Friday, December 29, 2017

'tis the season

This is that gruesome season when everyone is going on about the photo crap they bought themselves for Christmas (I upgraded from the J7200 Wündërkämërä to the J7201 and it has literally changed my life) and people are starting P365 or P52 projects. Professional click-hunters are developing programs for these things. You can download/subscribe/follow some dude's plan, and go practice using The Rule of Thirds in week 13 or whatever.

Well, I'm some guy who talks rather more than he knows, why don't I do one of these things?

I will!

Unlike the others, though, my goal is to devise a program for conceptualizing and developing a project from nothing to something finished over the course of a year, one week at a time. I don't give a shit about "try HDR" or "take a macro photograph", I care about ideas and how one develops them. The end result will be a book, a magazine, a hang-able show, a portfolio. Some coherent body of work, and a complete structure for it to reside in.

A caveat: I have never pursued a project for a year in an organized fashion, so this will be something of an experiment. But, generally, it will be "based on" my working methods, and with a bit of luck will help me to refine them for myself, as well as develop something worthwhile for myself. I will be attempting the program myself.

The general shape of the thing is to break the year into 4 quarters of 13 weeks each. Each quarter will contain 2 "fallow" weeks in which you are to do nothing, I will schedule these where I think best but you may also use them as catch-up weeks. The goal is not really to prescribe a task for each week, but to shape the general course of work. If you elect to skip a week, or to re-arrange the work a bit, that's fine. Or you can follow along slavishly.

What follows is an approximate syllabus, to be expanded later. I will try to get the whole thing sketched out in the first week of January. The task for week 1 is clear, though, and it is to get out and press the button a lot. Shoot more or less at random, things that interest you, things that catch your eye, things you've been meaning to shoot, things that bore you. We'll take it from there.

First Quarter

In the first quarter we will initially develop a modest heap of vague ideas, and refine that into three coherent project ideas or concepts. We'll shoot a lot of material for them. In the end reduce that list of three by one. The aim here is to shoot, repeatedly, to get back out there over and over, to refine ideas into larger concepts, and to end with two really decent, coherent, ideas with a bunch of material for each.

Second Quarter

The second quarter will be devoted to filling out the two viable projects that remain, shooting interstitial material, looking for opportunities to expand or to refine. We'll take some time looking at other things other people have done, looking for ideas and inspiration. Some rough stabs at design and sequence somewhere in there.

Third Quarter

In the third quarter we'll end by finally selecting a single project. On the way we'll be doing more design and sequence work, which is likely to turn up yet more shooting that needs to be done to fill in and complete things. We'll be looking at other work specifically for design ideas to steal. At the end we should have two projects that are definitely complete-able, and mostly "done" in some sense. Those last trivial bits of work should easily consume the last quarter, it turns out.

Fourth Quarter

We'll knock out one of the two at the end of last quarter, and get on with the last one. Time to complete sequencing and design ideas, do some layout, and finally press print some time in December.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Citations of Future Events

I find myself doing this thing from time to time, in which I, roughly, accuse a photographer of copying a picture that was made later.

This is one of the more bizarre and fascinating phenomena which happens in photography, though. Obviously it's not literally true, but it happens anyways. More than we might imagine, I think.

It occurs because of several things which are more or less unique about photography. In the first place, we all tend to make quite a few pictures. Maybe dozens, maybe 100s of 1000s, the point is, rather more photographs than drawings, short stories, poems, or sculptures. In the second place, we're all taking pictures of the same world, with the same people and things in it, all behaving more or less the way they always do.

The effect here is that it's remarkably easy to produce an archive of pictures that contains some pictures that are vaguely reminiscent of, well, of practically anything. There is a certain sameness that occurs over and over, all the moreso within a specific genre or location. Two people doing street photography in Chicago are practically certain to shoot a fair number of similar pairs, pretty much no matter what.

The second wonderful thing about photography is that the edit occurs later. Often much later. These archives lie around for days, weeks, or decades. An archive of raw pictures isn't anything, no matter who shot it, after all. It's just a bunch of junk until someone goes through and pulls an edit out of it.

As a result, it is easy, indeed common, to see someone shoot a bunch of work in 1950, or 1970, or 2010 and let it lie fallow. Someone else then takes some pictures 10 years later, which are then published and become well known. Finally, someone goes through the original archive and finds, unsurprisingly, some pictures that look a bit like the ones shot 10 years later, and publishes those. Those pictures make it into the edit specifically because they cite the ones shot later.

This is usually ignored in the hopes, presumably, that nobody will notice. One could trot out the argument that so-and-so actually prefigured the work of so-and-so, and I dare say the argument has been made (it's jolly compelling if you're not attentive!)

The trouble is that it's not true. While the early photographer is of course not copying the later one, the later editor frequently is copying the earlier one. There's no prefiguration here, it's simply a citation of what is, in a meaningful way, an earlier work. Whether it be plagiarism, homage, or merely a reference, well that depends as always on what else is in play.

As photographers we tend to place too much weight on the moment of button-press. That is, often, not really where the work is done. Often, that's just raw material to be used later.

Friday, December 22, 2017


One of my lovely readers pointed me to this blog post by Blake Andrews. He is, roughly, putting up a defense of the "why can't pictures just be pretty?" position, and leaning on music as his metaphor.

The comments make me itch. Andrews mentions Bach so of course someone has to slip in a gratuitous anti-religion slam (gosh, you're very cool and with it for a 10 year old), and someone else has to say that Bach's music is basically math (no it's not, you idiot). But Andrews does have something of a point.

I'm not quite sure, to be honest, where his position actually is. He is, certainly, making at least the point that not every photograph has to be a moving essay on some Issue of Social or Political Importance. Perhaps this is in fact all he means, in which case his essay is a cheat. He's simply dressed up something universally agreed upon in radical clothes.

He provides as the other end of the spectrum the idea of something being "merely pretty" as if this were the only alternative to the Weighty Tome, and mentions music as an example of something which is allowed to be "merely pretty." This is a fascinating position, because music is absolutely not ever "merely pretty" in any meaningful way There is nothing mere about music, and certainly nothing mere about Bach's music.

This thing about music is that it seems to have a pretty direct channel into our emotions. I don't know how much is built in (pentatonic scale?) and how much is learned (western tonality certainly is) but the end result is that, within a given culture, music provides a vast and powerful toolbox for more or less direct manipulation of the emotions.

Here in the west we can use tonality, tempo, dynamics, voice leading, all kinds of crap. This piece is happy, this one is sad. This is a military march, this is a funeral march, and so on. There's a vast array of tropes that can be, and are, drawn upon, and musicians are specifically taught how to use them "and then modulate to a minor key and slow the tempo down for the serious, sad bit."

The closest thing I can think of to merely pretty music is a music box. Not one of the big ones, the little ones with the rotating dancer. There's no dynamics, no harmony. They merely plunk out the melody. And, note this, nobody actually listens to a music box. We wind them up and are charmed for a moment, as much by the little figure as by the tune. If the tune is familiar, perhaps it unlocks some memories. If the tune is unfamiliar, the sonic part of the object is a complete dud, despite being "pretty."

Music occupies the enormous zone between Weighty Tome and Merely Pretty. One only rarely encounters a piece of music that's actually about anything. There are almost no symphonies about The Problem of Homelessness. As noted, there is almost no music that is genuinely described as merely pretty. The vast majority of music is manipulative of our emotions. Some of it is deeply moving, some of it less so. But virtually all of it moves us.

This appears to me to be the point that Mr. Andrews is missing. No, photography need not always be about The Sorrow of Cancer. It is like music, and like music, it ought to touch us, to move us somehow.

If it is merely pretty, like the plunked melody from a music box, then it jolly well better match the furniture, otherwise, what the hell good is it?

Monday, December 18, 2017

Male Gaze And So Forth

I've been noodling on that side remark from Colberg a while back, and a few things have slowly percolated into my consciousness.

Happens I know a couple people who do or have in the past taken a lot of pictures of beautiful women without their clothes on, hired models for the most part. This is both a basic and ancient practice in Art, and also a complicated situation in these modern times in which women are no longer chattel but fully functioning humans with all the rights and privileges etc.

Somewhere in here it occurred to me that -- maybe -- the digital age of photography has truly enabled a genuinely new thing, a form of exhibitionism. Men and women have been flaunting it forever, of course. It is said that female apes (monkeys?) engage in concealed displays for the benefit of non-alpha males that they fancy, so in some sense this too seems rather ancient.

Still, the age of the internet has enabled people to share photographs of themselves rather more broadly. I first saw it in, um, around 1989 or 1990 when Usenet began to sprout newsgroups for the dissemination of pornography. A few brave, or perhaps foolish, people took to scanning homemade smut and sharing that, to quite literally a global and anonymous audience. No longer restricted to trusted friends, or nearby social circles, the home-made nude suddenly went digital and then a nanosecond later, global.

The home-made nude became public it became media.

Noodling on all of that, I am pretty sure I understand that while male gaze is a thing, it's not a concept you can use to make any sort of judgements about pictures (especially of naked women) without more context. I don't see how it can't make a difference how much agency on the part of the model is going on here.

In movies, female actors who wish to act are constrained by the narrowness of available roles. The models working for photographers occupy a spectrum of agency, from simply stripping for cash to buy food to a full collaboration. The internet exhibitionist who does it only for attention is fully empowered, at least apparently.

Ok, so hold on to those ideas. Male gaze, but in context, and something about agency.

Now you may read this piece, or just take my very brief summary of the bits that I think matter. Female artist Friderike Heuer, of mature years, agrees to be painted in the nude after her breast cancer surgery on the condition that she can photograph the process. Good for her. I keep saying that the way to empower the woman is to hand her the camera, after all. In it there's this quote from Ms. Heuer:

There’re ways of looking at each other that are not objectifying.

Taken literally this is a stupid remark. The our visual system is literally a mechanism for converting the world around us into a collection of mental objects. An immense percentage of our brain (damn near everything except visual system) is devoted to converting the objects that look like instances of Homo Sapiens back into mental representation of people, non-objects. Autism, in very general terms, is a name for the condition of not being able to do that well.

The only way Heuer's remark makes sense is if we treat it as a statement of intent to see past the object and embrace the person behind the person-shaped object. It is the statement to the effect that if the artist and the model and the viewer do their work right, we will tend to see past the object, and to see also the person.

And this, really, is what it's about. Are we attending to the picture? the photographer? the body in the picture? the woman herself? All of the above, of course, to one degree or another. Ms. Heuer's point seems to be to be something about how when we attend to the woman in the picture, we're doing something that's distinct from male gaze something which is, perhaps, better.

This, then, is part of my problem with the standard-issue business of empowering women by taking a shitload of pictures of a shitload of woman with their clothes off. How am I to attend to the woman behind the picture when I am confronted with a dizzying array of more or less identical pictures of different women?

These projects, of course, are about the project, or the photographer, and exist to aggrandize those. They certainly do not exist to empower women, that is a bare-faced lie, because they are literally structured to make the one way of viewing that truly empowers the women very difficult. We cannot but see this mass of naked flesh as a mass of objects, of bodies. A crowd is never a bunch of individuals, it is a crowd.

Putting it all together we have male gaze, but tempered by agency of the subject, and by whatever gestalt of factors might encourage us to see not the body, not the object, but the person. Part of that work falls squarely on the viewer, which I think is an interesting consequence.

While a female role in a film may well be written narrowly, while the character may really just be a placeholder for the hero to acquire at the end, we can still choose to look at her as a full character. After all, in the alternate universe of the movie, she is a real person, with a full life. It is not her fault that the film offers only a narrow view of her. The film makers have done both her and us a disservice in their portrayal, mind you.

Conversely, a photographer may present a fuller view of his model, or of the character his model portrays. Perhaps a series of pictures on some theme. We may choose to simply admire the bodies on display.

The exhibitionist may or may not choose to reveal herself as a person (or a character), and her admirers may choose to admire her person, or merely her body.

There's a whole bunch of people in play here. Model, artist, viewer at least. In some cases, we're all pulling together to portray and to see the person, or the body. More often, there's confusion, with various intents and effects, flying off in different directions. Viewers, especially male viewers, especially male viewers on the internet, will tend to see the body to the exclusion of all else. Their loss. Photographers all too often have no idea what the hell they're trying to do. Even the model's intent is all over the place. It may include a genuine wish to be objectified, to be admired as a beautiful thing.

Since no human being with working eyes admires me as a beautiful thing, I find the concept intriguing myself!

I don't pretend to have any pat answer to the moral issues here, and it seems genuinely difficult if not impossible to comb out. But, case by case, we can at any rate make judgments.

Heaven knows I love to make judgments!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Crit: Frédérick Carnet, The promise of a better world?

I've written about M. Carnet's work in the past, right here, reviewing his project "The Last First Day" which I liked. But not as much as I like the work I'm looking at right now.

You can examine the promise of a better world? right here, and you ought to. I will reserve my comments to "below the jump" as they say, and remind you to go look at the work before you read my remarks again.

First, two fragments.

Joseph Cornell made boxes. Cornell boxes, to be exact. As far as I know, no other artist has taken a credible swing at this, so it's an art form with, really, a single practitioner. What he did was to arrange objects in an open box. Nothing more. Glue, wire, that sort of thing. Just stuff. The effect is sometimes pretty much nothing, but sometimes it's quite startling. He's really just giving you a structured arrangement of more or less ordinary objects, and, zowie, it creates some sort of intense impression.

Fragment #2. All representational art does this thing in which there is a duality in play between the thing represented, and the representation itself. Photography, with its precise optical tracing of the thing, takes this to a kind of pinnacle. If I want to show you a thing and it is inconvenient to actually pry it loose and carry it to you, I will inevitably take a photograph of the thing. It is the way we do that. "Look at this" we say. Some photographs function purely as a way of looking at something, the photograph itself vanishes or is at any rate irrelevant. Some photographs barely represent anything, and what we're supposed to perceive is the photograph itself. Most fall somewhere in between.

If you haven't yet, go ye and look at M. Carnet's pictures now! Look carefully. These pictures are rather densely connected to one another.

Friday, December 8, 2017


Luckily for my wise and erudite audience, Mike C. has written an actually interesting piece, which if you have not yet read (and why not? Hmm?) you ought to read. It's the sort of thing I aspire to write when I am not consumed with fits of bile, and he makes a most excellent case for collage and related forms that begin with photographs and end up somewhere else.

Since this is very much a Thing (especially if we add in, which Mike doesn't, your basic "heavily photoshopped thing that look like a photograph but isn't any more") it's worth a good think and a spirited defense.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Damn It

The holidays are crushing me, so I have limited time and even less inspiration. About all I can do is get mad at Colberg, sorry. I have a couple of photographic projects in the queue to go look at and think about carefully, but for now it's just more grumpiness about some other blogger.

In Colberg's latest set of reviews he includes a book called Fruit Garden which looks like the usual set of wilfully ugly pictures clumsily pasted up into a thudding, uninteresting, narrative. He reads it as some sort of indictment of the Soviet System (and, gosh, thank god we're finally seeing some serious critique of THAT, eh?).

The way I understand his, um, somewhat disjointed discussion of the book, the phrase "Fruit Garden" is apparently a reference to Ivan Michurin, who was some crazy biologist or something in the USSR with some crazy ideas. Looking around a little you find that Michurin did indeed have a "Fruit Garden" in which he bred all kinds of fruit, and so on. So one naturally assumes that the book title is either a reference to this particular fruit garden, or perhaps even a documentation of it.

The fruit garden, the literal thing, we are led to understand, is one of those instances of the Soviet idea that if you just believe really hard you can make something work (but then, we are given to understand, it doesn't work, so there are coverups and lies, and glowing reports of success from the ruins, and so on). This book apparently starts from there and jumps off to some allegory or whatever about the USSR.

That's a very pretty story, it just happens to be totally wrong.

Michurin and his fruit garden predate the revolution by quite a while, and were roaring successes, even after the revolution. Michurin was a serious, dedicated, and fairly successful scientist. He believed some things about genetics which would, in the fullness of time, be proven wrong but which were by no means peculiar at the time. Michurin's name was essentially besmirched by the Soviet Science Complex, which used Michurin's name and accomplishments to promote what would ultimately be shown to be a completely wrong and crazy view of inheritance and evolution. The relevant name here is Lysenko.

Why does this matter?

Well, it is literally Colberg's job to place this book into context, to explain, to describe. He could have skipped the title entirely. But, having decided to explain the title to us, he is obliged to get it right. What he has done, in fact, is to plunge the title into further mystery. If the (successful) fruit garden is supposed to stand in for the (failed) Soviet philosophy, someone has left out some steps.

Was it Colberg, who apparently skimmed and misread the admittedly poorly written Britannica entry, and then declared himself done? If so, well, fuck him for a lazy asshole and he should get out of academia. While there is in fact a large and cozy place for this sort of shit in the academy, there ought not to be.

Was it the SPUTNIK guys who screwed it up? If so, Colberg should either ignore the title, or explain that they botched it. Since he did not, see above.

Is Michurin's garden even the actual referent here? The book talks about Stalin's personal garden, in the bits we're allowed to look at in the store. Where did Colberg come up with Michurin? One assumes that Ivan appears in the book, because otherwise Colberg (who has clearly never heard of the guy) wouldn't know to refer to him, right?

What the hell is even going on here?

We'll never know, because Colberg is sloppy and lazy. My parents, who were actual scholars, would not have recommended this man for tenure.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Male Gaze! Female Gaze!

This is going to be on the "rambling blather" end of things, not my usual masterfully tight, brilliantly argued, essays. Buckle up and drink a couple espressos to stay awake.

Not that I want to be in the business of griping about Colberg all the time, but one of my most excellent commenters reminded me about an aside in Colberg's latest that's worth pondering a bit. The relevant section is this:

From what I can tell, the idea of the female gaze is becoming more and more discussed — a much needed development, given how dominant the male gaze has been in the history of photography (and elsewhere). If I were asked on the spot to describe the female gaze I would probably say that it’s a gaze that is content with how much can be revealed by not revealing it all — unlike the male gaze that just wants it all (and that, where it uses shadows or forms, tends to be always a bit too sure of itself). The female gaze’s default never is to sexualize. Instead, it is celebratory in a way that involves the artist, the subject, and the viewer — again, unlike the male’s, whose default is predatory and whose main mode of work treats its subject as something not equal, something only good to be ogled at. That’s why the dominance of the male gaze in contemporary societies is so toxic: it excludes, and it dominates (one could argue that the neofascism that is now threatening to destroy so many Western democracies — Trump, Orban, Kaczynski, et al. – is a political manifestation of the male gaze).

This is, to an extent, merely an academician kow-towing to current trends and trotting out some vague "women are great" twaddle. But it's still worth a looksee, I think, because there are some real things here.

Male gaze as I understand it (15 minutes on wikipedia) comes from feminist criticism of cinema. It's ferociously complicated in the details and draws heavily on Freud who is completely discredited except in fields where he's still useful. But it's still, more or less obviously, a real thing. The point is that society has long prescribed pretty specific roles for men and women, pretty specific official narratives for their roles. Our cultural artifacts (movies, novels, photographs) are both driven by those social norms, and also prop them up, in a feedback loop.

The idea of male gaze can, I think, be boiled down to the ways in which these gendered social roles are revealed and supported. Women are objectified. Men get all the good tough lines, the harsh lighting, the fisticuffs. Women get soft lighting, they're sexualized, they get submissive lines, and in the end the guy gets the girl, not the other way around. The language around male gaze theory is a little rough, but it's obviously talking about a real thing.

Male gaze is associated with a stack of tropes. Hard light light on men, soft on women. Men are tough, women are soft. The camera lingers on the female body. Etc and so forth. These tropes are not the thing, any more than than hammer is the house, but they do get lumped together, and this is one of the places Colberg gets into trouble. When he gets into this business about shadows and forms, he's really out to lunch. He needs to go look at some of the pictorialists again.

Female gaze is defined in opposition to male gaze and therefore has some problems. The latter is, roughly, just a description of how things are, or at any rate were up until pretty recently. What's the opposite of gravity? Regardless, you can at least get some idea of what ideas might be present in female gaze, things like strong female roles, women getting to be in charge, men being lit with soft light and objectified, that sort of thing. There's a bunch of stuff you can do and lump under female gaze if you like, and I am on the record as being in favor of doing just that.

Colberg illustrates for us some of the trouble one has getting hold of female gaze saying, for instance, "The female gaze’s default never is to sexualize" which is actually a meaningless statement. Does it say "the female gaze does not sexualize?" No it does not, thank goodness, because that would be idiotic. No, it says that the default isn't to sexualize. What this means in real terms is that sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Now, male gaze (by definition) sexualizes. If it's not sexualizing, then it's not male gaze, it's just movie footage of something else. Does that make it female gaze? Who knows? Not me! Not Jörg!

The big area where Colberg runs in to trouble is, I think, that he's conflating authorship with gaze. Women are perfectly capable of producing work that falls under male gaze and Colberg himself just gave us some samples. The photo of Donald and Melania Trump:

Also the entire output of Leni Riefenstahl, to replay Colberg's unfortunate invocation of the name.

No doubt you could find some theorists who would argue that women are literally incapable of male gaze because they're women or whatever, but that is one of those things that is obviously just politics. It's only true if you are willing to let male gaze disintegrate into a meaningless set of mouth sounds. Annie Leibovitz obviously made at least one photograph that is virtually a prototype for the idea. Women are more prone even than men to decide that a good and worthwhile project is to photograph 100 (or 1000 or what the hell go big 10,000) women naked. To empower them, dontcha know.

It's very attractive to say that male gaze is a thing because it's just a bunch of old white guys in charge of making the movies and stuff. It's not true, though. These things are embedded in our society and, to a degree, it doesn't matter who's making the movies. Authorship no doubt helps, but it doesn't reverse things automatically.

Make gaze isn't even automatically bad. It's not as if nobody should ever portray a strong man or a sexualized woman. The problem is that we tend to not portray much else. When you're writing a film script, it's altogether too easy to just start ripping off "Casablanca" and suddenly you've got the well developed character Cliff drinking heavily and telling Robert to "play it" while he remembers his time in New Orleans with the pliant, beautiful, but not very interesting Amelia. If my daughters never saw any other movies, they'd get some pretty weird ideas that I don't want them to have. But they can watch "Casablanca" as far as I am concerned, because they watch and read all kinds of other stuff. Like LEGO DC Super Hero Girls.

So, gaze is neither the box of tropes that is often used to execute it, nor is it the authorship. It is the social construct, the manifestation of the construct in our art, our cultural artifacts, and the relationship between those artifacts and the society.

As for authorship. I definitely like female photographers more than male photographers. Partly this is because men are more prone to being nerdly. I think when you're looking at some dude's pictures, you are more likely to find that he wasted some of his finite resources on corner-to-corner sharpness and whatnot, and therefore had less energy to expend on getting the ideas right, the feel of the thing right, and so on.

It would be tempting, when looking for instance as a razor-sharp landscape, to make some noises about male obsession of possessing it all, in the mode of Colberg. To say that the sharpness is a manifestation of the probing, nay the LITERAL PENETRATION of the male INTO the now EROTICIZED landscape. This would be a bunch of shit, and would detract from the very real idea and the real problems wrapped up with the idea male gaze. What we're looking at is that men are more likely to be nerds, and Ansel told them to make it all sharp. They started fussing with their camera and forgot that the cussed scene actually feels kind of soft, windswept.

I genuinely do believe that women make photographs that look different. It's subtle, unreliable. I think it would be ferociously difficult to actually design a properly blinded test to check if it's even true. Can I pick out photographs made by women better than random? Maybe! Maybe not! How would you design a test to check?

Maybe I don't even like photographs made by women better. Maybe I can't identify them. Maybe I just happen to like a handful of photographers who happen to be women, and the rest can go hang. Don't know, and I don't think it matters much.

Thursday, November 23, 2017


It's our weird holiday today in the USA, as every single other person in the USA has already reported on social media.

Or maybe you're the weird one, for NOT having the holiday, eh? EH?

Anyways, I am thankful for many things, among them my erudite and thoughtful readers, and also the vast ocean that protects me from most of them.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Noble Snapshot

I like snapshots, I think they're a valuable artifact and just plain fun to look at. I think you can probably do really great things with snapshots.

What I don't like is the trend to pretend that they're something they're not, the Noble Snapshot. You needn't look far to find pompously promoted Art Books full of these things. I talked about one not too long ago.

What I mean by "snapshot" here is the photograph that pays little to no attention to the formal details. Foreground and background happily run together. The thing might be a bit tilted for no particular reason. One chap is mid-blink. Whatever. The content is probably interesting only to the people in the picture, except at second-order, at a little remove. I might love it for its simple charm, for its obvious importance to the girl in the picture, for the beautifully incomprehensible personal moment it so clumsily portrays.

Most snapshots I probably won't like much, because there's nothing much there. But still, you know, someone went to the trouble for some reason. Like a child's painting, even blurriest ham-fisted photo of the fridge has something going for it.

What these things are not, though, is Noble.

When you stick them in a heavy book, with a fatuous essay, you're trying to make them into something they are not. The result looks like a mule at a Lippizaner Stallions show. Mules are great, they even have their own beauty if you squint a little. But they're not the Royal Lippizaners, and they would simply look stupid. You do nobody any favors by putting the mule into the show.

Here is a case in point. Colberg has recently reviewed a book by a friend of his. A woman who, in the early 1980s, used a view camera to capture the quotidian moments around her in a snapshot aesthetic. Here's the blurb from the publisher:

When Mary Frey began photographing family, friends and strangers in her immediate environment in 1979, she was in a state of transition. Studies finished, first teaching assignment, pregnant - responsibilities, duties, worries - and the need to look for meaning in everyday life. After a childhood in the sense of an imminent nuclear catastrophe, in an America where lifestyle magazines and television give directions how the BRAVE NEW WORLD should look and function.

Mary Frey has made strange pictures. Technically perfect, between snapshot and enactment, intimacy and distance. Charged banalities with children, adolescents and adults, middle class, USA, 35 years ago. No reportage, a psychogram. Stockphotos that no magazine would have printed, no agency would have used for a campaign. Weird.

And let me also quote from her statement about what I think is the same project (her web site is broken, so I cannot be certain, but the timeline and the subject matter are right):

This project grew out of my fascination with the snapshot as a vessel for and shaper of memory and my abiding interest in the straight photograph as a seemingly truthful and precise record of an event. The work began with a systematic documentation of daily routines (cooking, eating, dressing, etc.). I sought out particularly banal situations and posed my subjects to appear as if they were truly engaged in their activities. The pictures, which have a quasi-documentary look about them, resemble a kind of tableau-vivant. The tools I chose to use--a large format camera, black and white film and diffuse flashbulb lighting--further enhance the stylized look of these images. At once, this body of work attempts to question the nature of photographic truth while using the iconography of middle class customs to comment on societal values and systems.

These remarks make explicit that this is a photography project about photography, it's Art about Art which I have noted is inherently tedious and uninteresting.

And now, finally, let us look at one of these things:

Frey's description makes it clear that this is a fake snapshot. A staged thing, intended to look like a snapshot, intended to capture a quotidian moment. Looking at it confirms this more or less instantly. It is simultaneously mannered in a few details, and also willfully ugly, willfully clumsy.

It's a good sample of a quotidian moment. As a father of daughters I can hardly think of a more typical scene. This is one of those scenes that is simply available, and can usefully be photographed for a project of quotidian family moments.

In fact, look at this:

This is exactly the same sort of thing. It is a staged snapshot, a recreation of a commonly occurring event in Sally Mann's family. In fact, one can imagine that Sally saw the license plate, and spent days or weeks marching her little girls out to stand next to it over and over until she got what she wanted. But, it is still presented under the aegis of a "kind of like a snapshot, a normal moment in a normal life."

The two pictures were shot within a few years of one another, there is no question of whether one copies the other -- of course no such thing is true. This is a common, available, scene.

What is true, however, is that the team putting together Mary Frey's book could not possibly have been unaware of Sally Mann's book, and it's thoroughly unlikely that they did not know "Gorjus." The fact that they selected this picture from Frey's archives and not another suggests a deliberate quote.

But they are wildly different photographs. Mann's is anything but a snapshot, it is a highly structured photograph of a (staged) ordinary moment. Frey's is equally staged, the subject matter is identical, but the aesthetic is completely different, it is willfully ugly. Now, Mary Frey is not being disingenuous or incompetent here, this is precisely what she has set out to do. My point boils down to, in the end, that I don't like it. I do, however, have reasons for not liking it.

Let's see what Sally Mann has to say about the pictures among which we find "Gorjus":

When the good pictures come, we hope they tell truths, but truths "told slant," just as Emily Dickinson commanded. We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up. It is a complicated story and sometimes we try to take on the grand themes: anger, love, death, sensuality, and beauty. But we tell it without fear and without shame.

So we have Frey, with her willfully ugly pictures. The blurbs, the artist's statement, all talk about the process, the weirdness of the pictures, the snapshotiness, the playing with the very idea of photograph or whatever. And then we have Mann with her extremely beautiful picture of the same subject, and she talks not about how great her process is, but about the ideas and themes that are embodied in the pictures.

We cannot escape it. The text wrapped around the ugly pictures, the willfully shoddy ones, is trying to make them sound important. The text wrapped around the beautiful pictures barely mentions the pictures themselves.

The Lippizaner Stallions don't need some huckster shouting about their grace, their beauty, their power. It's the broke-down mules and the crippled ponies that need someone to shout their praises to the masses, at least if they're being sold as graceful stallions. Mary Frey's book, despite the clumsily coy marketing, is not the second coming of Immediate Family. It is at best a completely different book and, realistically, it's probably not very good. No doubt the team behind it would bridle at the suggestion that it's being sold in relation to Mann's work, but only an idiot would deny the connections, the quotations, and so on.

This is not a trend I enjoy. I dislike being sold broken-down mules as Lippizaners, and I can jolly well tell the difference. I may be a rube, but I am not an idiot.

I like pigs just fine. Pigs are wonderful, and a staged snapshot, or even a book of them, might be lovely. But please, don't put lipstick all over the pig.

It makes you look stupid, and it annoys the pig.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Why does Photography Need Theory?

After chopping up the remarkably fatuous Daniel C. Blight a bit the other day over his piece on this, I thought I'd take a whack at it myself. As an aside, I am apparently not the only person who has noted what an idiot Blight it, but he's got the academic word-wooze down pat, so he places pieces in the usual pseudo-academic "web magazines" pretty effectively.

Anyways, to the question in the title. The simple answer is "It does not." It's pretty obvious that photography as a thing, as a cultural phenomenon, as a method of documentary, as an art, could proceed just fine without some bunch of eggheads like Andrew or Blight or Colberg droning on. You point the lens, you press the button, yo.

You need not be an architect to build a house, I happen to know this for a fact. I've seen it done!

But, when you build a house, you are nonetheless working from a pragmatic distillation of architecture. There are things that work, and things that don't. The roof has to go on top if you expect to keep the rain out. There should be places to pee, to cook, to sleep, and they should be separate.

And there are other details, less obvious, but which one could discover by feel, perhaps. Rooms should have window light from at least two sides whenever possible. It is, apparently, a fact that if you have a building in which some rooms have window light from less than two sides, and other rooms with window light from two or more sides, people will avoid the former and spend time in the latter. I mean, unless the latter are perpetually filled with poison gas or something.

This is something one can deduce by living in some houses. This is the kind of thing one can do by instinct, drawing a design that simply has this feature without ever actually thinking about it. You'd have to be a bit gifted, but it could certainly happen.

So, you can do it. Photography can exist, and even develop, by an emergent process based on instinct. People invent new ideas, perhaps by accident, others copy them without much analysis, and you can end up with a sophisticated, broad, creative art form without anyone bringing up the word "dialectic" once.

So what's theory for?

I think it's as much for understanding what you've got as it is for anything else. I, at any rate, treat it mostly as struggling to understand how photographs function. By "function" I mean everything from "how one person looking at one picture reacts" to "how does photography as a whole interact with society as a whole" and everything in between.

You could argue, I guess, that there's also a bunch of theory to be spun around the photographer. Their influences, their philosophy, and so on. And you might be right? It's certainly another topic I am interested in, but I think we already have a name for that: Art History. Perhaps it's a cheat, but I'm going to set it aside.

What I have named as theory is worthwhile, I think, just because it's interesting. It might not be interesting to you, and that's OK. Being interesting is sufficient to be worth studying. But, perhaps there's a little more. Does it inform my, as the kids say, "practice"? I dunno, maybe.

I think it's a more efficient path to communicating. If you ever show a picture to another human or even imagine doing so, you are to some extent invested in what people make of your pictures. Theory isn't anything more complicated than trying to understand, a priori how that might go. On the one hand, what it actually is is simple, but on the other hand how to unscramble the stuff is more or less infinitely complicated. People and society are pretty much complicated all the way down, and how someone reacts to your picture is dependent on all of it, at least slightly.

Things that I think I have derived from my understanding of theory, that are literally in my mind when I press the button:

Shoot what you truly feel deeply about, in a way that exhibits that deep feeling, and the viewers will see it. Maybe.

Propaganda is a real thing, what is the impression I am trying to create here? What idea am I selling?

You can absolutely feel your way through both of these without a whit of theory, but for me, it works to have thought about the ten steps past what I actually need, in order to really nail down the bits I do need.

A Tip for Sounding Clever

Here's what you do. Say something obvious, but then insert some negation and claim that's the interesting thing.

What's really interesting is what the signifier does not signify!

is your template here.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Lookit these bozos

I cannot resist a spot of outright mockery. Look at this thread on this dumb forum:

Image Quality? No such thing?

Which is a discussion of Mike Johnstone's essay of more or less the same title.

Note in particular the theme of "that guy probably just hasn't ever used a good camera." At least one of the commenters on that theme is a Respected Grand Olde Man in that forum.

Colberg's take on Capitalist Realism

I've been chewing on Colberg's recent essay. He's been tweeting about it a lot and has gotten some traction among the titterati. So, I've been thinking about it.

His central claim is that Annie Leibovitz's portraits, and Gregory Crewdson's photography (as a whole?) make up two sides of the same coin, that coin being Capitalist Realism. The latter being, more or less, an analog of Socialist Realism, which was a straight-up propaganda movement which enobled the Socialist Cause with a series of fairly crude tropes that worked pretty well.

What Colberg cannot seem to commit to is just exactly how this works. He's coy but allows for how Leibovitz probably isn't doing it on purpose (and so perhaps we can infer that Crewdson gets the same pass -- notably, Colberg's discussion is wildly asymmetrical, we hear very little about Crewdson, for what I think are excellent reasons.) His claim appears to be that these two present a sort of package. The successful are enobled. Ok, I get that. That would be some great propaganda, and I kind of see the relevant tropes in play. The unsuccessful, Colberg claims, are shown to be hopeless and stuck. The message, Colberg claims, is that "you can't do anything about your shitty lot, so suck it up."

Ok, now, where I sit, this looks like the worst propaganda in the world. This is absolutely how not to do it.

Let's look at Crewdson. His work is pretty depressing. It's extremely mannered. It certainly illustrates the beaten down, the suffering, the miserable. His themes don't seem to be opposition to wealth, particularly, though. While he's certainly done plenty of work that could be construed as about the poor, it strikes me far more as about family trouble, emotional trouble. Crewdson reads as a sort of northern Faulkner, showing us the current link in a chain of inevitable disaster that stretches both back and forward in time. Sex, incest, emotional distance, the crushing weight of aging, all these things are hinted at. But the theme of being a victim of capitalism, much less so.

What makes Crewdson attractive here is the obvious visual similarities to Leibovitz, and I certainly do feel that sense of opposition. They do feel like yin and yang. But if you attempt to hook that yin/yang up to Capitalism, it falls apart. You can hook Leibovitz up, but not Crewdson, and once Leibovitz is viewed as Capitalist Propaganda, Crewdson more or less ceases to be yang to her yin.

If you want a proper yang, well, photographic studies of America's Poor are the hydrogen of photography. Colberg is waist deep in this shit in his MFA program. You'd don't get the cute visual duality, because all that stuff is washed out fake film these days, but at least the subject is right. And, of course, you don't get to cut down Crewdson.

Ok, so I can't figure this out. Let's see if Colberg will just tell us. As far as I can see, the only explicit remark he makes that's relevant is this one:

being able to buy Crewdson’s photographs at a blue-chip gallery helps the wealthy see the role they play, as those providing the concerned pillars of society

Which, to be honest, appears to me to be gibberish. Well, it literally does mean something, but that something makes no sense. He's buried this quote in parenthetical asides and, so be further honest, I think he lost his way halfway through the thought and just dribbled off. It does suggest that perhaps Colberg is claiming Crewdson behaves as propaganda aimed at the rich, further justifying their wealth and power?

Is Colberg claiming that Crewdson is propaganda aimed at the rich, while Leibovitz is propaganda aimed at the poor?

That might make sense, except that one does not traditionally propagandize the entrenched powers, as far as I know.

And, again, why pick on the ambiguous Crewdson when there are probably billions of photos explicitly about how stuck the poor are?

Let's return to Leibovitz.

As a side note, I want to pull out this sentence:

That said, it [the sheer amount of post-processing] also is the one part of Leibovitz’s work that brings her closest to the world of fine-art photography.

To which I respond, what the fuck? Is it 1870 again? Did you forget to take your anti-dipshit pills this morning, Jörg?

And now we come to that damned reference to Riefenstahl. And let us recall that Leibovitz is a Jew. There's absolutely no way Colberg is that tone deaf. Despite his protestations that he's not comparing the two, blah blah blah, there's no doubt that he's digging the fact that he's found a way to jam these two names together. So controversial! Whoo!

As I have noted elsewhere, I will not deny a fellow his impressions. If he saw Riefenstahl in Leibovitz's book, so be it. Having skimmed a bit of this and that, I even sort of see it, although Riefenstahl always had the drama turned up to 11 and Leibovitz is more of a 9. But this connection seems to serve no genuine point, only a rhetorical one. He could have shoved in John Singer Sargent just as well, and the parallel would have been quite a bit more apt. Of course, while it would have been more apt, it would not have led so neatly to his fairly forced discussion of propaganda. He could also have jumped right ahead to Socialist Realism, which would have gotten him where he wanted to go, politically, but, let us be honest, Colberg wants to cut Leibovitz down. Lashing her, however obliquely, to Riefenstahl, accomplishes that, as well as making Colberg look intellectually courageous (to idiots).

Anyways. Colberg's piece sounds pretty good until you actually start to dig and to think, and then it kind of falls apart. I mean, there's some stuff there, and you could probably dig out two or three themes and make some sense of them, but this particular incarnation of the ideas is kind of a mess.

To be honest, I suspect that Colberg saw the Trump picture and recognized Crewdson in it. The emotional distance is right there, and if you look around you see Crewdson did a bunch of pictures with standing automobiles with the driver's side door standing open. Sometimes with a human figure, sometimes not.

I suspect that Colberg noted this similarity, and then spun the rest out of his own fevered imagination, because we wanted to write a "capitalism is terrible" piece, because that's what all the cool kids are doing. He wound up with a sloppy, glib, and in the end kind of foolish piece.

But it's killing it on social media, so he'll probably get tenure.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Anti-Portrait

What's a portrait?

Well, I think it's a picture that seems to reveal something specific the interior life of the subject. Something of character, something of their emotional nature, whatever. Something more than this guy is a carpenter, see, he's holding a hammer. A good one does, anyone. As usual, I say "seems to" because I've never worked out if they actually do, or if they just make me think they do through some sleight of hand.

An anti-portrait, of course, does the opposite.

I come at this from thinking about Robert Frank's book, The Americans, when juxtaposed with Caleb Stein's pictures which I talked about a while back. Whether Stein knows it or not, he's influenced by Frank. It occurred to me that what Stein has done is made a bunch of pictures in the style of Frank, but which do not cohere into a whole the way Frank's does.

This led to down the mental path to the way Frank's book reveals. He went on a pretty specific mission to find the soul of America, and he came back with one. It's by no means a complete picture of America, but it is a coherent essay. It is one of America's many souls, if you will.

Now, one could set Stein's work up as an anti-Frank, but that's unfair, really. It's not that his pictures are fated to never cohere, it's more that his project is woefully incomplete. Whether it will ever go anywhere (no, of course it won't) is unknown and a different essay. Still, the idea lingers. Looking specifically at Stein's portraits, which are related to Bruce Gilden's idea of a portrait, the clearer idea of an anti-portrait begins to emerge.

When Stein photographs someone, he's clearly less offensive than Gilden. His subjects are warmed up toward him, but they are simply mugging, putting on their camera face. By isolating them from their background, Stein more often than not removes any useful context, so all we are left is the reality of the person's physiognomy. This is roughly what Gilden does, except his subjects are usually one step beyond and actually annoyed with Gilden, closed rather than mugging. Either way, nothing of that person's interior even seems to appear.

Our powerful face-reading ability recognizes these people more or less instantly as revealing nothing, of giving nothing away.

These are anti-portraits.

This doesn't make them evil just somehow less interesting. All of fashion is arguably anti-portraits, we're not supposed to be thinking about the inner life of the model. Just look at the clothes, ok?

Stein and Gilden could, and might, argue that the entire point is to focus on the details of physiognomy, to confront us with the person's skin and makeup, or whatever. Is that good or bad? I don't know, but I think it's a lot less interesting. We are, after all, social animals.

The closed face is uninteresting, or at best alarming. In a photo, it's almost never even alarming.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Blurb Trade Books

I've done a fair number of "trade books" on blurb, with mainly black and white photography. They're cheap as anything. I have successfully learned two (2) things.

The first is to be aware that pictures (especially masses of black) will tend to show through, especially with the bargain paper. Be a little cognizant of that, and consider your layouts appropriately.

The second is that the blacks are weak and it can be a bit disappointing if you do black and white with large masses of blacks.. It's not like they're grey or anything, but they're weak. So, first of all, make sure you have beefy blacks. If you "crush the blacks" as they say, starting from slightly open and airy looking darker tones, you're going to get a greyish mist instead of a photograph.

In order to get a picture that reads more or less normally, I push the very darkest tones down, and lift the darker greys (the ones right above the darkest ones) up a little to shove some contrast down into the darker areas, and then I tack everything else in place. This is all in a curves adjustment tool of your choice, and it looks a bit like this:

The result will look terrible on screen, with plugged up shadows and whatnot. Don't you worry, those are gonna open right back up. The result reads pretty well to me in the final print. The blacks, while weak, still read OK. There's nothing to be done about the narrow tonal range available, but you can fool the eye as it were, to a degree.

If you print "straight" you will wind up with a bit of that "crushed blacks" look, with the slightly "open" darkest tones. Which might be what you're looking for. If you're a weirdo.

Why "crushed" blacks means "lightened" I do not know, but there it is.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Somehow, whenever a photographer goes asking for "how to get inspired", or when a photographer offers up advice for inspiration, the answer is always either a piece of gear, a technical method, or a gimmick. Are you uninspired? I know how you feel.

But I know what you ought to do, to get inspired!! I DO! Try macro photography!

Or grab a wide-angle lens!

Have you thought about trying a graduated neutral density filter?!! It's opens up a whole new way to see!

Try a Lee Big Stopper ND filter for super long exposures!

Buy a drone, get inspired by how things look FROM ABOVE!

Use a wide angle macro lens and a 10 stop ND filter ON a drone! Use a drone with a wide angle macro lens to photograph ten things within ten feet of you in the next ten seconds! Because the way to get inspired is to buy more stuff!!!!!

Ahem. Sorry.

I don't know why this is the case, it has something to do with the ways camera owners view photography. There's a strong tendency to seek technical solutions to creative problems, and there always has been. If you can't solve it by buying a widget, perhaps you can solve it with a step-by-step recipe, and if that doesn't work surely a widget AND a recipe will work!

The trouble is that when you're feeling uninspired what you're lacking is an idea.

A widget or a method is not a guaranteed failure here, to be sure. Sometimes a fresh view through a new lens really will produce an idea. Not, however, all that often.

Inspiration can be a lot cheaper. Try asking yourselves these questions:

What is the best thing in the world? What is the worst? What is the silliest? What do I believe in? What in this world is most precious to me? If I could change one thing in this world, what would it be?

Really, any Big Questions. You can probably make up another 50 of your own. When you've worked out something that matters to you, some story you want to tell, then work how to to take a picture of that.

And then take that picture.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Capitalist Realism!

Jörg Colberg surprised me today. He hinted that he had queued up a piece on Annie Leibovitz and Gregory Crewdson, and I assumed it was going to be a tedious snorefest of how much they both suck.

But it's not.

I wouldn't say it's Colberg at his very best but at least he's thinking biggish thoughts again.

What struck me, though, was that after talking about how Annie portrays all these rich assholes as noble heros, in the Riefenstahl mode, he singles out this picture:

Which certainly deploys the relevant tropes. However, it enobles nobody. I find it remarkably subversive. It's the sort of picture that pretty much only Donald Trump would think flatters Donald Trump. It's Crewdsonesque in its suggestion of the imploding relationship. And, mostly, it's pretty much just this picture:

Annie doesn't like Trump one goddamned bit, and she's not afraid to show it to anyone who's willing to look.

Anyways. Jörg is engaged here in the trendy business of pointing out that Art works as propaganda, and then bitching about how the opposing team is doing a better job of it than his team. That's very sad, but Jörg and his crew are complicit.

They bitch about and sneer at Annie and Gregory, because successful populist Art sucks. They promote tedious "my-sad-project" Art, they promote "OMG dictators are terrible" projects. They get behind exhibitions that boil down to "Trump is a doodoohead." And so on.

What they, the leftist anti-neoliberal Art community are failing to do is find any kind of a goddamned voice of their own. You know what works? Propaganda, which is an unkind way of saying "messaging that is clear, accessible, and persuasive" which of course they cannot get behind because they're too precious. What is maddening is that they can see it working for the other side, but refuse to take up the same tools themselves.

Instead they bury themselves in self-reference, post-modern "symbols can only refer to other symbols dontchaknow" blather, dense incomprehensible work about nothing, and self-indulgent displays of childish temper.

Stop bitching about how Annie makes rich people look good, find an alternative narrative, and start pushing the shit out of it using Annie's toolbox. And while you're at it, tone down the sneering at Annie, because she's already doing just that.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Malian Photography, Revisited

The reader with the long memory may recall my remarks on the Archive of Malian Photography. I expressed some disappointment with it, and I continue to be disappointed. It strikes me as, at the very best, a cultural artifact of very little depth.

Turns out there's more going on here!

One of the photographers in the archive is actually a well known guy, a sort of recently discovered (20 years ago or so) wunderkind of Africa. Also, somewhat more recently deceased. As usual, the story is that he labored in obscurity until white guy discovered his vast archive of important work, but the reality is that he was at any rate well known in Mali, and quite possibly known in Europe. It was by the efforts, perhaps, of the white marketing guy, that his previously known work become Important. I don't know where this guy's true story fits, but probably somewhere between those two stories.

So, the guy is Malick Sidibé, and there was a retrospective held in France recently, reviewed in the Tedious Grey Lady. These are much more visually interesting pictures and, perhaps, a somewhat deeper artifact than the Archive cited above has.

The white guy who discovered Sidibé is André Magnin, an independent curator who was actually looking for someone else in Mali. Magnin, to some extent or another, did or does represent the Contemporary African Art Center (CAAC), a project funded by Jean Pigozzi, who is another white guy who happens to have a hell of a lot of money. What exactly the relationships between Magnin, CAAC, and Pigozzi are is a little murky, probably deliberately. Things like CAAC are usually in part a tax dodge anyways.

Ok, so, digging further we find that CAAC/Magnin hold a bunch of Sidibé's negatives, that MSU (where the Archive above lives) appears to be somewhat pissy about this, not least because Magnin clearly has the good ones and the Archive has the shitty ones. If you poke around the Archive a bit, you find some material about how they are very careful that negatives never leave Mali, always remain in the hands of the right people etc, because there's been a lot of LOOTING and STUFF which they're vague about. Another MSU professor mentioned on twitter, without sources, that Magnin has attempted (or is now attempting) to buy the copyrights from Sidibé's family.

In case you were wondering, the princpals at the Archive in the USA are both white. The guy who accused Magnin of trying to buy copyrights? Yup. White guy.

Me? Yes, also a white guy. It's like some kinda fuckin' pattern here.

So, what we have here is a set of pictures, which Magnin essentially made valuable through the marketing efforts. There is now money and prestige on the line, and a Whole Bunch of White People are set to squabble over who gets it.

What seems to have occurred is that Sidibé took a bunch of photos of Malians in nightclubs and at parties in the 1950s and 1960s. They're pretty good pictures, fun to look at, interesting because of context. Had they been shot in Harlem they would have been a minor curiosity. Since they were shot in Africa, they're much more interesting to Euros and Americans. People like me. Me, in particular. They do tell us something that we did not know, but which many people in Africa (not least the Malians) knew then: namely that African youth look and act a lot like Euro and American youth given the chance.

There is a distressing subtext here, about which we can do nothing. It is possible to read these pictures thus: Look at the Africans, why, they're almost like us, what a surprise! Well, they were, until of course the wheels fell off and they re-descended back into their natural state of savagery and poverty, because, Africa.

There is, however, no doubt that Magnin was instrumental in creating the value in these pictures. Sidibé took them, certainly. I will speculate that across Africa over the last 75 years, many photographers have built many such archives. It's just the stuff that was going on, that Sidibé could shoot for money. Africa, obviously, has had lots of photographers and I dare say many of them made some money taking pictures along the way. No Magnin, no value. Obviously, no Sidibé, no value either. Photographs in general, and these photographs perhaps a little more, are valuable because of what they depict (Sidibé) combined with how and where and to whom they are presented (Magnin).

Several questions are raised here.

The first is who is deserving of reward here. These pictures are not even very interesting in Africa, any more than wheat is particularly valuable in Saskatchewan. Are Magnin and CAAC nonetheless simple white exploiters who should justly be cut out of the loop? Should the MSU Archive be placed into the loop, and if so, on what grounds? They're just a bunch of white exploiters with different protocols, really. If Magnin hadn't "discovered" Sidibé they'd be furiously protecting some masks or something from exploiters instead. The Archive of Malian Photography appears to be a grant-funded land grab. They would like to acquire the Sidibé archive in toto and they are hoping to discover more of the same. Surely they intend to respect the photographers, and so forth, but they would also like to make some substantial career hay here as well.

The second is an older and larger question. Are artifacts of a culture better left more or less in situ or carried off to carefully managed archives? The current "correct" answer is that, obviously, the you should send the Elgin Marbles back to Greece. This is the MSU Archive's program, they're restoring negatives in-country, scanning them, carefully restricting access to high resolution scans, and returning the negatives to the copyright holders. Or, well, to someone in country. Someone who seems to be a good choice to represent the copyright holders. Recall that as far as I can tell, these negatives are completely uninteresting even to us, I cannot imagine they're much above the level of trash in-country. A humongous pile of bog standard studio mugshots of people from 65 years ago? Huh? Why would anyone even keep that?

Magnin's program was to bring the negatives to Europe, he acquired the ones that were, once imported, valuable. Did he compensate Sidibé appropriately? Is he compensating the heirs who now hold the relevant copyrights approprately? Unknown, and let's be honest, probably quite secret.

Not to throw shade at the Africans, but these are objects that have very little value in situ. Are these negatives going to be around in 50 years? If we assume that they even ought to be around 50 years hence, it is not obvious to me that Sidibé's family will ensure that's the case. This is something that is nearly impossible to determine without going to Mali. We can be assured that the MSU Archive will certainly assert for us that they're doing the right thing. Their assurance plus a couple bucks will get you a cup of coffee.

The whole thing is a fascinating study of, well, of something. It is certainly a clusterfuck, it is certainly murky, and it has a lot to tell us about how Art gets its value. It makes the Vivian Maier situation, which it resembles in several ways, look positively boring!


I admit I take a certain delight in imagining the MSU Archive's story. Most likely they came in to possession of these pieces of knowledge: That Sidibé was a photographer of note, that Magnin had acquired many of his negatives, and that many other negatives remained in Mali, and finally that these negatives could be made available to more white people under, well, under some circumstances or another.

Then, one imagines, that they got a grant to save Sidibé's work, at least some of it, from the predations of Euro Neocolonialist Powers (Magnin/Pigozzi/CAAC). Money in hand, they started to look for more awesome stuff. Days of sifting through negatives. O.M.G. this is all shit. It's just an endless parade of young people standing in front of shabby backdrops in a simple studio. Magnin has gotten all of it. The fucking tomb is empty. GOD DAMN YOU HOWARD CARTER!!!!!

Then, well, fuck. So they start digitizing what they've got, because, what the hell else are they gonna go? They have this fucking grant. Dreams of The Endowed Chair Of Pan-African Studies At Oxford turn to shit in their hands. Welp, that's how it is in the rough and tumble world of academia, eh?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Crit: Yagazie Emezi

I'm trolling around on Women Photograph for work I haven't seen that's worth a mention.

Yagazie Emezi appears there, and I went to her web site, which is right here. Basically she only takes a half a dozen different pictures, they're fashion inspired portrait-things, but she does them competently. This isn't high concept fashion, this is people standing against a wall, posing, in clothes, hair, and makeup.

What makes it interesting is that it's African, self-concsiously so. This woman has a limited technical palette (well, for all I know she's got vast and incredible powers with the camera, but here she's only using a few simple tropes) which she is using to explore various and sundry ideas. She shows me things that are new to me, that enlarge me, and she shows them to me in a way I can understand. The fact that the photographs are stylistically familiar, the poses, and to some extent the clothes, gives me a portal to access this stuff. These are modern women, living in the same world I inhabit.

On an approach to beauty in Liberia, in which aesthetics are driven not by "correctly" combining fashion elements to please others, but in which you simply choose individual colors and clothes that you like:

You’re not putting on pink because it matches, but because you like it, so you’re going to put it on you

Taken by itself, it's not even that interesting. Taken with the rest of the pictures in "The Beauties of West Point" and with the text that accompanies that project, it snaps in to focus and reveals itself as a cultural facet, new to me.

On body image in Liberia, we get little snippets of interview with young women, and then a picture:

Royda, 30: "I am a 5'1" and a half, curvy, thicker woman, and when I add five pounds, it may look like 10. In African culture, as soon as you gain a little weight, people tend to say, 'Oh, you're getting fat,' which they think is a compliment. You're getting healthier. But it becomes a subconscious thing for me that I'm gaining weight.

Again, nothing particularly interesting. A competent boyfriend shot, maybe. But taken against the text, and against the text and pictures of other young women of various sizes and shapes (all shot in the same place and, roughly, the same way), I learn a little something of "Body Image in Liberia" and how it is different from in the USA.

Interestingly, it strikes me that western ideas of body image are getting mixed in. There's a curious duality between a skinny ideal, which I identify as western, and a no-skinny ideal, which I adentify as Africa.

Something a little more "traditional western media views Africa" appears in the project "Process of re-learning our Bodies" in that we see Africans with scars, sometimes pretty severe. She talks a little about body image in Africa, but does not do a particularly good job of, I think, of telling us anything interesting. There's something vague about African attitudes toward damaged bodies? But the pictures are interesting, in their own way, because she's continuing to use the simple fashion tropes.

I feel like there's something going on here, something which would reveal something interesting to me if only I had a better handle to grasp.

Anyways. Yagazie Emezi. There's more work on her web site. I think it hangs together, if only because she uses that very small visual vocabulary, and I think she's got some interesting things to say. Also, cheerful Africans who are not posing in Traditional Poses for some western dork with a camera, and that's all to the good, right?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Caleb Stein: Man of Mystery

Recently on PetaPixel we have seen a young photographer name of Caleb Stein, an "emerging" photographer as they say, featured with a bunch of pictures. This sort of thing:

which is instantly recognizable as "kid with a camera documents poverty gonna change the world" and which, upon further inspection, turns out to be exactly what it appears to be. There are all the usual tropes. This kid thinks he's Diane Arbus, but has a handful of other tropes he's picked up here or there that he churns out. So what, it's just PetaPixel. He's got a web site of sorts, and there's some other pictures on it, none of which struck me as much better. It's the homeless-people project that's getting traction, though.

What's interesting about this kid is that he's "published" in at least three magazines besides PetaPixel: Huck, Burn, and Trip. At least two of those have print editions, as well as the web site, although who knows if Caleb's work will get printed. I eagerly await his publication in more four letter magazines, perhaps FUCK, tUrn, and pOOp. Caleb has also been nominated, shortlisted, and runnered up in various competitions.

It is inconceivable to me that anyone publishing this photo essay does not instantly recognize it as the uninteresting lightweight fluff that it is. Which begs the question of why they'd publish it, eh?

In addition, he's interned at Christie's and currently interns for Bruce Gilden (collective "ugh" now, all togather!)

All this on the basis of, basically, nothing. The internet is utterly festooned with this sort of thing. This lad has trotted out to the section of Poughkeepsie where the junkies and homeless hang out, he's persuaded a handful of them to pose for him. Then he wraps this up in a little turgid prose about Poughkeepsie's poverty level (I live in a town that's poorer, and it looks nothing like this, although the homeless people look just like that). There's no structure, this is just a collection of "the best ones" in the sense of Likes, one assumes.

These pictures have been done so many times that they're just symbols, standing in for the photographer's politics. They don't even, in any meaningful way, connect us to poverty, to homelessness, to any sort of social problem any more. They tell us, in short and simple strokes, what kind of photographer we're looking at.

He's pretending that he's documenting Poughkeepsie's poverty, but he's not. He's documenting, mostly, a very small handful of addicts and people he thought looked weird enough to be worth his time. The 19% of Poughkeepsie that lives below the poverty line look, almost universally, like regular people, perhaps a little shabbier, in cheaper clothes. More tired looking. A little hunted.

Caleb's got some bog standard "street" shots, there are 10s of thousands of similar "projects" out there on the web, some better, some worse, mostly just about the same. He's parleying this into a career! Good for him, but how on earth does that work?

I smell a powerful mentor, money, or both.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Black and White Landscape

QT Luong (full disclosure, QT is the man I longed to be for years and years until, arguably, I simply gave up because I lacked the necessary ability) has asked some pointed but intelligent questions on an earlier post. He takes issue with my remark about students of Adams, which was ultimately a throwaway remark based on experiences from decades ago in which I interacted with various and sundry Adams followers.

It's not true, of course, that everyone who ever took a lesson from Ansel Adams sucks, nor I dare say is it even true that they all wrap themselves in the mantle of the great man. Many of them suck, and many of them so wrap themselves (or at any rate did).

More interesting is QT's assertion that black and white landscape all kind of looks like Adams. I read this more as "is naturally associated with" Adams, as a more general statement. Certainly the unsophisticated viewer tends to see a B&W landscape and responds "looks a bit like Adams" pretty much regardless, but I think even there they're simply connecting up the basic tropes, not making a literal statement.

But let's look at some pictures. I have selected two well known photos by Adams, and then three more landscapes by two different Westons with similar tonal ranges. I present them here in two versions, one the "orginal" as downloaded from the web, and two a "crushed tones" version, in which the white tones are lowered to a dismal grey, and the black tones are raised to a somewhat darker dismal grey. Let us see what we can see.

It will be helpful to click the pictures and look at them big. In a proper web browser, it should pop up a viewer thing you can use to flip through the photos.

Ansel Adams:

Ansel Adams again:

Brett Weston:

Edward Weston:

Edward Weston again:

I am going to make the bold claim that Adams's pictures lose more by being crushed than either of the Weston's, although neither do they enjoy the process. In particular, without the glittering whites, Adams's work seems to be to be thoroughly demolished. It's still a pretty scene, but it's nothing special. That's just what those places look like. More on this in a moment.

I don't think anyone would mistake Brett Weston's picture, or Weston's dunes, as an Adams. Both of the Westons are far more about firmly graphical pictures, while Adams enjoyed depth of detail you could sink in to forever. Adams was also, I suspect, frankly afraid of the kind of sensual curves that Edward shot constantly. All three of these men have distinctly different voices, though all are photographing, more or less, the same thing with the same tools.

Like most Adams acolytes, I paid little to no attention to his constant harping on genuine emotional reaction to the scene, preferring instead to re-read the bit on N-1 development and the use of Farmer's Reducer. And, had I kept on with sufficient discipline, I would have probably become what so many of his fans did become, an expert on N-1 development and the use of Farmer's Reducer.

If you're attentive, though, you can see in Adams's pictures precisely what he was on about. Again and again, the picture is about bright sunlight picking out a specific detail, illuminating it in a brief moment of glittering brightness, while the rest of the scene is plunged into gloom, buried in the mist, or sometimes just not quite as glittering. Your average Adams follower goes out and waits for the thing to look a bit like an Adams picture, and goes "click". This usually means exciting clouds over a vista. A more sophisticated one mutters about "the light! the light!" and waits for the light to "do something interesting" before going "click".

Adams, quite clearly, waited for the light to do a specific something interesting. He didn't want some random piece of crap illuminated, he wanted that tree or that waterfall brilliantly illuminated, because to him, that was what the scene felt like. In Adams's Yosemite, Bridal Veil Falls is endlessly falling, a brilliant glowing torrent of purest white, into a dim and mysterious valley of deep green trees while mist dense with spirits swirls around and around forever.

In my Yosemite, the sun has suddenly hit, uh, think it's a big rock over there! Or maybe a chunk of ice! I dunno, but quick, set up the tripod! I am not a landscape photographer and never will be.

This, ultimately, is why I so dislike the work of Adams's followers, in the aggregate. On one end of the spectrum, there are tech nerds who take photographs mostly to test their processes, and make sure to shove in some big clouds. At the other end, there are the light seekers who don't quite know what the light is supposed to do, other than to illuminate something or other, so we can be sure to put a Full Tonal Range down on the paper, the way god intended.

Very very few, it seems, have found a distinct voice, an opinion of their own about the what a landscape is.

Having spent more time with John Sexton's pictures, I have to admit that he's one of them. While he's lifted a lot of design from both Adams and Weston, his voice is distinctly different. Nature is a place of calm, of peace. If he finds his god in nature, John's god is a god of whispers and silence, not of dramatic gestures. But you know, he still lifts the graphics from his precursors, and it's pretty obviously deliberate.

You want to make a living, you better sell some product, after all.