Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Remixes, Mashups, and Sampling

My lovely commenters have been poking me in the brain. Thanks!

Imagine, if you will, that in 1995 someone somehow managed to print up a dozen of Ansel Adams's rejected negatives to make a new calendar of "hitherto unseen Adams photographs." The detonation would have been epic. Adams was extremely clear on his process, and those things are not Adams photographs. The rejected negatives are merely an essential part of his artistic process, but are no more Adams Photos than his development tray or his enlarger. The fact that they can be printed makes them negatives, but not Adams Photos. I think there is rather a lot of legal machinery in place to enforce this, at present, but that is beside the point.

Plus, in 1995, Adams had an army of fans who would have exploded with fury.

Consider the written word. There is a long tradition of finishing so-and-so's unfinished novel, or unearthing rejected manuscripts and printing those, of publishing the papers of so-and-so, and so on. Recently we've seen remixes, mainly adding vampires and zombies to Jane Austen's novels. The original authors involved are invariably reliable money-makers, because absolutely nobody is going to publish this second-rate stuff otherwise. Nobody will print Aunt Susie's unfinished novel which Cousin Bill wrote an ending for.

Accordingly, these things tend to be viewed as seedy money grabs, feeding a somewhat base appetite for "content" of a sort in order to cash in.

A common thread here is that the money grubber is seen as taking something very very good, and making something that's not terribly new and not terribly good out of it. Sometimes it is popular but it is rarely good.

Contrariwise, we have have Tom Phillips working away remixing a, by all accounts not very good, novel by W.H. Mallock into sort of poetry and art. This is not, I think, seen as seedy at all, and I dare say as a money-making venture it's been a complete bust. Mallock has exactly no value at the till. What Phillips is doing is transforming something bad in to something better, or at least making a credible swing at it.

Consider, now, music. Musicians have been stealing licks from one another for the entire history of music. They improvise new versions of things. They cover songs. Now they sample and remix and mash-up. They cover things and then sample their own covers and use that to make something new. One of the most wildly sampled things ever, the Amen Break, was pulled off a B-side by a minor 1960s funk band.

In music, the conceit is, as often as not, that you're making something that is either radically new, or at least as good, as what you're lifting. Judgements will be passed if you just do the same old thing, and not as well. If you make something wildly original, you might get a pass if it's sloppy. If you make the same old same old, you damn well better be tight as hell.

This brings us around to authorship.

Is A Humument authored by Phillips or Mallock? Surely the former. There is nothing of Mallock in it, really. Is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Grahame-Smith, or Austen? The bootprints of both are visible. Copyright law surrounding music, as far as this non-lawyer can discern, seems to hew mostly to the obvious standard of "Well, does it sound like so and so's thing, and is that thing more than a few seconds long and hence valuable? If so, you have to pay so and so."

To summarize: we have a general notion that remixes, mashups, and whatnot should be either better than the source material, or very different from it, ideally both; authorship ought be assigned roughly on the basis of how recognizable the original source material is.

Authorship of photography is complicated. Photography is layered.

We have the negative, which is incontrovertibly made by the photographer. It's a physical artifact, and a complete artistic object in its own right. In that sense it resembles a song, or a novel. To remove the sense of authorship, you'd have to cut it up into tiny pieces, they way you sample a song or steal a riff.

On the other hand, we have the body of work. A negative not included in the body of work might be considered the same as a riff that didn't fit the song, a turn of phrase that was edited out. Does "It was the best of times, but it was also a bad time" belong to Dickens? Is "From hell's heart, I shout at thee" Melville? Probably not. I think you can use those phrases freely and without attribution. If you're an idiot.

Is a negative a phrase, or a novel? Is a rejected negative a poorly formed phrase, a dissonant harmony, or is it a second-rate manuscript or song? Both, and neither, I think.

Vivian Maier's negatives are certainly authored by Maier, but there is no body of work at all. Which one matters for authorship? Lange's photos, edited in all senses by Sam Contis, are from negatives authored by Lange but the body of work made from them appears in some ways to fly in the face of Lange's body of work. The book is surely Contis, the negatives just as surely Lange. Nobody, I think, would look at Sam Contis's book and recognize these pictures as distinctly Lange's. They might see a hint of Sally Mann here, and a touch of Walker Evans there, and they'd see a lot of Sam Contis, but I really doubt they'd pick up on any essential Lange-ness.

The conceit is, naturally, that what we are seeing is not recognizable as old, stale, Lange-ness, specifically because it is new, fresh, Lange-ness. I am, um, not convinced. It looks a lot like Sam Contis.

Has Sam Contis written a completely new novel from the second-rate discarded phrases from early drafts of Dickens, or has she made Moby Dick and the Seven Dwarves? Is the book better than the original source material (maybe), or wildly different (probably)? Where does authorship land (ambiguous)?

Photographers are tremendous hoarders, and quite jealous of their negatives (files). Even the trashiest reject must be saved forever and ever, unless you are Bret Weston or P.H. Emerson (or me, but just because I am careless in both senses), and even that reject is mine, mine, my precious you can't have it thief! The law lands on the side of the photographer here. This in turn suggests that one must always grant authorship to the negative-maker, always and always.

I'm not convinced that it's a great idea.

That said, it was kinda shitty that the guy who whipped out the Amen Break died in poverty, so it's possible music's standard of authorship isn't great either.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Day Sleeper Sam Contis, a few Notes

This is not a review. I have not seen the book, and continue to be not terribly interested in it, although if opportunity arises to leaf through a copy I might do that.

To set the stage: Day Sleeper is a collection of photographs by Dorothea Lange, selected, cropped, and sequenced into a book by Sam Contis, the book then published by MACK. Sam Contis and Dorothea Lange appear to be listed as co-authors on the MACK site. This book has received brief notice in the Wall Street Journal (essentially a recitation of the press release) and reviews from ASX and Colberg, and presumably others. It is, to an extent, the "it" book of the moment.

I'm going to, here, provide a random smattering of details and facts, and draw some connections. I do not really intend to propose any of the connections as causal per se but I think they are of some interest regardless.

You can find a preview glance of the book on the MACK site here: Day Sleeper (click on the book cover).

Among the photos shown there is one of an dead eagle crucified on a barbed wire fence.

There is here some slight interest. This is not one of the "unearthed" photos "never before seen" that the press release goes on about. It is an FSA photo, shot in 1936, likely on Highway 99 somewhere around Fresno as Lange worked her way up from Exeter to Merced shooting migrant workers in picking season. It is a striking and uncharacteristic photo. Lange simply didn't shoot this kind of thing for the FSA.

One might speculate that it was unusual enough a sight to catch her eye, cause her to pull over, and to record it.

The eagle might have been hung to deter birds, either other eagles or perhaps birds that fear eagles, but to deter them from what I cannot imagine. The field behind appears to be pasture and while an eagle might harass your sheep you wouldn't, by preference, fence sheep with barbed wire. The foreground I think is likely just the ditch beside the highway. Possibly it's just a trophy, or a macabre sense of humor. Anyways, it caught Lange's attention.

The caption describes it as "A very blue eagle" which is probably a joke. Obviously, one can construe the eagle as very sad. Possibly it is a reference to the blue eagle logo of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) which administered parts of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). This was a very pro-union but problematic set of legal machinery intended to repair the economy. This was quite popular, but was overturned in May of 1935, about a year before Lange photographed this eagle.

It is possible that Lange photographed the eagle as a kind of commentary. She was, after all, working literally daily with the people this agency and law were supposed to help, and was at the time working for a sister agency. One could argue, I suppose, that the NRA was the industrial/urban counterpart of the RA (FSA-precursor) that employed Lange.

It's a stretch, but it does provide, after a fashion, something of an explanation for this weird photo Lange took. It is also possible that whoever hung the eagle might have intended it as a protest against the overturning of the NIRA.


This is not the first time in the modern era that Lange's blue eagle has turned up. It was also the cover of a 2018 album, Furore, by an Italian guitarist named Simone Massaron. Hold on to that date.

Sam Contis did a book in 2017 with MACK, of her own work and some archival material, called Deep Springs which is about Deep Springs College which is one of these tiny weird places where you work at some back to the land shit to build character while studying some no doubt absurdly out of date curriculum. Contis was photographing just prior to the college starting to actually admit women, I think, while it was in the throes of ditching its all-male status.

You can watch someone leaf through the book in this video, I recommend clicking the little gear-shaped tool and selecting a slowed-down playback speed. 0.5 or 0.25. Note the obsession with abstracted bodies, with hands, with people lying down apparently asleep.

Note the dead eagle, held in a crucified position, at time mark 0:50.

If you have not already, I suggest that you look through the preview of Day Sleeper on the MACK site.

I might glibly say that Day Sleeper and Deep Springs are the same book, but that would be unfair. They share a lot. Not just MACK's random approach to picture placement, either. There are hands, there are day sleepers, there is landscape, there are abstracted bodies, and there is a crucified eagle in both books.

Recall now the dates:

2017 - Deep Springs
2018 - Furore
2019 - Day Sleeper

Is it a stretch to suggest that Contis made the first book, then saw the album cover, recognized the eagle, and went looking for Lange's pictures? Yes. Is it possible? Yep, the timeline works just fine, and there's absolutely no way Contis doesn't connect the two eagles. The only real speculation here is whether the music album provides a link.


Flipping through the photos easily accessible from the two books we see, pretty clearly I think, that Day Sleeper is made up of Sam Contis photos that happen to have been shot by Dorothea Lange. There was some careful selection, some cropping, and some printing/post involved to execute the transformation, but that's what it is.

The standard critical conceit has been, and no doubt will continue to be, that Contis is shedding new light on Lange here, that we are re-discovering Lange, blah blah blah.

This is bullshit. What we are seeing here is a recapitulation of the Vivian Maier story.

We know what Dorothea Lange was about, she made her statement. She selected this negative and not that one. She printed this, and not that. There is no mystery to Lange as an artist. There is also, of course, a good sized slush pile. The Oakland Archive, which Contis mined, contains 25,000 negatives and it is perhaps notable than even with 25,000 pictures she could not assemble the book she wanted without also dipping into the FSA archives.

What Sam Contis appears to have done here is to construct a simulation of Sam Contis out of materials from Lange, in much the same way that Maloof constructed a sort of Frankenstein's monster sewn together from parts of other photographers out of Maier's materials.

This is an interesting phenomenon, and I dare say as more and more photographers give up taking pictures to "work with archives" we'll see more and more of this kind construct lumbering around. I'm not necessarily opposed to it, but I think we need better language to describe this process. Contis (and Maloof) have constructed genuinely new things, things which should not really be ascribed to the original photographer but which cannot justifiably be fully claimed by the editor.

It is, obviously, possible to construct a whole bunch of different "artistic entities" given an archive of negatives. What should we call these things, and how should we talk about them?

Monday, February 17, 2020

Something to look at

Here's a picture to look at. had something to say about it, which I will read later. I have some guesses, but ultimately I don't care.

Read it. Predictably, it's a recitation of their political stance with only the vaguest reference to the pictures, and a merry round of imputation of motives to the people in the pictures which is exactly the kind of thing that stands beyond the boundaries of what a photograph can tell you.

If you know what the picture is of, your reaction will be almost certainly almost 100% dictated by your politics, so let us try to set that aside and instead see what there is to be seen.

We see an armed figure, in front of a more or less grand hall. The room behind the figure looks official, fancy, governmental. The flag indicates the USA. Behind the figure there is a sign indicating NO ACCESS. The figure occupies the approximate position and attitude of a guard, although one would expect a cheap polyester uniform and, at most, a sidearm on a guard located there, not this quasi-military figure.

The figure himself is not military. No insignia, and the "uniform" is honestly not that well put together, stylistically. The mask suggests a, um, looser organization.

The angle is quite low, and the lens is wide. We're fairly close to the figure, the photographer was at some pains to make him "loom" in a slightly authoritative way. The frame feels tilted, although it is not, creating maybe a sense of dynamism in an otherwise static tableau. As a side note, the apparent vanishing point of the architectural features of the room more or less exactly balances the armed figure in the frame. Arnheim's chapter on "Space" in paintings, which I just read, has a lot to say on these things.

This sort of visual suggests either an invader guarding a seized property, or a defender protecting against such invaders who are presumably imminent (otherwise we'd see a rent-a-cop not this guy). The character of the figure's dress and arms speaks of an emergency, or dire circumstance, but we're free to interpret the role of the man as defender or invader. To my inexpert eye, he appears to be handling his weapon in a safe and responsible manner (muzzle to the floor, trigger finger lying alongside the guard.)

This might be considered to reference movie and video game posters. It takes no time at all to dig up this promo for a popular war game:

which picture has the same ambiguity. Is this a good guy or a bad guy? Note that unlike the guy above, this rendered figure is handling his weapon like a moron.

This poster styling was created entirely by the photographer. This is, ultimately, just some mook with a gun standing there. He could have been photographed in a dozen different ways, and the photographer chose this one. We might, tentatively, suspect that the photographer was going for some commentary on the ultimately theatrical nature of what's going on here. But then, real wars are generally given to us as theatrical entertainments too, aren't they? Where is the line?

This guy is, it turns out, one of a group of gun-rights advocates who spent some time wandering around the Capitol building of Kentucky's legislature. He and the people on his side of the political spectrum certainly view themselves as the good guys, defending the rights of American Citizens. And, to be fair, that is exactly what he is doing. Under contemporary interpretations, these are rights held by American Citizens, and public exercise of existing rights is a long-standing and well-recognized method for defending rights. What these guys are up to has a lot in common with walking a path annually to assert and maintain an existing right-of-way.

Obviously there is an opposing view, one which I hold, which is that these rights are stupid and ought to be reduced. We see this fellow as an invader, defending a seized property (the legislature of Kentucky in this case) and would prefer to see him ejected. This is, shall we say, an ongoing debate in the USA.

Notable among the things we cannot see is any real estimate of the man's character. We cannot tell if he is a hero, a coward, a racist, or just someone's son bullied in to showing up here and feeling like an idiot. We can, at best, tentatively assign him to a political movement, and then recall things we have read about beliefs generally held by members of that movement.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Signs and Portents

If you spend much time with contemporary photography books, of the Serious Art variety, you will start to notice repeated tropes. Let us take for our example the suburban landscape, which indicates modern life is hell, but we lie to ourselves about it. There are other tropes which you can go locate yourself if you like. This one references "Edward Scissorhands", "Stepford Wives" and a jillion other movies. It references, maybe, New Topographics, and probably loads of other stuff.

The point is that the photo of suburban landscape is as much a citation of other sources as it is anything else. Frequently, it seems to be little more than a citation.

These things might be blended with some other stuff, indicating which bits of modern life are hell. In American Origami Gonzales mixes his suburban snaps with pictures of teddy bears and testimony about school shootings. Here it is, he says, the hell that lies behind the facade. Kleinstadt has some other ideas, and so on.

These things form a sort of simple language, not unlike words. The signifier (the picture) is dragged out, the signified (life is hell) is duly indicated, just as the word "dog" indicates the four legged nose-transportation system.

This makes life a lot easier for an MFA student, to be sure. Whether there is an actual vocabulary lesson somewhere in the curriculum or not, it is pretty obvious that they are absorbing this vocabulary. It's just a couple dozen grunts without any noticeable grammar, so it's not too hard to pick up. Lucy Soutter's piece Should I do a Photography MA makes this pretty clear. The point of an MA (MFA) is to learn to make work that refers to the work of other Serious (i.e. MFA-holding) Artists, and the obvious way to do this is to a) have and to b) deploy a fairly detailed visual language.

Indeed, I think that in this kind of incestuous hothouse environment a language will almost certainly arise. The whole point is, arguably, to devise a kind of visual slang that only the insiders really understand (although, to be honest, it's not very hard to work out most of it from the outside.)

Contrast this with reality.

In some ways, the real world has language-like properties. The tracks of the raccoon in the mud signify the recent presence of the trash panda, just as surely as the word "dog" signifies the furry nose-transporter, and as surely as the suburban landscape signifies hell on earth. And yet, there also certainly a difference of character here. If nothing else, the signifier of the footprint has infinite depth. You might notice that the raccoon is missing a toe, you might follow the path and guess about intent. The footprint is rooted in reality, it literally rests here in the real world and as such is inextricably entangled with an infinitude of detail.

People talk about "the language of the forest" or whatever, and in some ways they are not wrong. In other, important, ways, it's completely idiotic to talk like that.

The word is a simplification, an abstraction, intended to carry a specific cloud of meaning. Post-modernists will tell you, not incorrectly, that it derives its meaning mostly from the other words around it. Meaning is drawn in through tendrils spreading out through the abstract universe of language and of thought.

The footprint derives its meaning mostly from the other physical details around it. Meaning is drawn in from the actual universe of real things.

The photograph, to my mind, naturally occupies a middle ground here. It is itself rooted in reality, albeit not as firmly as the raccoon's footprint. The sometimes almost infinite detail of the frame contextualizes the subject in a way, to a degree and depth, that mere words cannot.

We can make a photograph that evokes, that signifies in the same way the raccoon's footprint can, it signifies by reference not to the other signs that surround it, but by reference to the real world.

I think one could make the argument that Barthes and his stupid punctum idea are essentially aimed at this. The punctum supposedly reifies the photograph, binds it emotionally to the real world, wherein, then, it gathers its meaning. Without punctum, Barthes claims, the photo is naught but studium, it is nothing but coded meaning. Its meaning derives from the symbols we connect to it rather than from the real world it is drawn from. Perhaps either Barthes or I am taking this a bit too far, I am on the record as stating that I think punctum doesn't exist.

The photograph ought to, I think, reach into the real world to find its meaning. The power of the photograph lies specifically in how lightly it mediates, how minimally it separates us from reality and how little it allows the artist to impose a system of abstract signs onto the picture. The point of the photograph is that the photographer discovered meaning in the world, they spotted the raccoon's footprint, they chose to reveal it to us not as a metaphor for something but rather as the actual trace of the animal itself.

I think that photographs which are built on reality, especially rather than a sort of callow language devised in Art Schools, are better photographs. Or, at any rate, more inherently photographic.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

On Critical Writing: A Poem

Feral packs of prepositional phrases roam
modifying the weak and the young

Adrift, verbs activate anything too slow to escape

Pull quotes blunder through the text
like particularly stupid elephants
quoting random scraps of drivel
it doesn't matter

A rectangular word-blob hangs feckless on the page
meaning nothing
smelling vaguely of stale knock-off erudition

The whole corpulent edifice trembles
slurring as it were through thick drunken lips

"I read a lot but nothing really
  but I learned to write this way from my peers
  endless winding phrases turgid with semiotic weight
  never realized
  with a period dropped in whenever I remember to do that
  and then I remind myself
  to capitalize
  The next word."

This poem is available as a limited edition Ultraprint

Monday, February 10, 2020


American Suburb X is a weird mixture of stuff. On the one hand, it's an "archive" which is a nice way of saying "it's a big pile of plagiarized material" which material is often pretty good. There's also contemporary content, there are people writing reviews and things for it, and some of those things are ok.

And then there's Brad. Brad Feuerhelm. Is he a robot, an industry in-joke I don't get? Or is he a real person? If real, is he some lunatic living in a cabin in the woods with 200 cats and a half tonne of meth? Or is he actually a real industry person that people take seriously? The last is what appears to be the case, but I am starting to question it. He's written most recently on something something Dorothea Lange. I honestly didn't get past the first paragraph, but he seems to be talking, as everyone else is, about "recently unearthed works" by Lange. I don't really care. Lange is fine, but dredging through people's castoffs is not a particularly interesting passtime.

Here's the first paragraph, though. Three sentences. I'm pretty sure that what he's trying to say here is when we look at pictures taken some time ago, we see them in new ways. Let us take a few minutes to mock the idiotic word salad he has produced instead.

History generally presents itself to the future in visual terms that signify the distance between the two points of time from its creation and its re-purposing and its re-examination. The fallacy in photographic terms of historical representation and its distribution of intent are intertwined between reason and audience over the passing of linear and political time. Time and the changes that govern its passing, in ideological order or other affect the way in which we unpack or re-evaluate the historical image.

Let's take a shot at making sense of this shit. First sentence:

History generally presents itself to the future in visual terms that signify the distance between the two points of time from its creation and its re-purposing and its re-examination.

Dropping some adverbs and adjectives, just try to get a handle on the subject/verb/object business, I think the sentence comes out as:

History presents itself to the future in terms that signify the distance between two points of time.

Obviously History does not actually present itself so we ought to read this idiomatically, in the sense that we, in the future, do or will see history, do or will understand history, in this way. What way?

Backing up we see this phrase: in visual terms. Does this mean that we understand history in visual terms? Or does it mean that, while we understand history in many ways, the visual terms are the ones Brad would like to discuss? It's anybody's guess! He's made such a hash out of his lede that you can't tell! Whichever it is, the visual terms are the ones we're apparently interested in

Whatever the status of the visual terms on which, through which, we understand history in the future, those terms apparently signify something. What?

the distance between the two points of time from its creation and its re-purposing and its re-examination.

To be honest, it's not clear that its even has an antecedent here, but the only candidate in play is History so let us proceed on that basis. History's creation I guess is... when the stuff happened? And the other point in time is when History gets re-purposed and re-examined.

Ok, so guess we can assume that some history is re-examined or re-purposed some time after it happens? But isn't that kind of.. always? I'm pretty sure Brad means now here, or, whatever time we look at pictures from the past and attempt to make sense of them. The gap he is lugubriously laboring toward is, likely, the gap between then and now.

So the claim is that, the visual terms on which we understand history somehow signify that gap, that interval between then and now? Or whatever the interval Brad means is?

This is just gibberish. It sounds erudite and so on, but when you actually attempt to force the sentence to mean something, it simply falls apart into meaningless garbage.

Onwards. Sentence #2, my favorite sentence:

The fallacy in photographic terms of historical representation and its distribution of intent are intertwined between reason and audience over the passing of linear and political time.

Again, let us start be clearing the modifiers away to get to the skeleton of the sentence. The verb is are intertwined which is plural, but the subject appears to simply be a fallacy, which is singular. It's possible we're looking at a grammatical error, and the sentence parses as:

The fallacy are intertwined between reason and audience.

Or possibly the fallacy and the distribution are together the subject:

The fallacy and its distribution of intent are intertwined between reason and audience.

I guess the latter might be the idea here? So the fallacy of historical representation, and the distribution of its intent (I have no idea what the antecedent of its is here, it could be goddamn near anything — fallacy, distribution, and representation are all in play) are two things, which are intertwined between two other things. Is this some sort of net suspended between reason and audience? This visual makes no sense.

Apparently this happens over the passing of time, but not merely time, two different kinds of time. The linear, and the political.

Ok, so, pretty sure this one is just gibberish too. Again, any kind of examination of what it actually means causes it to collapse sobbing in a pile of ambiguous antecedents and verbs in vain search of a subject. Even after you shotgun-marry pronouns to antecedents and verbs to subjects, it still comes out as something are intertwined between something (else?) over the passing of time which doesn't actually mean anything. Does one even intertwine between things?

Sentence three, the home stretch:

Time and the changes that govern its passing, in ideological order or other affect the way in which we unpack or re-evaluate the historical image.

Crush it:

Time and changes affect the way we unpack or re-valuate the image.

We could be looking at a singular subject and a plural verb, yielding Time affect the way we unpack etc but let us generously assume the Brad has matched his plural verb with a plural subject. Don't worry, it doesn't help to assume the other way around (try it if you like!)

I have no idea what the changes that govern its (Time's?) passing might even be. Doesn't time just kind of... go? Without a lot of governance? What on earth is supposed to be in ideological order or other I have no idea. The changes are possible, but also this prepositional phrase could be modifying the governence itself. Either the changes are in order, or the the way the changes govern the passing of time take place under the aegis of ideological order (or other). There's no way to know.

This one, while grammatically a mess, does seem to be desperately trying to convey meaning, to wit, Time changes the way we interpret pictures.

So, 2.5 for 3. Way to go, Brad.

And now you know why I didn't make it past the first paragraph.

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Telling Photo

When I am presented with a photo, or maybe a little group of photos in a book, portfolio, or show, I assume that these pictures have been selected from a larger collection of pictures, that they have been singled out as special somehow.

There are endless reasons one might select this photo over that. Perhaps this one reveals something. Perhaps it simply goes better with that other photo. Perhaps it is of a unique occurrence, or perhaps it most clearly illustrates a common occurrence. And on, and on. It does not much matter what the rationale is for selecting this photo, or these 30 photos, out of the larger mass.

Indeed, there need not even be a rationale. There are probably reasons for showing me 27 pictures selected at random. The point is that I will not, as a base assumption, assume that this is what you're up to. I will assume, absent other information, that photos you show me are special, that they are for some reason telling photographs.

Further, my assumption is that your rationale should be in some sense clear. A rationale that cannot be discerned is the same, to me, as no rationale at all.

That is, when you show me a photo or a group of 32 photos, or a book, I am justified, I think, in attempting to work out what binds these pictures together, what reason you had for selecting these over others. This may seem obvious, even blockheaded, but I want to be very very clear here: the rationale under which you selected these pictures is, to my way of thinking, pretty much the point. These photos are, I imagine, telling photos, and it is my job to work out why. The thing you are trying to tell me, the experience you want me to have, is, in my mind, inextricably bound up in the whatever-it-is that makes these photos more special, and that makes the ones you edited out less special.

Obviously, I could point to any number of MFA photo books which serve as examples of not doing this. The seemingly random collection of photographs of nothing at all is more or less the bread and butter of the Art Making class.

Let us instead examine the work of Street Photographers, Simon King's Instagram to be precise. He uses the same set of graphical/visual tropes everyone else in the genre uses. The Intimate Moment, the Amusing Juxtaposition, The Tiny Silhouette, and of course the every popular What The Fuck. Sometimes he rolls out The Interesting Face.

All of these have the general scent of the Telling Photo, but they are not. They in fact perfectly ordinary snaps which reveal nothing special, are of nothing special. They are Untelling Photos which, having been rendered in high contrast black and white, and having a certain strongly graphical quality, signal that they are Telling Photos.

Consider this photo (mine, copying the trope,) a standard issue Tiny Silhouette:

It feels portentous, potent, as if it ought to be a metaphor for something, or whatever. Indeed, paired with the right surrounding material, I might accept it as a metaphor for man's inherent solitude or whatever. By itself, it is portent without content. It's just a person walking down an alley. Compare with this:

This is just a guy sitting with one girl, looking at another girl. It's my fake Winogrand, which long-time readers are probably thoroughly sick of. This is, I argue, a telling photograph because it reveals particularly well a specific, common, social moment. When a pretty girl walks in to a coffee shop, men look at her. This is common, but in this era it is a slightly fraught social moment, and this photograph does a particularly good job of summarizing it.

Most people with a cultural background remotely similar to mine will recognize it in a moment, and cringe slightly.

People walking down alleys is just as common, but it is not an interesting social phenomenon, and my photograph does not do a particularly thrilling job of explicating it, anyways. There is no reaction to a person walking down an alley, it is an action which carries little or no weight.

The alley photo, my Tiny Silhouette, is vastly stronger as a graphical object but isn't in any meaningful way a telling photo. I can bang them out all day, and so can Simon King, and nothing will ever be revealed by them.

Is it OK to just go shoot masses of graphically strong photographs signifying nothing?

Of course it is, do what you will. When, however, you put these things up on instagram, or put them in a book, or on a wall, I am going to look for something more than graphical strength.

King, and other Senior Street Photographers, spend a remarkable amount of time writing sort of thin think-pieces in which they say, essentially, that their graphically strong photographs are actually really great, because they are made by storytellers. King is a storyteller. What stories he tells, I am unsure, beyond well, that appears to be yet another picture of a human being, and humans usually have some sort of story?

In the same way, the MFA photobook can generally be viewed as a bunch of nothing photographs which reveal nothing, together with a collection of "texts" and design tics which attempt to explain why these nothing pictures are in fact something.

Indeed, there are days when the vast majority of the grand enterprise of photography seems to spend far more effort on explaining why meaningless pictures are actually great pictures than it spends on trying to make pictures or bodies of work that actually mean something.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

More LED Lighting Madness

I expended a little more effort on half-assed LED based lighting.

It turns out that you can buy some completely crazy light bulbs these days. Over about 4000 lumens (roughly a "300W equivalent" bulb) you start to get in to commercial lighting, so, suitable for factory floors and so on. The bulb bases begin to get weird. Still, at 3900 lumens I was able to buy a thing that fits a standard light bulb socket. Look at this glorious thing. It's got a bunch of LEDs on the end, but also these five crazy adjustable arms of light.

At $65 we're edging firmly toward oh for god's sake, just go buy actual photo gear territory, and indeed the next step up in light volume would probably be a Godox LED system. For $134 you can buy the baby Godox, which pumps out a bit more light that this thing, and which does not require the additional fixture to plug the bulb in and attach to a light stand, plus it's dimmable, etc etc. Godox goes up from there, um, quite a ways. The big one ($359) bangs out a godzilla-like 20,000 lumens which is probably dangerous to look at.

Jammed into a silver umbrella, without any further modifiers, it enables shooting at around 1/50th, f/4, ISO 400. So, perfectly doable even for my antique camera, and eminently usable even with a little modifier action if you have a fancy modern camera. You can't freeze motion, and you can't overpower the sun, but for almost all purposes a little bitty 3900 lumen light bulb will do just fine.

It me.


Check out the completely crazy catchlights, though! This could be someone's signature style!

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

What DO People Like?

Having proposed that people (especially, perhaps, photographers) don't much like photographs I am now boxed into a corner. Manifestly people do go look at photographs in particular and Art in general. So I thought about that.

I suppose there are endless reasons, really, that a person might go and look at some Art, but here are four things I think might be at least representative. They probably blend seamlessly in to one another, if you squint, but I'm going to write them down separately.

First, people are interested in subject matter. Famously, people mostly like pictures of themselves. Perhaps you really like water lilies, or Paris. You derive enjoyment from pictures that depict those things.

Second, people are interested in artists. Perhaps you think Monet was quite the fellow, or you would like to know more about him. So, off you go to look at the Monet show. Some people might think Sally Mann is pretty good and travel across the country to see her pictures. Hypothetically.

Third, there are social reasons. Probably the reason you're interested in Monet, and own some Monet prints, is that you've developed the idea that you're the kind of person who likes Monet. And you are correct! Your Monet print over the fireplace identifies you as the kind of person you are, to all who enter your abode! You and your social circle all went to see the Monet, and you can talk about that.

Fourth, and least, you're looking for an Art-like experience. You seek that ineffable sense of growth, of expansion, of somehow understanding something you did not before. You seek to be enriched.

I believe that most of our interactions with Art are driven by the first and the third. We put up photographs of our family, because we love them. Younger people put up posters of fast cars, unicorns, or beautiful people because of a kind of aspirational interest in those subjects. We put up reproductions of Monet, or Cartier-Bresson, as social signaling because we imagine ourselves the kind of person who likes those things, and indeed we are. But, we like those things largely because we are the kind of person who likes them, not because of the intrinsic qualities of the Art we're sticking on the wall.

When we go to the museum to look at some Art, we are going largely because we are the kind of person who goes to the museum to see that kind of Art.

At the same time, we live with a kind of fiction that we love the Art for the sake of Art, for essentially that fourth reason. Photographers of several stripes struggle with composition, with form, presumably because they imagine this will make their work Art-like. We talk around why we like Cartier-Bresson yes, yes, the decisive moment don't you know or Monet the brushwork, don't you know, the brushwork without ever really getting to the point.

We avoid saying stupid things like you know, the thing about the Impressionists is that it doesn't feel like there's anywhere to stand in the picture [*] which would reveal that we've actually looked at the damned thing and formed an idea. I don't know if people mainly don't look at the things, or if they keep their ideas to themselves, but either way something of the Art-like experience we are allegedly seeking is missing, in favor of either silence or mumbling about brushwork.

We pretend, to one degree or another, that our interactions with Art are driven by Art, by the intrinsic qualities of the Art, but in reality we are rather more driven by subject matter and the social connotations that surround the Art. This is, of course, weaponized by the Serious Art Industry, which may be considered to do very little other than build social constructs in which to embed more or less randomly chosen pieces of Art.

Onwards to books.

Books are, more or less obviously, about subject matter and to a lesser extent social signaling. Nobody sticks a bunch of Sartre or Joyce on the shelf because they enjoy reading it, they buy it because they're the kind of person who has an interest in but does not read Sartre and Joyce. We buy books of science fiction, or art history, or the latest Malcolm Gladwell because we're interested in the subject matter.

And so with visual books. I believe QT Luong has sold quite a few books of photographs of the US National Park system, Treasured Lands, and I believe those sales are largely driven by the fact that he has a clear and popular subject. I dare say he's made a lot of extraordinarily beautiful photographs as well. It's a whole package, that begins with something people are interested in.

In addition, of course, this book sitting on your coffee table signals to your guests what kind of person you are. It signals the same to you, providing you with a little taste of virtue every time you see it.

As for the Art-like experience... well, I dare say that's in there too, right? I mean, sublime landscapes and all that. Staggering beauty and I did not know... wow! But that, while absolutely real and a part of the whole package, is the chaser not the shot.

Those of us who aspire to Serious Art, though, might well try to avoid the subject driven work. Why, I am not sure. But whatever the impulse that drove the abstract artists seems to simply arise: no damn it I simply refuse to paint another hot girl, it's all blotches of color from now on, success be damned.

The things I have made that have been best received have had subjects which, in the end, proved interesting to the reader. My most successful project to date seems to have successfully made people feel a genuine interest in the alley that lies behind my house, or at least in the idea of alleys in general.

The trouble with the purely Art-like experience is that it requires work. If you're going to go look at the Monet, or the Mann, and experience that sensation of enlargement, you can't just stand there like an ox and await enlightenment. You've got to think about both the work, and yourself. You have to, as the therapists suggest, "check in" with yourself to find any reaction you might have, and then return to the work to see what's in it, and so on.

Having spent a fair bit of time at this, I have to say that it does not endear you to museum patrons. You're supposed to flow, damn it, flow. It looks for all the world like you are standing there like an ox. An ox who is in the way. An ox who is not flowing. You, of course, are frustrated because people keep flowing between you and whatever it is you're trying to find your response to. Best is very unpopular shows, or if you can contrive to break in after hours, but these solutions have their own problems.

It is easier with books, because nobody's flowing around you and we have an expectation of getting something intellectual or emotional from a book, rather than simply a brief visual impression. Still, the book has its own demands. It wants you to turn the page, but sometimes you have to resist that.

In the end the whole thing is rather exhausting. Spending, let's say, an hour focusing on someone's little body of work is hard work.

I don't think most people can do it. My experience of museums is that almost nobody is taking the time, everyone is flowing. They want to check off the Monet and get on to lunch. Like any critic worthy of the name, they've made up their mind beforehand anyways, so it only remains to quickly whisk through and then on to re-heated quiche and maybe a terrible off-dry white.

While there doesn't seem to be any sort of conclusion here, I suppose one might imagine that some sort of balance is desirable; of subject matter/social signaling, balanced against Art-like experiences, might be rather the thing? Something to draw them in, and then a reward for the attentive? Or perhaps the lesson really is that the only two possibilities are populism and obscurity? Pick one!

[*] My reaction to the Impressionists general is basically that with a Manet or whatever, one feels one could step through the frame and be somewhere, but with the Impressionists one cannot. There is a world over there through the frame, but unlike a Corot, a Millet, a da Vinci, one doesn't feel there's anywhere to stand in a Monet or a Cézanne.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Photographers and Photographs

Let me tell you a tale. A sad tale.

Michael Reichmann, as most of you reading this will know, was a respected and well-liked photographer who founded a successful web site which was genuinely helpful to many photographers in the early years of digital photography. I didn't like Michael, but that is irrelevant to our story. Michael was the sort of notional leader of a community of 100s, maybe 1000s, of well heeled photographers. They were his friends, his clients. He led workshops, he plugged gear, he was tuned in to the spending of 10s, maybe 100s, of millions of dollars on equipment, workshops, photo tours, books, videos, and so on.

Toward the end of his life, Michael, perhaps feeling the clammy hand of his mortality, made a bold try to create a Legacy. He started the Luminous Endowmnent, which made grants to photographers to pursue their work. He made a book, a 20-year retrospective of his work; the work that his community so vocally admired. The book was expensive, but huge. Even at $500 for a signed copy, it wasn't an absurdly overpriced monograph. 100s of pages, 10 pounds, of book. Proceeds would go to the Endowment. Win-win, right?

He didn't sell them. I mean, he sold a bunch. Almost half of the signed edition of 500 copies. Probably several hundred more of the unsigned copies. I don't know how many he printed, but the Form 990s from the Luminous Endowment do not seem to support sales of more that about 1000 copes all told. The remainder, about 1100 copies, has I believe gone to the shredders as I write this.

Michael spent probably something on the order for $100,000 of his own money, hoping the book would act as a force multiplier, seeding his endowment with something like a million dollars. It didn't. The endowment folded up after a while, having failed, evidently, to achieve the critical mass of money necessary to be self-sustaining.

Michael's community, ultimately, betrayed him. $50M for cameras, diddly-squat for our "revered friend" and his legacy. If I sound angry, it's because I am. Michael is gone, his endowment is gone, and now his books are gone.

But what, ultimately, is the lesson here? Why were these self-same people happy to drop $10,000 on a workshop/tour to go hang out with Michael, but not $500 (or even $80) on a book? A book of photographs which I genuinely believe they admired? The price of a modest luxury car for a camera outfit, nothing for a book?

In the end, I think the answer is that photographers don't like photographs any more than regular people, which is to say, they generally don't like photographs much. Photographers want to take photographs, they don't want to look at them. I have a notion that a photographer may even be less likely to want to look at a photograph than a non-photographer, but perhaps I am giving the general public too much credit here.

Critics also don't seem to be much interested in photographs. They not infrequently make howlers, or simply admit that they can't be bother to look at the pictures, and even otherwise they seem as likely to completely miss the point as not. Critics want to bloviate, in the same way that photographers want to take pictures. The point is the output, not the input.

Communities of people that would seem on the face of it to be naturally interested in looking at photographs are typically not. There are photographers who like photographs, to be sure, but not every photographer is and I dare say something less than most photographers actually like photographs.

This is why "social" photography tends to go nowhere. When you get a bunch of photographers together, it turns in to a bunch of arguing about gear, and/or a bunch of photographers milling around trying to get the other photographers to look at their pictures while simultaneously fending off portfolios being thrust in their faces.

Photo sharing web sites are places where you put your work up to be admired, not places where you go to look at photographs. The Like button doesn't mean I Like Your Picture it means hi, I would Like you to come look at my pictures. The point is the output, not the input.

The success of photographic social things seems to be inversely proportional to the seriousness of the photography. As long as they measure by uploads, of course, all is well. Flickr had tremendous traction, because every would-be photographer thought this was a great way to be seen. Unfortunately, nobody was interested in doing any actual seeing. As soon as you try to measure by anything meaningful, the wheels fall off, because the street is mostly one way in the wrong direction.

Instagram, widely decried for being positively infested with people who don't take photography seriously, is the only real success story. It is successful precisely because it is infested with non-photographers. It has people who actually want to look at pictures. Not seriously, mind you, they want to just flip, flip, flip, and mainly they're looking for hot girls, celebrities, or themselves, but still. They actually want to look at photos.

The takeaway here is, perhaps, if you're interested in people actually looking at your work, stop hanging around with photographers. They don't want to look at your work, except as a quid pro quo or, sometimes, to borrow ideas from.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Lloyd Chambers

Lloyd is the guy who does the super technical gear reviews. Mostly behind a paywall. Which has pretty much characterized him for me as someone I don't much care about. The general consensus always seemed to be that Lloyd's work was really solid and that if lens resolution was your jam, Lloyd was your man.

Fair enough.

Today I clicked around to something something somehow and I wound up on some page of Lloyd's pertaining to his new Sprinter van.

The Sprinter is the official vehicle of the hipster dillweed. It's a medium duty truck, made by Mercedes-Benz, intended for commercial use. It's a big-ass delivery van. Hipsters are having them fitted out as RVs for some incomprehensible reason, and then going camping in them. Lloyd seems to have been bitten by this particular bug. I guess they make an OK platform for an RV? Pretty sure Mercedes sells them with a blog and a 'gram, though.

Ok, whatever.

Check this out: Mercedes Sprinter Issues. It's somewhere in Lloyd's maze of interlocking web sites in which he rambles on about his expertise in Photography, Computers, Biking, and now Sprinter vans. He's like Thom Hogan, with a whole shitton of domains, each for hosting a slightly different brand of bloviation, and all linking together to artificially jack the ol' SEO.

What I loved about this page was the combination of the content ("my van is doing a weird thing and I have no idea what the hell is going on") with the advert for his new consulting service. Yep, Lloyd will now consult at his usual rates ($280 for the first hour, $200 an hour after that) about Sprinter vans, a topic which he manifestly knows nothing whatever about.

If you poke around he's got all kinds of mumbo-jumbo about how Mercedes is making terrible recommendations in its manual and this fuel good, that one bad, the usual maze of semi-mystical shit that some credulous goober who's spent a year on some internet forums acquires.

Lloyd has clearly decided that he's an expert on anything that he touches, even for a moment, because of his tremendous smartness. I mean, I'm right there with ya, Lloyd, but I'm not quite arrogant enough to charge consulting rates for my pearls of wisdom on random shit I know nothing about. Also, I think I might be slightly more aware of the limits of my knowledge.

Anyways, maybe he's joking about the consulting? I dunno. I'm not buying any of his services, so what do I care.

Friday, January 31, 2020


A common thread in the processes of Serious Photographers is a thing they call Research. This consists, I think, of a bunch of different things, but a big one is to go somewhere and photograph some stuff. Which, you know, makes sense. Photographing stuff is what photographers do.

Research, n., the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

Research, the verb, thus means to gather knowledge up in one of a bunch of ways, and synthesize from that knowledge new knowledge. You might sit quietly with a pencil and a pad of paper doing mathematics for a few thousand hours. You might read books, and then sit quietly, to see if any new insights arrive. You might mix up smelly chemicals, record the results, and then attempt to interpret what you saw in the test tubes or on the displays of your instruments.

Research can also be a little less dramatic, it may simply be to discover for yourself things already known. One might read the encyclopedia entry on Myanmar and thereby come to know things you did not know before.

My first reaction to Photographer Research is, naturally, this is a bunch of bullshit (this is how I react to everything,) but I am not convinced that I'm right. I suspect some of it is bullshit, but I'm not certain all of it is.

On the one hand going to some remote place and photographing something perfectly ordinary is not exactly the same thing as developing a vaccine for polio. One might even be tempted to assert that "research" implies the development of "knowledge" and therefore what you just did isn't. This isn't quite right. Visual knowledge is a thing, after all.

Possibly the picture is, I don't know, the facade of a building where something happened. Or, after Mathieu Asselin, a photograph of a perfectly banal train crossing or a can of microfilm. These things are perfectly ordinary, we know what buildings, train tracks, and microfilm cans look like. We know, intellectually, that these things must exist. We know that someone was murdered in an apartment, and we know without being shown that there was a building involved. Newspapers are often recorded on microfilm, therefore it is reasonable at least that a newspaper article from 1952 might be found in a can just like that one.

What is the value in these kinds of pictures?

I think for the most part the MFA doesn't have a clear notion, they're simply aping the moves of everyone around them.

Which doesn't mean it's wrong.

Suppose the story is of a murder, a murder shocking because of the bland ordinariness of the lives and circumstances involved. An apparently happy couple, living in a bland apartment in a bland apartment building with perfectly bland friends. One of the couple savagely murdered the other for no reason anyone can discern. A bland photograph of the facade of the apartment building could well be a piece of visual knowledge that backs up, supports, the story being told. Look, I told you how bland and ordinary it all was, and here is the building, see it with your own eyes.

So, we cannot just dismiss these photographs on the grounds that they are bland, or not-bland, or any other criteria.

If blandness, or other properties one might glean from the building photo do not figure as part of the point, though, what exactly is the photo contributing? If the story is about, let us imagine, un-diagnosed mental illness, then perhaps the building photo contributes nothing beyond proof that the photographer went there.

The result of research in whatever way we understand it, is something resembling an argument. It is a thesis perhaps, or perhaps several, backed up by materials unearthed in the process of researching. Even if there is no specific conclusion or thesis, the result ought to be a coherent body of material, tied together toward a common goal.

Perhaps the result is a summary understanding of Myanmar, the end product of reading and digesting an encylopedia article. Perhaps it is a scientific paper and a procedure for manufacturing a vaccine. Perhaps it is a critical analysis of Jonathan Swift's Tale of a Tub.

Thus, it seems to me that one can reasonably judge photographs within one of these "researched" contemporary art projects on the basis of whether the picture seems to support some thesis, whether it fits in to a coherent set of knowledge.

Some pictures (e.g. Asselin's microfilm can) do not strike me as doing so, they appear to be something like filler, and something like proof-of-labor. This is not a research product. It doesn't mean you shouldn't take the photo, much of the labor of serious research results in dead-end material that ought to be discarded.

In the end it's not much different from storytelling, or book-making, or sequencing, or whatever else you choose to call what is in the end essentially the same process.

One gathers up all the things, and sifts through them, and throws most of them away, and attempts as best one can to assemble the remainder into a coherent, interlocking, set of things which pull together to make some coherent statement or another.

Sometimes, often, when you get finished with the throwing-away part, there isn't enough left to make anything. This happens to many a poorly advised graduate student. One can attempt to assemble something from the debris field, but it's better if you simply go back and do more work, and make something good.

There is no particular shame in ending up with a debris field that contains nothing worthy. This is normal. It might be very inconvenient in, say, the 7th year of your Master's program, but there's nothing shameful in it.

Perhaps your adviser could use a bit of a talking-to, though.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

PSA: Reichmann's 20 Year Retrospective

This book is no longer for sale, so I simply asked Josh (the son) if there were plans for the remainder. His reply indicated that there are not, but that the books need to find homes.. really very soon.

Do you have a gallery, club, school, whatever, that could use one of more for a library? Do you know of a competition that needs a few prizes?

I think Josh is ready to deal, if the cause be just.

The Ethics of Position

If we have learned nothing else from historiography, we have learned this: in order to relate anything whatever about the world, in order to make anything about the world coherent and comprehensible, one needs to take up a point of view, and one needs to simplify.

This is an ugly reality. The act of recording or relating history is inextricable from the act of taking a point of view, and simplifying.

Photography is in many ways precisely the same as history, here. You cannot take a photograph without literally taking up a position in space. Further, one's moral and philosophical "position" influence where you will stand and how you will aim. Then, the photograph invariably simplifies the world it depicts. If nothing else, it leaves most of the world out.

Contemporary critical thinkers on photography spend a great deal of time concerned with this position-taken and associated simplification. We see a more or less endless stream of minor think pieces about how refugees, women, people of color, and so on, are portrayed and how badly the job is done. The implication is that if only we had better positioning, or more colorful photographers taking these pictures, then all would be solved.

This is a ludicrous implication.

There are certainly better and worse positions one can take, better and worse simplifications one can make. Historians and the methods of history evolve, slowly. Some ways of framing history are fashionable this decade, others are decidedly unfashionable. Some are recognized as just a bad job and are, we hope, discarded forever. The current debate around the 1619 project really revolves around whether the methods of the project are merely unfashionable or in fact bad.

But no serious historian believes that there is a singular ideal way to frame history. There are many ways, inevitably, to frame history, to tell those stories. Each and every method of historiography comes with a built in set of problems, biases, assumptions, which will in turn tend to obscure or falsify certain things while, hopefully, illuminating others. This is simply how it is.

In the same way, recruiting Africans to photograph Africa is not some magical panacea which will somehow render The True Africa in photographs. The result will, maybe, be a substantively different point of view, and a different set of simplifications. Ideally it might be deeply illuminating and wonderful. But, the result will certainly have its own set of problems. It will be false in its own ways, it will lie by omission in its own, new, ways.

At worst, of course, it will simply result in the invention of and repeated rolling out of some faux African Photography tropes to delight the self-styled critics of, you guessed it, Europe and America. We are already enduring this in Women's Photography, with endless projects filled with either nude selfies or sad-brown-women-staring.

I am very much in favor of more colorful photographers doing projects that delight them. I do not think this will make all the problems go away. Many different framings, all flawed, is better than one flawed framing, but is not Truth.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Where is Vivian Maier now?

I've written a fair bit about Vivian Maier over the years.

  The Curator of the Estate
  Vivian Maier Again
  Whence Greatness
  Vivian Maier

and probably a few more pieces.

The general thrust here is that Vivian Maier The Important Photographer is a construct.

The public interest seems to be dropping off, thankfully. The most recent (?) book, of color photographs, was not a phenomenon, although I suppose its sales are respectable. The corresponding spike in google search is much much smaller than for previous books, and the number of reviews on amazon is much smaller. It's picked up a few remarks, but not the 100s that previous books did. The VM Phenomenon as a public enterprise seems to have largely run its course.

While I find Maier's work largely uninteresting, and Maloof's (her posthumous editor) behavior to be outright objectionable, I find the phenomenon itself to be very interesting. The construction of a Photographic Artist out of, as it were, thin air, is a very informative exercise worth examining.

The basis, of course, is some pretty OK photographs. You have to have something to sell, and Maier's competent eye combined with Maloof's apparently indefatigable searching provided that. There's something like 100 really good pictures in play here. There's no coherent artistic vision, nor a signature style, but that turns out not to matter. That is, to my mind, a bit of a shocker, but here we are.

Next up, there's a good story. The facts, when you examine them, are not particularly interesting, but they're well presented. Maier is Mysterious and Tragic despite being, in truth, neither of those things — she is thoroughly known, and lived a perfectly ordinary life, if a trifle on the taciturn and reclusive side. This is not unusual, pick any artist. You will find, more often than not, a fairly ordinary life buried in a narrative shaped to make it feel extraordinary.

Most people live pretty ordinary lives, after all, why should artists be different? The point is that the story is shaped to appear interesting, because this is an essential part of the construction.

A truly critical step is the recruitment of gatekeepers. Allan Sekula, for unknown reasons, jumped in more or less first and granted Maloof a ticket to the big show by declaring Maier's work to be special. Sekula certainly should have known better. After that, it simply snowballed. Big Names follow trends as much as Little Names, maybe moreso, and so the entire community followed Sekula's lead and blathered about the ineffable qualities that imbue the work and make it special. As Berger might have said: "mystification."

At this point Maloof was able to take his 100-odd good pictures, and another 100 or so decent filler pictures, and go on a great world tour. He sold a lot of books, got a lot of gallery time, and so on. I'm sure the books are still selling tolerably well, considering, and he's still getting gallery shows albeit in Calgary rather than New York. It looks as if he's trying to turn her perfectly ordinary travel snaps in to something now, but given the relatively dull response to the color photography, this may wind up nowhere.

I have to wonder if some of the museums that signed up a couple years ago to show Maier now are regretting that choice.

There's still some juice left in the orange, and I dare say that if Maloof has managed his money responsibly he won't have to work very hard for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless what we have here is a case study in the construction of something, a case study of particular note because the interior is largely empty. We can see how the house is built, because there's nothing inside to clutter up our view.

The work itself doesn't matter much. There needs to be something to talk around, but it doesn't have to be much. If the work has been designated as Important, the critical community will turn backflips to find Importance in it. Then you need a good story, which again is more in the shaping than in the facts. Finally you need to recruit gatekeepers. These latter are, obviously, the key to the whole business. The point is that the gatekeepers aren't going to bite if you haven't got some adequate work and a good story. I dare say that to some extent you can trade off depth of work and interesting story? If the work is a bit thin, the story has to be pretty well-told, and vice versa.

It will be interesting to see if, over the next few years, interest remains in Maier inside the photographic community. Outside it, the show is over, but that is to be expected for any artist, whether real or constructed. The test is whether Maier continues to occupy a special place in the pantheon, or whether everyone will quietly let it go and, in the end, pretend that they were never much interested.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

James Cockroft

Here's a guy who is wildly underrated, in my opinion. He does different things, but the one I am most interested in is his review of photobooks. He buys a lot of them, does unboxing videos — in which you get to watch as he leafs through the book, which is often very nice — and writes straightforward reviews. His reviews are far less pretentious than mine, and thus arguably a lot better.

Indeed, James is a man almost entirely without pretensions, as near as I can tell. His lack of pretension makes it easy to dismiss him as unserious, or un-useful, but both of those things are wrong. I don't attend to his work enough, and I hope to fix that.

Here's a link to James' Photobook Reviews which is a deep archive of very useful reviews and videos. Recommended.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

A Whacky Idea

I just had a thought.

Photographers are often rather fond of "critique" (especially of giving it, but there is also massive social pressure to seek it out and accept it with groveling thanks.) They love to get together and go through other people's portfolios and talk about whatever shit they learned about yesterday, whether that be white balance, or artistic intent.

I, uh, I don't seek out feedback in this way. I find it largely useless. I can see the white balance just fine, thanks, and I know the thing is out of focus. I have been doing this for a while. In general, some mook offering suggestions is going to have zero impact on me, I kinda know where I am going and to the extent that I don't, I'm going to have to find my own way.

What is useful is trying to explain a project to someone. By trying to articulate what I am attemping, I force myself to organize and clarify my thoughts.

This would be true whether I was attempting to explain it to Martin Parr or a passed out drunk. In fact, this very blog is as much about explaining my work as it is about anything else, and I don't know on any given day if anyone is reading it, or who. It doesn't matter. My thoughts organize or not the same whether you read 'em or not.

Which leads me to the whacky idea.

If you're struggling with something, why not explain it, out loud, to an empty room? Why not simply imagine an audience, and articulate, with your actual voice, what you're trying to do? It's essentially what I am doing with this stupid blog, but perhaps more convenient, and by speaking out loud potentially more effective? Or effective in different ways, at any rate.

Thursday, January 23, 2020


I have a little project I've been idly plotting.

In the Bellingham schools they try to integrate kids who have a variety of challenges into the schools as far as possible. Kids with autism, kids with various disorders of various kinds. Some of the kids in these "Life Skills" classes are really really sensitive to some kinds of stimuli. In particular, some of them SCREAM AND RUN FOR IT when a flash goes off.

This makes the standard school photo routine kind of impractical. In the USA there is one dominant vendor for school photos, Lifetouch, and as near as I can tell they offer no service that does not include flash. I made calls and various inquiries and got a lot of non-responses, and one "no we definitely don't" response.

So I have been half trying to locate an alternate vendor who might have advanced into this century, and half pondering setting up to just do it myself with LED lighting. I was gonna go buy some moderately expensive Godox things that Kirk Tuck recommends, but they I remembered I had a thing with an E26 base and a cord, a thing that can be clamped onto a light stand etc. That just means a thing where you can screw in a standard light bulb. So off I went to buy one (1) inexpensive light stand, one (1) silver lined brolly, and one (1) 120W equivalent PAR38 daylight balanced bulb.

That bulb is basically just a standard "spotlight" style bulb you might use in an exterior security light fixture thing. Nothing major.

Then I plopped the kid down next to a wall for a reflector, put my ghetto-ass light up, and shot this.

Ok, so the CRIs-things of my lightbulb are garbage, which means I think that the color of the light is not guaranteed? Or wrong? Or something? Plus the "reflector" wall is blue. So the color is probably all fucked up and terrible? But, I dunno. I twitched the white balance thing around a little, and that's pretty much what she looks like.

I feel like I can at least hang with the horrible work Lifetouch does. I am still debating how hard I want to try to actually sign myself up for this, like, job. But I feel like someone oughta and I can't find anyone else to step up.

Art History III(a)

The question I posed in the previous remark comes, I think, maybe in two parts.

There is an era of jazz, specifically the era when Art Tatum burst upon the scene, in which the history has a remarkable number of stories like this: so and so was an up and coming jazz pianist, with real grit and talent, until he heard Art play, and then he went on to become one of the great jazz ... clarinetists, saxophonists, anything-but-pianists.

In something of the same way, in the mid-1800s there are any number of leading photographers who had been painters. Sometimes not very good painters. Seeing photography, one assumes they recognized it as an alternative road to the very thing they had been trying to do. These were some of the great boosters and performers of the medium in the day, without them it's not clear what path history would have taken.

I rather think that an artist working in his traditional form in, I don't know, let's say India, would see a photograph and recognize it certainly as a thing, and an interesting thing at that, but not the very thing he's been trying to do. To take up photography would be rather more a job of switching horses, than it would be for the dodgy painter in Europe.

Secondly, there is the issue of visual culture, which takes something of the same path. The non-artist in India would again recognize the photograph as something, but something not quite as familiar as the European might. The photo, while recognizable and possessed of some interesting properties, might be less immediately appealing to such a viewer.

But perhaps here I overstate it? How familiar would the average bloke in London be with the tropes and tics of Renaissance Painting, after all? Can we call the engravings that appeared in the newspaper close enough, or are those generally so lousy that the man on the street in both Paris and Bombay would have had much the same experience of the photograph?

In any case, it appears to me that the impetus behind photography got some little boosts in Europe and the Americas, which it lacked in other parts of the world with different traditions of visual art.

Perhaps the answer is "yes, and the uptake of photography was therefore correspondingly slower and more shallow in those areas." Perhaps alternatively the answer is "sure, but the appeal of that true first-person perspective is so immediate, so powerful, that the standing visual traditions were irrelevant." Or, really, any number of other possibilities.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Art History III

This is a question I would very much like to know the answer to:

Why did some cultures with no particular tradition of perspective drawing embrace the camera?

For Europe and the white colonies, the embrace is obvious. The camera allows us to easily make "a proper picture." I am not convinced that this same argument applies in, say, India, China, or Japan.

Monday, January 20, 2020


JHC, I dunno if Colberg started it or if he was just following along, but in the wake of his idiotic "beyond social media" post apparently everyone in "photoland" is starting a newsletter. All ten of them.

I have to admit that I am deeply, deeply, allergic to anything that shoves content at me. I go to where the content is, on my schedule, it does not come to me. As far as I can, I adhere to the rule that if you're not interesting enough for me to go to the trouble to come to you, then you're not worth my time. No offense.

Anyways, there are many bits that are fun here. The first is that the overall conceit is that they're reverting to the Olden Dayes of the web, at precisely the moment that there are like a half-dozen venture-funded shithead firms building platforms for newsletters. It must be a coincidence.

Next up, newsletters are all about freeing ourselves from The Algorithm. This is a way of saying I'm not getting enough attention on my instagram or blog or whatever, and I think it's someone's fault. The great thing is that they're all using one of the venture-funded platforms, which will track their subscribers to within an inch of their lives, and attempt to monetize this a bunch of ways. It may not be The Algorithm, but it's jolly well Another Algorithm.

These platforms will track, at least: your subscription itself, when you open a newsletter, when you click a link in the newsletter, and where you are located, roughly, for every one of those events. This will all be squirrelled away, with context. They will know what your interests are, and how interested you are in them. Do you like Roland Barthes, or nudes? How much? All this will be associated with your email address and at some point in the future (when google buys them, or hackers steal their database, or some shit) that profile of you will be attached, by way of your email address, to some larger profile of you.

The fact that you're interested in Roland Barthes at work during the day, but mysteriously become interested in nude photos when on holiday, or after 2am, will eventually become known by someone you'd prefer not know that.

Perhaps when you unsubscribe all these data will be deleted. Or, perhaps not. Guess! Ha ha! Of course it will never, ever, be deleted. That data is money.

All this is doubly hilarious because every email application ever made has had some ability to send email to some sort of list of email addresses. You don't need to sign up with substack or buttondown, you can just figure out how aliases work in gmail. Then you.. just send email. And it goes out to everyone on the list. This probably stops working at a couple hundred addresses, but let's get real here.

Finally, nobody involved has an actual plan. Are they going to ditch the blog to focus on the newletter, or are they going to half-ass both of them, going forward? Is the blog going to drive traffic to the newsletter? Is the instagram going to drive traffic to the blog, and then to the newsletter? Where, exactly, do I go to find your fucking jewels of wisdom? Why are they all over the goddamned place? Oh look, here's your blog. DING! I have mail! Look, a newsletter. With a link to your instagram! You're like a damned one man Facebook, sucking my time and my life force! Well, you would be except you're boring and I stop pretty fast, unlike Facebook which uses a battalion of dudes with PhDs in holding my interest to, you know, hold my interest.

This is basic social media marketing: all your social media effort, whatever it is, pushes people to one (1) place, and that is where you put the good stuff. It doesn't matter if you're selling jet airplanes, yoga lessons, or just your own ego. A newsletter is either 1. The actual thing you do, 2. A device for directing people to the actual thing you do, or 3. A distraction. Usually, it is a distraction.

I predict that Jörg and a few others who are seen as influential will get a little wad of subscribers who will read the first couple. Then the newsletter writers will watch sadly as the beautifully rendered graph of "opens" in their Dashboard page on droops lower and lower. Nobody will unsub, because they hope Jörg is going to get them a book deal which will cost them $20,000 and gain them nothing. The non-influential people will get a dozen subscribers who will also not read the newsletters.

Generally speaking, of course. There might be a couple of these folks who really start pulling something together. They'll dump their blog, if they have one, and use instagram and TikTok or whateverthefuck to direct people to their newsletters, and if they have really interesting and compelling content they will gain a loyal band of readers. That'll be cool. It'll be like a blog, except with much more thorough tracking of the readers, less convenient to read, and thrust upon the readers periodically rather than waiting patiently for them to come back.

I might subscribe to a couple. I have a couple burner emails lying around.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Art History and Photography II

This is a followup to this little essay here.

As a commenter noted, there were efforts to escape the trap of pseudo-painting that Photography found itself in at the beginning of the 20th century. Mainly the Europeans did a bunch of stuff with abstraction, multiple exposures, forced perspective, mirrors, light painting, long exposures, collage, and on and on. They were doing more than simply trying to ditch perspective, but whatever they were doing, they sought to break the barriers imposed by the camera.

It all seems to have fizzled out around WWII. Some of that crowd continued to make work into the 1970s or so, but the movement as a whole thing didn't really go anywhere that I can see.

To be fair, there does continue to be some of the same techniques deployed even today, but the aim seems to be kind of random, or non-existent. People use these methods and more because they results look cool, and that seems to be about it. There's just a "cool!" reaction followed by "what if I do the same thing, but twice as hard?" and then after a few days, or weeks, or months, the photographer moves on and buys a drone.

In the USA in that same period everyone was too concerned with replacing excessively painterly Pictorialism with slightly less painterly Straight Photography and missed the whole show in the process. We are now in a world, globally, where we have what are essentially neo-Modernists arguing with neo-Pictorialists over just how much Photoshop is acceptable. Which, honestly, is pretty much to completely miss the point. Over in the corner we have some MFAs doing God Alone knows what, but it's a mess.

I like me some Hannah Hoch as much as the next guy, but none of the "tricks" of the early 20th century really float my boat. There's a bunch of in-camera stuff you can do, there's a bunch of post-process stuff you can do, and it all strikes me as betraying the essentials of photography.

What I want is to escape the box while remaining in the box.

As I see it, the essential characteristic of a photograph is that it witnesses truly: this is what it actually looked like, in this instant, from this viewpoint.

Man Ray, Hannah Hoch, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and a bunch of others tended to discard one or more of these important traits of the photograph in pursuit of what we might as a kind of shorthand think of as showing us not what it looks like, but rather what is is. Now, I'm all in favor of showing what something is but not necessarily at the expense of ditching what it looks like.

To show what a thing, or event, or person, is, is to traverse time and space. Space-time exists, things and events occur in it. It is a rare subject indeed that can be fully revealed in a direct and naive way from one view in one instant. One needs to show or to imply a continuum of points of view, and a continuum of time. This seems to be in direct contradiction to the photograph, which specifically and in its very nature, does the opposite.

The obvious solution, my pat answer to pretty much everything, is the sequence of photographs. Multiple points of view, multiple points in time, surely we're done here?

Less obviously, though, I think the single frame has the power to imply time, to imply multiple points of view, especially when helped along by a little text.

I have no magic recipe for doing it, but I believe it can be done, and that doing so is worthwhile.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The National Archives Photoshop Disaster

The National Archives of the USA is putting on a show. "Rightfully Hers: American Women and The Vote." Out front of the show there is a large visual display that includes an iconic photograph of the Jan 21, 2017 Women's March on DC with some blurred out elements. Specifically blurred out is some language on the protest signs, language the Archive staff judged to be political or NSFW. You can read more about it in this piece: National Archives Edited Photo to Remove Anti-Trump Messages

This has created a little tempest. Scholarly readings from Jörg Colberg, from John Edwin Mason, from, and so on have traversed twitter with cries of Stalinist erasure and so on. "The is how democracy dies" has been repeated more than once.

Let us back up a little ways. Consider this picture, based on the same iconic photograph:

This is an imaginary poster I made, by blurring the relevant picture and putting some writing on it to advertise an imaginary show. This is clearly a promotional item, not a piece of an Archive. This is not a formal record of the event. While people might certainly complain about my graphic design skills, almost nobody would complain that I was inappropriately altering a photograph. This is relevant, because the National Archives is claiming their version of the photo as a promotional item, essentially the equivalent of my sketchy poster job here.

Here is another picture, also made by me. Imagine it, if you will, hanging in the exhibit itself, presented as a actual artifact, a object from the National Archives:

In this case, the picture is obviously a bad idea. It could be, would be, and most certainly should be vigorously attacked. The modifications alter the apparent facts (in, yes, ludicrous ways) and the picture is, we imagine, presented to us as factual.

Two pictures. One "ok" and one definitely "not ok." The National Archives claims their altered photo falls in the "ok" region for the same reason that my fake poster does. The commentators seem to largely claim that it instead falls in the "not ok" region, without much supporting argument.

Between the extremes illustrated above there is a vast area, which includes a lot of things that are "ok" as promotional material, and a lot of things that are "not ok" as artifacts from the archive. Also, there is a good sized grey area in which things are not so clear.

The actual altered photo is presented as a large display outside the exhibit hall, in a position where we expect to see some sort of poster, some sort of promotional material. Often but not always, though, such promotional materials include truthful, accurate, reproductions of what we can expect to see inside the exhibit. One could be forgiven for assuming that the altered photo used as a promotion is just such an accurate reproduction.

I believe the National Archives did err, here. The error, though, is not in altering an archived artifact.

They have fallen, probably by accident, into the grey area. The made a promotional picture, essentially a poster, but made two errors which compound one another. First, the alterations do not make it clear that the photograph has been altered. At first glance, it appears to be a factual and accurate photo, a "truthful" photo. Secondly, by displaying the photo in a position where it is not unusual to find unaltered photographs, they have muddled the perception.

Had they made a dramatic alteration, blurring the whole thing out as I did, the public would generally recognize it as an alteration, and hence classify it correctly as a graphic, a promotional poster. Failing that, they should have left it unaltered to avoid confusion.

The National Archives, as the supposed guardians of some sort of objective truth, of factual, concrete, things, have no business in any grey areas. They owe the public clarity. They have a duty to distinguish clearly between promotional posters and factual archival material, and they have failed, here, in that obligation.