Monday, March 18, 2019

Category Error

There are lots of ways one might get value from a piece of Art one acquires.

At the high end, part of the value of a million dollar piece of Art is in being able to brag that you spent a million dollars on a piece of Art. Sometimes it's just decor, masses of color, tone, and line that appeal to you and which match the couch. Sometimes Art makes you think, or amuses you, or delights you in some way. Perhaps a piece of Art reminds you of something, or someone, it sparks a poignant memory. If you made the Art yourself, or if you personally know the artist, there are myriad personal connections which might have value of one sort of another.

Good Art makes you think, enlarges you, creates an "art-like experience" and is rare. There is a thing, which is not common, and which has this uncommon effect on us, and we have decided to call that rare thing Art. This is, ostensibly, what the million dollar piece does, and which it sometimes does (in part, because of the price tag.)

Setting aside the matter of personal connections, if we assume that we're looking at some Art made by a stranger, we're mostly likely to value a thing in roughly the same ways. There may be outliers; for you, since the girl in the picture reminds you of your first wife, the picture takes you much differently. But for the other 10 of us over here, we kind of look at it much the same way.

There is a thing photographers do. I suspect all artists do it, but since there are so damn many photographers, and because I attend far more to photography than to painting I notice it more among photographers: they overvalue their work.

There are roughly a billion web sites out there with some photographer, styling himself (rarely, herself) a Fine Art Photographer, and offering fairly expensive photographic prints.

Usually these things are landscapes, less often they are "street", almost never are they anything else.

What kind of value does one get from one of these things, if one buys them?

For the most part, they are decor, I think. Landscapes don't have much choice here, basically they can be pretty, or they can be sublime, and sublime is really hard. Street photography that sells (or at least which is popular) is graphical and cute. It's decor. It goes with the couch, it's appealing, it might be slightly amusing.

So why is it offered in canvas wrap for $700 or whatever? You might as well buy a poster. It will cost you far less, but yield the same (or better) value.

This is a variation on the "you get no credit for working hard" theme that gets talked about a fair bit. It turns out, most photographers do want credit for their hard work, or their not so hard work, or their m4d skillz.

This brings us around to what got me started on this. Over of ToP, Mike did a recent print sale of Ctein's work. Mike discusses the photos that were up for sale in this post.

The one that really got me was the Christmas Lights picture.

I am sure it looks fantastic in print. I am sure it was very difficult to make. Far be it from me to judge if Ctein wants to spend his time making that print, and far be it from to judge if people want to purchase that print.

But it's friggin' christmas lights, dude. It's decor, and kind of weird decor at that. Whether it's worth $169 or not is entirely up to you, that's a genuinely pretty low price as these things go.

Mike, being in love with printing and the solutions to difficult printing problems, seems to me to be overvaluing these prints.

We are being asked, here, as we are on the web sites of endless Fine Art Photographers, to imagine that these essentially decorative masses of color and form are, in some un-articulated way, more than they actually are. There is a Category Error in play here. I suspect that all these photographers are hoping that their work has more weight than it does, they want to to carry whatever it is that Serious Art has, and thereby to be valuable.

They are, generally, wrong. These are frequently lovely pictures, and in many cases were very difficult to make, but they do not carry any of the je ne sais quois (except I jolly well do know what) of Important Art.

They have many appealing properties, but they do not have that.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Climate Change Revolution: Bellingham

I learned something recently. In the city of Memphis, in the late 1960s, at least, the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was on the wrong side of history. Memphis is where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and in that city (and across much of the USA) the FBI was engaged in trying to subvert the civil rights movement. The reasons vary, depending on who you ask, but nobody thinks it was a particularly shining moment in the history of the FBI.

Anyways. At that time there were any number of groups working in any number of ways to Advance the rights of Colored People, not just the NAACP. The NAACP in fact was run by wealthy and successful black people who felt that the proper approach was evolutionary, legislative, through litigation and not through direct action, and so on. This is not at all surprising, of course, nor it is to say that the NAACP was a bad bunch of people. But they were wrong. They had been, effectively, captured by the status quo, and were effectively, committed to maintaining it.

King and various more radical groups were not, and they did bring direct action, and they did win victories which would have been longer coming (perhaps we would still be waiting) if the slow and evolutionary path of the NAACP and the establishment had won the day.

That much is history.

Which brings us around to today, March 15, 2019. Today, students too young to vote walked out of schools around the world to protest climate change, and to demand action. Bellingham, of course, got into the act. Several hundred people, many of them middle and high school students, gathered at City Hall at 11am to have a short rally to protest climate change and to demand action. I went and took some pictures.

Somewhere along the way from 1968 to the present, we have developed the idea that change is wrought, or at any can be wrought, by loosely organized groups of people with heartfelt opinions and rhythmic chants. Bellingham loves these things, we have a couple of protest rallies a year, at least, here. This one was pretty typical.

The complete lack of cops was interesting. They were probably around, though.

The attendees were varied. It seemed to be a pretty complete set of nerds, weirdos, normals, popular kids, and so on. I asked, and was informed that the organizers leaned a bit toward the popular in-crowd kids but that a) it wasn't all in-crowd clique shitheads doing it, and b) even the in-crowd kids were getting some respect here. So, while the speakers appeared to be, and indeed were, mainly the cool, rich, popular, kids, they were either doing it for the right reasons, or faking it very well. Sincerity all around. So, that's good.

Now, I don't mean to indict these kids. I think it's really great that they're getting out there and doing this (they did a similar thing last year opposing gun violence, another nation-wide thing that some of you may recall, taking place on the heels of some damned school shooting or another).

But. Change does not occur when loosely organized groups of enthusiastic and committed people have rallies and chant, no matter how sincere they are. These things are a mechanism by which enthusiastic people who desperately desire change are induced to expend their energy. Change looks a lot like this from the outside, to be sure, but on the inside the organizations that generate change by these methods are organized with maniacal detail. Everything is planned. There is an overall strategy of a completely military nature. Indeed, it's probably a hell of a lot more coherent, detailed, and sensible than anything a modern army throws together.

Gandhi and MLK were the leaders of incredibly large and disciplined organizations. It looked like they just did a bunch of hastily thrown together marches and shit, and that was no accident -- it was supposed to look like a bunch of more or less spontaneous, hastily thrown together, rallies, protests, and marches. But it was not.

These young people, however enthusiastic they are, are not part of any such organization. This is Jaden Stevenson. Articulate, passionate, and checking her phone while other people are making sounds with their food holes. Not all the time, but for a while, and very publicly. Ooops. It doesn't mean anything specific, but it does suggest that there's a lack of discipline.

And then there's this guy, another speaker.

I don't recall his name or which of the myriad local environmental advocacy non-profits he works for. It doesn't matter, those details are irrelevant. He is instantly recognizable as a type. He is a professional non-profit bureaucrat. He's slick, he speaks well, he's very good at having meetings, and he genuinely thinks that having meetings is working for change.

This is a local politician, April Barker, ditto.

April lurked around the edges smiling and shaking hands and then sloped off at about the half hour mark.

Here are a handful of pictures that don't directly connect to anything, but they are emblematic.

Our corporate masters are always present.

Ok, so what?

Like the NAACP, April and whats-his-name above are philosophically on the right side. They oppose climate change, they oppose oil pipelines and coal terminals and all that stuff. They will tend to favor incremental approaches, through careful legislation, which is functionally the same thing as not opposing anything at all. Assuming there is anyone left to write the history, they will find themselves on the wrong side of it.

Here is hoping that the enthusiastic young people can get off their phones, and stop buying Hollister-branded clothing for long enough to study up on how this shit actually works.

You do not create change by having enthused rallies with rhyming chants. You do not create change by carefully crafting legislation in partnership with our corporate friends. Both of these things may be part of it, but they are not the core strategic elements.

The creation of change is a fascinating chess game. The object of the game is to force the existing power structures into a position where they have only two choices: 1) to actually effect change, or 2) to publicly behave in ways that are manifestly, violently, blatantly, opposed to their own stated ideals.

Incremental approaches only allow the existing power structures to continue to behave badly, but in ways that are not obvious.

You have to, non-violently, force a crisis. Doing it violently isn't a very good idea, for reasons that are outside the scope of the current remarks.

It is a complex and intricate game, it requires enormous reserves of strategic intelligence, it requires great organization, discipline, and patience. And, not to put too fine of a point on it, probably some good people are gonna get killed. That's part of the crisis.

I don't want any of these decent, enthusiastic, hopeful, scared, kids to get killed or beaten up.

But if they do develop a strategy with some actual teeth, it's gonna happen. So, in a way, I guess I hope they do.

Which is sort of terrible. But then, this whole fucking thing is fairly terrible.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Attention to Detail

Perform the following experiment, possibly only in your mind for now, but it's not a bad idea to do it in real life as well.

The experiment boils down to walking somewhere, and noting ornamental details. You might walk down an urban street, and notice the decorative casting at the base of the lamp post, the way the door handle is machined into a radius of appealing curve, a few tiles set into the cement sidewalk, the brickwork at the curb, the plantings in the strip of earth between sidewalk and curb, and so on.

You might walk through a forest, noting the curve of a branch, the way a leaf dangles, the tiny flower that peeks out from behind a stone.

A hallway, note the trim around the windows, the pattern on the floor, the ornate script telling you what's inside this office or that.

All those myriad details generate a kind of background noise of beauty, or at least attempts at beauty. In the general run of life, we do not notice these things as such. When they are missing, though, we feel their absence. When they are overdone, we feel the rococo flavor of an overbuilt room. Am I the only one who notices when a window has no trim, but is simply the wall brought out to a box, into which is set a window? Surely people feel the lack of trim, even if they don't note it specifically.

By all these things we know that in some way we are aware of those myriad details. We note the little pattern of tile in the sidewalk by its absence in front of the cheaply built government buildings. We feel the sterility of a building in which everything is functional, and there is nothing of ornament. We are depressed by it, generally.

Consider now the photograph. Or rather, all the photographs.

There is, I think, an analogy here.

When we skim through social media, through Facebook or Instagram, barely looking at this photo or that, I wonder if it is not something similar. Certainly text-only social media is a different thing, and I think one could argue cogently that "sterile" is an applicable word here. Even if we don't really look at the photos, we register something of them. Perhaps we note a fact "Suzie was camping" or an impression "Bill looks stressed out" or something even lighter than those.

We read a book with pictures, or a magazine, the same way. We notice some pictures, and almost-don't-see others. Occasionally we alight like a magpie on some photo, and inspect it. Perhaps, at some point, we make a pass through the thing specifically to look at pictures. It doesn't matter. If printed matter has more than one picture, and especially if it has text, we will pay rather more or less attention to this photo or that. We will not attend to each one equally, drinking in its glory.

All those photos which "we" collectively are not giving due attention to, are creating a sort of background noise of visual information. A stab at beauty here, a datum there, a socially notable impression there.

One can certainly argue that we spend too goddamned much time on our phones, on our tablets, on our computers. Still, that time is I think substantively enriched by those photos we are ostensibly ignoring. Not every photo needs to be printed out large and examined with a loupe.

Not every lamp post's base needs to be a Rodin. Indeed, probably Rodin is a bit of overkill for lamp posts. This does not mean that every lamp post, incapable of greatness, should therefore be an austere model of pure function without a trace of ornament.

In the same way, I think, not every photograph needs to be great. Perhaps most of them ought not to be great. And, this is important, the fact that a photograph falls short of greatness need not consign it to the dustbin.

We see this odd notion, though, in photography. Everything is either tip-top, or junk. Sometimes we keep the junk around as a reference, to learn from, or whatever, but the name of the game is always making some sort of notional "ideal" photograph, some sort of perfect expression of whatever. Mike over on ToP is going on about this. His remarks aren't stupid, indeed they are as usual pretty sharp.

The system he's proposing, though, is entirely about sorting your photographs -- one by one -- in such a way as the "really good ones" (whatever that might even mean) rise to the top. One by one. Mike's attitude toward photography is very much informed by the ideas he was taught. Photographs should be printed, ideally on fiber-based paper, and archivally processed. The goal of the photographer is to produce single photographs, each with as much greatness as can possibly be shoveled into it. Most photographs should have a full range of tones.

It is, essentially, chapter and verse from the Ansel Adams trilogy, leaving out only the parts that matter. This attitude, or if you prefer cloud of similar attitudes, is an aberration that is carried around by photographers. They might not be able to teach one another how to see, but they can bloody well share terrible attitudes and ideas, and pass them on to the next generation too.

This is not the world's attitude toward photographs. No, the common person, as it were, sees photographs far more as the ornamentation on the lamp post, and a lot less as a Rodin.

Photographs are not paintings, not in the way they are made, nor in the way they are used. Except by fetishists.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Leica Q2

I was peripherally aware of the predecessor model, the Leica Q, but never paid it much mind. But now this thing comes out and I happened across some pictures, and holy cow. So here we go.

We can summarize this creeping horror in two pictures:

The front view recalls the classic Leica rangefinder. The top-deck steps down on the photographer's right to hold a couple of dials and stuff. The body is rounded at the ends, and covered with textured leather from the bottom plate to the top metal assembly thingy, whatever it's called. Ok, so this model is maybe the stubbiest, not to say stoutest, in a long line of gradually porkier Leicas. Maybe the front surface is featureless to the point of blandness. Maybe the lens looks absurdly out of proportion. I will stipulate all those things.

One can at least see the design notes being nodded at here, the maybe-respect for heritage. The retro notes, let us say, but updated to modern times, albeit by removing anything with a sniff of character, by botching the proportions, and replacing the traditional "natural" leather texture with something that looks like a chain link fence.

Let's flip this thing around.

No, no. Flip the Leica around, not whatever the hell that object is. What? That IS the Leica? The same Leica? This is the back of that? What insanity is this?

I showed this picture to my wife and asked for her impression. She thought a bit and said "basic" and then laughed out lout when I told her it was a $5000 camera.

It looks like someone took the sketch of where the buttons were supposed to go and built it. It's as if their AutoCAD licenses expired, so they had to design it in Microsoft Word's drawing tool. This is ridiculous. The buttons look like they came off a $40 VCR from the last days of VHS tape.

This is the same kind of Bauhuh? anti-design we see from Phase One, but in this case it's being thrown in our faces by a company whose actual entire reason for existence is to design things that hearken back to an older time. They may design some electronics and lenses and stuff, but they certainly don't have to, anyone can do that. No. Leica's entire raison d'être is to be a design company that successfully translates design notes from previous iconic Leica cameras into new cameras.

And then they insult us with this monstrosity.

Sure, sure, I get it. They're going for austere. They missed, and hit "basic." Austere means a few beautifully designed buttons, not a few rectangular blotches adorned with a hyper-modern Eurotrash font. They phoned the entire back side of this camera in, because they don't give a shit. They don't give a shit about making the front and back look like they're parts of the same object, they don't give a shit about making the back look good. They just don't care, because they know that the red dot on the front is the only thing that matters.

Don't even get me started on why the jammed a 28mm lens on the thing.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Lewis Bush Workshop

Lewis is an interesting guy. Something of a tendency still toward arty bollocks, if he's writing for an arty bollocks kind of thing, but he's grown increasingly sensible in the last few years.

He's starting to do workshops in his own studio space somewhere in south London. Having never taken a class from Lewis, I cannot actually vouch for him here, but I have seen a book of his which I liked pretty well, so there's that. Anyways, I am willing to stuff a link in here, so you can decide. I shall not be attending, south London being very far away indeed. He wants £100.00 for a one day deal. I assume he's providing the tea and the coffee.

Workshop – Photographic Storytelling, April 27th 2019

This strikes me as the kind of workshop that is worthwhile. You come out not with a bunch of shitty pictures, nor even a finished thing, but rather with a richer understanding of the problems and possible solutions. I think I might sign up for it if it was in Seattle.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Our Fleeting Attention

Among the many tropes of the "social media is ruining everything" think pieces is the one about how nobody really looks at photographs any more. I've certainly observed the appalling way that instagram is actually used: glance, swipe, glance, like, swimp, glance, swipe. I've probably written about it. God knows what dumb shit I said. God, and anyone willing to spend a minute or two searching, I guess.

It's certainly true that social media encourages a very very lightweight engagement with, well, everything on social media. People won't read an entire tweet, or Facebook post. They glance at photos. Videos play more or less unwatched.

But back to photography. There is a planted axiom in these think pieces on photography, which is that in the past people used to look closely at photographs. Usually there is some drivel about The Print, and how detailed it is, how a well made print "just glows" and so on. Half the time, at least, the piece is being written by someone too young and too hip to actually have ever held a decent print in their hand, although I dare say they've held a small number of shoddy ones.

There were no glory days when loads of people really looked at photographs.

What we have today is a billion times more engagement with photographs than ever before. All those people doing the glance-swipe thing on instagram? 20 years ago, 10 years ago, I can promise you that they were not sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat with incense burning, making love with their eyes to a single glorious print. They were watching TV, playing some 2D video game, skateboarding, awkwardly trying to talk to girls, maybe fixing a car. They were doing anything except looking at photos. I was there. Nobody looked at photos, except a few weirdos.

It's a lot like today. Only a few weirdos really look at photographs. Perhaps a few more than 20 years ago.

Even in the glory days of the mightiest of the mass media photographers, Ansel Adams, when everyone who wanted to look a bit clever, a bit artsy, bought a poster of some Adams picture, I don't think the posters got all that much attention. Sure, you hung it up, and people glanced at it. It was recognized by people. Many people could probably even name the giant stone in the frame (probably "Half Dome" which is fairly easy to remember, since it looks like half of a dome.) But that poster in your dorm room didn't get a lick more attention than the picture of a waterfall you stick on your instagram.

One of the consequences of the modern era, in which everyone is a photographer is that now everyone has a mild interest in photography.

Rather than being a niche activity that a few people take very seriously, it is now a not-quite universal activity that almost everyone takes mostly unseriously.

This, of course, gets under the skin of those of us who still take it seriously.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The DMCA Counter-Notice

Suppose someone uses one of your photos someplace. You wail to your friends about the unfairness of it all, and someone suggests that you issue a DMCA takedown against the evil someone. So, you do that, jumping on the relevant web site, finding their DMCA takedown page, and clicking rapidly past all the legal boilerplate. You mash SUBMIT and grin wildly. Victory, surely, is yours! Your photograph is taken down.

A little later, the evil someone files some mysterious and no doubt illegal "counter notice" and the photograph re-appears! The web site becomes thoroughly unhelpful, having clearly been subverted by the evil someone, and now apparently you have to either go to court, or give up. This is the terrible! You have a sad! Your friends are baffled, especially the idiot who told you to file a DMCA notice! It is a conspiracy against you, and all photographers.

Except, actually, no it is not.

The DMCA takedown is step one of a legal process, about which you would know quite a bit if you hadn't clicked past the legal boilerplate in a hurry to get to the SUBMIT button. The thumbnail sketch of how it actually works is like this:

You file a notice with a web site. The web site arranges for the content to be taken down, and notifies the alleged infringer.

If the alleged infringer folds, you're done. This is the usual outcome.

If not, the alleged infringer files a counter notice, possibly because they are a large corporation with deep pockets, or possibly because they know more about copyright law than you do, and they're actually in the clear in their use of your photograph. At this point the web site you filed the takedown with will generally reinstate the content. This is when your photo reappears.

Fun fact: I had a guy tell me "it can't be fair use, because you stole it!" which is some kind of galactic-level nonsensical sentence.

It is not twitter's job, nor google's, nor Facebook's, to work out who really owns the photograph. These entities are just serving notices and acting in accordance with the law. The actual resolution of whether someone has or has not infringed your copyright is a matter for the court system, if you and the alleged infringer don't work it out yourselves.

Once the counter notice is filed, you have two options: you can fold, or you can go to court. If do you decide to go to court, there may be a fairly short clock running, you may have to decide to retain a lawyer within a couple of days. Don't try this without a lawyer, by the way. Really. Maybe try representing yourself on a murder charge, but don't give it a shot in a copyright case.

Filing a counter notice does commit the filer (the alleged infringer) to the next step, which is court. If the original filer of the DMCA takedown does not fold, costs begin right about here. So why would anyone file a counter notice? Who really knows, but among the possible motivations: there is no infringement involved (e.g. fair use), or the infringer is prepared to take a risk of losing probably after estimating that you're bluffing.

Almost everyone who files a DMCA notice is bluffing, whether they know it or not. The process leads, pretty directly, to court. If you're not prepared to go to court to not only prove infringement but also to prove your ownership of the copyright, you are bluffing. Both of these things are probably a lot more complicated than you imagine, and there are a lot of pitfalls. I am not a lawyer, and cannot advise beyond "ouch, complicated and risky."

Is it safe to bluff? Well, yeah, in practice pretty much. You can just fold if a counter notice comes back. There may be some ways you can get hammered here, but the normally if you filed a DMCA takedown, you will just fold at this point, and the alleged infringer wins.

Technically, though, you probably shouldn't be submitting the notice in the first place if you're not prepared to back it up in court. The DMCA is not a toy, it is not a tool for harassing people you're angry with, and it is not a hammer of automatic victory for copyright holders.

It's just step one in a legal process that leads in a short number of well-defined steps to the courtroom.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Changin' Times (ToP)

Mike over on The Online Photographer put up a piece a little while ago, Changin' Times. One the one hand, it is simply a lament for times gone by which, while not perfect, were, at least better defined than today I guess.

The remarks and the following comments on books are interesting and tinged with tragedy. Those 3,000 book editions are gone. If you think that you, as an artist, might get a book deal and reach the world through that book, you are mistaken. I just spent a few minutes on the web sites of Steidl and Taschen. Almost entirely retrospectives. Probably a few Kim Kardashians and celebrity chefs if you dig a bit. The lesser publishers who can't access the catalogs of the Great Names of Yore are publishing small editions of MFA-driven bullshit.

You can still "break in" here if you spend a bunch of money on an MFA, and then raise another $10,000 to $30,000 or whatever to fund this great book deal you got, and maybe you'll sell a couple hundred copies. Your MFA program will have ruined your photography, though, so most likely a lot of the books will sit in a warehouse until the publisher goes bust and then they'll be pulped.

Nope. Small is the future.

There are small publishers doing small runs of books with decent pictures, I gather. And there's the print-on-demand thing, so pooh-poohed on ToP (which is of course where my hackles went up).

The people selling 1000+ photography books are, more often than not, doing it on print-on-demand platforms. There isn't any fundamental difference between printing at some bush-league Art Publisher and printing at Blurb, at the end of the day you get a bunch of pages with ink smeared on them, and it's more or less your job to persuade someone to buy them, if that's your jam.

Anyone who actually knows how to sell things into the general book market knows your book won't sell, so it's back to the well for another Kertész retrospective, which will sell. You and your photos do not figure, in this scenario.

The idea of some sort of global reach is dead, dead, dead, unless you happen to already be dead (or very old). Success in this sense is entirely about carving out a niche, finding and building an audience for your work.

Having cleared that away, I have some ideas. These are sketches, not final details; ideas, not a plan as such.

There isn't any reason you can't run an imprint with blurb as your backend printing platform, and their integration makes them pretty attractive for this.

I have this notional imprint, Rogue Photo. It consists of: an idea, and one part-time staffer (me). I have no budget. I have no audience. I have no equipment. I have access to exactly zero experts. I have no distribution channel. And so on, if you can think of it, I haven't got it.

So let's suppose you Publish With Rogue Photo. On the strength of my non-audience, maybe we could sell 4 books. That sounds awful, but consider that a minor publisher can sell maybe 100 books on the strength of their name, and a major one can sell maybe 1000 books. The gap between 4 and 100 isn't actually that enormous. We're only talking 96 books here. That's like one box.

So, how would it work? Well, if anything actually got sold or even given away (which is an entirely optional, Rogue Photo isn't really about getting books into people's hands, it's about making books), it would have to be on the strength of your name. Which seems a bit unfair, what the hell is Rogue Photo actually bringing?

At this point? Basically nothing except a single part-time staffer (me) who has a proven track record of getting shit done, which is maybe just what you need.

If, perchance, some things moved out into the hands of some people on the strength of your name, well, that would certainly burnish the good name of Rogue, wouldn't it? The next artist along might sell 8 books on the strength of the Rogue Photo name! And so on.

If money started to happen, even in very modest amounts, my tendency would be to plow it back in to artists. I mean, I might buy myself a cookie or two as well, it's not my intention to run a charity here, but I don't really need money. Suppose, in a year or two, RP had managed to sell 500 books total, for a total markup of, I dunno, $1000 or something. I am just picking numbers out of my ass.

Whoever made the books would get a piece of that, obviously. Per previous remarks, before we even got there we'd all know where we stood and with any amount of luck everyone would be happy. Rogue (me) might pocket $500 of that, let's say. After my cookie, there's $495.50 left over. Some of that might could go to giving an advance to an emerging artist. At some point, in this merry fantasy, I suppose someone's got to write some bloody contracts, which sounds awful.

Before someone complains that there's no accountability, what guarantee do we have that the $495.50 is going back to artists let me answer that: you don't. By agreement, it would already be my money, you have only your knowledge of my sunny personality to support the idea that I might plow it back into paying artists.

Still, if we're going to usher in a brave new world of indie publishing, some blood's going to spill, I guess.

An outfit like Taschen brings a bunch of stuff to the table: designers, printers, paper choices, distribution channels, a rolodex full of Important People, and the Taschen Name.

Print on demand makes a lot of that stuff irrelevant. All the details of getting books built go away. Distribution and connections is still real, and most real of all is the name recognition. These things, however, can be built. Taschen's reputation is borrowed from the artists and writers that have published there. They can access Doisneau's catalog because they are Taschen -- and they are Taschen because they access it.

The point here is that when you publish with someone, that imprint gets to borrow your audience, however large it is. If you have 100 followers on instagram, and you tell them you just did a book with Rogue Photo, Roque's audience just jumped up. If the book is good, and by some miracle 30 people outside your instagram lay hands on a copy, ditto. Your name, and the name Rogue Photo, just got a bit of a polish.

It's probably never going to be global. I don't want to be global, so in the event of some fantastical sequence of events I would probably ruin it kind of slightly maybe on purpose but mostly on accident.

So, that's what it looks like. I am not exactly getting snowed under with proposals. In the sense that I have received zero. I myself have a thing in the pipeline, so the presses will be kept busy, though, so never worry!

Conscientious Photography

I gotta say, this piece from Colberg was a slightly surreal read so close on the heels of my remarks on Sentiment.

Saturday, March 2, 2019


No, not tuberculosis! Not this time, anyways.

Indulge me as I relate a series of thoughts I had, which led me, well, somewhere. You'll see. I read an anecdote about a workshop, a photography workshop in a far off land. In that day's region, there was A Shot which everyone takes, and the workshop organizer performed yeoman's work getting everyone an excellent spot to take the sunrise shot. Well done, workshop organizer. My reaction was why in God's name would everyone want to take the same shot, which is the canonical shot that everyone takes when they're in that area?

Tending, on my better days, to lean toward intellectual honesty, I asked myself if there was any analogous thing that I did. I came up with one. When my family was in Memphis, TN, some years ago, we acquired and ate fried chicken, because that is a thing you do in Memphis. Then we went to Graceland, ditto. Poking around, I came up with more things I have done, would like to do, and that other people do, and the category into which all of these fall became clear.

They were all consumption of one sort or another. Consuming an experience, food, ideas, and so on.

This reveals, I think, something interesting about those Standard Shots that the serious amateur photographer seems to be infatuated with. Taking them is less an act of creation, and more an act of consumption. It is, I think, rather strange to view this act -- the taking of a photo -- which is widely construed to be a creative one, and to see it as instead an act of consumption. In a sense, the photographer is having an experience, they are playing the part of a photographer. Ansel Adams shoots Half Dome, and generations of followers place their tripod feet in his tripod's holes, and for a moment they are Ansel Adams. This is the experience they seek, that they consume. In the end, they have a memento, a photograph, proof and a memory trigger for that experience they had.

Now, I cannot in good conscience condemn this. I consume much in my life. For 20-odd years I did just the same thing with the camera, although I did not recognize it as consumption until today. I thought of it as creation. I read books, I eat food, I watch movies, and so on. I consume a great deal more that I create.

Of course, one does not divide photography into two strictly separated kinds. It's always a little from column A and a little from column B. Column A, in this case, is about bringing things from the world in to oneself, that essential character of consumption. Column B is, naturally, the opposite, it's about taking things from inside ourselves, and pushing them out into the world.

We try, of course, with our Ansel Adams copies, and our Gary Winogrand copies, to push them out. We print them and frame them and hang them on the wall. We put them in books and try to sell those. We go to Art Fairs with our hopeful boxes of mounted prints. Maybe we sell some, maybe we don't. But, whether people take them, whether the world will accept our offerings and carry them away, there is often little to nothing of ourselves in these pictures. They're mementos of an experience, of a moment of playacting, that happen to have a certain visual appeal (or not).

The distinction I draw here, then, is not about whether we can sell these things, whether we can persuade people to take them away, or even whether people like them or not. It is about the impulse that produces these objects. Is the impulse one of drawing out something from inside ourselves, or is it one of pushing things in to ourselves?

It strikes me that the vast majority of photographs made by the Serious Amateur are of the latter kind. They are rooted in an impulse to, say, photograph the moon, or any number of related impulses that boil down to I want to make a picture like that! These all have essentially the character of consumption, these are all about the photographer's desire to experience something, to do a certain thing, and there is nothing, really, of a desire to communicate, to put something out there. The workshop industry, being almost entirely about wandering around a set path taking a series of more or less set photographs is of course entirely this. Workshops might as well be carnival rides.

When people do concern themselves with the fact that all these bloody pictures look the same, they usually seem to salve themselves with the notion that they are practicing, that they are developing necessary skills to be used in some sort of nebulous future. The trouble here is that the skills they're actually practicing are trivial, and the skills they need appear no place on the menu. Dicking around with lights is easy, at least when compared with the labor of revealing some emotional depth, the labor of clawing something from the depths of ourselves and, somehow, rendering it in a picture.

Interestingly, I suspect that the vernacular photograph partakes far less of this. While in Paris, the snapshooter does not want a shot of the Eiffel Tower. The snapshooter wants a selfie with the Eiffel Tower in the background which is a completely different thing. It is, surely, a memento of an experience, but the experience is not that of being a photographer. The experience is, of course, of being in Paris.

The driving impulse is not: I want to photograph the Eiffel Tower (consumption)

it is: I want to show everyone I am in Paris! (communication)

What I want to do, of course, is to take as much from Column B as possible. I want to take things from inside of myself and push them out there. I don't give much of a damn about the experience of Being a Photographer and in fact I don't much enjoy it.

I think one could make a strong argument that much of the Photography Industry is in the business of facilitating consumption, in this sense, while simultaneously selling itself as facilitating creation. What the industry actually sells is Column A, but it pitches its product as Column B.

Which might be the single neatest way I have of summarizing my distaste for the Workshop Industry and its poor relations.

Friday, March 1, 2019

A Motif


The Pictorialists got a lot of grief, and still do, for being sentimental. They compounded their problem by being preachy and mawkish to boot, and if you look closely you might decide that the problem actually isn't the sentimentality, but rather the preachy mawkishness.

I've shared various work by M. Frédérick Carnet here, and I continue to think that he is excellent. Some time, not too long ago, he sent me a link to some more recent work. To my shame, I did not (and still have not) replied to him about it. Basically, I recognized the new work as Distinctly Carnet, but somehow I didn't like it as much as I have liked his previous things. I could not put my finger on why, but I think I have worked it out.

Here is the new work he directed me to: Les faces cachées, and here, for reference, is some of the earlier work from him that I like rather better: The last first day.

Both are distinctly surrealist, there are certain visual tools he is using that are shared between the two, and so on. Neither is particularly warm or hope-filled.

Here is the distinction which I think is critical to me. "The last first day," with its overtones of loss and maybe disaster, implies a warmth and a hope, a sentimentality, which is lost. Or perhaps has moved. One feels the absence. There is a space left on the page of the right shape. On the other hand "Les faces cachées" does not seem to me to contain any particular warmth or hope, nor does it particularly imply these things as absences. These are pictures that strike me as being without sentiment, particularly. There isn't any warmth, nor is there a space left by absent warmth. There is no handle, as it were, for me to access any kind of meaning in them, as there is with "The last first day."

It is this lack of sentiment which, I think, I feel so often in contemporary photography. The work simply feels cold, calculating, cynical. There is some sort of core of nihilisim in it, or perhaps merely of pure commerce. I see female artists removing their clothes, but failing to reveal themselves. They appear to me to be exposing their breasts and genitals in order to provoke a critical reaction from older male critics, and that's about it. I see artists taking willfully emotionless photographs of cities, buildings, fields, roads.

Here we have a bit of hagiography in that bastion of great journalism, the New York Times, about Alec Soth: "A Year of fuck it I can't bear to type it out". The line that lept out to me is this one: He was, as the New York Times critic Hilarie M. Sheets once noted, especially adept at “finding chemistry with strangers,” particularly “loners and dreamers” he met in his travels.

This is a remarkable statement, that could only be made by someone who hasn't actually looked at any of Alec Soth's photographs. His signature is, quite literally, people looking uncomfortable, out of place, off-kilter. Shot, naturally, on a large format film. Soth's work is profoundly unsentimental, profoundly nihilist, and anyone who says he's finding chemistry with strangers is simply an idiot, blind, or both.

I have no particular evidence of it, but it seems probable to me that sentiment is simply out of fashion. I imagine contemporary artists and critics looking at sentimental pictures and dismissing them as "too easy" and turning back to their chilly bullshit.

In a sense, there is something true about this. It is easy to bang out overtly sentimental pictures, and it can be done very lazily. Much of contemporary critique of photojournalism centers around this: the shot of the weeping/starving/injured child in the midst of disaster. It's an easy shot, it's a common shot, it's the shot that wins the prizes (because, while lazy, it is effective.)

What is left out of the analysis is this: while it is indeed easy to bang out sentimental (mawkish) pictures, this does not imply that all sentimental pictures are easy. I point again to Carnet's "The last first day" which is by no means easy, lazy, or simple. It has real depth, and also sentiment. Also, see every single picture Sally Mann has ever taken (the attentive reader probably knew that was coming, no?)

All this sets aside that nihilistic pictures are even easier to make than mawkish ones. One simply points the camera at mud, or at a peevish and uncomfortable model, and presses the button.

When I was working on my Alley project, I had a lot of pictures and ideas sloshing around in my head. There was a lot of technical detail that seemed important, there was a rather large basket of record shots of this and that. There were pictures of people, of cats, of plants, of stones, of water. There were details of things that expressed my personal affection for the space.

Early incarnations of the thing tended toward the factual. I found myself gradually integrating more factual material, drawing cross-sections of the alley construction and eventually downloading the city's specifications for alley construction.

At some point in here I specifically thought: this needs more sentimentality. Which, in hindsight, seems kind of obvious. If you're integrating construction diagrams into your work, it probably need some damned sentiment.

The whole point of this project is that I have certain feelings about this alley on which I live. I have a relationship which is essentially emotional to that space that runs up and down behind my house. The technical details are also interesting, and certainly are a piece of the puzzle, but the basis upon which the project was built is essentially emotional.

And so I made a folder entitled "Love" and I started putting pictures into it. In the end, it is a few of those pictures which appear at the end of the magazine I made. The magazine begins with a lot of historical and technical text and drawings, record shots of details, and so on, and gradually disintegrates into what I fondly imagine to be a poetic, a lyrical, meditation on my alley and how I feel about it. Because that is the point.

At the end of the day, the Artist specifically, and the Photographer generally, is surely seeking to communicate. If the goal is to communicate technical, factual, detail, then the photograph specifically, and Art generally, is perhaps not the right medium (although a technical communication may incorporate photography, or Art).

No, the communication of photography, of Art, has to be essentially emotional. There must be a bedrock of sentiment upon which the thing stands, otherwise there isn't any point. There is nothing to communicate, no shared experience, nothing of note or worth.

The modern nihilism in Art is a failure, which leads nowhere.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Industry Musings

So, I wrote this thing a couple days ago, and sent it off to PetaPixel, who published it (presumably gleefully) and lo, there are many comments.

Of course there's a handful of simpletons, and a handful of people who agree, huzzah. Whatever, it's all about the fur flying, really, innit? (no I don't get paid, don't be stupid.)

But there are a few people who seem to think that I am simply wrong and that, in fact, more angry blog posts about theft of photos will actually solve the problem.

Let us review a little history.

When technologies for digital media matured with the internet, two major industries felt the clammy hand of death almost immediately: the music industry, and the film industry. Piracy was a big big thing. Also, any jackass could suddenly record and distribute music, or video, easily and simply. The tools and the distribution are just there. What did the big players do?

First they passed a bunch of draconian laws. The DMCA here in the USA was supposed to stem the tide by making it easy to bring miscreants to justice, and punish them horribly.

None of this did shit, of course. The bleeding did not slacken off even slightly although they did hand out a few gruesome punishments to timid grandmothers, which was terrible PR so they stopped.

Somewhere in this mess Vevo got launched. It will serve us as the template. The CEO of UMG (I think) at some point asked a grandchild, sort of desperately, "how the hell are people listening to music?" and the grandchild said "YouTube" and the CEO said "the hell. YouTube ain't paying us. But they're GONNA." and then Vevo got started to represent music videos, basically to YouTube. The upshot is that when you listen to music on youtube, the music industry gets paid. Ad revenue gets shared out.

Let's break this down a little: laws and regulations didn't do anything. Once media is digital, it's simply too easy to move around and copy. You cannot put everyone in jail, and the FBI cannot put even a single person in Australian in jail. What worked was providing a way to listen to music that was even easier than piracy and in which the industry got paid.

We see this all over now. What's easier than stealing a movie? Watching it on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu. What's easier than stealing music? Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, etc. Digital streaming media is now available, absolutely frictionlessly, over a myriad of channels that pay the industry.

The DMCA is now 99% irrelevant, and exists mainly as a tool for bloggers to harass one another with spurious takedown requests. The industries that paid for it today give very very close to 0 shits about the DMCA, they have pivoted to new models that get them paid just fine, thx.

What about all the kiddies that can use digital technologies to make their own music, their own movies? The industry has simply turned that whole thing into a sort of minor league farm system from which they recruit the next generation of talent. Since their revenues are protected, they can afford to pay, and they do, and that's that. YouTube is now, among other things, a system in which randos compete to become the next pop stars, the next TV hosts, and so on. Launch a channel, record some material, and if you amass a few million followers, someone is gonna offer you a mainstream deal. It turns out to have streamlined that whole process.

The industry isn't gambling on unknowns any more at all, they're acquiring pre-verified, already popular, talent. It has worked out beautifully for the music and video industries.

The photography industry has yet to find its Spotify, its Vevo.

Photographs are not used in anything like the same way that music and movies are, photographs are not streamed. In fact, nobody really just sits and looks at photographs. They're background.

Now, the still photography industry hasn't got anything like enough money to change any laws, and they actually have the DMCA already anyways. Naturally, the DMCA isn't doing a goddamned thing for them.

It doesn't look to me like any kind of pivot to an ad-supported model is going anyplace, because a lot of photo usage is in ads. We may yet see ads embedded inside of ads to pay for the content used by the outermost ad (and maybe ads in ads in ads, I suppose) but that honestly seems insane. Given that the only business model we've seen that seems to work in the digital realm -- and that dubiously at best -- is ads, we may be looking at the end of the line for photos as a business.

To be fair, subscription models also seem to work for streaming media, and we're seeing those in the stock photography industry (over the wails of would-be-pro photographers). There's not a hell of a lot of money in play here, though, and certainly not enough to enrich all the people who would like to become rich shooting stock photos. In fact, there's not nearly enough money to pay the models that are employed in the shooting of the stock photos that fill the coffers of the subscription-based agencies. The agencies are making money, the photographers are not. There are just too damn many of the latter.

On the other hand, obviously, there may be some pivot I'm just not seeing, here.

The key points are clear, though. If you want to solve the theft problem, as well as the various rights-grab businesses, you need to invent a system that makes getting pictures easier than these methods, and which gets the photographer paid. It's a lot easier to steal pictures than it ever was to pirate even music, though. Right-click-save (i.e. piracy) is pretty damned frictionless, making it even easier to acquire pictures for pay is going to... hard.

As for the problem of now any doofus can be a creative the industry is doing fine. They're finding instagrammers with large followings to do their product photos, artists are being forced to "crowdfund" everything in sight. The photographers on the other hand are not doing so hot, generally. Increasingly, the artistic side is mastering the crowdfunding/influencer dynamic to their own ends, I guess.

There's just a hell of a lot less money on the table, as compared to the music and video based industries, and a hell of a lot more players. You don't even have to be able to sing. If you have $300 and can press a button, you too can be a photographer. This isn't a good recipe.

Again, there may be some pivot I am not seeing, but I am not optimistic.

Which brings us back around to this: It can't really be just about the pictures. You've got to bring something else to the table. Even if that's just a solid reputation for showing up on time and working fast.

Photobook Reviews are All Positive

Well, it's not quite right to say that all photobook reviews are positive. Almost all of them are, though. Colberg reviewed Mosse's Incoming somewhat negatively, I think. To what extent he was simply reacting to the success of Mosse's project is unclear.

What does seem to be true is that little photobooks, the bread and butter of the occasionally rapacious small-publishing-house industry, are almost invariably well received by the people who review them. Possibly because the only people who review these things are on the inside of that incestuous little universe, but that's just speculation.

Let's take a look at HORIZONT reviewed on the always-hilarious American Suburb X, which review you can read here.

I won't bother with the whole review, except to note that the reviewer seems to like this singularly unlikeable book, and to poke at a few of the more absurd lines.

This sort of space doesn’t respond readily to the camera’s propensity for order, and Ashkin’s photographs play on its strange, disorienting quality, looking up past the tops of buildings, peering out from behind knots of vegetation, gazing dully at the ground.

As far as I can discern, none of the cameras I own have any propensity for order. Perhaps the author means that photographers and photography do, with using the word "camera" metonymically? In that case I suggest that she needs to get out more. Frankly, there is a great deal of Serious Art as well as vernacular photography that looks a lot like this hot mess.

There’s a kind of deadpan anarchy about places like these, patchworked together out of remnants and interstices that capitalist development can’t easily assimilate.

While I have to admire the author's touching naivete about what capitalism can or cannot easily assimilate, this whole sentence is nonsense. It's just ugly cement buildings and generalized urban stuff. Eastern Europe has a lot of ugly cement, I am informed. There's a fair bit of this in the USA, actually. Some of those buildings remind by of UMass, Amherst.

And so on, on and on. I should at this point direct you to some remarks and some work I find myself coming back to from time to time: Vernacular Enigma. These pictures are much the same sort of thing, but are all shot in the USA, so much for the specialness of East Berlin.

To be honest, on roughly alternate days I am convinced that American Suburb X (ASX) is actually a joke, a sort of extended performance art piece. Sadly, on all the other days I realize that this sort of gibberish is all too prevalent, and that ASX is just another manifestation of the same stuff masquerading as serious writing.

Actually, I have just remembered another negative photobook review, also from ASX: SHIT but to be honest this seems to be mostly rage at the book's author, and the largest complaint from the reviewer is about someone else's analysis of the book as having something to do with homosexuality.

Ok so maybe not all photobook reviews are positive. It just seems like I keep running a lot of lazy little positive plugs.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Quit Bellyachin'!

Everywhere you turn in the photographic press you see the same kinds of articles over and over.

Such-and-such a competition or service is just a rights-grab! You have to give up your rights to your images! Total party foul!

Everyone steals everyone else's pictures which is totally illegal! Lame!

Losers with weak cameras are undercutting professionals left and right! I have a sad!

Phone cameras are terrible but everyone keeps using them! #dslrs4lyfe, yo!

Sure, fair enough. These things are all all sad, and some of them are illegal. So what? You're standing around in rising waters already hip-deep, whining that someone oughta fix the levees. Stop it. This is the situation on the ground, and another angry blog post about how unfair it all is is not going to change that. Stop complaining and start building a raft.

How are you, as a photographer, going to accomplish whatever it is you have a yen to in this world?

Do you want to make money taking pictures? Well, too bad. Photos are too easy to take, too commodified. Sell your clients something they can't get from their phone, or some rando from craigslist. Sell them an experience, with photos. Sell them a book, with photos. Sell them a "personal branding campaign," with photos. If you have to, sell them a coupon to a local restaurant, with photos. Figure it out.

Do you want to play the photo competition game? Well, competitions are going to take your rights. Put your grownup pants on, and make some photos for competition that you're willing to kiss goodbye. Make other photos for your portfolio. They can be real similar, it turns out.

You don't want people stealing your pictures? Don't put the ones you want to keep online. If you need an online presence, put some other ones up. Photos you're willing to kiss goodbye.

And so on, on and on. This is the world, people. Pull your socks up, quit bellyaching, and start figuring out how to live in this world.

Stop complaining about the levees and start building a raft.

Or, you can put your camera down and take up needlepoint. I hear that's a thing too.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Another Thing

This is another Rogue Photo imprint product. It is not in the numbered sequence of official "issues" but is rather a side project, using some of the same aesthetic.

It is overtly political. Marked up by one penny, because I like round numbers. You shouldn't buy it, though, because it's a very Bellingham specific political tract. Even here it probably won't be particularly on-point in a year or two. We hope.

Bellingham Zoning Zine

This is a 5" x 8", black and white, economy paper, trade book, the cheapest product blurb sells. I'm not sure the cover will even come out in color.

As usual, the point here is that you can preview it. The book was put together very very fast, it's not supposed to be polished. The pictures were all shot one weekend in Seattle. This is deliberately propagandist. While as far as I know there are no outright untruths in it, certainly there is no nuance. It's intended to be sound-bitey, punchy, and "essentially" truthful, even if a detail here or there is mislaid of misstated.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Show Me Something

The title is my favorite line from the not-very-good movie "Red 2." Helen Mirren's character (a professional assassin) is under fire, has been picked up by a hit man driving some sporty little car, and they are fleeing a bunch of very angry dudes with a lot of guns. She requests, laconically, very British-ly, that the hit man 'show her something,' so he throws the car into a spin and she fires enormous pistols out both windows and makes a lot of black Land Rovers explode. It is a wonderful, glorious, deeply stupid, set piece. You can find it on YouTube.

The point of this, though, is that when I hand you a book with photographs in it there is an implicit contract. I am stating that I want to show you something. This applies to a portfolio, a slideshow, a web site of pictures, anything. It is part of the cultural baseline surrounding photographs.

You can look at three books, Not Safe For Work (particularly Showcaller): Pixy Liao's Experimental Relationship shown in its entirety here in a video made by Colberg; Talia Chetrit's Showcaller in preview here; and Michael Ashkin's HORIZONT again as a preview here.

I hate all of these books. They all strike me as profoundly stupid, bad, books. But.. why? I don't hate clumsy vernacular pictures. I certainly don't hate picture of girls with very little clothing, or no clothing at all. I quite like a lot of the kinds of things that appear in these books.

I have to admit that I do kind of hate the prevalent design tropes of placing pictures randomly in spreads for no particular reason, sometimes big, sometimes small, sometimes jammed in a corner. Hey let's bleed this off the bottom for no goddamned reason at all. But that's not the fault of the pictures, it's the lazy designers who simply copy bad ideas from one another.

Now, by way of Daniel Milnor, yet another artist to look at: Siân Davey. Siân does a lot of that twee shit I hate: she shoots film, she shoots medium format film with a Mamiya 7. Her pictures have a vernacular look, there's an almost forced sense of vérité. Hipster bullshit.

The difference is that I like this work.

It occurs to me that Davey is making an honest effort to show me something and the other three are not. Liao and Chetrit are doing performance for the camera, which performance is wilfully opaque. I am not supposed to understand this material. I am, in a way, not permitted to understand these performances. Ok, so this is partly a response to "male gaze." There is a strong element of here is a woman, she is nude, or nearly so, and she is not available which I guess makes a certain sort of sense. Kinda. But at the end of the day, Ms. Chetrit, I can still see your genitals, and they still give me ideas in the way that exposed genitals do.

Ashkin's book, if you read the blurbs and what passes for "reviews" in these degenerate times, is a book about process rather than photography. His photographs push back against photography itself, defying its standards and processes. Apparently they do this because he shot horizontals, and then cropped them to verticals. Also the pictures are all just random bullshit from some depressing neighborhood in Berlin. If anyone thinks this is some sort of defiant stand against convention, they simply haven't been paying attention.

Anyways, HORIZONT is another collection of material which is not intended to be understood. I, the viewer, am almost explicitly excluded from any understanding of what the hell is going on. Michael Ashkin's response to the implied show me something is a flat no.

Liao, Chetrit, and Ashkin are not creating windows. They appear, in fact, to be explicitly creating a wall instead; they are engaged in a kind of anti-communication. One cannot help but wonder if the point of the wall is to suggest the presence of a treasure inside. One then wonders if the treasure is real, or whether there is only a wall. It hardly matters, though, because all we on the outside have is the wall. If you and I wish to converse, it doesn't matter whether you don't speak English, or if you won't. Since I don't speak Latvian, no conversation is going to occur either way.

Siân Davey in contrast is showing me something. There are people, things, places, that she has some feeling toward, some connection with. She seeks to share with me something of that. She invites me in to her space with her pictures, rather than walling me out. Her pictures are a window.

Ok, so maybe it's me that's wrong. Maybe the point of photographs in particular and art in general need not be to show me something. Maybe there is room for a defiant NO! You could argue that I am simply an unsophisticated viewer, if you liked.

I'm gonna disagree with you on all points, though. Art in general, and photography specifically, has to be about communication. The whole point of the photograph, all of its special properties, are pointed at the idea of showing me something. If you want to not show me something, you can anti-communicate as well with a blotch of ink on a page as with a peevish, opaque, photo. At least with the blotch we would all know where we stand, rather than mucking about with this bait-and-switch business.

A large percentage of contemporary photobooks appear to be playing this game. They offer up a set of photographs, with their built-in implied let me show you something and then they snatch it away, leaving only opacity.

I don't much like it, and I am not fooled. There is no treasure, there is only the wall.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Rogue Photo: Call for Proposals

I've done a few publications on Blurb over the last year, working my way toward a sort of an aesthetic, under the vague moniker of "Rogue Photo" which hits more or less the right note of rebellious but not entirely serious. Here are the first three covers:

The progression is very much toward a black and white duotone cover with red notes. I have added a red spine, more or less on impulse, and I like how that's working out.

So, that's the aesthetic of this notional imprint thing I call Rogue Photo.

I'm thinking of it as a series, numbered and dated, and occasional out-of-sequence "production of" one-off items as well. Pictured above are issues 1 and 2, and the Zoning Zine is an off-sequence one-off.

Content-wise I lean toward what I wrote out in this Manifesto a few weeks ago.

I could make these things all day more or less forever, I think, but part of what I want to do is collaborate. Hence, this Call for Proposals.

The Manifesto is not submission guidelines, it's just where I am at. I am as likely to be interested in ideas that violently oppose mine as I am ideas that align with them. I do prefer black and white photos, and I am almost certain to want some combination of text and pictures by the time we're done.

It's best if you have an idea, some sort of fairly clear concept, and some pictures, but also that you are stuck. If you're not stuck, get outta here and finish your own thing, there's no need for me here. If you need encouragement, I am happy to yell at you to finish it from time to time.

I am not a promoter, I bring no audience. If you have an audience and a desire to make something to sell to them, great. I've for some ideas on how that might be done. Whether some final product would sell 0 copies or 10,000 copies is not of great interest to me, but I am open to pretty much any possibilities there.

What I do bring is a collaborator with ideas (me) and you can judge for yourself whether I have good ideas or bad ideas. I also write, and can provide words. Or pictures. Or both. Again, I am idiosyncratic here, it is up to you to decide whether you want to try it out or not. I also design, and I think I generally can muddle my way through to something that is at the very least interesting and sometimes quite good.

Got an idea? Got a concept? Got some pictures? Write me an email at and let's do something. I have a couple things people sent me earlier, and I am open to pursuing those with those people.

You will always retain all rights to your work, and can back out at any time. If, by some weird confluence of events, money gets involved, we'll sort that out when the time comes.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Crit: Thicket

A few weeks ago one of our regular commenters, David Smith, posted a link to a PDF book he's made, Thicket. I downloaded same, and have looked at it from time to time since, and now I shall presume to review it. After a fashion.

I do not know offhand if this book is intended as a magnum opus or a joke, or something in between. If I squint I can imagine practically anything as an authorial intent. I am going to treat it as an object made with serious intent, as a work-in-progress, this being my best guess at David's intentions. At any rate, the book certainly makes sense seen that way.

The first thing that struck me about the book was, to be honest, confusion. The book completely lacks any nod toward the standard front matter that books have (title page, half-title, colophon, etcetera, etcetera.) Now, to my mind, most modern books have way too much of this crap, I quite dislike leafing through apparently endless repetitive rot before I get to the body of the book. On the other hand, though, a page or two of material allows a sort of soft landing on the content itself. We expect to turn a page or two, to reminded of what it is we're looking at (title) and get a more or less blank page or two to catch our breath and settle in. To be confronted with content the instant we open the cover is a bit unexpected.

Having sorted out that this is content, and that content is recto, with blank verso pages, we can then page through it. It is very very short, 12 pages, 6 pictures in all, plus one for the covers.

The next thing that struck me was a sort of resemblance to John Gossage's book The Pond (which I think Mike C. might have brought to my attention only a year or two ago.) In fact, I went looking for a source of pictures of that book to see if this was a direct homage (I do not own a copy of The Pond) and as far as I can tell it is not, particularly. Thicket uses full bleed pictures recto, The Pond is more mixed up design-wise, and so on.

Still, the resemblance is there. Both use a collection of pictures, each picture being more or less just some stuff, not very interesting, to evoke a kind of sense of place. Gossage and Smith both give is a large hint in the title, and we obligingly imagine a Pond or a Thicket, respectively.

The same picture appears on both the front and back covers, and I am unsure what to make of that. I'm not sure that's a choice I would have made, and the fact that it is clearly a conscious choice begs the question "why?" to which I have no answer.

Does Thicket work? Yeah, I think it works fine.

I don't particularly love it, but that is purely a reflection of my personal taste, not anything fundamental that I can point out (viewing it as a work-in-progress, as noted).

Thursday, February 21, 2019


Suppose I were to show you a photograph of an egg and a golf ball. The "subject" as such might not be clear. Suppose, then, I were to show you two more pictures: a egg and a mouse, an egg and a teacup. At this point you would likely work out that I am interested in the egg. The egg is the subject. The subjectness of the egg is an emergent property of the collection of photos, it is something that is clear in the triptych, but which is literally not even present in any of the individual photos.

Perform this experiment with any number of photographers, from the rankest amateurs to (I think) many who teach photography, and you will learn that all three photos are bad photographs specifically because they fail to make the subject clear. The very definition of a good photograph is broadly seen to include "it should stand alone" and from there it is a very short step to denial of emergent properties of sequences. While it does not follow strictly logically, it is a very natural progression to the notion that a pile of good photographs is nothing more than a pile of good photographs.

Most books of photos made by people who fancy themselves photographers bear this out, being simply a collection of whatever they think are the best photos in whatever theme is relevant.

Photographers, in general, seek to make single photographs that stand alone. They want to make those hero pictures, suitable for framing and hanging, which could in theory but rarely in practice, be sold as single objects. The model is the painting. These assumptions are deeply embedded in the culture of photography.

Switching tacks, consider media's ability to shape thought, shape society. This too is a largely emergent property. We do not learn that BMW is the ultimate driving machine from a single ad spot, we learn it by endless repetition across print, television, radio, billboards. This functioning derives from the way our minds work. There is endless research in to how we remember things, and how to modify our behavior, and all of it includes a large degree of repetition.

Ideas are repeated in the media both to drill it into our brains, but also to ensure that both the first thing we heard, and the most recent thing we heard, are repetitions of the same idea. Repetition causes us to lose sight of the supporting evidence (or lack thereof) and so on.

Photography's prejudice against the very notion of emergent properties, in favor of the Single Heroic Picture, makes it near impossible for photographic people to make any sense of media and the way it influences society. This tendency is aided and abetted by our apparently natural human desire for simple causes with simple explanations.

On the one hand, when seeking the causes of some social effect in photos, photographers and critics tend to overvalue certain pictures. Note the endless boring analysis of this iconic picture or that which "turned the tide of public opinion about Vietnam" and let us not forget Colberg's histrionics regarding the picture of the Andamanese people and the white man. These are both cases of assigning too much power, too much force, to a single picture. This is the equivalent of declaring the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand as the cause of WWI.

On the other hand, photographers and critics undervalue other pictures. Suppose, although it never happened that I can determine, Peter Magubane had made a definitive portrait of Nelson Mandela. This would be the poster child of black South African photographers photographing the (black) towering heroic figure of South Africa. Surely there is no "white gaze" here? Surely this is wonderful and good and awesome?

Seen as a single picture, yes, it surely is. In the context of Media as a whole, who can judge? It's not anything as dunderheaded as some white jerk writing a shitty caption, it's the whole endless repetitive flow of Media. This portrait of Mandela would have been viewed in the context of all the other reportage coming to us around South Africa. Its effect on you, on me, on us collectively, on South African whites, on the various South African black communities, who is to know?

Now, the portrait is a constructed example, intended to nail down a kind of extreme. Still, you might go look at the pictures of Malick Sidibé which are real pictures of Africans taken by an African. Imagine various ways these pictures could be seen by various people who have experienced one view of the world or another. These pictures could be read any number of ways. An unrepentant bigot would see savages crudely aping the ways of the white man on the one hand, and plenty of extremely woke white people have seen a special, exalting, "black gaze" in the photos which they are unable to articulate any more clearly.

The point here is that the ability to shape society while simultaneously pandering to it is an emergent property of media. It does not reside in the individual pictures, adverts, billboards, voiceovers. You cannot find it in the components any more than you can find the essence of an engine in a camshaft. You cannot understand media's power by examining this picture or that picture. It is not really a case of good pictures and bad pictures (whether those labels refer to the politics or the composition).

Given that photographers and critics of photography are, apparently, locked in to the single picture model, these people seem almost uniquely badly suited to analysis or even understanding of media as a whole.

Perhaps more importantly, they are thus uniquely unqualified to either combat or create propaganda.

In the corners of the internet where I lurk, I see a lot of deconstructions of photographs, a lot of explanations of why the optics are terrible or whatever. The bold deconstructer then, as it were, stands back and awaits victory, which does not arrive. They over-weight the importance of this picture of Donald Trump or Angela Merkel or Theresa May doing something stupid, not realizing that whatever political attitude they despise or support does not live or die on single elements, or even a handful of them. These things are emergent.

It does not particularly help that these would-be critics cannot actually visualize how people other than themselves might read a photograph.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

"White Gaze"

I am going to take a quick peek at a couple essays, one from Colberg and one from Blight, because they cover related ground. Colberg's essay is a review of a book Photography in India and Blight's essay is, after a fashion, a review of a book entitled White Gaze.

Both reviews boil down to a standard round of the Colonialism was Very Bad and things are Still Very Bad dance, but they're built on some assumptions and ideas that I wish to examine in more detail.

First, though, a little brush clearing. Of course the era of European colonialism was bad, duh. It's more complicated, though, than simply reducing the whole era to "white people exploiting brown people because white people suck." I don't want to get in to any kind of defense of colonialism, but it is worth noting that it was more complicated, and that there are in with the wide bands of exploitation and greed also many strands of kindness, wisdom, and both misguided and well-guided attempts to do good.

This complexity is perhaps revealed in echo if we examine for a moment what people like Colberg and Blight actually think. They will tell you, at length, that colonialism was bad because it imposed western ideas on non-western people, in the service of oppressing and exploiting the latter. Which, sure, is true. However, if you ask them about, say, the Saudi habit of chopping people's heads off, about African traditions of female genital mutilation, of the Indian habit of from time to time immolating living wives along with dead husbands, they will decry such cultural practices as terrible and generally suggest that Someone Ought To Do Something about it.

Of course they will justify their rejection of these habits on some sort of higher moral ground, they will insist that their position derives not from a colonialist impulse but from something higher. The higher moral ground they claim is, however, utterly western. There is no firm unassailable basis for these ethical or moral choices, these things are cultural artifacts and nothing more. Colberg, Blight, and their ilk, simply wish to impose their (western) morality on the Saudis, the Africans, the Indians, because in these cases they really super duper disagree with the culture on the ground. And, for the record, I do too. But I don't sit around bitching about colonialism. I recognize my impulse as what it is: a colonialist impulse, an imposition of my western values on other people.

I'm comfortable with that, within limits.

You could argue that these academics are at least not making these claims for the purposes of exploitation, and it's certainly true that Colberg owns no stock in the East India Company. Still, to assert that these moral judgements out of the Academy are not being deployed as part of the eternal effort of the west to bring these lesser nations to heel is to state an absurdity. Of course these practices are brought up by the west to justify actions against the non-west, in order to better exploit the non-west. Don't be silly.

The Academy is running the same old colonialist program as always. They want The Orient to be identical to The West, except with quaint costumes and maybe some cool dances thrown in which we will TOTALLY NOT MAKE HALLOWEEN COSTUMES FROM.

So, having identified Colberg and Blight as neocolonialists, let's set that aside. Their hypocrisy is not directly relevant, but it does set the stage.

Both of the book reviews, or essays, are essentially saying the same things. The claim is that because white people have a certain relationship with the world (true) they see things in a certain way (ok, fair enough) and that these ways of seeing things are reflected in photographs made by white people (I suppose so..) and that therefore the photograph is both highly revelatory of, well, of something, and that the photograph itself in some way takes part in whatever crimes we're ascribing today.

This is a rather long chain of connection, and the last few links are very shaky indeed. If we could pin down precisely what these fellows think the photograph is doing, we could maybe critique it in more specific terms, but they persist in vaguely mumbling about "problematic" rather than actually committing to some sort of coherent position. Still, the general shape of where they stand is clear.

Both authors refer, absurdly, to violent seeing, which is apparently a chic phrase that makes no sense. The purpose of it is to associate, by a sort of sympathetic magic, through repetition, the idea that the photograph itself is a tool of the crime, that it partakes of the crime.

On the observe side of this, we arrive at the desired conclusion, that if only the oppressed people were to take the photographs, the photographs would be somehow different and would be freed of the taint of the crime of colonialism (or whatever -ism is in play).

The desire on the part of both authors, and of the Photographic Academy in general (but also most photographers) is to ascribe to the photograph a power that it simply does not have. As a photographer, or an academic studying photography, of course you want your subject to appear as powerful and important as possible. The endless discussion of which photograph "turned the tide of public opinion" against the Vietnam War is another facet of the same bankrupt discussion.

The conceit is that the photograph of a terrible thing is itself terrible. The photograph is violent, it embodies a violent gaze, it should be shunned? Colberg talks about this picture, for instance:

Colberg says that the picture "took his breath away (not in a good way)" that the picture is "very violent" and that "It’s such a ghastly picture, though, that it might take the viewer a while to be able to read the text" all of which are silly remarks. Was Jörg raised in a glass bottle that this kind of picture can strike him down so? As an aside, we again see his western hegemonic attitudes on full display: he imagines this picture to be objectively terrible, but in fact it is only terrible in the context of his own cultural milieu.

Since I share his milieu, I agree that it is a picture of something odious, although the picture certainly isn't violent in any meaningful way, and it certainly did not strike me to the ground unconscious as it, apparently, did to Jörg.

Blight offers a surprisingly similar picture with much the same observations, although he uses his usual mangled pseudo-academic mess to do it:

Hilariously, Blight doesn't seem to know that this is Mary Leaky and those guys are working for her sifting the ground looking for the (African) origins of man. While it's still clearly the boss and a group of not-the-boss people, knowing the ground truth here takes away much of the overseer/slaves vibe and makes it feel a lot more likely that the scientist is telling her assistants that lunch will be ready in five minutes.

Blight also gets the poem wrong. The text in the book he's reviewing comes from the original National Geographic magazines, by a process of eliminating most of the words on the page in essentially the same manner at A Humument does. The whole book is, in fact, essentially made by the same means as the various editions of A Humument, photos and text are both cropped to suggest something new. Something a lot less witty, but, whatever.

The conceit is that the thing being photographed is odious, and that therefore the photograph itself is odious or at any rate somehow partakes of the odiousness.

If the notion is that the photograph somehow absorbs the wickedness inherent in the subject, then you'd got a bit of a problem if Leaky is just telling the guys that lunch is ready. There isn't much wickedness to absorb, here.

While both Blight and Colberg appear to be more or less set on this notion, one could as readily take the tack that the ground truth doesn't really matter here. It might well be Mary Leaky inviting her assistants to lunch, but it doesn't look like that. The first picture could be Andamanese Family posing with Strong White Man they have just purchased. The pictures read as a colonialist, white, "gaze." These are photographs which support the idea of white superiority to the brown-skinned majority, regardless of the ground truth.

If you take that point of view, well, fair enough. We know that media works just fine to influence thought. It does make the critique of specific pictures as violent or whatever fairly completely absurd. It's not this picture or that picture that does it. It's the whole mass of them, the whole social mess working, kind of mostly, in the same direction that does it.

This photograph or that photograph is not the problem any more than this drop or water of that one cuts the canyon. It is the river which cuts the canyon.

The single photo is weak, like a drop of water, precisely because when we examine it we realize at some level that we do not know the ground truth. We don't know if this what it appears to be. It is only by repetition, by the blows of a million, a billion, drops of water against our consciousness that our ideas are eroded and re=shaped.

Colberg, Blight, and all the rest of them insist on, as it were, recoiling in horror before the power of this drop of water or that one, and in the process, they miss the river and, more importantly, the emergent properties that a river has which drops of water do not.

This photo or that photo, while it may or may not be of something odious, which it may or may not read in an odious way, is not particularly interesting. It does not have the power to strike anyone down, or change anyone's mind, or have any substantive social impact. It is the apparatus of media, and the emergent power that the whole has, that does those things. This apparatus has powers which the individual photographs (and other fragments) do not have.

Clutching your pearls while waving faintly at this photograph or that photograph not only makes you look silly, it is to miss the entire point.

It is in the leap from this photograph or that photograph, to the whole apparatus of media in which the power lies, and in which the interesting things occur.