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.