Sunday, December 29, 2013


The previous post, about my Winogrand style cafe picture, and how it is of no use to me, perhaps opens up a little area of discussion. The picture is of no use to me: it contains nothing personal, it evokes no personal memories, it does not give me any particular joy to look at, it is not part of something larger I am making. It's pretty good. It's not good enough to stand alone, really, as a piece of Art. If it were as good as it is, and not an obvious copy of Winogrand, perhaps, but it is, so no.

In what follows I will use the words use, useful, useless and so on in as broad as sense as is reasonable. I consider, for example, artistic appeal to be an example of usefulness. If I think a picture is pretty and so derive pleasure from looking at it, that is a use of that picture. Of course, if I can sell a picture (to someone who presumably has a use for it) that is useful to me. The essence is that there is some transaction here, the picture will give me something, perhaps if I look at it, perhaps if I let others look at it. I get something, be it pleasure, emotion, education, money.

Any picture I own, whether because I bought it or shot it, may or may not be of use to me.

Personal photographs, snapshots, have a personal use. I use them to evoke memories of things past, I use them as a record of people, places, events. These things are generally not of use to anyone else. Indeed, being of no use to anyone outside the family is almost the definition of a snapshot. It might be an excellent picture or a terrible one, but it is of no use to a stranger. The very idea of so-called "vernacular" photography is a re-tasking of these useless pictures, rendering them useful to strangers as parts of a larger Art Thing which comments on, or celebrates, or records, something of culture or community or something. The meaning of a snapshot is not really changed here, we see a picture of strangers and either do or do not feel some affinity. The idea does not change, but by embedding these useless fragments into a larger thing, we potentially create a larger entity which is itself useful.

More generally we have the problem of the use of a photograph. Regardless of details, perhaps we can agree that a picture that is never looked at is not in any meaningful way, useful. It may once have been useful, but now, with no viewers, it barely exists, and is certainly not useful. Thus, virtually all pictures are currently useless, having been uploaded and then compressed under the mass of newer pictures, pushed down the timeline into the past, and obliterated from view. These pictures were useful, but only for a little while, viewed by friends and family until newer pictures are uploaded into our account.

We see that usefulness has, potentially, a timespan. News photographs are also only useful while relevant. Some few are dredged up again to serve the use of summarizing the year, the decade, the era. Most news pictures vanish into the morgue and are, essentially, gone, useless.

Iconic photographs remain useful, however. We derive something from looking at them, over and over. They remain in the broader cultural memory. We think of them perhaps as timeless (although this is surely false). Prints, posters, and calendars are sold. Many transactions of many kinds constantly surround these pictures, from an appreciative and rewarding glance in a museum to the exchange of $17.99 for a calendar.

All of this stuff fits into my grand unified over-thought theory of photography, somehow.

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Picture

It took me most of a year, off and on, to make this picture:

To be fair, the "work" involved was sitting around in a coffee shop drinking fancy coffee drinks, keeping my eyes open, and occasionally pressing a button.

It should be obvious, but this is about that moment when a pretty girl walks into a coffee shop. Men glance at her. Just for a moment, but there's a particular way that glance looks. Ultimately, I made this on my birthday when my birthday present was several hours to do with what I pleased. I was pleased go drink coffee. I made one exposure, without looking at the camera, in that 90 minutes of coffee shop time, and this is it.

It's a Winogrand street shot, complete with tilt, shot with the exact opposite of Winogrand's technique. It was possible, for me, because this is a moment that occurs over and over, every 10 or 20 or 30 minutes. The problem is where to sit, and when to press the button. The moment will happen again if you miss it.

So what?

This is a good picture, but it's useless to me. It's a single instance photograph, which is basically a copy of someone else's pictures. I can't do this sort of thing often enough to pull together a coherent portfolio, and having made this I don't feel any particular need to shoot any more street photography. Can I print this and hang it? It doesn't really fit in to my decor, such as it is. It's not clear it fits into anyone's decor. Could I sell it? Is it journalism?

I don't think it's any of those things. This is a picture without a home.

That's a shame, because it's a good picture. One of the better ones I've ever made.

Friday, December 20, 2013


I tend to go on and on about how digital photographs, social media, most-recent-first viewing, and so on have changed our relationship with pictures. We treat them as temporary and ephemeral.

Recently I was asked "well, what about prints?" and I have to say I have no idea!

It is said that we're making more prints than ever. As a percentage of photos shot, it's dropped off to so close to zero as to make no difference, but in absolute terms we're making more prints than we ever have.

Surely many of these are local drugstore prints, not necessarily very good, but exactly equivalent to the old school business of dropping off a roll of film and picking up an envelope of prints an hour later, or the next day. Probably these are a little better, overall, since we're generally selecting the pictures we want before ordering prints.

Surely many of the prints we're making are in the now-ubiquitous photo book. Everyone on earth, it seems, is running a business to print books of pictures. Some of them are pretty bad, others are pretty good. They mostly let you do a little book design, so the results are usually pretty awful, most people not being book designers. Still, there's a lot of these things being churned out. Surely we give a little more weight to a Book than to a handful of slippery prints?

I know how my family treats these things, but I can't take that as typical. I don't even treat my digital/online pictures in a typical fashion. I print, frame, and hang pictures. I make nice books of the very very best pictures, which books we take down and look at several times a year. But we're atypical.

I don't know what typical is, on this point. But I'll keep my eyes open for analysis and discussion! Maybe someone knows, or has an idea.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


We are novelty-seeking animals. New things stimulate us in ways that familiar things do not. Conversely, familiar things stimulate us in ways that new things do not. For reasons I do not pretend to understand, this novelty seeking is what powers the internet, the world wide web. Web sites do not remain static, providing a comfortable and familiar experience. Web sites are constantly updating, changing, replacing old content with new. It is this property, we have determined, that makes web sites "sticky".

A sticky web site keeps us coming back, and it keeps us hitting Refresh or whatever the relevant button is. This keeps us present, and allows us to look at more ads, and that is what makes the web go 'round.

I've written some stuff on how getting people to generate new content for one another on your web site is far and away the cheapest and most successful way to produce this constant stream of new content. See also social networking. There seems to me to be a bigger issue here, though.

As photography went digital, it found a natural connection to this digital network. As that network converged rapidly on a newest-first display model, with a constant stream of new content, so changed photography. This is the source of our new relationship with pictures. Our relationship with pictures is this ephemeral thing, this relationship in which we glance at new pictures briskly, seeing them largely in terms of other pictures we have seen rather than as themselves.

This is in stark contrast to the old model in which pictures were more or less permanent, they were static. Our relationship with them was centered around sameness, nostalgia, the moment of the past frozen forever on the print. Pictures used to tickle those other pathways to pleasure: the permanent, the familiar, the old. Now pictures work quite the other way around, they are yet another source of the new, the novel, but not too novel, not too new. They're familiar faces, familiar tropes, familiar arrangements of shape and light, but in a new picture. Now we want our pictures to be, always, a new version of the same old thing. Our friends at a new party. A different, new, sunset, rendered in more or less the same way.

I hate this so much.

People don't look at pictures. Try putting up pictures for critique in some online venue for critique. Pay attention. You will, quite likely, notice after a while that some people are quite literally not seeing your picture. They're seeing a bunch of similar pictures in their memory, and noticing only that yours is darker, or lighter, or greener, and softer. Then they will offer critique reading, in toto: "too dark", "too light", "too green", or "too soft". Part of this is simple inattention and laziness, but I feel sure that at least part of this is that we're training ourselves not to look. Each picture is merely a trivial point in a larger river of imagery washing over us, and is to be seen and understood only as a sample of a much larger collection of similar things.

Opt out. Make pictures and portfolios for permanence, for nostalgia.

That's what I'm doing, anyways.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Old Photos

Every few months it seems that someone digs up the same set of color photographs from Russia from, I don't know, a long time ago. Some chappie ran around with a view camera taking color separations 100-odd years ago. A couple of years ago some other chappie dug these things up, scanned them, and put together some pretty decent digital color pictures based on them. Every few months, they show up on someone's blog, or on some crummy clickbait "photography news" site like petapixel, and then get a lot of links, clicks, and views.

There is also the venerable which is really quite decent. Yet some other chappie digs up old pictures, acquires very good scans of them, and manages a well curated collection of these 100 year old, plus or minus, pictures. Shorpy gets a fair bit of traffic and interest.

There are periodic news items about people finding a collection of glass plates. Frequently these are somewhat sketchy: Unearthed Ansel Adams Negatives Discovered! Man Finds Fully Developed Glass Plates Still In The Camera (what?), and so on. Again, flickers of interest, views, clicks.

Apparently there's a bit of a thing on facebook these days, too.

So what? Well, Susan Sontag, writing in the 1970s, was at some pains to think through the fact that photographs are physical artifacts. There are slices of frozen time, turned into a flat physical object which we can hold, and touch, and which is itself more or less permanent. This permanence and physicality had huge effects on our relationship with these things.

Right about the time Sontag died, this all changed. Digital photographs are, while in theory permanent, in reality completely ephemeral. The "most recent first" viewing model of the internet, and our constant thirst for novelty, means that, absent substantial effort, photographs are buried under other photographs and lost to us very quickly. And yet we have this fascination with the physical artifacts, as well.

And yet, our fascination with those artifacts takes the form of rendering them digital, and throwing them into the maw of the great most-recent-first internet where they march down the time stream into oblivion in a matter of weeks.

I don't know what it all means, but I find it extremely odd that we have an ephemeral fascination with the permanent. Our relationship with pictures as they exist today is the exact opposite of the relationship discussed by Sontag, and we hold this modern relation with a digital phantom version of the same pictures Sontag was talking about. It probably doesn't mean anything, really.

It's very strange to me, though.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Our Lying, Visual, Brain

Here are some things that are true.

The first thing is the stopped clock illusion. This visual quirk reveals some interesting things about how we see. When turn quickly to look at a clock, the second-hand appears to freeze momentarily before starting to move. What appears to be going on here is that we do not actually see the clock for a moment. It takes time for our visual system to gather enough detail for our brain to construct the detailed and clear picture of the clock, and its second hand. And here's the creepy part:

Then our brain goes back and edits our memory, to create the illusion that we saw the clock clearly all along. Not knowing what to do with the second hand, it essentially paints it in place for those few moments.

Our conception of visual sensation as a sort of continuous high definition movie is in fact an illusion. It is not continuous, our short term memories are a lie. What we "see" is in fact a continuously rendered movie inside our head, built up out of memories of what we've been looking at a few moments before, ideas about what things ought to look like, best guesses and estimates. What's actually coming in through the eyes is actually pretty low resolution, it has detail only in a narrow field of view. We fill in the whole wide angle picture from a variety of sources, including our imagination.

The second thing that is true is that when we look at a picture with any kind of detail or content in it, we will discover new things about it for an astonishingly long time. Look at a picture of something, anything, for a couple of minutes. If you're attentive, you'll probably be seeing new things through the whole process. Perhaps minor details of how a shadow falls, or some minor object in the background, some detail of color.

The third thing that is true is that, presented with a picture of a decent model of some well known object, we can be fooled for a moment, or for several moments. If the model is ok, we might just do a quick double-take. If it's better, it might fool us for some seconds. If it's excellent, we might never be sure.

The details don't matter much, the point is that there are features of the model that are more and that are less important for that "fooling us" interval. I don't know or much care what the details are, but let's suppose that getting the color and overall shape are enough to fool us for a moment. Getting the shadows right might fool us for a few seconds more. There are, equally clearly, things that matter less for the purpose of fooling us.

This is surely related to the fact that we're not actually seeing what we think we're seeing. We see something that looks like the cathedral of Notre Dame, and we recognize it. It takes a little while for whatever the relevant details are to soak in, to alert us to the fact that it's a model.

So what does this all mean?

When we look at a picture, we don't actually see it. What we see when we look at a picture, or at anything else, is a collection of preconceptions, some imagination, some guesses based on other things we've seen before, with just a little bit of the actual picture's content thrown in there for seasoning.

As we look closer, over a longer period of time, we can soak up more of the content, but what we see, and more importantly what we remember, is not a true representation of the picture at all. It's a construct of our brain. A great deal of it is simply made up, a great deal more than than we'd like to think. We're remembering some visually important elements, probably related to whatever it is about a model of Notre Dame that would fool us. We're remembering an idea of the picture. We're remembering bits and pieces lots of similar pictures, and similar scenes from our own life, and they're all piling in to this construct. The picture itself is, I suppose, the single largest contributor to what we "see", and to what we later "remember", but it is by no means the only one and probably not the only important one.

Here's a quick test. In the well known photograph, "Migrant Mother", shot by Dorothea Lange, what is in the background? And how many of them are there? If you are like me, you feel that you can picture this thing in your mind with crystal clarity, but you're not quite sure about the background. If you nail that one, think of some other well known pictures, pictures you can "see" in your mind's eye in an instant. Ask yourself some relevant detail "what's in the background", "what's to the left of the tree", "does the river turn right or left as it leaves the frame" and see just how much detail that crystal clear picture in your mind's eye really has.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


It is fascinating to me how frequently people confuse the subject with the picture. Even a pretty competent amateur photographer will look at two completely different pictures of similar objects, and will declare them to be much the same. The lighting, the point of view, the rendering might be totally different, but the inexperienced eye will see the pictures as "pretty much the same".

This isn't that harmful, I suppose, except when the idea is totally different as well which it often is when the renderings are different. If you are declaring two pictures with quite different ideas to be the same, then you are manifestly missing the ideas entirely. And that's a shame.

Should you find yourself in this boat, or rather should you suspect yourself of perhaps being in this boat, make a list of the differences between two pictures. Focus not on what is the same, but what is different. Light, point of view, framing, depth of field, contrast, blacks, highlights, midtones. How are all these things, and anything else you can see, treated differently?

What sorts of emotions, feelings, ideas, are invoked by the differences, especially in contrast to one another?

How might this affect how you feel about the total picture, in each case?

Here's a sample to start with. I've made some.. modifications to Weston's Pepper #30. See if you can see what they are, and how they change the way you feel about the picture. Some are obvious and ham fisted, and at least one is moderately subtle but, I think, important.

Much better examples exist.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Of course ...

Apropos my previous remarks, the current setup works out just fine for most working models most of the time. There is a brisk little industry of models taking a fee to model for a photographer who will take some pictures of some degree of merit between negative infinity and excellent. The model gets a few hundred bucks, but no rights to the pictures.

Still, in this case, the point is that it hardly matters who has what rights. These pictures aren't going anywhere anyways. Terrible, excellent, it doesn't matter. The market for pictures of models is not a lucrative one, in general. But one has to ask in this case, why not share rights? It doesn't matter, surely.

It gets tricky when you're photographing people who are not working models, and who you may be photographing in something less than a flattering light. You're taking more and giving less. The pictures still are not going anywhere, but the transaction is balanced far more in the photographer's favor here.

There isn't any money in play at all, but pride, self-respect, dignity are.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Always Get A Model Release

A common thread in the photography community is that one should when photographing people, always get a model release. In the USA the photographer holds most of the important rights to a picture, but the model holds a small, specific, collection of rights unless those rights are given away. Thus, the normal process is to have the model sign those rights away in exchange for either nothing, or something trivial. This is the standard: That the model should not have any rights whatsoever to the picture.

The legal situation is part of the general collection of law surrounding copyright of photographs. Generally speaking, the default is that the photographer gets everything and nobody else gets anything. Since there are a few lacunae in this coverage, it is deemed necessary to fill those in with a model release.

This is, frankly, silly. It's wonderfully convenient for photographers, and since photographers are used to the situation they will of course create furor and outcry at the notion of taking away their undeserved free stuff. Still, this is a massive giveaway to photographers, for no particular reason. As far as I can make out, when copyright was being sorted out there was a notion in play that someone should get all the rights, and the decision mas made -- narrowly -- to make that someone be the photographer. And here we are.

This speaks to the problems of photojournalism.

W. Eugene Smith, certainly one of the luminaries, produced an astonishing photo essay about Minamata. He portrayed the ruined people of Minamata sympathetically, but with a profoundly revealing eye. Neither the viewer nor the subjects were spared much. In this project, he took from, he used, he exploited his subjects. The pictures belonged to Smith, and to nobody else. However, he kept up his end of the photojournalist's bargain by telling the story, telling truth. He did not hold these pictures closely, he spread them for the world to see. In doing so, he literally changed the world with those pictures, to better the lives of the people.

Ultimately, Smith's wife gave up the copyright to the most famous and intimate of those photos to the family of the (now deceased) subject. Smith's wife recognized that, legalities aside, the people in the picture have some moral rights, which ought to be respected. This, even after Smith had kept his side of the bargain of photojournalism. He had, in a sense, bought and paid for the rights according to custom, and still his wife reverted the rights to this picture to the subject.

We operate with a split personality, here. On the one hand, our society continues to hold on to vestigial ideas about the rights of the subject, we hold on to the idea that the photograph takes, that photographers do not get a free ride, do not deserve free rights to everything. If you don't believe me, go take pictures of strangers' kids for a while and see what happens. On the other hand, we simultaneously hold the bizarre notion that the photographer, properly, holds all the rights to every picture taken, regardless of subject, and that the photographer is rightly empowered to do anything whatever with those pictures.

Perhaps one should consider a more generous model release. Some people already use quite generous ones, by current standards.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


Photography is an appropriative act. One takes a photograph. When you press the button, you acquire possession of an object you did not have before, and to which you have no particular rights.

A photojournalist, no less than any other photographer, appropriates. A photojournalist, according to a somewhat labored argument, is taking pictures which reveal Truth and for this reason must remain separate. The photojournalist, in order to avoid disturbing, altering, the Truth, must not be jumping in to assist, must not be paying people to pose, must take care not alter the situation in front of the camera. This is particularly disturbing when the Truth is evidently about human suffering, about disaster, about death.

Of course this is to ignore the bulk of photojournalism, which is mostly "here is the parade", "these two teams are playing a game", "this is the mayor, giving a speech filled with lies" and so on. Let us set this aside, and focus on those scenes of poverty, disaster, suffering.

The photojournalist tries to record unmodified, undisturbed, Truth. Often, the goal is explicitly to generate change. By showing the suffering, the disaster, the journalist seeks to cause the viewer's response: This must change, this must never happen again, this will not stand. Whether or not the goal includes generating change, the goal is always to tell the story: that this happened, that these people lived, suffered, died.

There is a straightforward bargain here. The photojournalist appropriates, takes. The photojournalist remains separate, lending no aid, no succor (this is largely a fiction, but set that aside as well, it is a popular fiction). The photojournalist does these basically unpleasant things so that the Truth may be told, as it was, pristine. That is, in return the photojournalist will tell the Truth, will seek to generate the greater Change, or will at any rate tell the world that this injustice exists, that those suffering suffered. The story will be told, to whatever effect that telling produces.

If you, as a photographer, are not in a position to tell that story to anyone, then you have no business with the first half of the bargain. If you can take an item off the shelf, but cannot pay for it then get out of the store.

This is fauxtojournalism. People with no power to tell the story, to speak Truth widely, have no business wrapping themselves in the mantle of photojournalism. If you're taking pictures of homeless people, but carefully maintaining photojournalistic distance because you, you know, ethics, and then simply dumping the result into your flickr account then, let me be clear:

Fuck You

You're appropriating. You're not helping. You're doing all of the taking side of the equation, and none of the giving side. You're not shopping, you're just shoplifting.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Photographer is Present

Photojournalism usually asks that we allow the polite fiction that the camera is not present. In this modern era, however, we're less and less willing to accept that polite fiction. Everyone has a camera now, and a surprisingly large number of news photographs are made by "citizen journalists" (i.e. free pictures, from the point of view of the business packaging news for our consumption).

The fact is that the camera has always been there. Ethical standards for photojournalists suggest strongly that the journalist maintain separatation, not taking part in the news, merely recording it as it unfolds. This has always been nonsense, of course. News-makers have always mugged for the camera, performed for the camera, run from the camera. Only with quite a bit of luck and skill has the photojournalist been able to approach the standard of non-involvement. More often, they have been able to create the illusion of non-involvement.

When amateurs get involved it gets worse. They ape the standard, but nobody is even attempting to hold them to it.

I saw recently a series documenting the day of a homeless man, in a photojournalistic style (read: black and white). The series closes with a closeup shot of the subject's face as he tries to sleep, shivering with the cold.

The presence of the camera and the photographer is overwhelming here. We're much too close to believe the fiction of non-involvement. Are we to believe that the photographer is a monster, watching a man freeze from a couple of feet away, and doing nothing? Contrariwise, are we to believe that the scene is staged? Or that the photographer allowed the man to freeze, but only for a little while, and is therefore only an exploiter, not a monster?

What's going on here? The camera implies a photographer. The photographer is present, that is the essence and power of photography.

The photographer is present.

And yet, all too frequently, we are asked to take part in the fiction that the photographer is not, or at any rate might as well not be.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

How to Art

Here's another of my more or less arbitrary and somewhat forced deconstructions of how a photograph gets made. There are three elements, because there's always three elements.

In this case: Idea, Subject, and Rendering.

I try not to think of subject in the usual sense, it's not just the thing in the middle of the frame. What I intend here is the collection of everything the camera is pointed at. This might be a single obvious object, or a person's face, but it might also be a chaos of things with no clear single object in the fore. Subject for my purposes here means simply all the stuff that you, the photographer, have chosen to point the camera at.

Rendering is often inextricable from subject, but I choose to separate it out here. It is everything about how you the photographer have chosen to show the subject. The framing, the point of view, the use of color, the use of post-processing effects, and so on.

By idea I mean the meaning to be conveyed, in the usual broad sense I employ. The feeling, the emotion, the message, the whatever-it-is beyond a simple representation of the subject that you have in mind for this picture.

The subject and the rendering together make a picture. You choose where to point the camera, you choose how to make the print (or whatever the final output is) and there you have a picture. It may or may not have an idea associated with it. The point of photography as art is to get an idea attached to the picture.

Here's a simple example where we have all three elements, working together perhaps as well as they ever have:

Weston's Pepper #30. The idea is something about sensuality, something about sex. Just like every single picture Weston ever took, as far as I can tell. The subject is a pepper. The rendering ties the two together, a lot of darkness, a lot of accentuated curves and skin, a carefully selected point of view. A very very carefully selected point of view. The rendering of this subject is such a clear illustration of the idea as to border on smut, as well as on parody.

What happens when we have in hand less than all three elements?

I venture to suggest that most photographers never really get past subject. They see a thing, a scene, a juxtaposition of objects, a subject in the sense defined above. They point the camera, click, and they're done. Some minimalist rendering occurs, often just whatever the camera produces, sometimes with a little fiddling to make the subject "more clear" or something. There's probably a hint of an idea here as well, "this object is pretty" or "these things are cool." Still, it's mostly about subject.

What if all we have is a rendering? The internet is awash in these things as well. HDR techniques applied to nothing at all. Instagram filters applied to pictures of nothing much, or of randomly chosen objects. Lomography. Black and white pictures of.. stuff. Again, there's a little subject, maybe a little idea, but it's mostly about rendering.

If all you have is an idea, there's no picture at all here, and very little to talk about.

What if you have two of the three? Now things start to get interesting.

Suppose you have an idea and a subject. This is, essentially, the pre-visualization problem. Here is this tree, or mountain, or model, or instant in time on the street, a subject. I have an idea in mind. The grandeur of nature, the isolation of man, or more likely something I can't even put in to words. But it's an idea, something I want the picture to mean, something I want the viewer to feel, to experience. What is lacking is a rendering. How shall I make a picture of that subject which conveys my idea?

Ansel Adams writes about this sort of thing a lot, driving past the same view day after day, gradually refining his ideas of season and light until the day came when he simply stopped the car and took the picture, because the environmental aspects of the rendering were right at just that moment. I have written some ideas about how to actually perform this task of finding a pre-visualization, a rendering to suit, in this essay here and some of the following material.

Suppose you have a subject and a rendering but no particular idea? You're on the hunt for an idea. You can go the Modern Fine Art approach, and simply write an idea down in International Art English. Almost any idea will do. Something political is best. It should be loosely connected to the pictures, but only a faint connection is really required.

This isn't really what I am interested in, though. What I like is is a strong connection between the work and the idea. To get this, you're going to have to tinker with your subject and rendering, and work toward some inspiration about an idea, and then complete the circle by making some pictures which are about the idea (based on your original notions of subject and rendering). I wrote about this problem here and here.

For these two situations, I have proposed approaches that reduce to trying to simply invoke inspiration in the one case, and in trying to iteratively sneak up on inspiration by a process of tinkering and trying things out. Both are basically methods for persuading ones unconscious mind to find the missing pieces of the puzzle, and both are essentially built on possession of a large and broad photographic vocabulary. Some mixture of the approaches is surely just as good, if not better. Tinker, try things, then have a nap, a shower. Leave it alone. Tinker some more. Use whatever ratio of tinkering to napping suits you.

Finally, consider the third option, a combination of an idea and a rendering without a subject. This is a lot like the pre-visualization problem, really, except stood on its head. Generally you're going to have some idea, and a rendering concept that supports the idea. If that pair is any good, the rendering already supports the idea just fine. You could be using erotic art tropes for rendering, and an idea of sensuality and sex. You could use shadow-eliminating HDR techniques and some ideas about modernity and technology, perhaps.

This isn't a situation in which I have found myself, to be honest. I'm not sure how common it really is, but I suppose it might turn up now and then. At the moment I do have a minor version of it, as I seek to extend a portfolio with new subject matter. I am currently testing out subjects that share certain things with the previously used subjects, and are wildly different in other ways.

In general, It seems reasonable to seek subjects that support the idea as well, but possibly obliquely. Weston's pepper is a brilliant example of lateral thinking here. His idea is always the same, so we may assume that he had it a priori. This approach to rendering appears quite frequently. One can imagine, at least, that his choice of pepper was a subject-last situation, and he saw, somehow, the erotic possibilities of the vegetable.

And there you have it. That's how to Art. It's how I Art, at any rate.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


I have never had any formal training in photography, which to some degree I regret. I've had a lot of formal training in lots of other things, though, including quite a few piano lessons.

Something I have harped on in the past, and no doubt will harp on in future, is this idea of vocabulary. The idea is simply to have in your mind a large number of bits and pieces of the raw material of photographs. These are lighting idioms, compositional idioms, post-processing effects, tricks for getting the subject to smile, anything, and everything. You gain this vocabulary by looking at pictures, for the most part, but also by reading (or consuming other media) about photography and about how pictures are made, and by doing photography.

You wouldn't try to write a poem without knowing a lot of words. Even Dr. Geisel knew a lot of words, even though he used as few as 50 to write a book. Knowing a lot of words makes you comfortable with the ones you're using. It gives you a larger pool of words to pick from, even if you're only going to wind up using a few. If you don't know a lot of words, then you cannot pick the right word, for starters, and (this is the important part) you're going to have fewer ideas about what to say.

When you learn to play the piano in a formal setting, you learn a lot of notation. You learn a notation for playing notes in a so-called staccato fashion, where each note is struck very briefly and released immediately, making a short percussive TINK sound. Contrariwise, you learn notation which means to connect a series of notes together in a phrase, and to leave a perceptible space after before beginning the next phrase. More importantly, you learn that there is the possibility of degrees and of connectedness between notes. You learn to phrase staccato notes together. You can separate legato phrases. You learn that there are degrees of length of a note. While it may be notated as a quarter note, indicating that it should be played for such and such a time (relative to the pacing of the piece) but that you can shorten that a little or a lot, and that this will result in different results.

Working with a teacher, you spend a lot of time working out how you want to use these bits of vocabulary. How can I use these ideas of phrasing, and of playing this note slightly louder than that note, and a thousand other things, to express what I want to express. Glenn Gould, it may be assumed, had at his command the entire vocabulary of the piano. For a specific piece he might well have selected a fairly small subset, he was famous for his pointillist readings of Bach, heavy with a staccato touch. Surely, though, his ability to render a piece in this manner was supported by his complete command of legato, and everything else. His ability to play the same piece extremely fluidly surely allowed him to manage the pointillism better, to select the exact degree of pointillism he wanted.

More to the point, though, his understanding of the wider vocabulary gave him the raw material to choose from, to select pointillism where he felt it right, and to select a more fluid style where that better served the music. Without the ability to imagine and experiment with a wide array of sounds, how could he have best selected the sound that served his needs?

I submit that, without the deep vocabulary, Gould might never have found his pointillist interpretation.

This is, sadly, unknowable. There's simply no way anyone gets to be much good at playing the piano without a decent teacher, and a decent teacher will generally make sure that you have a deep vocabulary on hand. Vocabulary building is absolutely central to teaching music, and many other fine arts. There is not, as far as I am aware, any similar process in the teaching of photography, but fairly obviously there should be.

As I read and learn and think about the problems of inspiration, and of making pictures that you actually like, and so on, the more it becomes clear to me that vocabulary is terribly, terribly important in photography. You've got to know a lot of little things, to give you a rich pool of ideas and raw material. It is from this pool of ideas that your ideas will come. They may come in a single Eureka! moment, they might be teased out by a process of refinement, but without the large vocabulary you're not likely to have much success.

How do you get the vocabulary? The same way you get the one made of words. Mainly, you "read", secondarily, you "write". Look at a lot of pictures. Look up the "words" you don't know, by which I mean figure out how the thing was done. Go take pictures, too, try things out. Try out things you don't think will please you. You don't think you'll ever use flash? Go take some anyways, that work will inform your landscapes, I promise. Shoot black and white, shoot color. Shoot portraits and street. Copy things you've seen. Fool around in your photo editor, trying to re-create effects you've seen, whether you like them or not. Read up on effects, how they were done in the darkroom and how they are done today.

There are degrees of knowledge here. You can recognize a visual effect when you see it, as you might recognize staccato. You might have some passing familiarity with how to produce an effect, or an idiom. You might feel extremely comfortable with some element of the photographic vocabulary. There is some value in each. Even a passing awareness of a photographic idea might inform an inspired moment, you might say "Oh man, THAT look, THAT would be PERFECT!" without having the foggiest notion of how to produce that look. I theorize, though, that your unconscious processes are more likely to seize upon just the right thing the more thoroughly you understand it. The inspiration machine that searches for solutions while you shower is, it seems reasonable, more likely to seize upon solutions you can execute than upon solutions you cannot.

A long, long time ago I wrote about the Second Worst Advice which is to just go out and shoot. That makes about as much sense as sitting down at the piano and poking notes at random. Go out and shoot, by all means, but with a plan. Today, I will work on phrasing. Today, I will work on black and white pictures of people. Today I will write a sonnet, however awful. Today I will take a still life backlit with flash. Today I will expand my vocabulary thus.

Vocabulary is the fuel of inspiration.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Making the Pictures I Want

This is a followup to the previous, a little discussion of my personal journey, which might shed a little light on what I mean in the previous essay. I'm linking, in here, to quite a few pictures I have shot. Enjoy. Or not.
I've been mucking around with cameras for.. a while. I literally cannot remember when exposure was a puzzlement, it would have been 30 years ago or so, and I suppose I had to struggle with it a bit, but I have no memory of that. The technicalities of making a properly exposed and in-focus picture hold no mysteries for me. I flatter myself that I have long been able to take a decent picture of a thing. A picturesque picture of a shack or a mountain, a moderately flattering picture of a girl, and so on.

About three years ago I embarked on one of those stupid P52 things. I tried to take a decent picture every week for a year, and mostly succeeded. The result was an incoherent mass of mostly decent pictures. I learned a few things, started to get more serious about using flash, and discovered a couple of "looks" I sort of liked.

Somewhere in there I started shooting nudes, experimenting with outré lighting idioms and so on. I learned a few more things about looks that I liked. Those pictures are extremely private. Sorry.

The year following my interesting but uninspiring P52 project I made several abortive attempts at portfolios. I was beginning to understand that the portfolio is really what I wanted to be aiming at. I started shooting people walking dogs, which I think is definitely a good subject. I discovered that I am not, or at any rate was not, the artist to make much of anything of that subject. There was, and still are, occasional feints at street photography. I'm also not Henri Cartier-Bresson, it turns out. None of these subject/method based ideas really seemed to go anywhere. I was not satisfied by the work, I did not feel that it was going anywhere. It seemed banal and uninteresting after a handful of moderately successful pictures.

I don't think that, I can see no reason why, a subject based idea isn't good. I just haven't been able to make one work yet to my satisfaction. I did recently shoot a subject-based mini-portfolio which pleases me moderately well, but this is mainly because I approve of the content so much. The pictures are OK, but the meaning is something that matters to me.

What has worked best for me started with a single visual effect. I ran across a description of how to digitally simulate an enlarger diffusion effect. This effectively "flares" the darker areas into the lighter ones, to a variable degree. It's absolutely dead sexy when applied to nudes, especially female nudes. Holy cow. Yum. Probably at random I applied it to a picture of a flower. Boy oh boy did I like that effect.

At this point I started to shoot flowers in the way I had been shooting nudes. Mostly quite dark. A lot of snoots, a lot of lighting from underneath or behind. Always, enlarger diffusion to taste. A little later, I started to apply the inverse of enlarger diffusion to high-key pictures, and finally I started to airbrush all over everything in a late pictorialist fashion, although possibly with a lighter touch. I shot a lot of these things, and wound up with a coherent portfolio of 27 pictures that I quite like. I am satisfied with them.

What worked for me, here, was to start with a single visual motif: the flower, shot like a fine art nude on black. I inverted the ideas, I modified them, I extended the theme out from there in coherent and sensible ways. With some fits and starts, Quite a lot of things didn't work, but some things did. The result is a coherent set of visual motifs, applied to a common subject. The result is a little portfolio of work that "means" something for me, that satisfies me in a way that previous work has not.

Notice that this portfolio was built with a bunch of stuff I had picked up over the previous years: use of flash, outré lighting idioms, general styling from nudes, enlarger diffusion. It is very reasonable to view this satisfying work as the direct result of a bunch of less satisfying labor. It is reasonable to view this as a successful effort which occurred in the natural process of trying ideas out, and building visual vocabulary, in a series of fits and starts which eventually found a path through to some satisfying place after failing for several years of concerted effort.

As of this writing, I am continuing to pursue these ideas. Can these visual motifs be applied and extended to other subjects, in a similarly coherent way? Can I make something else look like my flowers? Obviously I could shoot some nudes in this style, and that might make a good addition to the portfolio. There might be something to be said about the relationship between flowers and nudes, perhaps. Perhaps there are other subjects out there that are less obvious, but which would extend the body of work further, but in a coherent and structured way.

The point of the process I sketch here and in the previous essay is not that it always works, or that it works easily or quickly. The point is simply that this is the only process that I have been able to discover that works at all.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Making the Pictures You Want

Here is a common theme, a common refrain, a common complaint: How can I make pictures that I like? Everything I shoot is banal, or stupid, or a copy of something else. Nothing I shoot satisfies me, it all sucks, is sterile, is empty. What can I do?

For the purposes of this essay, the word meaning will be used in a pretty specific way. Meaning is simply the overall emotional and intellectual experience of a piece of art. It's everything that's not technical. It doesn't have to be expressible as a neat paragraph of text "this picture expresses man's inhumanity to man" nor need it be renderable in words at all. Sometimes it's just emotion, sometimes it is words, sometimes it's a lesson. It can be anything, really, outside of the technical details of the work. It's what I, as a viewer, experience when I look at the piece, whatever that reaction is.

Of course, this essay is ultimately about my process. It works for me, after a fashion, laboriously and slowly.

For our purposes, we will simplify the lament of the frustrated photographer to be: How can I make pictures with meaning, meaning that satisfies me. There might be a side order of dissatisfaction with visual ideas, or with design ideas. We will assume that there are basically no technical issues, however. This isn't about how to focus your camera.

There is here a pretty strong parallel with music, especially classical music. Lots of people are happy just being able to play music as notated. I certainly would be delighted to be able to play more than simple pieces, as notated. However, the problem of playing the notation is essentially pretty simple. You just take the time, you learn how to do it. It is somewhat analogous to learning how to use a camera, although quite a bit more difficult. The person who aspires to play christmas carols as notated is perhaps roughly equivalent to the person who wants to take nice pictures of her children, or wants to make passable imitations of Ansel Adams photographs.

Most of what music school is about, though, is not about playing the piece as notated. It is about how to interpret the piece in a meaningful way, within the notation given. It turns out that even a tightly notated piece of music allows a remarkably wide range of interpretation. Melodic lines can be brought forward or suppressed. Small crescendos and diminuendos can be inserted (indeed, must be, to avoid a ridiculously flat and tedious reading) at will. Timing can be altered subtly, within passages, and overall. The notes within a single chord, or a progression of them can be weighted subtly differently, for various purposes.

The problems to be solved here are: How can I play this music so that it sounds like me, how can I play this music in a way that pleases me, and how can I play this music to express my concept of how the piece should feel, should be experienced, what the piece should "mean" in the sense given above.

This is essentially the same problem that the stymied photographer faces, but I am not aware of any dedicated institution of learning devoted to teaching you how to solve the photographic analog of these problems. Music conservatories, on the other hand, are almost completely devoted to this.

There are really two major starting points.

In the first, you have a pretty clear idea of something you want to express, the problem is how to express it. You want to express, say, how the dot-com technologists are ruining the San Francisco Bay Area, or you want to express the way you feel when you look at Half Dome. This is essentially a pre-visualization problem, and I have written my thoughts about that at some length here, and in a couple of follow-on essays.

The second potential starting point is that you have no idea of what it is you want to express, you wish only to express something. You find your pictures banal, uninteresting, devoid of meaning, and you want to fix that. In this case, I employ this rough analogy: the world, the stuff in front of the camera, is a score. You're seeking to find an interpretation of it with meaning, which satisfies. This isn't the same as Adams' tired saw about the negative being the score and the print the performance, although there are similarities.

The general procedure is something like this, more or less by necessity. Pursue what ideas you have. Do you like a certain subject? Do you like a certain visual effect in your editing software, or at the enlarger? What ideas appeal to you, be they visual ideas, ideas about content, ideas about where you like to visit, anything? Pursue those. This part is obvious, since there really isn't anything else to do, is there? This is what you've got, so go work it. Push it quite far, keep pounding on these individual ideas, no matter how small or superficial. Your goal is ultimately to force, to nurture, to induce, meaning to emerge.

Keep an eye on the bigger picture. Is something bigger, something more satisfying, starting to coalesce? If so, keep going. If not, or if something that felt like it was coming together no longer feels as if it is, back up. Pursue some other idea, possibly just the opposite of what you were doing. Change something, anything.

This is by analogy to working an interpretation of a piece of music. You may simply like a certain melody fragment, you bring it out, articulate it clearly for a few passages. It sounds great. So you carry on through the whole sonata, bringing that melodic fragment to the fore every time it appears in the score. At some point you find that it's not working out, now the sonata sucks and is boring. Back off, try something else. Maybe the sonata is about the interplay of the fragment you like, and some other fragment that you don't like. Maybe that first passage is great, but the next passage needs to bring out a different motive -- but articulated in the same way. Maybe the key here isn't the fragment, but they way you've brought it out, articulated it.

In the same way, fiddle with the ideas you have, nurture them and invert them by turns. See what other ideas they spin off, until you have a whole set of ideas writhing about trying to assemble themselves into a plan, a structure, a bigger idea. Periodically ask yourself if there is something bigger trying to reveal itself.

Perhaps your ideas are all visual motifs, so you now have a collection of inter-related visual motifs. Is there a larger idea, a larger meaning, that could be carried by this family of visual ideas? As some point, with some luck, you'll have an inspiration of sorts. You will realize that these visual ideas, these design motifs, together with the subjects you've been shooting, are doing a little bit of a decent job of expressing something about God, or Beauty, or Sex, or Nature, or whatever. There's no reason you need to even be able to put words to the larger thing, just that you can feel its presence. Now you have a larger theme that you can pursue, and a set of tools you can use to pursue it.

What other subjects that you had not considered, could you apply these visual motifs to, to more fully express the larger thing? Or, if contrariwise the subjects have been carrying the water, what other visual motifs could you apply to the same subjects, again to more fully express the larger thing?

In this way, meaning can be teased gently out of some smaller beginnings, and can emerge into a portfolio with some weight. More importantly, it can emerge into a portfolio that you like, that satisfies.

If you just wanted a single picture that you like, a single picture that satisfies you, now go back to the portfolio and find the picture that best expresses the thing you like. If you can't find a single such picture, well, you just spent days or weeks or months or years making a portfolio of work. You should have the tools and ideas necessary to go and make that single picture that says what you have found you want to say.

Go make that picture.

Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What's Signal and What's Noise?

(The title is a stolen from a song title, it's a great line in general)

Modern Fine Art tends to be spoken of largely in a language that has been dubbed by wags International Art English (IAE). It's all about dialectics and playing with spaces and so on. Any proper artist's statement is written in this stuff, and it's pretty amusing, at least to people outside the Academy. We tend to look at it and chuckle and think about how silly Art is. And it is silly; this stuff is rather silly.

To suggest that it's meaningless noise, which I am sure I have done, and which is done quite a lot, is to kind of miss the point, though. Sure, these paragraphs are ostensibly about the work, and pretty much say nothing whatsoever about the work itself. They tend to read a lot like academic-sounding fluff intended to obscure as much as to reveal. Generally, combining the writing with the work one gets the sense that the artist didn't actually have any ideas, or had perhaps one idea which has been beaten into the ground, and that the writing is mainly to obscure the fact that the artist didn't have much of an idea. More precisely, the artist's statements seem to be trying to tell us about ideas that are in the work, which ideas aren't.

I think that might well be a true analysis, but it's incomplete at best. Perhaps the artist didn't have much of an idea. That's not really the point, most artists don't seem to have much of an idea, after all. If ideas were important in Fine Art, we'd probably see a lot more of them.

A lot of modern Art strikes me as a sort of tabula rasa upon which the artist's statement writes. Consider "Human Dilations" from Roger Weiss. This is basically a bunch of nudes of more or less good looking women, taken in a bland studio setting. The women are more or less expressionless. The point, though, is that the pictures were either taken with a fisheye lens, or distorted in post. We get an enormous foot, with a tiny out of focus torso way behind. We get immensely oversized bellies, with torsos and legs receding and shrinking away. Ok, so what. I get that the photographer likes to have naked women in his studio, who doesn't?

You could write an artist's statement about how the show reveals the monster within every woman, and it would totally read. It would be immensely unpopular, but the pictures would completely work with that theme. You could write an artist's statement about how the show reveals society's view of women as monsters, or freaks. You could write an artist's statement about how the show reflects on the self-images of women. Weiss has told us, though, that the show is about letting us relate differently to the image, entirely detached from the stereotypical and hypocritical notion of beauty. Whatever, that reads, too. My point here is that the work itself appears to make no particular statement in and of itself, it's just some stuff. It's the artist's statement that tells us the intent.

Compare with, say, Lange's "Migrant Mother", which doesn't need any artist's statement at all to make a pretty strong stand. Precisely what stand it takes might be a little unclear, but to my mind that's a good thing.

To select another work that's stumbled across my consciousness in the last few months, we have Chris Burdon's "Beam Drop" installed at Inhotim. This is a bunch of rusty steel beams stood on their ends in concrete. You could call it "Rust Bouquet" if you liked, and write something about the dialectic of man and nature. Burdon instead informs us that it's anti-architecture, anti-corporate architecture.

Both of these examples, which I like to imagine I have selected at random, consist of work that is essentially a cipher, and an artist's statement which is the device by which meaning and interpretation is applied. More interestingly to me, the artist's statements are not really about the work at all, but about the artist. The work is practically irrelevant, you could plug damn near any fool thing in for the work, and the resulting total experience would be roughly the same. Weiss is a feminist who wants to destroy traditional notions of beauty (ok, whatever, you and everyone else bud) and Burdon is anti-corporate architecture (hey, me too).

Part of what seems to be going on here is reification of the silly notion that the artist is visible in the work. It is an oft-repeated, in this modern age, adage that the artist is somehow visible in the Art, that the Art is on some level a portrait of the Artist. A few minutes careful thought will tell you that this is utter nonsense. However, in this modern era, the artist's statement actually does this to some extent. Of course we don't have any notion of who the artist is, really, but we do get some text in which the artist gets to make a little marketing pitch for themselves. We learn, not about the artist, but what the artist wants us to think about the artist. This is quite a lot like a self-portrait.

This stuff isn't content free, it's just sort of allegorical, sort of poetic. On the surface it's making an effort to describe how one ought to think about, feel about, experience, the work. There's some sort of recognition that if the work's any damn good, you're not going to be able to summarize it in a few lines of text. This begs the question of why attach text at all, which circles back around to talking about the artist, fluffing up a pretty small idea into something bigger, and social signaling.

The text allows basically unoriginal work to become, in a more or less real sense, new and original work. If you simply copied an Ansel Adams photograph, it wouldn't be new. The picture is there, we react to it in the same way, the little mental pas de deux of viewer with the piece will unfold in pretty much the same way as the original.

Now add some text, perhaps something about re-contextualizing the space of nature in the context of the silver gelatin print to play with the dialectic of the machine and nature, and the dance is different. Now the sufficiently "Educated" viewer is suddenly thinking about cameras and chemicals, or something. To the extent that Art exists in the dance between the work and the viewer, we've got something new here. To the extent that Art exists purely in the work, though, not so much.

What's signal, and what's noise? Well, there's a lot of noise in the text. International Art English contains a great deal of filler text which serves more or less to set the tone. Still, there's a lot of signal in there, once you've got the context established. In fact, when you start unpacking it, there's a tremendous amount of signal. 300 words of this stuff will paint a little picture of the artist, as well as tell us how we ought to react to some piece or show, as well as make us feel as if we're part of the in crowd. That's quite a lot of work for a handful of sentences that are mostly meaningless filler.

Still, I got to wonder, how much of it is really useful or interesting?

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Hate Button

A more or less common joke in 2013 is to refer to an imaginary Hate button, or a -1 button, in reference to the ubiquitous Like/+1/Favorite buttons that appear to adorn every single thing in the world wide web these days[1]. I think it's an idea worth thinking about for a moment.

What if you had Like and Hate buttons for pictures, and what if you bubbled to the top pictures for which: the sum of likes and hates was large relative to the number of views, and the difference between number of likes and hates was small relative to their sum.

What results is pictures that lots of people react to, sufficiently to mash a button, but which people are more or less evenly split on. Many like it, many hate it.

I dunno about you, but I think I might like to see those pictures,

[1] Yes, I know that some places have up/down voting buttons, but I'm pretty sure the down votes usually make the object trend toward less visible, and ups make the object more visible, which isn't at all what I propose here.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


This is my blog, so I ask you to indulge me a little here and permit me to make the following bald assertion: the proper purpose of art, and of curating art, is to make available to the public work that will connect with members of the public, that will challenge us, that will teach us, that will open us to larger ideas and feelings, that will expand us, that will entertain us, that will move us. Art is, or should be, ultimately, for The People, for their greater enrichment.

Modern art curators, gallerists, and so on would, most likely, sign on to some or all of this. They would be quite unlikely to admit that the actual (as opposed to proper) purpose of modern Art Curation is to create an artificially limited supply of what is basically a wildly available product, in order to create the impression of a closed and exclusive club, with the aim of creating and maintaining a largely artificial and extremely lucrative market.

I beg your indulgence a little further, and baldly claim that, claims to the contrary, that is precisely what modern art is about. Like all human institutions, the goals and desires of the people in it are largely irrelevant. The institution itself behaves in such a way as to entrench its position and to expand itself and its influence. So, while individual curators and gallerists and artists may earnestly desire to serve some greater good, the institution as a whole does not. Among other things, it has devised its own language which seems to exist primarily to exclude the unwashed.

Whether or not you believe my assertion that the institution of Art operates largely to protect a lucrative market, perhaps we can agree that one would have a hard row to hoe should one choose to argue that the modern institution of Art effectively serves some greater public good.

There have been some motions toward democratizing access to art. Various web sites are springing up to offer art at various price points to various larger markets. These, I think, are really just an attempt to expand the exclusive club, and to thereby cash in. The aim is not to actually revolutionize the institution, but merely to join it and make a bunch of money. Making the same old art available to people who merely have a few thousand to spend isn't really the same thing as democratizing art itself.

On the opposite side, we have a sort of mass curation process which occurs in public, on web sites like flickr and so on. Rather than a cadre of credentialed gatekeepers trimming down the flood of available art into a small and manageable set of reliable workers and a right-sized flow of Certified Important Art, we have everyone on the planet empowered to Like or +1 anything, and to thereby to collectively elevate certain work over other work. By skimming the very top of this totem pole, we get a set of.. something.

The trouble on this end is that when the tools are a Like button and a 100,000,000 people, what you get is a homogenized collection of pictures that people generally tend to like. Add in some social norming, and the result is pretty uninspiring.

The Fine Art side has at least a chance of selecting work that is challenging, educational, expanding, interesting. The people in the system do, after all, perceive it as their job to do just that.

The democratic side doesn't. It is incapable of generating anything except some lowest common denominator of likable work. This is not because people are awful, it's simply that there are too many of them. Average up enough disparate opinions, and all the interesting stuff gets cancelled out. Every single person on 500px could have excellent taste in some sort of crazy avante garde form, but when you average up what the all like, that stuff gets eliminated because not enough people like any individual branch of the crazy.

So on the one side we have a Fine Art System which is devoted mainly toward maintaining a small and lucrative market, and on the other side we have homogenized and uninteresting pablum. The currently available systems are: Oligarchy, and Mob Rule. Neither one seems to be serving The People all that well, but at least nobody seems to be getting shot. Which is nice.

What is needed is some sort of middle ground. Simply replacing the gallerists and curators with a new set of Approved Gatekeepers won't help, they'll just descend into their own little world of madness. We don't need different oligarchs, and we certainly don't need more Mob Rule.

We need some way to generate small, interested, opinionated, and passionate groups of people who will make and curate art. We need some way to organize these groups, to rate and rank that output, and to make their output available. We surely do not lack for small, interested, opinionated, and passionate groups of people. The trouble is that these groups are of two kinds: the kind nobody has every heard of or ever will; and the kind that are already in charge, have been sucked into the Fine Art World, and are now serving the lucrative market. Perhaps we want something like a representative democracy, the traditional middle ground between oligarchy and the mob.

There are two problems:
  • surfacing the work of little groups of weirdos so we, the general public, and jerks on the internet, can find it.
  • preventing little groups of weirdos from cementing themselves into place as permanent gatekeepers of taste.

I'm tempted to propose the phrase "continuous revolution" at this point, except that history has provided this phrase with the connotation "most obnoxious gang of oligarchs ever" so it's probably a bad choice. In any case, my notion of a cellular social network is clearly an attempt to provide precisely this sort of thing.

There's plenty of excellent photography out there, plenty of excellent Art. What is needed is a mechanism by which more of it can be found, anointed with the magical oil of Good Art and brought forward to the people, a mechanism which does not reward the ability to chatter about playing with the dialectics of reality, but rather rewards actually challenging, entertaining, and enriching. We need enough mob rule to keep the oligarchs down, and enough oligarchy to force some challenge, some variety, some difficulty onto us, The People.

Got any ideas?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Shoot for a Target

I find that I work a lot better when I have some reason to take a picture. If I just wander around looking for "a good shot", even a "good shot" of some specific kind, it's sort of pointless and not much good appears. Even if something good does appear, it's a one-off, unconnected to anything. This may be personal.

Sometimes, I shoot pictures with the intent to print. This is the basic way I approach all film photography. Sometimes, I shoot pictures for a portfolio, or at least with the intent to start a portfolio. There's still a pretty high failure rate, most film exposures are still not worth printing. Most portfolio ideas do not result in a portfolio.

Still, having that target, having in some minor way a bigger reason to shoot, is a big help to me. There's a potential end goal for each exposure. If it's good enough, it's on paper. If it's good enough and on-theme enough, it's in the portfolio.

This causes me to have a different relationship to the pictures. I'm not treating them as things that I might share out on the internet, to be crushed under the weight of a million or a billion other pictures. It's not a picture I'm making to test something or learn something, and then throw away. It's not a picture I'll stick on my computer, mess with for no particular reason, and then forget.

These are pictures that are on-track to go somewhere that I personally view as permanent, or at any rate less ephemeral.

Monday, November 18, 2013


I've gone on and on about how the indefinable "look" of film (and everything else) is silly. I've gone on and on about how the use of film can be a useful psychological trick, to change the way you approach taking a picture, and thereby change the result.

Since then, or at least some of that writing, I've been thinking a lot about the democratization of photography, digital photography, and how it's changed the way we relate to photographs. In the 1970s, Sontag had us treating photos as permanent slices of reality, frozen in amber. She was right. The modern digital era has changed that, now photographs are inherently impermanent. The sheer mass of pictures, and the most-recent-first organizational schemes make pictures effectively vanish into the vault of time.

So here's where using film, shooting film, can really change things up.

When you make an exposure on a piece of film, you are starting a process which results in an actual physical object, a negative or a transparency. This is in contrast to simply organizing some 1s and 0s into some information that represents a picture. I think most people get this, at some level or another, if they understand a little bit about film and how it is used. You don't need to be a chemist, you just need to have talked to that uncle about those weird strips of brownish translucent plastic that are in the shoebox with the pictures.

When I shoot film, it's to make a print. The exposure either becomes a print, or does not. Not only am I manufacturing a Thing, I do so with intent to manufacture another Thing. There is no ephemeral, temporary, endpoint. The negative is made, and will reside permanently in a folder. The successes will become prints, another physical manifestation of the picture. Sontag's commentary applies. This object is a permanent, non-ephemeral, moment in time. I relate to it as such, and will probably stick it on my wall at some point.

Not everyone shoots film for the sole purpose of making prints, the widespread use of film scanners makes this physical/digital divide a lot blurrier. Nonetheless, there is still the permanent object of the negative or transparency. Also, I think that people who scan film and then treat it like a digital photograph from that point forward are doing it wrong. They're missing the point. They're probably having a lot of fun, which is a good thing, though.

I find myself sometimes in a middle ground, shooting digital but with intent to print.

Anyways. There's more to it than just the limitations of the roll or sheet of film. There's more to it than simply slowing down. There's the inherent physicality of what you are doing, and that changes the way you think about what you're doing.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

What Level Are You?

I see this notion that a photographer is at a "level" quite a bit, as if there was a linear progression from one end of the spectrum to another. The implication is almost always that whoever is speaking or writing is at a "higher level" than whomever they are speaking or writing about.

It's utter nonsense. Photography as much or more than any fine art, is a wild collection of mutually orthogonal collections of knowledge. After the photographer has a basic grasp of how to make a photograph with technical details to suit, there are no more levels. Knowledge and skills fan out in all directions at once.

You can be superbly skilled with flash, and useless with people. You can be moderately capable at landscape, brilliant with kids, and completely out to lunch at black and white.

There are no levels here, there is no progression of exams, certifications, or colored belts.

Cellular Social Networking II

I want to clarify a couple things.

This isn't, not at all. This isn't about little social networks, this isn't about bespoke social networks. This is a way to organize large social networks, in such a way as to encourage a sort of forced evolution of ideas and norms.

When I log in to a cellular social media site, I don't just see a tiny network of me and my 300 closest friends. I see, at some level, a huge social media site. I see that there are 100,000,000 photos that have been uploaded. I see Trending Islands. I see some samples from Islands that are closely connected, in some sense or another, to Islands I belong to.

The point is that I only have full access to, I only "belong to", a small set of Islands. I am aware, at some level, of the entire archipelago.

The degree to which I am aware of the rest of the archipelago, the degree to which I can see "nearby" Islands, the populations of my Islands, the ways in which Islands interconnect, and all of that machinery is available to the designers as tuning parameters. The goal is quite specific, it is to maximize evolution of ideas in divergent directions. The goal is maximize the creation of idiosyncratic affinity groups, as divergent and specific as is reasonable.

This is good for art. It's good for ideas. And it's good for monetization too.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Crazy Theory

I have developed a crazy theory. It's guaranteed to be at least partly wrong, but there might be an element of truth somewhere in it.

The theory is that the settling of North America ruined The Landscape as an artistic subject. From the point of view of Western European Art and its derivatives.

In the 19th century, and probably before, we have painters painting landscapes. Sometimes with people and buildings, the "hand of man", and sometimes not. These painters were after something about the sublime, about beauty, about the hand of God in nature. Some of them did a darn good job. These paintings required a bit of effort, since all these guys were working in Europe, basically. Since I've already restricted us to Western European Art and its derivative, I get this for free.

Europe is not exactly awash is pristine landscapes. There's plenty of rural scenery, but there are people and so on all over it. There's a lot of farms and towns and cities, and people who build stuff have been rattling around there building stuff for thousands of years.

Now we get to America, and start painting pictures and taking photographs. America is awash in landscapes, in the sublime. The hand of God in nature is available in million square mile lots. You want a sunset over the ocean, with attractive rugged forefround? Sure! We got 3000 miles of that on the Pacific coast! Mountains? What kind? We got big ones and small ones, we got snow-capped and green, we got old ones, we got new ones. We got mountains. Picturesque mountain valleys? Heck yeah! You want one with a log cabin, or not? We got like 1000 with and 2000 without. Vast expanses of grassland? Did you want a sunrise over the ocean instead of a sunset? No problem, other coast, 3000 miles. You want rocks, trees, or sand in the foreground? What about fjords? Islands? Yup.

Now we've got a 100 million pretty decent landscapes on flickr and 500px and instagram.

Now when you see most landscapes you barely see the picture at all. You see the cloud of similar pictures you've seen in the past. You relate to this picture largely in terms of how it resembles and differs from those pictures. The sublime, the beautiful, the hand of God in nature, that's all pretty much lost. It's another one of those pictures.

You can argue that Ansel Adams and f/64 started closing the book on the subject, and Galen Rowell and his acolytes came along and slammed it shut. And nailed it shut, encased it in cement, and bricked that up in an alcove in the basement.

There's probably more to it than just America, but I feel like that's a piece of it.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cellular Social Networking
  (Free Business Idea, Go Nuts)

There is a well known phenomenon of evolution. If you get an island, or a bunch of islands, and you stick some species on them, you'll tend to get fairly rapid divergence. You get an island group full of white grizzly bears, for instance. You get the Galapagos.

As I understand it there are basically two things going on: small populations lead to a lot of inbreeding which brings out recessive traits; and the separation from other populations causes the recessive traits so brought out to stabilize. With a bunch of islands and a bunch of small populations, you get different families of traits brought out and stabilized. Larger populations in large environments tend to produce homogenization. If you take a whole bunch of dogs, it doesn't matter what breeds or mixes, and let them run wild for a few generations you get a 40 pound animal, yellow-ish brown, medium length coat, with a moderate length tail that curves up toward the head. Every single time. If you get a small population of three or four dogs and stick them on an island, you're gonna get something else. Maybe border collies, maybe no dogs at all in a couple generations. Probably not the generic yellow dog, though.

Let's think about social norming and pictures for a minute. If you have a huge population of ideas about pictures, let's say flickr or 500px, they're going to converge on the generic 40 pound yellow dog pretty fast. We've seen it happen. The same little family of extremely pretty and emotionally sterile pictures starts popping up and then the taste of the population as a whole is defined, and we're pretty much done. Ugh.

Let's think about the curation problem, too. Digging out good work from flickr is a nightmare. It's buried under snapshots of lattes and purple sunsets, by the billion. flickr is too much like a giant pile of pictures.

So here's a free idea for a startup, that addresses both of these problems, creates a potentially interesting new paradigm for social networking, and has a lot of revenue potential, as these things go.

The cellular social network is built around the idea of a group of islands. Each island is, well, let's call it a mini-network. A mini-network is a standard social network, but with limited membership. Within the network all the usual things apply, one can follow people, like, +1, whatever. Perhaps you can share photos, or comment on one another's walls, or share video clips, or broadcast snarky little messages of 141 characters or less. If you're smart, you'll build the infrastructure to support anything at all. There's a cellular social network infrastructure, and you can build photo-sharing, video-sharing, twitter-alikes, facebook-alikes, whatever you like on top of the cellular structure. You gotta have a story for mobile, it can't just be the web, blah blah blah. The usual.

The conceit is that the mini-networks have limited membership. Perhaps 100, perhaps 1000. A person, an identity on the larger system, can belong to a limited number of mini-networks, perhaps 2, perhaps 50. So, there's some cross-fertilization, but most of the activity takes place inside the mini-networks. Identities have limited visibility to mini-networks to which they do not belong, perhaps they can browse "public" content, but cannot contribute. Perhaps they can only see a random sample of content. Whatever. Make that configurable too.

There needs to be ways to explore mini-networks that you do not belong to. There needs to be a way to enter and leave a mini-network. You might want the ability to join a waiting list for a mini-network. Mini-networks might have a "fission" operation in which they split in two, with some rationale for assigning members to the new mini-networks.

Most mini-networks will simply die on the vine. That's ok. It's a few rows in a database somewhere, so what. The point is that the ones that work out will, ideally, evolve unique identities. A photograph sharing cellular social network would, ideally, generate mini-networks with distinctive artistic visions. The social norming within each would not, ideally, stabilize on the same half dozen pictures, but might stabilize on a variety of different things. By browsing, new members could find mini-networks with compatible visions, and could contribute in interesting ways. Because the populations are small, individuals have the power to move the social norms by more than infinitesimals.

Recessive memes, in the original sense of the word "meme" not in the sense of a picture with a stupid caption, can be expressed, nurtured, and stabilized within a mini-network in ways that the cannot in a giant singular social network.

How does this monetize? What do you tell Y-Combinator? The mini-networks form affinity groups that can be targeted for marketing, obviously. A cellular social network for creatives (photographers, etc) could sell access to talent scouts, giving them deeper browsing and search capabilities. User-generated content produced by highly specialized affinity groups is obviously a lot more valuable, and easier to find, than user-generated content in a giant monolithic network. Connections between affinity groups can be mapped (the BMW-lovers mini-network has a lot of members who belong to the Bi-Rite ice cream lovers mini-network... interesting!). And so on and so forth.

This model, applied to photography in particular and art in general, helps to render the curation problem more tractable. 1000 mini-networks with 100,000 pictures in each is a lot more tractable than a simple pile of 100,000,000 pictures. This self-organization contributes both to monetization and to curation.

Neat, huh?

Ok, so, someone. Go out and build this thing.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


There is this idea of intersubjectivity. It seems to have been invented more or less to talk about art, so let's talk about it.

The idea is that much of how we react to art, how we feel about a piece of art, is subjective. It has to do with us, not objectively measured Standards and the like. The thing is, for powerful art, for good art, lots of us tend to feel the same way. It is this idea that the word intersubjective is intended to capture. It captures the idea of a subjective experience, which is nonetheless shared by many. A collectively subjective experience.

A really successful piece of art tickles similar subjective reactions in lots of people. Lots of us react to a piece of art in similar ways. We can talk about, we have common ground to agree on much of what we perceive in the piece, we have some differences we can argue about.

Where do these things come from? We're all human beings. We have similar biology, similar neurology. If we happen to come from the same cultures, or near enough, we share a lot of experiences and symbols. We are enough alike that our subjective reactions tend to resemble one another's.

Another source of an intersubjective experience is social norming. There's a bunch of ways this can happen, but essentially we all want to conform to the local society. This might be our family, our ethnic group, our city, or the group of people in an online context, or almost anything else. Our tastes, our responses, will tend over time to align with whatever we perceive as the normal taste and response on our social groups.

Scotch, for example, is an objectively nasty substance. Our biology and neurology is definitely not programmed to like the stuff. It's toxic, for starters, and it tastes like stuff that's been burned. However, many societies have in essence decreed that this stuff is a refined taste, it is subtle and interesting, sophisticated people like it, and have opinions about it. I like it myself, because I trained myself to like it. I do indeed have opinions about it. There is Scotch I like, and Scotch I don't like, and everything in between. This isn't fakery, my liking of Scotch is genuine. It's just learned, as a result of my desire to conform to social norms. My father likes Scotch, intelligent, sophisticated people like Scotch. So, I learned to like it as well. I know this for a fact, since I was there.

To be sure, there is fakery out there. People will profess to like things that they really do not like, in order to conform to those same social norms. People will profess to like things more than they actually do. People will learn to like things a little, and then lie about how much they like them. There's a whole spectrum of individual response to those pressures to conform. Still, a lot of it is genuine.

We learn to like pictures and art that our social groups like. We might choose to like other things, or to dislike some things our social groups like, to be maverick, an an independent thinker. That too is conforming to social norms. Sophisticated society decrees that being independent, that having your own ideas and opinions, is also a desirable thing. So, some people elect to be the one that doesn't like Scotch, or de Kooning. Again, this is often completely genuine. Not everyone likes Scotch, but everyone has to find an acceptable social response to Scotch, because Scotch is there. It's a thing in society that people like. So is de Kooning, so is Ansel Adams.

If you think of yourself as a photographer, and hang around with people who think of themselves as photographers, you pretty much have to have an opinion about Ansel Adams. You can choose to conform with the social norm, or you can choose the role of maverick, but the overarching social norm is that you must have a position. Almost everyone complies.

Even more interestingly, social groups will produce these norms. There's some sort of invisible process by which the pre-existing ideas and opinions of people entering a social group are massaged and averaged, reduced to some widely agreeably common denominator. The norm is neither predetermined nor static, each member of a group has an infinitesimal influence on it. As we push the norm slightly, it pushes back, and we learn to like it in much the same way one learns to like Scotch.

Intersubjective experiences are first subjective, and secondarily inter. Our collective subjective experiences draw on pre-existing commonalities between us, they draw on our individual subjective experiences, and they average, smooth, and simplify, down to some common medium which we all silently, unconsciously, consent to more or less agree on.

Finally, then, these intersubjective experiences of art come back around. They inform the system of symbols within our culture. How much of the greatness of "Migrant Mother" is drawn from the resemblance to "Mona Lisa" and how much of the greatness of the latter derives from the received wisdom that Leonardo was awesome?

In smaller scales, on faster timelines, we have camera clubs and their ridiculous rules of composition, and their modern equivalents in flickr, 500px, and so on. Look at Flickr Explore, or 500px Most Popular, or any of a dozen similar venues. There are literally something like 6 pictures in play here, being made over and over again in the millions, offered up to the masses, who will invariably pick out the best executed examples of whatever the ambient social norm decrees. This isn't faked. People genuinely like this stuff. They love the macro bug (focus stacked for massive depth of field, natch), the whatever it is reflected in the lake with the horizontally streaked pastel clouds behind, the wildlife frozen in interesting posture, the model with the lighting from the textbook and perfect makeup, the lightly HDRed boat pulled up on the shore, and the mist wrapped around the foothills.

Not a single one of these pictures has a shred of meaning or emotional weight, not a single one shows a shred of originality, but they are genuinely what people love. They are the social norm which these large groups of disparate people have produced. If these pictures stick around for a long time, will they acquire weight as they worm their way into the culture, as symbols? I don't know. In any case, we're watching something evolve here. Rather than building up on continental scales over centuries, we have an aesthetic built up over a handful of years. The same processes apply.

Coming up, I have a proposal for a solution! Of sorts.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Our Relationship to Photographs

Kirk Tuck wrote an interesting piece here. He's talking about the camera industry in 2013 here, repeats a couple of well understood points (cell phones are eating in to sales up and down) and then makes a couple of points that are, I think, genuinely new and interesting. This is probably not quite what he means, but it's my understanding of what he meant:

In the first place, the mass of pictures currently being made is utterly daunting. You cannot stand out, it seems that every picture has been taken, my pictures look like everyone else's pictures. Mere technical excellence is clearly not enough, there are millions of people who are that excellent. Artistic excellence is not enough, there are many genuinely talented artists out there. Even a strong artistic vision isn't enough, there will be 100s of people with a vision indistinguishable from yours and a million pictures that look, whether by accident or design, like yours.

In the second place, the internet and sharing culture mean that anything genuinely new I produce, if it's interesting to anyone, will be picked up and copied and modified and evolved into yet a new thing all in the blink of an eye.

This is surely true, and surely depressing. I experience these problems myself, and I suspect you, Gentle Reader, do as well.

Let's back up and consider our relationship to photographs a bit. In the 1970s when Susan Sontag was writing about this, she spent a certain amount of time mulling over, roughly, the idea that a photograph was a moment in time, frozen, and made permanent. We treated photographs as permanent, eternal, records of a split second of time, and our relationship with them was built around that idea. This was true from the beginning of photography until sometime in the early 2000s.

At that point, things started to change. The model for pictures was no longer to place them in a shoebox or an album, where they would live on forever. The model for pictures was to share them digitally, usually in a most-recent-first arrangement. This meant a shift in how we view photos, we now treat them as ephemeral. They're a record of a moment in time which we share with others who were not there, which we save away and remember, but which will in a few weeks be too many clicks away to ever see again. We treat photos as ephemeral and impermanent now. At least to a substantial degree.

So it goes with the digital photographer/artist. The aspiring artist places his or her best work up, and then it gradually disappears into the past, covered up by newer, better, different work. We spend no time living with our work, or with anyone else's work. Indeed, the amount of time we spend taking pictures, and fussing with them, and fiddling and painting on them may be greater than the time we spend looking at pictures. Picture taking is almost a write-only process now -- we create them, we don't look at them. There's no time!

If you're frustrated and stymied by the overwhelming glut of pictures, of people "better" than you, of new processes, looks, software, cameras, and ideas, here's my advice to you:


Just don't take part. Do something different. Why fling digital copies of your work into a maelstrom of a billion others just like it? Make prints, or put your work in digital photo frames, do something else. Just opt out. If you care about your work, why would you relate to it as a piece of ephemera?

Sure, there are people that do what you want to do better than you. There always have been people who were better than you. Sure there are new ideas and new techniques all the time. Who cares? What do you want to do?

This doesn't meant to get off of flickr, unplug from the internet. It simply means that you should recognize that what they're doing hasn't got anything to do with what you're doing. They're experiencing one relationship with photos, one in which photos are ephemeral scraps of time, soon lost under new strata of new photos. Your relation with photos doesn't have to be that. Make prints, put them on your walls, enjoy the pre-2000 relationship with photos. Or, make your own relationship with them, invent something new that pleases you.

This also doesn't mean to ignore what other artists are doing. It means only that you should recognize that they are doing their thing, and you are doing yours. Steal ideas as they suit you, but don't feel any obligation to copy, to emulate, to follow.