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.


  1. I had an interesting reaction to viewing Siân Davey's (whom I'd never heard of, so thanks for that) web site. The first thing that hits you is the 'Overview' section on the home page, which I paged through thinking it was some kind of photo essay, and that it's brilliant.

    Then, wanting to see more, I went through her side menu of actual photo essays, some with text intros. These felt forced to me, and far weaker than her overview, even though the Overview included several photos from each essay.

  2. I also liked the last one, the film shots that looked so nice. I don't see anything particularly hipster about them. If anything, the first three are more that, as in hipster artiste. I do like the way some film looks on larger formats. I follow Patrick Joust on Flickr, a Baltimore librarian who seems to mostly wander the streets with various medium format film cameras, taking photos (and scanning them later).