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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Vilém Flusser

In this book by David Levi Strauss, I ran across some references to an essay by Flusser, an essay I had not read. At the time, I shrugged it off and took Levi Strauss' summary as correct, and moved on with my life. It happened that a few days later I realized that I do in fact possess of copy of "Towards A Philosophy of Photography" and so in due course I read it, and as one does, had a bit of a think.

Levi Strauss' summary seems to be perfectly fine, as far as it goes. He only wanted a few little things from the essay.

Flusser was definitely kind of a weird guy with some weird ideas, but there's stuff in here worth thinking about. The essay (book?) dates from 1984, so a bit later than Sontag and Barthes, but maybe a bit earlier than Stuart Hall.

A bureaucracy is a system made up of humans and processes which has one or more goals consciously held, often publicly stated. To some degree, invariably, a bureaucracy actually operates in opposition to its stated goals. Equally invariably, a bureaucracy operates to expand itself, its influence, its budget, and so on. A non-profit seeking to, say, solve the Problem of Homelessness will often operate in ways that on the one hand mitigate homelessness while at the same time perpetuating it, while simultaneously increasing its own budget to solve the ever worsening problem.

The non-profit argues that the problem is just getting worse, and their best efforts can merely slow the advance, send more money. Close examination of the actions of the non-profit are invariably ambiguous, and yet it often seems that they are perhaps not after all doing as much as they might be, except for the part where they ask for more money, a larger staff, and perhaps some more real estate which they are definitely on top of.

The underlying problems, at the same time, certainly are getting worse, so perhaps they're right after all. It's hard to tell.

This is more or less universal. Some bureaucracies do a better job of combating the natural tendency to expand at the expense of stated goals, and to operate in opposition to them; some others do a worse job. The natural tendency, though, is omnipresent.

The causes of this tendency are, as far as I know, largely unknown.

Flusser does not talk about bureaucracies as such, he's interested in what we might term a generalized form of this bureaucratic phenomenon. He's interested in systems of culture which operate according to programs which systems humans are largely unaware of, and against which humans struggle to some extent (but not always) in vain. His systems are obscure, he doesn't seem to have any notion of what form they take, or the mechanics of their operation, although he is sure that they do operate.

This is an alternative view to the Frankfurt School's Critical Theory which assumes (roughly) that all cultural systems are driven purely by power relationships. Flusser does not think it's that simple. While both schools believe in hidden systems that control everything, the Critical Theorists believe (roughly) that if you open the black box you will find a struggle for power between humans and/or human institutions. Flusser believes that inside the black box are only more black boxes.

Flusser also believes that there is a hierarchy, or perhaps a network, of these opaque cultural systems. If I become aware of the system I serve, and rebel against it, I am likely only rebelling against that system while my rebellion is in fact perfect compliance with the program of the larger surrounding system that programs and maintains the system I can see.

So, this is some serious tinfoil hat shit, right? And yet, bureaucracies are a thing, aren't they?

I don't actually have a clear sense of where I land on this. It feels kind of right, and kind of bonkers at the same time. But let us set my personal position aside.

Flusser believes that photography, broadly construed, is such a system. Photographs are produced by your free will, by accident and serendipity, by automated surveillance cameras, and so on. But just as a rolled die comes up 6 about one sixth of the time, you and your photographs considered en masse comply with the broader programmatic constraints of the system of photography. If you can somehow defy that system, if is only in conformity to larger systems you're even less aware of.

Flusser theorizes about the nature of the program driving the system of photography:

In the pre-History, ancient times, humans lived largely according to cycles of endless repetition. Day follows night follows day. Winter follows fall, summer, spring follows winter forever. The king dies; the king is crowned. Flusser terms this cyclical kind of existence "magical."

At some point linear writing and thence History are invented, and now everything that happens is new. It is not long merely that the king has died, and the king is crowned. This king has died, and now that king is crowned. The death of one causes the coronation of the other.

History led in the fullness of time to the Industrial Revolution which has in turn led us to now, a time of programmed cultural systems. The programmed goal of the system of photography is to enlarge itself, its influence, to make the picture universal, to replace text with picture, to return from text to picture, to, in the end, destroy History. The end result of photography is a return to the cyclical, magical, time, but in a new form.

In some sense, he's not wrong. News photographs do not make events distinct, they blur them together. One riot is just like any riot, it must be riot season come back around again. Successful struggles to make newsworthy events distinct, Historical, are rare. Photographs don't tell us which king is crowned, only that the king is crowned, and that the king has died. When Queen Elizabeth dies, we will see her funeral photos next to her father's funeral photos, and we will see the new king crowned next to photographs of her coronation, and they will all look the same.

Every photo on instagram is a repeat of another photo. The lattes, the sunsets, the pretty girls doing yoga, they all come around and around.

Notice here that this is the exact opposite of Barthes' position.

Barthes, recall, insists that the photograph makes Historical that which was formerly Religious, or Mythical. One might as well say Magical. Barthes places the era of Magic as ending more or less exactly at the time photography was invented, whereas Flusser places the end of Magic at the invention of linear writing; still, in broad strokes they seem to be talking about the same kinds of things. Barthes is probably thinking in terms of the French Peasant, a character that maybe somewhat fancifully is imagined to reside in a kind of utopian pre-history up through the Victorian era as far as I can tell. Flusser is thinking of humanity writ large, and probably urban, the humanity that toiled in factories and therefore confronted History rather more definitely than the shepherds.

I haven't any notion of who's right. I think both arguments have some weight to them, both feel right in some sense.

Barthes says that the photo testifies to facts, and is therefore part of the machinery of History, of linear time. Flusser says that the image, broadly construed, is inherently magical, cyclical, and therefore opposes History, linear writing, linear time.

They both kinda have a point.

Friday, June 11, 2021

An Article

The usual suspects are passing around this article, How the George Floyd Uprising Was Framed for White Eyes with the usual approving nods. It's the sort of thing I think is always worth reading, and it's not terrible. Nor is it particularly good, though.

The reason the usual suspects like it is because it is a succinct and fairly cogent summary their preferred theory of media. Every generation is certain they have the objectively true theory, and that all previous generations were basically just kidding themselves, and sort of dim. The author is a remarkably well-spoken recent graduate, so it's not really surprising that it contains no original thinking. That's fine, there's nothing wrong with applying contemporary ideas to things you see around you, but that is the character of this piece.

The conceit of the article is, essentially, that photojournalistic photos of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests are drawn from a limited palette of possible tropes, which tropes specifically lend themselves to a specific interpretation by a specific audience. You can go read the details if you like, but I confess I don't find them particularly interesting and those details are not something I want to devote much time to here.

A brief note on protests: for the most part, at least here in the West, protests are a ritual, a system of gestures and set-pieces that we collectively perform to exhibit our political opinions as a collective. The purpose is ostensibly to generate change, but this never occurs in modern times. The underlying purpose is to build community, to shore up our beliefs with the knowledge that others share them. It is essentially a rain dance, a highly ritualized social/community action which does not in fact produce rain, but which serves a number of useful social functions.

My kids attend a lot of protests with their dad, because I believe strongly in those social functions.

The gestures and set pieces tend to be camera-ready, because we have learned them from the camera. The signs, the chants, the inevitable march to somewhere from wherever. Occasionally the sheer emotion of the moment overwhelms the crowd and it becomes a riot, and that too is largely ritualized.

I am not a specialist in the area, but my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement protests in the USA is that they were consciously ritualized. The difference today is we pretend very hard that the gestures and set pieces of protest are organic, emergent, a natural outflow of the emotion of the crowd in response to the injustice they see. Which, to be fair, is perfectly true, but the crowd draws upon a small set of visual pedagogy in developing their own strategies.

There is a reason all protests look the same.

Back to the topic at hand. The general argument of the article I introduced above is to offer up the tropes with examples, and to say "well, there you are, see?"

It is a bit like arguing that the children are limiting themselves by building only with LEGO and Lincoln Logs, and then offering up documentation of a lot of LEGO and Lincoln Log structures built by the children. There is an essential missing step here, which is to list something else the children might be building with. You have to actually say "And look, here are Tinkertoys, which the children are not using." The Mother Jones piece notably lacks any examples of these other notional pictures that might be made, to illustrate the alternatives to the tropes. There are by my count two sentences which suggest ideas which ought to be portrayed but are not, and there are no hints offered as to how one might photograph those abstractions.

The tropes, as offered, in fact cover a lot of territory. Here is option A, which is read in such-and-such a way by our notional audience of liberal white people. Here is option B, which has precisely the opposite meaning to that same notional audience, but somehow leads to the same place. Here is option C, again quite different, but again mysteriously leading the same conclusion. Without meaning to the article offers a fairly cogent argument that, whatever the photograph, it is positioned and sold against the same backdrop of meaning and results in the same received messages. About this, more in a moment.

What the article gets right is that meanings are, by and large, imposed on photographs by the audience on the basis of, well, a lot of things including the surrounding material (text, other visuals, in this case.) Multiple readings are, the article admits, perfectly possible, and indeed occur. It is the specific tranche of White Liberals who see these pictures in these particular ways, we are told. One could argue about whether that specific tranche of White Liberals even exists, but let us stipulate that they do. Someone is reading "Mother Jones" after all.

What the article gets wrong, I think, is the idea that there are specific tropes which uniquely lend themselves to this reading by these people.

It suggests as a corollary that there are other photographs, those Tinkertoys if you will, which would uniquely lend themselves to other readings. It fails, as noted, to provide any such photos, or ideas for what they might look like, and I think the entire enterprise is bankrupt, thus:  

An alternative possibility is that virtually any photographs at all could be read that way by those people, given a suitable presentation. This is my position.

The piece leads off with the more or less sui generis photo from 1963 of Walter Gadsden being attacked by a police dog. I say it is sui generis, the only one of its type, because of the remarkable ambiguity in the action-packed, information-dense, scene. Unlike the standard protest and riot tropes, you can see a lot of faces, a lot of expressions, there's a ton of body language in play. The cop and Gadsden are interacting in a profoundly ambiguous way. Anyone who's taken a lot of pictures is likely to guess that this is one of those photos of frozen motion which in no way resembles the actual scene, like a blink.

News photos almost never have that "blink" character. They invariably at least appear to be accurately giving a sense of an unfolding situation. The Gadsden photo, while obviously a "blink," is also obviously so powerful a visual that it passed muster and got printed.

The standard tropes of riots and protests certainly avoid this kind of thing. Faces are frequently abstracted away. We want either an undifferentiated mass of people, or a single figure in a dynamic posture ideally with their face hidden. In addition to being generic in this sense they also hew to the standard photojournalism model, and present the appearance of accurately summarizing some unfolding moment, rather than being a "blink."

There absolutely are standard tropes here. Nobody lies down to photograph the crowd's feet, nobody focuses in on single faces in the crowd, nobody takes blurred photos, nobody singles out signs, etc etc. My position is not that tropes don't exist, but rather that the tropes that do exist don't support any particular political position. The standard photos are not specially open to specific political readings. The standard tropes exist and are taken specifically to standardize, to make generic, the visual representation of these events.

The Gadsden photo differs from the standard protest fare in another way: it is a moment that is outside the gestures and set-pieces of protest. It was an accident. Gadsden was just walking by, the dog went for him for some reason, and the cop is in fact trying to pull the dog off him while simultaneously manhandling Gadsden. What exactly the hell is going on in the cop's mind is unclear, but he's not setting his dog on a protestor. Similar imagery exists from within the set-pieces of the time, certainly. The dogs were set on protestors, as a part of the performance of power by the police, and the corresponding performance of protest by the protestors. This particular event, however, took place as it were outside the theater. It is as a consequence more humanistic than the typical photos, even from that time.

The photos we see today are invariably taken inside the theater, and of generic situations, generic actors, generic gestures. They are not particularly humanistic, and they specifically document the predetermined ritual gestures, in predetermined ways, specifically to made the event generic. This is the function of photojournalism, broadly, so make every event generic, to thus connect it to other similar events, to create a thread of history as a sequence of similar events.

This is not to say that stories are not shaped to appeal to whatever the audience is, whether it be White Liberals or Trumpists, or whatever else. The point is that the photos are generic, and will serve any outlet's purpose. The NYT shapes the story one way, Fox News shapes it another. There is no reason on earth they can't use the same photographs, because each photograph's job is only to reify the protest as a protest.

"There was a protest this afternoon in Someplace, and here are the photos to prove it. Look, it looks exactly like a protest. Now let us tell you about the protest, and why it means whatever it is you, our audience, expect us, your media, to say it means."

This point is, I think, cogently argued by the Mother Jones piece, although it clearly doesn't intend to argue that way. The piece offers up 5 of the standard issue tropes, 5 thoroughly contradictory tropes, for reifying a protest; it shows how each one is shaped by the surrounding material to produce a specific message to a specific audience. You could write the same piece about essentially identical photos found in conservative media, and show how the message is shaped to appeal to those readers.

It's so tempting to media theorists to ascribe these kinds of powers to photos, but it's just wrong. Media shapes culture, to a degree, but this isn't the mechanic by which it does so.

Friday, June 4, 2021

On Camera Lucida Part 2

Yes, yes, we're still stamping around in this same swamp. Barthes, despite his flaws, seems to have been one of the few people who have thought seriously about how photographs actually work. So, you know, interested.

First, as is my habit, let me clear a little underbrush. Part 1 of this book is where all the studium and punctum business that nobody understands is. At the end of Part 1, Barthes wraps up with a very short chapter which says, in effect, "yeah well, not so much. this doesn't get to the essentials, so now I will make my recantation, my palinode." A palinode is a poem that retracts a previous poem.

He's not saying that studium, punctum, and blind field are all wrong, but he's definitely saying they're not the answer. So he wrote a whole second half of this damned book about other stuff, which nobody every seems to mention. The second half is where the so-called "Winter Garden" photo appears, the possibly fictional photo of his mother and uncle as children, taken in a conservatory.

As an aside, it is notable that mostly we don't even see blind field referred to, despite the fact that inducing it is literally the definition of punctum. My working theory is that almost nobody has made it to Chapter 23 of the book (which has 48 chapters) let alone all the way to Part 2.

The standard take on Part 2 is to interpret Barthes' ecstatic reaction to this photo, in which reaction he finds his mother's true essence, as one of punctum and to pretty much stop there. This is not only incomplete, it's simply wrong, as we shall see. He's talking about something else.

The more sophisticated readers will drone on a bit about Death, because Barthes does talk something about Death in this section, and while that's probably not wrong, there's rather more going on here.

So, what is going on, smartass? Glad you asked!

The essential thing a photograph does is this: it testifies that something was there, and that someone saw it. It does nothing else but that. I photograph a can of beer, you see the photograph; you have no idea where the beer is now (you can probably guess, if you know me, but you don't know). You know that there was a can of beer, and that the photographer saw it.

This is very much absolute. Yes yes photoshop, I've heard. Also trick photos, etc. The point is that those are the exceptions. The photograph's testimony of that-has-been is far more definite than anything else we have. If I tell you about the can, if I write about it, if I paint it, draw it, if you recall it, etc, none of those have the same weight or the same character as a photograph of the same can.

Throughout, Barthes is comparing History with Religion, although you have to pay attention to notice the Religion. Much of the material about Death is actually Religion in disguise. Religion, as I see it, is a stand-in for a greater/older culture that is built on myth, story, song, tradition, and so on.

500 years ago, we understood ourselves as people by way of these latter things. We had songs and epic poems and traditions. We had religion. We had stories. These things mutated and evolved. They lived. Some of the material was frankly squishy, some of it was pretty darn firm, but even the firm stuff you might dress up the stories with some local color. We're goat people around here, so let's make the Sermon on the Mount have some goat people in the crowd. The guys in the next valley raise sheep, so their priest chucks in shepherds from time to time. The stories live even if we're very particular about, for example, the exact words Jesus spoke.

At some point History comes along, and now we're dotting tees and crossing eyes that previously needed no such decorations. While History is framed this way or that depending on fashion and necessity, once framed the details are filled in statically, in a way that does not live in the same way.

Folk singers are less likely to extemporize, and more likely to give us a period-correct rendering of the version from 1798, and possibly get involved in fistfights about the ordering of verses.

History pins our understanding of ourselves as a people, as a culture, a little like butterflies in a display case. The whole point is to nail it down and render it as certain and immobile as possible, to render it lifeless. History replaces culture, and religion. Or rather it subsumes them. There's a fair bit of religion around, but we're rather oddly consumed with it as history considering that it is by its very nature mystical.

In the same way, the photograph consumes our personal understanding of ourself, ourselves, our family.

Once, our families were built on traditions about grandmother's grandmother and the story of the badger. Was it really grandmother's grandmother, or has a generation been inserted or deleted somewhere? Was there really a badger, or is it really a mashup of two stories, one involving a cat and the other a skunk? Who cares? The point is, our family histories lived, and stretched back, back, back in a living braid of story.

Now we have a photograph of great-grandma, and her name is pencilled on the back, and that is the end of it. When the photo gets lost, great-grand is also lost.

Both History and The Photograph behave the same way, and for the same reason: they are definite, they are certain. They cut off all possibility of change, or evolution, and thus render lifeless and exact what was once inexact and living.

Ok, so that's Barthes' point, and he's not wrong. It might be a bit dramatic, but there it is.

So what's the deal with this Winter Garden Photo?

There is a thing, Barthes suggests, that can happen in a portrait. It is analogous to punctum but he doesn't call it that so we can reasonably assume that whatever it is, it's not punctum.

The effect of this thing is an inversion of punctum's effect. The punctum spontaneously generates a kind of ecstatic direct access to a belief in the larger world that surrounds the photo; the punctum causes our visceral understanding of the photo to abruptly, ecstatically, expand outwards past the edges of the frame, through time and space. This other property causes the inverse effect, although with the same ecstatic, visceral, violence: we believe in, we perceive the essential character of the subject of the portrait. It is an expansion inwards, rather than outwards, an inversion.

Barthes sees his mother's essential nature in the Winter Garden Photo. He exclaims "there she is!" is what I think simply has to be a sly reference to "Ecce Homo!"

He insists that the photograph is not resurrection, even metaphorically, it is purely reference to what was. A portrait, indeed, does the opposite of resurrect, it directly implies the Death of the subject. They were, that is all.

This new property Barthes has invented he called air which seems to mean exactly the same in French as in English. It's "air" in the sense of "manner" more or less, but with a more mystical nature (of course.)

It is the air of his mother in the photo that transmutes a basic that-has-been (and now she's dead) into there-she-is! (Ecce Homo!)

For those of you in the know, or who have googled it, "Ecce Homo!" (See, the man!) is what Pilate says when he presents Jesus to the mob, and we all know what happens to Jesus.

The Winter Garden Photo bridges the worlds of History and Religion. It is a dead, static, incontrovertible testimonial to the effect that once a little girl stood with her brother on a little bridge in a conservatory, and that someone saw her, and that she is probably dead by now. It is simultaneously a metaphorical resurrection of that same little girl, Barthes' mother, a myth of his mother, a legend, a song, a poem of his mother. It is a memory of her, that visceral living thing we keep inside and which is, all too often, killed by the literal, intractable, unarguable, testimony of the photograph.

This, says Barthes, is madness.

At this point, I must say, he seems to open himself to the possibility that this kind of bridging is possible with more photos, or perhaps even with all photos. We don't allow it, because we reject madness, and so we neuter photographs and retreat to the banal, to the mere that-has-been testimony of the things as Art, or as bland and endless Media Fodder.

There is an analogy here with Part 1, and I suppose you could describe Part 2 as an expansion on Part 1, but I think it is in fact different material.

The that-has-been testimony is the normal operation of a photo, it's what it does. You could say that this is kind of like studium, that also being the normal operation. They are both normal operations but on, as it were, different planes of operation. The testimony is what the photo is in its essence, but the studium is really what you, the viewer, do in response.

You could argue that air is a kind of punctum except that the effects of each are inverses of one another.

Finally, blind field is kind of like that direct perception of a person's essence, induced by air.

There is a fair analogy here, but these are not the same things in any meaningful way.

What do I think of all this?

Well, for starters I think it's important to keep in mind the extremely limited frame he's set himself within. He's investigating this whole thing purely, willfully, and explicitly, in terms of his own reactions, his own sensation, his own perceptions of things. He is not, for example, trying to make sense of these things in neurological terms, or in terms of Art History, or some sort of generalized theory of perception.

In some sense, we kind of have to grant him whatever he sees, then. If this is what he experiences, well, that that's what he experiences, no?

On the other hand, his experiences do not seem to generalize. These ecstatic, visceral, responses seem to be an exclusively Barthesian thing.

My take is that he has both punctum and air upside down. He views them as disturbances to, as additions to, the normal operation of the photograph in one sense or another.

My position is that the normal operation of the photograph as a social, cultural, visual actor is almost exactly the effect he ascribes to punctum and to air, minus the ecstasy and violence.

It is certainly true that the photograph, in its nature, only testifies to that-has-been and it is true that we read photos in terms of cultural codes, we make sense of them in terms of the ways things we see mean in our social context, and our own ideas of culture, etc, (studium.) So, he's right about those, but these are not particularly relevant.

What is relevant, to both me and, I maintain, to Barthes, is that we believe the photo first. Our first response is that visceral one, where we believe in the blind field, where we believe we see the character and essence of the subject of the portrait. Both the outward and inward expansions of the photograph are normal, baseline. They are acts of imagination which we perform without thinking.

These somatic reactions, these nearly biological reactions are the basis, and it is the reading of cultural codes, the recognition of the static, fixed, testimony of the picture, and all that other machinery which disturbs that. The studium, if you will overrides, obliterates, the effect of the punctum which was already there.

So in some sense I agree with Barthes. I agree, in general, that there are these opposing effects going on, and the general shapes of them. Where we differ is in the relationship between them, which ones are on top as it were. I also think we have more control than Barthes seems to imagine. He seems to lean toward spasmodic responses beyond our ken, beyond our ability to control, spontaneous and violent.

I, on the other hand, think that the somatic responses are not merely basic, underlying, but can be recovered by the attentive reader. Yes, it's tempting to wander off into the cultural meaning of the policeman's uniform, or the expensive shoes, or the tumbled-down house and the un-mowed lawn. One does that kind of thing. It's tempting to fade away from the reality of the scene, and to consume a photo as merely banal media. Another celebrity, another riot, another dog, ho hum.

We can choose to recover the visceral reality of the thing, the sense of knowing the scene, of knowing the person, if only we consciously reach for it. We can set aside the banal, the static, the cultural, and find that living, breathing, beating heart of what is in the picture, simply (I think) by taking a moment to look for it.

We know it's there, or we ought to, all we have to do is open our eyes for a moment.

The photograph is nothing more than testimony to that-has-been but that's all it needs to be. We do the rest.

Monday, May 31, 2021

A Sense of Place

The second half of "Camera Lucida" is a maze of weirdness, which I noticed recently is explicitly called out as a repudiation of the first half (where all the studium/punctum business is explained.) He's trying to build some different theory of photography here, around his reaction to the infamous "Winter Garden" photo of his mother, aged 5, to which photo he reacts more or less hysterically after her death.

His theory is largely incomprehensible, although it is here that he arrives eventually at: representation is bullshit, all a photo does, all it can do, is attest that something was there and was seen. Everything else is just us reacting. Which seems right to me, but leaves us with the elephant: our reaction(s).

To be honest, I feel like there must be more to it, because he spends 10 or 15 thousand words on it and his conclusion can be stated a little more compactly than that; I'm not sure he's marshaled an argument at all. So, not sure what all the other words are for. My thinking here is kind of a work in progress, I am still making extensive, probably futile, notes.

After chewing on these things for a long time and cudgeling my tiny pea brain more or less endlessly, and also taking a lot of naps, I have arrived at some sort of synthesis of, maybe, what he's going for except in my own terms.

There are at least two endpoints in the spectrum of possibility for how one can be in a place, how one can shape one's awareness, one's presence there. Assuming that one is paying attention at all. I exclude the also-quite-normal forms of presence that do not include any meaningful awareness of place.

At one end is a kind of totality of awareness, a kind of vaguely Buddhist notion, where you're gently, lightly, aware of a very broad slice of what's available to perceive. You are, mentally, soaking in the presence of the place. You see the dapple of light, your attention flits to the squirrel, to the rock, to the man in the distance. You feel a total sense of what it's like there, you perceive widely, you feel the place-ness of it.

At the other end, you're looking for your coffee cup. You are pretty narrowly focused, you're noticing almost nothing of the surroundings. You're inspecting flat spots that you habitually put your cup on to the exclusion of all else. Or you're looking for the bun shop everyone says is on this corner, or you're crossing the street and noticing nothing except the oncoming cars and the walk signal. You have almost no total sensation of the place, you have only a handful of details. Probably, you have those details firmly in hand.

Ironically, when people are "out taking photos" they are, as a rule, present in the second manner because that's how you see the relationships of form and light that everyone thinks are so important, and this is, quite specifically, why most photographs are meaningless drivel. You need to be present in the first way to make pictures that mean anything, that have any connection to place, context, etcetera and so forth.

Now let us consider the way we are present in a photo, when we look at it, when we examine it, and when we (figuratively) enter it. We are in an attenuated way there: but how?

After some thought, I conclude it is very much in the latter way. We attend to a few details that we can see in the picture, perhaps a few add-ons based on the imaginative way that we build out a world to surround the picture. We do not "soak in the place-ness" in any meaningful way, we're very much more in that narrow, specific, way of being present. We feel no particular breadth of perception with respect to the place we're visiting, the time and place, the moment, we're visiting. It might feel complete, wide, but our awareness is restricted mostly to what's in the photo. It's somewhat dreamlike, in that we think, we feel, that we "know" the larger world around the photo, but if we try to actually see it, to look at it, it will slip away and elude us.

In this sense, experiencing a photo resembles my attempts to pre-visualize a photo. I know there's a dog in the photo, I can see it clear as day, but when I try to work out whether it's in the center or off to the side it slips away. I don't know where the dog is. I can't actually see my pre-visualized photo, I just think I can. I can, of course, then place the dog somewhere in my mental image, but now the clouds and the table and the tree are lost in the same way. The feeling is clear, the general shape of it is clear in my pre-visualization, but I have to take the picture before I know much about the details of what things are where, and what's actually in the frame.

A slight shift of direction now, bear with me if you would:

A not-completely-unknown trope in Science Fiction is the pocket universe. Usually, for some reason, some of the characters get stuck in a loop of time that is split off from the main universe. They're stuck in a repeating mini-universe, and have to escape (something like the movie Groundhog Day but usually with fewer jokes and more space lasers.)

In a way, the world we "enter" in the photo is a kind of pocket universe, a time loop of zero duration.

The photo of the riot from 1969 is the riot. Upon inspection of the photo we are, in some sense, at the riot. We experience it, in an attenuated way. But it is not the real riot, obviously. It's a pocket universe, a time-loop zero seconds long, that was split off from a moment during the real riot. We can go there, and experience it, in a sense.

It is the riot, in a sense. But it does not go on, it does not continue to the end of the riot, the people in the picture are real, they are at the riot, but those people do not go on. They remain forever in their zero-length time-loop pocket universe, the photograph. They are real, they are themselves, and simultaneously they are not.

I think this last bit is what ol' Roland is driving at with his obsessive Death Death Death drumbeat in the second part here.

It feels like he's doing that shitty pomo reversal trick: well, the photo captures their Life and by being about Life it refers to not-Life (Death) by the absence of Death so, ta-da, it's really been about the exact opposite of its apparent subject all along! This is a stock rhetorical gambit and, once revealed, is obvious sophistry. X by its mere statement suggests not-X and by leaving not-X out, by absenting it, and so whenever anyone says X they automatically mean the exact opposite, not-X, oh do shut up.

This is... to an extent, what Barthes is up to. The bootprints are fairly clear. And yet, he is aiming at something bigger, he feels something. Perhaps if he'd read more Science Fiction he'd have come up with the pocket universe theory.

Anyways, lest any super-woke idiots get confused: a photograph does not actually trap copies of people eternally in pocket universes where they are tortured for all eternity. It just feels like they're trapped in a pocket universe, so don't panic. And for god's sake, don't start writing papers about the violence of photography as a method for trapping people in pocket universes.

So now we are left with the following, I will confess quite outré, theory of how to take photographs:

Be present in the first sense, the Buddhist, total presence way. Snap photographs from that position of total presence, so they feel contextualized, complete, a part of a whole, whatever.

Viewed, we experience the photos in the manner of the opposite sort of presence, a presence of details closely noted, of un-totality. The totality itself is obscured, a sort of dream-like cloud of mere feeling, a vague sensation that won't stand up to examination. Our attention cannot flit to anywhere else, to flit is to obliterate. The vague cloud, with a few details in it, constitutes a kind of separate universe, a split-off copy of reality, just as real and yet static, limited. It feels almost as real as a real world, even though it is rather cloudy when examined.

Our total presence as we snap informs, but some alchemy I cannot explain and which might be bullshit, the sense of completeness in the pocket universe of the photo. It makes that cloud of impression, of dream, of imagination, feel more complete. The illusion of completeness that surrounds the un-total presence we take up inside the photograph is bolstered.

Every snap of the shutter spins off one of these little pocket universes, cheaply made, without much detail and with the dimension of time eliminated entirely. A shoddy knock-off universe, but one that we can visit and revisit, not much good for a vacation, but we could look for our coffee cup or a bun shop in it.

Sometimes we find out mother in there, but not really, and it's very upsetting. Apparently.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Where and How Was it Shot?

Here is a little exercise to show how we can do things in this modern world. This is not one of those whacky geo-location stunts, this is just ordinary research, some simple geometry, and some careful guessing.

The photo here was shot by Robert Blomfield, of Edinburgh, in 1965. It is the then-recently completed Forth Road Bridge, which crosses the delightfully named Firth of Forth. This picture was recently posted on social media by one account, and then someone else asked if anyone would hazard a guess about what camera setup was used. And so, I did.

These remarks do not reflect my actual thought process, I made a number of false turns and wrong guesses along the way. This is a sort of streamlined version, in which we imagine I made the better guess at every turn, rather than the worse guess. Note that I did all this sitting at my desk in the Northwest corner of the USA. I didn't have to go to Scotland, not even close. I've never been to Scotland. The internet has many interesting things on it, and if you do a bit of careful work, use some available tools, and think a bit you can find out quite a bit.

We will get to the subject of camera and lens in due time. First, let us take a moment to look at the photo:

I am here claiming fair use of this and all the other materials in this post on the grounds of education and criticism.

Let us note a few things. First, the photo is quite soft, and really quite grainy. It gives the impression of something like 3200 speed film, which did not exist in 1965. Second, the perspective is quite extreme. The curve of the suspension cable looks slightly wild. The far tower of the bridge, while visually smaller than the near tower, is not that much smaller, and so on. There is an extreme compression effect in play here.

A quick review: the perspective relationships (how large faraway objects look in relation to nearer objects, and so on) have nothing whatever to do with the camera, lens length, film, etc. They have to do exclusively with where you are standing. The camera/lens combination simply selects a smaller or larger rectangle of what you can see, which focuses your attention this way or that.

Let us, accordingly, work out where the photographer was standing.

The far tower is, according to my notes, 308 pixels wide in the file I have on hand. The near tower is 636 pixels wide, or nearly twice as wide, visually. Let us assume they are the same width, in reality (they are.)

When two same-sized objects are at differing distances, their apparent sizes will be different in the same ratio as the two different distances-away. An object half, or one-third the distance away will appear twice or three times the size, and so on. The near tower appears 2.065 times wider than the far tower. If we assumed that we made a measuring error of 5 pixels, we get a range of about 2.05 to 2.08.

Let us examine this bridge on google's Maps web site. We learn, using the measuring tool, a number of useful facts. The towers are about 3300 feet apart, and are about 90 feet wide.

The photographer is some distance in feet, d, from the nearer tower, and is therefore about (d + 3300) feet from the far tower. We know that the ratio of these two distances is probably between 2.05 and 2.08.

Roughly, the far tower looks about half as wide, so the far tower is twice as far away, so the photographer is probably about 3300 feet from the near tower and (thus) 6600 feet from the far one, but we can do a little better.

Hacking around with some simple algebra we find that our photographer is probably between 3050 and 3150 feet from the nearer tower (6350 to 6450 feet from the far tower, about 1.20 to 1.22 miles). Robert was a little closer to the near tower than the near tower was to the far tower, so the near tower is a little bigger than twice as big, visually.

Looking back at the picture, we note that if sight along the frame-left edge of the near tower back to the far tower we hit about half a tower-width to the right of the far tower. We're looking at a spot in space about 40-50 feet frame-right of the far tower. We can now draw a line on google maps with the measuring tool. Well. We could if we knew which end of the bridge our hero was shooting from.

First note that the cars are going the wrong way, but since this is the UK that means that the picture is not flipped. The bridge runs north-south. We're either looking north, from the west side of the bridge, or south from the east side. Look at this detail of the car deck and the suspension cable:

The lowest point of the cable occurs dead center on the span, of course. The "horizon" of the deck strikes me as maybe slightly behind that point, which suggests that we're looking slightly down on the bridge. We're certainly not looking up to any substantial degree. A quick web search reveals that the deck of the bridge offers 175 feet of clearance to water traffic, so our photographer is working at least that high. Let's find a topo map of Scotland: topographic-map.com provides these for us. Take my word for it that we're looking at the right approximate areas (indicated on the maps with the white sketched areas):

North end of the bridge:

South end (note that the color coded scale has changed):

The south end is maybe high enough, but frankly it's quite flat. The picture at least suggests a hillier area.

Let us assume that the north end is the right end. Vindication awaits. Using the measuring tool in google maps (on the satellite view,) we can draw this line, sighting along the edge of the near tower. Starting with an overview:

Here is the south (far) tower showing how our imaginary sightline lands 50 feet or so west of the tower:

Same sightline skimming the north (near) tower:

And finally our hypothesized photographer location. Note the markings for 1.20 and 1.21 miles, to give a sense of the range of possibility:

Now look toward the highway from our photographer's location! To the photographer's right there are three separate cuts to get down to road level, where just north and south of this location, there are but two. This spot is in fact a high point. This is borne out by the topo maps, albeit approximately, and also by the street view from the highway. Distortion makes this hard to interpret, but you can see two cuts, and then three cuts, in the hillside:

So we have located a spot where, as far as we can tell, this perspective could be accomplished. What else can we see? What about those guys in the foreground? What's going on there? There's a fence, and some streetlights, right? The people standing there look, roughly, 3 times as tall as the people on the bridge at the point where the suspension cables vanish under the deck:

That is to say, these foreground people are very roughly one third of the distance away from the photographer than the spot where the cables vanish below the deck of the bridge. After doing more measuring on google maps, let's say they are about 600 feet away from the photographer. Let us look on today's satellite imagery about there:

We're looking at a path around the perimeter of some sort of park. Indicated in red is what might be a fence (the white line on the path's edge,) the blue circles indicate what appear to be lighting over the path. It is entirely consistent with the same objects we see in the original photo from 60 years ago, although we should suppose the lighting and fence have been updated. A little further south, there are steps on the path, consistent with what looks like the abrupt drop-off beyond the foreground figures. We might even see a little bit of railing, as for stairs, in the photo.

This spot is a slightly north and a little west of the North Queensferry Community Center.

I am satisfied that Robert Blomfield went to the high point on the bluff over the highway, and worked his way as close as possible to the highway while maintaining his height in order to maximize the compression from his perspective. The result was impressive, as the actual curve of the deck of the bridge is in reality almost imperceptible. Well done, Robert!

However, we have yet to address the camera and lens. You could shoot this with anything. A modern DSLR with a 28mm lens could produce this, if you cropped the image enough. You'd wind up with a rather small file, but the perspective and framing could be made exactly as this photo is, today. To be fair, there might well be some bushes and things in the way today.

What if you wanted to shoot it straight out of the camera?

A little more research shows that the towers, waterline to the top, are 512 feet high. A reasonable guess as to what we're looking at on the near tower is about (very roughly) 200 feet from bottom of frame to top of frame, at a range of about 3100 feet. Feel free to confirm this, pictures of the bridge are widely available. The 200 vertical, and 3100 range yields a ratio of 15.5 to 1, or roughly 15:1. This same ratio will be reflected in the camera between lens and film plane, because that's optics for you.

Since we're not doing macro work here, we can guess that the focal length of the lens is a pretty good estimate of how "far" from the film plane the "lens" is (insert appropriate details about optical centers, infinity focus, and so on.) The lens has a focal length roughly 15 times the vertical height of the image on the film.

So, you could shoot this with a 15mm lens on an 8x10 camera (or any camera with a film or sensor at least 1mm high,) but you'd have to crop to a 1mm height on the film, which might be a bit much. Your picture will be ... rather soft.

A better guess would be a 300mm lens on a 35mm camera, which has a film height of 24mm (for a ratio of 12.5:1 which is definitely close enough).

Let us, however, look again at the picture. It's quite grainy. Like, really really grainy. This could be a fairly extreme crop.

In 1965 the best guess would be a 35mm camera, with various roll-film cameras running a close second. Of course, it could be anything, but these are the likely ones. We could be looking at a 300mm on a 35mm camera, cropped a bit, with some sort of very grainy development. I feel like the contrast might be higher, though. So, eh.

Let us do a little more research on Mr. Blomfield. He's one of these anonymous, mysterious, fellows who died leaving a shoebox of brilliant photographs, so of course we know more about him than we do about most well-known photographers. He acquired a Nikon F in 1960, a gift from his father, and built up a small collection of primes, including Nikon's 105mm lens. He favored Tri-X film, naturally. There is no indication that he acquired a 300mm, or one of the extreme zooms that Nikon made at the same time, and indeed one gets the sense that these would have been outside his budget.

Could he have shot this with the 105? He would have been stuck with cropping the frame quite radically, to about 7 or 8mm high, and 9 or 10mm wide on the film, about 10% of the total film area. Given the softness and the grain present in the photograph, I consider this quite likely, and in fact the most likely possibility.

You could take a 1960s vintage Nikon 105mm lens, attach it to a Nikon D8xx camera, and shoot this same photo. You'd crop your full frame file down to 4-5 megapixels to achieve it. Or, you could use a 70-200 or a 300 on any full frame camera and crop less vigorously. You might need to bring a friend or a machete to manage the underbrush, and you might need to climb over a couple fences, I'm not sure. I live in Bellingham, not in Edinburgh.

I have to give Mr. Blomfield an immense about of respect here. This was terribly bold, to shoot an absurdly wide view, with the aim of cropping it down to this. His shooting position, rendering this extreme perspective on the bridge, suggests that this was in fact his intention. He went to no small effort to render the bridge this specific way, he must have intended to emphasize this specific perspective. Had he printed the whole frame, or anything like it, he'd have a picture of a little bridge over a big body of water.

It's a bold crop, and a remarkably successful photograph. He was aided by the fact that the 105 is a really very good lens, and his technique was, I suspect, excellent. He had been photographing the bridge throughout its construction, for several years, so it is not surprising that he'd found the spot, and this perspective. It's possible he'd made experiments, and learned that, with the right mood in mind, he could in fact get away with this picture.

Comparing analog to digital in terms of megapixels is a fool's game, but anyways this photo is probably something like an effectively 1, maybe 2, megapixel photo. Nevertheless, it works.

Fortune favors the bold.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Colberg's Neoliberal Realism

It is maybe worth noting that Colberg's conception of this thing seems to be evolving, he's no longer obsessed with just throwing shade at Annie Leibovitz. Which is good! It's good!

Apparently this is one of those ideas that's just going to niggle at me, though, so every now and then I suppose I will have another go at it, and see what there is to be said about it. I have said, I think, and maintain, that there is something here. Naturally, I insist that I can say it better. Let's see how I do, shall we?

An advertisement is a proposition. If you buy this tool, you will be a better craftsman. If you buy this car, you will have more fun driving, or it will be more convenient to transport your children about. Most of the ads we see are offering you something about your life, or your work, or your appearance.

Now consider the Patek Philippe watch ad. What does it offer you? The watch itself keeps time somewhat less well than a cheap digital watch. It is, though, in its own way attractive, in part because it is known (to those who matter) to be expensive. Wearing the watch makes you, maybe, more desirable.

In general, though, the proposition offered by the watch advert is that you yourself will be altered, or possibly revealed, to be a more perfect human. Wearing, possessing, the watch is about you in your essence.

The Tiffany & Co. jewelry reveals you in much the same way, although perhaps what reveals you to be a more perfect human is that you have elected to place the jewelry on the body of a desirable woman.

Now, all adverts partake of this, a little. If you buy a Coca-Cola, not only will you be refreshed, but you will also (it is implied) be a more perfect person. This second note, though, is attenuated for Coca-Cola and amplified to the moon for luxury brands. Arguably a luxury brand might be defined as a brand whose products primarily aim to reveal you as a more perfect person. They are, by definition, not notably practical for any purpose.

There are brands which straddle this: the BMW automobile offers a pleasurable driving experience, allegedly, but also acts as a luxury. The BMW reveals you as more perfect, and is also fun to drive.

The fashion magazine cover, where Colberg started (roughly), is much the same. This is a perfect person, albeit usually a woman and so it's not clear if she is intended to represent a possession of a perfect person, or a perfectly possessable woman, or a perfect person in her own right. Possibly all of the above. Nobody suggests that men should be possessions.

Consider these luxury brands and their advertisements. Imagine, if you will, the perfect person offered. Who is it you will be, wearing the Vacheron Constantin watch with flying tourbillon? Who will you be, when you wrap the $12,000 and yet somehow understated Van Cleef & and Arpels chain around your mistress's neck?

I don't know about you, but to me these people all seem to be the same guy. He's also the male lead in many a romance novel and movie. He's the public face of the successful politician, the captain of industry. He's also male, as an aside, but there's female counterpart attached to his hip, so there's that.

He is the perfect avatar of what we now call neoliberal capitalism. He's that guy.

Colberg's conceit is that we can consider these advertisements as a parallel to state sponsored art, specifically the art of socialist realism. He's almost right, and if you say heroic realism instead, you pretty much nail it.

The various flavors of state sponsored heroic realism all offer the proposition of the perfect citizen. Everyone in "Triumph of the Will," all those blotchy peasants and factory workers in Stalin-era Soviet paintings, Comrade Lei Feng in China, they're all model citizens. They're the goal to which we (ought to) aspire.

The state offers the goal of the perfect citizen, and offers various paths to that goal. Join the party. Join the army. Clean your teeth diligently. Pick up trash. Whatever, it doesn't matter. There is a perfect person you could be if only you performed the appropriate rituals.

The Patek Philippe advert offers essentially the same deal. Buy the watch, be the man. Be the perfect citizen.

The element of realism is critical here. Indeed, I think it follows the Berger/Lukács conception of realism, that it is more than merely an attention to details but rather a metonymic representation of a world, of a totality of existence.

The point here is not to merely show a detail, but to propose an entire life, a complete existence, as a perfect citizen, as a perfect person. The watch does not merely make you look good in a picture, it rewrites your life into one of perfection. You are someone new, you are born again as it were, as a perfect citizen.

Whether advert or state-sponsored painting, the message is the same:

    join us: perform the ritual, become as new, become perfect.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Beliefs, Images, Culture

Barthes says at one point in his little book that advanced cultures consume images rather than beliefs, and that this (somehow) makes them more liberal, less fanatical, but also less authentic. Levi Strauss in his more recent and slightly littler book quotes this.

Possibly they would argue that contemporary society is not "advanced" at this moment in time, but at any rate is is absolutely false that we consume images in preference to beliefs. Rather, we use photographs to anchor and reify beliefs that we already hold.

A news photograph to accompany the story of a riot has a photograph of the riot. A common complaint levelled in these modern times is that the photo of the riot does not represent the rioters properly (if the speaker sides with the rioters, if otherwise the speaker doesn't give a shit if the rioters are properly represented.) This complaint is to miss the point of the news photo.

That the photo of the riot looks like any other riot is the point. This is a riot, and in many ways it was like any other riot, and the photograph's actual job is to make that point. Of course, the riot was also unique and special in some ways, a veritable snowflake of a riot, but that is in general not what a news story is aimed to tell. Maybe someone will write a book or something, but for this page 3 news story the guts of the story is that there was a riot, a lot like any other riot, but it was at this place, this time, this many buildings and police cars were torched, and the riot was over, broadly, these issues.

A corporate headshot isn't supposed to reveal the character of the CEO, it's supposed to look like a corporate headshot, and to paint the man as intelligent, caring, firm, and so on. Exactly like every other corporate headshot, but as it happens, of this particular guy.

A photo of a toothbrush for an ad, or a senior for graduation, or a girl in a prom dress or a bride, or a landscape, or a bum, these are all primarily stand-ins. They are, as Barthes might remark, reduced to signifiers. They do not, pace Barthes, refer irrevocably to their subjects. They refer to their specific subject, in fact, only very gently. They refer to the larger idea (signified) of "a riot," "a girl in a prom dress," "a toothbrush."

We glance at every one of these photos, and note that they look as they ought to look. The photo reifies the riot, the CEO, the toothbrush, the bride. Look, there he, she, it is. We are offended and angry when the wrong riot photo gets run next to the article, but it doesn't actually matter. It happens all the time, and every riot photo looks like every other riot photo. But we expect to get the right photo, because the point is to reify this riot, not that one, this CEO, not that marketing exec.

This happens surprisingly often with rocket launches during military conflicts, for some reason. Nobody denies that so-and-so is indeed firing off rockets at so-and-so, but for some reason a photo from a completely different conflict is used. Nobody even notices until some sharp-eyed fellow recognizes the specific photo.

One rocket launch looks a lot like another, it turns out, and it didn't really matter which picture was used. But we want our belief in the actual rockets to be supported by an actual photo of the actual rockets. That is the social function of the photo, here. The details of the picture's content don't matter. It could be a photo of Elmo the muppet for all it matters, if somehow Elmo could contrive to look a little like a rocket, or a CEO, or a riot. But we demand the right thing because this is the social function of the photo. Like Climate Change Science, we imagine that we could verify the truth of it ourselves, if we were so inclined, and Elmo in a Rocket Costume simply won't work.

I have argued, at length, that something quite different from this trivial, uncaring, glance happens when we look at photos. We enter the picture, and blah blah blah. I will now slightly adjust this position:

This complex engagement with a photo, I maintain, is what happens when we actually bother to look at the picture. Most of the time we don't. When we glance, when we consume the photo normally, we do not enter the picture, or imaginatively fill in a world, or whatever. We simply note that the object or event in question has been duly reified, and we move on.

It is when we care that we examine the photo, and experience a "blind field" or whatever you want to call it. When we are invested in the political issues that surround the riot, and choose to look at the photo seriously, for whatever reason, then we examine it; then we imagine the riot; then we sort the players into good guys and bad guys; we examine the photo (and our imagination) for evidence to support our positions.

When we examine the photo lightly, in the usual way, we are working with what are usually a bunch of words around the picture. A news article, a voiceover, a talking head. The words tell us the sketch of the situation, we form an opinion if we have not already done so. We gather up our belief or cloud of beliefs, and merely glance at the photo to confirm them or to support the idea that we could confirm them if we chose to do so.

You could argue, I suppose, that we are not consuming beliefs here, as much as we are applying them to the photos we are consuming, and perhaps that is the point. To be honest, Barthes' remark is one of those glib statements that sounds very clever, but does not actually seem to mean anything when you clear away the underbrush.

The idea, though, that we are evolving into a primarily visual culture, a culture of pictures without words, is pretty much completely wrong. The words we're using aren't exactly subtle or nuanced, but we're as word-based as we ever were. Photographs are not eating everything.