Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Curator of The Estate

I was going to update this with a tl;dr executive summary, but then I said to myself "why would I do that?" and so I am not.

There are many things a curator might do, depending on circumstances. But, in one case in particular, a case of some interest to me, the curator is limited to precisely one job.

Suppose that you come in to possession of a collection of disorganized... stuff... as the result of someone's death. You might be Max Brod suddenly saddled with Franz Kafka's papers. You might be one of the several people who somehow managed to get the right to paw through Emily Dickinson's papers. You might be John Maloof, or John Szarkowski, with an immense pile of someone's undeveloped film. In all these cases, and many more besides, it might occur to you to whip this material into shape and publish something under the name of the original author.

It is this case that I am interested in, and in this case the curator's job is severely restricted. If you intend to publish Disckinson's poems under the name "Emily Dickinson" it is essential that you publish what is actually the work - the final result of the process of writing poems - of that person, as best you can. If you make up a bunch of your own poems, or edits hers into something quite different, then you are telling a lie when you publish the work under her name. It is immoral and wrong to do that.

Let me state it clearly, then: If you are the curatorial executor of someone's disorganized mess, with the aim of bringing to the public that someone's creative "work" you have a very precise job, and there is no wiggle room: To locate, within that disorganized mess, the artist, and to reveal that artist to the world through their work.

It may turn out, when you try to do the first part, that you cannot locate the artist. Perhaps there is no artist, perhaps it's just a mess. Perhaps it is beyond your power to locate the artist. This must surely happen a great deal. For every Dickinson there are thousands, or millions, of people who leave piles of paper with writing on them. The first couple of curators of Dickinson, if wikipedia is to be believed, performed their work shoddily.

There are indeed several risks here, and one of them is greatly magnified in the world of photography: whether or not there is anything worthwhile in the mess, it is altogether too easy to construct something out of it that is not the artist.

Don't believe me? I direct your attention to the seemingless endless masses of work being churned out based on "found photographs." If someone can build a coherent book around a collection of a few thousand Polaroids they have collected over the last decade or so, I can assure you that it would be as nothing to produce a dozen completely different but equally coherent books around Vivian Maier's negative stash. Alternatively, go out into a city and shoot 1000 frames without much concern or care, and then go home and see what you find. Suffice it to say, it is manifest and obvious that an insufficiently delicate curator could certainly manufacture something completely false out of a large stash of pictures.

Let us suppose then that you are able to locate the artist in there. This is a gestalt of stuff hard to categorize completely, but it certainly includes choices of subjects, stylistic tics, and bigger ideas. One might find several groupings of stuff, and thus end up trying to tease out this thread or that theme. I dare say it is difficult work, and the diligent worker will inevitably be plagued with worry that they are missing something, or that perhaps they are actually just inventing an artist by accident.

Indeed, what comes out cannot even at its best fail to be something of a hybrid. Even if you were gifted a completed, brilliant, novel and found a publisher for it there would still be the copyedit, and still commas would be removed by, well, by someone, commas that the original author might have firmly marked stet, let it stand.

And then we come around to John Maloof and Vivian Maier.

She left behind something like 140,000 exposures, of which John has, I forget, a lot. Could John have created any number of entirely synthetic "photographers" from this collection? Easily. Identify a handful of stylistic tics, pull all examples of those and put them into heaps. Cull a couple of the bigger heaps for related collections of subjects or conceptual themes. Done. This is literally SOP in the vernacular photography world. They do it every single day of the year, more often on holidays.

Now, this also is almost exactly what you do when you are as I suggest above "locating the artist" within the mess. The difference is that your time with the archive convinces you that the stylistic tics and subjects and concepts are genuinely indicative of the artist.

Consider this picture:



This definitely looks like something. The juxtaposition of the woman's legs in motion with the newspaper headline, it feels weighty. And sort of familiar, but let's set that aside. If we kept stumbling over these downward looking juxtapositions, that might suggest something. If we kept running in to feet next to other things, maybe. Or whatever. Based on what little is available, though, what I suspect is that this is a picture of a newspaper headline and the woman's feet are an accident. Maier liked headlines, she shot a lot of them. It's possible that she shot one at the end of every roll as a sort of date stamp, to be honest.

What makes the picture interesting, what will certainly cause the fans to coo, is the juxtaposition. Listening in, we'd be treated to breathless essays about the genius of the photographer, essays as free of ideas or content as they are of breath. We will never see another picture of this sort, however. Instead we will see a glum midwesterner seated vacantly behind washed out balloons. And then a man inexplicably hidden in a hedge. And then, just a newspaper. And then silhouettes on a green translucent texture that looks like a cheap copy of something Jay Maisel made. And on and on, no two photographs showing the slightest sign of being made by the same hand.

Lest you think it's just me, allow me to quote the Roberta Smith writing in the NY Times:

Maier’s photographs lack the consistent, indelible style of Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand or any number of her contemporaries. Instead they may add to the history of 20th-century street photography by summing it up with an almost encyclopedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction. Yet they maintain a distinctive element of calm, a clarity of composition and a gentleness characterized by a lack of sudden movement or extreme emotion.

Yeah. What she said. But you know, Roberta, there might be another explanation...

Whether or not there is an artist to be located in the Vivian Maier archives we may never know. What we do know for certain is that John Maloof has neither located, nor created, an artist. He has simply extracted a set of greatest hits, a marketable mess of unrelated gibberish which feels so familiar that we're willing to mistake it for excellence. He's simply pulled out the good ones, without any effort to pull out a coherent oeuvre (whether real or imagined).

The only reason this works is that so many photographers and viewers of photography remain locked into the notion of photography as the act of finding "the good ones." They, we, our community, tend to think of even a body of work as nothing more than a collection of excellent single pictures. It therefore does not jump out at most appreciators of the work, even the well educated and erudite ones like Mike J, that these collections are incoherent. Many of the individual pictures are excellent, after all, so it escapes notice that every picture might as well have been shot by a completely different photographer.

Maloof has not given us the oeuvre of an artist, even a fake one, he has given us the result of an editor pulling the best single frames from a gigantic pile. The output of an artist, even a poor one, does not look like this.

It is perhaps worth recalling, as a sort of aside, that John Szarkowski seems to have had difficulty locating Winogrand in those last few thousand rolls. I had a look myself, and I couldn't find him either.

Maloof has not merely failed in his duty as the curatorial executor of a woman's mess of stuff, he has not merely put perhaps too much of himself into the artist he's created, he has failed even to produce an artist at all. He's made a lot of money, though.

And therein lies the crux of the whole scam. A fellow accused me of hating on Vivian Maier for "transparently self-serving" reasons, but I assure you that my opinions and the expression of them have failed to serve me in the slightest. Nobody has given me any money, or even a light snack. I have received no invitations to speak, nor fellowships. As nearly as I can discern, no benefit whatever has accrued to me for expressing these notions.

Allan Sekula, however, no doubt received a small honorarium for his hagiographic essay, and there is no doubt in my mind that Meyerowitz also accepted a little money to write a foreword for the new book of color. Indeed, there is hardly a person involved who is not in a position to profit, here. A gallerist might stand up and say "this is a sham" but what would it profit him? Not one sou. If you're not making a profit off this very popular character yet, just wait, perhaps you will next year. There is literally no up side to pissing in to this particular breeze, so it is hardly surprising that we see very little pushback.

And, to be honest, I cannot shake the notion that guys like Sekula are willing to play along because whether or not they're even paying enough attention to notice, they do know that Maier is not important in the ways that matter. She's popular, she's a money-maker, but she's not going to be influential, she will never have any students, her work will spawn no theory, no schools of thought, no new insights real or imagined. All the essays are the same, simply droning on in vague terms about her skill, her observational power, her mysterious past, and so on. Her impact on photography as an art, as a practice, as a business, will be nil. Her impact on the business of making money off dead artists might be slightly larger, but seriously, even there it's pretty much business as usual.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

- Upton Sinclair

Friday, November 16, 2018

Photographing Poverty

I am making a little project of reading the LIFE essays by Gordon Parks, the black photographer and writer who produced quite a few important studies of the situation of black Americans for that magazine. Most recently, I read through "A Harlem Family" from LIFE Magazine's March 8, 1968 issue. Google books, happily, seems to have all or most of LIFE available online. It's a bit of a hassle to read this Enormous Format magazine on a small screen, and anything printed across the gutter has to be mentally re-assembled, but we make do.

Gordon Parks was sent out with a couple other journalists after the race riots of 1967 to go figure out, and then explain to LIFE's readers, what the hell was going on in the ghettos. Parks found a black family willing to be his subjects, the Fontenelles, living in Harlem. Over a period of some weeks he spent time with the family daily, learning their habits, moods, the patterns of their lives. He photographed these things, after a little while, and wrote a rather moving essay to go with it.

The piece put me in mind more or less immediately of the assignment from Fortune Magazine, given to James Agee and Walker Evans, to go out and similarly study the Tenant Farmer of the American South, and to similarly explain it to that magazine's readers some 30 years before Parks did his project. Both mothers, tellingly, despair vocally about their inability to make their homes "pretty."

The similarities are almost startling. Both are in-depth studies, performed on a timescale of some weeks, of more or less a single family (in the case of Agee/Evans it's an extended family spread over three nuclear families, but in a very real way it's still one family), living in abject poverty. The results are both very very similar, and also substantially different.

First, the families themselves. In many ways the Burroughs family (the center of Agee's study) is much more abjectly poor than the Fontenelle family. Their clothing is far worse, they have as near as I can tell no cash money and no friends who have cash money (more on this in a moment). Death is always very near: it is normal that many of your children will die, a serious injury is likely to end in death as no medical care worthy of the name is available, every service you might want to use or item you might want to buy is miles away and mostly you walk. On the other hand, the Burroughs have ample, albeit bad, food. They have work, much of the year. They have, curiously, access to quite a bit of credit from their landlord. The Fontenelles, in contrast, have access to medical care (although I dare say it's expensive). They can get to government services, which may or may not help them. When Mr. Fontenelle is out of work, he probably has friends who are working, and who therefore have a little money. This in turn allows him to get drunk.

Both live in deplorable conditions, with rats and other vermin. Both live in profoundly inadequate housing, with actual holes in the walls.

The Fontenelles enjoy what can be viewed in a way as a luxury: Mr. Fontenelle can beat the hell out of his wife, who can then throw boiling water laced with sugar and honey on him, sending him to the hospital. The Burroughs must consume all their energy with work, at least in the summer, it is not clear that violent relations are even possible. Mrs. Burroughs has no honey, nor sugar, and would not waste sorghum so. If either were to become severely burned, the consequences would be catastrophic for the entire family, and likely the person with the burns would simply die. Mr. Fontenelle can get drunk, Mr. Burroughs cannot, no matter how much he would like to, because access to both whiskey and the cash to buy it are simply out of reach.

The truly common thread here, which is shared entirely with their modern counterparts who live otherwise in circumstances both the Fontenelles and the Burroughs would surely consider unimaginable luxury, is that all families in poverty are trapped. They live within a system that demands all that they have in order simply to maintain their tenuous grasp on their living situation. Screw up, outside of whatever the acceptable boundaries are, and down you go to a level of poverty that is unimaginably terrible to you, and possibly to your death fairly soon.

So there we have the thumbnail. Poverty has very little to do with what little luxuries you can or cannot afford, but with a state of mind that arises from the fact that you are trapped, that you are expending all your effort merely to avoid falling, all with little hope for advancement.

But what about the photography?

This is very interesting, it turns out!

Both Agee in his words, and Evans in his photos, are at great pains to ennoble their subjects. Agee doesn't like Mr. Burroughs, but nonetheless waxes lyrical about the beauty of the endlessly patched and fragile garments the man wears. He mentions how lovely the cornshuck hats made by one branch of the family are -- beautiful but indicative of a very low social status, and so despicable. Agee shows the labor as crushingly hard, but even so seems to find a sort of mythic beauty even in that. Evans photographs of the family are likewise ennobling, showing them as tall, strong, charming, handsome, animated, curious, thoughtful. Evans depicts the interiors of the houses as a series of sort of shrines and elegant still lifes.

One comes away from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men not only appalled at the horrendous, crushing, poverty and the cruel system that inflicts it on these people, but also in a sense thrilled at the heroism and essential spirit of the people in the story.

In contrast, Gordon Parks work for LIFE does not ennoble the Fontenelles particularly at all. The pictures are dark, and ruthless in their cataloging of the depravity of the conditions in which the family lives. We see holes in the walls, we see rags and filth. We see Evans-like details, especially of the mother's inevitably fruitless efforts to make the home "pretty", but rather than Evans' reverential treatment we are shown the pitiable side of the business. We see huddled children, staring blankly, rather than the animated and curious faces of the children Evans photographed.

Interestingly, to compare Agee's writing and Parks' we might well conclude that the Fontenelle children are in reality far more engaged and animated than the Burroughs kids, but the pictures imply exactly the opposite story.

Insofar as Parks ennobles anyone, it is Mrs. Fontenelle who by his account is the only thing keeping this thing going at all. She is beaten, both in the literal sense, and in the sense of having lost, utterly, and of being exquisitely aware of that. And yet, she carries on, more or less because there isn't anything else to do. Agee suggests that, contrariwise, every member of the Burroughs' extended family carries on, beaten, because there isn't anything else to do. Some of the Fontenelles, one imagines, feel they might somehow have options, but none of the Burroughs do.

And so we have two stories, of two families. The family who is, in the particulars of living, objectively better off albeit just as trapped and just as essentially poor, is depicted in a tone and manner than suggests a far worse situation. The earlier family, in most particulars objectively far poorer but again just as trapped and just as essentially poor, is depicted with a tone and manner that makes them seem better off.

I find it fascinating how some things are reversed from reality in the reportage, and yet how the essential underlying reality of poverty is perfectly discernible in both cases.

Searching for explanations, one more or less immediately comes across some facts.

Parks grew up poor and, of course, black. He could more or less instantly identify with the Fontenelles, their story is his story. He escaped, as people occasionally do by some combination of good fortune, talent, and hard work. One could be forgiven for supposing that Parks displays his subjects without much nobility because he knows full well there is no nobility here. His sympathy seems curiously muted, but there you have it. These people are, for Parks, exquisitely real, as is their situation.

On the other side, both Agee and Evans are children of money. They are well educated, well off, and both quite definitely absolute snobs. The Burroughs family is something beyond their comprehension (in the same sense that it is beyond mine, and most likely beyond yours -- we can master and deplore the facts their story, but after some point we are unable to feel it and grasp it essentially, our empathy can carry us a ways, but not to the end of it.) It is reasonable to suppose, but unprovable, that they both chose to ennoble their subjects as a way of coping with the reality their noses were being rubbed in. Perhaps it was a way to find some sliver of good in what was so obviously unrelenting cruelty. Or maybe they were both just kind of effete idiots, prone to such blathering.

Anyways, there you have it. Perhaps by comparing these two things we can learn a little something about the condition of poverty, I don't know. I feel like I am a trifle wiser for it, perhaps.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Vivian Maier, Again

Confidential to David S.: You're welcome!

Mike over on ToP mentions Yet Another book by the (not even slightly) mysterious nanny, this one of color photographs. I have not seen the book, but if you flip through the color section of John Maloof's web site we find more of what we ought to thoroughly expect at this point.

All the pictures look vaguely like other pictures we've seen. This one looks a bit like an Elliot Erwitt, that one looks a bit like an Alec Soth, this one looks like some random contemporary MFA candidate's Serious Work (or like she pressed the shutter button by accident, I could go either way). Oh look, here's one where you photograph some random scene, but hold up some optical thing in the middle of it, to create a circle of upside-down and magnified (or whatever) scenery. Some of it looks like black and white photography that happens to be shot in color, a little bit of it actually looks like color photography, in the sense that color is actually playing a role in the picture.

You could certainly argue with whether I have Erwitt or Soth pegged properly, but the point is that we've seen all these pictures before, and not in the same place. This is an incoherent pastiche of vaguely familiar pictures, not the body of work of an artist, of a serious photographer.

That is to say, it is exactly like all the Vivian Maier books.

What is plain and obvious to anyone who hasn't been sucked in by the myth is that there is no Vivian Maier style here. Since she appears to be "copying" artists who post-date her, often by many decades, we are (again) drawn to the inescapable conclusion that this is entirely a work of curation. Again, we are left wondering what her pictures actually look like, when not clumsily sorted into these pseudo-derivative messes designed purely to sell books.

Is there, in fact a real Vivian Maier that could be discovered if we were not being spoon-fed these cheap copies of other photos? Or is it really just a mass of random snaps, large enough to pull a handful of highly marketable monographs out of, marketable if you wrap them up in a good enough story?

As an aside, I see that the amazon description of the book continues to pound the "mysterious nanny" story when in fact we know more about Vivian Maier than we do about Napoleon, and nobody refers to him as an enigmatic, mysterious, Emperor.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

I'm Not Even Sure What This Means

Someone, as you may recall, signed me up for some magazines (I assume Chris Gampat, in a fit of pique over my remarks on his terrible magazine), which subscriptions I cancelled immediately of course. However, this has not stopped them from sending me a few mags. Free magazines! Thanks, Chris! The most recent gift was a copy of Vanity Fair, which has a pretty good collection of fairly high end fashion adverts.

I love fashion photography. Not for the clothes and the girls, although those are certainly very nice. I like it for the sheer weight of artifice.

Here's an easy one.



Armani has been rocking this crazy out of focus thing for, at least a year I think? Anyways, check the color palette. It's pure slate greys, with a very slightly gold touch of silver in the strap of the purse. Which is echoed in the indistinct mass of decorative crap around the model's neck and chest. Very consistent.

So what? you say, this is probably a composite on a digitally drawn background, or at best in a studio.

Ok, look at this Coach ad:



The model is styled to the nines here. Skin tone, the glasses, the blouse, the coat, it's all the same ultra-warm brown tones. Beautiful, but just good styling. But look in the background. Those buildings in the distance. The same hue. Some are quite bright, maybe more yellow, but there's that one brick wall back there that's practically a perfect match for the fur on the coat. It's eerie.

Bottega Venata:



We've seen these colors already. Warm browns and slate greys are In. Ok, so they lit the phone booth to match her jacket. Good work, set crew. But wait, see those safety barriers in the background? Same damn orange hue as her lapels and purse.

House Dior:



Yeah yeah, same slate greys. Nice choice on the balcony doors, the whole balcony is all pale greys, a little slate, and blacks, just like the clothes. Did you spot it yet? Check the architectural detail in the background that hits the models at chin height. The shadows and stonework are the same yellow/orange as those absurd epaulets on the one model's jacket. Even the lettering at the bottom is yellow.

And last but certainly not least, Calvin Klein:



By now you should notice instantly that the trees in the distance are the color of faded denim. Nice detail of the railing hitting just at her waistline. But did you notice how the horizon lines hits their jeans? That's not an accident.

I love these things, because they are so very very made. The point of these exercises, surely, is to make the photographs feel fully controlled, to let the viewer know, mostly unconsciously, that these pictures were made by someone who was totally in control of every aspect.

I feel a kind of surrealist element here (which by the way D&G hits pretty head on in their ads) but since it's usually subliminal I'm not sure it really counts. These things, glanced at, appear to be just pictures of models, in clothes, standing around looking vaguely surly. Is there a word for "surrealist, but hidden, unconscious?" I dunno, but I feel like there should be one. If it's not just "surrealist."

Saturday, November 10, 2018

"Engages With"

The phrase "engages with" is one of the more irksome in the art world. Along with "necessary" which means "this thing aligns with my simplistic acadamy-approved leftist politics" it is the phrase that most vigorously provokes my temper.

Political change in this world occurs in precisely two ways: Someone votes for something, or someone shoots someone else.

Everything else boils down to persuading people to do one thing or the other thing. Ghandi and Martin Luther King worked quite hard to persuade people in legislative bodies to vote in certain ways. Lenin worked quite hard to persuade other people to shoot yet other people.

Politics, political action, therefore, must ultimately come down to asking people to either vote, or to open fire. At the end of the process, you need to persuade people to vote "Yes" or "No" on a specific thing, or you must provide people with guns, bullets, and an identifiable target. One step removed from that, you can talk about the general shape of things which ought to be voted for (or shot). You can step back a little further and talk about changes you'd like to see in the world, and what kinds of things we might choose to vote on, and who ought to vote for them.

Art which "engages with" an issue invariable takes another ten steps back, and merely deplores the way the world is.

This is, to be sure, a starting point. You've got to clearly delineate what's wrong before you can proceed through the next steps. You need to explain what's wrong with the world as it is before you can hope to open a discussion of what the world might be, and thence the discussion of things we might vote on (or shoot), and thence the discussion of wording and how to persuade people to vote, and thence the persuasion to actually vote, and thence the counting of the votes and finally the battle to see the results of the vote actually take shape.

"Engaging with" is easy. You simply pick out something all your friends deplore, and deplore it. There is no intellectual effort here to even work out what the next step might be, let alone any of the actually difficult slogging through the steps after that one. The game is entirely to develop new and ever more outré ways to express how sad you are. "I know, I will make a sculpture of Donald Trump out of my own shit" (except I assume that's already been done). I see no way that a fecal sculpture of Donald Trump leads to impeachment hearings, or even a US president from another party in 2021. It will garner shivery and excited reviews, though, which is rather the point.

Gene Smith's Minamata, one of my big touchstones here, details what happened inside the Japanese government and judiciary, it details the response of Chisso. Aileen Smith took a side trip to Canada to investigate methyl mercury pollution there, and identified specific things the government was not doing, what the government was doing that was insufficient and thwarted.

While the Smiths did not call out specific remedies, and did not call for so-and-so to be shot, they did dig deeper than simply deploring the situation in Japan and Canada. They named names, they called for specific actions. They provided a historical record as a template. They were not lazy, nor were they merely working hard but ineffectually.

Another personal touchstone. You might say that Sally Mann's work on racism is too far removed from concrete steps of political action, and it certainly does not do much more than detail and deplore the situation. I think her work is more of a personal lament than a call to action. I don't see it as an attempt, particularly, to foment change. Perhaps I am giving Mann a pass here, because of my fondness for her and her work.

There is no denying, though, that Mann is doing difficult emotional labor here. She is examining the world around her, but at the same time herself. While it might be a stretch to say Mann's photography is really about Sally Mann, certainly there is a lot of Sally Mann in there. One can usefully grasp the work as being about Sally Mann (whether it presents a true telling of her is another question entirely, but it is certainly a telling if not the telling.)

Art that "engages with" leaves out the hard political work of devising next steps, but also seeks to avoid the difficult emotional work of the lament for how things are. In this sort of hybrid of a call to political action and of a personal lament, the artists are able to pick and choose the bits and pieces, somehow always selecting the easy bits, the trivial bits, and leaving out the hard ones.

These people want to use the documentary methods, to retain their safe distance and avoid emotional, personal, labor. Yet they also do none of the work that ought to follow a political call to action. They abdicate all responsibility, in favor of the cheap and simple deploring of whatever it is that their friends agree is deplorable.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Tradition!

As it happens, one cannot become a mathematician without learning from other mathematicians.

Well, I dare say that there are occasional weird geniuses who could manage it simply by reading, but these people are extraordinarily rare. Math departments often have one or two unaffiliated but tolerated kooks hanging around the place who fancy themselves members of this rare breed, peddling their theories of quantum marshmallow gravity or whatever. They are tolerated, I think, because the main difference between these kooks and the Real Mathematicians is that the latter agree on their underlying system of abstract craziness, and can generally reproduce one another's fancies. Occasionally, some fancy or another manages to match up with the real world and someone can build the Hydrogen Bomb which always exciting.

In any case, mathematicians are aware, I think, that the veil between kookery and mathematics is fairly thin, so the quantum relativity guys are not dragged off by security as long as they don't pee in the staff lounge, or drink too much of the coffee.

Mathematicians are mildly obsessed with the family tree of master / apprentice relationships, who advised whose thesis, and so on. Also, with who has published papers with whom. Essentially all mathematicians can trace themselves back to Gauss, by one path or another. There is little in the way of "islands" in mathematics.

Hanging around with other mathematicians for many years is necessary to master the processes and techniques of mathematics. The kooks in general have no such mastery, but simply ape the general shapes of things, poorly.

A side-effect of hanging around and learning the methods, though, is that one also learns a surprising amount of aesthetics. The bearded fellow at the front of the lecture hall intones "A beautiful theorem of Banaschewski" and later your advisor, staring at your scribbled idea, mumbles "well, it seems right, but it's very ugly" and so on. A few years of this and you've got a pretty good notion of what pretty mathematics looks like, as opposed to the other sort.

The kooks may, interestingly, have some grasp on the aesthetics, but lacking the mechanics, being as it were an island of one worker with no connection to anyone else, they don't actually have anything interesting to say.

Onwards.

Painting is, I believe, similar. The methods and processes of painting are complex enough that if you want to be any good at it, you've got to hang around with someone who knows this stuff. You can struggle along with some books, but if your experience is anything like mine, you cannot really even learn to draw from a book, let alone paint.

In the process of learning how to get paint to stick to canvas, and how to mix green, and where to hold the brush, you're likely to learn something of aesthetics. Indeed, in the fine arts, it's likely that your teachers will be at some pains to pound some such notions into your head.

While Painting with a capital P may not be quite as thoroughly connected a family tree as mathematics, I do think that there are not too many small islands of thought, technique, and method. Mostly, everyone learned from someone else, and they learned from someone else, who collaborated with someone, and so forth. Perhaps not back to Leonardo, but many steps.

Consider now photography.

Photography is at its heart, as I have argued elsewhere, entirely a process of selection rather than creation. The mechanics of the process are so thin as to be negligible. The essential thing in photography consists of nothing but the aesthetic considerations, all those pesky issues of what it looks like, what it means, why is it good, or bad, or stupid, or monumentally important.

Photography distills fine art to exactly those details which, in other disciplines, are passed on more or less osmotically through a long apprenticeship, through long collaborations, through long associations with other workers in the field so necessary to master the techniques and methods.

Tragically, photography simultaneously removes all immediate need for any such associations. You can in fact master the processes and methods of photography simply by reading the manual. This is indeed the entire point of all commerce in the equipment and materials of photography -- to enable the amateur to more and more easily master the methods and techniques of photography without any kind of apprenticeship.

This has led to endless little islands of thought and method. I was taught, to the extent that I was taught by anyone which is not much, by my father who learned it as far as I know from the manual. I am one of an island of two. There are endless islands of one out there, the 'self-taught' photographer is practically a cliche.

This is not to say that apprenticeships are not available; but there are, and can be, no "schools" of any meaningful sort. God knows I can take a workshop from any number of assholes, none of who learned anything from anyone. Ming Thein sits at the top of a family tree, an island of photographers with, I dare say, hundreds of members. None of these photographers have much of a connection to any larger tradition, it's simply Ming's ideas which he got mainly from the manual, and perhaps a few videos on technique. Virtually none of his students will successfully have many students of their own. This island of workers might peak at 1000 photographers before they start dying off, and in 100 years there will be nobody alive who learned from anyone who learned from Ming Thein.

There are a few programs that produce little collections of bores (I'm looking at you, Düsseldorf) and the result is a few dozen or a few hundred students all doing more or less related work, all working from as well as building a Tradition of some sort. These schools are inevitably going to be drowned out. You don't have to go live with Thomas Ruff for five years if you want to take pictures, so mostly people won't. Whatever sense of aesthetics Ruff has learned, rebelled against, and expanded into his own will not last much past him. The Düsseldorf school might last 3 or 4 generations, but I predict that in due course there will be nobody alive in the chain of teacher / student with a connection to the Bechers.

In short there is no Tradition in photography, and this appears to be irrevocably the case.

I don't suggest that Tradition is the be all and end all, but it is the path through which more than technical knowledge passes. Ideas about what is beautiful, what is good, what is meaningful, and what matters are also passed down through Traditions.

Photography, unfortunately, lacks these things. For better or for worse.

Sometimes, to be sure, for better.

Friday, November 2, 2018

"Photographers" are Weird

By "Photographers" I mean, probably no surprise to anyone, camera enthusiasts.

By weird, in this case, is their willingness to judge a human being based on their photographs. Not even photographs of the human being, but made by the human being.

The more interactive I am in the world of photography, the more frequently I get the "oh YEAH well let's see ur pix" which is code for "I disagree with you about something, and I intend to bolster my philosophical position by mocking your photographs, completely independently of whether they are any good or not" which is absolutely the damnedest rhetorical flourish ever.

So, disagreement with Andrew turns into judging Andrew's pictures as shit. Which they might be, sure, but it's clear that they want to judge my pictures based on something I said about The Nature Of Art or whatever, not on whether the pictures are shit.

Conversely, when I piss in someone's cheerios and say things like "I don't think Ming Thein was ever a hedge fund manager" or "Chris Gampat is a terrible designer" or "Patrick Laroque is a hilarious idiot" or "Olaf Sztaba is a grifter" or "Michael Reichmann's margins on this Galapagos tour are insane" (all of which I have said and stand behind) the argument against is that their pictures are wonderful.

What on earth do their pictures have to do with what I just said? Nothing! Nothing at all! If you could tell a man's character by the photographs they make, well, a lot of very good pictures would have turned out a lot worse. Conversely, if being a good and upright human was all that was required to make good pictures, we'd have more of those.

I honestly have no idea what to make of this phenomenon. Are these people just imbeciles? It's possible, but it seems remarkable that so many of them would be.