Thursday, March 25, 2021

(Pinned Post, See Below for New Content)
  A Policy Note:

I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smokes clears. This is not a judgement about other writers, other sources, there's good information that ought to be shared, there are personal stories that are interesting and compelling.

There's also room for other work, and I intend to pursue that here.

If it looks like I'm going to die, I will try to put a note here so you know to delete your bookmarks.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

But Andrew, Whyyyyyy?

I receive regular feedback of the form, "But why, why do you care about these things?" and I am here today to offer, after a fashion, an answer.

First, obviously, like a child who has conceived an interest in dinosaurs, I am endlessly interested in the smallest detail of my chosen subject. This is just me. Obviously one can take photographs without any notion of a theoretical framework for, well, anything but certainly you don't need one for photographs. I am given to understand that quite a few photographs have been taken, despite the rather wiggly basis upon which the enterprise is perched philosophically. Even a few good ones.

But here is a real application, a real case where something of a robust basis actually might matter.

Here's an article that appeared on PetaPixel: Who Should Own Photos of Slaves by Allen Murabayashi, who is a pretty smart and level headed dude. It's about some daguerreotypes in the possession of Harvard University, photos of some slaves, made in somewhat objectionable circumstances, under the aegis of some profoundly discredited theories.

Murabayashi and Jacobs (the podcasters in the embedded podcast) bring up material around looted art and artifacts, but mostly those disputes are rooted in property rights, and there's a clear point of looting. The resolution is to unwind the chain of ownership to the point of theft, and that's roughly the end of it. While ethical concerns arise, they are not the whole of the basis. In this case, the legal basis of ownership is perfectly clear: the daguerreotypes belong to Harvard, the images themselves as intellectual property are public domain, but high resolution scans are closely held by Harvard and not generally available to people who don't sign contracts with Harvard.

There's a whole bunch of shit here, most of which isn't really immediately relevant. We may assume that the legal situation, however unsavory, is in Harvard's favor. Harvard does, after all, own an actual law school.

The legal situation, however, is not the point.

The arguments given or cited in the PetaPixel piece are all built by hand-waving around peripheral ethical concerns. The subjects were slaves, they did not (could not) consent. Harvard charged a bunch of money for high res scans, etc. There's a great deal of badness invoked, and presumably that leads us to... some kind of result or another. Someone oughta do somethin'! I have not read the book they talk about in the podcast, but I've read the article and I've listened to the podcast, and all the talk avoids the issue of what a photograph is, and how its social weight functions. Everything is about who made the picture, why, and how. There's a lot of "raising interesting questions" but no actual serious attempt to provide an answer.

The general conceit is that the people who made these things were so very very terrible that someone ought to be compensated. Which, you know, I feel like there may be a few steps missing in the middle of the argument there.

So let's try to work out what the hell is actually going on. Because, well, we actually do have in this little blog here something of a theoretical basis for what a photo is and what it does. Maybe it'll help clarify something.

The point is that photographs do have social and emotional weight. They are talismanic. They evoke feelings, reactions, and so on, and that is the domain in which we are working. The legal case seems to be trying to apply these things in a court of law which is, um, interesting? I guess? But beside the point, I don't actually care about the merits of the suit, whether they're based on law or on emotion.

These pictures are pretty recognizable. Not only have many many people already seen them contextualized as photos of American slaves, most people who have been steeped in American culture (i.e. everyone) would likely guess "slaves?" when they see the photos. The photos are recognizably old (in style and method) they are of black people, and the subjects don't look like they're having their portraits taken: on account of they're naked or partly so. They look exactly like the kind of anthropological-ish studies that they are.

So these photos are likely to be broadly read in a profoundly weighted way, right out of the gate. They evoke a dark history. They make us uncomfortable, right off.

At least one person appears to be convinced that two of the people depicted are in fact her ancestors, people she "knows" through her family's oral history (well, at least one of them she "knows" in that fashion, the details are not clear to me and not important.) For Ms. Lanier, the dark history evoked by these photos overlaps with a dark history from her family's oral traditions.

Whether the "Renty" in the photos is her ancestor or not, these photos serve to reify her family history. They are talismans, in effect, which evoke that past, which turn it from "some shit my mom used to talk about" to something palpable, something real. The photographs conjure Renty and Delia, she is in a meaningful way in the presence of her ancestors — who were slaves, who were humiliated, who were forced to strip for these photographs.

Ouch, huh?

It isn't that the photo of Renty contains a piece of Renty, like some fucked up Horcrux, but we human animals, we East African Plains Apes, react to it a little as if it did. We treat it as a kind of talisman that embodies, in some loose sense, something of Renty. The fact that this is not literal but rather cultural does not mean that we ought to ignore it. Money and property rights are also a cultural constructs, and nobody suggests that we ignore them.

I mean, I "get" the photos, at a distance. A descendant of slaves would probably get it at a closer distance, and Ms. Lanier gets it right in the face, arguably pretty hard. From a legal point of view, again, this seems irrelevant. It sucks, but lots of things suck, and it's not the law's job to make you feel good about yourself. So, again, we're not in legal territory, but in social.

Ok, so the "image" as an abstraction, probably best seen on the printed page (daguerreotypes are tiny and seem to involve a lot of squinting) has this emotional weight for Lanier. Hold that.

The physical object, the dageurreotype, because of the nature of the process was actually there when Renty and Delia were photographed. This physical artifact was literally in the actual machine that made the picture. The photons that caused the visible chemical changes literally bounced off of Renty and Delia's skin.

I am loathe to characterize the process of photography as violent, but however that may be this was — at best — a weird day for Renty, and for Delia, and the physical metal plate was part of the actual mechanism of whatever went down that day. Was it humiliating, or just another shitty day at this shitty existence? For all we know Renty and Delia thought it was great because they weren't picking cotton, I dunno, and neither does anyone else. The point is that something happened that day, something in the life of two slaves, and these metal plates were first actually there and second an integral part of what happened.

Is Lanier, for instance, traumatized by these things? I dunno. Certainly within the envelope of normal reaction there is an intense emotional reaction so there's no reason to dismiss, a priori, whatever intense emotional reaction she might choose to relate.

So what should be done?

Seeking legal remedies in this sort of essentially social situation seems sort of weird, but I guess there's no other way to force Harvard to respond? Ideally this would land in some sort of mediation or arbitration in which they don't try to sort out what is legal but rather what is right, what has grace, what is polite and seemly. What leaves the world better than it was before.

Suppose I were asked to mediate, or preferably to dictate. I'm good at telling people what they ought to do.

Well. We can certainly, as the kids say, honor the emotional impact of these things. Lanier specifically, but also society broadly, feels the emotional and cultural weight of these pictures. Harvard ought to, as a matter of decency and of respect, make their high resolution scans freely available if they have not already. It's tempting to propose Lanier ought to have some control over them, but in the first place this seems to be a futile gesture, and in the second place western society as a whole has long decided that things of this kind ought naturally to transition to the public domain in the fullness of time. I see no reason to proceed in contradiction with that principle.

There is no putting this genie back in the bottle, but it strikes me as seemly of Harvard to at last cede control over this pictures. While that control cannot usefully be given to Lanier, it seems reasonable to suggest that at least nobody else should claim it.

Arguably Harvard deserves some compensation for doing the scanning work, but it appears that they've been paid pretty well already, so perhaps we should declare that moot. Art collections routinely make scans available for a fee, and it looks from here in the cheap seats that, while they should be compensated for doing that (because making scans of Art is indeed in the public interest, but costs money to do) but that these scans should likewise pass into the public domain after some decent interval (again, because this best serves the public interest.)

As for the physical artifacts, I am torn. Not that photography is literal violence, but what are ones rights with regard to a knife which murdered a parent? What about a tree or stone that, by accident, fell and injured us, or a relative? What if the stone fell and, somehow, inspired us? If someone said "I would like to have that stone because of its meaning to me" surely we would say "well, sure, why not?" It's a matter of social grace and respect, not a matter of law, not a matter of some well defined code.

This is complicated by the fact that, whatever rights Lanier might have here, under whatever theory, must apply equally to a host of others. Surely Renty and Delia's living descendants include more than one person, and surely all have more or less equally the same rights.

Certainly, I think, we generally feel that some sort of concession ought to be made, again in the interest of decency and respect more than anything else. Surely the same sentiment applies as "this frying pan belonged to your grandmother, I think you should have it" here, at least? And perhaps moreso, on the grounds that the photograph, this daguerreotype, has doubly (both as image, and artifact) a peculiarly evocative power? Do we not hand down even more tenderly and certainly photos than frying pans?

But to whom do we hand these down, and does Lanier even truly want these fragile things?

If I were the decider I would likely offer up what Murabayashi and Jacobs suggest, transfer to a suitable institution. Suitable in the sense of being capable of caring for these artifacts, but also suitable in the sense of respect and decency. Some institution approved by Lanier and the other heirs. In addition, I think a good quality reproduction of the artifacts could and should be made available to those same people, upon request, at no charge, as Harvard has evidently already made their money.

But the basis for all of this isn't legal, at all.

It's based entirely on the basis of an acknowledged emotional and cultural weight that a photograph possesses. This in turn points the way toward what is kind, what is decent, what is polite, rather than what is legal.

If you are an absolutist and think a photograph is just a thing, without weight, then to hell with Lanier. It's Harvard's all the way. Also, fuck off, you should probably not read my blog because you are dumb.

If you think a photograph is a literal weapon of savagery, a device of violence, well then you should probably seek to make laws about how photographs of people don't respect copyright at all but belong irrevocably and for all time to the subject and their heirs, that being the logical consequence of such a position. And, uh, ditto.

If you think (correctly) that a photograph is more than a thing; that it has social and cultural weight; that it falls short of being some terrifying engine of destruction; but that more importantly that it falls short of being an own-able thing (apart from physical objects which exhibit an instance of the photo, which obviously can be property:) then you might lean toward decency, generosity, toward choosing a path based not on law but on what is socially graceful.

And this is where a theory of photography leads us. Because of a photograph enjoys a certain kind of special emotional weight, because of its specific and special way of working (elucidated elsewhere in this blog, and anywhere else that responds to my relentless whining), a photograph ought to enjoy a somewhat special status, a social and cultural status that a little like property rights, but both weaker and not really the same as.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A Thought Experiment

This is a followon to the previous remarks on meaning outside-in versus inside-out.

Imagine a film. Some ordinary piece of cinema, an action adventure, a rom-com, whatever. When you watch it there are words, sentences, speeches, dialog. There is meaning in each word, built into meaning in sentences, built up, up, up into dialog and speeches. These build up into scenes, which flow one to the next and build upward into the narrative arc of the film. The sense of one scene is clarified, or reversed, by the next, that sort of thing.

I visualize this as a stack of nesting pyramids. Each sentence a little pyramid, built on the words. Each pyramid of each sentence is fitted into the base of a scene, which fills itself in from that base to the peak with scene-level meaning derived from the way the sentences of the dialog interact. The scenes form the base of a narrative arc, which then builds the pyramid up on them to an apex which, somehow, encapsulates the "total meaning" of the film.

So, most of the pyramid is very meta. Only at the very bottom do we have words, gestures, facial expression, reactions.

Edit the film down to a single scene.

Most of the pyramid vanishes. But the scene still means something. It still conveys maybe a section of the action, a slice of character development, a key moment, a sense of who is good and who is bad. There is a pyramid, but it's smaller.

Edit it down further, to a single shot. Again, we reduce to a smaller subpyramid of meaning. Maybe there's a sentence of dialog, or a complete gesture, or a reaction. We see that someone is horrified, or angry. We learn that someone loves someone else. Still the structure of the medium, the way one frame follows another, the way one word follows another, informs the way we understand what we're looking at.

Finally reduce it to a single frame, a still. A photograph.

The entire structure of the film's meaning is gone. We're down to a single point somewhere in the base of the original pyramid.

This doesn't mean there isn't some social or cultural meaning we can make of this thing. The actor is wearing clothing that indicates class, maybe. The background is a bar with all that baggage, and so on.

The point is not that the photograph has no meaning, or even no cultural meaning. The point is that the medium is bringing little to nothing to the table. We react to the photo of the actor in much the same way as we would if we were present.

The actor's clothing indicates social status, exactly as it would if we were physically present. The cultural baggage of the barroom is essentially the same whether we see it in a photo, or whether we're standing in the room.

I am pretty sure this is what Barthes is banging on about when he says that a photograph is "a message without a code." The media contains no media-specific coding that directs our attention toward meaning, it's just us with the contents of the frame. Pretty much as if we were actually there.

He then goes on to describe in some detail how one puts the meaning back, including things like lighting and posing (so, actually, the medium is kind of still at work with codes) but more importantly the surrounding material of captions, other text, other photos, and so on.

The photograph may be in some way a message without a code, but that doesn't mean we don't instantly bounce off it and start busily applying codes. As I may have mentioned, we imagine a world to contain the photograph, and read off a ton of shit from that world.

It is the fact that we are applying codes, rather than the medium supplying codes, which is the distinction I want to draw here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Outside In vs. Inside Out

I have developed what I think might be an especially pithy way to say a thing that I think matters.

The meaning of photographs is constructed from the outside in, while the meaning of things like movies is constructed from the inside out.

Nothing here is absolute, though for brevity I will write as if it were. Insert "mostly" and "as a general rule" and "rather more than the opposite" in, basically, everywhere.

The point here is that a novel, or a movie, or even a painting, is constructed as an entire system of bits of meaning. Words combine into sentences which flow one to the next to tell a story. They talk about robbing the bank, and later they rob the bank. Sentences tell us information that causes us to like one character, and dislike another.

A painting of a fellow might show him holding a pen, and the pen is a metaphor for all of France, or whatever.

There are structures of and layers of symbols and signs contained inside these things which, when we examine them, consume them, heavily direct the meaning we make of whatever it is. Meaning is constructed from what we find inside the thing. Meaning is built out of things inside, and flows out.

This isn't quite the same thing as authorial intent. Certainly the author normally tries to build structures that direct the construction of meaning along specific paths. This doesn't always work. Nevertheless, the structures do exist, and do direct meaning. The fact that we wind up liking the villain is beside the point, the point is that the edifice of words that makes up the novel directed our understanding along a path that led to us liking the villain.

It is in this context that "gaze" (for example) means something, but also ideas like "narrative." Both of these are properties of the structures of signs that generate the meaning inside-to-out.

Attempting to translate ideas from cinema, from novels, even from painting, runs afoul of this problem:

That's not how photographs work.

The photograph, taken as a naked object, has no structure of signs, no layering of nuggets of meaning that direct our construction of meaning. It just sits there, mutely testifying to what was in front of the lens.

The cinematic meaning of "gaze" gets no purchase here, there is no structure of signs to describe, not a priori. Hence, "gaze" mainly just means the photographer's gender.

We make meaning of the photograph out of the material we bring to it, out of the material that surrounds it. The meaning is constructed from the outside, and applied to the contents of the frame. Meaning is built outside, and flows inward.

You could argue that a novel, or movie, or a painting, has cultural meaning, social meaning, whether we read it, watch it, look at it, or not. A photograph doesn't. We have to look at it before it means. Something something analogy with quantum something.

A photobook, you might think, is maybe more like a novel? There is, after all, structure, right?

The trouble here is that the structure is not a structure of signs, of nuggets of meaning. It's a structure of these higher-order, or anyways different, objects. These things which are themselves mute, which each demand reading in order to mean. The photobook is an exterior supplying meaning to photographs, far far more than a novel is an exterior supplying meaning to words and sentences.

The photobook intercedes between the world, between us, and the individual pictures. It's an intermediate layer and as such is part of that outside from which we make the meaning of the pictures.

It is as if a movie's script was somehow exterior to the film itself, as if we had to pass through the script to a mute, meaning-free collection (somehow) of footage, to which we then applied meaning. It is as if the plot of the novel was outside the book itself, and told us how to make sense of each of the words on the page.

I am not convinced, in short, that the current program of making sense of photographs and photobooks in terms of things like movies is a very good one. I don't think any of this shit works like that.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Magazine Covers

You may recall that some little while ago Jörg Colberg wrote a book called Photography's Neoliberal Realism about which I had things to say. I don't intend to further critique his book, but I will refer to some ideas from it from time to time. Let's think about the covers of magazines. Specifically, the kinds of covers with some perfectly lit photograph of some celebrity, the covers of "Vogue", "Vanity Fair", "Cosmopolitan" and so on.

First some non-controversial basics. This is just How Magazines Work. I may have a few details wrong, or insufficiently clarified, but in broad strokes all this is basic stuff:

The editorial staff of a magazine, any magazine, has a pretty clear idea of a notional reader, a member of their audience. Let's call him Bob. Bob is a pretty specific type of person, with pretty specific tastes, interests, educational background, socio-economic status, and so on. Magazines spend a lot of time and effort working out who Bob is, because Bob is the essential component of how they sell advertising: Bob x Number of Subscribers = Ad Revenue.

So the content of the magazine is stuff Bob finds interesting. Bob may want to be challenged, so not everything is (necessarily) stuff Bob agrees with. Bob may (or may not) want to learn new things. Etcetera. The magazine need not be pure Bob-fanservice, but it's Bob-centric.

At the same time the editorial staff may smuggle in their own ideas, often dressing it up as "Bob really needs to know this" or "What Bob is really interested in is.." and so on. Nothing too far outside the envelope of what Bob actually wants to see (otherwise the magazine simply fails) but editors can and do push that boundary. They can and do willfully shape Bob. Note that this shaping derives not from this article or that, this photo or that, but it rooted in the editorial policy and direction of the magazine. It's a process, not a thing. The photos and articles are just manifestations of the process.

So, to review, the content of the magazine is the result of an editorial policy which is made up of: the editorial staff's best guess at what will get Bob to buy and subscribe, blended subtly with the editorial staff's biases, smuggled in ideas, and so on. It is only to first order "what Bob wants" but that is the starting point.

For the most part, though, I'm not at present interested in any ideological or political gaps between Bob and the magazine's editorial staff, so let us now set aside such differences and treat Bob and the editors as, functionally, the same for our purpose today.

Ok, so what about covers?

The point of the cover is to grab Bob's attention, to induce Bob to pick up the magazine, to leaf through it. The cover plus the content, ideally, induces Bob to plunk down money to buy it. So, note, in particular, the cover doesn't have to do anything for Sally. We don't care about Sally, just Bob. Note also that this implies an alignment of cover with content. If the cover is a big cheat and doesn't match the content, Bob won't be buying the magazine. This, in contrast to click-bait headlines where as soon as you click they win. The headline doesn't have to match the content at all, there.

Covers have to be enticing to Bob, and also align with the content, which in turn aligns with editorial policy, which is roughly Bob's interests.

So, that's the basic "how magazines work" material, and, yes, it's rapidly becoming obsolete. It is being recast in new online terms though, and the old ideas die hard.

So who is Bob for, say, "Vanity Fair" and its ilk? Bob strikes me as someone interested in fashion, culture, contemporary style, celebrity, maybe food, maybe makeup, a few other things. Sometimes more general news, sometimes a bit of politics. But mostly the magazines with the perfectly coiffed celebrity on the front will be built around fashion/culture/style. Bob is attracted to the celebrity on the front as, we presume, some sort of exemplar of fashion, culture, and style. You could no doubt research this and discover what Condé Nast puts in their sales materials about Bob.

In Colberg's book he remarks that James Franco was deleted from a cover when it was revealed he had some #metoo problems. This is, I think, pretty standard. Celebrities lose their cover-worthiness when they fail to comply with whatever the current social standards are. In different eras it's different things. Communism? Public drunkenness? An affair? Depending the decade, these can be nothingburgers, or career-enders. Franco's deletion reveals something of what the current standards include for cover-worthiness, and more to the point reveal that a high degree of squeaky-cleanness is demanded in order to get a cover. What "squeaky-clean" means changes, but the need for whatever it currently is remains.

This provides another angle on the same notion: cover models are exemplars of certain facets of contemporary culture. They are stylish, fashionable, and they comply with the rules of society. They are socially successful. They're winning.

Apparently this is what Bob admires, and perhaps aspires to be. At least, the editorial staff think so, and they do sell a magazine from time to time so perhaps they're right.

Colberg tried to make a connection from Annie Leibovitz to Socialist Realism which, I contend, failed. In the process, though, he pointed to a relationship between certain kinds of magazine covers and heroic realism, which is ultimately where I am going here.

When Scarlett Johansson appears on the cover of "Vogue," that appeals to Bob. He likes her, he thinks she exemplifies certain things. This is precisely what heroic realism did, and does. The imagery reflects, in an almost blockheadedly direct way, the precise values that we're trying to express, the precise values we hold dear, the precise values we are unambiguously selling to the population.

ScarJo is presented to us as perfect. Perfect hair, perfect makeup, perfectly beautiful. Her behavior and attitudes are, by definition, perfect. It is established that "Vogue" will boot you if you're not perfect.

To be fair, ScarJo isn't heroic as such, but she is an exemplar of a certain desirable, aspirational, cultural type when she appears on the cover of "Vogue." The cover holds her "up" with the direction being operative. We are supposed to, as I see it, look "up" at her as an exemplar, rather than "across" or "down" as if she were a news item or an object of pity or sympathy. We look "up" just as we might look "up" at the figures in heroic realism.

She sells a lifestyle of culture, style, fashion (of a certain very specific stripe) as a desirable thing. A pretty expensive lifestyle. She may be selling a specific political slant on life, or whatever else the editorial staff is currently smuggling in as part of their editorial policy, but she's selling something expensive and un-revolutionary. Expensive, but status-quo. She tells us that large corporations await to serve our whims on makeup, styling, clothing.

The editors who own the editorial policy are affluent media types. Bob, one assumes, aspires to an expensive lifestyle, long on trappings but short on substance. Bob is not necessarily liberal, but the target market for these magazines is, explicitly, fairly affluent and fairly white, so probably leans liberal.

What is on sale is a corporate, expensive, liberal-scented status quo. It is being sold by a figure which practically glows with success, at whom we look upward. This is neoliberalism, being sold in a mode not unlike the mode of heroic realism.

Just to hearken back again to Colberg's book: ScarJo on the cover is precisely selling neoliberalism. Jörg has that part dead bang.

There are real differences, though, as well. Not only is ScarJo not heroic she is also real. She is an economic, cultural, social center in her own right. "Vogue" is also an economic, social, cultural center. The placement of ScarJo on the cover of the magazine is an alliance, intended to burnish both. "Vogue" is lucky to get her on the cover, and also she is lucky to get on to the cover. The cultural capital of both is enhanced by the relationship.

When I paint Heroic-Apollo as the exemplar of my new fascist state, there is no alliance of centers. It's just the state. Apollo is just a metaphor for my state. The goal is to take Apollo's shine for my own, and to give little or nothing back. Apollo may be burnished, but only insofar as he is subsumed by my propaganda efforts. Apollo becomes a logo, not a cultural center in his own right.

The neoliberalism is, I think, pretty much on full display in the magazines I'm talking about. These are not "Guns & Ammo" or "American Mercenary" or even "Muscle Cars for Muscleheads."

The heroic realism is present, I think I have shown, but in a modified way. You could argue that this thing is a different thing that just smells a bit like heroic realism, and I wouldn't disagree. It is different, but it does smell a lot like it.

Friday, February 12, 2021

On Criticism

I spend an unhealthy amount of time fuming about things other people write about photography.

The thing that bothers me the most, I think, is that people who style themselves experts tend to offer what are, in the end, personal takes on photographs as this were the objective truth of the thing. There's nothing wrong with a personal take, and often I agree with the personal take in broad strokes. My personal take is largely aligned with that one, and so forth.

The trouble arises from the presentation of a personal take as universal, as the "correct" take. All other readings merely illustrate that you're dumb, a Nazi, or both.

It occurs to me that what we're seeing is actually an inability to separate two things.

First, that there is a ground truth to a photo. If we set aside the less mainstream interpretations of quantum mechanics, then there is, or was, a single, well-defined, ground truth to a photo.

Florence Thompson was thinking something in this picture. She had a specific mood. Her children likewise. She had an opinion, however minimal, about Dorothea Lange who was photographing her. These are well-defined ideas, and nobody doubts that there is a single correct answer to many questions like "how did Thompson feel about being photographed?"

This single correct answer, while clearly a thing we can point to, is in fact unknowable. While it is incontrovertible that Thompson had in this moment a pretty specific idea, there is no way to know what it was. It is gone, irrevocably, with a billion trillion other trivial details of the universe.

Secondly, there is the meaning we make of those photo. We form an idea, maybe, about what Thompson thought about being photographed. Our idea of her idea is meaning we make, it is not ground truth at all. The meaning we make is not a single thing, your idea and mine my be different. Your idea might change over time, or if you learn a new ancillary fact.

The meaning we make of a photograph is knowable, but multiple. The ground truth of a photograph is unknowable, but singular.

These two things are only very slightly related. Our guesses about the ground truth inform the meaning we make, so there is a tenuous thread linking the two, but we must not conflate the two.

I think many critics of photography do just that. I don't think John Edwin Mason, or Jörg Colberg, or Michael Shaw, or any of these people have it really really clear that these two are separate, and largely unrelated. The result is that they're not quite clear whether they're looking for a singular thing, or a thing with multiple aspects. They sort of blunder into a singular version of the thing that is knowable, namely their own reading of the picture.

This is wrong. The knowable thing is multiple. The singular thing is unknowable. They're separate.

You can certainly explore the singular thing, you can investigate the ground truth of the frame to your heart's content, and with diligence and effort you can often uncover some truly interesting material. That material may well color your personal reading of the photo, and you might share that information to see if it colors other people's readings.

Neverthless, personal readings are multiple, and personal. The forensic reading is the singular one, and it's impersonal.

Don't be muddling them up now.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Ariella Azoulay

I've been aware of Azoulay for some time now, but all her books are really expensive and anyways I thought I'd start with some material that's cited from time to time which is available on the internets. So I went and read, carefully, thoroughly, this material: Unlearning Decisive Moments of Photography.

This series is pretty broadly cited, generally, and serves as a kind of intellectual basis for a whole school of thought on photography, namely the "photography is literally, no, literally, violence" school. Mostly by, I suspect, people who have not actually read it. Anyways, let's take a look at it.

It is overwritten, deliberately obscure, and has a few too many bits of rhetorical sleight of hand for me to really approve. Azoulay is rather fond of intruducing a thing as a question, and later assuming it as if she'd proved while doing no such thing. Sometimes the transition from proposal to fact takes places in a single sentence.

Azoulay's idea is not a complicated one. She's interested in Imperial Power as expressed through European colonialism and its sequels (most importantly American Hegemony). Let's call this, broadly speaking, the Western Imperium, at least in part because I like saying "Imperium."

She correctly remarks that the Western Imperium arrogates to itself certain rights and powers, the rights to go, do, destroy, take, see, record whatever, wherever, and whenever it wills. It is not clear that she realizes that these are basic to conquest of all stripes, from the Roman Empire to contemporary playground bullies. She is certainly interested exclusively in Western power, which she seems to visualize as a monolith, to the detriment of her argument.

Among the powers arrogated to the Western Imperium is the right to record, and to carry home recordings, of anything and everything. This she identifies as a "photography" construed politically, which is a pretty good take, to be honest. Men laboriously drawing artifacts in colonized countries is arguably an antecedent for photographing the same things. The Western Imperium, perhaps informed by Enlightenment thinking, justifies its looting both physical and visual on the grounds of knowledge, of learning. This is not unique to the current empire, but neither it it universal, so that's interesting.

John Berger covered much the same material, from the point of view of visual representations as a kind of possession, in the 1970s. These ideas have been around a while, the only serious post-Berger addition is the emphasis on the notional rights of the subject and, to a lesser extent, the viewer.

Azoulay now spends quite a bit of time, essentially, trashing what she calls photography but which is actually photojournalism, or perhaps slightly more broadly a category of documentary photography. Azoulay does not care about, indeed seems not to be aware of, your pictures of your kids. I will follow her usage, not because it's good, but because I am lazy.

Her effort to characterize photography as destructive don't really work, because all she can do here is juxtapose photography with the destruction of conquest. Placing two things next to one another does not make them the same, no matter how often you do it.

She does a bit better when she remarks that photography (in her broad characterization as "reproduction") renders, by definition, everything it records as "seeable" in a public kind of way, especially in the Western Imperium which likes to stick stuff in museums. These things, in some cases, were not meant to be universally seeable. Colonized cultures often had stuff that was secret, private, that existed in hierarchies of seeability, and that is all torn away by the colonizers.

I will have more to say on this revelation of secret things toward the end, below.

Again, this is universal to conquest. Temples are routinely torn open, the gods dragged through the streets. On the playground, pants are pulled down and genitals are revealed for the amusement of almost everyone. We in the West may stick our loot in museums rather than dragging it down the street, but this effect is the same: the private is made public.

Azoulay again hits the mark when she points out that the right to photograph everything, to render everything seeable, is a right constructed by the Imperial power, and as such is not a universal but a theoretically reversible construct. This is merely a refinement of "the conquerer tends to make the rules" but it is at least on-point. This conquerer has made some rules about photography.

She wraps up with some ideas for making things better, which boil down to "collaborate with your subjects and don't be a tool of Empire" which, um, ok. Cool, cool.

So, there's some good stuff in there. It's not all wrong, and it's mostly not gibberish, and there's some solid points made.

The ideas, though, are basically pretty simple and the writing is deliberately obscure; one assumes it is obscure to make the ideas seem bigger and more complicated than they are. Certainly if you poke around you will find very little evidence that anybody's actually made it through, and when they have they didn't understand it.

The obvious fact that she has a very clear political axe to grind really mucks things up. She's anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian, which is a position I have a lot of sympathy for. This leads her astray, however. This singular axe, this singular world-view, leads her to characterize the Western Imperium's photographic project in very simplistic ways. She accomplishes this by ruthlessly leaving stuff out when it complicates.

In one place she talks about some photos of Palestinians from 1958, prisoners of the newly formed state of Israel. These pictures reiterate the Imperial narrative, etc and so forth. She leaves out the photographs taken a few years before in which the roles are reversed. Before the state of Israel was declared, the Jews were the bad guys, and there is plenty of photojournalism around that.

From there she could have pointed out that the Western Imperium is a multi-armed beast, and where the machinery of photojournalism once repeated narratives supportive of British Hegemony, it has in a decade or so mutated to support the new arm, that of Israeli Hegemony. That would have been nuanced, though, and suggested that maybe things are not as simple as she'd like them to be.

In the same way, she proposes that certain photojournalists working within the Palestinian faction today are "good" photographers, because they are collaborating with their subjects and not being tools of Empire, and this is why the Israeli snipers are shooting them.

If you're not a child you recognize that if Azoulay's arguments are to be taken seriously, these photographers are in fact likely in thrall to a nascent Palestinian Hegemony which is struggling to be born, just as the pro-Israeli photographers are in thrall to the pro-Israeli power that informs the Western Imperium.

This is where her political position regarding Israel and her view of the Western Imperium as monolithic really show. Because the Imperium is monolithic, one can divide photographers simply into good guys and bad guys, depending on whether they're working for, or against, the Imperium. Because she starts from the position that Israel is the bad guys, she gets to "Palestinian photographers are the good guys" with no effort whatever.

One begins to get the impression that Azoulay's argument is just a really really dense recapitulation of the woke tenet: "punching UP good, punching DOWN bad." I am myself not sure if what we're seeing here is a more nuanced and complex position that has been boiled down to the point where it resembles this, or if in fact this is all there is and all the lengthy books are just even more elaborate decorations of the same facile meme.

I suppose I'm going to have to do some more reading.

Anyways, it's true that photojournalism is, to a degree, in thrall to various forces. There are forces that shape messages. We do have unexamined assumptions that inform the way we take pictures and, just as importantly, the way we look at pictures (Azoulay has nothing to say on that, here.) Some of these forces are associated with one or another of the arms of Imperial power, some are not.

The point is that it's complicated. The Western Imperium is not a monolith, and photographers are not mindless thralls. Various arms of the Imperium struggle against one another, as they struggle to dominate the world. Insofar as photojournalists are in thrall to this and other sources of power, the messages they receive are mixed.

Further, photojournalists are fully functioning humans, and can, and do, to varying degrees, transcend their assumptions, break the control the Imperium and its cultural hegemony exert on their work, and provide in glimmers and bits and pieces something else, something outside the simple Imperial narrative.

That said, I think it does us some real good to consider the sources, always, to examine the ways in which larger forces, larger cultural assumptions, shape the stories we see in pictures. To reduce photojournalism purely to mindless recapitulation of Imperial narratives is maybe a bit too far, though.

Let's take another step back now, from the idea that photographers are just robots, to the larger idea that all activities of the Imperium are bad.

It is true that Napoleon looted Egypt for his museum. It is true that Europeans recorded the hieroglyphics of Egypt without asking anyone in Egypt if this was OK. These are facts recited by Azoulay. She leaves out other facts, though such as: it is also true that Europeans, as a result of these Imperialist Adventures, these undeniably destructive conquests, also recovered the knowledge of how to read hieroglyphics.

I don't want to get in to some game of ends and means, and weighing one against the other. The destruction of conquest is real. But also, the rediscovery of knowledge is real, and has real value.

In the same way the Western Imperium is something of a mixed bag. Let us not downplay the bad parts, but let us also not forget that, sometimes, these guys were doing just what it said on the tin. Mixed in with the evil, the looting, the destruction, is some of the good that the Imperium keeps advertising as its raison d'être.

On that theme, sometimes cultures are keeping things secret, unseen, private which are odious and are better revealed to the public. To imply, as Azoulay does, that they only things revealed through conquest are the beautiful and innocent artifacts of happy cultures is wrong. Sometimes what it revealed by western conquest is atrocity, horror, murder, slavery, oppression. Things which we, as Westerners, abhor.

We have a whole system of NGOs whose actual, literal, job is to crush, to destroy, certain cultural practices we find odious, and replace them with good Western/Enlightenment values and practices.

Are we wrong to impose our Western will on the practices of these remote cultures? Well, to do so is unquestionably an exercise of the power of conquest and empire. It is straight-up colonialism. But you don't find a whole lot of people in Western universities arguing that we ought to stand aside and reserve our power, in the interest of letting other cultures flourish.

It's complicated. The answers are not obvious, no matter how much we want them to be. The solutions are not simple, nor one-size-fits-all. It's all situational, it's all complicated, and it seems likely that in a lot of cases there is no truly satisfactory answer. There is no rule that says there has to be a pat answer, sometimes it's just effed up and all you can do is select the least-bad option.

Kinda how the world works, at least outside the Academy.