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.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Our Relationship with Art

Alain de Botton wrote a nice piece for the Wall Street Journal this weekend, evidently adapted from a book I have not read: Art as Therapy. The essay makes the rather bold claim that Art with a capital A might actually have a purpose, rather than simply existing for its own sake. It offers up "therapy" as a purpose, but perhaps not in quite the way one might suspect.

The essay in the WSJ goes on to examine a few pieces and the kinds of therapeutic results one might get by looking at them, but largely seems to take introspection as therapy. This is fair enough. I think it's more interesting to just stop at the idea of introspection.

The interpretations de Botton proposes strike me as very personal and specific. He presents them, I think, as generally applicable and this is the weakest element of the essay. Who cares if we struggle with a piece, and find something very specifically personal in it? Isn't that a good thing? Why must the result be general? My idea here is to look at a piece of art and then to consciously reach for some sort of reaction to it, to consciously cast about for something one might take away from it. Mostly we seem to feel that it's the artwork's job to reach out to us, to poke and prod us, to make feel or think or something. Why not turn this around?

This isn't quite deconstructionist. I don't mean to dismiss the artist's ideas as irrelevant at all. Insofar as the artist's ideas are clear, they will surely color our reaction to it, no matter how we struggle. We could strive to understand the artist, or we could simply free-associate, or, or.. the point is simply that we actively strive to make something of the work.

I'm not sure I buy into the idea of art as "therapy" per se, but I'm pretty interested in this idea that we can consciously bring our selves to bear on a piece of art, that we can try to pull from it, that we can be an active participant from the moment we open our eyes. Photography, as usual, stands a little apart. That this was a real thing, a little slice of reality, connects us already to the work. What if, instead of demanding that the picture pose the question "what was out of frame?" or "what is she thinking?" we consciously posed these questions to ourselves?

Would it be reasonably to walk around a gallery with a notebook of questions, and to interview each picture? Possibly out loud? Why not?!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

On the use of Color

I am uncomfortable with color. I'm just not good at it. But, I can see it and think about it. My ideas about how it's used have evolved over time. This essay is kind of a snapshot.

There is a device called the color wheel. This is, essentially, the colors of the rainbow in rainbow-order wrapped around a circle with the red end and the purple end connected together. Whether you proceed red-orange-yellow-etc in the clockwise or counter direction varies. How the colors are spaced varies, which means that which color is opposite which other color can vary a bit. The point is, though, that for any color there are colors that are close to it on the color wheel and there are colors that are far apart on the wheel. Some color wheels represent saturation as well, as a distance from the center. The center is white, the rim of the wheel has very saturated hues, and so on.

Colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel are called complementary but this notion depends, obviously, on the wheel. I will use the word complementary instead to simply mean that two colors are very far apart on the wheel. Blue/orange, green/red, yellow/purple, these are complementary. Also, however, Purple/orange, or green/violet, or yellow/purple might be considered complementary. I am being somewhat naughty here, since complementary really does mean something specific, it just happens to depend on your color model.

A quick web search will turn up loads of pictures and examples of this sort of thing.

When I say a narrow palette of colors, I mean a collection of colors drawn from close together on the color wheel, colors that are similar in hue. However, generally, I mean that they are similar in value and saturation as well, although a certain amount of variation is permitted here. A narrow palette of colors "goes together" in general terms. A collection of muted oranges, reddish-yellows, and warm browns might form such a narrow palette, for instance.

By far the most common color design in fashion photography and, interestingly enough, high end landscape art, uses two narrow palettes which are complementary. One is dominant, and provides colors for most of the frame, while the other is subordinate and colors a smaller percentage of the frame area. The subordinate color is an accent color.

Some people will talk about patterns of three colors or palettes, or even four, evenly spaced around the color wheel. Again, since color wheels vary, these colors will depend on which wheel we're talking about. In addition, we start talking about exceedingly narrow palettes, or even single colors, here, otherwise the palettes overlap and we simply have all available hues and there is, in reality, no plan. I don't notice this occurring much in real work, to be honest, but perhaps it's out there. I think that these ideas tend to either disintegrate or to be read as simple a "riot of colors" idiom, which can certainly be successful.

Let us, therefore, return to the two-palette theme.

Once you recognize the pattern and know what to look for, you will start to see it everywhere. It is perhaps too much to say that it is the single most important thing nobody ever tells you about marketable photography, but there are moments when this seems to be true.

The dominant palette pulls the frame together. It creates a very coherent look, the frame feels controlled and "put together". Ideally, the dominant palette colors the things you want to emphasize, the dress, the model's hair, the sand dune. A single palette can work by itself, but tends toward visually dull. The subject matter or the graphical properties of the frame better be pretty interesting. With an accent palette in play, you get visual interest for free.

At this point you can use the accent palette to manage the frame a bit. By saturating those accent colors, you can draw the eye to those accented regions. Fashion, both as worn and as photographed, does this a lot. The shoes, the clutch, and the lipstick are popped reds to draw attention, as well as to complement the navy blue dress and hat. Alternatively, the accent colors can be desaturated and muted, to push them into the background, to simply add a little visual depth and flavor to the picture. In this case, you might saturate, brighten, or use graphical techniques to draw the eye to whatever it is in the dominant palette that you want to be visually important.

With modern digital editing tools it is trivial to select areas and to adjust hues and saturations within them. It is somewhat startling how far you can go here without making the picture look unreal. You can apply much more radical changes to hue and saturation that you can to values. I strongly advocate for using the hue and saturation equivalents of burning and dodging, and I am practically certain that most successful commercial work uses these ideas extensively. If they're not using them in post, they're doing much the same thing by gelling lights.

While these ideas are certainly dominant in landscape and fashion, there's no reason event photographers and other commercial workers cannot use the same ideas. Put the bridesmaids up against complementary background, or otherwise use a complementary color palette. If you can't make it happen in camera, at least do some adjustments in post.

I wouldn't recommend messing with the dress colors, though. The bride's gonna notice that.