Friday, December 30, 2016

Rachmael Pendragon/On Compositon

As noted earlier, I found myself interested in why I so disliked this guy's photos. After a lot of noodling, I am prepared to offer an explanation and maybe a little insight into composition's role in photography.

First, let's throw one of the photos up for another look:

There's a standard trick one can do with a picture, which is to squint at it until the whole thing is blurry in your vision. Then look for the most visually dominant part, the brightest patch or the point of highest contrast. This probably simulates the first few milliseconds of looking at a picture, before your visual system resolves any details.

Conventional wisdom says to place that point of most arresting visual business on the subject. See pretty much any Rembrandt painting for a blunt-force example.

Pendragon's pictures almost without exception have that point of visual interest somewhere in the out-of-focus background.

Is Rembrandt's trick just a trope we expect, or something basic to the operation of the visual cortext? Don't know, don't care. The point is that, used in the traditional way, it telegraphs the artist's intention. Pendragon is defying that, and telegraphing conflicting information. The subject(s), in focus, front and center are the obvious point of interest, but the most visually arresting point is not there, it's somewhere behind them.

Further, as previously noted, Pendragon resolutely insists on tonally blending his subjects into the background, while simultaneously separating them from the background with his focus/depth-of-field. Another conflict in his telegraphed intentions. Returning again to Rembrandt we can see that the dutchman often failed to separate his subjects from the backgrounds -- it's not a requirement that one do so. What Rembrandt did do, though, was make clear that he did not give one single shit about that separation. He telegraphed his intentions with crystal clarity.

In short, Pendragon's visual intentions are conflicting, confusing. We are justified in assuming that a photographer is making these choices deliberately, I think. While a photographer may not control all the details of the frame, she certainly can control what pictures we see. So, let us assume that Pendragon is making these choices on purpose and proceed.

What we have is ambiguous, chaotic, visual intention. How, then, shall we move up the ladder to the artistic intent? Is Pendragon making a statement about something chaotic, or ambiguous, or conflicting? Is there something about the wild visual panoply that is New York City in here? This might be a great way to start. Unfortunately, I'm not seeing it. There's nothing in the subject matter to support that idea. The subject matter appears to be very ordinary "street portraits" of the interesting characters you'll find a-plenty in any moderately sized urban environment.

I am forced to conclude that either Pendragon is almost certainly just incompetent. Perhaps he's adopted this weird mess of conflicting visuals in a vague attempt at a "signature style" but it's just a mess. I suspect that he has no artistic intent at all, beyond "film is cool".

Either way, I don't this his pictures work very well.

So what does all this say about composition as an activity, as something one ought to do in a picture?

Well, let us once again dismiss all that "eye leading" crap. Composition is not for helping the viewer figure out what's in the picture.

What it does do is telegraph the artist's intentions. The visual ideas, ideally, pull together to let us know what the artist thought was important and what was not, what the artist saw. The visual ideas support the artist's intentions. If the picture is about conflict, the visual ideas should emphasize the conflict. If the picture is about peace, the visual ideas might be peaceful, balanced. And so on.

The purpose of composition is, perhaps, not to help us to read the picture but the artist.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Criticism: Elizabeth Hosking

As if to prove me wrong, Chris Gampat and his ever-changing cast of helpers have dug up someone I actually like. Elizabeth Hosking, web site here. Looking through her online portfolio will only take a few minutes.

The first thing that struck me about this body of work is the coherent visual aesthetic applied across a wide variety of subjects. She loves the high contrast, and many pictures are a wash of black, or a wash of white, usually with "the important bit" in a relatively small region of the opposing tone. I admire the ability to successfully deploy the same set of visual ideas in many ways, and she manages it. I think.

It's possible I like her work largely because she buries masses of the frame in black or in white, leaving only small areas with much actual content. My own visual aesthetic, to the trivial extent that I possess one, is to bury as much as possible in a sort of gruesome mud. So, prejudices no doubt apply.

In general, her work seems to strive for, and produce, a sensation of what it is like to be there. I don't feel any deep philosophical message, or any particular narrative. She seems to me to be purely interested in helping us to feel as if we are there. This aligns with her self-description as "documentary" but I appreciate that she takes an allegorical approach rather than a literal one. She shows us slices, bits and pieces, that stand in for the larger thing rather than shooting a naive head-on document.

I find her projects and collections slightly repetitious, a little too long.

"The Actor's Center" uses perhaps too many frames of people rehearsing than is necessary, but the marked up scholarly script she includes is wonderful. This theme of the "odd man out" frame appears in a couple of other places. "These Hands of Mine" includes what I think is a photograph in a little folio, re-photographed by Hosking. Then, in a minor stroke of genius, another little photograph re-photographed on one of the subject's hands. Well done to connect the object to the theme and to the subjects.

In "The Actor's Center", in contrast to her street photographs, Hosking focuses often on the faces of the subjects, showing us the intensity of what's going on. The marked script strikes me really as the foundation of the work, though. It's scholarly, with a ton of footnotes and some serious notes hand-written, suggesting a degree of seriousness and intensity which is well-supported by the pictures of the people. There are also doodles, speaking to a certain whimsy and sense of fun, which also reads in the other pictures.

If it were my work, I'd have tried to get a little more visual variety in the series, possibly photographing the empty space, props, that sort of thing. It's not my work, though. It is, I think, successful as is.

"These Hands of Mine" seems to me to be well balanced and satisfying, as well as containing the aforementioned bit of genius. It might be the strongest work here. Still, it's hard to judge, since it's also got the most emotionally intense subject matter.

"Daily Rider" also includes an odd-man-out picture, an empty train seat. Traces of a person, without the actual person, just their marks. This series also stands out as a good use of the trope of shooting people from behind. While Hosking may be, like so many "street photographers" too shy to photograph strangers from the front, she does it better than most here. She embraces the anonymization her angle of view creates, and gives us fragments of people. Whatever her motivation for shooting from behind, she uses other visual ideas to support the idea of making the subjects anonymous, generic, everyman figures, and so is able to sell the idea better. I'm still not 100% comfortable with it, but it's well done.

The empty train seat functions in much the same was as the marked up script. It's a little slice, an allegorical bit standing in for a larger thing. I read this as the anonymity of the commute, the human mass and the trains that move it, all like a colony of ants in motion. Again, I think this is quite successful.

"Street Singles" is maybe the weakest of the lot, it reads like spot news photography done by someone without the courage to shoot people except from behind. It's workmanlike, but not terrific. I like the pictures, but mainly because I love photos of LGBT folks flying their flags, being happy, and getting their voices heard.

Finally, her "Land" series. These resemble in many ways a series of photographs my father shot and printed and gave me a framed set of, many years ago. So, again, prejudices surely apply. I find them quite lovely and arresting. This is where we see the artist applying her visual aesthetic to radically different subject matter, and where she inverts the dark-with-spots-of-light to give us white-with-spots-of-dark, which is a strong move on her part. Still distinctly Hosking, but definitely a different thing.

This series lacks an "odd man out" frame, but still has that allegorical feel. That flavor of what it is like to be standing here on this land, cold, austere, remote, but revealed in a handful of nearly abstract frames which surely look, literally, almost nothing like what they are pictures of. This feels like a work in progress to me, rather than a completed thing.

I like this photographer. She's not my favorite, but I think she does solid work.

Monday, December 26, 2016


As always, here I am waffling. Just when I decide that composition simply doesn't matter a whit, content is the only thing that does, Chris Gampat and his crew of merry incompetents digs up Rachmael Pendragon, a NYC photographer who runs around with a large format camera taking pictures of attention seekers. Here are a couple of samples, notable for reasons I will get into in a moment:

There's more. Punk rockers and the like. Rachmael seems to want to be a sort of low-rent Arbus. More work here: Rachmael Pendragon.

Here's the thing that really bugs me about Rachmael's pictures: He has no concept of tonally separating his subjects from the backgrounds. In one of the pictures above he even places the black guy against a black background and simultaneously finds a light background for the white guy and, incredibly, a dark background for the white guy's dark hat. The only "proper" tonal separation here is the black guy's hair against a light background. This failure to separate is so frequent that he might be doing it on purpose. It's haphazard enough to make me wonder, though.

I used to say things that "composition helps to clarify the picture for the viewer" without explaining why or how, because that's what everyone does. There's some sort of vague BS about leading the eye around the frame and whatnot. That's rubbish. In Rachmael's pictures, in particular, we find the human faces instantly (duh) and look at them. Not only are the faces, the people, front and center, but our optical system is literally a face-finding machine. We don't actually need the tonal separation to know what's important. Rachmael's mis-composition is not leaving us unable to figure out his pictures. I don't even think it's making it more difficult.

And yet, and yet.

Obviously I have prejudices. If Chris Gampat's crew have picked out someone for mention, my assumption is that they're pretty bad. Anyone who affects a large format camera and a made-up-name (actually several made-up-names, "Sironar de Bergerac" haw haw haw among them) and takes pictures of attention whores can't be any good, right?

I am trying to dig through these prejudices and see if the pictures still bug me. If they do, I would very much like to know why they bug me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


It's my birthday. It's the end of the year. It's the holiday season, and it is, apparently, a brave new world. I feel some reflections coming on.

When I started writing this blog thing, oh so many years ago, I firmly believed in a specific path one took to create a great photograph, a worthy picture, something people would want to look at and perhaps possess. That path was to manage the objects and forms within the frame, in some sort of elusive way, and then to place tones and colors, in a similarly elusive way, until you somehow had put the right things into the rectangle. Then you were done.

This is the classic Iconic Photograph theory of picture making. It's a natural followon from painting, I think? Painters certainly do all those things. There are regular readers of this blog, people I like and respect, who hew more or less to this idea of picture making.

Over the years I've read a lot, I've thought a lot. I've made some interesting projects. I've argued with people about this and that. I've come to the conclusion that, at least for me, this approach to picture making is wrong. This is something of a self-serving conclusion, since it turns out I'm not much good at the elusive placement of things, colors, tones. I can manage a perfectly pleasing picture, but ultimately they all look a lot like someone else's picture.

That right there is one of the major problems with the Iconic Photograph theory. There are, it turns out, only a finite number of ways to do the thing. A painter can fall back on distinctive brushwork, use of color, and myriad little bits of technique to create something new out of the same old arrangement of forms. A painter can layer on degrees of abstraction (cubism leaps to mind), which a photographer really cannot. No, the photographer is more or less stuck with real objects in front of a real lens, and the possibilities are limited. Everything starts to look the same. Occasionally some brilliant talent leaps out in front and makes something different, perhaps? Generally, though, I think that the visible, distinctive, differences lie elsewhere. They're not merely a new and creative approach to lighting, or posing, or arranging lines and forms. There's something bigger going on.

In my reading, I found out many interesting things! Much of what is sold to photographers as expert advice on these elusive processes of composition is utter nonsense, invented rubbish from the 20th century passed around, copied, mis-quoted and mangled. Horrible nonsense. Rules and systems which are, as often as not, not merely arbitrary but actually wrong. I learned that the world of photography is filled with well-heeled amateurs (for a wide range of definitions for "well-heeled") and almost as many rapacious capitalists hawking variations on the above bunk, packaged with or without exotic vacations, for the purpose of making the amateurs less well-heeled, and the capitalist moreso. This made me somewhat suspicious of the whole enterprise. I even wrote a little book of my own about composition, a book which, several years later, I find is still pretty much on-point, although my interest in formal composition has waned.

I've also come to realize that I actively dislike the physical act of photography. I've been at it a while so it's pretty automatic, but still the process of fiddling with dials and settings to produce the closest approximation to the result I want is tedious and uninteresting. The best thing about digital photography is that I can wing it on exposure a lot more.

So what the heck is there, for me? I don't like messing with cameras, and I don't care much about composition. Why on earth am I still obsessed with this photography thing? I seem to be peculiarly ill-suited to it.

The trouble is that there's tremendous amounts of work out there that I love. I go on and on about Sally Mann, but the truth is that I can go around to the shelves of monographs in the library or bookstore, pull down any book at all, and find something I love. What is it that I find appealing? And, as an aside, what is it that makes a monograph or other photo book good enough to get a publishing gig?

As a minor note, why is it that the books I like least are the "greatest hits" books?

I hesitate to say that I have come around to the idea that "storytelling" is the key, I don't even agree with that statement. We're not all shooting spot news. We're not making photo essays about homelessness or some crisis, or about our family, or your family. It's not "story", it is (of course) trame.

It's a common criticism, to say that a picture relies on context. Without the title, the picture would be nothing. Without the other pictures, without the essay, the picture would be nothing. OK, so be it. So what? Why need it be something when placed in another context?

I made a book after my father died. Photographs of things that he's made or owned, paired with a short text of something my father taught me, vaguely related to the object. The photographs are nothing. They're simple record shots of objects. Pleasing, I like to think. The focus is where I want it, the lighting is amiable, but ultimately it's just an artless picture of a camera or a bowl. In context, in the book, these pictures have real power, at least within my family. It's one of the best bits of work I've ever done. I like to think that a stranger might find some strength in it, but perhaps not. It doesn't matter, because the book is for me. You can look at it if you stop by, I'm not hiding it, but it was made for an audience of one, me.

So that's what the photograph is about, in my little world. It's about showing a real thing, perhaps a collection of real things, and revealing something about them and their connections to the world. Painting can't do it, poetry can't do it, an essay can't do it. Not the same way. The photograph is rooted in a potent way to the real world. It can connect text or other work to that real world. That is the essential strength of the photograph, that is what makes photography Not Painting, and Not Music, and Not Anything Else.

The consequences of this philosophy are many.

The most obvious one is that you cannot know, a priori, which pictures are the "good ones". You have to know the context into which the pictures will be placed in order to be able to judge them -- to even begin to judge them. This renders the whole idea of "critique" in the sense of examining a picture and telling the poor bastard how to improve it, literally pointless.

It means that I never just "go out and shoot" because there is no point to just taking pictures (well, except to record some event or person or object that I happen to want a record of, of course) without having some intended context to put them in to. The greatest Iconic Photograph Ever of that building, that tree, that mountain, is worthless to me without some sort of context into which I mean to embed the picture. I could, in theory, just go out and shoot and then try to build stuff out of that. It could work, but it's inefficient. If I'm going to do that, to be honest, I'd rather use other people's pictures. It's much more fun to see new pictures, and try to build something out of them.

I do shoot projects, most of which fizzle out anyways. So I still have an enormous slush pile, if I did ever decide to go try to create something from photographs on-hand.

It means I am accepting of the idea that a photograph's meaning is malleable, and often nil. But in the right context, almost any photograph can live and breathe.

The process, for me, is now much larger. It is about creating context, trame, a total project. These things grow organically. Sometimes very fast, sometimes very very slowly. Start from the concept, imagine context and structure, shoot. Everything changes and reshapes itself to fit everything else and, sometimes, only sometimes, something complete emerges.

For me, it's vastly more satisfying than trying to shovel forms and light around inside a little rectangle, and have it both look pleasing, and also look not like some mashup of whichever two photographers I saw work from most recently.

To my readers in the tech industry

If you work in or around the technology industry, specifically the software industry, more specifically the US tech industry (although the entire Western World is heading the same way, as far as I can tell) you should look at this web site, and seriously consider signing the pledge. It's short and you should of course read and understand it yourself, but in summary it says "I will quit before I will help build a Muslim registry database or anything similar." I honestly cannot see any reason not to at least agree with the idea.

You may reasonably elect to not sign on other grounds, of course, but to be blunt, if you disagree with the general thrust of the pledge, you are wrong.

The link is here: Never Again.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Industry Update!

Someone's finally paying attention to me! Well, no, but they're reading the tea leaves. There's a place offering a camera-as-a-service, Relonch. Essentially, you pay $99 a month to borrow a stylish (?) looking camera with a viewfinder and a shutter botton, nothing else. Pictures you take get automatically uploaded to some cloud thing, and Relonch's magic elves, or AI, or something, pick out and edit the "best ones" and send them to your phone.

The name suggests to me that it might be a prank, to be honest. But the fact that it's getting some traction (not among photographers, who profess themselves BAFFLED, YES BAFFLED, LEARNING TO USE A DSLR AND PHOTOSHOP IS... etcetera) suggests that this is an idea whose time is at least nearby.

The point here, which many photography enthusiasts seem blind to, is that a lot of people simply want pictures. They find cameras and the associated rubbish tedious in the extreme. This doesn't mean that they would not like nice pictures, of course. The phone has been a boon to this audience, and this sort of thing is the sort of thing that can certainly find a market among the well-heeled subset of those people.

Hasselblad continues to fascinate. In the last little while they've introduced a next-gen of their flagship thing with, I think, a 100MP 6x4.5 sensor. Then they rolled out this strange X1D mirrorless camera. Well, the camera's not strange, but as Kirk Tuck points out there's nothing in the lens lineup that's actually useful. A Rather Wide, a Kinda Wide, and a Slightly Long Normal, I think? Finally, they rolled out this Motorola add-on camera that actually looks pretty decent.

I think the first one is carrying-on carrying-on. Support the existing tiny base of studio guys with large budgets, retain position as a Serious Player. The X1D is a halo product intended to cement that, and carry the Hasselblad Is Back message out more widely. The Motorola widget is the first of the real products that Hasselblad intends to turn in to realistic amounts of money.

How do I know this?

Hasselblad finds itself astonished to have actually sold a meaningful number of X1Ds. On LuLa we find a review of the device, stating that Hasselblad has "thousands of orders to fulfill" and "Hasselblad had to make major changes to their manufacturing and production lines" in order to ship hundreds of units a week (and rising).

They announced this X1D product, apparently, expecting to ship something like 5000 units in the first year. Maybe. That works out to 100 units a week, and is as good a guess as any at what they expected sales to look like. That's something like $75 million in retail revenue, which translates in to, well, a lot less than that back at Hasselblad HQ. Perry Oosting was not hired to lead development of a couple products that add a couple million bucks a year to the bottom line.

If the Motorola snap-on accessory thing takes off in Asia, they could have a winner on their hands. Perry's not a moron, and he's been in the phone market, he knows that Motorola is, at best, a maybe. He's got more irons in the fire.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Food for Thought

I will tell you two short stories, now.

A man rides the train to the city every day for work. Each day his walk from the station to his office takes him past the same diner. He's never been inside. One day he glances in, as he does from time to time, and notices they've hired an extremely pretty young woman. A few days later he takes the early train, as he sometimes does, and has an extra twenty minutes to spare. He enters the diner and orders coffee, intending to make small talk with the young woman and see if he can charm her. The woman's manner while she serves him is, however, unmistakably closed and unwelcoming of conversation, albeit polite. Angry, he drinks half of the coffee, leaves a ten cent tip, and departs.

A man rides the train to the city every day for work. Each day his walk from the station to his office takes him past the same diner. He's never been inside, and has never really registered the diner's existence. One day he takes the early train, as he sometimes does, and has an extra twenty minutes to spare, and happens to notice the diner as more than background on this particular morning. He enters the diner and orders coffee. Taking a sip, he finds the coffee unpleasantly bitter, it's been sitting too hot for too long. He finds a dollar and enough change to pay for the coffee, plus a dime. His only other cash is twenties, and he's unwilling to ask the woman behind the counter to break a $20 so he can tip her more for a terrible cup of coffee. He leaves the dime for a tip, and departs.

Two quite different stories, with precisely the same observable facts. There are two unrelated remarks I'd like to make here. The first is that our governments are learning to lie to us in this way. They're not capable of reliably concealing the facts of the case, so they're substituting this kind of thing, and it works beautifully. Consider being alarmed. The second remark is that this also describes something about trame, that is is inherently malleable and variable. Trame can be taken as the story we make up to fit the facts of a picture, and there are at any rate cases where people might make up wildly different stories.

Throw in a hint, another tiny detail, and one or the other of the two stories we started with collapses. Thus also a title, a word, a caption, can collapse or open a whole world of interpretation of a photograph or photo essay.

I don't know what that means.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

And a little more -

With regard to this picture:

some dunderhead "asked" me the following:

The story and questions that you pose in relation to the street photo in the article. Did you consider all of those in the nanosecond you had when the composition presented itself before you clicked the shutter? No. You created the image first in a snap, then gave it it's meaning after.

I am pleased to report that in fact yes I did think of a great deal of the meaning and subtext of the photo before I shot it. This, because this is a repeated scene. It happens every few minutes in an busy coffee shop. Every time, in fact, a slender woman walks in. Literally every single time. So, yeah, I had thought a lot about it, over days, perhaps weeks, I forget.

Even for "real street" photography, there's a process of feeling the scene, grasping what is essential in it while shooting, groping for that frame that exemplifies that essential quality. I am confident here: street photography is all about trame, and it is largely conscious although sometimes fairly brisk. So, up yours, dbltax, whoever you are.

Without trame there's almost nothing to street photography. In relation to the previous post, there is generally no particular beauty to fall back on to, nothing much within the frame itself that can support the picture. It's a street, with people milling about on it. Occasionally there may be some thin games of geometry or form in play, but these are unlikely to be particularly satisfying by themselves.

Frankly, this is why most so-called street photography sucks. The practitioners rely on following the forms (black and white, street scenes, some sort of Interesting Interaction) without really getting at anything, and they wind up with endless pictures of nothing.

Trame and Not-Trame

I have been accused, justly, of setting aside all consideration of aesthetics in my poking around with the word trame. I think I could have got off if I'd stuck to just using it as a word, "whatever it is that a photo evokes" but I didn't, I charged ahead and rendered judgement based on it.

So, apparently, in my mind trame is the basis of some sort of framework for judging pictures, or at least for scoring them. And, indeed, it is so. That is exactly the score that I think matters, and it is indeed the basis of my judgement of pictures. All I've really done, though, is define a word. I've left the framework out, and failed to show my work. Sorry about that. Let me dig around a little...

So what does it mean to have left out aesthetics? Looking the word up and doing some reading, we find that our memories are more or less right, it's a bewilderingly broad term, with a meaning that has evolved horribly over the centuries. My memory was "it's really about beauty, right?" but I had a nagging feeling that this was an incomplete notion, and by golly, it sure is. Wittgenstein, apparently, felt that it was a description of the entire culture.

Indulge me, and let me try to refine the accusation leveled at me, then.

Trame explicitly refers only to things outside the frame, to the meaning inferred from the picture, and explicitly ignores the actual picture itself as a first-order thing, as the object of our attention. To say that I have ignored aesthetics, I think, is to say that inside the frame there can be value. The picture itself can be beautiful, or interesting. The picture, the artwork of whatever sort, can arrest our attention, can enlarge or ennoble us, or whatever it is that Art is supposed to do.

This is, I think, something I can and do agree with albeit in general terms. The trouble is, and I speculate without actually knowing that this is what Wittgenstein was on about, that it's Really Hard to disentangle the trame from the frame when you really start looking at it. So, it's beautiful. What makes it beautiful? What's so great about it being beautiful?

I remain convinced that we suffer from too much pointless beauty. Long ago, beautiful pictures, beautiful Art, was rare and difficult to make, to obtain. Beauty, pure beauty, was seen by some as an uplifting, enlarging, ennobling thing all by itself. Perhaps it was, I did not live then. I live in an era where pure beauty, abstracted away from meaning, is common as sand. Any doofus can churn out endless pleasing seascapes, endless beautiful sunsets, endless balanced still lifes. Where once, perhaps, it uplifted the miserable, it is now part of the background.

Is it reasonable, though, to suppose that beauty within in the frame -- supported by meaning, or by emotional content, or at least by the possibility of such, the open door, as it were, for meaning, for trame -- is a good thing in and of itself. While we cannot divorce it fully from the support it enjoys, we can say "stipulating that the support is there, this beautiful thing is wonderful and valuable, and I love it."

There, that ought to muddy the waters up good and proper.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The End is Nigh!

I'm just going to revisit some themes I've talked about in the past, and most likely I'll express opinions that contradict previous remarks. That'll happen from time to time.

A common essay to write, if you're some irrelevant artist or thinker, is the one about how many trillions of photographs are being made every nanosecond, and how this spells The End for photography, or whatever. Then you hand-wring about Quality and Skill and how nobody cares about them. The implication is, of course, that the writer is making Wonderfully Skilled Photographs and is only being held back from great success by the lousy taste of the unwashed masses. Tragedy!

I no longer think that the trillions of photos being made is having any impact whatsoever on Photography as these writers think of it.

The argument is that, since everyone is exposed to so very many lousy pictures a day, since everyone can and does take their own lousy pictures, that this causes a devaluation of photographs across the board. I can practically guarantee you I've made that exact argument. And it's wrong. Even the fattest head can tell the difference between a bunch of photos of their friends on facebook, and a print hanging on the wall in a gallery. These two objects are no more related than a brick and a Michelangelo's David, and everyone knows it.

The vast majority of photos are ephemeral objects. While they might persist on some disks in some cloud somewhere, they are in effect gone. There's no serious intention by anyone that they should exist for more than a few hours. Facebook and so on only retain them at all because the lifespan is open-ended, and it's cheaper to hold them than to work out when and how to discard them. So, the stock discussions of "a stack of prints to the moon" are meaningless, nobody is printing these things. The idea of printing them is absurd.

The ones that are left over do cover a wide gamut. You can't identify the "permanent" photos by type. A vernacular photo might be immortal, if someone loves the way it depicts something deeply personal. A Fine Art photo might well be ephemeral. We'd be well served if more of them were more ephemeral.

If you, as a Fine Art Landscape photographer, are having a hard time selling prints, look to yourself. Your problem is not the selfies on facebook, your problem is that your business model sucks. It was never very hard to churn out your kind of stuff, and technological changes have indeed made it incrementally easier. If you are a wedding photographer, having a hard time selling your services, ditto. There is a population of these folks who were (or would have been), just barely, good enough to make a living in the film era. They were already pretty close to the line, mainly because they had no vision only a desire to churn out the same old stuff, and now they're on the wrong side of the line.

Photography is still everything it ever was. It hasn't changed into something new. What has happened is that photography is more, now. It's ephemeral "look at this" imagery, as well as the permanent artifacts of Sontag, of the pre-digital/pre-Internet age. These changes have been happening since the beginning. At first, photographs were unique objects, obtained with great difficulty. Then they were objects that permitted replication. Then they were objects obtained easily, as well as being endlessly reproducible.

The "OH MY GOD HUGE CHANGE" we've all commented on is in fact not, it's merely a new facet, no more interesting and game-changing than roll film, or dry plates. We're been fooled by the enormous size of the facet, by the sheer numbers of pictures, into thinking that it's a huge change.

We're at the beginning of realizing this, I think.

More and more we see articles and notes and essays about how people are printing more, and doing this or that more, and so on. These pieces are positioned as a recovery from the Vast Sea Change, but in fact I think the Vast Sea Change never was.

This whole thing finds a nearly precise allegory that is barely an allegory in the lives and methods of the working photographers. Serious photographers who bridge that era from 1990 to 2016, let us say, hardly noticed what was up. They may, or may not, have purchased new cameras. They may, or may not, have begun to approach their work a little differently now and then. In the main, though, they simply chugged along doing what they had been doing all along. Their photography changed organically, as their vision, as their ideas, changed. The Vast Sea Change wrought by instagram et al? It never even happened.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

I Ain't Dead

Just slammed. Christmas is coming and the dog is always sick.

I have some half-formed material in the pipeline. Check back from time to time!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Criticism: Two Portfolios

I'm going to send you off to look at two different portfolios, one of which I think works and one which I think doesn't. Then, I'll discuss!

The first is here. Jeffrey is a fellow I kind of "know", we've exchanged a lot of email, collaborated on one or two little projects. I admire his work greatly, and I like him personally. In addition, he's said things to me about this work. All of this is going to color and shape my commentary to a degree. There's no helping that.

Please concentrate on the black&white suburban nighttime photographs, as these are the ones I am talking about. Jeffrey honored me once in the past by sending me a selected set of these specific photographs, and so to me that is his "important work" although of course it's just the material I saw first.

The second portfolio is over here. Irritatingly, I don't seem to be able to link directly to the portfolio, so find the two pictures with the white square in the middle, and the identifying text "Alternatives Landscapes" and "Alternatives Landscapes II" because, again, this is the work I am interested in comparing to Jeffrey's. I don't know Benoit from Adam, and have not exchanged a word with him, ever.

I like to compare things like this. The one that "works" shows me why the other one doesn't, and vice versa.

First, similarities. Each is a set of basically dark pictures with a prominent strong light, a man-made light, which casts shadows, illuminates, and generates a strongly visual element. Superficially, they look quite similar, in fact. Neither body of work seems to present a strong position. We're not seeing starving orphans here, or open-pit mines, or a purely sublime view of a mountain. The subjects cluster in the general area of banal, in fact. Some very much banal, others of mild interest, but nothing leaps out and grabs us by the throat. That, by itself, is in no way a negative as far as I am concerned.

Looking closer, we see that Jeffrey is showing us similar subjects over and over. The light sources move around and change character (sometimes it's a lit doorway, sometimes an exterior light, and so on). The actual houses change, but the general type does not. It's not quite a typology in the strictest sense, it's a little too variable and Jeffrey favors a more dynamic angle of view than a straight-on foursquare presentation. But, elements of typology are present. It seems to me that Jeffrey's pictures definitely take no particular position, there is no obvious statement of politics, ecology, sociology, or anything of that sort here. The only overt, deliberate, statement of which I am sure is that the photographer thought there was something interesting here.

Looking at just one of these pictures, by itself, I suspect you'd be left cold and simply wander off. They're not traditionally "pretty", although they are graphically appealing. Being presented with a bunch of them, we're asked, implicitly, to reconsider, to try to grasp what the photographer saw here. Clearly this is no accidental snap, this guy's been putting in some serious work here, what the heck does he see?

We can compare and contrast the pictures. What's the same, what's different. What are all these houses, anyways?

In short, there are typology-like aspects here, and quite strong ones. We're invited, whether the artist likes it or not, to draw our own conclusions. There's plenty of grist for the mill here. The general region in which the photos were taken is clear, and that opens a great basket of political and ecological concerns. While the photographer may offer no personal opinion on, let us (for example) say the ecological impact of modern cities in the desert, these pictures certainly open the door to us, the viewer, to consider these things.

There is in these pictures adequate variety to give us a broader scene onto which we can project our own ideas. At the same time, there is enough commonality to firmly bind the pictures together into a coherent whole. We're forced, more or less, to consider them as a group, a collective, which we then ask "what are you trying to tell me?" And then, looking inside ourselves, perhaps we find some answers.

Onwards to Benoit's Landscapes.

Visually similar to Jeffrey's pictures, and sharing some of that ordinariness in the subject matter, but quite different.

On the one hand, the central glowing square strongly ties the pictures together. They are clearly a coherent set, a collective that belongs together, that, like Jeffrey's pictures, demands to be considered as a whole. There is less graphical appeal here, the pictures are bluntly foresquare, dead-on. This is made necessary by the light Benoit is placing centered in the frame, his key graphical element. He needs to be dead-on to the light, and the light illuminates the scene, and thus even the few pictures which strive to use a more dynamic angle of view do not really succeed. The light's position and illumination pattern dominate.

The scenes into which the square light is set are all over the place. Trees, hills, concrete buildings with artfully tumbled things on the lawn. A trio of nudes exposing their genitals to the light? There is nothing connecting these pictures together except the single graphical element.

Again, any single one of these pictures you'd likely dismiss. You might get a little jolt of "cool!" when you saw it, but that would be about it. The fact that this photographer has made a bunch of them, has invested a great deal of time and effort here, draws us in and asks us to reconsider, asks us to look more deeply and to think more deeply. It's nothing like a typology, though, because the only common theme is literally the same object, repeated. We're being asked, essentially, to examine wildly disparate scenes each containing the same object.

What are we to make of these? I see the square and visualize it as a portal (I have read a tremendous amount of Science Fiction in my life). Benoit imagines it as a man-made element that assists and reveals the natural. But then, why the photos with the man-made buildings, and indeed the human figures? Why does this square portal change size from one picture to another? In any interpretation, though, the glowing square is a mysterious and singular object, inexplicably hanging a few feet above the ground in this location, and in that location, and so on.

I see no coherence here at all, really. I see a singular object appearing more or less at random around the earth, for no particular rhyme or reason. If this is an essay on capricious fate, the rule of the random, then perhaps it begins to make sense, but it doesn't go far enough to make that point clear. And in that case, why so many similar pictures of the square in a bunch of trees? The mysterious glowing object invites question, but seems to leave no real room for answers. These pictures might as well be abstracts. If we want answers, if we want meaning, we are left to construct it entirely ourselves. There are referents in these pictures, but they provide no handles to grasp, no signposts to guide us.

Benoit's pictures are all, at least, shot at night. But is that merely to make his gimmick work, or is nighttime somehow important to the theme?

In terms of trame what I feel here isn't a portfolio that is necessarily closed into itself, but rather that has such diffuse and varied connections to an exterior as to lead nowhere in particular. While the pictures are evocative, what they evoke, their trame, is so vague and indistinct as to add up to nothing much.

In contrast, the referents in Jeffrey's pictures give us firm guidance on geographic location, as well as environment and socioeconomic status. If those are insufficient signposts to guide some thinking, some speculation, some story-making, I can't imagine what is. His choice of nighttime is clearly deliberate, rather than a necessity driven by a gimmick. It's another interesting case study of trame I think. While there are many different things that might be evoked here, each possible path seems to be intellectually fruitful, dense, and at least mildly interesting. While I might view his pictures as one thing, and you quite another, each of us could reasonably find some meat here, something to think about.

I suspect that both Jeffrey and Benoit took their pictures because they though the results would look good, or cool, or interesting. Jeffrey managed, perhaps by design, perhaps by instinct, to produce something in which I can find some depth. Benoit did not.

Monday, November 21, 2016

White Cubes

Lewis Bush over at disphotic has a piece railing against the White Cube style of gallery, the featureless white rooms in which Art is displayed. He cites a piece by Jonathan Jones of the Guardian on the same subject. Jones makes an interesting remark in his piece.

But what is really happening is that the white space of the gallery authorises the object as art: this is why commercial galleries like White Cube (the clue is in the name) and Gagosian opt for that purity.

and then he wanders off complaining that it is the business of these places to persuade collectors to part with lots of money for Art. He's right, but only partly so.

It is literally the job of Gagosian and so on to authorize objects at Art. That's their function. Someone's got to do it, especially in this world awash in excellent work. They are the gatekeepers. Yes, part of the result of this is soothing the wealthy and assuring them that their expenditures are a good idea. Part of it is indeed to make it be a good idea by blessing those works as important and valuable. Part of it is to separate for everyone in the world what pieces matter and which, perhaps with regret, we must consign to to dustbin of history.

These people, these galleries, are building the modern art history. They're reaching into the maelstrom, and pulling out work. Work which is, contrary to Jones' ongoing populist ranting about crummy modern art, actually says something, means something. Work that flows from previous work, and provides the basis for the next generation, and so on. They weave the tapestry of what will be the Art History of this millennium. It's their job.

If white walls help them do their job, well, so be it. I'm ok with it.

I did enjoy the joke about painting the walls red, though.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dear PetaPixel Readers

If you get this far, please note that the previous essay is just introducing a word. I am not claiming to have invented the idea that a photo has meaning. Also, I have not read Camera Lucida, but only because it is a turgid, unreadable, mess, which is why you almost certainly haven't read it either, hero. And no, we don't already have a word for this thing, if you think you've got a candidate, feel free to contact me, and I will cheerfully explain to you why your word is too broad, too narrow, or simply not on target at all.

But you know, I don't really need to. Several of the wanna-bee philosopher types on PP have exclaimed "Pfft! We already have a word for this!" and they have offered, as of this writing, five different words, all with different meanings which I think illustrates the problem better than I ever could.

That is all.

ETA: we're up to 11 proposed words with 11 different definitions.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

On Trame

Editorial Note: This is the Big Essay that tries to pull it all together. It's mainly repetition of previous blog posts.

I feel that there's a word missing from our vocabulary, and this essay is the culmination of an effort to find such a word, to define it usefully, and to work through some of what it might mean.

Consider these two pictures:


Coffee Shop

The first one I shot specifically to test a camera-clubby sort of online forum's reactions. As predicted, they liked it pretty well (of course there were quibbles). I hate it. It is a stupid picture which, as presented here at any rate, signifies nothing. It "says" nothing about anything, it evokes nothing. There's no story, there's no context, there's no particular feelings it might generate. It's just a sort of vaguely pretty picture with some strong compositional elements.

The second one is the only successful street photograph I have ever shot. It is rife with "story", it says something about something. About how men look at women. About relationships. About social dynamics. The picture unpacks into an infinitude of possible stories. Is that the man's wife or girlfriend? Is she about to say something sharp? Will she keep it to herself and dump him in a year? You might not speculate about a narrative at all, and merely recall that this happens in coffee shops when a pretty girl walks in. The men turn and look. You might feel a frisson of revulsion, or familiarity, or pleasure, depending on who you are. And so on. Nobody's going to get all those things out of the picture, but they're all possible.

What separates these pictures? (setting aside all technical details)

One of them has a "story" and the other does not. But let us not get bogged down in stories. When we say "story" we immediately start thinking about things we can write down in words, and that's not what the visual arts are about. If one could write it down in words, then perhaps one should be writing, not snapping.

No, visual arts are broader than that, they can evoke feelings, emotion, more general non-narrative, non-linear associations. Photographs are, essentially, a representation of what was in front of the lens and therefore there is a default connection with the real world. A photograph at any rate begins as a little slice of the real world, a window, a moment, and is intimately bound up with that real world.

Photographs, by their nature, lean heavily on all that stuff outside the frame, that world real or imagined, into which the picture fits, out of which the picture has been taken, and which, we imagine, the picture tells us something about. There's a reason photojournalism is a lot more prevalent than paintingjournalism.

So now I'll introduce the concept:

All that stuff that's not in the frame, but which you sense, or feel, or imagine, or believe in because of what you see in the frame. All of that stuff that the picture is about.

You could call this "backstory" or "semiotics" or whatever, but none of those words seem to quite fit. Some of them are close, but are either too broad, too narrow, or just not quite the right meaning.

Therefore, this somewhat vague, somewhat subjective, mass of stuff is what I am calling trame. La trame is a French word, often translated as "the frame", but which literally means the weft of fabric. This is the thread or yarn of a fabric that is repeatedly passed back and forth, over and under the warp threads, in weaving. It's a continuous thread or yarn that is half of the fabric. I think of the standard "frame" translation not as the frame of a photograph, but as the structural frame, say, of a building.

In addition, trame means almost exactly what we want in French cinema, where it refers to all the curated details that add depth, texture, life to the film.

One of the advantages of borrowing a word from another language is that you can shade the meaning in the borrowing, to more exactly fit your need. I propose to borrow the word for photography, and to use it to mean just what I said above. All that material that isn't necessarily in the frame, but which is evoked, implied, imagined to surround and support the picture, or the pictures. The story, the backstory, the emotional content.

Like this picture, which is a boring picture of a flower with, inexplicably, a wedding ring resting beside it. If you work at it a little, I dare say you can feel at least some trame here.

So what can we say about trame?

Snapshots, vernacular photographs, generally have a lot of trame, drawn as they are from a real life, in real time, as that life is lived. The moment may be superficial, a boy holds his cat, a latte is served. Still, it is an authentic moment in a genuine life filled with all the detail and richness of life. The picture itself may not be much of anything, but the stuff outside the frame, the stuff we can imagine, well it's the whole world, isn't it? That's trame.

Here are a couple very real moments from my family's life. To me they have a lot of meaning. You can probably feel a second-order effect, even though you don't know these people you likely feel that these are real moments from real lives, real people with stories.

A really good portrait evokes the feeling that you know this person. You feel an emotional connection to the subject, you imagine that you understand them in some way. That's trame. A poor portrait doesn't do that.

What if I entitled the stupid Tree photo I started out with instead "Out Grandmother's Window"? We can visualize the grandmotherly figure looking out her window at the tree, perhaps with pleasure?

Consider this series. The first photograph, in particular, is a nothing picture (also out of focus, sorry). Put it in a series and there's something there, maybe. You can imagine the idea of time passing, of mortality. Entitle the series "Leukemia", or "Grandma", or "America" and you get more trame, three quite different sets of ideas come more or less popping out. Again, it is the combination of pictures and title that do it. Without the photos the word "Grandma" evokes a lot of things, but not this.

So captions and titles matter, but also how you group your pictures. A picture of nothing can acquire meaning when grouped with others.

A caption can also remove trame from an otherwise interesting picture, by being too literal. While it is very chic to title things in a literal fashion, imagine re-titling "Migrant Mother" simply as "Woman with Children". That combination of title+picture is much weaker. If the title closes the picture up, forcing it to exist only inside itself, it takes away the power of that externality, of that connection to the world and the imagination.

Consider the three offered titles:

Vancouver, BC, Fall 2015

"Leaf" gives us nowhere to go. Yep, that's a leaf. The date and place open things up to a larger trame. "Death" is arty bollocks but gives us something more to think about. In fact, this picture was shot specifically as part of a larger collection about Vancouver, and it is untitled. It relies on the larger collection working together to give a sense of Vancouver as I see that city.

Is trame purely subjective? No, I don't think it is, not entirely. If I see something in a photo, there's a pretty good chance you'll see something too. Maybe not quite the same thing, but something. Sure, there will be misses where nobody except me sees a darn thing. But mostly, broadly, you'll find that people will agree that there's something there. It's a lot like Art, and not by accident.

I submit, in closing, that trame matters more than almost anything else. Composition is, at best, a tool which could be used to create trame somehow, perhaps by emphasizing the right bits of the picture. Without that emotional connection, that narrative drive, that something-outside-the-frame the picture is just an empty exercise.

I submit further, that a great deal of the Serious Photography being made today lacks trame almost entirely, being focused on compositional technique, on technical details, on copying and improving other ultimately dead, empty, photographs. Sir or madam, your landscape, nude, abstract, is lovely. But what does it say? Why should I like it more than the millions of other similar pictures? While pretty, it is dead, it excites my mind not at all.

Although I do wonder what lens you used...

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Thinking About Trame

Being a sort of wanna-bee scientist I thought about it some, and then did some experiments. I will add a little space after each picture, to give you a little space to think about it yourself before I give my commentary.

Here's a picture of a flower. Let us stipulate, for the purpose of discussion, that it is an awesome picture of a flower, with flawless composition and beautiful lighting, etcetera and so on. Shush, we're stipulating, it doesn't have to be true.

It is just the sort of thing I dislike, because it exists in isolation, it is entirely inside itself and refers to nothing outside. It's perfectly decorative, but that's as far as it goes.

I could endow this picture with trame by adding some text.

The flower symbolizes the hope that one day we may finally dig out from under the damage caused us by Margaret Thatcher and live again as free men, noble and proud, under a new sun.

It wouold be a bunch of hooey, but it would serve to connect the picture to something other than its own rather limited self.

Consider this slight variant.

As a side note, it was a devil to get my wedding ring off, it's not been off my finger in several years at least. Funny story, on my wedding night I was fiddling it on and off my finger in the bar where we were celebrating and managed to damn near lose it. Not only was a JUST MARRIED, it was my father's ring from when he was married to my mom, so it would have been pretty bad all around to lose. It is safely crammed back over my big fat knuckle now.

My cluminess aside, this picture has a little hint of something, doesn't it? It poses some questions, invites speculation. There's no explicit story here, no obvious specifics, but the ring adds something, doesn't it? It suggests that there is something else here, outside the frame. I could name the thing "The End" or "Goodbye" or "The Divorce" or something. Or I could decorate it with more Arty Bollocks about Thatcher! But I don't really need to, it's kind of in there already.

And now for your consideration, a little series:

And here is a little series, starting from the first picture I showed you, but moving through a rather obvious set of steps. This could be just the story of a flower, or a metaphor for death (Ray Wylie Hubbard refers to the train in his song "Last Train to Amsterdam" as a metfer fer dayuth, so I always say the phrase that way).

I could title the sequence "America" or "Leukemia" and transform it instantly into a two quite different metaphors, without having to bother with a tedious artist's statement. Or I could simply leave it alone, and allow the viewer to project whatever ideas onto the series they liked. The series, whatever else you might say about it, includes what I am calling trame in generous amounts, either way. One might say "blunt force trame" on account of it being pretty heavy-handed.

Anyways, at the end of it all, it appears to me obvious that a picture by itself may or may not have trame. Some do, some don't. Add some other pictures, a title, or some text, and the meaning, the idea, the trame can and often does fluctuate wildly.

This says something about photography, doesn't it? It's more of a building block, a component, isn't it? A single component can stand by itself, sometimes, sure. But it's so easy to build bigger and different things out of photos.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

La Trame

Here is a piece from my wise and insightful sister on the word La Trame which I have fallen in love with. Using a french word makes me look smart, right? Without further ado:

La trame is, I think, pretty good - I was discussing Photos-and-Stuff's "missing word" with a Quebecoise friend who scouts here in (somewhat bilingual) western Canada for contacts and potential interviewees and locations for various Parisian film crews' projects, and she suggested la trame, and it felt like it had potential even with her short explanation.

I've looked into the word a bit more since, and it is, as she said, a weaving word. It means the weft, the strand that is woven back and forth crosswise through the plane of tightened warp strands. It is the strand that the weaver is most intimately acquainted with and invests most energy in; this is where much of the patient, meticulous, dexterous "work" of weaving is done. (as an aside, I notice that there seem to be modern reapplications of the word, both new-agey and computer-y, but I did not chase those down, heh.)

In art, la trame then acquires a delightful vibration ("frisson"? whoooo!) - first, it has migrated in the artistic context (such as in the French film industry) to meaning the collection of carefully curated details that provide ambiance, richness, and texture to a story. At the same time, the word also has the feeling of referring back to the fabric of the original meaning, the basic supporting structure of the story, the very skeleton of it, the warp and the weft. In this vibration between ostensibly extraneous detail and fundamentals, la trame then points towards the meat or the body or essence of the story.

As an example, I recall one of her completed documentary films that we watched. It was the Parisian exploration of what happens after the (western Canadian) timber industry has fallen through its initial stages of cheerful, more or less rampaging extraction-industry and is re-grouping - what happens to those workers, how does the industry re-create itself, what are the remnants, what are the new things, stuff like that.

A ton of more or less sensitive contacts and locations was scouted out (and the subsequent reality of actually gaining access for a film crew was worthy of a feature film in itself - "foreigners" wanting to film the difficult ambiguities of a dying industry, yikes!), lots of pixels were captured, and a feature was produced and eventually broadcast.

So there was a narrative, a voiceover which could have, with a little editing, been broadcast as a radio program. That's the story, the statistics, the data, the facts, the meat. Since this was a visual medium, there were the informational shots that are clearly the direct equivalent of data/facts - graphics, maps, locations such as "here we are rolling up to the sawmill, and there are some tree-trunks in a heap with bark still on but no branches" and so on. La trame was, at least partly, in the individual extra shots - a slow, lyrical pan off the river-cleaner's (tiny, compared to old-days) log-boom bucketing after the tug onto the glossy rolling water being pushed aside by the boom, a second or so of the tug-guy's rough, brown, hyper-aged hands on the wheel. Another example of la trame was in the choice of subjects to be included so as to provide additional layers of texture to the story - the crew spent some time filming the river-cleaner's family and home by the side of the river, and a few shots of that subject were included to give context.

But at the same time these details, both the smoothly-buckling river surface and the slightly strained family life, ARE also The Story, in some ways more so than the straight data that one could communicate as a spreadsheet or an essay. In a very real way, these little extras ARE the meat of the visual story that is the documentary.

Now, when you start trying to specifically extract the… meanings/applications/functions of the term la trame as in the film documentary above, and try to relate any of that to Photos-and-Stuff's "the story", the "frisson", the "allusion", the "intuitive knowledge" and so on, as attached to or arising from a given body of photographic work, there is not an exact mapping, at least not to my eye. (In fact, in my dim mind, I almost perceive... a relative inversion of function or relation? will think more? check me on that, if you can?) But I think that a leisurely and contemplative comparison of the world of la trame to what Photos-and-Stuff is trying collectively to dig out could be both enjoyable and fruitful. Like, with a drink of choice in hand, on a stormy Tuesday evening, with paper and pencil at hand for profound sketchings and notes.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A picture

As I have mentioned in the past, I make bespoke "stock" photos for my wife's financial planning blog. For an upcoming post of hers, directly addressing the current political situation in the USA, I made this. Although my political views are not exactly secret, I am posting this here not as a political statement. Recent events have reminded me, though, that this is generally good advice when confronted with whatever you personally feel is a crisis.

We may tweak it or not use at all on my wife's blog, but I think it echoes some sentiments many of us share. I have no desire to get in to a political discussion here, and you may take this little comic strip as my advice to any and all who find themselves at a moment of crisis. I think it echoes Kirk Tuck's piece over here, as well (it is certainly INTENDED to), and I absolutely agree with Kirk on this point. As is, I hope, obvious.

This picture (as well as the ones on her blog) also give you another little look in to what I've been up to with a camera. Among other things, very explicit "story", sometimes with text! I'm so fancy.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Vernacular Story

My best friend Ming wrote his latest version of the usual essay, hand-wringing about the current state of photography and complaining that with so many bad pictures (i.e. the other guy's) that the world is ending and the good pictures (i.e. mine) are being underrated etcetera and so on. If you're attentive to this sort of thing, you see this essay from one person or another every few weeks.

It is salient at the moment in my thoughts. Ming is complaining about several things, among them vernacular photography and low-cost professional photography.

I have nothing to say about low-cost professional photography at the moment.

Vernacular photography, though, gets lambasted in this particular way a great deal, and I sometimes stand up to defend it. This is one of those times.

This notion of "story" or as Mike suggested "the signified" or as my very intelligent sister suggested in email, the French word "trame" is what drives vernacular photography. The picture of the happy drunks at the party, the picture of grandma at the birthday celebration, the happy couple in front of their new home, the wife standing in front of the Eiffel tower, these are simply loaded with trame. They are quite literally a mnemonic, a symbol for, the event and the feelings that went with it.

Even if we don't know the people, this is true. If you find a crumpled print in the alley of the young man and his dog hiking somewhere, perhaps the Marin Headlands but you can't be sure, you feel that. Someone, somewhere, felt this was a moment worth snapping. Someone was having a little moment. Yes, in this day and age it's one moment of thousands of others, similarly recorded. It might be an extremely small moment, it might be a picture of a latte. But it was a moment, a genuine moment in a life, and you can tell.

While you might not care to hang it on your wall, there's a fair chance that it reached you more powerfully, more intimately, than some of the pictures you do have hung on your walls.

How much more valuable, how much more meaningful, than some sterile landscape taken by some earnest doofus with a 10 stop neutral density filter and a shelf of books with advice on pepping up his landscapes!

I am beginning to wonder if I have been all along some sort of advocate for vernacular photography, and it's Everything Else that I don't much like. Is this trame some sort of defining characteristic of a specific kind of photography? And is that specific kind, essentially, vernacular photography?

We've seen on this blog recently a quite different idea of photography, echoed in comments. Obviously it is a thing, a real thing, this idea of a frisson, a momentary indescribable rightness seen and photographed in the same instant. It's something like Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment, except less explicable. Henri Cartier-Bresson's idea seems to bridge the gap between the frisson/instant crowd, and my notion of story or trame. He felt that in that instant, that frisson that he felt, was all tied up with capturing that story, that essence of the moment. He was quite explicit about boiling down into his single frame a larger surrounding idea, context, story.

Others, as I read it, feel a similar moment but do not specifically identify it as that summation of the moment. Their sensation is isolated, perhaps more pure, perhaps more of-itself and less of-the-world. I don't deny them that moment, not one bit! I'm thinking about it, and I might have something to say about it later.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Eric Kellerman: Andrew’s new veil

Please enjoy this guest post from reader and commenter Eric Kellerman, some of whose work I recently reviewed. While there is much I could respond to in his essay, I think that by doing so specifically I would detract from the overall impact. If I reply to one point, but leave another alone, I fear leading us astray into side thoughts and potentially minor details. Therefore, much as I love a good discussion, I think I will leave the specifics here un-addressed by me. Eric's essay stands all by itself, anyways, without any help from me. I am honored to publish it, and I am delighted to get a little insight into Eric's working methods, his "process" if you will, which while quite foreign to me nonetheless makes a lot of sense.

I hope to write quite a lot in oblique response to Eric's piece here, as his ideas filter through my own. I shan't, I think, specifically cite this essay for reasons noted above, but you should most certainly assume that if I say something clever which appears to come from Eric's thoughts, that indeed I have borrowed it lock, stock, and barrel.

This is a viewpoint quite different from my own in important ways, and I welcome it.

Thanks, Eric!

Andrew Molitor’s kind review (21 Oct) of the nude photographs on my website provided real food for thought. Two things stood out: a. My website needs re-thinking (at the moment it’s a chest of drawers rather than a gallery), and b. Andrew’s current emphasis on ‘story’ or ‘theme’ in nude photos may serve to distract us from their aesthetic qualities. Here I’ll focus on the latter point.

Andrew is currently undertaking a very interesting and useful exploration of the notions of ‘story’, ‘meaningfulness’ and ‘theme’ in photography (most recently on 9 Nov). Although he’s still wrestling with these terms, there are examples in his blog entries to aid interpretation. Am I right in thinking that ‘story’ (or ‘meaningfulness’) is experienced by the viewer irrespective of the photographer’s intentions, while ‘theme’ is intentional and explicit, often made so by title or text? If so, that would mean that story and theme need not overlap. In any case, for Andrew, photos fail if they don’t evince a story/aren’t meaningful, or do not convincingly illuminate the theme.

If my understanding of Andrew’s thinking is reasonably accurate, then I worry a bit about the definition of ‘story’. Individual responses to photographs depend so much on such constantly shifting variables as mood, prior personal experience, viewing time, cultural relevance, topic familiarity, and even manner of presentation, and viewing conditions. A single large photo on a wall, properly lit, may well engage the viewer very differently than the same image on a website or in a book. A second viewing of the same photo on the same wall may evoke a different story, or none at all.

In his commentary on my collection of photos called ‘The Averted Gaze’, Andrew notes there is “a lot of room for meaning; one can read (the series) any number of ways”. This statement says something about what Andrew means by ‘story’, but he’s also responding to the title (‘theme’), which, in a fit of whimsy, I gave to a rather unstructured bunch of photos I liked. I am glad that Andrew engages with these photos and can see a potential ambiguity in the title (whose gaze?), but I would be even more happy if I could communicate through the photos what it was that engaged *me* at the time the photo was taken. In other words, my ‘story’ and my ‘meaningfulness’. If I can’t get that across to the viewer, my photo fails (as it surely often will).

I don’t want to talk of ‘intent’ here [1], because I don’t want to intellectualise what I like to think of as an instinctive creative process. What I enjoy about taking photos is the search for those moments when everything (light, shadow, form, texture) comes together compositionally and emotionally before the shutter is clicked. When it does come together, I may feel a brief frisson (thrill, shiver) of excitement. If I’m lucky, the resultant photo will recall the frisson, and I would deem the photo successful if the viewer can sense it too. A helpful analogy might be with music, where we as listeners experiencing frissons during certain (types of) passages in a composition, even on repeated hearings. I assume that they are also experienced during the act of composition and by the musicians themselves.

In my case, such frisson-causing photographic events are not frequent, and certainly never come about through the application of some mingtheinian pre-visualisation; on the contrary, they are largely unfathomable. Which is why I dislike detailed planning and don’t care to record the technical details of a shot so as to be able to recreate it at some other time. Let each new photo be a new discovery, I trumpet. Never go back! I am sometimes asked why I need to have nude bodies in my photos at all, if it’s only about formal things falling into the right places in the composition. The answer is that I think (young female) bodies are beautiful, their owners are fun to talk to, and they participate in a collaborative effort the goal of which is the pursuit of beauty.

It seems to me that ‘beauty’ also constitutes a theme in its own right, though one that Andrew hasn’t paid much attention to. He would seem to prefer ‘intellectual meat’ on his nudes. In his review of another section of my website, ‘The Box’, a series of nude photos of athletic young women, Andrew wonders if the series would have more of this property if the photos could function, say, as an essay about depression or relationships or growth.

Yes, perhaps these themes and others could be addressed by a series of Box photographs or Averted Gaze photos, though to what purpose? I just don’t see my work ever serving as a handmaiden to some ‘worthy’ goal - the photos are what they are. I am after something more visceral, less intellectual.

Andrew’s call for nude photography to transcend its nudity seems to me an attempt at diversion. We’ve seen in the past how the display of nude art could be made acceptable to the public if it was veiled in either displaced time (classical antiquity, for instance [2]) or place (e.g ‘exoticism’ [3]). Now Andrew seeks to wrap a new type of veil of respectability round the nude by asking for it to serve a higher purpose. He doesn’t really want the photos to be about nudity at all. ‘Is it even really possible to do a photo essay of real meaning that involves nudes, or is the viewer just going to be all distracted by the nakedness anyways?’, he writes, only slightly tongue in cheek, I guess.

But then he is a self-professed American Prude (11 Oct)!

[1] Though see Jörg Colberg’s latest piece at I also think his remarks there about about our friends the Bechers and Robert Frank’s The Americans are, er, baffling.

[2] Leni Riefenstahl, and ‘Nelly’ amongst photographers; Alma-Tadema’s painting ‘A Favourite Custom’ illustrates this, as do Bouguereau’s ‘Abduction of Psyche’ and many others of his paintings.

[3] Von Gloeden’s Sicilian youths, African tribespeople, topless Japanese ‘geisha’

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"story" II

Thank you, all commenters! Great food for thought.

At least partly as a result of your remarks, I've refined what I'm thinking of. Many people suggested "evoke" and similar terms, all referring to the verb, the action that a good piece of Art performs. What I think I am looking for is not the action, but the, well, the object of the action I guess. That which is evoked.

Consider a series of photographs that evokes, let's say, ideas of a broken marriage. I recall some Crewdson pictures that seem to me to be about this. The thing in question here is that marriage. One could, and many people have, write a novel or short story about a broken marriage. The pictures are not the same thing, or even really an equivalent. They evoke that broken marriage in a totally different way, show in a very literal sense rather than tell. Although what they show may be subtle, may be oblique references.

Similarly, Karel Kravik's Blood Unquiet portfolio evokes a partially fictionalized childhood. The pictures evoke a thing which is that childhood. They don't tell us the story of a childhood, they don't comment on it or critique it, they simply evoke it. They derive their strength from that underlying object, that childhood, upon which they are built.

Ansel Adams pictures start to get a bit thin here, but I think one can make a case that there's some abstract quality of the sublime which he's shooting for, which isn't narrative at all, which isn't verbal in the slightest, but which (if there's anything at all there) is what his pictures evoke, what they're about.

My portfolio of Vancouver is an attempt to evoke something similarly non-verbal, non-narrative, the flavor and feeling of a place as experienced by me. My "larger thing" is the city of Vancouver, and my time there. The pictures are fragments, narrow views which try to give parallax onto that larger thing.

Many of Sally Mann's bodies of work are successful examples of the same: narrow views into something, giving a parallax view of Youth, or Death, or whatever, as seen by, as experienced by, Mann.

So what's a word for that thing? A novelist might call it back story. J.R.R. Tolkein more or less famously wrote, I dunno, several million words about Middle Earth, and that lent his Lord of the Rings a certain depth that many of us feel made it quite different from the Shanarra series (a blatent knock-off from around the 1980s that was often compared with Tolkien's books.) Back story suffers, for our purposes, from containing the word "story" and being typically seen as a written thing, so I don't think it works here.

I keep hoping that the Spanish or the Finns have Just The Word, but it doesn't seem to be coming out of the woordwork.


For my mainly foreign readers, I got no explanation. Well, I do, but you know it better than I. Look to your own histories, and you will likely see the pattern.

In order to strike a blow against the oligarchs, we handed the keys over to the slightly more rapacious gang of oligarchs, because they insisted loudly and repeatedly that they're not oligarchs at all and it turns out that works, no matter how obviously untrue it is.

Buckle your seatbelts. Today is probably a good day to buy stocks.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Ming Thein on Visual Weight

I direct your attention to this post over here and remark that Ming is, as usual, simply not bothering to look up the standard definitions of things and instead is just making stuff up. It's like reading Arnheim, if the latter had spent five minutes pulling nonsense out of his ass instead of years doing and reading research. Visual weight is something not quite completely different, but definitely different from what Ming appears to be talking about. In particular this nonsense about "pulling the eye" is utter rot, err, I mean, non-standard usage.

For a fellow who professes to be interested in education, his unwillingness to look anything at all up continues to be startling.

However, there's one remark worth noting in there, after a fashion. Right at the end, Ming says this:

I’ve always thought of a frame this way: it’s a flat sheet balanced on one point, which is your subject; in order for the eyes of your audience not to exit the frame – the sheet imbalances itself falls off the subject – all of the other objects must be distributed about the frame just so to be balanced [...]

which is indeed how he constructs his pictures, and which is surely the neatest and simplest explanation for them. Consider what kinds of pictures it rules out.

Anything which is imbalanced is out.

Anything in which there is more than one point of interest is ruled out. A picture of two people in conversation? No.


Thursday, November 3, 2016


I revisit this topic now and then, and I don't think my ideas have changed much, but maybe it's worth a re-run, maybe I have some new words I can use.

In my previous remarks, I made reference to the idea of a larger "story" that a photograph, or group of pictures, could be part of. I also have been known to remark that a picture should "say something", and there are probably a half dozen other similar turns of phrase.

In all cases I mean something that's not really a "story" at all, and I don't mean "say something" in any necessarily verbal way. My intention is something very broad, which is perhaps story-like in a sense. In intention is to convey the idea that a picture should in some sense act like a good short story, a poem, a novel, in the way it evokes something in the right sort of mind. The viewer, ideally, is left with some complex of emotional response, of new ideas, a sensation (not necessarily correct) of some insight. While it might be possible to express this happy result in words, it's not a requirement. I suppose one ought to be able to "talk around" it a bit, if you're one of those people (like me) who enjoys wrestling verbally with the non-verbal.

So it's not a "story", really, it's more like a result of a story.

I can't think of a good word for this thing that Art should do, it seems to encompass a lot. "say something", "tell a story", "challenge the audience" and so on, but there is more, and these aren't really right anyways. There's a little bit of that lame cop-out "I know it when I see it" going on here, to boot.

Perhaps there's a great word or phrase in another language? That would certainly be nice.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Outside the frame

This is coming out a bit more rambling than usual, sorry about that. Efforts to tighten it up are failing.

Over the last year or two I've really been digging around in a couple of apparently unrelated topic areas. The first is "Natural Navigation" and the second is Buddhism (probably more accurately described as some aspects of certain flavors of). I've tried to relate these to photography in various ways, and here's another shot at it.

Consider the photographs of Crewdson, Duane Michals (thanks Nick!), or Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Still" series. These are all pretty explicitly about storytelling, the pictures are designed, explicitly, to look as if they're part of a larger story which may or may not exist. Consider also the great photojournalistic photo essays. These explicitly belong to a larger story which actually does exist. I could put poor hard working Sally Mann back in harness to drag the same point along. The point being, a great deal of very important work gathers its strength from the implied context, just outside the frame.

Natural Navigation, the old approach to, philosophy of, pathfinding, works in much the same way, and in stark contrast to modern methods of navigation. Not only is the ancient pathfinder present in the moment, observing closely, intimately connected with the environment, he or she is making deductions and drawing conclusions based on the current context, what is already known or guessed. Clues are pieced together constantly, supporting and contradicting one another, to create a constantly updated mental picture of where the next destination is and how to get there.

A path is, often, a strip of flattened earth flanked by higher vegetation. A path running west-to-east in the northern hemisphere therefore has the sun on the right, usually, which implies that the right side of the path is shadowed by vegetation more than the left. Puddles might last later into the day on the right, therefore. A clue as to the orientation of the path may therefore be derived by observing the moisture on the path. Not a reliable clue, but added to what is already known, added to a 100, a 1000 other tiny cues, home or a friend might be found.

The essential product of the labor, where am I, how do I get where I am going is intimately connected to what is right here, nearby, and thence outwards to the larger world.

Buddhism, at least some aspects of some sorts, seems to have a similarly idea of holistic connection to the here and now. One is present here and now, but with an awareness like ripples from a cast stone spreading outwards from here and now to, ultimately, everywhere. It's sort of psychological, emotional, or spiritual pathfinding, in a way.

In the same way, again, some of the best photographs are intimately tied up with the here and now, but connected to, related to, the larger context from which they are taken. They contain, or imply, a larger story which is still here and now, which is itself related, connected, outward and outward.

The strength of a great portrait is, I think it can be argued, largely about the way it implies the larger narrative. It feels as if we know the subject, in a sense. We are willing perhaps to extrapolate a little about that person, to imagine their story or at any rate the general emotional, physical, psychological shapes in that story. He looks like he worked hard all his life or she looks interesting or I wonder if he was a dancer might not be detailed stories, but they give us that connection, real or imagined, to things outside the frame.

The hallmark of a poor portrait is that it does not do any of these things. That looks like a high school senior who is interchangeable with all the other high school seniors who have ever stood on the train tracks holding a guitar. It does not matter if you have all five lights in the right spot to best flatter her somewhat unfortunately round face, the portrait is awful.

In the same way many nudes (just to circle back again to the little drum I have been beating of late) are all too often divorced from the world, isolated photographs of nothing, with no connection to anything. I spent a little time this weekend which Weston's Book of Nudes and, Nancy Newhall's fawning essay notwithstanding, I found them kind of boring. Yes yes, sculptural this and that. Perhaps he was the first to give us sharply focused nudes, but he doesn't seem to be to have been the best by any means. Newhall seems to be arguing that he's doing something radical and new, but she's woefully unable to explain what on earth it is except by what it is not (which seems to be Pictorialism, and I agree, but she and Weston both seem to be convinced that the pictures are not abstracts and most of them are). Perhaps the pictures that are actually new are the somewhat unappealing ones of a nude woman sprawled awkwardly on the dunes, her back to the camera?

These last were probably something quite new, we see her moles, she's awkwardly posed, she's not quite classically beautiful perhaps? But still she is a nude on a sand dune, with no convincing connection outside the frame at all. Each is an isolated and inexplicable picture that evokes no particular story, even if we allow the most abstract or formless emotional reaction the designated story. Weston's nudes seem, in the end, to be the same as his peppers, his shells, and much else, an exploration of form and texture, vaguely tinged with the erotic. While that may have played well back in the day, it's just not good enough any more.

Yes, yes, taken in the historical context Weston is a giant, and fully deserves his reputation. The point is that, that was then and this is now. As is so often the case, the gigantic and seminal work of then, if given to us today, would seem a bit silly, trite.

And so we see it with a great deal of modern photography. A gorgeous landscape is just yet another gorgeous landscape. It you don't recognize the mountain, or the outcropping, or the waterfall, well, it could have been shot anywhere any time. It has no connection to anything, it's isolated. A bird in flight is, all too often, just another bird.

We can also see this in failed photo essays. An artist might be trying to show us a series of windows on a larger story and simply fail, we (or I) can't quite fit the pictures together, we (or I) can't feel an underlying story. I might believe in it, intellectually. I might even know for sure it's a real story, because I read the news. But sometimes the pictures can't evoke it for me. The example that comes immediately to mind here is Zachary Roberts, in the NYT Lens Blog, or on the Luminous Endowment site. This is a very real, interesting, tragic story. As I have previously remarked, Zachary's efforts to make something of it with photographs don't strike me as particularly successful (yet?).

Finally one imagines that a set of pictures could evoke a story perfectly well. A completely uninteresting story. Or at any rate a story that fails to interest this viewer, or that.

ETA: Here's a nearly perfect example of that last, an Anti-Passive Smoking campaign. Yes, yes, children are at risk from second-hand smoke. Also, we should probably avoid pushing them over cliffs, or holding them underwater for long periods of time. This is heavy-handed and twenty years too late. Apparently it won an award, for reasons I cannot comprehend.

Anyways. I am increasingly finding, in short, that pictures that don't hint broadly at things not in the picture, don't make me very happy.