Sunday, February 28, 2016

(Not) Shooting Hawaii

As my attentive fans perhaps recall, my family and I were in Hawaii on vacation. Naturally, I had a camera with, and shot a bunch of pictures of my children, my beautiful wife, and other relatives. In a variety of scenic settings, and so on.

Naturally, also, I tried to internalize Hawaii and figure out something "serious" to shoot. Since I am on the record that a handful of days in a new place isn't enough, it's entirely possible that my near-inability to do anything very satisfying is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, all I can do is report what happened to me, from my point of view.

I could have shot a bunch of postcards (and I did shoot a few). I could have shot some arty pictures of coconuts (I did that too). I could have sought out more of the native people and shot them (not so much here, it was a holiday, after all). I could have shot the wild excess of tourism (I did a little).


But none of that is what I wanted to do. What I want, always, is to reveal something of my own view. Before I can do that I need to have a point of view. You could argue that if I hadn't been on vacation but instead had a full week to shoot I'd perhaps have made something, but I am dubious. My method involves a lot of sitting around doing nothing, and I did plenty of that, and I did indeed wrestle with Hawaii and how I feel about it.

The trouble is, it's complicated. Not, I think, any more complex than Tulane or Chicago or New Zealand or Antarctica. But, complex.

Hawaii is one of the last places on earth to be settled by humans. Something like 800 years after the birth of Christ, in our modern accounting, people rolled in. Polynesians, who possibly knew there was something way up and out there, but that it was far off, eventually made the voyage. It's possible that the coconut arrived before them, coconuts being incredibly good at ocean voyaging, These people brought other stuff, taro and probably some animals. It doesn't much matter. They showed up, the islands felt their footprints for 1000 years, and then the Euros showed up and, as they were wont in those corrupt days, screwed up everything. Sandwich Islanders got recruited, one way or another, to work the Euro's sailing ships. The diaspora was on, and colonization was too.

USA has interests, military bases are built, WWII happens, then statehood. Sugar cane happens somewhere in there. Tourism is now a huge deal.

There are layers and layers of residents, wave after wave of colonizers. The history is dense and fraught, there's a lot of animosity, and a lot of Aloha, as well.

There is the constructed view of Hawaii, Aloha and all that. It probably has deep roots, but a great deal of it is an invention of the tourist industry.

Combing all this out is probably impossible. If you shoot the postcards, you're just replicating the tourist myth. If you shoot the natives, you've just a half-assed National Geo wannabee. And so on. There's more to it.

Visually? Hawaii is a maze of visuals. There's a lot of America: strip malls, Safeway stores, condominium towers, hotels, airports. There's a healthy dose of the Caribbean, complete with Jamaican dudes. There's a little California in the run-down ranch houses with the low walled yards with dirt and palm trees. The hills and mountains don't look like anythng else that I've seen, though. Green and lush to windward, dry and barren to the lee. Unmistakeably volcanos, but aggressively eroded by the constant rain and surrounded by the sea. The Pacific Ocean, always present in Hawaii, always near, and not quite like any other oceans. The resorts, entirely false enclaves capturing a myth of the tropics, a sort of dream of Colonial Europe, complete with short brown people serving you obsessively at every turn, and fantastically expensive.

(A side note, SAP was having their annual boondoggle for their top sales people at the Grand Wailea, when my wife and I went there for dinner. This place starts around $800/night for a room, and it's really far from everything. This is designed to contain and entertain wealthy white people. There are multiple swim-up bars, connected by waterslides. One imagines that as you get drunker you get flushed down to lower and lower bars and then, finally, comatose, out to sea. Speechifying SAP executives, hilariously, made these two announcements in my hearing: "We have taken over the island of Maui!" apparently conflating this sort of freakish Disneyland with the entire island and "Unleash your indomitable will!" which my wife astutely points out is actually something we would prefer a bunch of Germans explicitly not do if that's OK. And all this is also Hawaii, isn't it?)

So, there's a lot going on here. As an Artist of some sort, at least aspirationally, it's my job to comment, to remark, not to simply give you a jumble of pictures. Even if the pictures are "the good ones" it's no good unless they pull together to say something about something. A critic cannot simply recite the plot of the movie, or worse, the plot of the first act of the movie.

To make something of Hawaii I need more time to digest, time to think. It would probably be silly to try to "explain" Hawaii, so my goal should probably to select a strand of the thing and bring it out for you. Perhaps I could show how that thread connects to the other threads.

Maybe next year. I had some germs of ideas even now, but they need time to marinate and evolve.

Saturday, February 27, 2016


I just spent a little time pulling together an album of photos from our recent vacation, and fully pulled the plug on Picasa, using native Google Photos interfaces throughout. This involved photos from a handful of sources, taken at various times.

I found that, in general, the preferred method for organizing things was to let Google do it. While you can organize things into albums if you like, Google does not make it frictionless or even particularly easy. This fits in with a paradigm I've been observing for some years now, the first instance I noticed being Apple's "Library" model for iTunes, iPhoto, and so on. I found it particularly curious with iTunes, because music actually comes pre-organized, and the very first thing iTunes does when you shove an album of music into it is to throw the album structure away. It is now just a bunch of tracks which you might or might not be able to re-assemble into the original structure if you search carefully.

The paradigm that vendors want you to use is to simply shovel all your stuff into an enormous heap. Then the vendor will let you search it, and will organize it to a degree for you. Photos get sorted by whatever date the software pulls out, and optionally by faces or whatever.

This is wrong.

The function of a computer is not to store all my shit in an enormous heap. The function of a computer, the cloud, whatever, is to impose order on my data in a way that makes sense to me. No, your ideas for how that order should be imposed are probably wrong. They might be a useful approximation, but they're wrong.

Automatic organization needs to be an assistant, not the end-game. You need to have a clear notion of a "working set" of stuff I am monkeying around with. If I upload a photo now, I need to be able to find it, trivially, and organize it relative to other objects. Sorting it to Jan 1, 1970, because the date field is all 0s is not an acceptable model. I need to be able to select things and put them into boxes, temporary boxes and permanent boxes. I need to be able to put boxes inside other boxes.

Directory structures for filesystems, heirarchical structures of data, are near-perfect models of how to get it right. And we're chucking them away as fast as possible in favor of this new thing.

The reason here is that order matters. I don't want to simply share all my pictures with the world, or even with my friends. I don't want a book made out of some automatically selected thing. Order, organization, reflects my idea of how my stuff ought to look, how it ought to be presented, how it should be shared, how it should be viewed. If you make a few books, regardless of the kind of content, you will quickly learn that the content is a startlingly small part of the problem. It is the structure, the organization, that is difficult and important.

Now, I'm a weirdo. I don't simply want to create a single linear stream of every picture I take and share it with the world, and I am fairly confident that this is exactly what the Average Consumer wants to do. Which is unfortunate, and represents some sort of further dumbing down of everything.

Quite apart from the Average Consumer is a technical problem. Big searchable heaps are wonderfully scalable. If you want to store a trillion things and have multiple copies across multiple servers and disk drives and whatnot, maintaing any organizational structure other than, basically, tags attached to the things, is difficult. Google, not being in to actually solving difficult problems and being extremely in to search, loves the enormous searchable heap. Apple has just lost its way, and everyone else just follows those jokers, and here we are.

The dominant model, the big searchable pile, destroys order and prevents the creation of order.

There was a quotation running around a decade or so ago, I think attributed to Tim Berners-Less, "flat text is just never what you want" which is exactly wrong. Flat text is almost always what you want. If you can't order your thoughts into a relatively coherent linear flow with some footnotes and cross-references, then your thoughts are stupid and incoherent. Order, structure, matters, and it enrages me that we're moving at such a dizzying pace into a world in which our thoughts, our ideas, our songs, our pictures, every product of human imagination, is simply heaved into a big unstructured, more or less sort of searchable heap. Tag something wrong, and it's fucking gone. Oops. Sorry.

Monument, please take note.

Friday, February 26, 2016


You may, or may not, have seen it here first.

Check it out: Monument

And compare with everyone's favorite visionary.

I'm not saying they stole anything, although I'd be flattered. The timelines, sadly, are wrong. This is simply an idea whose time has come.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Part IV

The last few posts have been a bit scattered, especially that Part III, whatever the heck is going on there.

The themes, though, I hope are clear. Connectedness, mindfulness, being present in the environment, in the moment. Taking these ideas for ourselves, and simultaneously preserving and giving them back through the work. Preserving, transforming, and perhaps most important, renewing, facets of the old.

I'm sitting here looking across the bay at the road to Lahaina. I'm eating a biscuit, drinking coffee. I feel like Proust. The biscuit is a little sweet, a little salty. What does this have to do with pictures I might take today? Probably nothing? Maybe something? The road to Lahaina figures disproportionately large in my idea of Hawaii. It's always present in my view from here. At night the cars coming around the point create an irregular lighthouse flicker as they turn, momentarily pointing their headlights directly at us. It took me a couple days to realize what that 'lighthouse' was.

How can I photograph that? I have no more idea how to shoot it than I do how to shoot the taste of my biscuit.

The coconut also figures large here, both in reality and in my mind. The ancient Pacific cultures relied on the coconut. It's designed to spread itself across vast oceans, so it's always there when you arrive. It can sustain human life almost by itself. The Polynesians and the coconut are inextricably entangled.

How can I photograph that entanglement? I can certainly take some pictures of coconuts, but will the idea read?

If I can manage it, even a little, will I have successfully made something new but simultaneously ancient of this little slice of a culture, something which preserves, renews, and shares that worthwhile sliver of our vast human story?

Beats me. But it's ambitious as hell, isn't it?

Monday, February 22, 2016

Part III

Here is the second train of thought spun off from our ancient navigator. Inspired, a little, by the Help Portrait project, about which I may have more to say anon.

We're losing stuff. Parts of our story are being lost. This has been going on since stories were there to lose, of course. As soon as you have two human cultures it will occur to at least one of them that they other could be subsumed and destroyed.

Things like science, large scale economies, and conveniently distant Gods lend themselves to the tools and methods which make destroying other cultures easier. All the happy savages who see God in every stone and thank the tree spirit every time they chop down a tree, they get subsumed at best, and often simply murdered en masse.

I do not propose that these cultures ought to be preserved in amber, either in photographs or on reservations (although the former is harmless and often historically useful). Cultures do and ought to evolve, to merge and fragment.

In fact, I have no particular program.

What I do propose is that as artists these cultures have ideas and themes to offer. In turn, perhaps our borrowings keep a little of what would otherwise be lost.

Be respectful, of course, but be fearless. Don't let some jerkoff tell you that you can't do that because appropriation. Don't fall into the easy traps of mockery or of bland documentation.

The program is specifically of appropriation and integration. This is how cultures evolve, each borrows the best from the neighbor, the antecedent, the conquered.

Get to borrowin'!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Part II

So where do we go now? I have two unrelated trains of thought. This is the first.

We have our ancient navigator. I'm going to make up some things that have the right kind of shape. So, please don't get fussy about the details. Our guy makes a voyage, using his people's intimate knowledge of and relationship with the sea and the sky. The voyage becomes a celebration, it becomes a song, it becomes his name. In part because it was hard and heroic, but in part because it was a natural extension of his people's culture.

We have the woman driving the destroyer. Her voyage becomes a line in the newspaper. There is no song, there is no name. There probably is a party, a feast of sorts.

The first produces a trail of cultural artifacts that echo through generations. The second does not.

If we wish to create cultural artifacts that echo down through generations, that is, Art of some weight, from which navigator ought we best draw our lessons?

More generally, the methods and patterns of these indigenous cultures seem useful and worthy of our consideration. If we follow the methods of the pundits, the well known authors of fat guides to our cameras and How To Shoot Nudes we will see no connection between the way we cook our dinner and how we make our pictures.

To the Lummi, to the Buddhist, to the Polynesian navigator (I extrapolate and guess, here) it is inconceivable that these two should be separate. To us, the Euro or Euro-influenced technophile, there simply is no connection.

Next time you navigate a canoe across an ocean, or cook a meal, consider how this is connected to the Art you have made and wish to make.

The switchboard through which any connection between your dinner and your Art occurs can only be yourself. The question is whether you permit the relationship to flow. I have no guidance for what that looks like, feels like, to you. I do believe that if you find that path, it can only be for the good.

I don't have the answers even for myself, it seems likely that my answers, should I ever find them, would not serve you anyways. Perhaps it's the search that matters?

I'll let you know if I find out.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Part I of... Something

I am at the moment in Hawaii, on holiday. On these things one has the chance now and then to learn a little about the indigenous cultures in 30 minute slices suitable for white people. So I learned a few things, and put them together with a few things I know, and here I am.

This is true: by being attentive to the size and character of ocean waves, and their direction relative to the wind, you can deduce an enormous amount about weather conditions in your area of the ocean, say, the million square miles around you. If you know the approximate date and make a rough estimate of the height of the sun throughout the midday, you can know your latitude fairly accurately. And so on. Bernard Moitessier, who employed a curious mixture of ancient and modern navigational technique, writes about this in The Long Way.

I have no idea what kind of model of the world the ancient Polynesian navigators used. I do know that they integrated close, continuous observation of the ocean, the sky, and the environment, and as a result pretty much knew where they were and what was likely to happen. They more or less routinely sailed absurdly tiny boats over thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean (which spends quite a lot of energy trying to kill boats) and got, generally, to the places they intended to reach. It wasn't safe, but it's still not safe with all our GPS and weather satellites and whatnot.

Consider a young woman on the bridge of a USN destroyer. She navigates with a variety of electronic instruments, but has no detailed notion of the character of the waves. They're 100 feet or more from where she's working, and they don't matter much to her navigational labors. She too can bring her ship home to Hawaii as a matter of routine.

The modern navigator uses a basket of specialized skills, none of which are particularly connected to the life and culture of her people. The ancient navigator used a basket of specialized skills that were an outgrowth of the total knowledge of his people's culture. Knowledge of the sea, the weather, the environment, was intimately tied to the daily life of his people, the way the got their food, how and what they worshipped, and so on.

The destroyer's voyage exists in a bubble, utterly separate and usually secret from the people. The Polynesian's voyage on the same path is literally woven from, and then back in to, the life and history of his people. His voyage has cultural weight and meaning.

Arguably, the bridge officer and the Polynesian are equally ignorant. Neither has the slightest conception of the other's world view and methods. While the bridge officer's world view is more accurate in a modern scientific sense, it serves her not particularly better than the ancient's served him, and in important ways it serves her less well.

There are similar stories to be told about much of the knowledge of indigenous peoples. No, they were not mysterious supermen with magic. There were just people, with world views laughably wrong by modern standards. Their ideas do not stand up to modern scientific methods. And yet, these ideas served then pretty well. Not well enough to allow them to exploit or destroy whichever invaders ultimately exploited or destroyed them, but well enough to live for thousands of years, sometimes, without completely screwing up their corner of the world. That's something we're having a spot of difficulty with, even with all our wonderfully accurate knowledge of everything.

There's a couple trains of thought that lead out from here and bring us back around to photography. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Public Photography

First, set aside the legal situation. The law's job is to produce reasonable answers which we can use to get on with it. The critic's job is to unravel some of the complexity of the situation, to clarify what is. I am, in addition to being a crazy old man shouting at my hallucinations, a critic. My interest here is in our attitudes.

Consider the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. It was made, let us simplify for the purpose of discussion, by a bunch of masons. If you write a novel and describe the building, the hand of the mason is at most gently present in your book. If you paint a scene including the cathedral, the mason is more present. If you photograph the same scene, most will agree that the work of the mason is indeed present in the picture. The picture contains a literal copy, in some sense, of the mason's labors.

You could argue at this point that the picture is a collaboration between the photographer and the mason. Few would refuse to wrap themselves in that mantle, were it offered them.

Nobody sensible would propose that the descendants of the masons are owed royalties. Neither would anyone suggest that the mason's contribution is irrelevant. And, I venture to suggest that almost nobody would propose 'screw those guys, this us all about me'. Our attitude toward the fellows who designed and built the church is positive and charitable. We hold them in some regard, with some respect. If we think of them at all, anyways.

Suddenly, when a rude rent-a-cop rolls up, the self-styled street photographer holds quite a different attitude. You might think that a mall's architect sucks, or that the designer who made the latest Nike logo sucks. The rent-a-cop is certainly rude and ill informed about the law. None of these things ought to change our attitude about who has what rights. Rights, whether there legal sort, or the sort where one is owed a modicum of regard, of respect, ought to be more or less immutable, surely.

Now, suddenly, our legalistic rights become huffily asserted. Not usually to the security guard, no, we scurried away from him. Later, on internet forums, we wax strident. We become smug assholes, falling back on the letter of the law (or rather what we have collectively decided, with the legal expertise of a forum, what the letter of the law is).

The warm feelings of respect have gone away somewhere, what remains is disdain, anger, and a wonderfully shallow sense of entitlement. What is left is a resentful sense that everyone else involved ought to be grateful that we are here with our big camera, and a bunch of weak-sauce arguments about why they ought to be glad. Social media! Exposure!

Maybe the masons just aren't comfortable having their work photographed. It is, frankly, none if your goddamned business why they'd prefer you photographing elsewhere. And perhaps that doesn't mean you shouldn't photograph. I carry on, myself. But how dare you get on your bully pulpit and berate them for it.

If photography is to matter at all, we should have some respect for what's in front of the lens. It's not just a bunch of shit to exploit in order to build up our social media following. Like Soylent Green, it's people.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Stealin' Shit

Ming's in full voice somewhere, ranting on like every forum amateur about mall rentacops interfering with his right to photograph anywhere anytime.

This is one of The Most Common threads on any forum you care to visit, and the text is always pretty much the same. I have rights, the law this, the law that, plus which, everyone ought to be super happy to be photographed, because I know more about marketing than you do, and anyways my ideas about how you present yourself to the world ought to trump your ideas.

Photography is an appropriative act. We take a picture. The intellectual property rights held be a photographer, while generally clear and strong, legally, are in fact rather tenuous and thready when examined carefully.

What is particularly maddening about this particular dumb argument is not that is ignores the very real issues (mall tenants have trade dress out there, and is behooves the landlord to at least make a show of protecting the tenant's IP; mall customers may not appreciate some dipshit with a giant camera taking Street Photographs of them; and so on). No, what is maddening is that the argument always contains the planted axiom that the other guys should be happy I am here being a pest.

I take pictures wherever and whenever I damn well please. I am OK with that because, ultimately, ain't nobody getting hurt. Feelings may get bruised, but I'm not actually hurting anyone physically or financially. But. I don't insist that you be happy about it.

The whole you should be happy about it appears over and over again when some weasel wants to steal shit. People illegally download music and movies, and insist that the artists and studios should be happy about it, because, exposure! Creatives steal software and insist that vendors should be happy about it, because, exposure, and I wasn't going to buy it anyways! And around it goes. An incredibly high percentage of people who make intellectual property also steal it, and then insist that the victims be happy about that, because exposure.

It is left as an exercise to the speculative reader to guess why the weasels insist that their victims ought to, if only they were sensible, enjoy the process of being robbed.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Medium Format

Time was that Medium Format was a real thing. That was in the days of film. The canonical format was a square, 6cm on a side. There was also a bit of 6x7 running around and 6 by 4.5. The latter was, frankly, marginal. It was about not quite twice as big as 35mm (in linear dimensions), although of course the vendors touted its 3x area.

Surface area is all very well, but what really matters in linear dimensions. With linear dimensions 2x as big, you can enlarge 2x further. It is the linear dimensions which turn up in the diagrams which explain why focus drops away much more quickly with the larger formats, and so on. Obviously area and linear dimensions are inextricably intertwined, but quoting areas tends to obscure differences as well as making marginally larger formats look much bigger.

It is these linear dimensions that make the difference in the way larger formats look. The sharpness of focus drops off in such and such a way, there's probably something about how the lenses render out of focus material at that larger physical scale, I dunno. I am pretty sure that most of what you get from a 2x longer edge on the film or sensor can be obtained by opening up about 2 stops, but perhaps not quite all of it. In any case, you run out of stops to open up, quite quickly. Physics, it turns out, is not to be flouted so easily.

Enter the digital era.

We find medium format equipment vendors frankly scrambling. You simply cannot build chips anywhere near as big as the film sizes they were selling previously. The community of influencers making their living telling people to use Medium Format because it's what professionals use are likewise screwed. The systems are still present, but you simply can't make a sensor that's particularly big. There's just no way it's going to look like traditional medium format. Indeed, it's going to look a Great Deal like 35mm ("full frame").

And so you arrive at the present day when, essentially, you have a bunch of snake oil riding on the backs of what used to be a real difference. The largest available sensor is 100 mega pickles or whatever, and it's roughly the same size as what used to be the smallest medium format film. It's starting to look a little like medium format film. Introductory prices are in the $50,000 range. Systems affordable to all but the best off are still less than 2x the size of a full frame camera (linear dimensions), and even these are prohibitively spendy.

Yes, yes, you have much deeper color depth and more stops of dynamic range, maybe. Some of this is surely a sham. But everything modern digital medium format offers is small potatoes incremental stuff, stuff that that you can generally get out of the cheapest consumer grade stuff if you take a handful of exposures and use some software. That big leap from the 25mm by 35mm frame to the 60mm by 60mm is just not available. Of course there are subtle differences, and the enthusiasts have no trouble at all telling the difference until you blind the tests.

And yet the price differential is much bigger than it ever was.

As medium format lost ground on the technical side, it made up for it with hype and marketing. In order to cover the very real costs of what are, ultimately, enormous and expensive sensor chips, they've had to push prices through the roof. Digital Medium Format appears to be the exclusive domain of the well-heeled idiot.

A little poking around suggests that in 1976 you could get a basic 6x6 camera and standard lens for something in the general area of $1000 to $1500 new. In today's dollars, that's $4000 to $6000 or so. So, it's real money. It's also about half of what a 50 megapickle digital back will cost, all by itself. A digital back with a sensor that is 44mm by 33mm. A digital back that's going to make pictures that look a hell of a lot like those produced by a full frame camera opened up a stop.

Now, to be fair, digital MF has been leading the way. They always have more megapickles and bigger sensors. If you want to get out there on the bleeding edge, that's where you got to go. The trouble is that last year's products aren't really superior in any interesting way to this year's full frame products, and are still 3x as expensive. And, obviously, it's nobody's fault that there's no quantum leap to 60mm by 60mm available. Unlike film, where you can simply chop off pieces as big as you like, bigger sensors are arrived at in a series of small, painful, expensive, steps.

But that doesn't change that fact that these are expensive toys for wealthy nerds.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Here's a Right Bloody Mess

Lewis Bush over at disphotic cites this piece of shit, unfortunately as "interesting" when in fact it is anything but. This sort of thoughtless dreck is precisely why Art with a capital A leaves a bad taste in so many mouths. First, allow me a summary for you.

We launch right in with a 10 dollar word, "conjuncture" which means "the current situation" but even I had to look it up and I jolly well know a lot of words. Caroline rambles on with absurdities like "pioneers who shaped the field" who died unknown. Actually, if they shaped the field, we more or less by definition know who they are, idiot. There's a little Gender Issues! and Class Issues! tossed around for effect, but to no particular conclusion. Then we get this gem:

We cannot, therefore, understand artworks independent of the context in which they are made.

because this dope doesn't know what "therefore" means. It absolutely does not follow from vague bitching about gender and class that we cannot understand Art independent of the context in which it is made. While it is perfectly true that we cannot, this author has presented no argument to that effect.

Then we proceed to some name dropping and "Thatcherism sucks", with, astoundingly, an actual connection to the next bit which is that Artists are apparently being More Individualistic and feel that Art is a bit of a competition now. To assert that this is Thatcher's fault is absurd, though. Art has always been highly competitive. Are the Medici somehow Thatcher's fault? Was the Renaissance church somehow Thatcher's fault? I think I speak for all of us when I say "what the fuck, lady?" Her grasp of history cannot be this weak, surely?

The implication, unstated presumably because Caroline is an unthinking idiot. is that pre-Thatcher, Art was made in some sort of socialist paradise.

From here we learn that self-promotion is a big deal (apparently this is Thatcher's fault) and that we either should, or should not, delete our instagram accounts. Namedrop a little more (Walker Evans!) and so on.

Then we go on to a lot of rot about crappy jobs and how Artists have them.

And then we wrap up with a violent left turn into a discussion of her own work which consists of re-photographing the castoffs of her students.

Wait, this twit is a teacher? Ugh.

None of this shit makes much sense, and frankly it's not supposed to. This author is engaged in social signalling. She's letting her peers know that she is Down With Gender Issues and is Sensitive To Class Issues, and she Blames Thatcher For Everything. These are all very cool things to do and be. There's no thesis, there's no argument, there's no conclusion, there's just a bunch of dog-whistle phrases thrown out there in a more or less senseless jumble.

If she has an agenda at all, it seems likely that what she probably wants is for a great deal of money to be made available to fund comfortable academic posts for idiots like her where, with no oversight, they can sit around smoking French cigarettes and talking about bullshit. In fact, if push came to shove, she's probably accept a single comfortable berth just for herself, despite her hand-wringing about how artists compete too much.

The cited piece apparently first appeared in some publication, and clicking through to that hot mess we are presented with a pile of photographic tripe made by "lens-based artists" in defiance of the laws of grammar. I suspect that it is the art that is lens based rather than the artist, but the results are childish bullshit either way. You know the sort of thing, out of focus pictures of bricks which Interrogate the Dialectics of Something Weighty. Get it? Bricks are heavy? Weighty?

I have never seen any of this sort of crap hung anywhere, except perhaps in the worst sort of coffee shops. This leads me to suspect that there is in fact an insular community of people, publishing one another's nonsense, getting little grants to show one another's work, and in general patting one another on the back while talking about the Dialectic of Gender and smoking French cigarettes. I assume further that these people are, basically, academics.

I wish they would knock it off, but I dare say they won't.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


There once was a pundit named Michael
Of habit decidedly venal
Who gave workshops quite dear
But they came with free beer
To render his victims quite genial!

There's nothing to be done about attacks of the limericks, you know, except to apologize.

Notes on The Web

If I just wanted to whale on wrong-headed idiots all day, I'd pretty much go on and on about dumb web sites like Improve Photography and its legions of click-bait brothers and sisters infesting the internet. Instead, I tend to talk about more influential people and places like LuLa and Ming Thein and, now and then, PetaPixel. There's two reasons. One is that they're more influential and therefore more damaging, but the other more benign reason is that sometimes they get it right.

Case in point, Ming's latest. It's not perfect, but it strikes me as being genuine, as if the photographer is actually feeling something and expressing it. There's a little flow to the set, there's some genuinely good pictures in there. The photos of and including the audience are individually pretty weak, bur add greatly to the overall effect. Without them, this would be far too close to a bunch of the same of concert photos we see everywhere. I feel like he's sacrificing his love for his handful of visual tropes in order to actually show us something real, which is something I absolutely advocate. Repeatedly.

Well done!

(I am cattily amused that his commenters are so very very attentive to the work that they've failed to notice the dupe)

(and if the dupe is on purpose, I confess that I don't "get it")

(A peculiar update, apropos of nothing: I am 75% sure Ming's added a second duplicate since I made this post, and he's denying seeing any dupes in the comments, blaming it, absurdly, on flickr. I don't pretend to know what's up.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Capitalist Inversion

There's been some recent buzz around the Beckham kid getting a gig to shoot a Burberry campaign or something. Lots of dumbshits who would never ever in a million years have ever been considered for such a job are bitching about how the kid basically stole work from Real Photographers, and all because he has a million instagram followers. This is actually kind of a thing. Photojournalism gigs are being awarded based on followings as well.

This sounds sucky, and in a way it is, but we'll flip it around in a minute and from that point of view it's still awful but in a completely different way. First let's look at a few other things.

I can think of two bestselling books recently have been turned in to Major Motion Pictures which started out as self-published books that went viral, essentially. The authors went and wrote books, edited them with the help of their friends, published, marketed, and only after all the hard work had been done and all the risk removed did the majors move in to claim a (presumably very large) slice of each of the pies.

Remember when photography was photography, and there was a separate discipline of re-touching?

The digital revolution has enabled in the first place each of us to do more, in certain dimensions. We can now, in practical terns, write and publish books, we can shoot photos, we can re-touch photos. We can do things that used to require a largish staff, and we can can do it more easily than we used to be able to do the single job. I can write, edit, publish, and market a book with less effort than it used to take simply to write it. I can shoot, re-touch, design, and publish, a book with less effort than it used to take simply to do the shooting.

It's also enabled us to reach out and touch people, to build and to reach markets, in totally new ways through social media. Even through blogs!

The upshot of this is a sort of inversion. The capitalist system, always looking to maximize revenue and minimize expenses, naturally leans on creatives to do more with less. Now that we can re-touch in photoshop, easily, the clients demand that we do. It's simply baked in to the gig now. The client increasingly shoves things that used to be their problems outwards into the hands of the creative. Great web design! Can you deploy that out, now?

Endgame for the capitalist is that the creative should do everything except the part where the money is collected. Design the campaign, shoot the campaign, write the copy, lay out the ads, deliver the ads onto the creative's own social media streams, and then the client collects the money.

Arguably the Beckham kid isn't a privileged idiot who's being given a leg up because he's famous, arguably he's a sap who's being ruthlessly played for peanuts by a huge and powerful corporation.

So you could go out there and work your butt off on instagram and social media your way to a gig.

A better bet is to grab not just the work, but also the part where you collect the money. Self publish, and keep it that way. If some major player comes along with a sweet contract, and some glib promises, tell that major player to go fuck themselves. Sure, you might make a modest stack of cash in the short term, but you know they're gonna drop you the second some new guy shows up, and you know as well as I do that that last check might take a while to show up.

I mean, if it's a choice between buying a can of soup and not eating, take the gig.

But otherwise, think it over.

Collaboration Update

I've heard from all of you, now! Thanks to all.

Content can be pretty much anything, although leaning toward photos makes sense. Higher resolution pictures are probably better, but we can work with anything, really. Captions and accompanying text, as you like (or don't like). If you gave in mind specfic pairings or groupings, pass them along. Essentially, if you have ideas of any sort, communicate them. If I disgree, we'll have a conversation and try to come to some mutually pleasing arrangement.

I aim to be experimental! One photo centered on each page, for page after page, ain't quite what I had in mind, although I'm not opposed to some of that, so if you have some whacky idea, by all means. We like whacky ideas.

This is intended to be collaborative, to whatever degree you like. You may send me pictures and then lapse into silence, or you can send me a dense file of ideas and we'll collaborate. The only restrictions are, really: I do not have infinite time, and I get the final say. And that's just to keep it from getting out of hand.

Also, contact information. I'll devote some space to credits, associating content with the artists. You can be "anonymous" if you like, you can give an email address and first name, or your full name and home address. You can give a web site. A handful of words for a bio? However you would like to be known (but please keep it pretty short!), share that with me as well.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Why Look?

This is the essential question for most people who take pictures. Why would anyone else look at my pictures? Turn that around. Why would I look at your pictures?

Is the subject matter alone compelling? Pretty girl? A one-time event? A unique object? You can pretty much just record that, and the subject alone will carry it, to a degree.

Do I know you? I'll probably look at your pictures because of that personal connection. I will genuinely find more to like about your pictures of the same old shit, specifically because I know and like you.

What about, say, Antarctica? It's a pretty compelling place, sure, but there are a lot of photographs of it, and I have no built-in interest as I do for, say, pictures of people. Why would I look at your pictures, rather than some other bloke's pictures? Yes, yes, I know, you brought your unique vision, blah blah blah. No, in general, you didn't. You rode in the same Zodiacs past the same interchangeable hunks of ice to visit the same interchangeable penguin herds on the same interchangeable ice shelves and you made the same pictures everyone else did. Oh, put you punched up the red tones in post? Good for you.

This, essentially, is why I keep ranting on and on about having to form an opinion. What you think is your unique vision, in general, isn't. Bringing a distinctive hand to the pictures doesn't consist of using a longer lens, or a wider aperture, or getting closer, or farther away. That's a finite space of possibility, it's completely mined out, and consists largely of tiny fiddles that nobody except you notices.

When grownups are talking about bringing their unique vision, they're not talking about getting low to the ground, they're talking about having an idea, a concept, of what they're shooting. It is that mental construct that colors and shapes the work, not the selection of tools and angles. If you have the mental construct, the rest follows.

I can visualize how this happens. Someone who's actually pretty good starts in talking about their concept for a body of work, how they formed ideas and opinions, and what they wanted to express, and then towards the end some phrase like "and so I selected a wide angle lens for.." sneaks in. The camera enthusiast hears a sort of Charlie Brown Adult speech:

Wah wahhh wah I selected a wide angle lens wah wAHH

and learns that a distinctive point of view has to do with lens selection.

But what about those unique events? Certainly you can just shoot them, and get some traction. It's unique, and if I'm interested in the event or whatever it is, I'll probably look. Still, a point of view will certainly help. Consider W. Eugene Smith's pictures from Minamata. On the one hand, the subject matter is compelling as hell. On the other hand I feel pretty safe asserting that Mr. Smith had some opinions to express, and the work is all the stronger for that.

Minamata wasn't a run-and-gun deal, he spent a couple of years at it. He wasn't zooming past anyone on a Zodiac. He wasn't hiking up the creek to where he heard there was a great waterfall, timing it to arrive at The Golden Hour, and then leaving. He was living and breathing the situation on the ground and, as near as I can tell, getting seriously pissed off about it.

I'm pretty sure an opinion is always going to help, unless you're making some sort of record photographs for scientific or engineering purposes?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Shot on iPhone 6

I happened to be in San Francisco a few days ago, working on a bit of a career change. Leaving, I found myself in the Montgomery BART station headed to the airport, with 15 minutes to wait.

Apple's bought all the ad display space on the train-level, and put up about 15-20 pictures, all (more or less) informal portraits, two copies of most of them. Hung in pairs.

The message is both clear and convincing: iPhone 6 is all the camera you need.

You can bleat away about low light performance, and Image Quality, and small sensor depth of field and so on. Nobody much cares, though, this camera is fine. It will more than adequately serve the needs of virtually everyone who wants pictures.

This is a really solid campaign. Online, it's simply endless reams of excellent pictures of a certain type, a vaguely artsy snapshot aesthetic.

Nobody here cares about making a statement or expressing an idea. They're recording life, they're making pretty pictures. Sometimes they do a little shadow play, a little juxtaposition of this with that, a little "look at this cool visual thing I saw, look at me being artistic", sometimes they just take a picture of their pretty girlfriend, their cute kid, the dog catching a frisbee. Sometimes the go to Asia and take some of those pictures. The pagodas, the bike filled street, the guy on the scooter with all the baskets, the guy standing out on the end of his skinny little boat silhouetted against the sky.

Practically nobody wants to do any more than that. Practically nobody needs anything more than an iPhone 6 camera.

The message is clear and convincing.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Portfolios: Unity, Variety, and Balance

I'm going to ramble on at some length looking at a handful of bodies of work through my favorite lens, and then having warmed up, move on to look at a little of my own. Naturally, I suppose I will end up judging my own the best, but we haven't got there yet, so who knows?

This is just me ruminating. You may follow along if you like and perhaps you will be entertained, or might find some little nugget along the way of value to you.

Let us start out with some definitions. I was, after all, trained as a mathematician.

Unity is, for our purposes, the extent to which a portfolio hangs together as a unit rather than as a bunch of disparate pictures. A shared subject, a shared point of view, a shared treatment, shared graphical elements, these all bind pictures together. In what I think of as the Walker Evans style, each picture might share a graphical element with the previous one, creating a linear chain of connection. The last photo may have nothing in common with the first, but the chain between connects and unifies them. Gestalt Psychology probably has something to say here, but I'll be hanged if I know what.

Variety is the opposite. It is the tendency within a portfolio for the pictures to differ, to stand out one from the other.

Balance is broader than either. A balanced portfolio is one which seems to have about the right amount of anything which you happen to notice.

None of these are particularly virtues, they are merely properties. A balanced portfolio is no more superior than is a tall man. Still, we often are striving for one thing or another. If we're trying to build a tall man out of parts, let us measure him on the slab when we've finished our sewing. And let us be aware of what we are striving for.

Further. They are all relative. My crushing monotonous unity might be your gently lilting variety. Where I see repetition with trivial variants, you might see fascinating subtlety. Where I see balance you might see a chaotic mess of this thing mixed indiscriminately with that. Still, I think we'll differ mostly on degree. I might say a man is tall, and you might say that he's not so tall as that, but neither of us are likely to call him short.

Be that as it may, we shall likely differ somewhat, as it should be.

First let's look at Mr. Tuck's favorite portraits. Unity aplenty, after all they are all portraits and one feels, I think, the same hand on the tiller throughout. While the artist does not particularly thrust himself forward, it is certainly credible that all these were shot by the same sure hand. This much unity tends to be balanced as well. When nothing strays to far from the center, the load tends to remain upright with little help.

Variety is gently present, I feel. Each subject turns up as an individual, each picture different from all the others because the subject feels distinct.

In contrast we could once have looked at Eric Kim's street portraits. Unfortunately, he seems to have taken this gallery down. A cursory search for "street portrait" turned up a lot of individual photos of the same sort of thing but nothing as useful as the set I remember. I will describe it, roughly, as well as memory permits. It was a series of Interesting Characters, shot in bright color, each person standing squarely in the center of the frame. This had the same unity as Tuck's portraits, even more, being all portraits. The hand of the artist was, as far as I recall more vigorously present. Again we had the balance of essential sameness.

Variety was largely absent. These people were all simply plopped in front of the camera with their "camera face" on. They were essentially interchangeable ciphers. Very well, this one is a shopkeeper and that one a banker, but if they exchanged clothing it would be all the same. Eric was counting on the inherent Interestingness of these Characters to carry the day, and never got past the "camera face."

We can return Ming Thein's recent idea of man pictures. I will take the liberty of blending the color and black and white together on the grounds that the whole fares rather better that way, and anyways I think they're all parts of a whole.

Again a great deal of unity here. The themes of anonymity, solitude, isolation, are consistent. The visual trick of sticking a lone figure, usually dark, framed by something or other, and on a contrasting background, appears constantly.

By treating the b&w together with the color I can feel a range of mood which I did not taking then separately. The b&w struck me as nihilistic, while the color are merely sort of dusty and sad. One might also perceive them in contrast to one another (about which more anon) but I do not. It reads to me as a continuum of mood.

Ultimately I find even the combined collection to be monotonous, the variety in mood does not balance the repetition of motif sufficiently to relieve the sameness. I cannot but glare in frustration when I see the dark figure framed by the bright doorway over and over.

But perhaps that's the point. There is no law that says art needs must make me happy.

And, of course, the best for the last. That brilliant body of work, my Vancouver portfolio. Need I say anything?

Of course I must. I like the balance and variety of it. I think I did well. People, architecture, forest, light and dark, all the elements of My Vancouver, all there is nicely selected degrees. Where it falls down, to my eye, is in the blending of the b&w pictures with the color.

The wet forest elements rendered in my imitation Adams b&w, strike me as a sharp contrast to the urban pictures. Which could work just fine, and perhaps it does, save for one little problem. Those two facets of Vancouver do not in my mind contrast. To me the city is simultaneously both of those things, with no sharp divide.

I have created variety where there should be unity.

See what a useful lens this is?

Friday, February 5, 2016

Biggs-Reichmann Galapagos Cruise

Micheal seems to have taken my remarks on this subject poorly and evidently feels that I have made some errors. See his comment on that item.

In the unlikely event that you care enough about this, and in the interest of fairness, I urge you to click the links given in the piece and check the arithmetic yourself.

I suspect that what Michael means by factual errors is "stuff I don't want to hear" since this is the internet. Michael had regrettably declined to provide me with any specifics. Happily, anyone can check my work to see for themselves. It's crowdsourcing!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Blog Notes

Never read your critics. This well known advice I offer now to all who find themselves mentioned in these pages in an unflattering light. You are of course welcome to read and to comment, but I think in general it is not in your natures to find much here of value to you.

On comments. I have, as far as I know, no ability to edit comments. I can reject them and delete them, but I cannot fix your typos or twist your meaning, as far as I can tell.

For the record I think I have declined to publish two comments in total, excepting duplicates.

I loathe sycophancy. Should you find yourself agreeing too much with me I beg you to find some point upon which to differ and to throw it in my face. Lest I find it necessary to do something expressly to make you hate me.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Potato Pictures

In the news, lately, we find Kevin Abosch, some sort of portrait photographer to the stars, claiming to have sold a print of a potato to an anonymous collector for $1,000,000 or so. There's some words wrapped around this that make it pretty obviously a joke.

Peter Lik "sold" a photo a while back for some number of millions to another anonymous collector.

We are expected to believe this stories, apparently. They're both patently absurd, to be blunt. A facet that I have not seen discussed follows here.

A good portion of the credibility to these stories comes from the fact that other large prints have indeed sold for multiple millions of dollars. The narrative is that Gursky and Sherman have sold pictures for millions, why not Lik? Why not Abosch?

The problem is that this narrative is untrue. Gursky and Sherman did no such thing. They sold prints, through representation, for much smaller amounts. These prints then travelled about, being bought and sold by various collectors. Many of Sherman's prints did not experience gradual price rises to stratospheric heights, but some did. After several years of this activity, in which various works are bought, sold, priced, examined, judged, and considered, the prices have risen on a very small number of them to one astronomical figure or another. In order to command a price of $2,000,000 a piece, generally, has to have already changed hands for $1,000,000, and so on.

Neither of the prints referred to at the beginning here have gone through this process. Both sales are claimed to be primary market sales, as opposed to secondary and things are quite different in the former. For one thing, prices are much lower. So, the fact that some picture sell for millions is in no way evidence of reasonableness in these fake stories put out by the aforementioned scammers. Those sales are almost certainly fake.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Collaboration Followup

Unless I have miscounted (always a possibility, I DO have a doctorate in math, after all, so counting, well) there are exactly 30 pages of signups, which is a bit of a coincidence, but I swear I didn't rig anything.

Unless you are absolutely certain I have your contact information, please send me a note when you read this. Just a "hello, I am so and so and I signed up for your collaborative book project". This is so I can pester you with emails to remind you to get me content.

Remember, if you signed up for N pages, please try to pull together between 2 and 3 times that many elements of content so I have something to work with. I will probably be generous on the low end (if you signed up for 3 but can't give me more than 5, well, so be it) but please do not send more then 3 times the number of committed pages. I don't want to be wading through your entire archive!

Also, the challenge here is to make disparate parts fit, and if I have endless material it becomes easier in some ways.

Of course, if you have a handful of pictures lying around just itching to be used for this project already, send 'em along and your part is done!


My email address is

A cry for help!

It's been a while since I've had anything to say about Ming. So now is a good time to go peek at the pictures from his latest set of photos on The Idea of Man.

Look at the pictures seriously. Be generous, assume that they are "genuine," whatever that even means.

Take your time.

I'm not going to go in to some sort of amateur psychoanalysis here, but I think it's fair to point out that there's a consistent theme of anonymity, of tinyness, of solitude. We see the isolated silhouette, tiny in the frame and dominated by the urban environment, in 10 of the 12 photographs. The other two pictures are crowds, as anonymous as the lone figure, seen from odd angles, and from a distance.

If we take this thing as a philosophical statement, as the artist suggests, it is among the most nihilistic and depressing statements I have ever seen. Is the lone figure, repeated to the point of exhaustion, the artist? (In at least one case it is, in reflection). Is it supposed to be us? I think Ming's position is that it's an abstraction of Man. Does it mean anything that the artist is almost always lurking about behind the subjects, unnoticed, himself anonymous?

It hardly matters, there's no way this is a cheerful statement.

Taken seriously, this isn't so much a portfolio as much as it is a suicide note.

Monday, February 1, 2016