ruthlessly use him as a lesson to my children, that all men are deserving of our kindness, our regard, and our respect. That not all men make good choices, that not all men are granted good choices to make. That we should treat each person with a little bit of love, but also within boundaries. Boundaries that are different for each of us, but laid down with care, respect, and kindness, the best compromise between ourselves and them that we can navigate.

This is Steve. He is a friend of mine, after a fashion.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Diane Arbus's Twins

Here's another thing to look at. Closely. It comes here from Mike Johnston's recent post on ToP. Let us really look at it.

You will probably note the usual things quickly. The girls are not quite identical, one appears sad or neutral, the other is smiling. They are dressed almost but not quite identically, in slightly clumsily made dresses. There is a slightly weird sensation to the thing. Dig a little deeper and ask why it feels weird.

The non-smiling child appears much older. It is probably just one of several quirks of expression here, but her face is reminiscent of a grown woman's, out of place on the child's body. The smiling child's face appears crooked, probably an artifact of the angle of her head, her expression, and the wide angle lens Arbus used here. One child is "freakishly old" the other is "freakishly distorted."

The children are off center in the frame, and the line of the floor behind them is likewise angled in the frame. The child closer to the edge of the frame is the one distorted, which suggests optics plays a role here. If I asked you to, from memory, tell me how the children are posed and framed, you would likely say: backs square to the wall, centered in the frame and you would be wrong on both counts.

In short, everything is slightly askew in this picture.

If you've spent much time with Arbus, another thing should more or less leap out at you. Contrary to received wisdom, this picture is a radical departure for Arbus. The subjects are wearing their "camera face" here, that expression one dons in front of the camera. One is playing the role of oneself, in that moment. This picture shows subjects that have fully settled in to playing the role of themselves-being-photographed, which is a posture Arbus seems to have vigorously avoided.

Arbus's subjects in her well known photos are, generally, playing a role, but it is never that role. They are, generally, putting forward some more appealing, more interesting, fantasy of themselves. Most of them are pushing forward some slightly forced notion of freedom from, defiance of, social norms: transvestites, nudists, circus performers, and so on. These are people concerned with concealing themselves behind a role, behind a pose.

Earlier photographs, as I have noted earlier, are largely concerned with the mask that drops in the moment the camera is noticed, but slightly before "camera face" or other reactions begin. There is no conscious role here, but there is a mask, there is a concealment of the self behind a posture, an expression.

This photograph, of the Wade twins, still partakes of Arbus' characteristic weirdness. Weird both for reasons noted, and also because twins dressed identically seem to simply generate an impression of weirdness. I was in San Francisco, living in the right neighborhood, during the last days of San Francisco's Brown Twins, two tiny old ladies, identical twins, who dressed identically and made a bit of a career of being local characters. They evoked pretty much the same "how cute, but, a little weird" response.

We know that Arbus took this picture at a party for twins and other multiple births. She took, one imagines, at least a roll of picture of various kids. Given the contact sheet and the selected picture from the "kid with the hand grenade" photo, we can guess with some justification that Arbus picked this one because it was the weirdest one (and, in fact, a contact sheet is available, you may examine it and decide for yourself.) Mostly the party would have been a bust, endless cute kids with "camera face," nothing Arbus wanted in the least. The fact that she picked out this one and printed it, rather than throwing the whole lot away, is telling.

This photo isn't interesting because it represents some distillation of Arbus, because it is some pinnacle of her ideas, but rather because it is not. It flies in the face of most of her other work. It reveals to us that, at this moment quite near the end of her life, Arbus only cares if the picture looks a bit weird.

Mike repeats the notion that Arbus's work is some sort of investigation of "self" which seems to originate (?) with Arbus's biographer, which possibly derives, at least in part, from this statement from Arbus's notebooks:

“what is left after what one isn't is taken away -- is what one is.

which is a kind of Deepak Chopra level aphoristic bullshit Arbus was very good at. It's a true statement, but it's exactly as true about donuts. Donuts are what are left when you take away everything that isn't a donut just sounds kind of stupid, right? It's exactly the same statement. Anyways, if you take this as some sort of statement of principle, one might as well assume that Arbus is interested not in "self" but in "what one isn't" and in fact you'd be a lot nearer the truth if you did.

I have previously quoted Szarkowski on Arbus:

her true subject was no less than the unique interior lives of those she photographed.

which contributed to the weird notions about what Arbus might possibly have been up to. The one thing Arbus seems to have been definitely not interested in is what people's true self, true interior life, was. Every single photograph she published makes this painfully clear, all one needs to do is actually look.

All of this suggests strongly that none of these people (Szarkowski, Bosworth, Johnston, and I dare say a great number of other people) have failed to actually look at the pictures. They looked at Arbus's notebooks, and then at what one another have said.

The mission of the critical apparatus, of course, is to bundle up an artist's oeuvre into a single coherent story, with a neat progression (from worse, shallower, to better, deeper, natch) and so of course Twins has to be crammed in there. It does fit, after a fashion, but the progression is going the wrong way. This is evidence that, by 1967, Arbus just wanted things that looked weird, and was no longer much interested in the person in the picture, thus culminating a pretty definite trivializing trend from the 1950s to the end of her life.

As I have noted earlier, her 35mm work, while less polished, shows a definite interest in certain aspects of the humans she is photographing. As her career unfolds, she becomes more polished, and less interested, until at the end all she cares about is whether the picture looks "Arbus-weird" or not.

Here are three pictures in a row. 1957, 1963, 1967:

Having placed these pictures down in a row, I find myself far more appalled than I thought I would be. There is, at least to my eye, a clear progression from interesting to outright lazily dopey.

There is, possibly, a reason why curators are careful to put these things into separate rooms, isn't there?

Thursday, June 20, 2019

My favorite photographer story

I saw this on Usenet back in the day. Back in Mark of 1998, a guy named John J. Stafford shared this story.

Around 1971 I found myself assigned to cover a minor soap-box derby race in suburban Chicago. I was young, between the ages of the participants and their parents, bored with suburban stuff because there was so much more "happening" in the city of Chicago. "This is one didly-squat assignment.", I told myself, but tried to get into it anyway.

When I thought I'd seen it all, I made one more walk through the whole scene before leaving early, when I saw an older man in good clothes, European, I thought, smiling away and enthusiastically shooting pictures. "A real enthusiast.", I thought. Then the man saw me, all decked out with three Nikons like any city photog and he said Hello.

Yea, a foreign accent. I introduced myself in passing, still moving on, and didn't catch his name. (Not being one to suffer difficult accents, I barely tried.) "Didn't get it. What's your name again?", I asked. "EISIE!", he said, smiling broadly.

Holy shit. It really was Alfred Eisenstaedt, on this "Didly" assignment in my idea of "nowhere suburbia." I was so flustered that I reshot the whole thing. It ran as a full-page feature, but to this day, I'd love to know what Eisenstaed got. I've got to believe it was better.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Ai-Da and Stochastic Art

Mostly I don't take requests, not because I hate people but because I have my own ideas. Derrel's pointer to the AI driven drawing robot, though, found me in a receptive mood.

Ai-Da is a humanoid robot. It has one or two cameras in its eyes. It has a plotter-type printer, disguised as a crude arm. It takes a picture of what is in front of it, runs that image file through some sort of neural network algorithm, and renders an output picture using its plotter to render some sort of stylized line drawing.

It appears to be a humanoid robot looking at something, and then drawing the something, but that is not meaningfully the case.

People have been using algorithmic methods for art for some time now, probably quite a bit longer than I've been able to track it back. In 1968 Fred Whipple published a book (?) called Stochastic Painting in which he outlines methods for turning a sequence of random numbers into paintings. It seems likely to me that people were inspired to make decisions in their paintings per the roll of a die or the turn of a card before that, but at any rate we see that Algorithmic Art definitely exists by 1968.

In the intervening 60 years, we have of course seen masses of computer art. Some of it uses only random numbers as input, others use randomness plus other inputs, and some simply transform something given to them, in much the same way Ai-Da does.

The recent addition of "AI" to the mix has been sold to us as some sort of sea change. It is not. What "AI" means, here, is neural networks. Recent developments in this technology have led to a basket of new ways to build very powerful neural networks quickly and easily, which sounds a lot like "we're building BRAINS" but we are not. This is a (deliberate) blurring of terminology. A neural network is simply an algorithm, and not a very complicated one at that. It happens to have been loosely modeled on actual neurons, but it is leagues simpler. It is arguably no more complex than a gear in a watch. The power comes, as in a watch, from sticking a whole lot of these things together.

It is fun to say that we don't know what a neural network will do when given an input. The Ai-Da scammers certainly like to say that. The trouble is, it's not true. We know perfectly well what Ai-Da will do when presented with some scene, or at any rate we could work it out easily enough. The important point is not that we don't know but rather that the easiest way to see what will happen is to run it.

A watch also has this property. You could certainly take a watch apart and count all the teeth on the gears and take detailed measurements and work out what will happen when you wind it up. Or, you could simply wind it up. The latter is much simpler. This does not make a watch a brain, it simply makes it a moderately complex contraption.

The AI industry as a whole is engaged in a bit of a scam. The conceit is, to the lay person, that they are building brains, things with personalities, super-intelligent electronic organisms that may some day take over our world. There is literally a well funded academic discipline on "AI risk" which is, in part, studying issues surrounding "what should we do when we accidently build a super-intelligent electronic orgamism?"

This conceit is nonsense. The AI industry has a small collection of algorithms, often absurdly simple ones, which produce startling results when you set them up right. There is no way they are building, say, conscious beings. Humanity has, literally, no idea whatsoever, what a "consciousness" even is. There are multiple theories in play, and they all share one property: they are obviously wrong.

It is perhaps interesting to note that the credible practitioners in this area tend to use "Machine Learning" or "ML" in preference to "Artificial Intelligence" or "AI.' I have no idea if this is conscious or not, but it appears to me to be a definite trend.

Anyways, back to Ai-Da.

The name Ai-Da begins with AI, so you know immediately that they're selling something. The obvious reference to Dada seems to go universally unmentioned, which is strange because "automatic art" is totally a Dada thing, even though it's not strictly speaking algorithmic. No, she is named (inevitably) for Ada Lovelace, the Only Woman Ever Even Slightly Involved In Computing.

As nearly as I can tell, all Ai-Da proper does is render pencil drawings with a plotter, from photographs taken on the spot. I am unable to locate even a single drawing online, despite the broad press we're seeing here, which I suspect is highly telling. What we see instead are a few derivative artworks, which allegedly start with an Ai-Da drawing, and then are further processed by other software and people. A greenish abstract painting and a sculpture of a really fucked up bee is all we get to see online.

I currently have in my bookmarks this stylization tool. It is a neural network that runs in my browser, it's just a pile of Javascript. It is in no way a brain.

I just used this tool now, as follows. I took this snapshot of me, from within the tool itself, much as Ai-Da might photograph me:

then I selected this sketch from the style source choices:

And I clicked the Stylize button, to produce this:

Bang on some fairly straightforward non-AI code to turn that into code to drive a plotter, and you've literally got Ai-Da minus the creepy animatronics, which Disney has been churning out for decades. Technically, we're also missing Ai-Da's alleged facial recognition software, which presumably allows her to not draw the background just the face. As we all know, facial recognition software is certainly not commonly available in every camera and cell phone built in the last few years. No, wait..

Ok, so, technologically, Ai-Da is pretty epically uninteresting. There's literally nothing innovative here, it's simply a thing one can build pretty easily there days if you have the cash for the custom mechnical systems. I don't think one can even argue that there's any interesting incremental evolution here, given that I can knock out the interesting bits with some Javascript somebody else wrote some.. months?.. ago.

I suspect strongly that the purveyors of this bloody sideshow would assert huffily that they are raising important questions about the nature of humanity and what it means to be creative. Which, sure, they are. People have been raising precisely these same questions since 1968, and to be honest, nobody seems to be working very hard on the answers.

What we do know is that what it is to be human, and what it is to be creative, is definitely not that. What it actually is to be human, or to be creative, seem to be infernally complicated and slippery. Working out answers to these slippery questions, though, does not seem to be materially aided even slightly by, tediously, raising the questions again with some ridiculous contraption.

It does look like they're going to sell some Art for a lot of money.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Something to Look At

Take a look at this picture. Take some time with it. What do you see? And beyond that (or under it, or past it) what do you see?

Sunday, June 2, 2019


Summer is nearly upon us and things are getting busy. I will be writing less, or perhaps not at all, for a time. Don't panic.

Any straggler comments that come along I will try to moderate through from time to time and might or might not engage in witty repartee.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Two Mysteries

I've been discussing the nature of creativity elsewhere. As happens so often it devolved pretty quickly in to "no, no, that's not really creativity, creativity is... " in response to pretty much anything I said. Humans, at least some of us, have a peculiar desire to defend the borders of the unknown which surround creativity.

Creativity is indeed a mystery, and competing with the aforementioned reflex, we have the Enlightenment, or if you prefer Modernist, notion that for all things we can figure it out, if we only apply our big, fat, brains. And, to some degree we have sorted out creativity. We understand, in sort of broad strokes, the neurology. Not, you know, really, but we know which bits of the brain light up when someone's creative juices are flowing. And, more importantly, we have teachable strategies for encouraging those moments, for making ourselves as it were, open to the muse.

So in a way, creativity is still a mystery, an unknown wrapped in the known. The idea that we might some day understand the brain enough to truly understand it at its root, in an essential and complete way, is kind of depressing. But I am delighted to know some ways to welcome the muse. She's nice, and I like her.

That is one mystery.

The creative production of Art is a fascinating process, in many ways I suppose. The way it's fascinating me today is this: the creative impulse is profoundly internal. These sections of your brain light up, ideas churn, silently, invisibly, and entirely inside your own head, the answer emerges. In that instant, only you and maybe God know the answer.

But Art, successful Art, is a cultural construct. If your creative impulse has indeed produced a good answer, that answer is culturally specific. It's specific to here, and to now, and yet it was produced by, one supposes, the underlying biology of your brain which, one supposes, is basically a lot like the brain of a Russian from 1914, or a Vietnamese brain from 257BC.

This is the second mystery.

We live in our society, swimming in the cultural constructs of it. Presumably, we consume these things. We see a Monet, we see a gas station, we rub our dog's tummy, all these things are here, now, in this place and time. Our mind, I guess, takes these things into itself and does we know not entirely what with them.

The creative impusle occurs, if we are lucky, and if we have the skill we execute it, and make something. Something of the constant mystery of our humanness, but also something of the culture in which we live and eat and breathe. If we are lucky, others see our work, touch it, taste it, however that is, and it becomes something to them as well.

I find this continuous interplay between the underlying more-or-less constant human object, you, or me, and the malleable, temporal, tentative, fluctuating, culture in which it resides to be a wonderous and fascinating thing. Imagine, if you will, that you'd been adopted by a nice Chinese couple, or a Mexican family. You would still be you, in many essential ways, but the art you make, the songs you write, the dances you dance, they might all be completely different and yet still, somehow, you.

How amazeballs is that?

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A Matter of Media

There's a minor tempest going on in the usual British Academic Photographers circle, around a 2017 reissue of a book by Gian Butturini, London. In the book there is a spread which features a woman in a booth collecting fares(?) opposite a photograph of a gorilla in a cage. The woman appears to be of African descent. This is horribly racist and everyone involved should be killed, and, more importantly, should grovel at the feet of the riled-up twitter heros. When Ben Chesterton rolls up, you know things are gonna get stupid.

Ok, so they're not wrong. In this day and age, one does not publish that sort of thing. Partly to avoid the wrath of twitter heros, to be sure, but also because, well, it's Just Not Done, right? I wouldn't. More on this later.

One could, I think, argue that the point of the spread might have been something like good god, they treat blacks like ANIMALS in this fucking town (or substitute "poor people" if you prefer) but it doesn't matter. One would not make that point in this way, today. Or in 2017 when the book was published. More on this later as well, first there is underbrush to clear.

The trouble is that this this is a re-issue of a book from 1969.

I was told this:

If the pairing of the two images was in the original publication, then at that time (think civil rights movement) it would have been considered deeply offensive and overtly #racist.

Full disclosure, whenever anyone offers as supporting evidence the phrase think X for some X or another, my hackles go up. Personal thing. Now, I have to say, I was 3 years old in 1969, so I was not meaningfully there, but to suppose that the spread would have been read the same way 50 years ago as it is today is simply absurd. Let us consider some history of the idea about representations in media.

The Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan) is published in 1963, and is at any rate one of the earlier notable works that touches upon the harm media depictions can cause. It is talking about the harm "women's magazines" do to the lives of white middle-class women in terms of the standards they set.

Stuart Hall is publishing in the early 1970s and comes up with the Politics of Representation, a formal statement and model for the ideas that media representations of people influence society, influence culture. In potentially harmful ways.

Laura Mulvey published "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in 1975, in which she introduces the idea of Male Gaze in cinema, another watershed moment in the idea that media portrayals, media representation, can be harmful.

1969 in bang in the middle of these. Six years after Friedan's book, six years before Mulvey's essay, and there's other material in play in that same interval. This is a set of ideas that is being birthed, refined, and mainstreamed in exactly this interval.

So, that's a few samples to get a flavor, which I think roughly bracket the interval and give a reasonable flavor of the intellectual environment.

What is some graphic designer (Butturini) in 1969 going to think about the power of a photographic juxtaposition to harm? Well, probably not a lot. The academic community is definitely starting to get a feel for it, but it's not really mainstream thinking yet, by any stretch of the imagination. It is at least credible that some random person on the street would not yet have run into any of these ideas (although, of course, it is also credible that they have.)

What are racial justice advocates likely to think about it in 1969? Like Butturini, they're living in an interval where these ideas are coming forward, but not fully mainstream. What any given activist thinks about these things is unknown, of course, but we can situate this next to some American history: Emmett Till's murder 14 years earlier, desegregation of city buses in Montgomery, Alabama in the same interval, lunch counter sit-ins in the same interval, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and on and on.

In the UK things were perhaps somewhat less dire, perhaps the Till episode would not have happened in London, but in roughly the same interval a little research shows that, for example, black Caribbeans had a lot of trouble simply renting a place to live. In the 1960s and onwards issues like Can I Live Somewhere, Can I Get Paid, and Can I Not Be Beaten Up seem to loom fairly large for people of color in the UK.

What an Italian creative photographing in London thought is anybody's guess, honestly.

In short, we're sort of on the tail end of a historical period in which the overwhelmingly dominant issues surrounding racial justice are things like: Not Getting Murdered or Beaten, and Being Allowed to Vote, and we're still working on a lot of stuff like Getting Paid More Like White People and so on. We're also on the cusp of a new generation of issues, which concerns things like media portrayals, in which one might reasonably have a little space between being beaten up to worry about a spread in a photobook, edition of 1000. Again, 1969 lands right in the middle of these things.

While it's certainly reasonable to suppose that some activists would have found the two-page spread problematic, it's also reasonable to suppose that many activists would look at the same spread and characterize it as not important enough to worry about. To issue a blanket statement it would have been considered deeply offensive and overtly racist is flatly ahistorical.

What we are seeing on twitter is a group of people who are seeing this object in contemporary terms, and insisting on applying their understanding to 1969. Indeed, at least some of them are insisting not only that we should judge the work by modern standards, but that the standards in 1969 were substantially the same as they are today which is simply absurd.

But what about the spread, anyways? Let's actually look at it.

It seems to have been deliberate, both figures are in small boxes, rendered about the same size, and so on. It is credible, at any rate, that we are supposed to compare and contrast the two figures.

But what are we meant to take away from this? More precisely, what would we have been presumed to, in 1969, take away from this spread?

What I see is a sympathetic recognition of similarity. These two figures are, as I see it, similarly trapped, constrained. Both appear to be resigned to an unhappy lot. I don't feel any denigration from the photographer here, only sympathy. Certainly there is suggested an equivalency of the black woman to the gorilla, but is the intention to cast the human down to the level of the animal, to raise the animal up to the level of the human, or is such an analysis entirely beside the point?

Given the sympathy that seems to come through so clearly, I am unable to accept that the photographer intended to cast the human down to the level of the animal. You may read it otherwise.

But that is 1969, right? The relevant intellectual stew makes it credible either that Butturini would have seen that making this equivalence was an act of racism, or that he would not have seen it that way. It depends on just what he had and had not been exposed to. The ideas were there, but not universal. The sympathy I see makes it difficult to imagine that Butturini willfully intended an act of racism here, but if you don't see the same sympathy I do, you may find that jump easier to make.

It is worth noting that contemporary understanding of the harm done by representation in media is never about a single picture, never about a single bite of media. It is invariably about the continuity of all media, the constant flow of the same idea repeated over and over. Only on twitter do we see single images characterized as, by themselves, doing harm.

Seeing this today, we are, whether we like it or not, steeped in modern theories of representation in ways that Butturini was not. At best he might have been aware of these ideas, but they were simply not part of the water he swam in, in the way that they are today.

In today's terms, the spread is unabashedly racist.

Not because it in and of itself does any harm, but because the way one eliminates the continuity of harmful media is one bit of media at a time. One picture is harmless, maybe, but 100,000 are not, but you eliminate the 100,000 by consciously not printing one picture 100,000 times over.

How should this spread have been handled in the re-issue?

I am always loathe to suggest Bowdlerizing, so, I reject the idea that the spread should have been eliminated to broken up.

I have seen suggested on twitter that a suitable essay could have been written to accompany the book, specifically addressing this spread. Having just written such an essay (see above) that sounds like an excellent plan. But then, I always think the right answer is "some sort of essay."

Leave it alone and just publish it as-is? That was the choice made by the publisher, and it stood for 2 years before someone freaked out. The book was reviewed in some of the usual places without fuss. Perhaps this whole tempest is a big nothingburger, in the end.

I will say that watching a bunch of white academics competing on twitter to see who best understands the downtrodden black woman is both hilarious and nauseating.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Outside of Time

I am continuing to labor through a bunch of John Berger's collected essays, but I am very close to the end so you probably won't be inflicted with much more of this. I like him, because he seems to find the same central problems in Art as I do. What is "good" art? What is the difference between a "good" artist and a "bad" one? What is "genius" anyways?

In That Which is Held Berger notes that in the 19th century european culture developed the scientific fact of entropy, and with it an idea of Time as a process moving linearly forward, inevitably dissolving everything, eventually. Gone are earlier ideas of cyclical time, gone is the hope of even a steady state let alone some notion of, ultimately, growth and order. Entropy is all, the end of all things is nothingness. This is scientifically proven, in whatever sense that ought to be taken.

And yet, Art, we hope, speaks to things eternal.

The essay is, well, it might make concrete and literal sense to someone else, but as near as I can approach it it's somewhat mystical, metaphorical. I spent some time with it, and this is the result of my ruminations.

Supposing that I drop my pencil on the floor. The pencil, the floor, and I, will all end. There will, in the fullness of time, be no trace left of the event. Yet, the fact of that event exists outside of time. The truth that, once, my pencil landed on the floor with a sound like tic is eternal. Not, I think, very interesting, but anyways it does not require the passage of time for its existence.

Berger has a lot to say at this point about love and sex. One gets the sense that he was a bit of a randy old goat. What I took away from his remarks, though, is that love is one of those self-same facts which exist outside of time, which have no particular attachment to the onward flow of time toward the ultimate heat death of the universe. Love, my love for my children and my wife, is much the same sort of fact as the sound my pencil made, but it is much more interesting. At any rate, it is interesting to me.

Setting aside Berger now, let us suppose that there are these kinds of things that exist outside of time. These ideas, these facts, these notions. You could get all philosophical and argue that without an existing brain to hold them they do not exist, but the door is over there and you may let yourself out, I'll be over here with all the hash and the hot girls. Some of these facts and notions are more interesting, others are less so. Some are more universal, in the sense that they are of interest to many people, in particular more than to me.

It seems to me that Art, Good Art, is about these things. In times past, art spent a lot of effort groping at religious themes, the relationship of God to Man and so on. In those days, our understanding of time did not include entropy. Most religions included (and still include, if you want to be picky) some strong notion of cyclical time, some notion of resurrection, of rebirth, of reincarnation, so their notion of things outside of time was stronger. But still, the art spoke to those things which are in this sense timeless. Not timeless in the usual sense of I think people in the future might understand this but in the more literal sense of unconnected to time.

Nowadays, when most art is secular, we no longer attach things to the essentially timeless constructs of God, Heaven, Hell, Resurrection. But still, we grope for those things that, like the love I have for my wife, here and now in this moment, exist outside of time. My fondness for my little town of Bellingham in all its aspects is my constant theme. It's not exactly God creating Adam in the Sistine chapel, but it is in the same way outside of time, and it is of some little interest to me and some other people.

I am not certain that Berger is right that only love turns up here, but it does seem to arise a fair bit.

This is, I think, a way to understand why I dislike so much contemporary photography. There is no love. There is no timelessness, no tinge of the eternal. It's all exercises in form, exercises in local politics, scantily clad women, or some combination of those.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

How History is Made

There is, it turns out, a little cottage industry in trying to discredit the FSA photographers. Some of it they earned, and other attempts are utter nonsense. I've gone over the "scholarly" work incorrectly accusing Walker Evans of planting an alarm clock in a sharecropper cabin. On the other hand, Arthur Rothstein surely did move a cow skull.

Well, it turns out that there is another scribble of history being gently pushed by minor players out there, this one more vague.

In the 1930s is was not uncommon for the mentally disabled to be housed in facilities for housing them, and also for them to be sterilized. There is a deep and ugly story here, and from our modern viewpoint there is nothing good about this programs. No argument from me, here. Such a program was evidently pursued with gusto in Virgina.

A filmmaker named Richard Robinson at some point set out to make a film about Arthur Rothstein's First Assignment, and that is the title of his film. I have not seen it, but I have read a moderate amount of followon material that resulted from it. In the film, Robinson wants to talk about Rothstein's First Assignment, and mistakenly gets the idea that it is a trip to the Shenandoah Mountains to document people being displaced from their homes in order to make way for the Shenandoah National Park that's being put in.

A couple minor quibbles. In the trailer, the narrator (Robinson?) cannot even pronounce Rothstein right, pronouncing it "steen." In the second place, he's taking the notion that this is the First Assignment from an interview where Rothstein appears to be mis-remembering. The FSA archive contains photographs by Rothstein from some months prior to this trip. Rothstein appears to have simply muddled up the timeline. Neither of these things are a big deal, but they speak to a degree of sloppiness.

ETA: It's possible that Rothstein's name was in fact pronounced "steen" although I am unable to locate a recording of the man himself pronouncing his own name.

This is not a carefully made film. This is not a researcher who visited the Library of Congress to check primary sources, this is a guy who wants to make a movie and thinks he's stumbled on to something.

Now, it happens that on this trip Rothstein took some photos (arguably "a few") of some people, some of whom (arguably "two") were mentally disabled. When the community was "resettled" the mentally disabled ones were stuffed into the facilties, and sterilized. Ugh. That's awful.

Where Robinson, and other people (notably Elizabeth Catte, an author and historian), run in to trouble is in trying to paint Rothstein with this eugenics brush.

Was Rothstein just some government schlub taking photos per the directions of his boss, Roy Stryker, to justify plans to resettle (i.e. evict) these people? Yep. He was working for, after all, the Resettlement Administration, which only later would be renamed the Farm Services Administration. The archive is clear, he's out there hanging out in one small area of the region, photographing everything around him. Photographing the whole thing is too much, so he picks out a good picturesque sample, with decoratively poor people who look like they need some government assisstance, and he photographs them, their stuff, their houses, their land, and so on.

That is verifiable ground truth. You can search the FSA Archive for "shenandoah rothstein" and look for yourself. Compare with the text of this article in TIME, by Robinson about his film.

There was also a very disturbing narrative that seemed to guide Rothstein in his work.

I dunno about you, but I ain't seeing a disturbing eugenics narrative in those pictures. It's 280ish pictures of random, albeit picturesque, shit.

What the modern day historians would like to do is to insinuate that somehow Rothstein was complicit in a program of eugenics. How consciously he was involved they are vague on, what exactly he might have done they are vague on. They refer to captions Rothstein provided in which he refers to a boy as a "half-wit" (missing the second caption in which he refers to a young woman of 16 as having "the mentality of a child of seven.") There are another couple captions about how many children women have had. This is, apparently "editorializing" and "focussing on" according to Catte. The other 250-odd photos Rothstein took are ignored.

What makes this particularly fascinating is that the year is 1935, and Rothstein is a Jew from New York. This is not to suggest that he could not possibly be a eugenicist, but it certainly makes the territory a bit fraught. Robinson, Catte, and I dare say others, simply wade into the without a second thought.

This is also not to suggest that Rothstein was most assuredly not involved or complicit. We do not know his heart, we can only guess based on the facts we can verify.

The most likely scenario was that he was just a 20-21 year old New York Jew, over-educated, sent out to do what he and all the other photographers for the FSA did: justify the government program he worked for (resettlement) and document America if he had some spare time. They all did it, over and over. Anyone with any experience in the FSA archive will instantly recognize the Shenandoah Valley photos as completely typical.

I find the whole process sort of nauseating. I can see Rothstein being painted as a scumbag, bit by bit, before my eyes. Errol Morris and James Curtis reported in detail, in Official Scholarly Books, on how Rothstein moved a cow skull, and how his pictures were misused by the press. Now Robinson and Catte are reporting that his pictures were, again, used in the press, apparently to justify institutionalization and sterilization, and are insinuating that Rothstein had something to do with it.

I have no particular love for Rothstein, and he is dead and buried by now, but he seems to have been a basically harmless drone, at any rate as harmless as any government man with a camera can be. I don't think he deserves this, and, more to the point, we as a culture deserve better history.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Provenance of Meaning

I should start out by noting that I am using the word provenance loosely at best, incorrectly at worst, here. I confess that I first came across the word watching Lovejoy, where the word means "evidence of the chain of ownership, usually forged."

Colin Pantall, one of a small crew of British photo-academics I attend to now and then, has written a review of a book about Belgian photobooks, by Tamara Berghmans. Most of the review is of no particular concern to me, it appears to be a workmanlike job of reviewing, but survey books about photobooks are not something that interest me.

He does spend a little time dissecting one section of the book, regarding photobooks covering the Belgian Congo colonial era. In this section it is not clear to me where Colin begins, and where the book being reviewed leaves off, but they generally seem to be in accord, so I trust you will allow me to lump them together.

Let me first set the stage a little.

The contemporary narrative of colonialism is of vicious white exploiters looting faraway lands for no reason except to line their own pockets. While not wrong as such, and I certainly do not intend to put up a spirited defense of colonialsm here, it ignores the reality on the ground. The vast majority of the colonizers were simply bureacrats, whether state or church does not matter. Most of these people were not getting rich, and many of them at least in some sense chose to go to the colonies. They lived there, they died there.


This was an era in which, given any two cultures, it was felt that one could and should judge them. One of them was better, the other worse. The better one was, naturally, the one that most closely resembled White Euro Culture. The members of the White Euro Culture had a moral duty to go out and improve the worse culture. Was this a direct result of Enlightenment thinking, a sort of pre-Modernist philosophy? Sure. Was this a scam invented by Capital to motivate the bureaucrats? Sure, also true. This does not invalidate the motivations of the bureaucrats out there on the ground blundering around making horrendous messes, murdering people in droves, and occasionally making things better. Many of the bureaucrats on the ground were earnestly working, sacrificing, in order to raise up a culture they genuinely believed to be in need up raising up.

This idea that cultures that do not look like ours are inherently worse, and ought to be changed, is of course now seen as an awful idea. I agree that it's not a very good idea.

This idea isn't dead, of course. White Euros run around other countries telling them how they ought to be more White and more Euro (or more American, which is pretty much the same thing at this remove). They just do it through NGOs. Indigenous cultures are wonderful and should be respected, unless they're Saudis of course, and so on. There is a pretty large list of cultural practices that we in the west continue to find odious and work very hard to change, while making a good bit of pocket-change on the side. One finds, depressingly commonly, people working both sides: on the one hand decrying colonialism and on the other practicing it.

Looking back in to Colin's piece, we find what appears to be a quotation from the book concerning the bared breasts of the Congolese women. I assume these are Berghmans' words, but the reference is not crystal clear. Let me reproduce the quotation here.

"…pledges to the ‘veracity’ of these photographs, but also spoke to the tangible availability of these ‘lascivious’ bodies…"

Let us assume for the sake of argument that the bare breasts in that place at that time were perfectly normal, that those women in those contexts did not think it remotely unusual that their breasts would be uncovered, that they intended no meaning of lascivious availability.

So, somewhere in the chain of provenance between the women with their arms up, and the author of this book, someone has brought in lascivious availability. Let us think about this chain a little.

The women themselves. The photographer. The publisher (of the original photobook.) The intended audience for the photographs. Berghmans. Colin Pantall.

The lascivious availability is not present at the beginning, and by the time it reaches Colin it has been inserted.

Certainly the reading proposed is possible, it's reasonable, even likely, that the intended audience for the book read these pictures as a sort of soft-core smut, like a boy with a copy of National Geographic. Did the photographer or the publisher intend that meaning? Perhaps. One can imagine that they knew their audience, and if we stipulate that the audience would react that way, perhaps they were engaged in a little light porn-peddling to shift the books.

Did the photographer feel that way? I rather doubt it. To suppose that anyone in-country eyed these women with anything more than the usual feelings men have toward women is probably wrong-headed. The bouncer in the strip joint is pretty much over the naked bodies after a couple of days, it's just business as usual. I fail to see why a colonial bureaucrat serving in the Congo, with (one imagines) easy, daily, access to brown breasts to ogle would be much different. After a few days it's just background. At least, it's not insane to imagine that the breasts are just background.

The photographer, it is reasonable to imagine, is more or less the same sort of chap as the bureaucrats he's bunking with. He might be there to make a bunch of money, but it's equally likely that he's out there to try to do a spot of good while making a bit of money on the side. Rather like the contemporary NGO bureaucrats, and the photographers and filmmakers that work with them. Did he think golly, the people back home are gonna love these boobies! or was it merely something more to document, more of the background?

Did the publisher, then, get excited by the prospect of selling pictures of boobies to lustful Belgians? Indeed, one can ask if the lustful Belgians themselves cared? How much, really, can we equate the Belgian photobook buyer of the first half of the 20th century with 13 year old boys from the 1970s who have just discovered National Geographic?

I don't pretend to have the answers here. I do not know where the lascivious availability worked its way in. But work its way in it did.

Academic analysis of historical photographs is all too often performed as follows:

Begin with a caricature of the people of the time. Next, examine the photographs through your modern eyes, through your contemporary veil of prejudices and opinions. Finally, paste your modern understanding of the photographs onto the caricatures, with suitable rearrangements of pronouns and viewpoints to make the grammar work out ok.

This is the method of Edward Said's book, Orientalism, which builds its arguments largely as a sequence of quotations from colonialists, followed by Said "interpreting" the quotation, often with a remarkably free hand. He begins with a caricature of the colonialist (and like all good caricatures it contains elements of truth) and then fits quotations to these puppets he has made, and finally condemns the puppets with what he imagines to be their own words.

Said's opinions and prejudices somewhat resemble my own, and his caricature does contain elements of truth, and so his conclusions are in general shape the kinds of things I agree with. His method, though, leaves much to be desired.

This method is lazy and ahistorical, but it has the singular benefit of propping up ones own opinions and prejudices, since it is constructed entirely out of them.

The counter to this method, which is equally cheap and lazy, is to exclaim that the times were different then, and that everyone ought to be judged by the standards of their own time, not by ours. This gets to the essential flaw, but does not offer any meaningful solution. Every man, judged by his own standards, is innocent and pure as fresh fallen snow.

We should distinguish, at any rate, the difference between what a picture means to us and what we imagine it meant to them, the two are almost certainly different. Perhaps radically so. Further, we cannot really, credibly, grasp at what it meant to them without understanding them in some meaningful way. Dispense with the caricature.

Pictures of colonialism offend and appall us, rightly. We are who we are, and we find these things appalling.

One can also, but separately, imagine what these pictures meant to the colonialists, and we might choose to judge them based on that, though beyond our judgement they surely lie. But to so judge, we should make an effort to first understand the colonialists themselves. To cheaply paint them as caricatures and them to blindly paste our own reactions onto them is to do a grave disservice to everyone, perhaps most especially to ourselves.

Rather than simply transplanting our own understanding back in time, we should follow the thread of provenance backwards, unpicking each knot in the context of its time without losing sight of our own time, until finally we can make some sort of full sense of the thing.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Art in my little town

In my little town, of Bellingham, there is a lot of Art. Not great art, just pigments applied to surfaces, and photographs of pretty things, and chunks of metal welded to other chunks of metal, and so on. This is not to suggest that Bellingham is the end of line. No. If you fail in Bellingham, there are still places you can move to, to try again in a more forgiving market. But still, if you fail in New York, you don't move to Bellingham right away. First, maybe you fail in Birmingham or somewhere like that, and then Boise, and only then do you pull up stakes and come to Bellingham to see if there is a place for your art here.

There are, in my little town, Bellingham, any number of modest storefronts which represent someone's particular passion. Of course, there are bookstores, but what is unusual, really, about a passion for books? There is a museum of contraptions beautifully machined out of wood. There is a museum of electrical, things, mostly built around what might be the world's largest collection of dead shortwave radios. There is a train museum, where the wives of recently deceased old men donate their hundreds of pounds of model trains.

Also, there is a fish store. For live fish, fish for bowls, for tanks, for impossibly difficult to maintain aquatic environments. Tropical fish, goldfish, all manner of fish. Also, dog treats, dog toys, dog food, dog collars, bird seed, bird toys, and so on. But mostly, fish. It is the kind of store where, if you are not worthy, you may find yourself unable to purchase a fish for reasons you cannot quite grasp perhaps a nice goldfish says the young woman but I wanted the betta you say, bewildered. By way of explaining the breadth of the thing: they have a pufferfish, Miss Puff, not for sale please don't try to make me puff up it's bad for me. They maintain heroically large salt water environments in what seem to be intolerable circumstances.

Next door, in the former feed store adjoining the fish shop, is or more precisely was, a rather more ordinary pet store. Bunnies, parakeets, a few lizards, a snake, and aisle upon aisle of pet foods, pet toys, pet accessories, and, seasonally, setting out plants and seeds.

One night, the former feed store burned. Most of the animals were rescued, save only 10 birds and a snake. It is not clear if they are known to have perished, or if they are simply unaccounted for.

Allegations are being pursued to the effect that the fire was started by a homeless man who was trying to stay warm as temperatures dipped below freezing.

The fish store, with its lights and pumps and filters and heaters and coolers all maintaining the myriad delicate and complex environments was quarantined inaccessible to staff and without power for 18 hours.

All of the fish survived.