Thursday, March 30, 2017

Hasselblad's Long, Strange, Trip

We have H in the news again, in a small way, and no doubt all three of my readers are wondering when I am going to weigh in. The latest news, in a bizarre twist, almost literally marries two of my favorite topics for gossip and speculation, about which more in a moment.

A little back story. I have been beating the same little drum for a while now, to wit, that H hired Perry Oosting to investigate whether Hasselblad could position itself as a luxury brand. I offer three bits of evidence for this, which you may find slender or no. 1) Oosting's history with luxury brands, 2) The apparently not very successful Hasselblad "snap on" camera for the apparently mildly successful Lenovo Moto Z phone and 3) The X1D camera which seems to be finding success, but perhaps with a different demographic than expected or hoped for?

Recall one of my other little drums: There are people who just want pictures, and there are people who like cameras. There are also people who like photographs and photography. These groups overlap to a degree, but the markets should be treated differently. The people who just want pictures use their phones, period, full stop.

My theory is that what Oosting was looking in to was whether Hasselblad could penetrate the market of extremely wealthy people who Just Want Pictures, and that he discovered that the answer was "No."

In the process, H built this X1D camera which was an unexpected success. My theory continues that Hasselblad did a little digging and found that there was a pretty good sized market, still, people who like cameras and who also have more money than sense. The last bit of my theory is that they discovered that many of these people live in China, or nearby. My guess is that they discovered that they had a lot of orders for the X1D from the Pacific Rim, and that some further investigation discovered that it was not (alas) wealthy oligarchs who just wanted pictures, but rather wealthy dopes who like cameras.

Perry Oosting then pivoted and told his Board of Directors that Hasselblad did indeed need to return to its roots, which have always been extracting money from the well heeled camera lover. There is no billion dollar play putting a H branded widget in every trophy bride's purse, but there are still plenty of well heeled gearheads out there.

Note, though, that the official story since Oosting's hire was always a return to the roots, so it's possible that my "luxury play" side trip is entirely my fantasy, and what we're seeing it actually H staying the course, returning to their roots, since the day they hired Oosting.

Back to my fantastical tale spinning. The deal with DJI then serves two purposes, the first being of course money, the second being to place a couple of wealthy chinese gearheads on the Board of Hasselblad.

The next move was to hire the patron saint of gearheads, a guy who shows no evidence of even liking photography very much but who adores cameras, as the "Chief of Strategy". Yep. Ming Thein works for Hasselblad now, in this vaguely defined role.

Why? Well, there are many possible reasons. Ming's vast knowledge of business is not among them, H being owned by a private equity firm (such firms are, literally, in the business of supplying business acumen to beleaguered firms). Ming's vast knowledge of camera user experience is likewise not a likely reason. In the first place he's at least as idiosyncratic as the average camera user, and in the second place you can simply buy or rent that skill from any number of sources. No reason to hire the guy as a Chief Anything.

No, they want him for his perceived influence. The other bits and pieces are better than a poke in the eye; not having to explain "P&L" might save a little time one day, and I'm sure Ming will have many suggestions for the engineers (which they will, mostly, ignore - I know how engineers operate). While perhaps handy, these are not the underlying reasons for making Ming a Chief Something or Other.

Mostly, they want a gearhead's gearhead pushing their name out there, pushing the idea that the 100 megapickle sensor is simply the shiznit, and so on. It is also possible that H sees an advantage in hiring an Asian here. The politics of ethnicity on the Pacific Rim are not a swamp I would ever choose to wade in to, largely because I have no idea beyond "it's extremely fraught". Still, it's possible that from Sweden it looked like a good idea, and for all I know, it is an excellent one.

H is hiring a senior mechanical design engineer in Sweden, and a project manager (no location given), right now. This means they have plenty of projects in the pipeline, and are looking to ramp up capacity on the design side. Interestingly, both jobs require English fluency, but not Swedish.

My guess is that they've got a 100 megapickle X1D-like object in the works, and that Mr. Thein will be at some pains to explain to us all why it is, really, the only camera that a truly discerning artist can possibly use. Well, I mean, obviously if your standards and skills are not at the Very Highest Level you don't need it. But for the few, the exalted, the X2D-100c wunderkamera is the only thing that will really suit.

Ming has done a truly masterful job, in hindsight, of using the "look, it's not the camera, it's the photographer" theme, and twisting it slightly, to make absurdly expensive gear look like a must have but only for the truly elite which is just a goddamned piece of marketing wizardry. He's turned a truly egalitarian idea literally on its head to sell Veblen goods. Hat's off to Ming! Huzzah!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Teardown #2

The victim. Another free book from the library. I checked more carefully this time to be more sure that it was a standard sewn binding in a standard case. It turned out to be just what it appeared.

Backed spine. 10 quires, the quires are visible as little "lumps" along the top edge of the block of pages inside the case. Each quire also has visible a very slight "gap" at its center, indicating where the gathering of sheets is folded.

You might think of a quire as a sort of comic book or pamphlet, of "sheets" which are laid atop one another (8 sheets in the case of this book) and then folded, to create (in this case) 16 leaves, or 32 pages. The book is 320 pages long, plus one tipped in plate which we will see later on.

Opening it up at the middle of a quire, we've going to find the stitching, to verify that we're looking at a sewn binding.

Here is the stitching. Note the black thread in the middle, yellow/plain linen elsewhere, which gives us a clue as to the details of the sewing. Evidently each "stitch" is sewn separately, in this sewing pattern. Again, we'll see a little more on this later. There are many patterns for sewing, however. When hand sewing, I usually use a single piece of thread for the entire binding, so you'd never see this sort of color change.

For comparison, this is what pages look like that are NOT the middle of a quire. No stitching visible! The outer pages of quires, where one quire meets the next, look slightly, subtly, different again. We''ll see this shortly.

Beginning the teardown, we'll cope with endpapers first. Here is the endpaper tipped on to the last page of the book. You can see the narrow band where the endpaper is glued to the outer page of the outermost quire.

We tear the tipped-in surface off, separating the text block, and then the endpaper is free for another 1/4 inch or so at the hinge, and then we peel it up from the pastedown a little. I am pretending that I want to preserve the endpapers here. Note the cheesecloth/mesh material of the mull now becoming visible.

Recall that the mull is glued to the spine of the text block, and then to the case. We can see here where the mull crosses the hinge area from text block to case.

Both endpapers de-tipped and peeled back, pastedowns area slightly lifted. If we wanted to rebuild the text block, replace the mull, and glue it back into the case (a reasonable thing to want to do, often) we'd need to lift more of the pastedown to expose more area on the case for regluing the new mull. This will do for illustration, however.

I'm just going to cut the mull to free the text block. 

Text block freed, end papers more or less intact on the case. If i were to do the rebuild described above, I would lift the endpapers further without the text block in the way, and clean up the leftover mull glued onto the case to create a fresh area to glue new mull on to.

Preserving endpapers is a gigantic pain in the ass.

If you inscribe a book to someone, never, ever, write on the endpapers. You never know, the book might be important to someone, and they might want it repaired. The endpapers might not survive the repair, and your inscription would be lost.

Leaf in a page or two before you inscribe. Please!

Spine of the text block. Note spine inlay material, the brown paper. The method here is to build a laminate of paper and glue, over the mull, to create the right degree of stiffness in the spine. You want the spine to curve gently when the book is fully open, rather than bending and concentrating stress along a single line. The spine inlay also protects the case and the text block from one another, allowing them to move freely against one another without abrasion.

Spine inlay scraped off to reveal the mull. Stitching thread becomes visible, see the black lines across the spine? That's the black thread we saw inside the quire, at the center. We can roughly guess how the stitching works now.

Scraping/peeling the paper off with a knife up to this point. Next up, we'll use coarse sandpaper.

Another view of the mull, at the same stage of disassembly as above.

Sanded down to clean up, we're down to mull+glue at this point, and we're beginning to abrade the mull. There is very little stiffness left in the spine. The stitching is still intact under the mull.

Let's start taking the text block apart. We'll cut the quires one from the other, which will cut the stitching as we go.

The stitching serves two functions. The first is to "staple" the quires together in the sense that, say, a comic book or saddle-stapled pamphlet it stapled. The nested stack of pages is held together at the fold by the thread (and, as we shall see, sometimes a little glue). The stitching also connects each quire to its neighbors, however. So, cutting the quires apart cuts the threads and will, generally, have a side effect of disassembling the stacked pages of the quire. We'll see this shortly.

Since after sewing the spine of the text block is painted with glue, we get a little seepage of glue between the quires, which effectively "tips" the outer pages of neighboring quires together. Also, a little glue can seep through the thread holes (see below).

Find the gap between two quires, by counting pages carefully, and watching out for tipped in plates! Check and double-check. Look at the spine from above, and so on. Note the glue seepage that has "tipped" one quire to the next. It looks subtly different from the way pages within a quire open.

Peel the quires apart, much as we did the endpapers from the text block. Gently pressing and working the two glued faces apart. The can damage the outer sheet of the quire, but that's an easy repair, so let us not panic overmuch.

Peeling further to expose the mull, view from inside the book, we've separated the quires at this point and what's holding them together now is the glued-on mull material, and the stitching. We have fully "broken" the spine of the book at this point -- you may have noticed this happening through normal wear and tear in an older book. The cheesecloth of the mull is visible, if you peer closely.

We cut the quire off now, slicing the mull and quire-to-quire stitcthing. The quire, a separate 32 page booklet now, gets separated entirely. The stitching got cut, which will release the thread from its "stapling" duties to a degree.

Open the quire to the middle page, here is the stitching we noticed in the intact book, well above. It's starting to pop loose and can be (gently) pulled up and out.

Removed stitching, a clean spine. The quire still hangs together due to glue seepage through the thread holes and also, I think, the way the holes were punched.

Pulling the sheets of the quire apart. Note glue seepage through stitching holes, requiring a careful touch. Innermost sheet first, careful at the stitching holes, them gently apart to give the paper time to gently de-laminate and leave a glued face behind. Again., if you damage a sheet at this point, it's not a big deal, this is an easy repair.

The disassembled quire. 32 pages, 16 "leaves", 8 sheets of folded paper.

Note the plate tipped into the quire. This can throw your page counting off if you are careless. Check and double-check when identifying the ends of a quire! (the center has stitching and is easy to prove, the ends are a little more subtle). This quire appeared to have 17 leaves on one side, and 16 on the other.

Damaged outermost sheet of the quire, I did not do a very good job here. Also, if you get aggressive cleaning up the spine with sandpaper, damage may accrue here. This would need a repair (rice paper tape on the spine, re-punch stiching holes, very easy to do, and largely invisible once the book is rebuilt) if we were going to re-sew this.

And that's it! I could repeat the process with all the other quires, lift the pastedowns on the covers a bit more, and then I could re-sew the text block, rebuild the spine (new mull, new spine inlay) and glue the whole thing back into the case, and then re-glue the endpapers.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An Interesting Opportunity for Comparison

Ming's got a video up, with still embedded in it, from this year's Thaipusam shoot.

I think the pictures he shoots at this thing every year are among his most compelling, I genuinely feel a sense of what it might be like to be there.

But anyways. Watch the video, on the highest quality setting you can render, and compare the footage (shot with a small-sensor Olympus EM1 II, which has a Micro 4/3 sensor, i.e. quite small) with the embdded stills (shot on medium format, ginormous sensor). This thing is supposed to show off How Awesome the Giant Sensor in Hasselblad's 100 megapixel thingy is, and how it totally creates a different look and feel, and how you should totally spend $33,000 on a new camera body.

The camera used to shoot the video is under $2000 for the body, and is quite nice.

I can see differences, for sure. And we're obviously not seeing all 100 megapixels in the stills embedded in the video. But still. It might not have been the smartest thing ever to let people compare an Oly EM1 to a Hasselblad Hd6-100c in quite such a head to head fashion.

Monday, March 27, 2017

San Francisco, How I Shot It

Since this blog is, apart from the ravings of a madman, occasionally about process, I have decided to write up something of what went through my mind making the previous essay and pictures. Also, I am extremely vain. These remarks will almost certainly contain some ex post facto rationalization. I'll do my best to excise it, but like a particularly pernicious cancer, I am unlikely to get it all. To extend the analogy past the breaking point, good taste being long ago left in the dust, feel free to administer chemo in the form of comments.

This is written at speed, with not much correction, because I want as much a "brain dump" as possible. If I start sloshing words around and correcting overmuch, I think some truth will get lost. Plus, I am extremely lazy. Read on at your own risk, etc,

I went on a short vacation to San Francisco, a city which, I have noted, I know quite well in certain ways. This vacation was special, in that it included several days in which I would have literally nothing to do. I mean, I could have laboriously contacted old friends and tried to set up lunches and so on, but I am very bad at that sort of thing, and fairly anti-social besides. So, I had many hours in which to wander.

I arrived, therefore, camera in hand, and with a vague notion. I knew that I did not want to "document the city" because let us be realistic, the last thing this world needs is more goddamned pictures of San Francisco. I had some notion of looking at the current culture of the city as compared with the way I remember it from about 2009, when I last lived there. A very vague notion. Perhaps a compare-and-contrast deal, something like that. The rise of the "tech bro"? Something about differences, I thought.

I wandered around shooting things. New things, old things, things I remembered being there and things I did not. After a little it seemed to be that the city, at any rate SOMA where I spent much of my time, was infested with a small set of archetypes. A sort of young person on the make, a tech bro, a would-be venture capitalist, young women generally looking hunted, bros on various powered skateboard variations, some cyclists but not many.

At some point, I do not recall when, I decided on a words and pictures format, perhaps a magazine. Daniel Milnor has been pushing this pretty hard, so it was on my mind, and at some point it crystallized into a fully conscious decisions. Some time after I arrived and started shooting, and some time before the last day.

I experimented with contrasts, shooting a bunch of pictures of "finance bro" types passing the Mechanics Monument on Market St, which was pretty much like shooting fish in a barrel. The pictures didn't read, particularly. The monument is too big, I cannot simultaneously capture the bronze laborers and the well-dressed rent-seeker convincingly.

I also explored the possibilities of contrasting signage. A high end fashion label and a run down hotel in the same frame. Again, it didn't particularly read.

At no time did I consider shooting the ubiquitous homeless people. There's simply no point.

Eventually I jettisoned the idea of contrasts between haves and have-nots, partly because it wasn't working visually, and partly because it seemed trite. A lot of pictures of "old" San Francisco, and of old/new contrasts got binned. By the last day I was completely focused on the haves, and had decided to let the words speak to the have-not side of things. After all, why bother taking pictures of the homeless? All I need to do is say "homeless" and 1000 pictures, all better than what I could shoot, flood to mind. Better to shoot, I decided, what seemed to be unique to my experience.

At this point it became clear that the pictures couldn't just be a standard illustration of the words, since half of the subject matter was just going to be missing. Well, that was something of an evolution. I think I actually continued to shoot "established", "old", "have-not" subject matter for a while, but it was petering out.

The monochrome cars hit me, I think, on my first day of walking. I was walking down 3rd Street, past RayKo, when I turned to what I knew was a commuter parking lot. At first glance, I thought it had become a fleet parking lot, and then I muttered quietly "holy shit" as I realized it was still commuter parking, but commuters were all driving grey cars. A turned to the street and there it was. Holy shit. The stream of monochrome cars. Once I noticed it, I was appalled, and started shooting the cars. I have many shots from various angles, but finally settled on shooting them side-on with a brightly colored object in the background for contrast. These eventually became a collage, because I could not imagine inflicting more than one frame of this tedious on even a hated enemy, and yet I wanted to convey the mass of similar cars.

The brand collage came about similarly. It is, as one commenter noted, a common trope. Because it works. All those big names of fashion are huddled together near Union Square, and I think all the stores I included have arrived in the last 5 or 6 years. Saks was in town previously, and their big store remains at the corner of Powell and Post, but the one I shot was a new, second, storefront on Market. Again, I could not fathom including one more frame of this stuff, but the point was to show the multiplicity.

The visual that had really struck me, as I think it always does, is the masses of young people on the make. They're always there, always different looking (on my every-few-years visits). This visit really hit me hard, though. These people were the main point I wanted to make, so I took a lot of pictures of them.

I wanted to pin down the "guy on an electric skateboard" thing, of which there is a surprising amount. Sometimes it's a homemade segway-thing, or a weird thing with a single ball in lieu of wheels, or whatever. At one point I had the shutter speed quite low, to create motion blur on the skateboard guy, and started back in shooting walking tech bros. This gave me the blurry people, which I decided I liked, for no particular reason. While I never got my guy-on-a-skateboard shot, I wound up with a lot of B-roll of blurry bros.

Finally, as part of my standard peregrinations, I went slowly through Yerba Buena Park and, as I always do, walked through the Martin Luther King memorial with quotes from the man. It's tucked behind an artificial waterfall, so not everyone knows about it. It looks like I have mis-attributed the picture I took there, the quotation does NOT appear in the "I have a dream" speech, but in a 1967 interview. Well, I didn't know that.

Anyways. For obvious reasons, one of the quotations stood out to me, so I shot it, and then quoted it to everyone who would hold still for several days.

Salesforce Tower, which takes the penis metaphor of the skyscraper to newly literal levels with its curved tip, um, I mean top, was an obvious target, so I took a few pictures of it for reasons I could not put my finger on. Usually I avoid tedious record shots of nothing, but it felt important.

Whether I was subconsciously planning this all along, as I was assembling the final photos it suddenly made sense to put it next to the MLK quote, with a notation of distance, 750 meters as the crow flies. 750 meters from the giant cock-idol to the god of money, computers, software, and power to the MLK quotation.

And then, as I was departing, I saw salesforce tower one more time, in the far distance, from Oakland Airport, and shot it one more time over the wing of a plane, and then I burned and dodged like a maniac (pace Mario Giacomelli) to make... I don't know. Some sort of point. You get to decide, I guess. But it felt important to show off this view.

In the end, I liked the blurry people a lot, even though not all commenters do. I have some notion of these men blurring together into a mass of identical instances of the archetype. Dark clothes, backpacks worn with both straps (would have gotten you quite literally beaten up in my high school), wired earbuds and phones. So there's a fade from sharp to blurry.

The pictures, not being really illustrations, are intended (WARNING: ARTY BOLLCKS. GIRD YOURSELF.) as a parallel stream of criticism or discourse, supporting and, I supopose, contradicting the text, as suits the viewer.

Without the pictures, I would not have written the essay the way I did. Without some notion of the essay finding itself in bits and pieces in my mind as I shot, I would not have shot the pictures I did. The two were born together, in a sort of fuzzy spinning mass of ideas, visuals and phrases, which was only partially formed as I left the city. It would take a couple of weeks to settle into the form I published here, ideas banging in to one another like tiny irritating icebergs, until it all settled more or less in to place.

I'm not convinced I did much of anything good with the visual archetypes I saw in the people. Everything else, I am pretty happy with.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

San Francisco

The following is not about photography, it is photography. Or something. I am going to try to get around to publishing this thing as a magazine, and perhaps even making it available for sale. I welcome opinions, reactions, and so on. Do please note that your advice if offered might get ignored, but your reactions will ceretainly not be. Thank you for your consideration, and respond (of course) in absolutely any way you choose.

I have visited San Francisco regularly for something like 25 years, and lived there for 6 of those years. It's never really been my city, but it's a place I know well, and which I have observed from the outside for half my life. I had occasion to return there a few days ago and, circumstances being willing, performed my preferred flânerie with more intensity than usual.

I will likely get many of the details wrong, but what follows should be right in broad strokes.

Capitalism has baked in to it the idea of constant growth, constant change. Competition drives growth and change. Enterprises of various sorts grow or die, and eventually, all die and are replaced. It includes a built-in inflation, exacerbated locally by fads, by abrupt changes in technology, by growth of industry, and so on. I am no economist, but these things all seem to be true, and I gather that they are essential parts of the capitalist system. Mostly, it works fairly well. When one region experiences one form of growth or another, let us suppose that wages rise, expenses and incomes more or less rise roughly together.

When income rises, especially rapidly, within a group or region, though, it can forces prices up across a larger context. This, in turn, makes the have-nots have somewhat less, in relative terms, arguably twice over. Not only has their income not risen correspondingly, but everything costs more now.

San Francisco has always been a city of change, and has for much of its history been a city of a sort of hyper-capitalism. Wave after wave of newcomers arrive. Each wave more highly paid than the last, while some of the previous wave are cashing out their stock. Rents and purchase prices for homes ratchet upwards to newly surprising levels. Each generation of newcomers, the cry rises, ruins the city for the previous waves, driving out marginal businesses, rendering non-viable everything that made the city desirable in the first place. I was in the wave of newcomers that arrived after the first dot-com boom imploded, and I left shortly before the current bubble really got frothily under way. I did my bit, ruined the city for the remaining, scarred, survivors of the first dot-com bubble, and then I left.

In San Francisco, prices are always rising faster than in the region. Always.

Each wave makes everything, especially living quarters, less affordable to all the non-wealthy people. Each wave of newcomers to San Francisco is part of a phenomenon which drives the less affluent further and further from the city, out into increasingly remote suburbs. Each wave, interestingly, tends to be instantly recognizable on the street. You can tell at a glance who is new and who is not. Not, of course, with 100% reliability, but you can get a general sense that most of this mob arrived in the last couple years, that group over there is from before 2010, that guy was probably here before 2000, that guy might even be a native. Your guesses will be interestingly better than random. In part it's simply age. People tend to arrive in San Francisco when they're about 25 years old.

The men seem to be more identifiable than the women, possibly because the women adopt a broader range of styles, and possibly because the women are (appear to my eye to be) more ethnically diverse. My efforts to photograph the women of the current wave crashed up against the unpleasant truth that, insofar as there is a visual archetype here, it is largely coincident with the rather nasty "Basic Bitch" stereotype, which you may google if you like. The men are simpler, and seem to my eye to fall in to either "Tech Bro" or "Finance Bro" without many exceptions.

4th street, through SOMA, has always been central to my conception of San Francisco. It is the path from Caltrain (commuter rail from points south) to the core of the city and further transit options, and it is generally walked by all, there being no particularly convenient option. 4th separates the growing side (1st through 4th) of SOMA from the slum side (5th through about 10th).

4th street is, I think, where the Friends of Photography Gallery was in the early 1990s, when I went to see the Ansel Adams and the Magnum exhibit there on one of my first visits to the city. It remains the central corridor of the new wave, as it always was. People live south of the city and come in to work, and vice versa. Housing and technology companies exist at both ends.

4th street connects Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sand Hill Road, to the desirable condos of San Francisco. It also connects,, and the offices of a 100 other funny named companies to the less expensive houses and apartments in Burlingame, South San Francisco, Foster City.

I had occasion recently to re-acquaint myself with the story of Thorstein Veblen, who seems to have been the first to really study the idea of conspicuous consumption, the idea that certain goods experience increased demand as the price rises, the so-called Veblen good. Veblen, to my amusement, died more or less a pauper, in a shack, on Sand Hill Road, now ground zero for the Veblen Good. Venture capitalists are starting to leave the cozy nest on Sand Hill, though, and open offices in San Francisco, off the cutest park in the middle of the hottest neighborhood.

One can view 4th street as the pipeline through which wealth is pumped out of the disadvantaged and into the pockets of the already wealthy, if one is cynical enough. I am.

It should not have come as much of a surprise to me to see that homelessness is worse than ever. Tent cities are common. Guys sleeping on sidewalks are more common than they were in 2009. The numbers are larger and to me they feel a little crazier, a little more over the edge. The same areas of town smell like piss, the same areas of town are economically non-viable. The police presence is greater. Perhaps I got lucky, but I observed in two days what might have been a month's worth of crazy in 2007ish, when I lived two blocks off the Tenderloin.

Small businesses in the core area of growth, along Market St, mostly on the SOMA side, have suffered. There are more chain stores, there are more dark wood and stainless steel restaurants that will sell you baby arugula salads roasted in ovens fired with artisanal pecan shells. Sky scraping office towers are going up like weeds. At a furious pace, at any rate, for a geographically tiny little town like San Francisco.

I noticed a couple of restaurants that were excellent 10 years ago, who have actually migrated closer to the core. Apparently they are still excellent, or at any rate have sufficient reputation to move up in the world.

Has this generation, the generation of "tech bros", finally killed what makes San Francisco great? Of course not. It's just the same thing all over again, a wave of destructive renewal, leading to one more layer of generic high priced bullshit spread over the 150 year old bones of an interesting city. Get away from the core, and the place is much the same as it was in 2009, or 2003, or 1990, or I dare say earlier as much as any city is. Little shops and cafes die and are replaced, out in the Sunset District, but at a more normal pace. The good ones are still there, the dubious ones are tottering or gone, replaced.

Bookstores are fewer, but some remain standing. Video stores are gone, I think. Signs o' the times, and not much to do with San Francisco as such, but still disappointing.

Public transit strikes me as having fewer white men (almost none, that is, as compared with "some" in 2009), and I assume that this is largely due to the massive herds of Uber and Lyft cars roaming the streets. Women and people with melanin still ride public transit, though, in vast numbers. I like public transit and despise both Uber and Lyft. The latter I suspect, among their many sins, to be partly responsible for the weirdly monochrome car population in downtown San Francisco. Virtually all cars are white, grey, or black. There are a few slate blues, and a rare muted red. Almost literally nothing else. This might be Uber/Lyft, it might be local fashion, it might be simply that everyone drives late model cars and these are the colors in fashion At The Moment. It's extremely weird once you notice it.

The downtown cultural institutions seems to be doing OK. New money is still money, and these things live on massive donations from the vastly wealthy, of which there is an increasing supply to be tapped by the savvy fundraising team. The SFMOMA has recently completed a staggeringly huge expansion, rendering its space a vast, incomprehensible temple to Art. Enormous volumes seem to have been built for no purpose except to impress the visitor, although I suppose you could hang some art, if it were the size of a bomber, from the ceilings. I assume that the opera and the ballet, as well as the other institutional museums are doing OK as well. I approve, despite my cynicism.

But still. The process resembles globalization, except on a tiny scale, and at greater speed. The central core, where the high wages are, is driving up prices across the city and across the region, where wages are not rising at the same pace because, capitalism. Each wave of newcomers to San Francisco, to the Bay Area, drives the inequalities to a slightly more unequal state. The homeless population rises and gets more desperate. The workers who roast your salad in the pecan-fired oven have to commute in a bit farther.

Every week, the city gets ruined for someone when some institution they loved goes under. Every day another house or two is remodeled from something with problems and character into a featureless white box trimmed in stainless steel and heavy glass, like some South American despot's idea of a museum. The well-fed technologists and bankers gradually but inexorably rise and rise up the economic ladder while, just as inexorably, everyone else slips lower and lower. It's happening all over the world, but just a little faster in San Francisco.

What does seem to be genuinely happening is that these people are ruining the world in an effort to get rich. I was there too. When I wrote games 30 years ago, we worried a little about anonymity and privacy, but not enough. We worried about social impacts, each of us knew someone who had self-immolated playing games on the internet. But we rationalized and didn't worry about it much. I wrote software to make government networks more secure. 30 years later, a couple of generations down time, the kids don't care at all about privacy, or security, or social impacts. Each generation grew up with the fruits of the previous one, and pushed it a little further in the pursuit of the big stock cash-out.

Now we have young men gathering endless data one everyone they can find, correlating it, and packaging it. This is sold to business partners, given to the government, and stored in poorly secured databases so any hacker on earth can gather it up by the terabyte. The only person who can't have your data is you. At the same time we have a trend to "disrupt" businesses, which means to destroy the incumbents and replace them with what will surely mature in to a more expensive, inferior, or perhaps non-existent substitute. Uber, AirBnB, Lyft, TaskRabbit, and so on, all appear to be aimed at pulling a Walmart on the entire economy. Underprice the incumbents until they die, and then stand around in the ruins looking dumb. The young men not gathering your personal history or disrupting you employer's business are probably trying to figure out how to more efficiently deliver more intrusive advertisements to every device in your orbit which consumes electricity.

Not all the young men, to be fair, but enough of them. Too many of them.

It's no-one's fault, it's just capitalism.

Globalization does all these same things, at scale albeit often somewhat more slowly, and one feels that it cannot be sustainable. In the same way, San Francisco's apparently endless frenzied growth and "innovation" feels likewise unsustainable. How and when it crashes down is hard to guess. Every turn of the crank feels like it must surely be the last, and yet, I have personally witnessed enough of those turns to wonder if it must end at all. Perhaps it can go on forever, getting incrementally more and more weird.

There is no rule that says that our society will necessarily evolve and survive this. There is no rule that says humanity will survive it. There is, luckily, also no rule that says the contrary. There aren't any rules at all, this is unprecedented. It's never been tried, it's big, and we don't have a clue how it's going to fall out.

I certainly don't know. I do know that for a few years it angered me, but I have found a kind of peace with it now.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Blog Note

I have been, perhaps justly, accused of not "getting" the work in the most recent issue of LensWork. To be arrogantly honest, I think I'm pretty damned good at teasing out whatever an artist is getting at in a series of pictures, and in most of the work in this issue I have tried and failed to tease anything out. It's just a bunch of attractive pictures.

However, if you disagree and would like to take a crack at teasing out something bigger, something more meaningful, something about, I dunno emotion, politics, memory, dreams, what have you, I will happily accept a guest post.

If more than one person would like to take a whack at it, I will (with permission) put you in touch with one another to see what happens. While I will draw the line at dozens of disparate essays, I'm perfectly willing to put up more than one if collaboration proves unfruitful. Also, if you're not willing to "write up" I'll also accept a set of notes and try to write them up on your behalf, and turn myself into your collaborator. Or other arrangements, I'm open to possibility.

Contact me at if you want to give it a shot.

Meaning in the Age of the Internet

Brooks Jensen has written an interesting editorial in his most recent issue of LensWork. In it he poses the question, essentially, of what we ought to do in the face of billions of technically excellent pictures, where "we" is in rough strokes those of us who are trying to use photography to make personally expressive artwork. Jensen uses several further phrases to elaborate on who "we" is, but let that one stand for all.

His editorial is substantially more sophisticated than the usual "OMG INSTAGRAM" hand-wringing, but I do think it leans rather too far in that direction, and that it ignores obvious solutions.

First let us review a little history. In the beginning, or near enough to it, we had Robinson literally constructing morality plays with his compositing techniques. A little later we have Emerson thundering at anyone who would listen that photography's job is to reveal what is truly there, that the photographer must look, must see, and then reveal. After Emerson, Stieglitz makes his "Equivalent" photographs, attempting to translate emotional states in pictures of clouds. Adams tells us over and over and over that the photograph must be, above all, a true expression of your emotional reaction to the scene.

In short, the major voices in photography have always told us that the point of photography is more than just a picture, more than technical excellence. It's about story, about emotion, about something bigger.

Now, I became conscious in the early 1970s, so this next bit might be wrong, only appearing correct to me because we're transitioning from things I have read about to things I have personally experienced but let us forge ahead. As a direct result of Adams writings being willfully misread by a technophile audience, together with powerful marketing from equipment vendors, technical excellence became a replacement for all of this stuff. Emotion, artistic meaning (whatever that is), and so on became things we paid lip service to, or ignored altogether.

I insist that technical excellence was and remains, in important ways, a substitute for meaning. My error, if any, is that it was always that way, and that what I see as a "new" phenomenon is nothing of the sort. Still, I don't see anyone except me thundering away about meaning. I see a few tentative voices poking timidly at the question, at best.

Consider the availability of materials in this era. Platinum printing, gum bichromate, carbon transfer, calotypes, salt printing, and on and on became the domain of a very very small number of weirdos, you could order up the chemistry from a very very small number of places. I do not, to be honest, know quite when this occurred, but it's more or less concurrent with the rise of straight photography and the f/64 group, and persisted for far too long. The materials and tools all converged on a sort of Best Practices which were all about technical excellence. Say what you will about the vast array of emulsions and papers available in the 1980s, they all pretty much looked the same to anyone who wasn't pre-digital "pixel peeper." Yes, there were differences, and yes I can see them. They were, and are, pretty subtle. The expressive possibilities of generally available photographic materials were, for many decades, essentially straight photography.

In the "high art" world, mind you, we still have all the good stuff going on. Fashion, of course, has no truck with soulless work and carries on pushing the emotional reaction of "I want that" better than ever, and probably a few other niches that are well away from the amateur, serious or otherwise. Everywhere else, though, it's about sharpness and gear.

Jensen asserts that technical excellence was a marker which showed us that the artist was serious, and that we ought to pay attention. I think this is, at least to some degree, false. Technical excellence was in fact largely a replacement for meaning, across vast swathes of the photographic landscape.

Jensen asks, in his editorial, what should we do?

The answer has not changed, and I dare say it will not change. If you seek to "use photography to make personally expressive artwork" then you should go and do that.

This is what every artist ever has always done. Even Andy Warhol was doing this, it's just that media, marketing, and fame were his actual canvas.

How to do it? Well, you get to decide that, and it is for you to work out. There are many paths. I can guarantee you that making a bunch of loosely related and technically excellent photographs is not the answer, although it might be a little piece of it. Obsessing over the number of followers you have on instabook is probably not a good thing to devote any time to.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

LensWork #129

Correction: There is at least one additional portfolio in this issue, and at this point I am unwilling to commit to an actual number having previously counted four. My larger point, though, still stands.

I had occasion to buy this, the current issue Brooks Jensen's magazine. I've never actually owned one before, though of course I've flipped through a few issues at the newsstand, and I am naturally aware of the publication. It's put together just a few miles down the road from me. The reason for my purchase was to read the editorial, which is some sort of discussion/rant about technical excellence comma a plague of. I have yet to actually read it, because I started looking at the pictures, and here we are.

My intention is not to review this as such, since I cannot easily point you to a place where you can look at the pictures.

My intention is to talk, briefly I hope, about the limitations of the editors of this work.

In brief, of the five portfolios presented, exactly one has is conceptually anything other than trivial to the point of inanity. It's painfully clear that Jensen still leans heavily on the idea of the Single Iconic Photo and that therefore a portfolio is a sort of Greatest Hits album. Make no mistake, every single picture is superb, a technical tour-de-force, and often very beautiful besides.

One is a collection of black and white aerial photographs. Technically superb, but I get it. When you get up high the land and all man's works become abstracted. So what?

One is a collection of pretty stones on some sort of streambed, with water rippling over them. Again, technically superb. Beautiful. But there's no idea here at all. Any single one of the pictures could stand in for the others, the only question is how big is the print, and does it go with the furniture. This isn't conceptually inane, it's conceptually non-existent.

There's a couple portfolios of composited stuff which do, in fact, a nice job of carrying an idea, a sensation. In one, children play in a spookily dark and foggy playground, in the other we convey some sense of the desert fog. In both cases, any single photo would have done. They're all the same idea, repeated in different ways. One photo is literally a different crop of another one, with a different paint job lashed onto it. The ideas here, while present, seem to be essentially visual, kind of thin. I liked the desert ones anyway, but we really just needed to see one picture.

And finally we come to the one that Jensen wisely leads with, which is about a railroad bridge and environs. There are some visual ideas, some ideas of solitude, decay, and so on. At any rate that's what I see. It feels like there's enough depth here that you might see something different. The main point, though, is that the pictures are not all the same. One picture picks up a visual idea from the previous one, echoing the flock of crows as footprints in the snow, and then the next repeats the path of footprints in the curled path of flowing water.

Beyond the flow of purely visual ideas, the sense of place is built up, bit by bit. Each picture actually has a reason for being there, and adds a little bit. I do not think the portfolio is excellent but it's pretty good. And, of course, the pictures and reproductions have a technical excellence to them.

And so we come to the point of my remarks here.

If you're going to show more than one picture, the whole should be greater than the sum of the parts. In this issue of LensWork, the whole is in general something less than even the sum of the parts. It's a high-culture, beautifully made, carefully managed instagram account.

And that is a terrible waste.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Street Photography"

Here is a mildly interesting confluence which has crossed my personal perception recently.

Marketing your Street Photography which is a plug for an online workshop from Chris Gampat. Puzzled, I sent Chris a polite note asking him what on earth this even meant, to which he did not reply. Looking at the web site, we see three sessions. The first is how to take awesome photos, the next appears to be telling you how to get on all the social media platforms, and the third is how to use those platforms. The workshop title is "How to become a Legitimate Street Photographer."

The second item is this essay from The Photo Fundamentalist. Now, Tom Stanworth is just all around a more substantial guy than Chris Gampat, but he's making the same kind of underlying, mistaken, assumptions.

Street photography is barely even, as the kids say, "a thing." Sure, there's a million people running around taking photographs of people on streets, that's not the point. Neither is it the point that these photographs, by and large, are not very interesting.

The point is that there's nothing here to "Market" as Chris would suggest, nor to "Kill" as Tom suggests. It's just a hobby. There's no money in it, there's no trade association (unless you count Magnum?), there's nothing there. It's just "photographs that aren't done in a studio, and which are also not landscapes."

One might as well offer a workshop on marketing your karaoke skills: Day One, How to Sing Awesomely; Day Two, how to use Soundcloud; Day Three, how to get record company executive to listen to your soundcloud feed. Whaaaat? Similarly, the fact that lots of people do karaoke badly isn't killing karaoke, and "killing" karaoke isn't even something that's meaningful. Karaoke will die not when too many people do it, but when nobody does it.

The fact that, very very occasionally, someone's karaoke skills appear to be part of what launched them into a career as a singing teacher, or a pop star, is irrelevant. You might as well buy lottery tickets, and anyways the karaoke probably had almost nothing to do with whatever the success was.

Furthermore, both Tom and Chris seem to be making the mistake that individual street photographs are the goal. Single awesome pictures. This has basically never been the right answer for street, whatever you even mean by that term. Even the mighty names don't make much sense one picture at a time. It's all just snaps, sometimes lucky snaps. I submit that even the canonical iconic pictures would be dismissed, taken one by one. Indeed, every now and then some wag posts one for "critique" and then all the clever buggers have a laugh at the rubes who say "that's just a lucky snap."

They're all just lucky snaps. The impact doesn't happen until you see a bunch of them, and start to get what the photographer was after.

In this modern era, we're more sophisticated. The potential for a powerful essay is stronger than ever, even be it filled with individual cliches. Learning how to take an awesome street shot (honestly, I shudder slightly when I think about what on earth Chris is going to tell his students in this session) isn't the end of the story. It's barely the beginning, and Tom selecting a bunch of single shots for complaint is to also completely miss the point.

That said, I quite like The Photo Fundamentalist, and have added it to my reading list. You should too! Just ignore the gear reviews.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Words & Pictures

Laboring under the cruel lash of Daniel Milnor's inspiration, I am attempting to pull together a magazine. The material will appear here first, though.

I went and shot a bunch of material, which was informed by some vague notions I had. Then I had the pictures. Then I started to write, and both the vague notions I started with and the pictures informed what I have to write. Now I have, roughly, written 1500 words of so that says what I have to say, and now I am going back and selecting and sequencing the pictures, informed by what I have written.

It's a very interesting process. The writing sharpens the idea, defines the sequencing of the pictures. I'm not simply looking for illustrations here, but themes and ideas. The pictures aren't going to be directly related to the essay, in fact. But they're influenced by it, and in turn influence it.

Also, it's a bit of a struggle.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Pictures with Weight

You don't have to look to far to see people talking about Pictures that Changed Everything, and wondering what's going on now. It seems that anyone who fancies himself a bit of a thinker about photography has a go at it. It is commonly thought that Nick Ut's "Napalm Girl" and Eddie Adams photograph of the execution by pistol and a few others changed the face of history. I have almost certainly made this claim myself. I have also claimed that Gene Smith's work at Minamata altered the course of history.

I am no longer convinced that this is quite right. History is more complicated than that. It's right in a sense, but it's not completely right.

The public and policy perceptions of the Vietnam war were on a cusp of sorts, we can observe from our comfortable chair in the future. Public opinion was shifting, policy was following reluctantly behind to one degree or another. The time was ripe. The iconic photos dropped into a super-saturated solution of change, and change obligingly crystallized violently around them. You can argue that the photos were indeed the agent of change, but the point is that it was not blind luck that these particular photos dropped into the world. Other photos, other slogans, other glib essays, other fragments of media, might just as well have been the seed.

Likewise, Gene Smith's work at Minamata crystallized a super-saturated solution of god damn it these corporations are making gigantic messes. Without Nick Ut, without Eddie Adams, without Gene Smith, the changes would still have happened. History would, I think, have played out somewhat differently. Minamata might have never become a scandal, but somewhere else would have, in the hands of another agent of change. Corporate behavior would still have been reined in, the USA would still have left Vietnam, and on more or less the same schedules.

Did the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand "cause" WWI? No. But it catalyzed it. It set the start date. Without that event, WWI would still have occurred, and at roughly the same time. Who attacked who first might have been different, and it might have started weeks or months later, but it was going to happen.

Reading the Pictures, to my amazement, has placed their finger pointedly on an interesting counterpoint (which they then fumbled). The direct our attention to an album of photos from the White House, chronicling the first 50 days of the Trump presidency. Then they cut&paste their own tweets and go on a little about Trump Fake, Obama So Cool.

That's not the point. The point is that the Trump presidency is presenting a particular view of itself. The steady drip of pictures of a Presidential, Strong Trump is obviously a deliberate artifice. The steady drip of Cool, Relaxed, Human Obama was just as much an artifice. You don't think we saw those pictures of Obama looking tired, vulnerable, by accident, do you? These are sophisticated people, being handled by sophisticated media experts.

What can, I suspect, change the course of history is a stream of carefully selected pictures. Compare our notion of the Vietnamese conflict with the Iraqi wars. In the former, there was some silly idea of letting guys with cameras just run around shooting whatever they liked, and that didn't go so well for the guys running the Pentagon. Now they restrict things much more carefully, and the image we get is of a very professionally run war. Whatever that could possibly even mean. This has, I postulate, been instrumental in preventing the creation of that super-saturated solution that got the USA so ignominiously out of Vietnam.

The same things are happening. Our guys are getting hideously wounded, our gear is exploding when it ought not, our guys are screwing up left and right. But we don't see it, and we don't feel it. Even I don't feel it. Even I cannot escape the vague idea that our guys are a bunch of pros and the whole thing is pretty "clean" even though I know it's not. It's exactly the same mechanic by which I "know" that BMW is the Ultimate Driving Machine, that Coca-Cola refreshes, and that Nikon is totally committed to serious photography.

I "know" that Obama is cool, human, and an all around good guy even though I suspect strongly that none of those is true except the middle one, and that only in a strict biological sense. God help me, I might wind up "knowing" that Trump is presidential, and yet tough. The only way to avoid it is to not consume those pictures, I suspect.

One picture doesn't change history. The best it can do is violently crystallize what was already in play. A series of pictures, a media campaign, manages not the crystallization process (it's too late by the time the solution is super-saturated) but the preparation of the solution.

The role photography plays in history, and in the management of the populace (they're often the same thing) has changed radically, and the bad guys are winning.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Crit: Sanaz Mazinani

While I was in San Francisco last weekend, I did more than stop in to the Arbus show. I stopped in to SF Camerworks to see whatever they had up, which turned out to be an exhibit of Sanaz Mazinani's work. I apologize in advance, I feel sure that I have mangled the artist's name at least once in what follows.

This work is mixed media, ultimately rendered as a sculptural wall-mounted object. There's a few other things in the show, a chunk of wallpaper she designed around her methods, a sculpture of colored glass and black rods, some window installations. I will ignore these, except to note that they illustrate her capacity to grow, to experiment, to evolve. The main thrust of the show is the collection of pieces I will now discuss.

Initially the works read each as a set of flat planes with an appealing kaleidoscope-esque pattern of colors and shapes on them. The impression is of a peculiarly angular and quite beautiful flower. One might also read into the large shape, sometimes, some flavor of the planarity of modern "stealth" military vehicles, a B-2 bomber or a Zumwalt class destroyer. This is much more likely after some time spent making a closer inspection of the piece.

The attentive and appropriately knowledgeable might immediately notice the deliberate references to Islamic art, which is often non-representational patterned mosaics and the like.

That's the outermost layer, the largest scale.

Stepping closer, it becomes clear that these patterns are built of of repetitions of smaller fragments. Perhaps you notice the American flag, or you realize that the attractive yellow/orange color is actually a tiny explosion repeated, mirrored this way and that, across the panels of the piece. Closer inspection will unpack more imagery. How much is visible depends on the piece, and this is one of the ongoing problems I find with the work, about which more anon.

It becomes clear, especially after inspecting at least a couple of the works, that the underlying pieces of the patterns are photographs, or fragments of photographs. It is, I think, reasonable to assume that in all cases you'll feel that the photographs are essentially military, political, or both in nature. In some of the works the scale is such that the underlying nature of the photographs is obvious, you can make out quite a bit of detail. In other works you can apprehend enough of the detail, a critical mass of detail, with some effort. The details in these fill in gradually as you work out what you're looking at, the abstraction gradually peeling away. In some of the work, the scale is simply too small to make out much of what's going on in the underlying photographs. You can make out, perhaps, a fragment of a flag and you can tell that there is more but you cannot make it out.

The other problem I see is that the provenance of the photographs is often important. Without knowing that one of the more visually incomprehensible pieces is made up of redacted photographs of flag-draped caskets containing the bodies of slain American soldiers, being carried by other soldiers processionally, the dark rectangles in the pattern do not make a lot of sense. The title of the work contains the word "redacted" but doesn't tell the whole story.

The fact that these photos were not available for a time, and then later made available and only in a censored form, matters. It is the key to understanding what the piece is about, and there is no way to deduce it or even, really, feel it, without being told. I had guessed that the flag shapes might represent coffins, but I did not know if the artist had made the shape through the patterning process, or whether it was part of the original underlying photo, and I don't think there was any way to know.

In general, there is a problem is density. Visual density is sometimes too extreme, rendering the finest layer of visual incomprehensible, other times it is too coarse rendering the effect one of a mere collage. Information density is always too great, if you don't know what the underlying pictures are of and what their provenance is, you have no chance of really grasping the meaning of the piece. It will be, at best, an attractive pattern with some largely unknown but obviously political meaning.

Now, I certainly don't oppose the idea of unplumbed depths, of mystery left mysterious. These works are, however, inconsistent in where they leave off, and in my opinion frequently leave too much beyond the pale and unknowable.

I think Ms. Mazinani needs to find a way to fill in, to some degree or another, those unknowns. I know the provenance of the pictures in these works because the immensely nice chap working at SF Camerworks walked with me and told me, but it seems impractical to include him with the work. A brief artist's statement next to the piece would fill the bill for a gallery show of the sort I saw, but that seems clumsy when selling pieces one by one.

Although I found these pieces inside SF Camerworks, and although cameras were involved somewhere in their production, I'm going to go out on a limb and assert that these pieces are emphatically not photography. For a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, a photograph is something one can apprehend in a moment, it is the essence of still photography, it's what makes a photograph a photograph (yes, yes, abstract this, abstract that and so on, I hear you, I'm choosing to ignore you -- bear with me). These are something else, they demand time and study to even begin to make headway on. They're not video, since you approach them on your own schedule, not the artist's. They might be poems. Some photographs are also poems in this sense, in the sense that they unpack, with labor, into a larger structure of meaning. But these aren't photographs.

Second, and secondmost, one could readily substitute political cartoons, brand logos, campaign posters, and Ms. Mazinani's methods and ideas would translate perfectly. The work wouldn't even look different. It is the transformation of underlying material that is itself charged with meaning that makes these objects work.

The fact that these things are not photography begs the natural question "what on earth is Andrew doing writing about it?" and the answer is that Andrew has to write about it to determine that these things aren't photographs. Plus which, they're interesting, whatever they are.

My complaints aside, I find the work fascinating and in many ways excellent. I very much enjoyed the layering of meaning, from the beautiful flowerlike shape, drilling in to the political, the anti-military, leading perhaps to the re-understanding the large shape in terms of a stealth aircraft. The work invites close inspection, it rewards time spent with it. It invites you to stand back, to approach, to stand back again, to reconsider. It's literally trivial to spend 10 minutes with one piece without getting bored which is, let us be honest with ourselves, truly remarkable for a static piece of art.

I do think Ms. Mazinani would be rewarded by a careful consideration of the problems with density. Not to suggest that she needs to pick a singular solution and to stick with it, only that she consider it, and ponder going forward how she can better reward the careful study of her future pieces, how she can help the art viewer fill in the little details that really drive this work.

If these be poems, then a few (perhaps 1, or maybe 2) of them approach doggerel, and a few are simply too densely "written", and several of them are Just Right. More of the Just Right, please!

I think this artist has huge potential. The work is exquisitely collectible. It's right-sized, big without being ostentatious. It's beautiful. It's dense with ideas and meaning. It's just plain fun to be with. And, she has demonstrated that she can produce, she has demonstrated that she can evolve, that she will be able to produce a body of work that is connected, coherent, without being repetitious. Will she "make it"? Well, to an extent she already has, having enjoyed various success here and there. Will she be launched into the stratosphere of, let me pick the first name that comes to mind, Jeff Koons? Beats me! Probably not, luck being what luck is? But the potential is there!

I'd be happy if she did!