Monday, May 20, 2019

A Photo Book Project

I am plugging a project here, not mine. I don't know this person, even slightly. There are many many things about this project that are large red flags for me, but there's one thing I like. More on those in a moment. It's an indiegogo campaign (similar to kickstarter) to pre-sell enough books to justify going to press.

When We Lie Down, Grasses Grow From Us

Things I don't like.

This is one of those shitty-ass pay-to-play project where the artist is being forced into the role of fundraiser, a model I have talked about angrily in the past quite a bit. I hate this bullshit.

Jörg Colberg likes it, and it's a lot like what you're expect from that. The pictures are dreary, the book is over-desiged (by one of the Usual Crew in that social scene) and so on.

The campaign is set up as a "flexible goal" which means that even if she doesn't raise enough money to slake her publisher's thirst for lucre, she gets the cash, which is sketchy. I am absolutely certain that if this happens she will try with all her might to spend the cash on pushing the project forward anyways, and that she will fail and end up spending it on rent and groceries.

But I like one thing, basically. The artist has a clear concept. The dreary-ass nothing pictures so beloved of the MFA crowd actually seem to work for her concept.

I think I'm gonna back it to the tune of one (1) book, which I will then review (assuming it comes to fruition) and then pass on to someone else. Most likely.

You may elect otherwise, and to be honest, this kind of thing is very much an acquired taste. One I have not entirely acquired.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Valueless Art

There is a crew of the usual suspects going on and on about Art Institutions taking dirty money (and, no, Mr. Smith, it's not just a handful of irrelevancies) and scoring victories here and there. Nobody takes Sackler money any more because of OxyContin, and Photo London (whatever that is) cut ties with the Kingdom of Brunei because, whoa, it turns out they're terrible people, who knew?

Accusations are flying that this is mere window dressing, because if you dig down you find other tainted sources of money, and so on.

All this strikes me as terribly naive. Any pile of, say, a million dollars and up, is going to have quite a bit of blood on it. If you're running some institution, festival, contest, whatever, that requires more than about $10/year to operate, you're going to be running it on dirty money. The trouble isn't that these institutions are not adequately vetting their donors, the trouble is that money is generally pretty messy.

The usual woke suspects have not yet realized that you can dig anywhere, in any direction, and find something to complain about in any source of money. This is not to suggest that the complaints are not legitimate, of course they are. Billionaires are odious people.

Berger wrote in 1969 about the history of Revolutionary Art. It turns out that some of the Art designed to critique Capital and The Wealthy turned out to be rare and valuable. The Wealthy bought it up with gusto, because the point is to own valuable objects. The fact that the artifacts revile their owners is of literally no consequence. Indeed, it's probably a little delicious. If you made a limited edition of T-shirts with Swarovski crystals on the collar, the words EAT THE RICH on the front and a picture of a guillotine on the back, and sold them for $1200 a pop, wealthy socialites would wear the shit out of them.

Money is tainted. And. Money validates the artist. This reaches down to the lowest levels of Art. Suppose you get a book deal with someone fancy, you pony up your $10,000 or $20,000 and you get an edition of 400 sumptuous volumes made, priced attractively at 40 euros each. This validates the artist, because it is a real object, heavy, and while not particularly expensive, it is being offered for sale for real money. A cast of minions have worked on the thing, significant amounts of money have been pushed around. It's real. The artist has accomplished some sort of success, albeit limited. If you look closely, some of the money probably had someone's blood on it.

My solution, which dovetails perfectly with the two facts that (1) my art isn't very good, and that (2) I cannot bother to go try to drum up an audience for it, is to make art that has no cash value. Work that is infinitely, cheaply, reproducible manages to escape the clutches of Capital fairly thoroughly. The Wealthy don't want it, it's neither rare not expensive. Any peasant can bang out of a copy for himself, that's no good.

Photography, by its very nature, fits into this model beautifully. Indeed, it is quite painful to make photography into a Rare and Expensive object, and always ends up being a bit of a scam. Gursky may sell his enormous rare prints for a few million a pop, but paintings (which are actually rare, rather than pretend rare) sell for an order of magnitude more.

I propose going the other way. Make your pictures small and as close to free as possible. Give them away.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Theater of Indifference

Berger wrote an essay with the same title as this one, although of course he spelled Theater wrong. The subject of his essay is, more or less, the difference between the way we present ourselves, the way we interact, move, emote in the city versus our village. Not all of us have a village, and in particular I have been fairly itinerant all my life. I had to extrapolate and ponder a little to make any sense of what he was saying.

His point is, it appears to me, that in the urban environment we are as a rule acting or as the kids might say frontin' to one degree or another. In this environment, surrounded by people we do not know, we present ourselves as cooler, smarter, prettier. Or we present ourselves as more closed, less approachable, more aloof. Or we deploy any number of other facades.

In our village (or, as I think of it, my neighborhood) we present ourselves at least a little more directly, authentically. There is no point in presenting ourselves as smarter, or cooler, because everyone we meet knows us. While we might well conceal or exaggerate the thoughts, emotions, and reactions of the moment, our essential nature is well known and to try to cover it would be ridiculous.

You can probably cast it into your own terms. How do you feel, how do you walk, how do you imagine yourself: walking in a place where you do not know most people; walking in a place where you do know most people.

An anecdote by way of illustration. An attractive young woman walks. A young man notices her, and attends to her. She, noting his attention and finding it unobjectionable, throws a slight wiggle in her walk, and finds an excuse to turn around and take a second pass. He continues to notice her. All at once, they realize almost simultaneously that they know one another, and the charade collapses into something else entirely. Laughter all around.

The switch from strangers acting, to friends being friends, is the point, here.

This speaks, I think, to that entire genre of photography we know of as "street", both contemporary "street photography" and the so-called "street portrait."

This strikes me as specifically about photographing that theater that is this urban street. You are photographing not authentic people but rather the performances they put on in this environment. The lone figure in the distance, head down, a mere silhouette with the attractive shadow play, is closed to the world, fending off unwanted attention. They are not the warm, three-dimensional human they are at home, or in their local park, or even in the office.

The pretty girl crossing the street might be shouting with the set of her mouth and shoulders "don't talk to me!" or she might be whispering "look at me" or somewhere between the two or something else entirely. She is certainly not Marie who loves cats and has tried and tried but never mastered the macarena.

The street portrait, the closeup Bruce Gilden, these are likewise not real people. These are people acting out their fluid urban persona, suddenly confronted with a camera and donning what they hope is a good role for that moment.

Diana Arbus, as I have noted in the past, seems to have been acutely aware of this, and photographed neither the urban persona, nor the urban persona-for-the-camera, but rather the moment in between the two, for reasons I cannot really fathom.

This is not to say that street photography is bad, or flawed, but merely to recognize it for what it is.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Remarkable Sentence

In Jörg Colberg's latest in which he reviews a book that concerns me not in the slightest, he includes this startling sentence:

All of this prevents the viewer from ever getting to the “Oh, I get it” that’s marring so much archival work.

I do not know what to make of this sentence. Is there a typo somewhere I cannot mentally unwind? Does he mean that this applies only to picture books drawn specifically from archives? Is he referring only to a sudden sensation of "getting it?" Does he perhaps mean some sort of sense of "Oh, it's just that. That's stupid?" All these strike me as possible.

What is also possible is that this is a clue to a larger philosophy, namely that art should not be comprehensible. It suggests that if you arrive at a point of understanding, the work is marred.

This would certainly explain why Jörg seems to have a genuine fondness for books that appear to me to be incomprehensible trash. It would also explain his singular inability to articulate in any meaningful way why he likes one thing and dislikes another.

Regardless of what Jörg actually means here, this has caused me to put on my thinking cap. I have, for quite some time now, felt that the entire point of Art is that it is from time to time comprehensible. I judge everything from picture books to symphonies based on whether I can develop some kind of understanding, whether I "get it." When I don't, on good days, I am charitable and assume that perhaps it's just me, and on bad days I dismiss whatever it is as unmitigated trash.

It never occurred to me that there might be some other criteria upon which one might judge these things. I am by no means convinced that there is, it strikes me that absent meaning all that remains is the technical details, the formal details of the construction of the thing. I am certain Jörg does not mean this, here. Worrying about balance, or leading lines, is far too bougie for any proper academic, I suspect. It's certainly too bougie for me.

So.. what else might there be? If we postulate that when Jörg says something is good he does not mean that he gets it, or that it has elegant formal qualities, what on earth could be (or some notional other critic) mean?

Maybe there is something here. I don't have all the answers, that's for sure.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Photographing Chernobyl

The area around the Chernobyl reactor is a heavily photographed area. During my periodic checkin on Medium Format Magazine, which has struck me as hilarious since inception, I found this article, Photographing Chernobyl, on the free list, and skimmed it. I said to myself, self, these pictures sure look familiar.

So I went hunting around to see what's what. This is pretty interesting.

The reason all Chernobyl photos looks similar is because they are similar. There is fairly obviously A Tour that includes a startling small number of locations, through which photographers are briskly marched. I am going to ruthlessly lift photos from all over the place without regard for copyright because, in the first place, I am performing criticism, and in the second place it is not clear there is a copyrightable originality in any of these things, as I will demonstrate.

Exhibit A, the danger sign:

Google something like "Chernobyl danger sign barbed wire" and you will find dozens, possibly hundreds, of photos of this sign. Not this sign design, but this actual literal sign. The arrangement of barbed wire and the building in the background are distinctive. There may be 100s of these signs on miles of fencing for all I know, but this one is the sign that's On The Tour, so everyone photographs it.

The sign moves around a bit. Clearly it falls out of the fence, or falls askew, from time to time, and is put back. By the tour guides? Photographers? Who knows.

Exhibit B, the sea of gas masks with doll:

The story here is that there is a room somewhere in what looks like a school, where there are gas masks on the floor. People have brought in dolls and posed them in this room over the years. The dolls move around, are reposed, and in these modern times have largely disintegrated. They have great patina, eh? That's the grease of a million photographer fingers.

The one thing we know for sure is that this doll was not abandoned by a child on the day of the accident, and left reverently in place. It was probably brought from elsewhere in the area, or just as likely brought in by some photographer as a prop.

Now, this is where it gets fascinating. See the table with the shell of the TV in the foreground? Make a note of that.

Another canonical photo from Your Big Expensive Chernobyl Adventure is the school notebook.

Look at that. The notebook, abandoned one the very day of the accident, undisturbed for decades.

Nah, the notebooks move around constantly. And hey, remember the table with the busted TV on it? Same fuckin' table. Look closely.

There's A Room with the sea of gas masks, the dolls, the table, the notebooks, and clearly photographers go in there and reverentially photograph various closeups over the course of 2 or 3 minutes, creating the impression of many locations (except for the cheaters with the wide angle lenses who give the show away.) Sometimes stuff gets moved around to look better. There's a reason the gas mask is so elegantly draped behind the notebook.

It goes on and on. There are the bumper cars at the fairground, constantly moving around and getting more graffiti, there's the ferris wheel at the same location. The interior of the under-construction cooling tower and.. well, actually that's pretty close to it. There's a handful of other vaguely snapshotty things people pick up here and there, but that is basically the tour.

The standard tour includes something like 10 locations, each are visited pretty quickly. Everyone shoots the same things, sometimes after moving some shit around and then sprinkling dust over it all to look authentically abandoned. And then they go home.

I kind of get why one might do it as a tourist. Sure, these photos all exist, but these ones are my photos. You have, as it were, proof that you were there and that you did the thing. You have personalized memory-triggers of having done the thing.

What does not make sense is publishing this in a would-be serious magazine of Medium Format Photography, or more generally the once-every-couple-years articles in semi-serious photo news sources, The Abandoned World of Chernobyl!, or whatever, as if someone went and did some journalism rather than simply taking the tour.

I am reminded of Maria Lopez, who a few years ago did an Art Thing about the Cambodian Killing Fields, discussed in some remarks of mine over here. She went on The Tour, took The Snaps, and pretended it was a serious photo essay. Maria herself seems to have vanished from the web, or at any rate from the photography part. Presumably she gave up her dream of becoming a serious artist, and went back to her day job (middle management at NGOs, maybe? There were a flock of these people mobbing Souvid Datta a couple years ago, mostly professional NGO types.)

Friday, May 10, 2019

Storytelling II

I wish to set aside books with much in the way of text. If you're writing any sort of coherent "story" whether it be a literal laying out a sequence of events, or something else, the words will carry things along.

As usual, I want to construe "story" as generally as possible, to cover Cinderella through an impressionistic take on Monet's garden, and probably more besides.

And so, under consideration is a book of, essentially, just a bunch of pictures, most of them photographs, a book aimed at conveying something.

In my previous remarks I argued, with what I imagine to be a fair degree of success, that you're not going to get much traction if the goal is to convey a sequence of factual (or fact-like) events, such as the story of Cinderella or the Roman Empire. What you're going to be able to accomplish is something a lot more like Keith Smith's composite picture, a whole or a gestalt that in is psychologically similar to a photograph in that it contains a collection of visual facts and ideas and relationships, but is ultimately a singular object to which you, the reader, may react in some way.

A visual book does not, in general, relate a sequence of events, or a sequence of logical statements forming an argument. It does not convey names, dates, locations, and similar details. It is nothing more than a complex arrangement of visual details that may add up to... something.

The basic unit of the western codex is the two-page spread. You may elect to put one photo on there, or two, or more. The traditional approach places one photo per spread, and so the basic unit of that book is a single photo.

With a little work, some cueing, you might be able to persuade the reader that the unit is, say, 3 spreads in a row. Perhaps you alternate three color spreads with three black and white ones, or change the page color every three spreads. In this case the reader might be persuaded to flip randomly to a spot, and then find the beginning of the unit from there, more or less consistently.

The unit, therefore, is what I am considering to be the basic lump of material. I divide the book notionally into units, each unit being consumed together, as a whole, perhaps even in-order. Units, however, tend to be consumed more or less randomly. Earlier units will tend to be examined sooner than later ones, because we do tend to leaf through books roughly front-to-back, perhaps with some backing and filling.

You might envision the course through a visual book as, roughly, a series of units each consumed in-order, the units themselves consumed in a zig-zag path that tends front-to-back, but contains gaps and backtracking to one degree or another.

Probably a strict two-level hierarchy of "units" and "book of unit" is simplistic, but let us see if it offers any guidance.

All this suggests that, far from the complex structures we associate with the film and the novel, there is in fact very little wiggle room in the visual book.

Your choices seem to be one of these two: either have no particular progressive goal, but merely make your point through a pile of units; or make your point within the context of this somewhat labored path.

This chart suggests how I see these things.

We start our with a sequential reading (matching the dashed blue line) and then a short jump forward, and then back a little. One unit gets skipped, another gets looked at twice. A little later on a larger forward jump happens, more backtracking. At some point there is one dip backwards into previously skipped material, and then a large jump back forward. This is, of course, just an example, but illustrates the general shape of the thing.

So you have a few units at the beginning to set the stage, and then people start jumping around, in a more or less forward-moving fashion, with potentially larger and larger jumps.

After that, you can say things later and earlier, and people will notice that, although they may not encounter these statements in-order, they will tend to encounter them mostly in the right order, that is, later things after earlier things. Even if they backtrack and come across something near the end of their reading, they may well note that this is happening near the beginning of the book.

This suggests that your book should progress in fairly large strokes, with a lot of repetition. If you want someone to reliably notice something in the latter half of your book, you better give them several chances at it, because they're just jumping around at that point. The farther along in the book your material lies, the more repetition you'll need (or, the more you'll have to accept people simply missing it).

Opposing this notion, you don't want to simply make the last half of your book just a bunch of repeats of essentially the same point, so as to get through to people who are just casually flipping by that point. You'll put off the people who are reading more closely.

Some sort elaboration seems right. You will want some way to both communicate the bigger ideas in broad, repetitious strokes, while offering rewarding detail to the closer reader.

It will come as no surprise to long time readers to discover that I think this supports a music-like view of the visual books.

Sonata-like, you can state a couple of themes up front, in that first sequential read.

Following that, you can repeat and elaborate on those themes over longer stretches of material. The elaborations are enough to reward the closer readers, but the large themes are repeated over lengthier stretches of the book so that even people skimming will likely stumble across each of the important themes, in roughly the right order.

If your book is engaging, your readers will occasionally return to it, taking each time a similar but different path through it. They will, one hopes, discover the same large set of themes, the same overall structure, but with new details. Elaborations previously unnoticed may reveal themselves. Relationships between this picture and that, this unit and that, will pop up over time.

The composite image, formed at least hazily on the first read-through, ideally becomes clearer and at the same time evolves, upon each new reading.

It's not perfect, but maybe it's a model you can find something to use in.

Most people just go for a pile of pictures, anyways, and that's OK too.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Limits of Visual Storytelling

Lewis Bush has published the first of two pieces on visual storytelling, over here, which got me to thinking. My remarks here are in no meaningful way a response (although I may write one of those later, after the second part is published).

No, it just got me to thinking.

Consider for a moment motion pictures, film. The logic of film is that of time, of events unfolding one after the other. Yes, you can use framing devices and flashbacks and all those things, but the logic of a specific scene unfolding is, in general, that of time. The man steps forward, and then the dog shies away, as the girl lifts her hand to her cheek. Causal relationships, and stories are, at least at a micro level, simply revealed as the passage of events embedded in the inexorable stream of time.

Now consider the novel, and more generally the written word. Again, we have an inexorable forward drive, but it is not the forward thrust of time. Here it is almost cultural. Each sentence implies, demands, the previous sentence and the succeeding sentence. Here, the logic is not that of time but of thought. Just as thought, imagination, may recapitulate time in the same way a movie does, it may also proceed forward through an argument, or a set of related images. It may flit from one thing to another. Language being what we use to think with, the written word can be construed as a record of someone's thoughts.

Some progressions work, and others do not, according to rules I do not particularly understand.

Pictures, though, have no such logic. There is not, as near as I can tell, any compelling reason to always advance from one picture to the next. One photograph (or drawing, etching, whatever) does not imply its predecessor, or its successor.

Take a book of photographs, with no structure of text laid out from beginning to end, no particular external support for a particular approach to turning the pages. I submit that people will in general start at the beginning, because it's a book, turn a few pages in sequence to get the flavor of the thing, and after some period of time start flipping randomly. Only a specific urge to see the pictures will carry forward a sequential leafing. If I desperately want to see all the pictures, I will leaf forward 1 page at a time until the feeling wears off, or until I reach the end.

If do not have a fairly potent hunger to see them all, I will flip randomly, starting fairly soon. A mild desire to see all of them is not enough, I know I'll get there by flipping back and forth. I flip ahead to middle, and leaf through 4-5 pages. Then I flip back and leaf through 8 pages. And so on.

Essentially, within a book, or a section of a book, you have in a sense a budget of pictures to spend on order. You might get 4-5 pictures, or you might get 20 pictures, before the random flipping starts. But start it will.

It might not be absurd to hope that while your reader might start at a random spot, they will generally give you a small number of sequential page-flips before striking out at random again.

In part, this is because we have been trained that books of pictures have no meaningful sequence. If you simply jumbled all the pictures up at random in your average picture book, almost nothing would be lost. Some pleasing graphical coincidences might die, making the book less attractive, less pretty, but there was never any meaning in the sequence of pictures anyways.

Why do I care about sequential reading?

Most of the mechanics we associate with storytelling rely on ordering. Flashback, foreshadowing, framing devices, shifting viewpoints, rhythm, and I dare say 100s of other things don't make much sense if we're simply dipping into the thing at random.

Other mechanisms like allegory and relationships between things may survive a random walk through the material.

So what to do?

Well, for one thing you can build you book to not much care what order people flip through thing. Books (or sections of books) which are essentially just a box of pictures work this way. You can play games with spreads, but from one spread to the next you cannot rely on any particular ordering. Andy's book, reviewed in the previous, takes this approach. Each of his five sections has, on average, 25 pictures. It's pretty natural to leaf to the start of a section, and then leaf forward, 1, 2, 3, 4... 10, 7, 22. It doesn't matter, though, because each spread within a section or chapter works fine on its own.

It occurs to me that using the two-page spread to hold more than the traditional one or two pictures might be a good idea, although I just had this thought. If there truly is a sequence of three or five pictures which must be seen in order, then put them on a single spread. It's the only way to be sure.

You can add in a textual structure, to carry the reader from one page to the next in order. At this point people will mostly be reading, not looking, so there is a tradeoff.

If your pictures are wildly compelling in-sequence, perhaps you have essentially shot a movie rendered as a series of stills, well, that might work I dare say.

Fundamentally, though, I think that Lewis is going to have a lot of trouble convincing me that ideas from film and novels are likely to translate to picture books in any useful way. The forward, sequential, drive is simply not present. Further, pictures are semiotically large objects that cannot be sliced up and re-arranged in the way that, for instance, words, or frames of a movie can be. You're kind of stuck with 20 or 30 or 500 intractable lumps of meaning, rather than the 10s of 1000s, or millions, you have with novels and films.

Picture books comprised mainly of pictures, as far as I can tell, are best suited to allegorical and emotional communications. They work when designed to be accessed with a fair degree of randomness.

Keith A. Smith talks about the idea of a composite picture, a "total" picture built up out of the individual pictures in a visual book, and I think he's got it right, there.

Me? I do that. I also do things with lots of words, which are really books of words with a secondary counterpoint of pictures.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Crit: ATMTX Photo, On the Street: India

On Kirk Tuck's recommendation, I acquired a copy of this book.

If you like the preview, you'll like the book. It's pretty simple!

I like the book. It's not a book I would ever have made, but I am pleased to possess it. The author (not identified beyond the identifier ATMTX PHOTO in the book, but I believe named Andy) talks about his design inspirations on his blog, here, notably the use of full bleed, and double-truck pictures, and a ruthless willingness to rotate 90 degrees to print horizontals on a vertical page.

The system works just fine. It's hard to visualize how it's going to work on screen as you lay out a book like this, but it turns out that with a physical book one turns the thing 90 degrees as necessary, almost without thinking. It feels perfectly natural after a little while.

Blurb's trade books, especially on the uncoated paper, do not have great blacks. I do a thing with a curves adjustment to shovel a little contrast and depth into the blacks which I feel strengthens them a little visually, but it might just be voodoo. Andy either doesn't mind the weak blacks, or just decided to live with them. The pictures read as slightly flat, but that's just a quibble. Content is king. If Steidl can say "fahk zee midtones" we are allowed to print with weak darker tones.

The photos themselves are a blend of vernacular and more formal. Everything is recognizably street, nothing is posed, of course. Some pictures are more of a chaotic jumble, and some are more formally arranged masses of tone. I feel like a few of the pictures might have benefitted from some post-process color filtration. Sometimes a person's hand is almost lost in the chaotic mass of similar tones that are visually behind the hand, that sort of thing. Perhaps, though, this is intentional.

The pictures generally seem to work. Whether I would apply a "red filter" to this one, or crop that one differently, or punch up the shadows of yet a different one is immaterial. The book "reads" fine, it makes sense to me. It reveals something to me.

Full marks for design: simple, nice looking. There a couple pages of frontmatter, which so many people leave out. The typography is simple. The chapter/section beginnings burn a couple of pages attractively, usefully, rather than rudely dumping you into the next block of photos in an effort to save money. You get a lot of pictures for your money here, but it does not feel crammed full, or amateurish.

It's a bunch of photos, 123 according to the author, a few lines of text at the beginning of each section to set the stage. The organizational structure, while uncomplicated, works and was of interest to me.

So, onwards to the content.

Andy has built this thing as five sections, or chapters, more or less in chronological order of a short trip he took to India. What astonished me most about this book is the way Andy conveys his (his? an?) experience of India over such a miniscule visit, during which visit he was actually working at his job as well. Perhaps he has been many times, though? I am not sure. At any rate, I felt something authentic and fairly deep from the book.

Each section is more or less an unordered cloud of pictures from some segment of his trip. All are concerned with a view of the authentic "street" life of where Andy happened to be at that time. Each section can be taken separately, but it makes sense to look at the first section, then the second, and so on. There is a logic to this flow, albeit not a strict one. Within each chapter, each picture (or, really, each two-page spread) can be taken by itself, without concern for ordering, as far as I can tell.

The blend of what appears to my white eyes as "authentically Indian" with "western influence" was fascinating to me. Almost all the men wear jeans, but not quite. There is at least one instance of more traditional legwear, which appears to be a dhoti, worn by a fellow in a work crew consisting largely of jeans-wearers. Western brands show up in the backgrounds constantly, and so on. The balance feels, to this westerner, "right," it feels as if "yes, that is probably how it really is."

An element that appears regularly: a two page spread of a pair of photos taken a few seconds apart. I loved this. It imparts, I don't know, some sense of motion. Some sense of being present. It's a beautiful idea, and one I intend to steal.

In general, Andy is quite good with spreads. The temporal pairings are, I think, critical to the weight of the book. The others are merely pleasing graphical pairings of the usual sort, which make the book more visually appealing but are not important to meaning as such.

Much of the flavor is of functioning chaos. Not a society that struggles through chaos, nor yet a society that is chaotic, but simply a society that exists inextricably intermingled with a certain kind of chaos. It strikes me as maybe similar to the chaos of color and materialism that characterizes Las Vegas, or a standard-issue enclosed North American Mall. There is chaos, it exists, but we are used to it. It does not much impede our use of these places, it does not much register. We are not chaotic at the Mall, nor is our existence at the Mall choatic. The Mall is chaotic, we are not, we exist in the Mall, surrounded by chaos we barely register while we shop, eat, and pee.

I found a strong sense of presence in this book.

Well done, Andy!

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Missy MWAC Rescues A Photo

Missy MWAC got another piece published on Petapixel, in her apparently ongoing series of articles on how important old photographs on.

First of all, this one seems to contradict the previous one, in which she asserts that people love their old photos, and the Forbes article is wrong. How on earth, then, are there all these photos that need rescuing?

Set that aside. She has devised what is, in a way, a kind of fascinating way to, I don't know, create something from these pictures. She apparently has a plan to write stories for these old pictures she pulls out of old boxes and whatnot? Which is kind of cool, I think. I could see this as a thing.

Furthermore, her story is pretty OK. It ain't "The Gift of the Magi" by any means, but it's a workable little tale with a bit of wit, a good sketch of how sisters can really be, and so on.

There are two substantive complaints I have about the story itself, and then one further complaint.

Number one and most offensive, she paints the father as a drunk, or possibly a philanderer. By all means, the characters in your stories, whether long or short, can be whatever you like. They are fictions. This guy isn't a fiction. He was a real person. He's right there in the picture, and that is literally the point of this exercise. There's a fair chance some of the kids in the photo are still alive. To paint him in this light without a shred of evidence is libelous and mean. And it is unnecessary. The father's failings serve here only to illustrate and underline the youthful naivete of "Beatrice," a task which could be performed in myriad other ways.

Number two, "Beatrice" doesn't look irritated about her dress at all. Again, we're given a narrative idea based on nothing whatever. It's an inoffensive idea this time around, but if the purpose is to grant to the photo a sort of new life, there ought to surely be some connection. But perhaps I am reading the young girl's expression one way, others might see it another? Is there a peevishness to the eyes? I don't see it.

My third complaint, having nothing to do with the story, is that Missy MWAC is one of those people who spends a surprising amount of time yowling about the evils of Photo Theft, and appears to be doing just that here. There might be a fair use case here, but I am dubious. I do not think "illustrating my story" is one of the standard bits of case law (and I did poke around a bit.)

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Provenance is Tainted!

The Left in particular, which is where I live and a lot of artists also, has a broadly held theory that provenance matters. In particular, if the source is tainted the result must, somehow, inherit flaws and failings.

First, a digression about ethics. Ethics are a social construct. The religious might claim that they originate with God or Gods, and I won't dispute that, because it doesn't matter: God-given ethics are laundered through the machinery of society, and are in the end still a social construct. An ethical dispute is at its very basic level simply disagreement about essentially arbitrary positions. It isn't quite the same as disagreeing, you and I, about how much we like tacos, because a social construct has more weight in a bunch of dimensions than does my love of tacos.

Ethics, unlike my personal tastes, offers the hope of judging everyone the same way which I certainly do not offer on the taco question.

So ethics are not isomorphic to my personal love of tacos, but there is a similarity at a basic level. The two are not unrelated.

We can dig through some examples.

There are, it is widely believed, ethical problems with building scientific work on Nazi science on account of the Nazis being awful. There were human experiments performed in concentration camps, and the question "can we even look at this data?" was a real question back in the day. As I recall the conclusion was that the experimental setups were so shitty that the experimental results were useless anyways. Not so the rocket guys. It turns out that Werner von Braun and his crew of Nazis and slaves built fine rockets.

Lewis Bush is working on a book tracing the taint of that activity through the US Space Program, which got von Braun after the war. Whether or not ethical taint carries along the thread, the line from Peenemunde to the moon is pretty direct.

The cry of "taint!" is usually accompanied by "the work is shit anyways!" which probably was not true for the rockets.

Among the academic or semi-academic hordes that crowd for warmth against the gates of the high end Fine Art community, there are at least two threads which are relevant here, and these are of course my main point.

The first thread is that work made on the basis of questionable ethical choices is inherently bad.

There are photographs taken (or other Art made) in ways which do not suit the ethical stance of the critic. Souvid Datta and his pictures of underage prostitutes (and also his plagiarism) come to mind. The critic in these cases has never, ever, concluded his tirade with "but god damn, the pictures are excellent." The conclusion is invariably that the pictures, the work, is shit.

The second thread that pops up a lot is that of Dirty Money. The Sackler family spends a great deal of money on the arts, money which they obtained by selling drugs, at least so we are led to believe. One dollar being interchangeable with another freely, one can't be quite sure, of course. Anyways, Art Institutions are being given the opportunity to signal their virtue by rejected Sackler money. Notably, the Tate organization bravely turned down all the money the Sacklers have not yet offered them, although they're definitely keeping the money they've already gotten. As Mike C. has remarked, the Tate fortune isn't exactly squeaky clean.

Ok, so, anyways. What are the various logics in play here?

The first and simplest is "bad people do bad work" which isn't always wrong, nor is it always right. Josef Mengele was an awful creature, and did awful things. His alleged science seems to have mainly been just fancy forms of torture. His awfulness did in fact directly impact his scientific efforts, and converted them in to garbage. Werner von Braun, probably also not a terrific human being, seems to have been able to build a pretty damned good rocket, though. Whatever his character flaws, they did not translate into lousy engineering.

Souvid Datta's pictures certainly never struck me as particularly awful, they seemed to be just fine. Maybe not brilliant, but at least workmanlike.

Chuck Close, one of the darlings of Fine Art, was revealed to be pretty crass with female models from time to time. The response varied, and included the idea that his work shouldn't be displayed. Does the fact that Close is an asshole, or Satan, somehow change the nature of his work? Only, I think, if you are willing to literally include the character of the artist in your judgement of the work. God knows I am all about context, but this seems to me to be pushing it.

It is very attractive to believe that work done by people you don't approve is inherently flawed, but I don't see how that follows. Sometimes the character flaws show up in the work, and sometimes they don't.

The second logic is essentially Upton Sinclair's: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it. Again, this ain't wrong. It is possible, albeit unlikely, that the Tate organization could be seen to be promoting opioid use by taking Sackler money. It is possible, albeit unlikely, that they could be subtly coerced into some sort of excuse-making labors. I'm not sure how that would work. Could Sackler money somehow induce the Tate into actively contributing (more) to evil in the world?

The Tate seems to have rejected the Sackler money specifically to soothe the tender feelings of Nan Goldin, so they could show her work, which (as Mike C. noted) can be construed as among other things explicitly glamorizing drug use. Not sure how well their program of avoiding opiates is going here?

Institutions like the Tate are, to first order, organizations that more or less successfully strain the money out of the mixture of aspirations-&-money that are offered them by the wealthy. The Sacklers probably have no interest in promoting opioid use, or particularly in cleansing their names. Most likely, they have a trainload of shitty paintings by Junior, or Grandma, that they would love to sneak into the Tate's permanent collection, and it is the Tate's job to get the money, and decline the paintings.

That said, probably when a starving artist wins the Deutsche Börse prize that artist might feel a little odd about criticizing Deutsche Börse. Or, possibly (likely?) the opposite is true. The prize-granting Foundation's function is to launder the reputation of Deutsche Börse, and therefore it seems to award prizes to whichever of the usual suspects hits some perfect balance of anti-authoritarian and wunderkind. So these artists are maybe not directly propping up Deutsche Börse but are complicit in the reputation-laundering?

Upton Sinclair's notion strikes me as sometimes applicable, sometimes not. Depending on, um, factors. Of some sort.

Honestly, these things seem to be all over the place.

What does seem certain, though, is that blanket assertions about tainted provenance seem to be risky.

Not to sound like some dumb relativist, but at the end of the day all money is tainted, and no artist is a perfect human being. You're gonna have to take it case by case, and if you want to persuade me that someone's work is shit you're going to have to do better than point out what an asshole the artist is.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Public Photos/Private Photos

I am reading essays by John Berger. I wouldn't say he was always right, but he was always interesting!

In today's installment, he distinguishes between public and private, or personal, photos. By the latter he means things like family snapshots. Photographs which come burdened with a fairly complete context. The photograph of grandma refers to grandma, and grandma is woven into the story of our lives by an infinitude of infinitesimal strands. The photograph has a complex, complete, and fairly fixed meaning for us in the family.

The other sort of photo is precisely the photo which lacks these connections, this interweaving. An advertising photo, a news photo, anything. That photo, let us prise it apart from any surrounding material it currently lies within, does not come encumbered. We do not know these people, that place, those objects. That photo is nothing more than an instant torn out of time and place, and printed out flat.

As such, that photo, the public photo, becomes something of a potential explosive. It can be made in to anything. It can be married to any story you like. It can be re-contextualized falsely, or truly, or anywhere in between, insofar as those categories are even meaningful. The material from which we, maybe, a moment ago pried this photo loose did provide context, did weave that photo in to something, maybe. But, what was that something? It could have been anything. Nearly any photograph can be bent to nearly any end.

Consider this picture:

There's a good chance that you'll recognize it as a pearl. Real or fake? Saltwater or fresh? I don't know if there are ways to distinguish in this photo, and there's a reasonable chance that you don't either. You can't even tell how big it is.

I could use this for an advert. I could illustrate a fake news article about oyster abuse in pearl farming operations. You could use it however you like (and, indeed, this photo appears in REACT so if you want an actual legal license to do pretty much anything you want with it, you can acquire one fairly simply.)

Berger suggests that photographs like this should be given a context, they should be embedded in more stuff in order that they might acquire meaning. He makes the obvious, in hindsight anways, claim that you should make that context multidimensional. To give this pearl meaning, I should tell you, somehow, how it is woven into the fabric of my life. I could tell you this with more pictures, with words, with drawings, with interpretive dance. It doesn't matter.

I could tell you, perhaps, that it is my wife's earring, that these earrings were (as I recall, anyways) purchased to match a pearl pendant she owns, one of several pendants she has to hang on the single gold chain she owns. I could tell you about how my children, two daughters, are fascinated (as children are) with my wife's jewelry, and how we have come to expect a gradual erosion of that collection under the clumsy ministration of small, beloved, hands.

I could research, and then tell you, a true story about pearl farming. I don't know anything about it, but I could find out, and then tell you.

I could tell you about the basement where I made this photograph, the light, the funnel I made out of a scrap of metal I used to repair a duct after I cut it open to retrieve a toy, lost down the duct by small, beloved, hands. That story, I already told you, though.

This article on Petapixel, written by Missy MWAC (who is a perhaps mid-functioning moron) seems relevant. What she, and the commenters, are not grasping is the way that personal photos become gradually shorn of their context, and thus of their meaning, and thus at last of their value.

Everyone wants the photos of themselves, and maybe of their siblings, parents. Aunts and uncles? Less so, Great grandparents? Not at all. The reason is that as these people, these events, the objects, recede in time they disentangle themselves from the fabric of our lives. The loom weaves on. The infinitude of infinitesimal threads binding great-grandfather to the fabric are way, way, over there. There are many many yards of cloth from there to where we begin to recognize anything. The reason we save photos from fires is because those are contemporary photographs. The reason we do not want recently-deceased Grandmother's photo albums is because they are not.

We know nothing of these people, after a time, they have no connection to us. They become, effectively, shorn of context and become isolated fragments of time, isolated instants from a time far distant, meaning nothing. Flip it over and there are maybe names and dates, but so what? We know, maybe, intellectually, where the pretty young woman fits into the big chart Great Aunt Lucy made of the family tree, but so what? The tree ends at our parents, and we never met, not do we know anyone who ever met, anyone more than a couple of inches away from their names.

More precisely, the value of family photos lies exactly in how strong our personal connections are. If our family is large but close-knit, with strong bonds and a rich story-telling tradition, we will love photographs from a more distant past. If your family is more like mine, a small nuclear family and a cloud of strangers, well, less so. No matter what, though, eventually all these things will recede far enough into the distance to mean nothing.

These photos then become like my pearl. They will become something else. Most likely, they will become refuse. Possibly they will fall victim to some MFA student's found photography book, and will be shoved in next to some pictures of Nazis or turnips in a desperate attempt to mean something. Perhaps they'll get sold to a greeting card company, which will sell copies of them adorned with captions, humorous up here, poignant down there to the left.

Obviously, I agree with Berger, at least in broad strokes.

Photographs, any photographs, should be placed together with other materials to give them meaning.

Post-modernists discovered that fragments shorn from their context meant nothing, and conversely that cleaved to their context they had only a constructed meaning, and then, inexplicably, concluded that meaning itself was a sham.

This is wrong.

Meaning is a construct. Fragments, properly assembled, become more than the sum of their parts, they become a fabric and well-made fabric has meaning. A thread will not cover my nakedness, and 10,000 loose threads will do a marginally better, but still very bad, job. Weave them into fabric, cut and sew that fabric into a shirt, and it will adequately conceal my pale, gelatinous, form from the horrified eyes of the public.

More often than not what we make with our pictures resembles a tangle mess of threads that perform no function, but every now and then, maybe we can make a shirt, and cover up our bellies.

Friday, April 26, 2019


One of the endlessly repeating threads of Internet Discussion about Photography is the question of archiving. Photographers, especially the old guard ("back in my day we had to get it right in the camera, ahem") who dominate these discussions are obsessed with archiving, and will ramble on tediously about RAID arrays, and how many terabytes of RAW files they have lying around. You can practically see them stroking their beards, fussing with their pipes, and resting their large, moist, hands on their prodigious bellies as their audience gets some much-needed rest.

I'm going to break it down for you in practical terms, and then offer up an alternative posture that you can think about.

Are just practicing? Do you go shoot a bunch of birds, or models, or whatever, and then put a selected subset up on instagram or flickr or some forum to get feedback, and that's about it?

You can delete everything immediately. Upload it, throw it away, and move on. Admit it, you're never going to do anything with any of your pictures, nobody is ever going to want them, you are never going to look at them again. Upload, delete, and watch the likes roll in.

Do you occasionally finish things? Great. Hang on to your pictures until you've finished the thing. Then throw everything away. Or, if you want, archive the "finals" for the project. You did cull out almost everything you shot, and keep only a small percentage for the finished thing, whatever it was, right? Throw everything else away. Yes, yes, some day maybe you'll... no you won't. Admit it. You're never going to go back through the rejects looking for missed gold. You're too busy taking new pictures (or you're bored with photography.)

Do you have actual clients? HOLY SHIT! A REAL UNICORN! Ok, unicorn, steady now. In the first place you probably know what the hell you're doing already. But I will offer my opinion anyways. Keep the stuff that you have a contractual obligation to keep, and maybe keep the things that a client might reasonably ask for in future. It's the nice thing to do. But be honest, don't keep bullshit that you are not legally obligated to keep, and which nobody will ever want to look at. Throw it out.

Also, try to avoid contracts that obligate you to keep things. That feels like a liability you don't need to carry.

These schmucks with five copies of every RAW file they've ever shot, one on a rotating series of hard disks shipped for security to a vault in Norway? Those guys? They're just throwing their pictures away in a very complex and expensive fashion. You really think they're gonna be able to find that one out of focus shot of a pileated woodpecker they took on their camping trip in Wisconsin, some time in the fall of either 2015 or 2016? Of course they can't. Even if they could, they're not going to spend the hour digging around through 8 possible different hard drives that sit on a shelf. These people aren't even camera enthusiasts, they're storage enthusiasts, and they suck at storage.

When you post something on Facebook or Instagram, it is for all intents and purposes gone in a couple of days. Sure, your audience could laboriously click back in time to it, but they're not going to. Every now and then Facebook will dredge up some of this jetsam under the banner of "8 years ago today" at which point it's visible, but meaningless.

By creating a system of hard disks and RAID arrays and secure offsite storage you are merely recreating this phenomenon at your own expense, and with great effort. The fact that the relevant bits are somewhere, in 5 copies, does not mean they're not gone. D.B. Cooper's mortal remains are somewhere too. Perhaps your pileated woodpecker is somewhere nearby?

Here is the alternative attitude to adopt: this is all ephemera, except for a few select things that I fix into my world in one way or another. There are a few dozen, perhaps a few hundred, photographs that I choose to live with, to have actively present in my life. Prints, books, electronic frames, coffee cups, whatever. Every now and then a small handful of the pictures I take makes it into that select group.

Everything else is trash, or if you prefer, is mayflies. Throw it all away.

You don't have to adopt this attitude, but it might pay you to roll it around your mouth and experiment with the taste, see if there's something there you can use.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

So You Want to Make a Zine?

Well, you probably don't want to make a zine, but let's pretend, because I made one and have some pictures.

For our purposes here, the zine in question is going to be a stapled-on-the-spine object, about 20ish pages long, mostly black and white unless you really want to start spending some money. I designed such a thing.

I had a handful of photos that I'd made, that I liked ok and considered to be tentatively freighted with meaning. Meaning which, alas, I could not myself discover. And so, I made up a little magazine with the pictures recto and an inviting space verso and some preamble text inviting the holder of this printed object to write in it, draw in it, carve it up, or otherwise seek some meaning. Inscribed also is a generous license, the substance of which is: if you have a PDF, you are allowed to print it; if you have a printed copy which you have modified in any way, you may obtain digital copies of the pictures from me and use them any way you like.

The thing is called REACT because I hope that the reader will.

The pictures I did in the way I always do, in GIMP, but you may use whatever your normal photographic tools are, if any. Let us consider the pictures themselves a solved problem.

I did the design and layout in Google's Docs tool, which is terrible, but there you have it. It does not understand left/right pages, all pages are equal to Docs. Usually I use OpenOffice or Blurb's toolchain. InDesign, I dare say, would be quite a bit better than either of those, and stratospherically better than Google's atrocity.

If you make left and right margins equal, this defines the inner margins. Then you can physically trim your book to define the outer margins. Alternatively, you may be able to use Docs with two columns on a landscape page, and thereby "lay out" a spread at a time, rather than a page at a time.

Let us assume, though, that you are using a fairly normal editing tool, and struggling through the limitations of same. Don't forget to insert a page or two of front matter (a half-title page, a dedication, a colophon, a masthead, whatever suits your fancy, but do put something in). Try to give the pages a little structure. Don't use many fonts, and keep them simple.

At some point here you will have a PDF file, I dare say, filled with pictures, some design elements, and perhaps some text. At least a little.

The problem you will now encounter is how to get this PDF into "booklet order" printed two-up (two pages to the page). I assume here that you do not wish to print quarto fashion, or any of the more exotic folded forms. We're printing folio fashion here, each printed sheet intended to be folded once. Your first sheet of paper will need to have the first and last pages printed two-up on one side, and then the second page and second-to-last page two-up on the other side. Folded in half, this will make the outermost layer of your zine. And so on.

Here is the first content sheet of REACT. The title page is the first page, and the colophon page (on the other side of the sheet) is second. The blank page you see first is actually the last page of the book, and the picture of the toy cowboy is second to last. Visualize folding this thing, and then inserting other folded pages into it, as if you were a filing clerk.

I know of 4 solutions here.

The first is to lay your book out in the right order in the first place, which is crazy, and fairly hard.

The second is to calculate the right ordering for the pages, and put these page numbers into the Print dialog of a suitably capable printer interface. My Windows laptop flips out if I try to print pages out of order, but your equipment may differ. For a 20 pages zine you put in something like: 20,1,2,19,18,3,4,17,16,5,6,15,14,7,8,13,12,9,10,11 and request that the printer print this out double-sided, flip-on-short-side, two-up. This will produce 5 sheets of paper.

The third and easiest, I think, is a tool called BookletCreator which consumes a PDF file, and produces a re-ordered PDF file. It can also handle multiple quires, and I think it can handle quarto style and so on. This stuff is not rocket science, but nobody seems to have bothered to simply write a good tool that just does it, other than this one.

Fourth, the Adobe tools know how to do this too, in the print/output dialogs you select Booklet and, um, follow along I guess. I have not used this.

I use BookletCreator, and because I use the somewhat limited free version, I jump through extra hoops, but it works fine.

So now you have a PDF file with a bunch of stuff that can simply be printed two-sided, flip-on-short-side, and hopefully the pages will simply fold and nest into a zine.

Print them out. Print one copy out on cheap paper, and assemble it, before you go ahead and print out 100 copies on expensive paper. After you have assembled it, write PROOF on it somewhere obvious, so it does not create confusion later. Keep it around for reference.

Now you have 1 or more copies of this thing printed out. Perhaps you printed covers separately (maybe the cover is color, on different paper, or whatever). Maybe you have some color sheets, and some black and white sheets.

If you plan any hand work, now is a good time to do it. My zine, being a Rogue Photo product, has a red spine which I simply drew on to the cover pages with a Red Micron #05 pen.

Sort them out and stack them up, unfolded. Check to make sure that all is in-order and that the pages will lie correctly once the thing is folded and stapled. Check that all pages are right side up.

Now you're going to need either a saddle stapler or an extension stapler. Either way, figure out where the spine (the fold) will occur. If you're saddle-stapling, fold first then staple. With an extension stapler, you staple first, then fold. I have an extension stapler, because my wife loves me very much indeed.

Staple at the spine, making sure to keep the zine's pages absolutely square to the stapler (a saddle stapler makes this easier - if your fold is square to the pages, the staples will go in square to the pages). Do the middle staple first. Don't bang on the stapler, press firmly. With authority, but not gusto. Staple as well as you can, but don't go crazy. If something isn't placed just so or perfectly square, it's gonna work out OK anyways.

Now fold, I press a crease in with my thumb at each staple, to set the line of the spine's crease, and then run my thumb along to press an initial crease in.

Once stapled and initially folded, a bone folder can be used to sharpen up the spine. I use a scrap of waste paper to protect the zine, because a bone folder tends to polish the paper.

At this point if you happen to own a book press, or a binder's hammer, you might want to deploy it. A sheet of paper, even sleek, modern, paper benefits from pressure and time to find itself against a new sheet of paper. I stack things up, and place a weight atop the stack. Usually a couple of good heavy books. Then I leave this stack overnight. This will make the crease of the spine even more definite, and will help the pages find one another and lie together more pleasantly.

Last, trim. Most likely the three edges of the zine which are not the spine are a little ragged. One pages is a trifle higher than the next, and the pages in the middle stick out a bit at the front relative to the cover. Plus, there might be a little damage around the edges, and maybe your design didn't quite make it out to the edges of the page in the first place. Printers are very unwilling to put ink at the very edge of the page, after all.

For all these reasons, you want to trim top, bottom, and front of the zine. I use a steel ruler, an xacto knife, and a cutting mat. You might choose a good quality guillotine or other cutter capable of cleanly shearing 20-30 sheets of paper at once.

I did the printing at my local Kinko's because it's just a short walk away. They have a 32 pound paper that's very white, targeted at high quality color printing (not photographs, just charts and things, but it also renders photos rather well). They'll sell it for 20 cents a sheet (yikes!) or $16 for 500 sheets, so I did the latter, and used 120 sheets for this project. They have some very good quality Canon machines out front where you can do your own thing at your own pace, which I did.

REACT is 20 pages content, which comes out to 5 sheets of paper printed double-sided, and then a cover printed single-sided. That's 6 sheets of paper (call it 4c a sheet and pay for the staples out of the excess) and 11 sides of black and white printing at 14c a side, for a total of $USD 1.78 a copy. That is somewhat cheaper, I think, than I can get from blurb which would want something in the area of $USD 3.00 for this category of product.

Throw in color and my cost climbs. A lot. Blurb wins hands down for color, because their price remains much the same.

And there you have it. Now I am going to drop these things in random coffee shops around town, because that's what I do.

For information on the content, see this companion post on the Rogue Photo publishing blog!

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Difficulty with Straight Photography

When someone paints Aphrodite, they probably get themselves a model and have her strip down, and then the paint a picture of her, and then they lard the painting up with all sorts of clues, a bunch of symbolic objects so that the educated will know that the girl in the picture is Aphrodite. The point here is that the picture is a picture of Aphrodite. The model was just a reference to be sure the painter didn't have to keep muttering "face, boobs, navel, THEN knees" to himself over and over.

Photography trying the same game has trouble because there's the model right there in the picture. It's harder to get around her to Aphrodite. Pictorialists had a bunch of ideas (a bunch of different ideas, notably, it's not just "make it all blurry") to help out with this, but in the end the Art Establishment decreed that none of these ideas really worked, and that photography really had to get back to admitting that the model is, after all, the model, and there she is.

And so we have straight photography which is, like it or not, the dominant form of photography today. Certainly there are people painting all over their photos and making collages and whatnot, but they're constantly being glared at by everyone else. If you want to be recognized, unambiguously, as a photographer without any caveats or asterisks you pretty much need to be shooting fairly straight. And that really just means that the picture is first and foremost about what was in front of the lens.

The model is present.

Virtually all photography done today just stops there. Large swathes of serious photographers have no ambition beyond rendering a pleasing account of what is in front of the lens. Billions of phone owners just snap their friends, their cars, their lunches for no reason but to show these items to other people, the purest form of representation maybe.

I am on the record as a snob, as a seeker of something more. Not to denigrate the straight representations of things, I like those too. But I believe that more is possible, and that more is what interests me.

So, what is the more? I will use, rather loosely, the word allegory. In a painting of Aphrodite, we see a kind of an allegory for the goddess of myth. The painting isn't her, but the idea of her is mashed into it someplace. When Weston rattles on about "seeing plus" what he means is that his green pepper is somehow more than a green pepper. When Cartier-Bresson goes on about the "decisive moment" he means that moment when the scene in front of him is not merely a bunch of kids playing in the street, but becomes something more.

Straight photography, being as it were "subject forward" is a bit strapped when it comes to what this notional allegory is an allegory of. Now comes perhaps the dumbest-sounding thing I have ever said, in a lifetime of saying dumb shit:

The photographer's job, therefore, is to find the moment, the point of view, in which the stuff in front of the lens manifests itself as, in some sense, an allegory of itself.

Straight photography doesn't really permit allegories of anything else because if you do that you're basically just a dirty pictorialist. At the same time Art demands an allegory, so there you are kind of boxed into a corner. You're stuck with the thing as an allegory of itself.

I think this is really what all the theorist-photographers of the 20th century were banging on about. There's a bunch of ways to say it, to approach it, and a bunch of different results. Is it allegory for my emotional response to the mountain, or is it an allegory for my Impression of the mountain? Maybe it's an allegory for the mountain-ness of the mountain! Maybe it's an allegory for the valley/pass/river/forest implied by the mountain.

Anyways, poncy as it sounds, I think it's a useful handle (for me, anyways) to grab hold of when I'm trying to make something out of something.

You can use it too!

Tulip as an allegory for Tulip.
Also, apparently I cannot stop taking
this fucking picture.

The allegory of the lineman

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The History of the Digital Transition

Mike over on ToP recently wrote what amounts to a kind of request for a History of the Digital Transition by which he means, roughly, a history of the last 20 years of photography during which photography changed over from analog film to digital sensors, more or less abruptly and completely.

I do not intend to write that history, here or anywhere else. I do intend to discuss some of the problems inherent in such a project.

Histories of Photography tend to be built around two intertwined strands. The first is technical: the tools, chemistry, and methods of photography and the evolution of them. The second thread is a variation on the Great Man approach to historiography, in which central figures are identified, biographied, and their influences traced.

The Great Man approach to history generally casts the Great Men as exceptional, and causal. The conceit is that without Napoleon, the relevant portions of European Political History would have been radically different. The opposing viewpoints assert that without Napoleon, more or less the same things would have occurred under the leadership of another man, or other men, because of social and political reasons. While one might argue about Napoleon, the situation in photography is far clearer.

Fixing the image cast in the camera obscura was a project western Europe was embarked on in the early 1800s. Without Talbot or Daguerre, almost no change. Someone else would have invented similar methods. Perhaps there would only have been one, using sheepskin, rather than two, one using paper and the other silver-plated metal sheets. Without Robinson, someone else would have risen up to thunder Ruskin's philosophies at the burgeoning photographic world. Without Emerson, someone else would have fired back from the redoubts of Impressionism. Without Stieglitz, well, ok, Stieglitz. Probably someone or several someone's would have arisen, likely in New York, to champion American Photography. And so on.

It is exquisitely clear that the technical evolution of photography was more or less inevitable, and that Great Men would crop up out of the social context to perform the specific roles that they performed.

This is not to suggest that Talbot and Daguerre and Emerson and Steichen were not influential. They assuredly were. What they were not is particularly causal. These roles had to be played, would inevitably have been played, and history quite properly records those roles, the relations between those roles, and the ways the roles influenced the progression, the history, of photography. And, while we're in there, we might as well assign the names. But make no mistake, Robinson's influence was the influence not really of Robinson, but of whomever it was that was assigned the job of translating Ruskin for photographers.

Fast forward to perhaps the 1970s, if you will. Ansel Adams is still rattling around the USA writing books, and working out his assigned role of promote straight photography, U.S.A. division and making quite a bit of money in the process. It is somewhere in here that the wheels begin to fall off the intertwined technique/great man approach to history. Technique rolls onwards, a few minor twiddles followed by the digital camera, but there are no Great Men nor even pretty ok people to carry your narrative.

Who, in the last 50 years, has really been leading the charge, telling us how we ought to photograph, what we ought to photograph, and why? Nobody? Or is it that there are too many?

Since the beginning, most photographers have been in some sense self-taught. One might learn a technique here, gather an idea there. A few went to schools, but many schools simply provided opportunities for students to teach themselves more efficiently. Few schools seem to have made any serious effort to transmit a philosophy or an aesthetic, to transmit anything of the sort art historians are in the business of documenting.

Replacing the kind of hands-on osmotic teaching that we find in schools of painting or the piano, we find instead authoritative voices thundering away in periodicals and books. Emerson's influence was not by way of teaching students, but by way of publishing opinions and ideas more or less widely read. Adams wrote any number of books on How and Why To Take Photos, which have been woefully influential, and remain so to a degree even today.

What seems to have happened in the end is a sort of fragmenting of these voices. Today we have literally thousands of people styling themselves as experts, each with some sort of following, each promoting some mixture of useful information (technical and/or aesthetic) and absolute nonsense (ditto.)

Coupled to this fragmentation of authority, we have a curious effect of technology.

In the olden days, each technology, each basket of materials and methods, produced specific looks and had specific working properties. As often as not we find Great Men expounding some particular selection of materials and methods as best suited to whatever they were selling. Adams promotes glossy silvery based paper, and a suite of chemistry, because it best suits his Precisionist tastes. Emerson promotes platinum paper and some methods, because they best suit his Impressionist theories.

In the digital era, all of these things are pressed into post-processing, and are available simultaneously through the application of suitable sliders or, worse, "presets" which you can purchase in bundles of 6,000 or 27,000 or 800 for a few dollars. The photographer, rather than selecting a collection of materials and techniques to laborious purchase and master, to accomplish one suite of looks, one kind of photography, now has access to all of them at once.

You can, as it were, switch in an instant from gum bichromate Pictorialism to glossy silver Precisionism to Cibachrome Egglestonism in the blink of an eye. There is no need to commit, you don't have to pick someone to follow. It's a mere click or two away to some other Youtube channel with 10 Fast Tricks for whatever it is that you glommed on to this morning.

We have always, really, had these ideas more or less floating around society in the minds of the masses, bashing in to one another and evolving. Ruskin's ideas about painting were there, they were going to be deployed into this new discipline of photography. From the historian's point of view, though, Robinson conveniently arose to personify, to embody, this abstraction. He can be biographied, he helpfully provided a selection of handy quotations and pictures that you can decorate that portion of the history book with, and so on.

In these modern times, and especially in the last 20 years, we have no such embodiment. The ideas are still out there, after a fashion, but they have no convenient personification.

Currently, for instance, we have a fad in portraiture for heavily processed skin, and oversharpened eyes. Many techniques exist for "skin work" one of which is "frequency separation" which has a particularly ugly look. It brings up the texture of the skin, but deletes imperfections, leaving an endless sea of glowing perfectly rendered pores, each the size of a bus. Add to this the creepy punched up eyes, and you have an archetypal look which has been quite popular of late.

Would you put this thing into your history of photography, 2016-2019? I don't know. Maybe. But if you did, how would you record it? It was not originated by any one person, it is a collection of techniques, some of which probably originated in the bowels of Adobe, some of which are probably misunderstandings of someone else's technique for doing something else. Is it commercially important? Not really. Is it a historically important style? I don't know, maybe? Certainly millions of words have been written about it, and hours of video tutorials exist on this basket of methods. It is surely more thoroughly documented than Emerson's Impressionistic methods of photography.

How do you write the contemporary history of color science? There are dozens of books, dozens of real authorities and thousands of false ones. There are, again, millions of words of misinformation and millions more words of information. There are theories and ideas. But I cannot detect any organizing principle which can be used to chop this mess down to size. You could simply review the facts of color science, I suppose, but that hardly seems a history.

In some ways I feel that we may be witnessing an end of history here, not in Fukuyama's sense but simply in the sense that the whole thing has gotten so shattered that no organizing structure is possible.

The death of the Great Man is probably a good thing, that was always bollocks, but I don't see anything else popping up to take his place.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

This Too Shall Pass

So, as most of us know, Notre-Dame de Paris had a fire which gutted the building pretty thoroughly. Actually, quite a lot of stuff was not burned up (apparently both organs are basically OK, and so on). Apparently you can drop a couple hundred tons of burning wood and lead onto that delicate vaulted ceiling and it doesn't collapse, mad props to the masons.

Predictably, there is global hand-wringing, and everyone suddenly remembers that the cathedral is the most important building in the world, and it is so sad. Humanity lionizes the recently departed, for some reason. I dare say a lot of the loudest moaners would have nodded sagely last week if you had shown them a photo of the cathedral captioned The Louvre.

We also, in these modern times, seem to be obsessed with preservation, especially of anything which smacks of Art. Buildings in the USA that are 100 years old are, to the amusement of everywhere else, added to Historic Registers and woe betide the owner, because now you can't change anything about the damned thing. You have to leave the single-glazed windows alone, and, yes, continue to heat it with increasingly difficult to obtain whale oil. Ansel Adams spawned a couple generations of photographers who obsessively wash their prints and negatives so as to ensure they will be in perfect condition when their heirs throw them into the inevitable dumpster.

The Wall Street Journal magazine recently had a fairly interesting article on the efforts the Vatican expends to maintain the Sistine Chapel in "like-new" condition. It is a constant, expensive, effort. They preserve where possible, and remake when necessary. Eventually, if this keeps up, the whole thing will have been remanufactured, brand-new as it were, but identical with the original.

Why did Ansel wash his prints so carefully? Why do we preserve these monuments in amber? Part of it is simply money. Adams wanted people to pay him large sums of money for those prints, and therefore built into his pitch that the damned thing was anyways long-lasting. Nobody wants to visit the New Sistine Chapel, they want to see the original. They want to visit the same Sistine Chapel that Doris-next-door was going on and on about.

Notre-Dame de Paris was, evidently, begun in 1160, which according to the popular press makes it 859 years old. This despite the fact that it was, maybe, a hole in the ground at the time. It was nominally completed in 1260, making it more like 759 years old (which is still very impressive). Since then it has undergone regular cycles of decrepitude due to neglect and war, followed by revitalization, all overlaid on a constant drumbeat of maintenance and modification. The most recent revitalization, spearheaded by Victor Hugo, seems to have launched the building squarely into the modern blob of amber, wherein it has resided more or less unchanged until April 15, 2019.

This place is not the Heart of France, it is not The Soul of the Earth, it is a building. It is a very well made pile of very carefully shaped rocks. Some day, it will be entirely gone. Some day, it will be forgotten. The three people injured in the fire? I begrudge Fate her bite at that apple, damn her eyes. The building? Not so much, this is simply the start of a new cycle of renewal, a new imagining of the building.

Art and indeed all the works of man are not eternal. They are made, they may have one or many lives, they pass on. If they did not, the earth would rapidly fill up with Art, so, in the end this is a good idea. Your photos do not have to last forever. Is a mayfly less wondrous and beautiful for lasting one day, rather like a photograph posted to instagram? I don't think so. If you made one picture which gave one person a single moment of sheer delight, would that not be more worthwhile than any pile of rocks in the middle of Paris? Notre-Dame's value, if any, was surely in the delight it gave to this person, or that person. Had it collapsed into rubble, well, there are other delights. We could say, perhaps, that the cathedral had done her work, yoeman's work in giving to the people joy, delight, a window into the sublime, and now she can, at last, rest.

It appears, though, that our lady of Paris will not go on to whatever peace it is that buildings find, she will be revived again, to serve another round of, well, of something. Probably it will involve many tourists and very few Parisians.

I hope they do something interesting with it. Would a glass spire be a bit too much? The gothic stonework already looks surprisingly like brutalist architecture, if you squint a bit. Maybe a bit of brushed aluminium and glass is just the thing. Of course, all Paris will hate it for a generation, but they never went to Notre Dame anyways.

We do not suffer by proxy as something wonderful is ruined. We are instead privileged to be present at the rebirth of something wonderful into something new. At any rate, we may hope for the Phoenix.