Thursday, March 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Crit: Being Inbetween, by Carolyn Mendelsohn

There is a trope in the land of feminist-ish photography: I will get a whole batch of women, or girls, and take photos of them. This will empower them.

The details of how the empowerment is supposed to happen are, like so much else in the land of Serious Photography, left unstated as if it was well known, which it is not. Nobody knows, but they assume everyone else does. This does not make the projects bad, but it is an inauspicious starting point. Here is one such project: Being Inbetween, Carolyn Mendelsohn, on The Guardian web site.

There is a second trope being deployed here, which is "let's photograph tweens" which we see rolled out quite often. Sally Mann made At Twelve in 1988, and we see it time and again. Here's a related project by Justine Kurland, again on The Guardian web site, and I dare say there are more. If I can think of two in a couple of minutes, surely there are.

Anyways, let's look at Mendelsohn's project.

One of the first thing that's likely to strike you is the sameness of the pictures. The same black background, hearkening back to awful 1980s retail photographs in the "formal" mode. The same expression, although a very slight smile sneaks in a couple times. The subjects are all girls, all roughly the same age. The framing is the same. The kids with taller hair are forced down in the frame, which strikes me as a peculiar choice, but whatever, it doesn't seem to mean anything. Whatever. There's a lot of sameness here.

At the same time, the nerds will notice that the lighting patterns change subtly. I am no strobist or portraiture expert, but the changes in lighting pattern don't seem to serve any purpose and a quick check suggests that she simply changed it up a little every year or so. The body postures vary, as does the clothing.

You can read a version of the secret decoder ring here. This is one of those projects where its meaning is related to us in text, rather than being particularly visible in the pictures themselves.

When you peel away the blather about empowerment and agency, you see that the girls had almost no agency here. They selected their clothing and stance, and they made a little personal statement, and that's it. Everything else ran on rails defined by Mendelsohn. While more collaborative than if Mendelsohn had roofied her subjects, it's not notably collaborative, and indeed leans away from that. The girls mostly look vaguely uncomfortable, closed down, and for what appears to be good reason.

The girls all look the same, have the same expression, because they have been directed to look that way. This sentence, from the Impressions Gallery link, is especially maddening: This careful and measured photographic approach bestows the girls with authority, granting them a certain power held within their gaze. This is literally saying "by taking away most of the choices, the girls are given authority" which is some fucking Orwellian double-talk.

The statements made by the girls, while in no way earth shaking, are fun to read. Tweens can be pretty cool. I am raising one my my own, and she says shit every day that delights me. Abigail, who wants to move to Romania and raise wolves, is awesome. I will contribute to that GoFundMe campaign.

So what is it, visually? It strikes me as not a lot more than a typology of tween fashion choices c. 2018. The kids are cute, and who doesn't like kids? The fact that they're emotionally closed (mostly) does rather drain the life out of the thing, though.

The meaning of the project is entirely imposed on it by the blathering that surrounds it, the claims of collaboration, empowerment, authority, etc, are all great intentions which happen to be utterly invisible in the pictures themselves, and which to be blunt I do not believe in for a second. Mendelsohn may genuinely believe these statements to be true, but they are not.

Is it good? Not really. It's a set of warmed over tropes, roughly shoved into a conceptual bag into which is doesn't really fit.

This is Art made for Artists and Art Critics who, by and large, may be relied upon to not look very closely at the work itself but will prefer to read about your process, your identity, you intentions, and so on, and then will elect to either project that material on to the work or not according, mostly, to whether or not they think their peers will.

Monday, January 11, 2021


If you follow along in my other incarnations online, you might be aware that I'm writing a series of articles for Petapixel (click here) on my theories of how photographs are read. There's a fellow, A. Cemal Ekin, who's offered a few comments along the way. Nice enough guy, thoughtful, generally a little more focused on promoting his own blog than in actually being involved with anything I say but whatever, he's at least in the ballpark and I genuinely appreciate the engagement, which has been generally pitifully small.

He offered up a link to his own blog[1], and I stumbled upon another[2]. I provide links below.

The blog post he offered up was about how to read photographs, and he dragged out the usual sort of thing, the kind of thing I've thought a lot about myself. It's not at all a stupid thing. He wants us to think of our time with a photo as an interplay of "form," "technique," "content," and "mind" all of which mean more or less what you think they do. This is pretty standard, and he has a notion that these various factors can be more or less important, on a photo by photo basis. Ok, fair enough.

In the post I happened over while while trying to re-locate the first one describes an experiment he conducted in a class. One student looks at a photo, and describes what they see, then they pass the photo to another student who reports on how well the photo matches what they were imagining.

One result of this experiment was that, he relates, everyone talks about content exclusively.

Weirdly, the lesson he takes away from this is, roughly, that everyone is wrong. Everyone ought to be looking at line, form, composition, and so forth. And so he laboriously teaches all his students to do that, instead of what comes naturally.

Which leads us around to my conclusion. What Mr. Ekin is doing here, and what photographers and photo critics by and large do universally, is to create and then operate within a more or less sealed ontological system.

The form/technique/content/mind system of objects and relationships is a perfectly fine thing to do. It's absolutely a way to think about photographs, or any other sort of made objects. You could think of dishwashers within this system if you liked, and evaluate them on those terms. This is an ontological system.

Evaluating dishwashers within this system, while absolutely possible, would probably strike some people as fairly odd, which begs the question of why it is then seen as a Great Idea for photographs.

Other photographers use similar systems including things like "accurate focus", "depth of field", "rule of thirds" and so on. Photo critics tend to use a system built mainly on "how much do these pictures look like other 'good' pictures, and what do I think of the photographer as a person."

You can build perfectly coherent systems of all these, and many more, types. There are many ontologies that can be used to evaluate photos.

The one thing they share is an almost complete disconnection from the real world. Mr. Ekin's experiment reveals what we all know: people don't care about anything except content, in most photos. More generally, each system of knowledge has limitations, it is applicable only within a specific sphere. The people who subscribe to each of them tend to be unaware, generally, that theirs is an ontology which is at best co-equal with many others, that it has limits, that it is not universally applicable.

You get people in photography forums desperately trying to connect the Golden Spiral to the way "people react to your photo" which is absolute balderdash: an example of attempting to demonstrate the universality of a "rules of composition" ontology for evaluating photos. You get people who think Michael Schmidt is the bees knees trying to explain the social impacts media photos and droning on about "visual literacy," which is basically the same thing.

I am, with my pieces on Petapixel, trying to bring a new ontological system into the world of photos, one based on what normal people actually see in normal photos. That is, content, and how we react to it. My system is no more universal than any other, but it is specifically crafted to systematize evaluating how photos might work socially or culturally; how photos work as media.

It's useless for evaluating how other photographers will evaluate your photos. It's useless for evaluating whether or not MACK is likely to offer you a book deal. It's useless for a lot of things. There are ontological systems that will do a much better job for you there.

My system, though, might just be a pretty good basis for understanding the way photos land in the real world, how they might strike regular people who look at your pictures. That's the plan, anyways!

The promised links to Mr. Ekin's blog:

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Interpretation of Media

In the past few days we've seen the expected spate of media from January 6, at the Capitol of the USA. Shaky cell phone videos, photographs, all kinds of shit.

As also expected, these have been carefully curated by everyone to present this story or that. We saw videos of the Trumps watching a rally in the morning of Jan 6, which is routinely and repeatedly mischaracterized as the Trumps watching the mob storm the Capitol Building. We have seen a carefully selected set of pictures and videos of Capitol Police opening doors, opening barricades, and standing by as protesters move freely. These are positioned, generally, as the Capitol Police acting in complicity with the mob.

We also saw a lot of rhetoric comparing the Capitol Police treatment of these protesters versus BLM protesters earlier this year, with again carefully curated sets of media. More recently, we're starting to see more pictures of physical altercations between officers and protesters, more scenes of tear-gas-obscured chaos, and so on. In short, we are only now seeing pictures that more resemble the BLM protest photos, pictures which we were not seeing earlier.

It is surely true that the Capitol Police treated this protest differently from the way they treated the BLM protests, but what is not clear to me is why this is a bad thing. It is widely agreed that the BLM protests were badly handled, isn't it? Add to that the fact that this was a rapidly unfolding, short-term, very localized protest action as opposed to a slowly evolving, long-term, geographically diffuse and mobile protest action and I become quite leery inferring too much from comparisons.

But, whatever. The differences in handling play in to the ways people are interpreting the media they are seeing, and that is what I am interested in here, really.

Whether complicity, incompetence, or strategy, the building as a whole (with small but important exceptions) was ceded to the protesters, to the mob, for a few hours. You can read the photographs and videos any way you like.

You can read the photos and videos from within the mob as anything from "idiots talking shit" to "a vicious mob bent on murder" and it's not even clear to me whether there's a functional difference here. Idiots talking shit just need one yahoo, probably drunk, high, or both, to break ranks and start charging the building, or shooting hostages, and suddenly you're an actual vicious mob bent on murder.

There is an interesting theme running through the photos, which I am not sure many people notice. The uniformed officers are doing various things: standing around, shoving at the barricades, wrestling with protesters, spraying pepper-spray, that sort of thing. There are other guys, guys in suits over body armor.

I'm pretty sure these are the dudes who are charged with defending the legitimate government of the USA, and they seem to be really serious bastards. The protester who was shot was shot by a guy in a suit as she was trying to move toward the House Chamber (where that Government was currently sheltering, before being evacuated.) The cops with pistols out pointing at a door are these guys, defending the Legitimate Government of the USA which is currently huddled under their seats in the Chamber behind the cops.

These cops are aiming over a piece of furniture which I suppose is kept near the door for the feng shui. The fact that it neatly barricades the door as well is surely a happy accident.

Whatever your preferred narrative here, once the barricades collapsed the Capitol Police had very limited options, I think, and I think they executed pretty well. I guess they could have just opened fire on the crowd, there were cops with rifles positioned to do just that. The mob probably would have broken and run for it, eventually. I don't think I would approve that plan.

The civilians were protected, and safely evacuated (did you notice that there are exactly zero civilians visible in any of the media of protesters inside the Capitol Building? They've all been hustled off to defensible spaces, i.e. the two chambers, where extremely tense men in suits are doing their job.

What is interesting to me here, though, is the way these pictures are being interpreted. What looks to me to be consistent with de-escalation is seen by others as complicity, and still others as simple incompetence.

You can construct a narrative around Trumps and Republicans egging on the crowd, although that story doesn't hold a lot of water since all that media seems to come from maybe 1:30pm or earlier, when it seemed to be pretty much an ordinary protest. These things happen several times a week. You have to drag in some "well, the gun nuts were talking about it on Parler for weeks so obviously they knew what was going to happen" theory, which is, well, a bit iffy. But.. ok, I guess? I mean, it kinda works, if you squint, and weirder shit has surely happened.

You can construct a narrative of incompetence, and there have been resignations, so I'm willing to admit there was incompetence. I guess the crowd control specifics were pretty minimal. Again, you have to assume that the cops were supposed to take randos shooting off their mouths on Parler seriously. I dunno Parler at all, but it sounds like the kind of deal where randos are literally shooting their mouths off 24x7, it's the app you use to do that. Maybe there are ways to assess which blathering is credible, but if so, I am not privy to those methods.

And you can construct a narrative of a practical strategy, a protocol more or less properly executed. The Capitol Police have surely had plans in place for "when the mob breaks into the building" for 50+ years, and it probably includes options for "let's not just machine gun them all, but instead let's protect and evacuate the civilians, and clear the mob later."

It may also have options for "let's just machine gun the lot of them into hamburger and call it a day" but I am glad they did not choose that one.

In the end, the ground truth is probably a mixture. Some of the cops were probably a bit sympathetic to the mob. The leadership probably did ignore warning signs, and not roll out the Heavy Crowd Control gear. And, when it went pear shaped, the serious guys in suits kept all the civilians safe. Symbolically it's a huge event, an unprecedented breach, a line never before crossed. In terms of actual real-world effects, as insurrections go, pretty low key.  A failed coup with a total of 5 fatalities is pretty good, no?

What makes the whole thing particularly interesting to me, of course, is that people who ought to know better are falling into the trap. They are accepting mislabeled media as accurate when it supports their politics, they are consistently reading pictures in particular ways, ditto. Of course, even university professors and self-styled media experts are entitled to their personal views. Indeed, one can hardly avoid having personal views. Still, they seem, sometimes, overly credulous under underly critical.

Me? My default starting position on practically any piece of media is "I have no idea what the hell I am even looking at" and I try real hard to be careful about how I read it, and what I make of it. Meaning is slippery, and it tends to arise from inside ourselves far more than we think.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Happy New Year!

We're having a spot of revolution here in the States, nothing to worry about. We'll get it cleaned up well before you're allowed to come visit again.

I was reading some random bit of Thich Nhat Hanh and he was going about about Zen. The idea he was expounding is that continuous, long term, uncritical, examination of a thing leads to a kind of understanding if you're patient enough. A non-logical, almost non-cognitive, understanding. I get that, something clicked for me when I read that bit.

If I spend time with a photo, being non-critical, just looking at it, this, exactly, is one of the things that happens. I suppose it would happen with a stone, or a star, or a painting as well. I don't examine those things in the same way, so I cannot testify that it does.

I think that two things are happening here.

The first is that I am indeed absorbing all the details. I notice all the things, and make what tenuous connections can be made, and what sketchy inferences can be inferred. My actual knowledge does expand to pretty much the maximum possible. So, in a way, I actually do develop a deep understanding of the thing, and a deep(-er) understanding of what the meaning(s) of the thing might really be.

The second is that I am hypnotizing myself a little. I am persuading myself that I really do grok something indescribable but deep about the picture.

Put these two together and the result is sometimes startling leaps of what might or might not be insight. Sometimes I get the unshakeable sensation that the photographer meant a very specific thing, or that the subject is thinking a very specific thought. Something that is ultimately unknowable but of which I am quite certain. Sometimes, perhaps, I am truly reading some subtle but unambiguous sign in someone's face, or in the shadows, or whatever. Sometimes I am probably just making up nonsense.

This probably isn't relevant to anything I am actually much interested in, because normal people don't spend that kind of time with a single picture. The results I am actually interested in are the more ordinary ones. I collect all the details that are actually in the frame, and speculate using my skills of imagination and empathy to map out something of the world of meaning normal people might make of the picture.

What some old Buddhist might "discover" in it after meditating for 10 hours on it is a bit of an edge case. Still it's a neat effect to experience! And maybe it means something I haven't worked out yet!

Monday, December 28, 2020

More on Steve

Steve, as noted, seems to be on a good path these days. As a recovering addict, of course, he is and will always be one short step from disaster. He has a bit of money these days, and could certainly go buy a couple bottles of whiskey and end it all any given day. He is a grown-ass man, and nobody could stop him. I hope, of course, that he has not over the last week, and will continue not to for the remainder of his life.

Long time readers may recall that I took a picture of Steve near his nadir on the street, and wrote down his story, and then made a little blurb book that had some material on homelessness in general, wrapped around Steve's specific story. Steve has had two copies of the book, I have the third, and that's it. You could probably go find it on blurb, and read it (Steve doesn't mind) but ultimately it's not a book for you.

To my embarrassment, Steve credits my little book with a lot of the heavy lifting of his recovery. I don't believe it for a moment, although I will accept a single small sliver of credit, because I am at least that vain.

There were people directly involved, there were people who pumped his stomach, who saved him from fatal alcohol poisoning (at least twice), people who counseled him sternly that he was going to die if he didn't knock it off. There were people who sat with him in therapy, people who comforted him as he struggled through DTs, people who fed him and cleaned up after him when he was off his nut. I was none of those heroes, I just wrote a book and took a couple photos.

Still, my little book does seem to have been a little piece of it. It was, I imagine, a kind of talisman, proof that someone valued him enough to remember his name and a few details of his story.

This photo of Steve, from that time, is apparently now part of a before/after poster the homeless center downtown displays to prove that It Can Be Done (and by God, if Steve isn't proof that alcohol addiction can be beaten, or at least contained, nobody is).

Despite the slight impact this picture had on Steve's life, it is nevertheless the most important and impactful photograph I will ever take. Because nothing else I do is likely to have even so slender a consequence in the world.

What I think is worth noting here is that this shows us the breadth of ways to make a difference with a photo.

This wasn't published in The Times, this didn't appear in a book by MACK, this wasn't the cover a bestselling album. I wrapped it in, somehow, something like the right words, and I gave a copy to the subject of book, a busted-out homeless man with nothing.

And, somehow, it made a difference.

Steve can get sober, somehow, and you can make a photograph that makes a difference, somehow. You might not even know it, and it might take a surprising path, but it might just happen. Go take those pictures and tell those stories, write those verses, sing those songs, whatever it is you do, do it. It might just touch someone, somehow.

And that, surely, is the point of it all?

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Steve Update

My friend Steve, who appears from time to time on these pages, continues to be sober and is doing well. This photo is from April, I have not actually seen him since then.

I called Steve yesterday (technically I called the place he's living, left a message, and he called me back.) He'll be sober a year in January! He's graduated his one-year sobriety program and is moving on to the next, and also going to back to school (online, natch) in spring. No idea what he's going to study. This may simply be a re-learning how to do society exercise.

I continue to be very proud of Steve. He almost died of alcohol poisoning multiple times in the last year or so of his drinking, so this is kind of a big deal.

If he can do it, I feel confident in saying that there is no level of alcohol addiction that cannot be overcome, if only the right ingredients are in place.

Merry Christmas, everyone!