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Thursday, July 29, 2021

A Book

And Now for something Completely Different. I think I've shared bits and pieces of this before, but never the "entirety" as it were. It's not photography, just a book I made.

My neighbor, across the alley, Alan, is a man of God. In the best possible meaning of that word. Raised a non-observant Jew in Queens, he landed in his 20s in a Christian seminary, and went to be a minister for many years. Now he does different things, but still in the service of the church. He's a good man, a normal man, not too given to proselytizing, just a decorous and reasonable amount.

Also, he has a kind of affinity for Paul the Apostle. Paul said some stuff that makes him really kind of unpopular in these modern times, and at least from where I sit he's often held up as the source of much that's wrong with the Catholic Church. Be that as it may, Alan thinks Paul was a basically good fellow, and worth reading. Accordingly, I resolved to read Paul and see what exactly I made of it. So I did that.

Then I thought to myself, reminded somewhere along the lines of a reading copy of the King James Bible that my father owned, "wouldn't it be interesting to make an edition of Paul's letters just as if they were any other famous figure's letters?"

So I did that. And I made a book, and I built a copy of it for Alan as a gift, because I like Alan. Then I made three more copies to be finished elsewhere for other reasons, and then I built one for myself. This is what I am showing you here, today.

I have not the skill, the temperament, nor the equipment to make books that look machine-made, precise. Accordingly, I embrace a kind of hand-made aesthetic. Functional books, durable books (I hope), and maybe attractive books. But certainly a bit "artisanal" in character.

Blue bookcloth and a kind of outrageous gold paper I own. My sister probably bought it for me (thanks!) from Hollander's in Ann Arbor, MI.



The spine is printed with these super-sketchy "craft grade" rubber letter stamps that don't line up worth a damn and are hard to even get properly inked. Hand-made, baby!



Endpapers. Note deckle-edge. So chic! Also a good way to use that edge, in my opinion.



Front-matter. Note the somewhat too deeply sawn holes for sewing, those slots in the gutter. This does not affect function at all, but is a trifle un-aesthetic, I guess. Bastard Title. Frontispiece (tipped-in color plate, natch) and Title. Colophon and Dedication. Preface.






And finally some content to give a sense of the interior page design.




I have to say that I am very pleased with this book. I stole a lot of good ideas to make it, and I rather think it shows. Thank you, nameless generations of designers, who invented all these good things!

The case is a hair small front-to-back, but I got it on pretty straight which is good. The endpapers are likewise not precise, but fairly straight. The whole thing is good enough, and feels good in the hands. 7.5 inches by 5.5 inches (this is letter-sized paper folded in half and trimmed.) The thing looks a trifle short and squat, because Paul was short and squat. The blue and gold also refer to Paul, as does the little glyph which closes each chapter. The references are open, and slight, but deliberate.

The text is KJV, and I left the capitals at the beginning of each verse, as a very slight nod to the verse-structure traditionally imposed on the text. You don't notice it, reading (I don't) but it's there.

It's infinitely more readable than a traditionally formatted bible.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Non-Place

One of the more popular subjects in Modern Serious Photography is the non-place. This is generally an urban area, or suburban, with a lot of strip malls, vacant storefronts, that kind of thing. The places we recognize as failures of some sort of urban planning. Not picturesque old places, relatively new places (say, less than 50 years old.) Sometimes they're not even failures, except to snobs.

A bustling strip mall filled with profitable but down-market chain stores is, from this perspective, just as awful or perhaps worse than if it were half vacant.

The conceit here is that these architectural markers indicate a failure of community. This is flyover country. This is where Trump voters, or Tories, live. This is where the unwashed masses live. This is a non-place, a non-community, a sort of metaphor for hell. Capital built this stuff, and it has destroyed everything. Capital is very bad, and also I would like a lot more of it.

It's great material for the normal Art Project idea, because it stands in for Everything That's Wrong. You can write some jargon about income inequality or about the rise of fascism or of racism with equal ease, and it all reads the same.

In general, people are not shown in these projects, or if they are they're shown in very specific ways. See, for instance, Kleinstadt by the Mahlers, which featured the gloomiest lot of young people ever consigned to film. Once you've got your dismal non-place architecturally, you can shove some gloomy non-people in there to complete the scene.

None of this is real.

Yes, I feel it too. I've lived much of my life in flyover country, but I was raised an intellectual, and have spent important formative years on the coasts. I am a classic coastal elite, even to the point of hating coastal elitism which is now a standard part of the uniform.

Strip malls give me the creeps. I am repelled by down-market pizza brands.

But at the same time I recognize that places are not made by architecture. Places are made by people. Communities are made by people. Teenagers having a laugh and drinking shoplifted beer in the wretched park up the hill from the 7-11 is a universal, it doesn't depend on being on the coast, or having a certain percentage of PhDs in your community. Friends are made. Love happens, and un-happens, everywhere. Victories and tragedies occur. Books are, from time to time, written. Art is made. Songs are sung. Music is composed.

Community is a thing that happens when there are people around. Humanity in all its registers happens wherever there are humans, even in the presence of strip malls.

It is well established that architecture and urban design contribute enormously to quality of life. A well designed urban system creates happier, more fulfulled people. A badly designed urban system does not, however, crush all humanity to a miserable robotic existence. To propose that it does is an insult to everyone who lives there.

There's no shortage of people who will tell you that, basically, you can't photograph poor people. You can't photograph Appalachia. You can't do this, you can't do that, because it's bad representation and you are committing violence, and so forth.

Often, those very same people think nothing of going out to photograph strip malls and, and rambling on about the existential horror of the "non-place" which is equally bad representation, and which is at the same time an outright lie.

I've taken these photos, and I know you have to wait for the smiling beautiful girl to get out of frame. You have to wait for the lads laughing at a joke to move along. You have to walk ten feet left to avoid including the couple holding hands. I know how to make this lie, and I know it is a lie.

Yes, the architecture is shit, and not conducive to the best possible life. And yet, people continue to life full, rich, lives.

There is no such thing as a non-place.

If there are people there, in human terms it is somewhere.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

To Add Meaning

Here is a piece of the type that seems almost calculated to drive me into a fury. "Seven Ways of Giving Your Images Meaning" sounds really meaty, right? It sounds like something someone who's already figured out how focusing works could really use. It's not.

It starts out strong, with a very very elementary sketch of what meaning might be, but then veers violently and permanently into "Seven Vague Platitudes about Photography." Item 2 isn't even an action a photographer could theoretically take, it's just a sort of dopey observation. The 6 actual things that might be a way to do something definitely do not give any useful guidance for giving meaning to a photo. They're not bad ideas, but they don't "give meaning."

God. Damn. It.

Let's try to correct this a bit. I actually do make photo illustrations on a semi-regular basis, so I have more experience with making photographs that specifically mean something than might meet the eye. Never you mind where.

What is meaning anyway?

Let us go broad here, and say that it's any mental response that occurs as a result of contemplating a photograph (or whatever) which is not literally contained in the photograph.

If we were talking about writing, this would be practically everything. The only thing contained in text is a bunch of lines and dots.

A photograph might contain a mountain, a setting sun, some pink clouds. What it does not contain is "that's pretty" or even just an emotional "ahhhhh!" of relaxation and awe. As meaning goes, a judgement of prettiness is quite thin, so it's immediately obvious that meaning can vary in depth.

Meaning, construed in this way, is something the viewer constructs in their mind as a response to, and on the basis of, the photograph. The viewer is bringing their own mental baggage to bear on the picture, and imaginatively spinning out something new, something built as a fusion of picture and self. The picture works with the mental baggage of the viewer, to form this new thing, this meaning.

You, as the photographer, might like to have some slight command over the results of this operation, to steer at least a little the construction of this meaning. Well, what do you have to work with? There is the highly personal, which you cannot predict (unless you're making your photo for an audience of one (1) in which case, carry on!) Then there are the shared experiences, and the cultural backgrounds. Most of us have been shopping, most of us have seen a sunset. Most of us are aware of certain literary references, movie quotations, cultural tropes.

Long time readers might recall this chap. who made a Yorick reference with a camera replacing the skull. The literary reference is obvious, many people at least in the West are likely to get to "Hamlet" fairly quickly. They're likely to get to the slings-and-arrows speech, which isn't right, but whatever. The photographer did drag out a cultural trope, one many people will recognize, and in so doing opened the door to a construction of meaning.

And thus we see another difficulty. Not only can meaning be thoroughly shallow, it can be thoroughly incoherent. Regardless of whether you get to the slings-and-arrows speech, or the correct speech about vanity and death, it's not really clear what the hell this photographer means here. Is he mourning the lost vanity of film photography, or what? I mean, obviously he's actually thinking about the 10 zillion lights he has lovingly arranged, but what are we to make of it, beyond the cleverness of the reference?

We are aided, as photographers, by the fact that for the most part photographs inspire the imaginative construction of something external without even trying to. It is basic to the functioning of the photograph that we extrapolate a world around the picture, before and after, left and right. We make something of most photos. We read-in to expressions and body languages, we guess about what's going on.

Contrary to the original author's side remark, "street photographs" as a rule are remarkably bad at this. By emphasizing the cute juxtaposition, the interesting shadow, the outré expression, they tend to distract us from the reality of the scene, and thereby suppress our natural meaning-making responses. Not, to be sure, all "street photos" but most of the modern ones.

Back to the mission in progress, however. As a photographer, to consciously "insert" meaning to a photograph, we therefore consciously insert elements that refer to shared experiences (shopping, sunsets) or cultural touchstones (Hamlet, Seinfeld.) We do so, ideally, in a way that is coherent, that might lead to something other than "cute reference." In the work I alluded to above, I am illustrating written matter, so the reference need only cohere with the point of the writing.

If you're making a body of photographs, then perhaps the meanings of each should build upon one another. They might contrast, or support, but anyways fit together somehow.

A single photo, to be honest, seems to really have trouble meaning in this sense. You get one shot at it, you get one gestalt of reference, and you hope for the best. This is why, I think, we see so many landscapes ("ahhhhh...") and portraits ("I see their personality!") and beyond that it's largely farting around with form to no particular purpose.

All of this comes down to this: you need to look at the pictures, and think about them. Do they in fact tickle something shared, or is everything you get pretty much personal? If they do tickle something shared, what is it?

You can do something of this before you shoot, of course. If you're building some still life, you can start even earlier. In the end, though, it's about creating some link to something we have in common, some shared thing that can be referred to visually, and from which the viewer can build.

There is, of course, no rule that says you have to do any of this. Many people, most people perhaps, photograph for reasons other than generating meaning that it broadly accessible.

You might be taking pictures for your own personal delight, and no more. You might be recording family moments, and generating at best meaning that does not extend beyond your own family. You might be testing your lens. It's all ok.

Friday, July 23, 2021

On Process

In the remarks immediately previous to this, I suppose I might have given the impression that I disapprove of "process" and that's not the case at all.

There is a continuum with something like an extremely rigorous process on one end, and a loose conceptual framework on the other, and I happen to think that most Good Art is made with something or other in that spectrum. I do not think that if you just blunder around trying to take "good photos" or "paint good paintings" that you're going to get anywhere interesting. You might make some very attractive objects, but the results of your effort is unlikely to produce that enlarging effect that we expect from Art.

That is to say, if you work without attempting to "say something" (construed very very broadly) then your work is unlikely to speak.

You could, in theory, shoot a whole lot of pictures without regard, and someone else could edit them into something. The edit would have to be done with something like a conceptual framework, or a process, and then the art-making would be the editing of the raw marble of "the archive." It happens that even this does not seem to work very well, most of the time, but I think it sometimes succeeds.

The difficulty arises thus: If you're going to make something good, I think you have to commit fully to your framework. You have to be all-in, you can't pussy-foot around tweaking it and softening it up and focus-grouping it. Commit, completely, or your work is inevitably going to be shit. At the same time, you have no reliable way to know a priori that your framework is going to yield anything meaningful.

So you have to leap, you have to take it on faith and just go for it, knowing that it might go nowhere.

And now you have the problem of working out how to tell whether it's working, and when to quit. Preparing to quit, and being fully committed, are opposites. You can't really do them both, but you better muddle your way through it somehow because that's how it works.

Generally, I have a certain reserved admiration for artists who are committed to some process, even when the results are pretty clearly going nowhere. They've got the commitment side down pat, and really, who am I to judge when it's time to let it go? There could be gold one hammer blow ahead.

Me, I'm pretty lazy and short-term. I don't really do much of anything that takes more than a couple months, because I lose interest. I could never do a multi-year project because, no matter how great the results, no matter how much meaning gets wrung out in the end, I'd simply stop caring after 6 months. I'd be on to a new concept, a new framework, a new process, that's fun and promising and either will or will not produce results in a few weeks.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Process Reveals Itself

The process doesn't always reveal itself, but sometimes it does. Sometimes, that's all there is.

Consider Mirjana Vrbaški, recently reviewed by all the Better Critics. She's spend more than a decade working on one of the "let's photograph a whole bunch of women the same way" projects, although mercifully they're not nudes. You can examine the results here, and here, and finally here.

If you then go read the "About" page, you find this graf:

In Verses of Emptiness (2009-ongoing), [ ... ] Vrbaški and her model isolate themselves in the photo studio, working in silence and concentration so as to ’peel away’ the model’s surface layers. Placing her sitter against a neutral, contextless backdrop and consequently ’sculpting’ her inward, she reduces her portraits to a minimum of visual elements until a more essential and strangely unsettling layer is exposed.

and if you're me you say "yep, that's pretty much what I would have guessed."

The artist has developed a process and a theory. The process is pretty definite, and the theory is essentially a variation on the standard theme of: if I just do the same thing over and over for long enough, surely something will emerge.

In a way, something has emerged. The trouble is that what's emerged is just the process itself. These pictures look exactly like what they are. A bored, and possibly over-serious model, sitting silently in a studio with a very much over-serious artist, working on a sort of ham-fisted modern interpretation of a Dutch Master portrait.

They certainly are unsettling photos, because the sheer awkwardness in the studio is palpable. You might think at first that these women are all combat veterans with PTSD or something, but it just goes on and on and they're all the same, and you realize that it's just direction. I've seen the veterans show, and it's different.

I think that this is, International Art English posturing aside, exactly what is intended. The Art is supposed to reveal the process, and the seriousness of the Artist, and not much else. It's not really Art about the Artist, it's Art about how Serious The Artist Is. It's not even as interesting as the novel about the novelist, or the short story about the peppy young woman navigating the vagaries of the publishing industry in NYC, written by a slightly less peppy young woman navigating the vagaries of the publishing industry in NYC. At least those people are telling us about their crashingly boring lives, the Serious Artist isn't even doing that.

Look at my process: I bore the model into oblivion! Look, I photograph only women, which surely counts for something! Look at my art-historical references! Vrbaški has pared away everything except these elements, and has done so evidently on purpose. At this point, this is literally what her photos are about.

They are, in essence, simply saying loudly "I AM A VERY SERIOUS ARTIST" in hopes someone agrees.

It isn't even Art about Art.

What it is, is it's pretty common. Photographers love this shit. I will photograph this fencepost every day. I will photograph my lunch every day. I will photograph a bunch of people in such-and-such a demographic in the most coldly impersonal way I can devise.

What makes me interested in it today is that sometimes it works. Noah Kalina has been taking a self portrait every day for more than 20 years. The result has been presented in various video forms, and also as a big grid of stills. Kalina has stayed on target, working his process, for decades, and something has by-god emerged. It's something about the passage of time, about aging, about mortality.

There are others. Arguably Robert Frank's trip around the USA was a process of sorts, doggedly adhered to through thick and thin, that produced 83 keepers that actually make some cogent remarks on the USA.

This does raise a problem. How are you to know when your process will produce something? I dare say Vrbaški got going on her project at some point, thinking something along these lines. She made a few pictures, decided maybe it was a thing to doggedly stick to, and has stuck with it. If, at some point, it occurred to her that nothing was emerging, well, she had a problem, didn't she?

This is her Thing. Assuming this thought occurred to her, by that time she'd probably gotten a few minor mentions, maybe a gallery show or two, and had committed herself to the IAE gobbling about layers of meaning emerging. What's she gonna do, pitch the idea and start from scratch just because it's not working and is obviously never going to work? Or is she more likely to double down, and try to persuade a few more critics that, no, truly, something ineffable and incapable of being articulated really has emerged?

Obviously, the latter, unless she's remarkably dim, which does not seem to be the case at all.

It kind of sells itself, too. The portraits are so neutral, so blank, that you can project anything you like onto them. If you're some dopey critic you can stare at them for a while and allow some vague sensation that there's something ineffable there. Then you write that down, and you've got your column for the week!

Drinks all around!

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Depth of Perception

I was on a brief camping holiday at Deception Pass, about an hour from my front door, this weekend.



The pass itself is a short (a mile or two), narrow (a few hundred feet at the narrowest) seaway between Fidalgo Island, which is really more of a peninsula, and Whidbey Island, an island about 40 miles long. As such it is the kind of place that develops substantial tidal currents. These are commonly 6 or 7 knots at their peak, which is quite a clip. Much faster than you can swim, row, or paddle.

There was a moment, maybe an interval, when I was looking out over the water at the patterns of ripples and waves and flotsam on the surface, and I perceived something of what was going on. The water nearest me, and out to the center of the channel, and then a little beyond, was moving to the right. Beyond that, past a little interval of rougher water, the water was moving to the left. The is normal at the changing of tides, the great mass of water is switching directions and does not do so all at once.

But what was actually to be seen? What, for instance, did my children see?

They saw a random seeming pattern of glitter and dark patches on the surface of the water. If they paid a little more attention, they maybe noticed a piece of kelp moving left to right, or right to left, but likely did not make much note of it. As a former sailor, though, I was acutely aware of the motions of water, and where one would position ones boat to best advantage.

We all of us perceived the neural shimmer of stimulation on our retinas in much the same way, and somewhere along the line that was transformed into a percept of "water in a passage of stone, bridge over there, beach here" with maybe even a shared idea of motion.

When I looked, I saw, I perceived, rivers of water of unknown depth, moving masses swirling past one another. I thought in terms of positioning a boat. In the back of my mind, the moon is humping up water, and these masses are the sloshing of water flowing forever down the slopes of a moving hill of ocean half the size of the planet. When my children looked, they saw glitter.

A Swinomish 500 years ago, looking over the same water, would likely have seen the masses of water in motion, though moved by what forces I cannot know. They might also, perhaps, have paid special attention to the interface between the masses, as these interfaces often concentrate sea life. Perhaps they would have thought of the scene in terms of food to be caught there, or spirits present at that interface, or something else I cannot imagine. They might have seen the Maiden of Deception Pass, Ko-kwahl-alwoot, in the waters.

Between the neural shimmer at the retina, and the gods of creation, there seems to be a continuum of perception. It's entirely possible that there are clear lines, clear layers, but that my mind papers them over for me. Since we're talking perception, though, perhaps it is the papered over version that is relevant anyway.

The point is that our perception of something, anything, is a structure that rests on the merest neurological stimulation of sense organs, and which extends upward to the narrative forms construed by the conscious mind in what we might as well consider as a continuous apparatus. The narrative forms that arise when we perceive, as a consequence of physical perception, seem to flow back down, shaping the whole into a single sleek structure, seamless from biology to story.

The upper regions of this continuum diverge in each of us, while we more or less share the lower regions. Our personal histories, our cultural backgrounds, determine much of the conscious mind's story around what we see. I perceive in a small way the moon. The Swinomish perhaps perceives something about their own Persephone, the Maiden, who married a man from the sea to guarantee the richness of food from the waters of the pass, who lives there still. My children perceive something of sparkly water and coldness and the delight of seeing their dog swimming after thrown sticks.

Any sailor would look at the moving waters of Deception Pass and perceive the whole rather as I do. Any child would likely see it the way mine do. A modern Swinomish might not believe in the Maiden, but might well see the waters through that lens, and might well visualize salmon massed in the interface between moving waters. We fall in lumps, groups, that perceive in something of the same way.

And so, of course, the same with the photograph. At some point, we each of us diverge one from another. This lump of people, this group, tend to see the photograph more or less this way, and that group sees it more or less that way, and perhaps there are a few other groups, and then there's the schizophrenic that sees monsters nobody else perceives.

Because this structure of perception, which builds the details of the percept up from raw senses into a story, appears to us continuous, unbroken, it appears to us that our perception is the true one and all others must be mistaken or incomplete. There seem to us no decision points, no places where a divergence might naturally occur. All follows naturally, inevitably, from the basic sense inputs.

But it's not true. The Swinomish and the white child do perceive quite differently, because they are different creatures.

It would be well for us to understand that the world is filled with different creatures, whose perceptions are not our own. It would be well for us to lean more on our powers of empathy, which are substantial, than on our powers of perception in this generalized sense.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Project

I'm working on a new thing. Not entirely sure where it's going, but it's going.

I started out making a couple of signs, the kind you stick up around the neighborhood when your cat is lost, or you're selling a table, or your kid wants to walk dogs for money. Standard letter sized paper, usually some kind of illustration on the top third, then some text, and along the bottom a set of tear-off tabs with some sort of reminder text and contact information. Mine were different.

My first signs were:
  1. a photo of a car; the word "CAR"; and a set of tabs each with the word "CAR" on them.
  2. a photo of me, looking crazed; text indicating that I was OK, tend talk too much, and not to feed me; tabs reading "SOME GUY"
  3. a photo of my dog; text consistent with an automobile for sale; tabs reading "DOG"

I stuck these things up, and photographed them. I am fascinated by photography projects which rephotograph photos, for some reason, so I did that.

Also, I tore one tab off. Since that's what you do, you tear one off as a starter, to suggest that there's interest in whatever you're selling or whatever.

Then people started taking tabs.

"Well, that's weird," I thought, thought I. They took a lot of tabs. My signs get more traction than the actual signs selling shit.

Which is kind of a dick move? Am I putting the boots to kids trying to run a dog walking business, or am I increasing interest in stuff stuck to telephone poles? I dunno.

Regardless. I made a few more surreal signs, one offering free tabs, and a pair about a lost photo of a dog, and a found photo of a dog, each featuring a photo of a photo (the same photo) which I then, yes, photographed again. These too got some traction. I am learning about where to place signs, and how to orient them.

My children were enamored of the "free tabs" sign, and one of them made her own which I put up next to mine. First, I wrestled with this intrusion on my project but then I decided that it was about community and interaction, so, onwards! I stuck hers up, and people have taken some of her tabs. She sometimes writes her B's backwards, so technically they are "tads."

I keep photographing these signs, as the weather and community interaction gradually dissolve them, which takes a surprising amount of time.

Having struggled a bit with how I can do something with the community interaction, I've put up a couple polls. Chocolate or Vanilla? Dogs or Cats? with tabs alternating the two choices. Chocolate and Cats, by the way.

Having trained people to answer polls, I think I'm going back to surreal, but with polls. Dogs or Chocolate? Yes or No? Cats or Yes? but that's for next week.

I don't know how appealing the photos are going to be, but the essay should be entertaining!