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Friday, September 15, 2023

The Photo Grift

A number of threads of thought crystallized this morning, abruptly. Let's see if I can write them down.

In 1800s quite a number of photographers mostly took pictures and were paid for pictures and that was that. Gradually companies formed to supply those photographers, and those companies presumably made money. There were amateurs, to be sure, but they knew who they were, and there weren't all that many of them in relative terms.

In the 1900s the number of amateurs exploded. Kodak and others enabled a several generations of nerdy fellows to take up the Hobby Of Photography. Magazines evolved to serve them, camera manufacturers built cameras and advertised in the magazines, and so on. A whole economic thing arose to serve the enthusiast. And, to be sure, many of those enthusiasts aspired to "go pro" in some sense, but most of them didn't. It was a hobby.

By the time I arrived on the scene the industry was largely funded by amateur photographers. They bought cameras, film, and magazine subscriptions, and that was the money that made the industry hum. Yes, Vogue bought photos and paid photographers, but that was not the engine that drove the industry.

Enter the digital camera. Suddenly everyone with disposable income could be a photographer. You didn't need a darkroom, you didn't need to be particularly dweeby, it became a normal, even cool, thing for basically anyone to do. Good! How fun! Now you can enjoy my hobby too!

A little later youtube arrives and the concept of a "content creator" shows up about the same time.

Poeple are blogging and setting up forums and so on. We start to see guys like Michael Reichmann on the scene.

At this point there is a substantial shift. It's no longer pretty much just photography companies selling cameras and film to hobbyists. It's Content Creators and Influencers selling workshops, memberships, subscriptions, and advertisements. It's a money spinner. Anyone can play. Set up a web site, crib some articles from someplace else, and watch the money roll in!

Well, not quite. You have to be both lucky, and skilled at being a Content Creator. It wouldn't hurt you to be pretty good at photography (Reichmann was a skilled technician, for example) but it honestly isn't even required.

In the background here there is a constant thrum of "you could go pro, you could make money at photography, all you need is whatever it is that I am selling." I don't even know why this turned up. I think maybe the Content Creators felt the need to justify their revenue, which they couldn't on the basis on their fairly thin content.

I don't mean to suggest that in 1990 everyone was an innocent and happy hobbyist without a thought of going pro, and that 20 years later it's some Lord of the Flies situation with everyone desperate to become a Pro Photographer. Not at all. But there's been a shift in mood. The vague hope, the idea, is a little more present. Maybe a lot more.

You could probably point at economic conditions, maybe everyone's a little more hungry, a little more on the lookout for a quick buck. I dunno. It doesn't matter, because the point is that it's a thing.

Anyways, to my eye from the 2010s there was an enormous wave of Content Creators attempting to take money off of photographers who were themselves looking for fame and/or fortune. The main thing to note here is that the successful ones were good at being Content Creators; they may or may not have been interested in photography, but whether they were or not doesn't matter. They're "professional" Content Creators which means they have a whole bunch of skills around attracting eyeballs. This is their actual expertise.

In some sense, this is the same as it ever was. It's not like Nikon was giving cameras away in the good old days, they were definitely making money. The difference to my eye is that in the first place when you gave Nikon money you actually got a camera, and in the second place there was less of a "you too could be a pro, you could make money at this." In fact, Nikon had several lines of camera, and only one was explicitly the "many money with this camera" line. The others were all implicitly "have a good time taking photos with these cameras."

In the 2010s you often didn't get anything. You could watch a Tony Northrup video or read a Lloyd Chambers blog post, with the result that you would be older and dumber by the end. You could pay a few thousand dollars for some workshop, with the result that you'd have a folder with 10,000 completely uninteresting photographs of icebergs or whatever. Even then, though, at least everyone was trying to give you some value. Lloyd at least did (does?) detailed if pointless testing. I'm sure Tony thought he was telling you.. something useful?

Somewhere in here MFA programs arose or were retooled based on, apparently, little more than "we can put butts in seats at $10,000 per butt-year" and guys like Colberg got jobs teaching in them. Based on the results it's honestly unclear wtf they were even trying to teach these kids? Most of them, of course, have not become successful artists although many have given a bunch more money to glorified vanity presses. Again, there was at least an attempt to deliver value, kinda. I am sure that Colberg really thought he was helping. I dare say some of his colleagues were more cynical.

And now here we are in the 2020s. At this point to be honest I think everyone's given up, and they're just trying to extract as much money as possible for as little effort as possible.

I, for instance, am apparently still publishing articles on Luminous Landscape (no, I am not, I wrote the piece currently at the bottom of the front page in 2017, not the August 2023 date indicated.) PetaPixel and fstoppers are descending rapidly toward click-farm link-mill stage, with articles about reddit posts and other articles describing videos they found on youtube. The filler doesn't quite dominate. Yet. It will.

Andy Adams, a relentless engagement farmer across many platforms, has a substack newsletter he's making thousands of dollars a year on, which is insipid to the point of transparency but which offers "exposure" to photographers who almost certainly make less money on photography than he does.

And this is the theme. The money flows from photographers to everyone else, the same as it always has.

The difference is that the photographer's aren't getting anything for their money, or for their attention. Andy's newsletter is read by absolutely nobody except your peers, who are all also vaguely hoping to "go pro" or become well known, better known, something, some day. Nobody reads PetaPixel or fstoppers except the same crowd, and on and on. The content available is essentially nil on all fronts, it's just the same recycled drivel, or often literally nothing at all. Newsletters about "how to find inspiration, we interviewed 5 photographers" will tell you it's "light" or "taking a walk." Youtube videos will begin and end with 3 or 4 minutes "like, share, and subscribe" with 2 minutes of content in between which is even more insipid than "I am inspired by the light!"

All of the "content" around photography has been reduced to a way to destroy some time. A ten minute video doesn't do anything except make ten minutes of your life go away. An 800 word blog post makes.. well, how long does it take you to read 800 words? That's how much time it will destroy. It will not make you a better photographer, it will not even entertain you particularly, it will not inform you. At best it will validate some life choice you made, and tell you that you're special (despite the evident fact that you are not.)

All this empty content still produces money for someone. You're paying for it, either with your wallet or your attention. You're getting nothing in return except maybe a little empty validation, a little tease that one day you might be someone.

At least when you went to the Galapagos with Michael Reichmann you got to see some turtles. It mighta cost you $10,000 a turtle, but at least there were turtles.

Monday, September 11, 2023

AD Coleman on Trump's mug shot

AD does a nice analysis of this photo, of just the sort I would do. A little more partisan than I would have written it, but AD's philosophy on that is perfectly clear and to my eye a perfectly reasonable approach. If he were disingenuous, I wouldn't like it, but he's not.

Read it here.

Really, do. It is well worth your time.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

On Visual Literacy

There is a school of thought, largely among the low-rent photo-academics that I so enjoy making fun of, that visual literacy is a thing, a thing which can be learned, ought to be taught, and so on. They say supremely stupid things like "one can read a photo just like a novel" and so on. This is one of those ideas that feels immediately kind of stupid. It gets a lot of its traction because of this, it's a strange but true idea that lets dummies imagine they have access to secret knowledge.

Let's dig in!

The first thing one might think about, if one asked oneself seriously "what is visual literacy actually" is that perhaps it's just about seeing things. A photo, of the sort one reads with ones visual literacy is generally just a picture of some stuff. Perhaps one could just read the stuff?

I am nearly certain that this is never what is meant. To be honest, I'm not 100% on this since these guys never explain what they actually mean, but I'm pretty sure.

Nope, visual literacy is specifically about the photo. It fits into that narrow gap between just looking at stuff, and just looking at a piece of paper with blotches on it. It's about decoding the photographer's methods and choices. What did the photographer choose to represent here, when, and what techniques did they apply to render the stuff they're photographing?

At this point even a moment's thought reveals that there cannot actually be any secret knowledge here. Suppose the photographer carefully applies Methods to make the subject look heroic, or venal, or whatever. If this doesn't actually come through to the ordinary citizen, if the sensation that the subject is venal or expensive or whatever does not come through to the untrained eye, the photo has failed. This isn't like a novel, where you're assuming that the person holding it can read the language. We don't encode things in a photo using a system of signs that one learns in school.

Yes, there are signs and tropes that get used, but they're culturally ubiquitous. A low angle and dramatic lighting to make the dude look heroic, or threatening, or whatever? Sure. That's totally a thing. It might be a bit of biology, it's definitely a lot of culture, but the point is that the great unwashed masses who didn't go to your stupid MFA program can read it just fine. They read comic books too.

Visual literacy, if it means anything at all, means that one notices and inventories ones own responses to a photo. The advanced course might conceivably teach us how other cultures, other people, might respond, so that we can imagine their responses and inventory those as well (wait, this sounds a lot like Molitor's theory of criticism, huh.) There cannot be anything interesting about our responses, those must be universal. The literacy arises in that we notice them.

The trouble we run in to immediately here is that we have trouble separating our reactions to the photographic methods and tropes from our reactions to the content itself.

As a critic, I don't see much point in separating those. I am interested in the total effect of the photo on me, and on other people. Trying to comb apart the lighting techniques from the content isn't something I am much interested in.

It is, however, of central importance if you're trying to do visual literacy and decode the Language of Photography or whatever. You can't just be reacting to the content, that's not visual literacy that's just looking at stuff. So, the visually literate academic weirdo has to pretend they're reacting to the way the photo is made, rather than just the contents of the frame.

Case in point, Jörg Colberg's more or less unhinged critique of Helmut Newton.

The underlying drama here is that Colberg is a prude, and also believes that Men should not photograph Women, ever, and especially not Nude Women. Which, you know, ok. He's perfectly entitled to his opinions here, and these are not even particularly odd ideas.

You can, however, see him muddling up the content and the method, constantly. Newton's photos are sexist and misogynistic not because it's a dude photographing women with their clothes off, but because somehow something something male gaze. Colberg flatly refuses to admit that his beef is that dudes shouldn't photograph women with no clothes on, and so he wanders endlessly around saying ridiculous things like "In a most obvious fashion, Newton’s world is entirely heterosexual."

Not only is Colberg somehow gleaning the sexuality of a nude woman from the photo, which is itself pretty suspect, but Helmut Newton's photos are famously some of the gayest shit ever! It's all flirting with sexual fetishes. We do not in these enlightened times think of gayness as a fetish, but in Newton's time it absolutely was. The Fetish/Gay/Camp blend was 100% a thing, and Helmut Newton was a master of it, if not the master.

Colberg goes on to argue that Newton's photos are "sexist and misogynistic" because it's obvious that they are and if you dared argue that they weren't, well, your argument would also be "sexist and misogynistic" and therefore wrong. Q.E.D. I looked this up in my Logic 101 textbook, and I think we formally refer to this syllogism as Modus Dumbass.

Anyways, this is pretty much a perfect case study of some dude who earnestly believes in visual literacy and earnestly believes that he has more or less mastered this arcane art, and that he is therefore qualified to offer us a "reading" of Newton's work. He sees himself as diligently decoding the dense thicket of symbols encoded in Newton's photographs, to reveal to us the inner meaning.

I don't even much like Newton, but I don't think there's any inner meaning that you need special training to decode. The magazines who commissioned Newton's work would likely be surprised and upset to learn that special training was necessary to make sense of that work. It is as if The New Yorker commissioned 2500 words on dogs, only to receive a manuscript written in Latin.

No, Newton is pretty much all surface. It's all fetishistic and sexy, in a sort of blunt and dated way, and that makes Colberg extremely uncomfortable.

Is it "sexist and misogynistic" to represent women as powerful but also sexual, and also kind of pervy? Maybe? That seems to me like a cultural judgement that's gonna give you different answers in different times and places. Ultimately, I don't particularly care. I am interested in the total effect of the photo, content and method combined.

There's nothing wrong with noticing and inventorying your reactions to a photograph. I do it as a hobby. The difference, as near as I can tell, between simply looking at a photo with your eyes open and visual literacy is that the latter tries, fruitlessly, to separate content from method, to catalogue in some meaningful the reactions to method separately from content.

Invariably, the reaction to content bleeds in, and the whole effort collapses into a re-iteration of the visually literate nimrod's politics. In the end it's never more complicated than them being mad that someone photographed a naked woman.

It's fine to be mad that someone photographed that, or that the subject exists, or whatever, I don't care. What's dumb is to pretend that you're actually mad at the secret neoliberal coded message that you can't articulate but which is definitely in the photo probably as a punctum or something.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

A Photo Testifies

A photograph which looks like a photo of something or someone, as well as anything else which isn't a photo but which looks like such a thing, mainly does one thing: it testifies to that-which-was.

This has been my thesis for a little while now, and it's recognizably lifted directly from Barthes, so if I'm a crank, at least my crankery has a pedigree! What I mean is that a photo, or something that looks like a photo, which also looks like it's of something (not an abstract, obvious collage, or what have you) mainly asserts that something existed, and it looked like that at a moment in time.

There's other shit these things do, of course. They're a mass of tone and color in pleasing, or less pleasing, arrangements, and so on. Paintings do all those things, but paintings do not testify in the same way.

Let us now turn our attention to AI-generated photo-realistic imagery.

It functions in the same way a photo does, if it is sufficiently photo-realistic. It cannot do otherwise. It testifies to that-which-was.

The point is not that it's functioning differently but that its testimony is false.

An unaltered actual photograph cannot be false in the same way. Within the limits of its capacity, its testimony is completely, utterly, true.

The attentive reader might notice here that I am introducing the idea of index in a way that sidesteps the traditional analysis of that concept (light particles physically induced a blah blah blah therefore it's a direct blah blah index index) in order to include digital imagery or whatever. The point is that the testimony is 100% truthful, within the extremely narrow limits of the medium.

To be clear, I am perfectly aware of the many ways a straight photo can misrepresent reality. My point here is that there is a core of visual facts about which no straight photo lies. It looked like that. That thing was in that visual relationship to that other thing. Those two forms overlapped thus. And so on. It is this core of truth that is the testimony of the photo, no more, but also no less.

It is this core of truth that begins to erode the moment we modify the photo (yes, including burning and dodging, contrast adjustments, etc, so yes the core truth of the testimony begins to erode immediately, I am also aware that digital cameras do image processing, thank you.)

An AI generated "photo" testifies in the same way, but its testimony is a complete fabrication.

A perjurer and a priest testify in exactly the same way. The former, however, lies, and we like to imagine that the latter does not.

What is the value of any testimony? Most photos testify as indicated, but nobody cares. Oh, what a nice bowl of tomatos. The light falls just so. Who gives a shit? The aesthetics might be nice, and maybe you even want to decorate your kitchen with a copy of it. But, it doesn't matter if it's real, photoshop, or AI then. So what if the tomatos never existed? Or did? It simply doesn't matter.

Most real photos testify to facts that almost nobody cares about and that don't matter even slightly, to anyone. If we're talking about aesthetics, and if aesthetics is all we care about, then it doesn't matter how the dumb thing got made. Its nature as a piece of testimony doesn't matter a fig, although the fact that it adheres to a photographic aesthetic may.

That said, most real photos testify to something that someone cares about, at least a little. You and I don't care, but to whomever went to the trouble of hauling out her phone, it matters, at least enough to take a photo. It's trivial, but it's real. The photo testifies, and to the photographer, that is in fact what matters. My kid did a cute thing. What a pretty flower. Look at my latte. AI imagery has no place here.

AI imagery only applies to circumstances where we either don't care about the testimony of the image (i.e. Fine Art and Fucking Around, ok maybe Stock) or in places where we explicitly want false testimony. Everyone is focused on the "where we explicitly want false testimony" case because they're worried about things. Let's look at that in a moment.

The point though is that in almost all uses for photography it is the testimony which matters to whoever is taking the photo, albeit to almost nobody else. Nobody looking at an especially pretty flower wants an AI to make an even prettier one, they want to record the one they're looking at. That's literally the point. It's my flower, my child, my town, whatever. If you just want to make a pretty picture of a flower or a child, you could take up painting, and nobody paints.

Almost all uses for AI image-generators that I observe today consist of fucking around and discovering the limits of AI image-generators. The only use case is to post the result online and say "wow, check out what this AI image generator did." This is already starting to get worn out.

As for the case where someone wants false testimony, well. The trouble with false testimony is that as a rule it doesn't work. Nobody accepts any testimony of any kind by itself. Whether we mean to or not, we place testimony in the context of our own world-view, we place it next to other testimony. Even photos, perhaps especially photos: we don't believe testimony unless it supports a larger, more or less coherent, picture of the world.

The only actual use cases for AI imagery that strike me as having any legs at all are basically variations of I wish I could paint, but I can't which honestly seems a bit thin. Not sure there's a big market here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Guest Post: David Smith reviews Someone for Everything

David is a regular commenter here, and a friend. Normally he's substantially more acerbic, which I suspect means something. The book sounds fascinating.

Someone for Everything by Michael LeBlanc — a review
(and a speculative digression)
by David Smith

Michael Leblanc is a visual artist, and a professor of digital design who I studied under in the early '90s. We stayed in touch, trading news and projects. I recently emailed him to ask if he or his colleagues had any truck with AI (he’s unaware of anything specific), and learned of his latest work, Someone for Everything 100 Sequential Drawings


Why would this book of drawings be of interest to aficionados of photography? It manifestly isn't a photobook, but it is a book that includes many photographs altered in ways familiar to those of us who have experimented with collage and other graphical devices. Working with stock photos, Michael has turned these experiments up to eleven.

I was particularly interested in Michael's take on AI, because he's a 'skeptical enthusiast' who introduced Luddite me to the uses of digital technology in visual art. But what, exactly is meant by "AI"? Well before the ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion (etc.) marketing blitz, AI encompassed many, less hyped applications that don't depend on the extravagant resources of deep fake manufacture.

"Before we go any further, let’s get one thing out of the way."

In his text, Michael takes considerable pains to make clear the 100 drawings were not AI-generated. Based on his emailed comments, I think it possible they were, at least partly, AI-inspired — if true, an interesting conceptual switch! Indeed, the methodology he lays out in detail sounds a lot like the AI process of assembling and modifying fragments of found imagery into a composition — a process historically known as collage.

To recap what is widely understood about the collage medium: one starts with source images clipped from newspapers, magazines, and other printed ephemera (other materials may be introduced). The images may be close-cropped to particular subjects/details, or (less commonly) they are included 'as is,' and glued down in a arrangement. In the digital era, many artists have adopted the collage method with scanned source and/or digicam images. There have been bitter accusations of plagiarism leveled against some AI image-generators, but this is a core precedent for the process itself.

If one takes the narrow position that a drawing is mainly comprised of brush or stylus marks made by human hand, the works in Michael's book look more like collage than drawing at first glance. Closer inspection reveals another possibility: the collage elements are a matrix on which drawing is overlaid. This doesn't take anything away from the book’s expressive power, but I feel it is important for understanding its conceptual provenance.

In his text, Michael describes his intentions for the series, reaching back to his practice of traditional printmaking (intaglio, lithography, etc.): maximal tonal range, 'richness,' and the idea of successive proofs in the development of a print. I'm going to say here I wish I had looked through the drawings first (my bad, I should have just skipped ahead). I've lately become interested in 'prompts' (titles, captions, and texts) — how they affect our readings of visual art. While I think such texts may ideally provide some insights into what a visual work might mean and why, I much prefer to absorb the information visually, and make up my own mind first. I strongly feel the proper role of visual art is to mystify and delight, rather than instruct (Michael is a professor, so…).

The 100 drawings

The sequence begins with Someone for Everything I, a charcoal drawing of a central figure delineated in, and surrounded by blocky tones. The scanned drawing is a scaffold for ensuing digital overlays of collage and drawn elements that shift, morph, are replicated and replaced. It may also be taken as a signal the work is to be interpreted as a series of drawings — something that might otherwise be overlooked! Compared to what soon follows, the composition is relatively simple and stylized, which makes it easier to spot superimposed drawing in later iterations.

The next few drawings in the sequence build up complexity and depth ("richness"). By the fourth (Someone for Everything IV), Michael has got his vocabulary, but the best is yet to come.

Some of the details feel 'off,' in a way that is uncannily similar to how AI image generators conjoin source fragments by attempting to conjure up the missing bits from the sparser reaches of a database. One obtains the strong sense that Michael isn't working to cross an uncanny valley to a seamless realism, but he is deeply interested in the surreal glitches and artifacts AI throws up in near-misses and abject failures. This tracks to his previous works on technology. I have to say again, that flipping this phenomenon into a basis for human invention is an impressive conceptual feat (cf. Francis Picabia’s Réveil Matin).

Michael repaints the collaged photographs, masking and fading elements, and sketching in new details in a kind of loose impressionism, as he builds each drawing.

Paging back and forth through the drawings, I am immediately struck by how they function together as a flip-book animation. This bridges the variable 'completeness' or polish of the individual drawings. While many of the drawings work very well as stand alone visual statements (and I'd like to see a tighter edit with these in), the sequence benefits from the inclusion of intermediary states in comprehending the greater whole.

Michael's collage sources include early Soviet photographs, and I think this is a good place to bring up what I see as possible conscious or unconscious influences on the overall direction of the series: Alexander Rodchenko and other Constructivists worked extensively with dynamic collage compositions during this era, along with Germans in the Dada movement (Hannah Hoch, Raoul Housmann).

Most of Michael's figures here are similarly poised for action, and are often rotated or flipped to an unstable angle for heightened dynamic tension. They are combined and recombined with other figures, whom they seem to be dancing with, fighting, or otherwise spatially interfering. Many of the figures have acquired exaggerated expressions through Michael’s overlaid drawing. Others appear as bland, anonymous ciphers. Drawn elements keep things in the frame, by setting up pauses in the action, and routing our attention around the composition.

The narrowly vertical (6:10) aspect ratio of the drawings perfectly frames a straight-on shot of a standing person with ample margins, and many of the drawings are of this configuration, often with limbs and other visual elements flying out at odd angles. The format, and placement on the page spread support both the 'book of drawings' identity in terms of traditional presentation, and the flip-book browsing experience — variations (and there are many) are locked into this layout scheme.

Michael alludes in his text to the possibility of the drawings printed large scale for an exhibition of the white-cube persuasion. It is easy to imagine LXIV, LXV, LXXV and LXXXI (among others) making for a very dramatic show indeed. He also states that he now considers the project a sketchbook of studies for (e.g.) large paintings.

I feel fortunate to have learned of this very interesting project, which has great depth and many facets of interest to me personally. I will be returning to this book as I try to unravel its meanings, and absorb its lessons.

Sunday, July 30, 2023


I think I've made a little headway on discovering what on earth I've been on about lately.

Perhaps it comes down to the rubric in play. If you're a hull-polisher, your rubric for measuring the quality of a boat and team is how shiny the hull is. This is borderline offensive to someone who's using the rubric "who can get the boat around the course more quickly" which is a more standard racing approach.

What rubs me the wrong way is when people, be they Mike Johnston, or Jörg Colberg, describe a photo as "good" unconditionally. This is pretty normal, most photography types are quite fearless about judging photos good or bad, without bothering to reveal their rubric. They speak exactly as if there was a single objective standard, that they are privy to it, and that they are qualified to judge. At the same time, bizarrely, they will often lean on an idea of subjectivity.

So let's think about rubrics. A rubric, for our purposes here, is any sort of system for measuring the goodness of a photograph. You can imagine it assigning a score between 0 and 10, let's say, where 10 is the best and 0 means terrible.

I am an unrepentant relativist, and believe that there are no immutable, universal, standards for much of anything, and certainly nothing as trivial as a photograph.

Every photograph produces a trivial rubric: "how much does your photo resemble this one" and obviously the photo itself scores 10, other things will score more or less, but probably not 10.

So there's a lot of rubrics out there. As many as there are photos, at least.

Storefront portraitists have a rubric that involves the balance of lighting and whether you got the subject to pose in some approved fashion. Ansel Adams wannabees will measure densities, and may or may not look at anything else. Nobody has been able to figure out what Colberg's rubric is, but it certainly includes "dismal."

In the 1980s and 1990s a variation of 19th century oil painting's notions of composition ruled the roost. I was brought up to photography with a rubric (usually presented as universal) that boils down to a re-working of Victorian composition: balance, unity, etc etc. I wrote a small book on it, largely as an exercise in understanding it, 10 years or so ago. I thought that if I just understood the rubric more thoroughly, I would then be able to make "good photos."

I don't think there is a universal rubric.

A more realistic example of multiplying rubrics than my trivial one above: every project generates a rubric of sorts. A photo is "good" if it works within the context of the body of work. A brilliant landscape that hits every Ansel Adams button is "bad" in the context of a portraiture project. It's tempting to argue that this is different from a more general "good" or "bad", it's tempting to argue that "it's still a good photo, it just doesn't work in the project" but to be blunt, I fail to see the point. It's a distinction without a difference.

The "quality" of any photograph exists in a sort of quantum superposition of states until the moment you see it, in whatever context you see it. Either it works or it does not, at that moment, when the quantum states collapse.

This is, essentially, AD Coleman's position on editing. A photographer does not, in his formulation, exist until the work is edited and prepared for public consumption. The job of the photographer is not complete until then. My formulation may be a little more radical, and is probably not as well-defined, but we do what we can.

My complaints over the last few days can be expressed at this: many photographers evaluate work under rubrics which are opaque, confined to fairly insular communities, and at the same time treated as universal. A rubric that is not more or less accessible to normies may be perfectly fine, I don't want to yuck your yum, but it's not interesting. Nobody cares except you and your friends. There's nothing wrong with that, but to pretend that you're not in a closed club, to pretend that you're making universal art, is to partake of falsehood.

Take the now complete "Bleak House" project, assembled by Brad Feuerhelm: Bleak House -- Void

Nobody wants any of this stuff except the people in that very small community. There's some variety, but even the irrepressible Katrin Koenning appears to have been smashed down to dull incomprehensible gibberish. The people inside, of course, love it. Do they love it because the photos specifically meet some opaque rubric? Well, kinda. Mainly they love it because these people are their friends, and they're all in this mess together, all producing more or less the same piles of incomprehensible gibberish. They're literally taught how to do it, they're judged on how well they do it, and so on. They're polishing the shit out of the hull of a sailboat.

This doesn't make them bad people, it doesn't make the photographs or the books "invalid" or whatever, it just means that nobody much cares about the work. It's possible some of the artists will get jobs as a result, so that's good! I don't know any of these people, but I want them to all be able to eat and have a warm place to sleep! If this is how that happens, then great. I don't like the work, at all, though.

And, again, this is a community of people who are earnestly convinced of the universality of this bewildering rubric which they use to evaluate work. From the outside, they look like a bunch of schizophrenics, living inside an absolutely impenetrable bubble of their own imagination.

Do I have some ultimate summing up, some sort of answer, here?

Of course not. The whole point is that there are rubrics, and there are rubrics, and it's all relative.

I do think that it behooves us to think pretty hard about what we are trying to accomplish. How should we evaluate a photograph. There is no such thing as quality in a universal sense here (pace Pirsig) there are only properties of how photographs behave, and how we might use these objects with these properties to accomplish whatever it we seek to accomplish.

Consider, again, the "Bleak House" project. I have no idea who Brad wanted to impress here, but it probably includes more or less his peers. This includes a bunch of curators and other gatekeepers who will examine the CVs of the participants, note the MFAs and so on, and glance at the photos to verify that they Meet Standard. Everyone gets another line to add to their CV, thereby increasing their chance of getting a grant or a show or whatever. To this extent I dare say "Bleak House" is a success. It looks like Brad was able to leverage his C-list status to lend status to a bunch of artists, which in turn burnished his apple a bit. Victory all around.

If the aim went beyond that, though, it's an abject failure. No normie is going to look at these books and get much out of them. Sure, there's an indie zine vibe in there, a kind of punk-rock aesthetic, but then you get to the photos. It's all tryhard Walker Evans wannabee grey architecture, mixed up with a few weaksauce Ren Hang copies (no porn, no guts) and the occasional damp design exercise. It's not going to speak to anyone, because it's all the vague gibberish that can be re-tasked at a moment's notice by re-writing the artist's statement.

I'm not sure Feuerhelm had a clear notion of what the point was. Certainly I've never seen anyone admit that their work isn't supposed to impress normies, that it is all grant-bait. But it is, in the end and in this community, all grant-bait. The vagueness is a feature. Your portfolio can be about whatever you need it to be about today.

A similar sort of deconstruction, though, can be applied to lots of other photography. Mike Johnston's photos are at least attractive, and he does actually sell them on the strength of his strong graphical skills. Nevertheless, I'm not sure that he has much notion of a specific rubric to which he's adhering. His writing suggests that he imagines himself to be adhering to a universal rubric of some sort, and that his photos are in some objective sense "good." The fact that they are more broadly appealing than the average MFA's work does not make his rubric universal.

Ditto the storefront portrait guys. Ditto the street photography guys. Ditto the guys who can't stop taking pictures of peaches and forks in beautiful rectangular gridded arrangements.

It's not all subjective, not by a long shot. We, humans, fall into communities, into affinity groups, and tend to like and dislike things en masse.

It is, however, all relative.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Photos about Themselves II

I got the sense from the commenters on the previous remarks that my notes maybe read as an indictment of all photographers, or almost all photographers, and I don't mean that at all. Just... a lot of them.

The thing that got me started on this train of thought is a photograph and some remarks by Mike Johnston over on his blog, ToP: Photographs are Gifts.

Allow me to be perfectly clear: I like and respect Mike, I like this photo pretty well, and I think by certain standards it is a "good photograph."

At the same time, though, this illustrates the point I am trying to make. Mike and I are roughly contemporaneous, he is slightly older. We both came up to photography feeling that, to a large extent, it's a problem of graphic design. Yes, to be sure, the graphic design is intended to be the tool by which something else occurs, something larger, something about communication. At the same time, we get a little too focused on the graphic design. You can read Mike ruminating a little about "final" versus, I guess, not final. You can tell he's thinking about contrast and shadow detail. We both spent far too much time learning about Ansel Adams and the rhythm of dark and light, the full range of tone, etc etc etc. All, of course, in aid of something or other larger and more important which we have for the moment mislaid.

It is, I feel, time for an extended and elaborate analogy built around, of course, racing sailboats.

Suppose a fellow buys a boat to go racing. Quickly he learns that polishing the hull makes it go faster, so he really gets into polishing his hull. In fact, after a while, he stops sailing entirely. A community of people arise who buy boats specifically and solely to polish the hull. They develop rules and standards, they have contests, they judge one another's boat hull polish levels.

Now, there's a lot of stuff you can do with a sailboat. You can race it. You can go camping in it. You can travel long distances. You can seduce lovers. You can get exercise. On and on. And also, you can polish it.

Someone fond of one of the other activities might reasonably get a little testy about the hull-polishers. They might angrily point out some of the other things, things the damned machine is actually built to do. On the one hand, this is unfair: who is this asshole to yuck the polishers' yum? There's no law against polishing the hull, nobody's getting hurt. On the other hand... boy that does seem like a waste of a boat and of your time.

A great deal of photography is done by people whose main goal to to make photographs that their peers will approve of. That is, they seek to make photographs that comply with the more-or-less arbitrary standards a group of photographers has invented for themselves, in the same way the hull polishers seek the perfect sheen.

On the one hand, who am I to yell at Mike to stop obsessing over the graphic design (so, obviously, I didn't and I won't, nobody else should either, and anyways I agree that the graphic design is good, and I was literally taught that this is what matters, so... I have some feels here, and they're complicated.)

On the other hand, Mike's photograph (like all his photographs) does little more than testify that Mike is very good at noticing things that make photographs of the sort Mike takes.

There are many things you can do with a camera, including make graphic design exercises. You can also make dreary grey photographs of nothing, if you're in the right sort of MFA program. You can make warm cozy photos that somehow evoke the paintings of Hopper without any of the angst. You can make photos with that kind of weird sheen of plastic-y perfection that get you to the front page of whatever photo sharing site you favor. You can take portraits with a million lights and balance them just so.

Who am I to yuck your yum, if that's what you want to do?

But in all those cases, you are making photographs intended to be liked by other photographers, and you're doing that by adhering to essentially arbitrary criteria your community has invented for itself.

The essential action of the photograph, its ability to testify to that-which-was, gets lost here somewhere. The essential action of the artist, which surely involves complying with the demands of an inner voice in opposition to the voice of the community, gets lost here somewhere.