Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Hat-tip to Lew Lorton who inspired me to think about this, in a post in an internet forum someplace.

Your definitions may vary, of course. For my purposes, a photographic style is just a set of photographic choices made in advance and applied consistently across a set of photographs, that creates a consistent look. Where to put the lights; how high the camera is set relative to the subject; what sort of contrast range are we shooting for in the final print. Too small a set of choices (for example, just a shutter speed) probably won't really make a style, since it will not create visual coherence across photographs. A good set of choices will determine a coherent visual look and thence a style.

The only thing that matters, really, is that an average viewer looking at the set should feel that the images fit together visually. They look similar enough in enough ways to feel "together" as a collection.

As with any photographic choice, or set of choices, a style either tends to support the images, or not. A visually dramatic style might well support a dramatic subject or collection of subjects. A softer style might support dreamlike images. However, a style not only supports or fails to support a set of images, but also may connect that set of images with other images we have seen. A style may refer to a single image, or an artist, or a fad. For instance, virtually all black and white landscapes made today are post-processed in a style intended to reference Ansel Adams, for better or for worse.

Pop art does many things. Viewed through the lens of this discussion of style we see that one of the things visual pop art does is to create a style by borrowing choices from popular imagery, and then to build art in that style. The style connects the work to the popular imagery. We might borrow certain photographic choices from visual art we see a great deal of, while rejecting other choices from the same art. Ideally, the set of choices we select will cohere into a style that not only supports the images we make, but also creates visual coherence across the work, and finally connects the work with the imagery we borrowed from.

We might, for example, create a portfolio of work identifiably connected with Facebook snapshots of drunk girls. We might borrow:
  • on camera flash
  • girls
  • ... making "duckface"
  • ... and throwing fake gang signs
which should be enough, surely, to create the intellectual connection with the source material. We might, then, hire skilled and beautiful models and dress them in carpet scraps, haute couture, or nothing at all. We might then photograph then in black and white, with a wet-plate camera.

Would it be good? Unknown, and it probably depends on a lot of factors. But there would be a style in play, and that style would certainly be working as a style. It would connect the work with the cliche we've borrowed from. It would connect the photographs in the portfolio together. Whether it supported the photographs well or no would probably depend on other factors.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


"Post" has been with us in photography from the beginning, since day 1, or possibly as late as day 2. Daguerreotypes were being hand-tinted almost immediately. Artists were slashing away at glass plates to create painterly effects almost immediately. Each task performed in post moves the image incrementally away from that "Now" that I go on about now and then. Sometimes post is treating that original Now as mere source material, and seeks to create something new from it. Sometimes post merely seeks to enhance the original moment, to distill it to its essence.

Regardless of the aim, post nonetheless moves the image away from that Now to someplace else. Whether that distance is visual and artistic, or only psychological, the distance is created, and it exists.

This creates, interestingly, an opportunity to diverge from the River of Images. The billions of images shared with the world now, the millions shared tomorrow, are all lightly handled. There may be wild and aggressive effects and filters applied, but the mental distance from the original Now is slight. The point, really, of the shared image is generally to share a Now, in any case. Applying a sepia tone and a vignette does not change that.

Thoughtfully applied post, to create a new image divergent from a Now, or thoroughly distilled from a Now into the abstract idea of an infinitude of similar Nows, or whatever you choose to do, cannot but push an image outwards from the center of the river. Whether it makes it good, or whether it makes it art, well, those are other questions. Divergence from the mass, however, is a worthy step in its own right.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Statistical Pop Art II

This is a follow-on to this post.

As I suggested in the previous post, you can do some of this stuff with metadata, like tags. A very simple approach is to look for unusual tags, simply pick random words from a dictionary after eliminating common tags. A slight refinement would be to search for photographs with at least one tag, but which is not tagged with any of, say, the most common 1000 tags.

This doesn't reliably filter away common photographic themes and ideas, and it doesn't reliably filter in awesome and interesting new ideas. That doesn't matter, we're taking a purely probabilistic approach here, anyways. All we can really hope to achieve is an increased density of work that's interesting in some way, and uncommon in some way.

I have actually performed the experiment of looking for randomly selected unusual words on flickr. It definitely produced search results that were less dreary than, say, flickr's Explored Images, or whatever. I don't think I really uncovered any interesting communities of artists creating basically new work, but I did uncover some individuals doing things I liked.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Art Photography, Personal Photography

I've talked about the Personal Now, which is ultimately what almost all photographs are about. This has grown into an immense river of images posted to flickr, facebook, instagram, and wherever other mechanisms exist to share imagery. This river of images is (and always has been) the background against which Art photography takes place, it is the context in which we all live, and from which we view Art photography.

So what? What does this even mean?

As the river of images grows, it has the effect of trivializing photography as a pursuit. Everyone's doing it, everyone can do it. The commercial guys are feeling the pinch in a pretty big way, now, and it's just going to get worse for them.

The emotional weight of an individual image shrinks as we see more and more of them.

"Personal Now" images, straightforward slice of life images, documentary, street, this pretty flower, that striking view of a building, almost inevitably feel like something we have seen a thousand times. If we haven't actually seen it a thousand times, we feel as if we could have. We sense that a thousand or a million images substantially identical to this one already exist out there, and we are probably right.

On the up side, it's possible that a really good image gains strength from the background of mediocrity, of ordinariness. More and more, a photograph must stand against other photographs, and less against the real world. This may be why we're seeing a pretty rapid trend toward more and more radical processing, the need to "stand out" against the mass? Might the outre approaches to photography be seen as a rebellion against the mass of images made by everyone?

In making an Art photograph one could take the approach of distilling existing photographic ideas, possibly ordinary and common ones. Can one make a great photograph which distills the essence of "This is my entree at this fancy restaurant"? Can one boil down "this is my drunk friend" down to a single fantastic image? This approach is, in some sense, the opposite of attempting to stand out and rise above. It is embracing some elements of the river of images, and trying to make something of them.

As with all influences, one can embrace the river, or rebel against it. Both are good ideas. The bad idea is to dither about what to do.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What I Like, What I Don't Like

We all have categories, for everything, really. The discussion that follows applies to all art, to food, to lots and lots of things. I'm going to cast in it terms of photographs, though.

We all have preferences in photographs. We like black and white, we don't like HDR, we like saturated colors, and so on. We also have ideas, probably, about what good photographs are, and which photographs are "art" (whatever that is). What all this comes down it is, in the universe of every photograph ever made, we would have a reaction to every photograph and could categorize each photograph in a handful of ways.

We try to summarize these categories in the form of a few sentences, giving rules for determining whether we're going to like a photo, or consider it art, or good, a priori. This is certainly a useful exercise, but if we do it with any rigor we wind up with an apparently endless regress of exceptions and sub-rules. It can get a little frustrating, and it appears complex. If you are me, you start to wonder about "the fractal nature of preferences" or some craziness like that. What's going on here isn't as complex as it looks, though.

Ultimately, the real thing here, the actual description of what we like and do not like, is simple. It is that set of all the photographs in the world, and our reactions to them. For every photograph ever made, we either like it, or not. If you prefer, we like every photograph ever made to a greater or lesser degree. This is real, unambiguous, and clear. It's simple. What it is not is practical. We can't look at every photograph and make a note about how much we like it. And, why would we? This doesn't change the underlying reality, though. It's not fractal, it's not complex. It's simple, but very very big.

So remember, blanket statements like "I don't like pictures with people in them" are just shortcuts and approximations. When you say it, mean it that way. When someone else says something like this, just take it as the approximation. Don't get obnoxious when they mention that they like some photograph that has a person in it. The statement was just a rough approximation to the true thing, the collection of all the photographs the person likes, many of which have no people in them.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

These Statements are False

Or if not false, at least not true enough to be considered true.

Good or bad? It's all just opinions!

HDR is objectively bad.

People just don't get my work, that doesn't mean it's bad.

You can't make professional quality photographs with a consumer camera.

Art is in the eye of the beholder.

You need a full frame DSLR for <fill in the blank>.

Film is just more artistic.

Everything on <some web site> is crap.

Art and truth, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, these are all things that are more slippery and complicated than you think. Pretty much no matter how slippery and complicated you think they are.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Statistical Pop Art?

One of the problems I think about far more than I ought to is the great river of images being created today. Suppose that one wanted to get a sense of what kinds of photographs are being made today by the masses?

You could look at flickr's Explore to get a sampling, and there are no doubt many many other ways to get a sampling of images being created on a day to day basis. However, as of this writing, flickr gets something over 1,000,000 photographs uploaded every day, and it's not the biggest. How many photographs does one need to look at to be sure that one is getting even a vague notion of what people are actually doing? If I looked at 1000 images a day, how likely is it that I could miss a smallish community of people doing something really interesting? A productive group of artists could easily produce 1000 images a year, and nonetheless be utterly lost in the noise.

It's certainly not necessary to be plugged in to any current zeitgeist, to produce art. However, if you do want to be so plugged in, and you do want your art to be informed by what the mass of imagery is doing, you have a definite problem on your hands. To grasp the current zeitgeist isn't an unreasonable desire, but it does seem to be an intractable problem.

You can simply dip into the river and see what you can pull out. I think it might be interesting to apply technology, however. There are ways to approximately classify images as similar, either by algorithmic examination of the picture itself, or through metadata like tags and surrounding text, or by applying social connectivity graphs (making the assumption that groups of friends are probably taking similar photographs). I think it would be interesting to use tools of this sort to classify and collect, roughly and approximately, large groupings of images.

By creating groupings of, in some sense, similar or related images, you could divide the river of imagery into stuff that has been so grouped, and stuff that has not been so grouped. Sampling a grouping containing a few million images might well provide a more artistically complete grasp of the group than sampling purely at random. Understanding the groups might give you a more thorough grasp of the snapshot zeitgeist than simply digging through flickr's Explore.

Then you've got the unclassifiable stuff, the stuff that you haven't been able to lump in with other stuff. This might be richer ore, in a way. This will surely be where the odd communities that are friends with nobody are experimenting in new ways. This might be where the unusual subjects and methods that nobody likes are in play. This might be where the really interesting stuff is to be found. There's probably still an utterly intractable number of images in here, but random dipping in here might dredge up more interesting work, on average.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Suzanne Opton at the Chrysler Museum

Suzanne Opton has a show at the Chrysler Museum here in Norfolk, VA. The show is Many Wars but also has a couple of images from another concept, Soldier. The main show consists of 19 life-sized 3/4 length portraits of military veterans. The two images from Soldier are representative of that concept - much larger than life size headshots of active duty soldiers, their head lying on a table so the face is presented horizontally.

The images from Soldier are interesting, but extremely ambiguous. I get no sense of what the artist is aiming for here, and suspect that she is hoping that the enormous prints and ruthless detail will say something for her.

The Many Wars collection of portraits of veterans is much more artistically clear. The color palette is deliberately chosen to echo that of certain eras of paintings: rich reddish browns, and so on. The subjects are, with one exception, shot in a life sized 3/4 length portrait, themselves wrapped in a length of upholstery fabric, against a simple hanging fabric background. The one exception is a bit of a puzzle, it is the oldest looking of the bunch, a WWII veteran, who is wrapped in pure white fluffy material and, unlike the other subjects, shows no sign of wearing anything else. Although the print is the same size, the framing is much closer, something like 2 times life sized. Interestingly, this print is hung in the same place the odd-print-out in the Baldwin Lee show was hung. Is this the Chrysler's designated "we don't know what to make ot this one" spot? Perhaps the image represents a connection with the Soldier images, or perhaps the artist simply liked the old guy's look so much she wanted him bigger.

The images are pretty much transparent, in the sense that one doesn't much see the photography. The lighting is straightforward, the colors are muted and pleasant, setting a tone unobtrusively. What one sees is the subjects, these 18 men and 1 woman, each with their own 1000 yard stare. Some confront the camera, posing with clenched fists, others seem mid-conversation, often talking with their hands. Others appear lost in their own world. The overall effect is definitely powerful. These are people who have seen some shit, and done some shit, make no mistake. This comes through with crystal clarity.

There are some problems with the show. Of the nineteen images, 17 are white men, one is an ambiguously non-white guy, and one is a woman. This isn't representative of our veterans, at all. These were shot at a PTSD treatment program in, I think, Vermont, which explains but does not excuse the demographic breakdown. Further, the subjects were all undergoing treatment for PTSD, and many of them have been more or less recently, homeless. This raises the question: Are these photographs of damaged vets, or photographs of homeless people? There's a large overlap between the two populations, but they're not the same. I think the show could have done a better job of addressing the demographic problem, and the issue of homelessness. Had it done so, it would have been much stronger for it.

As it is, the show falls into a grey area between commentary, and outright exploitation of the subjects. As commentary, the show is modestly strong, but falls well short of what it could have been. With the equipment, the subjects, and the extremely coherent and strong visual concept all present, I think the artist could have and should have made a stronger statement here. Instead, she appears to have fallen back into the lazy "we'll print them really big so they look like art" attitude so common today. It would not be unfair to say that Opton has failed her subjects with this show.

Finally, a remarkable piece of serendipity. When I went to look at the show again recently, one of the lights was out. These images are lit with pretty straightforward museum lighting, a spot to illuminate the frame evenly with minimized reflections. With the light out on one of the images, the effect was completely different and quite startling. The transparency was gone, I no longer skipped past the photograph directly to the subject. Now I was confronted with a figure almost lost in the gloom. Reflected in the glass were the two photographs mounted on the wall behind me. After a moment I saw my own reflection, a black silhouette. No longer was this a solitary figure, emotionally naked before me, this was a grouping of figures, one almost lost in darkness, and one of which was me.

It would utterly subvert the artist's intent, I think, to relight the show, but it would be artistically much stronger with tiny spotlights on faces or hands (the hands were often far more expressive than faces). I cannot imagine what the effect of this imagined show would be, as commentary or exposition. Stronger? Weaker? I would have to see it to know.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Art, like everything else, proceeds by processes of evolution and revolution. That which is change, but not revolutionary, is pretty much covered by the evolutionary part. We see art made with clear antecedents, synthesized with some modest new ideas to create a new thing. This is essentially evolutionary. We also see art made with radical new ideas, art which is unrecognizable as art, or barely so. We see art without clear antecedents, or with clear antecedents which are not themselves art, or with clear antecedents from other media.

Photography, perhaps more than other media, leaves room for ideas and techniques from its history. The past is not swept away by the new, it continues, albeit with less vigor and practiced by fewer. We see wet plate technology applied to thoroughly modern erotica and social commentary. We will probably never cease to see new Ansel Adams styled mountainscapes, shot with ever newer technology and presumably with ever higher contrast, and eventually skies so black that neither light, nor matter, nor information can escape from them.

The evolutionary paths for photography's future appear to be well-manned. We see, however, little that is truly transgressive, now that the competition to find out who can make the most banal photograph of nothing appears to have died down.

What is trangressive, though? What form would a revolution in photographic art take? We have seen in the last century a great deal of confusion of social transgression with artistic transgression. This, of course, quite on purpose and intended to assert that the social and the artistic are the same. This is balderdash. Making paintings with your own shit is socially transgressive, but artistically not even interesting. Using a new kind of paint with a limited color palette isn't even new. The fact that it smells bad is even less new. Ultimately, paintings made with shit and similar works are evolutionary art liberally smeared with a dose of social taboo to create interest.

Artistic revolution occurs when artistic boundaries are transgressed.

What do we know to be true about the photographic arts? Invert those truths. Ravish those truths and leave them for dead. Dig past the truth to the problem it claims to solve, and then either solve that problem by other means, or render the problem irrelevant in your work.

Destroy the light. Make art of the drunk-chick-facebook-snapshot. Obliterate the full range of tonal values. Focus on the wrong thing - but make it the right choice; throw white balance to the wolves - but make the image true; Cut off the subject's head - and thereby make me understand the subject.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

FSA Photo of the week

This might actually be a pretty well known photograph. It's certainly a kind of photograph that's very well known: