Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Photography and Thought Crimes

In modern society we have, for the most part, discarded the primitive notion that an image partakes of the reality of the thing depicted. We do not feel, generally, that a photograph of a thing is inherently part of that thing, or that photographing a person literally takes something from that person. There is one area, however, where we seem to be holding on to this idea. This is the case of the apparent pedophile, photographing our children. Let me remark that as of this writing, my daughter is three and a half years old.

We collectively freak right the fuck out when we hear of some apparent pervert photographing little girls on the street or in some other public place. You can make arguments about privacy, or about the fear of the pervert becoming a kidnapper and stealing out little girls away, but these are pretty much shams. There's no expectation of privacy granted to anyone else in a public place, why are kids special? The probability that your child will be kidnapped by a stranger is rather low. If you're worried about that perhaps you should worry more about how much time you spend in the car with your child. Your daughter is much more likely to be killed in an automobile accident than in a sex crime, let alone a sex crime perpetrated by a stranger.

Well, why are kids special? The fact is, we expect them to be given more privacy than adults both in our minds and in the law. There are two things going on here.

The first is that we very much want to prosecute and punish pedophiles for their thoughts. Since we, as a society here in the USA, do not officially recognize Thought Crimes as a punishable offense, we seek out something concrete. Photographs serve the purpose here. By criminalizing the photographs, we allow a veneer of sanity to cover our desire to punish people for thinking thoughts we find abhorrent.

The second thing going on here is that we feel the primitive notion that the photograph steals something from our daughter. The photograph partakes of our daughter's reality, and when some pervert takes it home and uses it in some abhorrent way, that in some way violates and injures our daughter. I have argued that photographs do indeed damage but I stopped short of the mad notion that it literally damages the subject. In this case, any actual damage to the little girl is either non-existant or so distant as to be effectively non-existant. Yes, yes, if the pervert then kidnaps and murders the little girl, that's not so distant. That's also a completely different thing, and is an actual crime and so on, that has pretty much nothing to do with the photograph.

While we're certainly not comfortably with the idea of a pedophile looking at our child, remembering them, and later having an abhorrent fantasy, it's not nearly as upsetting as the same pedophile using a camera as a memory aid in precisely the same way. This is because of our magical thinking about imagery.

I'm no fan of pedophiles either, to be sure. I feel the same abhorrence about such photographs that you do. I do, however, recognize it as magical thinking.

If you happen to stumble across this post somehow, and are now overwhelmed with the urge to comment something about how horrible I am, please re-read the post a few times. Make at least a token effort to understand what I wrote, and that I am not advocating that pedophiles be given free children, nor am I advocating the decriminalization of child pornography. Thanks.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Susan Sontag, On Photography

In 1977 Susan Sontag published a collection of essays entitled On Photography. This book is, quite rightly, considered to be an important body of thought on the subject of Photographs and Photography. I review it now, as is my wont, some decades later.

The essays in the book were previously, separately, published, and so there is a certain amount of repeated material and thought across them. Sontag covers the same ideas over and over, but the repetition is not particularly offensive or irritating in the book. Her ideas are sometimes somewhat vague and, to my mind, poorly presented and supported. The repetition gives a sort of parallax view of what she's getting at, which is useful and important.

The most prominent theme present in the book is that Susan Sontag is very smart and knows a lot of things. It's not quite a New Yorker film review, but it's tending in that direction. These were essays written by a writer living in New York City, for other people living in New York City. The only two topics that really seem to go over well with that crowd are: Goodness, I Am Very Very Smart, and New York City Is Very Awesome, Isn't It? So, it is no surprise, really, to find this theme so thoroughly expounded. Despite all this, she manages to bring up some very good ideas, and discuss quite a few interesting things.

The next most important ideas that she hammers on a fair bit is the two contradictory views of photography espoused by photographers and the photographic intelligentsia. On the one hand, photographs represent and reveal that which is true and real. On the other hand, photographs are Art with a capital A and therefore reveal.. other things.. ideas, the photographer, some sort of higher truth, anything and everything but the proximate subject. In this age of digital photography and digital editing this seems a little trite, but vestiges of this conflict remain with us in, for instance, the world of photojournalism. There certainly remain photographers who insist that their images reveal truth, that they tell a true story. The conflict between subject or image as the dominant element remains, however. Is this a picture of a candlestick, or is it an image in which one of the graphically important forms happens to look like a candlestick?

Sontag points out (quite correctly) that photographs alter our perceptions of reality. The fact that photographs look real, and are imprints of reality, (the preceding theme notwithstanding) causes us to freight them with extra veritas. We believe a photograph more easily and thoroughly than a drawing, or a verbal description. In some ways, we see them as more real than the thing itself. Sometimes we have not seen the thing itself, sometimes we saw it for only a moment, sometimes we saw it long ago. The photograph is here, now. It alters our memory of the thing, and our understanding of the thing, more than we know, more than we admit. This is truly the most interesting idea in the book. Sontag's treatment of it goes in to some depth, and she spends a fair bit of time rather presciently pointing out the effects of more and more photographs passing our eyes day by day. She seems, some time before 1977, to have felt tremors of facebook, flickr, instagram, et al resonating down through time to wake her up at night in a cold sweat.

Most controversially, Sontag makes the assertion (repeatedly) that photography is inherently aggressive, appropriative, and damaging to that which it photographs. She mostly states these as truths, giving very little support and very little clarification of what she even means. What is the nature of the damage? She does cite some examples, of photographers damaging indigenous cultures in the act of photographing them through a process of suggesting changes and giving direction. The subjects would, allegedly, alter their dances, costumes, and so on, to comply with the wishes of the hordes of photographers swarming past to document the "dying culture". Arguably Sontag is confusing bad ethnography for an inherent property of photography. My best guess is that she is proceeding from the idea that photographs alter our perception of things to the idea that this change, in and of itself, constitutes damage. Damage, not to the thing, but to our idea of the thing, which idea is in its way much more important than the thing. It's also possible she's simply saying this stuff over and over again to create a sort of platform of repetition upon which to base an assault on pornography, an assault which never came? Whether her conception of the destructiveness of photography is the same as mine we shall never know, but her notion caused me to think it through carefully.

Sontag's thinking is muddled throughout, to be honest. There are such gems as her assertion that the camera creates a new reality, a little copy of part of reality (which is fine so far as it goes and an interesting viewpoint) and in doing so denies that reality is enough. This is the sort of philosophical-sounding fiddle-faddle that gets philosophy a bad name. Making a photograph no more denies that reality is enough than does making a pot of soup. Certainly I felt that reality was not enough - what it needed was soup, on account of I was hungry in this reality, and wanted some soup. It's true, but not very interesting. Every act of change denies the adequacy of reality in exactly the same way, the fact that the camera is making a little copy of reality is irrelevant. It certainly sounds cool, though.

The book is a maze of this sort of thing.

The value is not really in that Sontag has it all figured out, but that she's a veritable river of weird ideas, many of which are true in some sense. You simply have to do all the spade work yourself, and sort out what's nonsense and what's true. The value in her book is really in the spade work you are forced to do to make sense of it all. I believe we call this sort of thing "thought provoking."

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Shadow World II

This is a follow on to this prior remark.

To Susan Sontag, writing in the 1970s, the print was the photograph. Photographs did not exist in any interesting way apart from the print. Moving pictures had a couple of other varieties, but photographs were prints. This is, obviously, no longer the case. While we may be printing more photographs than ever, as a percentage of the images we actually see the print is negligible. Even printed photographs in magazines have the ephemeral nature that the online ones do, in the sense that they are with us only for a short time before fading in to memory.

To Sontag, a photograph froze a moment in amber and converted it to a Past Moment instantly. The moment would then recede slowly in time, changing in our minds as it went, but always frozen there in the print. The print would deteriorate, the image itself might change a little, and our idea of the image would certainly change. An old photograph is interesting largely because it is old, because it is a moment from long long ago, preserved for our amusement and education. The subject becomes less and less important. This strikes me as an essentially accurate characterization of the situation in the 1970s. It might not be all-encompassing, but it covers a lot of the territory that was in play at the time. The fascination with old prints and negatives remains with us today, if anything amplified by the everything-is-digital world we live in now. These physical artifacts appear, correctly, not merely old but of another era. A negative with an interesting provenance (whether true or not) is now virtually a fetish object, and the subject doesn't matter a fig.

As I have suggested earlier, things are now different. A change in scale to vastly more photographs produced at a vastly higher pace has occurred, a change in scale so vast as to manifest very much like a change in kind. Photographs are now rarely printed, and are almost never within our scope for very long. There is no time for a photograph, a snapshot of the birthday party or the wedding or the vacation, to get old enough to be interesting as an image from a past time. They slide back along the timeline at a rate of one hour per hour, until in a couple of weeks they are too many clicks away to ever look at again.

In the 1970s, Sontag expressed the belief (and perhaps concern) that we were increasingly existing through the medium of photographs. An event which was not photographed did not happen, in a sense. Our memories of a birthday party, an inauguration, a moon landing, or a vacation were all influenced profoundly by the photographs of those events, whether we were present or not. We lived partially, but in a meaningful way, in a reality made up of photographs, a reality which stretched into the past until there were no photographs.

We live in a real world of real things and real events, but ever-increasingly spend time with the shadow world of photographs of things and events that have taken place recently. The shadow world contains images of things we experienced in the real world, and of things we did not, but all or almost all from within the last couple of weeks. This shadow world takes up an increasing amount of space in our mental model of our life. We spend less time attending birthday parties, and we attend far more of them by proxy through photographs shared by our friends.

How often do we experience a vague memory of having attending some event that we did not? How much of our memory of the wedding we did attend is mediated by the photographs we remember from it? Are these effects increasing in frequency and depth in this world of facebook, endless snapshots, and small tile-shaped mobile phones? Is this good or bad?

I don't know, but it worries me a bit. We seem to be living a much broader life, and a life whose broadness is largely by proxy. It seems reasonable that increased breadth is paid for by decreased depth. It seems reasonable that decreased depth, somehow, and whatever that even means, is undesireable.

Friday, January 25, 2013


I've talked about forgery in art before. My thinking has evolved, a little, from there.

In the entry previous to this one I suggest that a wet plate photograph would lose value, were it revealed to be a digital photograph edited to look like a wet plate photograph. People would likely be angry and upset. There are really two things going on here. The first is that someone lied to us, and we are justly irritated by this. The second is that we are forced to adjust our thinking about the photograph, reducing its value, and this is something we're not terribly happy with. Quite apart from the lie, we are forced into a situation where we must admit that we were wrong, in some sense. The image isn't as good as we thought it was.

This is somewhat analogous to what happens when a painting is shown to be a forgery. It's not a Vermeer, it's a van Meegeren. It's less valuable. Again, people are angry because they were lied to. Again, they are angry because they are forced to devalue the work, they were wrong about the painting.

In the case of the painting, however (and this is where my thinking has evolved and changed) there is an actual devaluation. It is perhaps minor, but it is real. When the painting was a Vermeer, it fit into the body of Vermeer's work. It taught us a little about Vermeer's evolution and his ideas about painting. It helped to fill out a portrait of Vermeer for us, as a sort of anthropological artifact of the man's life. When the painting is revealed as a forgery, it takes all that back. We have to unwind our understanding of Vermeer a little. The painting's value as a source of information about someone interesting drops to zero (well, not quite, van Meegeren was interesting as well). The painting's connection to other work is broken, it is no longer a valuable piece of a puzzle, it's just an oddly shaped piece of cardboard after all.

Is this devaluation proportional to the outrage? Probably not. Still, there is a genuine loss of value here.

A fake wet plate photograph shown to be a fake loses no such connection. To be sure, it's no longer connected with wet plate photography, but so what? There is no corresponding network effect for wet plate photography. We do not need more wet plate images to truly teach us about wet plate. We lose nothing of our understanding of wet plate when a fake is revealed. We have thousands, perhaps 100s of thousands, of these things already, and anyways who cares about a portrait of wet plate? In this case we're mad simply because we were lied to, and because we have our nose rudely shoved in the fact that we decided the photograph was good because it was wet plate, not because it was actually good.

Process does matter?

This isn't a post about a book, but we start off with a book:

Over on The Online Photographer, we have a book review. It's a book of wet plate photography, apparently beautifully reproduced and so on. I believe that the reproductions are wonderful, I trust both ToP and the specific reviewer completely. I don't even know what's in the book, but the samples given in the review and on the page for the book suggest that this is a pretty mixed bag of images. Some not very good ones, and a some really very good ones. It does look oddly like a collection of snapshots, although obviously one does not "snap" much of anything with collodion. It strikes me that this is primarily a book of wet plate photographs, and that the images themselves don't really matter all that much.

Please note that I accuse nobody of anything, I have no reason to suppose that the book reviewed is anything but 100 percent genuine. However, imagine the outcry should we find out later that the portfolio was actually make up of 20 wet plate images, and 46 digital ones that were photoshopped to look wet plate.

The fact that it was hard to make should not elevate a photograph one millimeter. We should not value photographs more for being shot on film, or developed in coffee. We should not value photographs more for being shot on large format, or wet plate, or from hard-to-reach vantage points. What matters is whether the result is any good. We might respect the photographer for laboring, but we must not judge the results based on the labor. Paintings are not judged or sold by the hour worked, nor are sculptures. Photographs should not get a special pass here.

Why does photography continue always to trend to measuring the value of the result by the labor that went into it? Is it because photography is, ultimately, very very easy? You just press the button, after all. Is it because we prefer an artisanal component to fine art, and so when artisanal labor is introduced to photography, we feel easier about treating it as fine art? This was never a very good idea, and in this age of trivially easy fakery, this is surely a more dangerous and wrong-headed notion than ever before.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Shadow World

To make any more sense of the appropriative nature of photography, we have to get a couple of things clearly understood in our own minds. There are objects in the world, with a reality of their own, they are physical things which exist. Tables, chairs, buildings, people, trees, and so on. Corresponding to these real objects, there are ideas of those objects which we have in our minds, and relationships we have to those objects. How I feel about that table, how society as a whole feels about Angelina Jolie, my Idea of my wife.

The second kind of thing is abstract, vague, intangible. It's also more important than the first thing. There are deep questions of philosophy and quantum physics which I don't care about and which don't matter here: Whether and how a tree "exists" without the presence of an observer, and how that observer changes and alters its reality I neither know nor particularly care. We can say with confidence that an unobserved tree is not very interesting to anyone, and that's all that matters. The point here is that our personal and societal ideas about objects are what's important, ultimately, precisely because an unobserved object is -- at best -- pretty uninteresting.

You would argue that a giant meteor, as yet unobserved, but aimed to obliterate the Earth is pretty interesting, but I maintain that it's not interesting until we, however briefly, observe its existence.

Let's also take a moment to discard the notion that an image partakes in some literal way in the reality of the thing imaged. Whether true or not, I am not interested here in notions of voodoo, or the idea that a photograph steals ones soul. These are idea that go back a long ways, but in modern society we tend not to believe them (at least not to admit it), and anyways what I am trying to get at is what might underlie such a belief.

A photograph alters, however minutely, our idea of the object photographed. An image might not literally diminish other elements of our idea of the object, but by creating new aspects of that idea it makes the other aspects relatively smaller. Our experience of an actual McDonald's hamburger is a real thing in our mind. Images of that hamburger add to that idea, that mental model of the McDonald's hamburger. While our real experience is not diminished, advertisers can alter our overall attitude by filling our mind with competing images of delicious and desirable hamburgers. The image of the burger grows with each photograph and video, the actual experience diminishes in importance. This is why advertising works.

In this same way our society's understanding of Winston Churchill is largely driven by a single iconic image, the cigar-less portrait made by Karsh. Our relationship with Half-Dome, whether we have seen it or not, is largely defined by Adams photographs and the infinite cloud of copies made by everyone. The Eiffel tower has no particular iconic photograph that I know of, but has certainly been reduced to a postcard in our minds, and is well on its way to becoming a snapshot containing a blurry black object behind a pair of vapidly grinning tourists. Celebrities are featherless bipeds who exist primarily in photographs and videos.

Consider a homeless man named Bill. Bill has, perhaps, a little trouble with beer. Maybe Bill's wife died in a car accident 20 years ago, perhaps Bill knows the lyrics to every Journey song. This is Bill to the dozen or so people who actually know Bill. Now some idiot with a fedora and a Canon 5DII comes along doing some "street photography" and takes a picture of Bill. This picture is over-processed and dumped on to flickr. At this point Bill's actual reality is unchanged. The idea of Bill in the minds of his dozen-ish friends is also unchanged. The idea of Bill has, however, been introduced to a couple hundred hipster idiots, who now know Bill as the freaky looking homeless dude in that one picture. Has Bill been hurt or diminished at this point? It's not clear to me.

Multiply this by 5 or 6 other hipsters with cameras. Let's suppose Bill's particularly interesting looking, or locally famous for his Journey renditions. A picture of Bill gets into the newspaper, or onto the news. Now Bill's friends, the dozen or so people, have an element of Bill as the-guy-in-that-photo introduced into their minds. Bill has been diminished in a meaningful way at this point. People he knows have a new perception of Bill, and part of that is based on a picture, not on Bill. Bill is smaller. Perhaps Bill prefers being the guy in the picture. Many celebrities, large and small, seem to prefer the image of themselves to the real thing, or at any rate seek to enlarge that shadow reality, that false copy of themselves.

The shadow world of photographs, as I have noted repeatedly, is growing and changing at a furious pace, and I wonder a lot what it all means.

Friday, January 18, 2013


It has been remarked many times, in many contexts, that stealing intellectual property is inherently different. If I download a copy of a movie, the studio still has the movie. If I take a digital copy of song from your computer, you still have the song. This is all true, and is used to justify much. Let's think about it a little more.

If I steal your car, two things are undeniably true:

  • You don't have your car any more.
  • I possess a car I have no particular right to possess.

There is a third thing, a corollary of the second item: I could mis-use your car in such a way as to make trouble for you. I could rob a bank and use your car as a getaway car, for example, leading the cops to your house for some probing questions. I can use your car in ways that you do not approve of, and since it's yours and not mine that's pretty much wrong, no matter what.

If I steal a song, it's true that the first item no longer applies. The second one most certainly does, however. It's unlikely that I can work out how to use an mp3 as a weapon, so the corollary might not apply. What if I played this copy of the song to provide a little soundtrack while I murdered someone? How would you feel about that? What if I stole your credit card number?

Susan Sontag asserts in On Photography repeatedly and correctly that Photography is an appropriative, aggressive, act. One takes a picture, there's no denying it. We can natter on about making it, and that's also true. We do make these things, there is a creative act. A photographer is an artificer. A photographer, however, is also a thief and a taker. When I take your photograph, you lose nothing, but I gain something. I have your image now, an image which I may or may not have any moral right to, which I may or may not have a legal right to.

What if I take a picture of the tree in your front yard? You still have the tree. I have made an image, through my labor (albeit trivial labor) I have made a sort of a copy of your tree. I possess this image. Most likely, you have no problem with my possession of an image of your tree. What if I make 10,000 images of your tree? Are you still comfortable? Oh, you're comfortable with the 10,000 images, it's my standing around on the sidewalk every day that creeps you out? I forgot to mention, I used an extremely high speed camera, and took 10,000 images of your tree as I walked past yesterday. It took 20 seconds, and then I left town never to return. I'm not a stalker, I just happen to have 10,000 images of your tree on my computer's hard drive.

What if I made 10,000 images of you as I walked by?

It is this, more or less, which makes the ubiquitous photographic theme of poverty and pictures of homeless people so problematic. The "information wants to be free" crowd would point out that the homeless guy has lost nothing. The thinking human beings among us will point out that the photographer has gained something. The photographer has an image, an image to which he or she has no particular moral right; arguments to the contrary boiling down to nothing more than a bald assertion of that non-existant right.

The corollary also applies. Even if the photographer's use is simply to post the photograph of the homeless guy on a tumblr blog or something equally superficial, it is entirely reasonable that the homeless guy does not want his image held up as an object of pity, of freakishness, of thank-god-thats-not-me-ness. We can pretend all we want to that we're just educating people about the true nature of poverty, but that's not true. Homeless guys are freaky and cool looking, and that's why we take their picture.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


A long time ago there was a computer program called Eliza1. You typed a line of text at it, and it replied with a line of text. You could have a conversation with Eliza, in this fashion. The remarkable thing about Eliza is that, at least mostly, Eliza could have a conversation with you without remembering a single thing. You'd think the computer program would remember something about what you'd said, and would be crafting responses based on where we are in the conversation, somehow, wouldn't you? Well, not always.

Eliza: How are you today?
You: I feel sad.

Eliza picks up on "I feel sad" and produces a stock response:

Eliza: Why do you feel sad?

The important thing here is that it doesn't matter how often or when you typed "I feel sad", Eliza will always respond with "Why do you feel sad?" or a randomly chosen similar phrase. Then you might proceed:

You: I'm sad because my mother is sick.
Eliza: How do you feel about your mother?

Again, Eliza will ask you how you feel about your mother any time you say anything about your mother. Had you typed "mother mother mother bat bat cow" Eliza probably would have asked you how you feel about your mother.

This works because, while Eliza is not remembering anything about the conversation, you are. You don't type "I feel sad" at random, and you don't type "mother mother bat bat cow." You type things that make sense. Eliza merely needs to be sufficiently vague to evoke a suitable response, and sufficiently on-track to give the sensation of a coherent conversation. Eliza's responses are loose enough to permit a wide range of responses, but specific enough to evoke responses that are more or less within her scope for reasonable response. The looseness prevents the sensation of a canned and uninteresting conversation. The specificity allows the conversation to remain seemingly on track.

The results are a little loopy, but surprisingly convincing.

Why on earth would we care?

There are certain parallels between how Art communicates and how Eliza does, it turns out. If you squint a bit. Photography has arguably a bigger problem than other Arts: a writer can simply write down words that say what needs to be said; the painter and sculptor construct things, and have more flexibility in how they stimulate you. The photographer is, ultimately, stuck with what is in front of the camera. It's all matters of degree, however. The basic problem is that a static piece of art, a thing that cannot "remember the conversation," is trying to communicate with you.

The lesson to take away from Eliza is that a truly successful communication can be achieved when the Art makes statements that are vague enough to stimulate a response, but specific enough to create a coherent conversation. A photograph can state a question, but the question should not be so specific as to pre-determine the answer, and not so general as to allow anything as an answer.

A photograph that opens a broad question just leaves the viewer puzzled. Macro photographs of stuff open the "what the heck is that?" question, all too often. The viewer walks away. A photograph that answers all the questions it poses isn't very interesting: Here I Am In Front Of The Eiffel Tower isn't very interesting. We might wonder, briefly, who that person is but then we realize that it is the photographer, or the photographer's girlfriend. The conversation ends before it begins.

A photograph that asks us "What is that guy doing?" and allows a modest collection of answers is interesting. If he's doing something specific, but with an unclear motive ("I wonder what he's looking for?") we have a good degree of specificity. We can write a little story about what he's doing, we can check it against other details in the frame, we can back up and write a new story. We are left with a little wonder and mystery, but a mystery that is connected to something straightforward and un-mysterious. Parts are given to us, a whole is left for us to complete. The photograph begins the conversation and nudges it along, we maintain all the context, and a personalized conversation occurs with the image. All that we are and have been informs the context we're keeping as we interact with the piece. What we bring, as much as what the photograph provides, makes the conversation interesting.

[1]  This is not strictly true. Eliza had, I think, a mode of operation that works as described. However, newer implementations of Eliza-like systems exist which work exactly as described.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

This is going on your Permanent Record

I am reading Susan Sontag's collection of essays On Photography. In fact, I am at least partially re-reading it, since I know I've seen some of this stuff before. I just can't remember when or where. Anyways, I will probably write up a little review of this book in a bit (only 40 years after publication) but not today. The capsule review which will suit for now is that it's a very sloppy little book full of very bad thinking and very good ideas.

At the moment, two ideas stand out to me. The first is that photographs make all things photographed equal and equivalent. This idea happens to be wrong, but it's an interesting idea and it's not completely wrong. The second idea is that Photography (with a capital P) creates a parallel reality based on our own but different. It is an edited version of reality, captured in a set of instants. This idea is pretty much correct, and even more literally correct today than it was when Sontag wrote about it.

Consider the way we document our lives in photographs. When Sontag was writing, a family might take a few dozen to a few hundred photographs each year, of themselves and their lives. These photographs existed as small prints, compact physical objects, which were embalmed in shoeboxes or photo albums. These albums and shoeboxes provided, and still provide, a Permanent Record of sorts. These things can be riffled through in a few minutes, perhaps an afternoon. A true fanatic might have accumulated enough material to present a couple of days of work to flip through. This Permanent Record was of course limited, incomplete. Large gaps exist, where the camera was broken, there was no film, dad was sick, or a shoebox was lost in a move. While Sontag is wrong in that not all things photographed are made equal per se, there is an equalizing effect in placing the last photograph ever taken of Grandma in a shoebox with a handful of out of focus pictures of long-forgotten toys.
This collection of prints is a parallel reality, it is a version of the story of the family or the people. It is false as much as it is true. It is fragments which, less and less, evoke complete memories.

Let us consider this photographic record as a line of footprints in the sand. Permanent, but easily erased by the caprices of nature, by the hand of man, by accident, malice, or folly.

Compare this situation with what we are doing today, digitally. We take photographs at a much faster pace, generally, than we did when we used film. We no longer need to change film rolls, we can shoot 200 exposures of our child's birthday party with a mere 200 button presses. We no longer require development and printing, we get instant feedback. So the rate at which images are produced has, of course, shot up. These images are much more durable, in theory, than prints, being digital 1s and 0s stored in the cloud. A JPEG could, in theory, endure forever, unchanged and perfect. On the one hand, our photographs are more permanent than ever. On the other hand, two factors conspire to make them effectively more ephemeral than ever.

First, the way we share photographs is largely chronological. In order to satisfy the desire for novelty, sharing services show our most recent images first. This keeps our friends clicking on our stream, which keeps the ad revenue up, which powers the whole machine. Second, the sheer mass of images we produce makes riffling through anything like the complete record utterly unmanageable, no matter how the images are presented.

Together, this means that photographs made today and yesterday are handy and convenient. Photographs from last week are maybe a click away. Photographs from six months back, those perfectly preserved JPEGs, eternally embalmed on disk drives in the cloud, might as well be on Mars.

Instead of a patchy, incomplete, and slowly fading record of our entire lives, we now have a much more detailed photographic reality that stretches into the past like a very short comet's tail. A few days, a few weeks of history easily, perfectly accessible in crystalline clarity. Pictures of our lattes, our hamburgers, our children, Grandma's birthday. They're all there, practically accessible for a few days or weeks after the event and then, practically, gone forever.

The footprints in the sand have become the wake of a boat, stretching back a ways, shrinking and vanishing until, quite soon, no visible trace is left. The analogy is selected quite carefully. What has happened is not truly a change in kind, it is a change only in degree. The pace has picked up, photographic time moves much much faster, the torrent of images gushes rather than trickles.

Sand dunes, photographed over years and then sped up, behave exactly like waves in a fluid, because they are. The wake of a boat, footprints in the sand, they vanish in the same way and for the same reasons, but at different time scales. The effect is that we've seen a change in degree but not in kind that is so great that it behaves almost like a change in kind.

Sontag foresaw this, I think. She died in 2004, when the current trends were probably becoming quite clear if one were paying attention. Possibly she was too busy dying to pay attention. In any case, even in the 1970s there were hints. The production of trivial images was proceeding at a high rate, and it was clearly not going to slow down. Sontag did think of the photograph, in those days, as synonymous with the print and it it truly the transition to purely electronic media that has enabled the staggering pace and corresponding increase in time-scale we've seen today.

I think Sontag knew that something was coming. She would surely be unsurprised by the world of flickr, instagram, facebook. I think she would have been saddened.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


I would have sworn I've written something on this before, but I can't find it.

By haiku here what I really mean is american haiku which is really Jack Kerouac. There's a strong connection to the traditional Japanese form, but it's not quite the same thing. These poems are short, usually 3 lines long, and the paint an intense picture. An important element is that syllable counting does not appear, so there's less fussing with exact word choice to make the counts work.

One of my favorites from Kerouac:

Drunk as a hoot owl
writing letters
by thunderstorm

Now, Kerouac was kind of an asshole, and he might be overrated as a writer, but he could write some haiku.

There are really two separate threads of resemblance between these poems and photographs.

The first thread is how they affect us. Well done, each one creates a strong visual impression (the photograph more literally, obviously). One could say something fatuous like "a good photograph is the visual realization of a haiku and vice versa," if one wanted to go down a slightly strange path. The successful visual creates a mood, a sense of place, or perhaps it invokes questions. Why is Jack drunk? To whom is he writing letters?

The second thread of similarity is in how they are made. Writing a longer poem, one might labor over it, changing a word here and there, adding a stanza, striking and replacing a poor line. This is rather like a painting. The piece is polished and filled in, details are tidied up or replaced. The piece exists for a long time before it arrives at a finished form. Contrariwise, a haiku is so short that an edit is really just another haiku. Kerouac's books of haiku make it clear that he wrote the same or similar haiku over and over, the labor was in writing a new one that was related to the previous one but -- sometimes -- better. Each tiny poem is written in a matter of moments, almost an instant in time.

In the same way a photographer takes a picture in an instant, but then takes another one, and another. The ideal image is approached as a series of steps, each step a complete image in its own right.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Interestingness, Stickiness, and Photographs

To a degree, this is a follow to this post.

What is stickiness? For our purposes I will define it to be a quality of an advertising-containing medium (e.g. a magazine, a web site, a mobile app) which allows it to hold the attention of a typical viewer. It is a measure of the ability of some advertising delivery system to hold your attention and deliver advertising. Interestingness is closely allied to stickiness in that we tend to find our attention held by things we find interesting. Sticky isn't quite the same, there are elements of novelty and constant stimulation involved, and so on, but the two ideas are quite closely related. To be precise, in order to make a sticky system, you must find interesting content to fill it with.

We are interested in many things, but one of the most interesting things to us is people. Not every person, just some people. We are interested in, first and foremost, ourselves. We are also interested in friends, and other people against whom we measure ourselves, people we judge, people we like. There are people with narratives we find interesting, for whatever reasons. Each of us, in turn, is interesting to zero or more other people. A celebrity is, more or less by definition, a person who is interesting to a large group of other people. Magazines have long known that photographs of people who are widely interesting (i.e. celebrities) help make the magazine sticky and thus make it an effective medium for delivering advertising.

We like pictures of celebrities because those pictures compactly communicate to us about the celebrity. We can see how fat or thin they have become, who they are hanging around with, whether they look good or bad. We can imagine larger narratives based on a photograph (and aided by a good caption or accompanying story). Her hair is shorter, why did she cut it? We can measure ourselves against the celebrity. Look how fat he has gotten, while I have remained less fat! We can take pleasure in their successes and failures.

We like pictures of some members of our social group (the ones we are interested in, to be exact) in precisely the same way. What we like even better than pictures of celebrities and our friends, though, is pictures of ourselves. We are all basically narcissists. We especially like pictures of ourselves in which we look better than the other people in the photograph, but generally we'll take whatever there is.

We also suffer from the impression that everyone is interested in us. This is why we take photographs of our food, our coffee, our new outfit, and why we share them. Although many of us are interesting to some tiny little group, we generally overestimate our interestingness. Mostly our photographs, our "personal nows," are interesting to other people when they intersect with the personal nows of the other people. In simpler terms, people like the pictures we take, of them. So, when we share 100 photographs of coffee, food, shoes, and our friends, our friends mostly like the last category. This gives us a little positive feedback, and reinforces the impression that our friends love our pictures and by extension, us. We get the impression that we are interesting.

So where does all this go?

Social media is, essentially, an advertising medium in which the content is provided for free to the advertisers by the targets of the advertisements. Roughly, social media is a method by which the cow can be persuaded to butcher and pack itself. A magazine is static and limited in size, it must use content that is broadly interesting. This is why they use pictures of celebrities and stories about celebrities. Social media is built on the observation that a digital medium is neither static nor size-restricted. Social media can then use any old content, great masses of it. As long as some small fraction of it is interesting to some people, the potential for stickiness is there. The technological problem of social media is therefore to present to each viewer a sifted collection of the shared crud likely to be found interesting. To first order, this boils down to:

  • Permit tagging photographs with the names of the people in it.
  • Notify people when their name has popped up in a photograph.

This creates the cycle of positive feedback which keeps all of us uploading more and more photographic (and other) content, which can in turn be fed into the "who is this interesting to?" grist mill, which in turn drives the stickiness of the social medium in question. This drives the advertising dollars, and if all goes well someone makes a great deal of money. Note that the people making money are not the people providing the content.

This all works astoundingly well. A well designed social media platform is mind-bogglingly sticky, precisely because of the personal nature of it all. When the interestingness feedback loop is working well, new content flows in at a furious pace, providing interesting content as well as the necessary elements of novelty and stimulation. People simply cannot leave their God. Damned. iPhones. alone.

There are of course other forms of content: text, video, likes, +1s, and so on. Photographs are simply the content that is most interesting to me and presumably to you, gentle reader. Photographs are also particularly of note because they cost virtually nothing to create and share, but provide such rich content to the people who find them interesting.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Internet Memes

This post is closely allied to this one.

There is a phenomenon current on the internet, variously called "memes" or "lolcats" and probably a dozen other equally silly names. Essentially, one takes a photograph and applies a caption, or title, or a line or two of dialog, to produce a "funny picture." A common format is that of the motivational poster, but sometimes the text is simply pasted over the image, and there are a handful of other common layouts. There are as of this writing web sites that will let you select or upload a photograph and supply the text, which will then produce an image file with the resulting funny picture.

So what? This is all silliness, and far and away the vast majority of them are dumb and meaningless. Still, a lot of them are quite funny. Essentially none of them are intended as anything other than a throwaway joke. The photographs are not even good. Never were, and still are not.

What makes this interesting is the lesson it provides in how a line of text can completely alter the way we see a photograph.

A common special case here is that the same photograph may be used for many different titles and captions. Each time a successful result is created (successful in that it is funny and novel) we're seeing the same image in a new way. We're imagining the amusing kitten or the querulous owl saying or thinking a new funny thing, the narrative implied by the image and text is imagined anew.

Consider, then, for a more serious work of art, how a new title, or a new accompanying text, might cause one to reconsider the photograph. Take a favorite photograph from a favorite artist, and imagine different titles for it. Imagine credible titles, and ridiculous ones. Imagine various stories of how the photograph might have been taken. How might each affect how you view the image?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Betwixt and Between

These remarks are quite likely more about how I personally react to photographs and art than the average posting on this blog. Still, perhaps you might find something to take away.

Our theme for today is the uncanny valley, a concept from animation and robotics. Robots and animations fall into the uncanny valley when they appear almost human, but not quite. These things are rather disturbing to people - we will accept a robot that looks like a robot, and we will accept a robot that is an extremely good imitation human, but we won't accept things that are good-but-not-perfect. There are lots of cases where making something that's neither one thing nor the other produces a result that is simply unlikeable.

Item one:  Why is it so hard to take a good photograph of texture or pattern? What I mean by this is, why can't I take a successful photograph of a pattern that looks like a Mondrian, or a frame filled with chaos like a Pollack? Not to denigrate Mondrian and Pollack, but making a painting of that sort that is at any rate recognizable as a painting isn't particularly hard. I can draw some lines in a rectangle, and people will not talk about how there's no subject, and they won't be irritated by not knowing what to look at, and so on. My lines are no Mondrian, but they will at least function as a piece of visual art, good or bad. If I take a similar photograph of a non-hierarchical collection of linear objects similarly arranged, probably I will hate it, and probably most people will too. I will in fact be annoyed that there is no subject, no well defined visual center, and a few other annoyances.


I am pretty sure I am not alone in this. Photographic abstracts tend to have visual centers, leading lines, and so on. They are abstract because the objects in the frame are not easily identified, not because they lack the traditional functional elements of a photograph. Of course, there are probably exceptions?

My working theory is that the problematic photographs of this sort occupy a middle ground between an abstract representation of texture, color, line, and a representation of a thing. The viewer is ok with the painting, because we accept that paintings needn't be of anything. A photograph, by its nature is always of something. Surely, our mind declares, the photographer was looking at something. What is that something? Why was the camera pointed in that direction? Show me!

Surely, of course, there are elements of tradition in play here as well. We see almost exclusively photographs of identifiable things. Most of the rest are at any rate of things, even if we cannot identify them. So, photographs of nothing are weird and unpalatable to us.

Item two:  One of the easiest ways to ruin a good photo is to treat it as something it is not. If you post-process a candid to look like a formal portrait, the odds are good that everyone will hate it. It is now a bad portrait, and a bad candid, it falls into a zone between the two. It is twice as bad as a bad photograph, since it is two bad photographs. If you print a dramatic and moody piece in tones of entirely pale grey, you will likewise push it into a zone where the image cannot decide if it is a subtle tone poem, or a powerful and dark mood piece. Viewers probably are not going to like it. The cues conflict, we don't know what to make of it.

The best photographs have been allowed to be what the are. Sometimes this is quite difficult. If the image is out of focus and motion blurred, one is tempted to try out massive detail-recovery procedures rather than letting the motion be blurred and letting the photograph be what it is. If the photographer had in mind a formal portrait, but shot a back-stage candid, she might fight the image and ruin it, rather than accepting it as a superb candid.

Pick a side, join the battle. Fight! Fight! Fight!

But first, pick a side and commit.