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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Photographs and Reality II

This is a followon to the previous remarks.

In the past we had a situation in which the reality of a photograph was assumed. If it looked real, the assumption was "it looked pretty much like that", that's pretty much what most people thought when they saw the picture. This is why a photo of a little girl running down a road, naked and on fire, had such an impact on the Vietnam war. A painting of that same scene, a drawing, a verbal description, would have had far less impact simply because the viewer would automatically assume that it could never have really looked like that. That's utter madness, nothing is that terrible. And yet, it was just that terrible, the child's terror and pain was just that great.

There is a reason that the US military is controlling the photographic narrative from their current wars so tightly. They'd really prefer not to have their lovely lovely wars messed with, thankyouverymuch, and they have learned some painful lessons in what happens when you let accurate visual depictions of war escape into the public eye.

That was then, this is now.

As I suggest in my previous remarks, this is in flux. We're awash in unreal photorealistic imagery. The younger generation, I suspect, does not have the default assumption of truth. Confronted with a contemporary version of the photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, they're as likely to assume a photochop, or a staged photo, as anything else. Confronted with the photo of Nguyễn Văn Lém being executed, they would likely ask what movie it's from.

A very very small, but real, aspect of this cultural shift is the laissez faire attitude of contemporary amateur photographers toward alterations. They merrily clone out inconvenient telephone wires, trees, they move things around, because of Art, or because they want the thing on a 1/3 line, or because they can, or because the want "to capture the way the feeeeeel" or whatever. If you're 'shopping the hell out of your pictures, you're not evil. You're not even doing an evil thing.

What you are doing is taking part in a cultural shift, you're a tiny cog in an inevitable evolution of the photograph away from something important and truthful, to being, perhaps, what photographers have feared all along, merely a grubby stepchild of painting and drawing. A sort of easy etching method for the untalented.

The unstated but neverthless real social contract: "What you see was really there" has been broken. With that lost, what has photography to make itself worthy?

Emerson was, ultimately, right. Bashing away to fix and improve a photograph does, ultimately, lead to photographs which are just shabby paintings.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Photographs and Reality

This is something people love to go on and on about. You can take either side of the "a photograph accurately represents reality" debate and make yourself look smart, at least to the rubes.

As Sally Mann remarks, a photo is only the reality within the frame at an instant. I reply that it is nonetheless what was actually in front of the lens, that is, reality, at that moment. We're both right, so we're both smarties, right? And so on.

It hardly matters.

What is undeniable is that a photograph's power as a photograph derives from some sort of deep connection with reality. If it's just an easy way to make a drawing of whatever pops into your mind, then photography is a subset of drawing, and surely a lesser one. If photographs are to be a thing in their own right, that connection with reality has to count for something -- because there isn't anything else.

We, the viewer, tend to make two mistakes. The big one is that we confuse the 1/30th of a second of reality with something larger and longer. How often have you heard someone exclaim, about a photograph of someone they do not know, "Oh, you really captured her personality" when, of course, there's not a shred of evidence that is true? As I have remarked elsewhere, the skill in portraiture is not in capturing truth, but in creating a picture that feels true, that feels like an embodiment of someone.

The second mistake we make is to assume that what we see is, at least, the truth of the 1/30th of a second. This is also untrue, of course. There's stuff outside the frame, there's manipulation within the frame, etc. See any internet forum on a Wednesday, for a complete discussion of how RAW files have to be manipulated to even be viewable so there!!!1!!1!!

I maintain that the first mistake is built upon the second. We trust the truth of the captured instant, and extrapolate from that. When we find the frame itself to be untrue, the whole charade collapses.

Now here's where it gets interesting.

The generation after mine is, to a large degree, distrustful of the contents of the frame. They assume all photos are 'shopped, are manipulated and edited. Half erasures and half composite, all untruth. They don't seem to mind this, but the result is that we as a culture are starting to view photographs as quickly made paintings, with no more truth or reality in them than the maker chose to put in. The deep connection with reality is being, I think, broken.

The influences here are many. We have photorealistic digital effects in movies. In virtually every movie, in fact. Hardly a day goes by when some hapless nation on the Pacific Rim is not outed for some crudely photoshopped propaganda photo. Photographic "artists" litter the web, as often as not crowing about how heavily they use photoshop. The standard $100 portrait session results in pictures that are so obviously faked as to be painful. We are literally steeped in fakery, it would be incredible if we continued to believe in the reality of photos.

The consequence is that the photograph is, perhaps, doomed to become nothing special. Just a sort of quick way to sketch something, true or false hardly matters, it's a quick sketching method. As I've mentioned elsewhere, it's already ephemeral, cheap.

Perhaps this is at the root of why we see some people returning to film, to print. Perhaps they're looking to recover that verity that we seem to have lost along the way.

Me, I'm not gonna worry about it much, but I pretty much ain't give a fuuuuck.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Also, note this:

The previous essay has zero mention of nude photographs, of kids or otherwise. (OK, I do refer to that one picture, but not to the nudity apart from the title)

Because fuck that, it's utterly irrelevant to the book, despite every goddamned interview and review.

Hold Still, by Sally Mann

Look at me, reviewing a book written in this century, by someone who's not dead. Incredible.

The short review: This is among the finest books I have ever read, and you should read it too. It's really really good.

Unpacking that a little.

Mann accomplishes a lot for one book, and despite doing a lot of different things in a single book, it all hangs together. In no particular order, she gives us:
  • her story, her history
  • a good description of her artistic process
  • an exceedingly nuanced critique of the south and the american problems of race
  • a good critique of photography

The book is hilarious and poignant. It is powerful. She's got a lot to say, and she's really good at saying it.

There's a great deal of personal history, both factual and, hmm, perhaps emotional is a good way to put it. It's fascinating stuff. Still, what else can a reviewer say about it? Read it. Enjoy it.

For the working photographer, especially the photographer trying to make Art, she has a nice set of examples, of the duds. In particular detail, she shows us the process by which she and her son Emmett made "The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude" which took a lot of effort, and a lot of sheets of film. Her process is not that different from mine, and I suspect this is not because we are particularly sympatico but rather because this is how photography she is made. You work at it. You make bad pictures and not so good pictures and, sometimes, with a little luck, a lot of sweat (originally I misspelled that as swear which strikes me as just as good), and maybe even a little talent, you make something pretty good.

In general the book contains a lot of photographs. Finished work, but also failures, and snapshots taken "on the job" as it were.

If there was a an Absolute Zero for bullshit rather than temperature, this book would hew very close to it. It is, in a way, appalling in its directness, in the author's clearness of vision. I am reminded of a line from LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, a science fiction novel about a people for whom gender is fluid. In it, an ordinary human character, gendered in the same way we are, notes in a dispatch that the people of this planet judge you entirely without regard for gender, and that this "is appalling." It takes a moment for the line to sink in, to realize what a shock that would be, and how it might leave you or I socially and psychologically lost and adrift. There is an element of that in Hold Still. The clarity and openness of the author becomes disconcerting, almost upsetting, at times. And yet, it's not simply memoir-porn.

I think perhaps she sees more clearly with words than with photographs, and she sees very very well with the camera.

Slipped in there, for no particular reason except that Mrs. Mann grew up in the south, grew up steeped in its racism, she offers up a detailed critique of racism and the south from a personal perspective. She was raised essentially very liberal, very egalitarian. Looking back, she sees that somehow she missed out on so much. So much of her daily life, so much of what she was -- and was not -- aware of day-to-day was completely imbued with differing standards based on skin color. Mann is, of course, utterly open and direct about it all. She picks up and carries her share of the blame without flinching, but also recognizes it as thoroughly embedded in the culture. Everyone took part in the rituals of racism, regardless of skin color and social position. She shows us, without belaboring the point, how much simple inertia is involved here.

She shows us almost nobody who is overtly racist. I assume that in fact she had very little contact with people who were overtly racist, and probably not all that many people who really thought black people were inferior -- poor, uneducated, perhaps, but not really inferior. And yet the social matrix was inviolable, on all sides. Everyone toed the invisible lines with remarkable strictness. It is clear that there was real fear of reprisals, but nobody is pointed out as someone who'd take part. Every town, one supposes, had a few bastards who might well get drunk and do some real damage, but they weren't most people. Or perhaps they weren't her family's people? Most people were just woven inextricably into the social fabric.

I, of course, cannot do it justice. For one, I'm a Yankee, and for another I'm not Sally Mann. Read it, though.

Mann's take on photography is, naturally, larded throughout. A fascinating and recurring theme is the idea that photographs actively destroy memory, and have destroyed hers. Given a photograph of something, we tend to lose the literal memory of the thing and instead remember the photograph. I'm pretty sure Sontag covered some of this, but Mann provides a very personal testimony to the effect. As a photographer herself (unlike Sontag) who's made a point of photographing parts of her own life in detail, she lends a certain extra weight (several tons, perhaps) to the thesis. She remembers, tragically, her own father largely as a series of photographs.

Mann underlines the point that, when we remember through photos, we remember static visuals, and nothing more. No sound, no smell, touch, taste, motion. That is a real loss.

She also spends quite a bit of time arguing that photographs are not real. She has, as always, excellent examples. Her own children, mugging for the camera, look like completely different people from one frame to the next. The sliver of time, rendered in silver on paper, isn't reality. We do tend to confuse it with reality. Mann does not (or at any rate if she does, I missed it) admit that photographs nonetheless partake of reality, and in this I think she is wrong. While her children are not the cold-eyed gang shown in one frame, they did look like that for that 1/30th of a second, and that too is reality.

To be fair, failing to wrestle with this dichotomy is no sin. It's not a resolvable issue, it simply is. A photograph is real, as far as it goes, but that is not terribly far. The troubles arise because we tend to extrapolate from the undeniably real 1/30th of a second to a bigger, wider, deeper, reality, and we simply cannot. Not with any reliability.

Mann does propose, interestingly, that there may perhaps be a specific number of photographs one typically needs to examine in order to form an opinion of a person that approximately matches the opinion held by that person's friends. This is a marvelously precise idea, a marvelously precise way to sketch the problem, and a marvelously precise experiment with a way to measure the results. There are working scientists who would be hard-pressed to develop such a careful design. Mann just tosses it off as a 'maybe you could..' side remark.

Get the book. Take it out of the library, or buy it, whatever. Read it.

Mann isn't just an important and mighty photographer, she's funny, entertaining, and smart. She can write like hell.

Reading this book might not make you happier, but it will make you smarter.

Sally Mann

I have had the good fortune to read Mann's memoir, Hold Still, recently. More on it later, I think, but I need some time.

I was struck at one point by a bit of "fan mail" she received something like 25 years ago, giving her some helpful critique. For instance on "The Ditch" (Google it if you like) the commenter says:

... removes two and a half heads as well as most of the figure on the right. Cropping three inches off the right side could help (slightly) with the composition. But the arrogance of decapitation would still make this a "no sale."

Sound familiar?

We see rubbish like this trotted out on internet forums all the time. Useful "critique" from insensitive idiots, critique that is worse than useless. If followed, it will eventually turn the artist into a boring clone of everyone else who follows and (eventually) doles out this sort of junk. There's a class of people for whom the "chopped head" is the worst crime imaginable. These people are clods.

The only real difference is that in this case the critic has a vastly superior grasp of language and idiom than the average internet forum fool.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

LuLa. Again.

Look at this mess: The Very Old Debate Of Image Manipulation. Because I am kind of a dick, I'm going to spend a little time smashing this guy's toys. LuLa seems to be willing to print any sort of thoughtless garbage from anyone who makes crummy overprocessed 500px-ready landscapes, and mentions ETTR in a positive way.

Taking it from the top.

We begin with the suggestion, weirdly enough, that the Very Old Debate is somehow reaching a new high, which is utter nonsense. If anything, people care less about it than ever before. Sure, there is the occasional teapot-tempest about a manipulated competition or award winner, but nobody actually cares except the prize committee and the petapixel crowd. The western world, at least, assumes that every picture they see is probably photoshopped, and they're pretty much OK with that. The debate has nothing like the intensity it had in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Then we move on to a bizarre and completely made-up dichotomy: Image Manipulation versus Manipulating Reality. The author raises a bunch of questions, and asks if one thing or another is Image Manipulation, or whether it's Manipulating Reality. But don't worry, he hasn't told us what the difference between these two manipulations is (although he claims they are Very Different?), and he won't be mentioning them again, so I guess we can just move on.

Just because I am especially cranky, I am going to quote something here:

As I have written in some newsletters and articles, for me photography is a two-step process: the capture and the post-processing and as I have previously indicated this has been done nearly since photography was born. Post-processing is not something that was invented with the digital sensor. And really, does it matter to use the creative tools available to you to make an image? These days instead of dark room manipulation or other types of manipulation, photographers (or digital artists) have other tools such as Photoshop.

I can only say: What the fuck is this? are you writing this for children? Did you really just write "for me, photography is exactly the way it is for everyone else"?

Next we move on to the deep question of whether digital manipulation is being dishonest. But first we'll let him introduce (and, thank god, actually define) a couple of terms: technical retouching, and creative retouching. But don't worry too much about these terms, he's not going to ever use them. In fact, he's not even going to address, or even mention, the issue of whether digital manipulation is dishonest. He's going to say "ETTR is great, and everyone does it" because this is a LuLa piece, and then he's going to tell us that he manipulates in whatever ways he likes. And then it's onward to the next section.

Let's see if the heading for this one has anything to do with the content. I can hardly wait.

Yes! Yes it does! The heading matches the content! Image manipulation in photojournalism and documentary work. The content does indeed address this. It says "I'm not going to talk about this."

Jesus Christ. What's next?

Phew. Finally a tiny section that's not stupid! He's rather see people manipulating in photoshop than smashing up coral reefs. I'm right there with you, Ignacio. Right on.

Next up, why is photography so often singled out for complaints about manipulation? He asks the question "... is it that photography is often much more manipulated than many other arts and ..." which is among the stupidest questions I have ever read.

Given that most of the other arts are entirely manipulation I am going to go with No on this one. Then we follow this up with 500 words of so of free content from some other guy, which is then dismissed with an airy "I do what I want". The author can't even be bothered to find and quote the stock answer to the question, which is that "photographs, by their very nature, are directly rooted in reality." He most certainly won't share the real answer which is "because lightweights like me won't stop pretending it's an issue so they can churn out stupid essays like this one."

Then we get a boring, muddled, history of photography in which Ignacio incorrectly equates photo manipulation with Pictorialism, and then incorrectly equates Pictorialism with composite printing. He manages to leave out Robinson, for some reason, and gives us 1800 or so words almost entirely lifted from wikipedia and a few other web sites, together with a bunch of pictures from other photographers to flesh out his piece.

And to wrap up he finishes with "Photo Manipulation has been around a long time and I feel everyone should do whatever they like."

All up, about half the words and pictures in this piece are simply copied from other sources.

If this were a paper submitted me, I would give it an F. The thesis appears to be "I manipulate pictures and I think that's OK" which isn't a thesis any more than "I am happy" is a thesis. It can be neither defended nor attacked. The fact that this thesis is buried under a heap of wikipedia text to make it look scholarly does not change the fact, and in fact makes it worse. If the author had simply stated his position, that he thinks manipulation is OK and he does a lot of it, that would be one thing. This pseudo-academic tripe is quite something else. It's lazy, it's disingenuous, and it's harmful. It dresses up a personal position in the clothing of scholarship, and pretends that it's something more than simply a personal opinion.

There is no synthesis. There are in fact no ideas. There's the lazy cut&paste of a teenager, and some personal opinions.

It is an affront to people who actually go out and read things and try to figure things out.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Future of Imaging III

This is a sort of worked example, to see what falls out of the kind of philosophy discussed in the previous.

I mentioned the Lytro camera a couple posts back in this thread. But let's dig deeper.

It's Grandma's birthday, and we bring out the Lytro and shoot a bunch of stuff, drop it into some cloud service someplace. Our magical "make sense of my photos" software scoops up these pictures, and does a full-depth rendering of them to classify the objects. There's Grandma, her two granddaughters at her shoulders, blowing out the candles on her cake.

The software notes three people, and who they are. Maybe not names (privacy, natch) but that the two little girls are those two little girls, and the old lady is that old lady. The software notes the birthday cake idiom. This all goes in the metadata we're keeping around.

Now we do a search: Grandma's Birthday. We pull up the photo, obviously, and render it with grandma and the cake in focus, because it's a birthday picture.

Now we do a search: Pictures of Grandma. We pull up the photo and render it with Grandma sharp and the cake soft, because it's a picture of Grandma.

Now we do a search: Pictures of Grandma with Susie and Ellie. We pull up the photo and render it with Grandma and the two girls sharp, and the cake soft, because it's a group picture of the three of them.

Suddenly the Lytro begins to make sense. It's not a stupid gimmicky toy for nerds, it's a tool we can use to record things which get contextualized and rendered later.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Future of Imaging II

This is something of a followon to this post from a couple weeks ago.

Two themes I revisit here a lot are: shooting portfolios, and the gigantic river of pictures being uploaded.

In a way they seem to be related, and that's probably not an accident. Both are about the relative unimportance of the single picture in this modern age, and that is a direct result of the glut of pictures. I can't value a singleton photograph in my own body of work, in part because it's just another instance of something of which we have billions. No matter how artfully I have made the picture, no matter how perfectly it conveys my thoughts and feelings, it is nonetheless one of The Billions. This is, ultimately, why I shoot collections, portfolios, books. This is why I no longer even press the button when I see a single picture without knowing what context I can fit it in to.

So, it's all related.

My wife is in the throes of making a picture book of the first 5 years of my daughters life. I have a 5 year old and a 2 year old, and several thousand quite decent snapshots of them.

The process of making the book is proving maddening. Even companies for whom The Collection is their bread and butter (blurb, myportfolio, shutterfly, etc), the companies who Make Books as their thing, even these companies are locked into the single photograph model. You make a book by placing photographs, one by one, on pages. Picking out the photos is your problem, one by one. Then you place them, one by one, in photo-containing boxes. One-by-one you adjust the box properties and placement.

In this era of The Cloud and 4 gigahertz 8 core 64 gigs of RAM retina displayed monster computers, that creating a book of 300ish photos out of 3000ish takes dozens of hours of manual labor is beyond ridiculous. This should be an hour or two.

My wife should be able to point some software at some archives and say "Get me all the pictures that have these two kids.." "Ok, now throw away the fuzzy ones and the badly exposed ones.." "Ok, cool, now flick them past me in chronological order and let me rate them, 1 or 2 seconds each.." "Great, now pick out the top 500 and lay out a book, find the birthday parties, and give me one chapter per birthday party, and one per year.." "Ok, too many pages, try 200 photos.. Nope, 300.. " "OK, flip, flip, flip, these need to go.. that one goes earlier.. this one isn't that birthday party... Perfect. Print it."

The ratings and metadata should obviously be preserved from session to session, so the next project is easier, but starting from scratch I can't get my arms around more the 2 hours of work here. Except that the software thinks that the way you make this book is you select a photo from an archive, and place it on a page, 300 times.

But it's not really about this particular workflow.

It's about letting go of the single picture. A photograph isn't a solitary 2 dimensional image any more. First, it's a digital object, it lives in a digital context. A picasa album, a flickr stream, a facebook timeline. It has a title, comments, likes, EXIF data, a shared-on date. It's before this other picture, and after that one. It contains recognizable people and objects, Second, it's not alone. It exists as a minute speck in a vast sea of pictures, with relationships to other pictures based on all the things noted in item 1, at least.

We need tools to manage these specks, in their multitudes. We need to be able to sort them, sift them, slosh them around and manage them. Pare down the sea of infinitesimal specks down to one collection now, for one purpose, and tomorrow, for another one. We need to be able to unify the several places we keep these things into a single giant heap, and then to reach into that heap with both hands, and in a moment pull out fistfuls of the right ones, for right now. This is a solvable problem. It's not even very hard.

Incidently, google Photos does a lot of this now. Given that google is pathologically incapable of keeping their eye on the ball it is a near certainty that this will not actually go anywhere, but they have demonstrated that the basic sorting/sifting problem is solvable, indeed, solved.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

'59 Edsel Ranger

This is designed as a board book, the way books for very small children are made. Mat board, hinged with mulberry paper and book cloth. 140 pound watercolor paper for the cover.

12 4x6 machine prints, glue, and sharpie.

Edition of three. One for me. One for the owner of the car. The one shown will be released into the wild soon.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


There's a class of photographer that will go on and on about film, and how nothing quite looks like film and blah blah blah. It's very boring, and generally completely wrong headed. These same people in the world of sound reproducing equipment are called audiophiles, and they are legendarily wrongheaded.

The truth about digital is this: as long as your picture can be captured by the sensor, there's literally no way analog is better, and in fact anything that film can do can be replicated (albeit with some degree of effort between a little and lot) in the digital world. Analog simply isn't better.

Did you note the caveat?

as long as your picture can be captured by the sensor

A further remark on this: a modern sensor can capture more tonal and chromatic range and information than film ever could. Well.. not sure on chromatic, actually. But digital is plenty good enough.

The interesting cases occur in both imaging and audio when the underlying system becomes overtaxed. When there is too much scene detail, or too much dynamic range, for the sensor to cope with, the captured data will not represent the scene. Data will be lost. Of course, shooting it with film would not help that basic problem -- in general rather more data would be lost. But, and this is the important bit:

Film fails in ways completely different from the ways digital fails

When film fails, like most analog things, it rolls off into progressively less signal and more noise. The resolution does not abruptly vanish at 4600 pixels wide, it's just starting to be submerged by noise at that point. The highlights don't suddenly blow out to pure white, they roll off into noisy whites, with subtle texture remaining that -- increasingly roughly -- matches the scene.

A vinyl record sounds like shit. These goddamned things are terrible at sound reproduction. But the way they bang up against their (very narrow) limits is different from the way a CD bangs up against its (extremely broad) limits, and a case can be made that it's a nicer sound.

So, ironically, if you're an exposure fanatic, and make double-plus sure that your exposures always fit into the dynamic range of the medium and so on, then film is pointless for you. It's messy, expensive, and inflexible. Fuck film. Film is mainly interesting in the failure case, which is quite hard to replicate digitally.

Photographers, generally, deny being interested in failure cases, however.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Point of View

There's a chap, let's call him Daniel since that's his name, hangs about all the photography forums on the internet plugging his photos and blog posts. He's a pretty well known kook. I don't like his pictures one bit and neither do lots of other people.

Mostly he shoots prurient material. Sexual but neither erotic, nor titillating. But why, I asked myself, don't I like it? It's a bit Diane Arbus, and she's OK. Bit of a freak-show feel to it all.

I put my finger on it finally. Daniel's got no point of view. He sees a middle aged biker girl stripping down, click. It strikes me that he just likes tits. That's not a point of view, it's like liking bacon. Everyone likes tits. There's no sense that he feels anything for his subjects, whatever they are.

Now, he would surely explain that as a high level doc photog he keeps his feelings out of it. He's doing "doc". To which I say simply 'Walker Evans.'

Here's a test. When you look at a picture, silently ask the photographer "Ok, but what do you think about that?"

If the answer is obvious, right in front of you, well that's one thing. If the picture seems to throw no light on the question at all, that's another thing, isn't it?

I suppose not every photograph requires a point of view. You could argue that a journalist should be at some pains to not have one. I have a germ of a project rattling around my head that feels like it doesn't have a point of view, and I'm not sure it needs one. It might, though. Still, Daniel's sort of prurient thing does pretty much demand it, otherwise it's just snapshots of tits. If your subject matter is boring, all you've got is your point of view.

A great deal of what we see online, especially in the genre of "photographs for photographers", suffers from the same problem. There's no point of view. It's just a thing that someone pointed a camera at, probably because it looked a lot like another thing. Look at Ming Thein's photos, and ask yourself "Sure, Ming, but what do you think of that?" and see if an answer comes back. It might, for you. Me? I get nothing back. Ming never has an opinion one way of the other about any of the stuff he shoots, or if he does, I sure can't tell what it is.

Adam Marelli wrote a good essay, tangentially related. You should read it.

This is another argument for shooting portfolios. If my opinion of a thing, my idea of it, is that it is very tall, or fantastical, or sexy, or horrible, I have a better chance at communicating that if I show you a bunch of photos. Especially in this day and age, when it is instilled in us all that anyone can get lucky with a single shot.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Richard Prince and Appropriation

Richard Prince, for those of you who don't follow this sort of thing, is an appropriation artist. He takes other people's work, usually photos, makes small modifications, and sells the result as Art.

Most recently he is selling large prints of Instagram screen shots of pretty girls. For $90,000.

This had led to the usual outcry from photographers.

Wow he must be rich! Prince doesn't see the $90,000. Maybe half of it? Dude's probably making a decent living, but he ain't getting rich. If he could sell one a week, sure, but he can't. Being a famous artist means, mostly, increasing the list of people who get paid before you do. He's probably going to gross a couple hundred grand this year, and nothing next year.

Haw haw! Suicide Girls are selling identical prints for $90! What perfect revenge! They're not identical. The point is the appropriation. Without the appropriation it's just a blowup of an Instagram shot. Also, it's not at all clear how this is revenge. Isn't vengeance supposed to damage the target? This is actually the Suicide Girls brand doing a little marketing.

Why do people pay $90,000 for a bad photo? The image quality, it is so bad! Etc. People are not buying a photo, they're buying art. They're buying a piece of the process in this case. They're buying a piece of controversy and legal questions and arguments about Art, Ownership Of. If there's a legal fight, that's good.

I don't understand why he would steal someone else's photos! Because that's his art. Duh.

If Prince appropriated your work, and you wanted to harm him, the most damaging thing you could do would be to promptly issue him a license to use your work. By doing so, you destroy most of the art, and his work becomes just a large print of someone else's photograph.

If you brought legal action against Prince, you'd render his work that much more valuable and interesting.

The in-between business Suicide Girls is up to is simply marketing, hooking in to a current news story to promote their brand's visibility. I didn't even know Prince has appropriated any SG photos until the "ha ha what perfect revenge!" story popped up.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Don't Print Small!

I posted a lightly edited version of the previous essay about what it might mean for a photograph to look like a photograph to LuLa forums.

My, what fun! You'd think I'd peed in their coffee.

It turns out that people like big prints and I am a bad person, or at least dumb, for proposing that one should print small.

I was even told that viewing photos at a small viewing angle was rare.

In fact, virtually all photos have been and still are viewed very small.

How many 4x6 or 3x5 prints have you looked at (perhaps in your youth)? How many photos have you seen only on a phone or tablet? How many larger prints, hung on the wall, have you seen mostly from across the room? How many photos have you seen in books and magazines.

This business of standing at some invented 'proper viewing distance' from a print is in fact the rare case, the almost-never case.

We generally do view photos small. That's part of why they look like photos.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Seeing "Photographically"

A caveat. This essay espouses a particular, single, philosophy of photography. I recognize that this is not the only philosophy of photography. It's not even a philosophy that I subscribe to, particularly. But it's worth thinking about.

The primary philosophical thrust against "pictorialism" was this notion that photographs should look like photographs, and not like paintings. What a photograph should look like was left as an exercise to the reader.

Edward Weston wrote on this subject, on the properties of the photograph as opposed to the painting:

... the physical quality of things can be rendered with utmost exactness: stone is hard, bark is rough, flesh is alive, or they can be made harder, rougher, or more alive if desired. In a word, let us have photographic beauty!

His thesis is, as I understand it, that the whole point of the camera is an exactness, a geometric truth, a fullness of detail. This is a theme that, in truth, was belabored by many a pictorialist.

Lots of people have spent a lot of words on how eyes work, and how that is relevant to photographs and photography. See, for instance, the unsinkable Ming Thein with the usual rot about rods and cones and how the eye only sees clearly in the middle.

All pointless drivel. Vision is a construct of the brain. You'd think that the eye would be relevant at least as the source of raw material for the visual cortex, right? No. Your brain will cheerfully paint in made-up detail and information. Studying the eye is not pointless, but it invariably misses the point. I wrote a bit about some related ideas over here in this post, some time ago.

What is true is that when you're looking at the real world, what you're actually seeing is a very very small area where your attention happens to be focused. This is usually, but not always, in the center of the field of vision. When you look at a landscape you see the peak of the mountain now, and a moment later you see the curve of the river, and still later the color of the wooded slope. You don't see them all at once and, in fact, if the mountain were to vanish while you were looking at the river you would not notice. It's possible your visual cortex would edit your memory to give you the illusion that you'd noticed (see cronostasis illusion) but you would not notice. You don't see it.

Most of what you "see" when you're looking at the world is invented material, painted in rather roughly by your visual cortex, based on memories of what was there a moment ago when your attention was there rather than here. Emerson, interestingly, was fully aware of this and advocated emulating it with the use of selective focus, to isolate the single important thing in the frame in much the same way your brain isolates whatever it is that your attention is focused on. He had the science wrong, but the idea was solid.

But he missed what is arguably the point of photography (or at any rate, a point of photography).

What photography does is two things:

First, it folds up a bunch of the world into a much smaller portion of the visual field. Now you can and do see the mountain, the river, and the wooded slope all at once. This, I think, is what Weston is talking about. You can actually see the textures, the details, all the little facets of the scene, all at once. You're not relying on your visual cortex to "paint in" a bunch of stuff, you're not relying on your unreliable memory to "fill in" the stuff around the edges that you're not actually seeing at this instant. It's all right there.

Second, it encapsulates the folded up part of the world into a single object, a photograph, that you can look at and appreciate as a single thing. No longer do you have a mountain, and a river, and a wooded slope, all separate objects, all at different distances, in different places, with different light. You have a single object which you can apprehend all at once.

This adds up to presenting a slice of the world in a way that allows us, in a sense, a far more direct experience of it. Of course we're removed from the world, because it's a picture and not the thing itself. Simultaneously, though, we're closer to the world because so much has been compressed into a single visual unit, digestibly proportioned. We see the mountain, the wooded slope, the river, all at once.

A small painting is also capable of being seen all at once in the same way, but not being a packaged up slice of reality, it is not at all the same thing.

This, I think, argues for small print sizes. In order to fully realize the power of the photograph, we should print small. We should not attempt to create prints dimensioned to appear as a window, so that from the expected viewing distance the things in the print appear proportioned as they did in reality. Instead we should print small, to pull that view in tighter, to allow the seeing of the scene, the subject, whatever it is, to proceed in this different way.

If you're not going to do that, might as well paint!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Trading Trades

I pulled together a little trade book on blurb. Daniel Milnor has this crazy idea that people ought to trade these things. I like crazy ideas.

I currently have four of these to swap but intend to print more if there's interest.

Blurb always seems to have trouble with striation on certain tones. This book is on the economy paper as well.

So, or is what it is. I like the book just fine.

See the post and comment thread 
on smogranch for deets as they unfold.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Archetypal Photos

ToP has a good discussion on clichéd photos going on now. See the linked piece and articles before and after, as well as comments.

While it's a good discussion, I think it's slightly off target. I've talked about some of this stuff recently.

Another way to think of this issue is through the idea of an archetypal photographs. When someone thoughtful says "everything has been photographed!" what they really mean is that virtually every photograph that one might take today will closely resemble an archetypal photograph which has been made many times before.

How closely will your picture resemble the archetype? How overdone is the archetype, anyways?

These questions depend, of course, on your picture and on the archetype. Still, it's generally fair to say that your picture (whatever it might be) does indeed closely resemble some archetype or another, and fairly closely.

So what? Is it OK if you just want to make pleasing instances of this archetype or that? Sure. Why not? When I cook, I don't feel the need to push the boundaries. A good quality example of the "Fettuccine Alfredo" archetype or the "pecan pie" archetype is a glorious thing.

What if you're not happy with that, though?

You can try to inch away from the archetype. Make a photograph that's similar to the archetype, but finds a way to be new. Of, if it can't be new, make it personally interesting to you. Or find some way to make it interesting while still being archetypal.

Taking pictures of people is always good. You can take a completely vanilla portrait, an extremely pure example of an archetype, and it's still interesting to most people because it's a picture of a person, and we like looking at people. We, as people, think people are pretty interesting.

The other thing you can do, which is my baseline position, is step beyond the archetype. Let your pictures by examples of this archetype or that, in the same way you let the pixels be this color or that color. You needn't invent a new shade of grey to say something interesting. You don't need to invent a new word to say something interesting.

Make a body of work.

Edward Weston was a mighty maker of "haiku", but that time is long past. Now we (usually, but not always) have to write novels, if we want to make a personal statement of much weight.

And that is OK.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"I Don't Care!"

A not uncommon refrain:

I shoot for myself, I don't care what people think!

In this particular statement of the theme (but not in others) there's a planted contradiction, to wit: 'myself' is a people.

This refrain is used to dismiss a lot of things. Other people's specific opinions, discussion of trends, fads, anything that might imply that ones choices do or do not align with someone else's.

The trouble is that no man is an island. You may think you're shooting just for yourself, but the opinions, ideas, trends, fads enjoyed by others touch you. You react to them. You might react against a trend or you might adopt it. Try as you might, you probably won't ignore it.

The opinions of others do matter to you, try as you might. If they don't, you're a sociopath and should seek some sort of assistance lest you fall into a life of crime. We exist in society. We exist, in this modern world, in a dizzying intersection of multiple tribes of hairless apes. Whether you spend time trying to make sense of trends and fads, or not, you are touched by them. You are awash in these things, and to deny it is, well, it is at best silly.

Me? I shoot for myself, sure.

What that means, though, is that I don't give a damn about your ideas about where I should have put the focus, I care less about what you think of my "processing", and so on.

I do care if you "get it" or at least get something.

I don't show off stuff before it's done, generally. Maybe a little teaser and stuff, but usually not. Usually I finish it, and put it out there. And if it doesn't work, well, I am sad, and try harder.

Perhaps the best way to say this is that I'm the only person who gets any say in what, how, why, I shoot. Your input is not desired, thanks.

But I'm shooting for you as much as for me.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Actionable Intelligence

Next time you read some helpful essay on how to do photography better, read it with this in mind:

What, if anything, is this piece advising me to do that I can actually do?  Is there any actually actionable suggestion in here, or is it all vague handwaving?

Here's an example:

Ten Tips for Tidying Up The Toy Room

1. Everything In Its Place

When tidying up the toy room, remember that everything has a place, and should be put into that place.

2. Results Are What Counts

Always keep in mind that it doesn't matter how the room gets tidy, what matters is that in the end, everything should be put away.


These are two typical tips. They don't actually say anything except "tidy up the toy room".

Photography tips are often similar, so-called tips from the standard list are: "photograph emotion, not things" and "use the light to your advantage" and "color can be powerful". These feel like useful tips, they seem to be saying something. If you're just skimming, the usual mode on the internet, you can easily get the impression that you're learning something useful or at any rate that something useful is to be learned.

But read them again, what useful thing are they actually saying?

Is there anything you can actually use here? What would you do differently to "use light to your advantage" next time you're out shooting?

I could write a listicle entitled 300 tips to improve your photography, which contained exactly 0 actual tips.

In reality, all I would be doing you is repeating vague handwaving statements that you agree with, that you've seen before (far too often) and which seem like wisdom. You'd nod your head and think "yes, good stuff, my word there's a lot here" -- if you weren't paying attention.

An actual tip for cleaning up the toy room might be:

11. Fire trucks go in the Blue Box

Gather up all the fire trucks and put them in the large blue box, under the window. It's blue, and has a label on it that reads "FIRE TRUCKS". Put the biggest trucks in first.

That's actionable. You can actually use it, there's specific instructions, and even an honest-to-god tip that is useful information: put the big ones in first. Someone knows that there are too many toy trucks to fit in the box unless you're careful about how you put them in, and has written down a useful tip for ensuring that they will all fit.