Sunday, April 30, 2017

How to Political Action

This is all just me thinking it through, it's not an expert opinion at all.

So you want to change some minds, change some attitudes. What do you actually do?

I'm going to think through a plan, which I might even execute, if I get inspired enough. Maybe. I'm pretty lazy, and pretty busy.

Let's say I want to do some Art to change the minds of the people who live just outside of Bellingham. There's a lot of Trump voters in the rural areas surrounding the small extremely left wing town where I live. They're perfectly nice people, they're not three-headed idiots, they're not fools. They do lean a bit religious.

I'm not going to tip them over to voting Democrat. Not gonna happen. They have multi-generational identities tied up with voting Republican. My goal has to be to get them to support more moderate Republicans, to stay home when the choice is some radical asshole, that kind of thing. My goal has to be to moderate their idea of what a good candidate looks like.

Baby steps. My first job was to figure out Who I might be able to reach, and What kind of small attitude change I might try to induce. Remember, the american civil rights movement didn't start with "we demand to dismantle the White Hegemony" it started with things like "we want to have lunch at a not very good cafe."

I can use some stuff. These folks tend religious. They probably have a pretty fervent Love of Country. There's a good change they revere Reagan, to some degree. They're likely to hunt and/or fish. They don't trust authority.

Here's the concept I think I might be able to sell, essentially an environmentalist platform. Give them some pictures of American Wilderness, and point out that this is our heritage, it's literally ours in many cases (e.g. National Parks). It's beautiful, filled with tasty game and tasty fish! It's AMERICA and we LOVE IT! Then we toss in some photos of industry fat cats: "he creates jobs, but you know, he doesn't love you very much" as a lead-in to "and so Nixon created the EPA" with a picture of Nixon signing something with the implication that Nixon knew that the job creating fat cat needed to be reined in a bit. You know, to protect AMERICA.

And that's really it. Just leave it there. That's What to say.

Develop a guerrilla art delivery. Posters? Leaflets? Magazines left here and there? All of the above? Stickers with a graphic/line-drawing version of whatever picture of Nixon Signing Something I dig up? Build it all around a "Nixon created the EPA" slogan, I think. That's the other half of What, the What to do. You gotta get the message to the Who's after all, hanging this shit in some gallery is pointless.

The plan gives them something to agree with, something obvious. America is beautiful, America is great. It gives them a slightly weird picture they can nevertheless believe, and trust, that Nixon of all people created the EPA. It's slightly weird, but it's true. You can look it up. It gives them a story they can embrace, that a Republican was looking out for America, for the little guy, against the fat cats. I don't think anyone thinks Nixon was a great guy, but he was by golly a Republican.

Their worldview expands, I speculate, theorize, and hope, to include a notion that Republicans can be environmentalists. That perhaps they're the effective ones, actually. It's not a very big step, it's steeped in truth, and it has the potential to create change I approve of. It has potential to make the nice Republican folks around Bellingham look a little more askance at some asshole who wants to trash the environment.

For a followup, I could hit them with Teddy Roosevelt, National Parks, and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Now, is this going to work to get a Democrat into the White House? Not by itself it's not.

But if this campaign and a handful of unrelated campaigns embracing similar sorts of things happened to occur with more or less decent timing, a sea change could occur. One of those so-called emergent phenomena, and we might just end up cracking a cycle of groupthink in the Republican rank-and-file. The groupthink is broken by a flanking action, it's not that you guys are wrong, it's not that Trump is Satan, it's just that Republicans were pro-environment all along and you just now remembered that.

In the end, you're not going to change the world by yourself. It's got to be some sort of emergent mass of modest changes all, somehow, pointed in the right direction. There are techniques to ease this along (see: Fake News), but in the end it just sort of happens, or doesn't.

So, pick a direction, design a strategy that's got a chance of actually inducing some sort of tiny change, and go for it. Don't look back, it's probably just you out there all alone. Dying in the desert. Sorry. But sometimes, not very often, it turns out that there's a whole bunch of people pushing in roughly the same direction, and something changes. You can only know for sure which was to push afterwards.

It's like scalding milk (heat milk until it boils, then go back in time to just before it boiled and holler "take it off the heat!" to your former self).

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Political Photography

There are, in very broad strokes, roughly two things that can happen in a group. One is Group Polarization, in which through a variety of interactions, the group's attitude taken en masse as well as individual by individual tends to move toward a single extreme position. The other thing that can happen is, well, the opposite of that.

I will quite likely botch some of the details in what follows. God knows there's a great deal of research into these things out there, so feel free to check me. Please do, at least before you quote me anywhere. As always, I'm trying for a quick sketch that captures the broad strokes.

There are three big motivators working here. There's the desire to go along with the group, there's the desire to express one's individuality, and there's a desire for increased social status. In a group with a more or less uniform set of attitudes, the easiest way to accomplish all three at once is to read the temperature of the group, and express that shared attitude in a slightly more extreme way. In the first place you're basically agreeing with everyone, in the second place by being more extreme you preserve your individuality, and in the third place with a little care you can turn this into a social status jump because you are clearly the Mostest Whateverest.

This leads to a death spiral, of course, if more than one person gets into the game. Then you all shoot one another, and Franco takes over despite the fact that you were winning just a moment ago. See also internet forums, comment threads, and political parties.

Group Polarization is easy to induce, and it's very convenient for anyone who wants to manage you.

Since people alter their attitudes in quite small increments, if you can keep your population polarized, then everyone is is neat little boxes where they can be managed. By polarizing them radically, you ensure that they stay in the box -- the edges of the box are too far away to reach in one or two small steps, and the ongoing polarization activities will chivvy them back into the radical center before they get near to switching parties. In the USA we have Fox News and NPR dutifully keeping their blocs neatly enbloc-d. Why the GOP wants to cut funding for public broadcasting is a mystery, it's easily the cheapest tool to keep the lefties pinned down ever.

Politicians are typically not very polarized, although they engage in polarizing activities more or less as a profession. They're pretty pragmatic. Ditto captains of industry.

Most political art, indeed most political action, is just polarization activity. Preaching to the choir is easy, it gets you accolades from your peer group. All you have to do is make some pictures and write a little text that boils down to "you are so pretty, the only error I find in your thinking is that you don't know just how pretty you are!!" which is a pretty easy sell.

Most political action is therefore utterly ineffective. It serves merely to keep lefties in the box marked Lefties and the righties in the box marked Righties where the state knows how to handle them. Your art, while helpful to the state, isn't necessary. The state has many many resources available to accomplish the ongoing polarization needs.

The only way to actually make a difference is to induce the other sort of group behavior, in a group and at a time when a useful change is a small step away.

You're not going to persuade a politician to make a radical jump. You're not going to persuade a bunch of racists to love their neighbors. You can with a bit of effort and a bit of luck persuade almost anyone to make a small jump. You can make the racists believe that a few of Those People are ok, kind of. You can make a politician whose vote on such and such was always in doubt anyways lean this way, or that.

Small changes, at the right moment, can shift a tide.

Gene Smith's Minamata essay appeared after Nixon created the EPA. Nick Ut's photograph was shot when the US troop deployment in Vietnam was dropping precipitously, and well below the peak half million or so. These pictures didn't create inflection points, but they did aid momentum at possibly critical moments. Politicians who were already more or less willing, but who might have dragged their feet, didn't. Or dragged their feet less.

Your photographs will not make White Europe embrace the refugees. It might make White Europe despise them less, and sympathize more. Your photographs might prepare White Europe for the work that next year makes things a little better still. Your photographs might persuade a politician already inclined to support pro-refugee policies that it would be safe to actually do so.

What about actual mechanics?

Points I've made time and again: Photographs derive their strength from depicting what is in a literal-minded sort of way "real." People looking at Art will try to fit what they see into a mental model, and in the case of the photograph they will try to fit it into a model that is "real" in some vague sense. Even if they're looking at clearly staged things, the viewer will try to imagine what the stage was, what the players were doing, and so on.

If the aim of your Political Art is to change attitudes, opinions, to alter the course of history by altering people, then it is this mental model fitting that you're going to need to use. I don't know if this is the only program that works, but here it is anyway.

You should have in mind, roughly, whose opinions, ideas, attitudes you want to change, and you should have roughly in mind what they think right now. So simply assuming that Trump voters are all three headed imbeciles isn't going to work very well, you'll need a realistic idea of your targets.

Photographs are going to work best on an emotional level, I think. Reasoning, making a logical argument, in pictures strikes me as difficult.

I draw from the theory of harmony in tonal music, for this next bit.

Show them photographs that they can believe are true. Do not over-challenge their world view, lest they dismiss your pictures as faked (in one sense or another: photoshopped, staged, cherry-picked, cropped to change meaning, and so on). The pictures must first build trust. Your target audience has to see things the "know" in an emotional way to be true. Then, ever so gently, show them similar photos that challenge that knowledge, or force the viewer to either reject the picture or expand their understanding of the world. If you're built enough trust, they might just expand rather than reject.

Perhaps you merely caption perfectly reasonable photos in a way that lightly challenges.

They know that war is hell, they've seen plenty of pictures of casualties, of explosions. Then you show them one more casualty, a little more dramatic, a little more sympathetic than before. It's a little girl, naked, running in fear. It shocks them, a little, but they've been prepared, they believe it. And then you caption it to reveal that it was us that did it, our allies did this. It was a mistake, but it was us.

Hit them emotionally, hit them in their identity, "we are or are not the kind of people who do this" is the message you want to implant.

All the rational arguments in world against the Vietnam War won't move the mountain. Neither will all the terrible pictures of war. Together, the rational mind is persuaded, the heart wants to follow.

Close with less challenging pictures, close with pictures they will find easy to believe. This is analogous to the way dissonance is handled in tonal music: bring your harmony along beautifully (i.e. without dissonance), landing on a chord which "prepares" for the dissonance, by being close to it in a harmonic sense, then "resolve" which a chord that includes the dissonant tone, and carry on the harmony beautifully (without dissonance) from there.

You slip the challenge in, wrapped in pictures that are obviously true. Perhaps accompanying text makes the rational case, but again in relatively friendly terms.

Don't insult, rather, find common ground.

If you wanna change the world, it's got to be one small step at a time.

Friday, April 28, 2017

"My Kid Could Do That!"

This is the cliched refrain repeated by people who don't "get" modern art. The question I have for these folks (if you're not one of them, feel free to method act, and listen) is this:

Why do you think so little of your child? Why is it that whatever it is that you think is Real Art is out of the reach of your poor disabled child?

The terrible reality of today is that almost everything is pretty easy. I read some remarks, at random, from a person engaged in a large embroidery project. The embroiderer was bellyaching about how you have to special order special magic needles from England, otherwise you get crappy needles which make it super hard. Later, the same person remarked that in these modern times you can buy unflawed thread for embroidery, identically dyed with unfading colors, literally by the mile. Both of these things would have been magic, 200 years ago, or at best astronomically expensive. Nowadays, with some classes and some practice, and for a modest budget your kid could do that.

Is a gorgeously joined copy of Ben Franklin's desk Art? With modern glues, methods, and tools, it's not even particularly hard. You gotta learn some stuff, you gotta buy some tools, you gotta practice a bunch, but your kid could do that.

Photography led the way, because it became obvious in the late 19th century that we were entering a world in which your kid can do that, which forced the Art Community to re-evaluate what Art might be. While it was once an undifferentiated cloud of decor, design, ideas, technique, and probably some other things, it became clear that the word needed some refinement.

If we refuse to admit any difference between one complicated object and another, then the amount of Art that's all basically the same becomes intractable.

It was clear, though, that this stuff isn't all the same. Some of it is, in meaningful ways, "better", and it was decided more or less by consensus that what made it "better" was something about design and something about ideas. And so we get Duchamp and his fountain, and so on, experimenting with ways to separate decor, technique, design, idea, and whatever other factors there are.

It doesn't mean that your intricate mobile isn't art, it doesn't mean that you're collection of quilts (170 hours of work each) isn't art. They are. But if they contain neither innovative design nor ideas, then they are different from work that does contain innovative design and ideas. And, to be blunt, if they lack these things they are rather commonplace. Mankind has a great deal of leisure these days, this sort of thing is being cranked out by the trainload.

What we rather dismissively call "craft" these days isn't awful, craftsmen are not bad people. What they are is relatively common. Your kid, if possessed of average dexterity and a moderate will, can become a craftsman. And perhaps your kid ought to, there is great joy to be had in fine craft. I endorse it!

Ideas, on the other hand, remain relatively rare, and therefore valuable. Your kid can't do that, or at any rate it is by no means certain that your kid can.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Political Crit, Political Art

I've run across a couple of reviews of some show that's going on in London, some fellow named Richard Mosse has a video + pictures show called "Incoming" which is something about taking pictures of refugees with "military grade thermal cameras" a phrase I find fascinating. In this modern world, "military grade" often means "pretty crappy, but indestructible." But that's a side note.

Mosse is pretty clearly, based on the various quotations, playing the usual Art School game of Take a Thing and use it Backwards, and look how cool. Maybe he has some point to make, maybe he doesn't. There's no way that I have run across to know. I have not, I confess, looked very hard. I'm a lot more interested in Mosse's would-be critics than I am in Mosse.

This is because the reviewers, the so-called critics, are more interested in fetishing Mosse's process, and trotting out endless vaguely relevant citations. Much of the modern review style seems to be derived from the New Yorker, in which reviews are actually little essays about the reviewer, and how clever he or she is. The reviewer flaunts his or her own erudition, and salts in a liberal serving of New York City is Awesome. The subject of the review is mention in passing, and purely as a jumping off point. The only good thing I have to say about the work of Duncan Wooldridge and Lewis Bush is that they left New York out of it.

In Mosse's case, the game seems to be to wonder aloud if his process (the thermal camera) dehumanizes the subjects, or if it is the very act of photography which does that, and then you chuck in a bunch of subordinate clauses about, of course, we need to consider in the light of geopolitical whatsits, so you sound clever. Admire for instance, this bad boy of a sentence, selected by searching for "of course" in Duncan's essay, and picking the most egregious sample that turned up. The phrase "of course" is used in these things to lend gravitas to nonsense statements, and fluff up the word count.

The dehumanising of the body is of course continuous with the technology and operations of the state, which we understand as intermittently picking out and targeting the human subject with reasons that power justifies under the rhetorics of the war on terror, national security, and as Eyal Weizman has recognised, the chilling but pervasive moral logic of the ‘lesser evil’.

To be honest, I don't even know what the hell "continuous with" even means in this context, and I am pretty sure the author doesn't either. It goes without saying that Eyal Weizman is mentioned nowhere else in the piece. The other "rhetorics" despite being equally generic do not seem to rate some random citation. Also it's not clear at all that "dehumanizing the body" is what he means. After all, by referring to people as "the body" he's kind of already doing that. He means "dehumanizing people."

Let's suppose that by "continuous with" the author means something like "part and parcel of" or less idiomatically "an essential part of, built right in to". The author is then tying the "dehumanizing of the body" in as an essential part of the technology and operations of the state which includes rather a lot. Even the worst of states do many many things. Does the author mean "dehumanizing the body is an essential part of dental checkups for little kids" which is, in many states, part of their operations? No, of course not. The author means a very specific subset of the "technology and operations" and when he clarifies it, the "technology" drops right out.

The next sentence, clumsily grafted on with commas, tells us what he actually means by his enormous blanket term: intermittently picking out and targeting the human subject, justified by the war on terror, national security, and the moral logic of the ‘lesser evil’. The three "rhetorics" are actually the same one three times, in this modern era, so the author is again flapping his gums to make himself look clever. Note the complete lack of technology here, this is all operations.

So I think we can, roughly at any rate, squish this mess down to: Dehumanizing people is part of how the state gets away with killing them in the name of the war on terror. This, while true, is not exactly something most of us need to a refresher on.

Our old friend from the now defunct disphotic, Lewis Bush, has an equally sophomoric review, with many of the same pseudo-intellectual tics that lead to unreadabilty. We do learn that worldpressphoto employs copy editors, because Lewis's irritating tic of mixing up "it's" and "its" is absent (praise I regret I cannot lend to the other review, which botches it at least once).

So what's the problem, anyways?

In neither of these reviews do we see any actual criticism. These are both little platforms for the dunderheaded authors to pound their own little drums. Both reviewers are sure to let us know that they think the modern state is Just Awful. Both are sure to let us know that they are well read, and have thought a lot about photography. On the subject under review, though...

Is Mosse trying to say something? God knows, perhaps, but Duncan and Lewis don't. And, more to the point, they don't care. How did Duncan and Lewis actually react to the installation? Did it make them think? In a way yes, but mainly it made them think of clever things they could say about using thermal cameras. There's no evidence that either one of them actually looked at the pictures or videos in anything but passing. Glance at a couple of things, scribble some quick notes, and then move on to how we can best work in a references to the book I leafed through the other day.

Do I think Mosse has anything to say? I dunno. Maybe not.

In which case I'd like to know that. "Richard Mosse's recent installation and book Incoming while a potentially interesting re-tasking of military hardware to new uses, does not actually seem to have anything to say. It is not clear that Richard Mosse has any point whatsoever." might make a nice review in that case.

Or, if he's got some point of view, something to say, other than "gosh, refugees. So sad." then tell me what that is. Come on, guys, it's not that hard.

But you've got to actually look at the pictures and watch the videos, which I admit is rather a bore.

Anyways, onwards to Political Art, now that I've had my fun with the Political Crit end of things.

Altogether too much Political Art seems to be about raising consciousness and socially positioning the artist. Some terrible issue that we already know about is dragged out for us, and shown to be terrible. The artist is positioned to be against the terrible thing, and, generally, to blame whatever it is that all the other fatuous lefties blame for the problem. Often, the nebulous "state" is the target. And then we're done! Hurray!

This is wildly stupid.

Full disclosure: I am a fatuous leftie, and my default position is that it's all The State's Fault too. These idiots are actually right, but they're right in a way that accomplishes nothing.

Let us suppose that I am Richard Mosse and I think the refugee problem confronting Europe is terrible. If I am lazy, I can pretty much execute the above program, and I am done. Let us suppose, though, that I have ambitions to actually address the problem. What can I do?

Step one is to work out some clear and potentially achievable goal. In general I will want to change hearts and minds. Perhaps I want to influence a specific vote, perhaps I want to support funding for some program, or class of programs. Perhaps I simply want to reduce prejudice and create open conversation. No matter what, it's likely to come back to changing hearts and minds.

Who's attitude and/or opinion do I want to influence, and in what direction do I want to alter it?

I say hearts and minds deliberately. You've got to hit both. All the rational discourse in the world won't change anything, unless your target can feel it, and if they can feel it they still want a rational reason to change.

Step two is to work up something artlike to speak to the mind. Give them a rational reason to support such-and-such an idea, give them a reason to think it'll make things better. Show them former refugees working hard at difficult jobs, and cite them some statistics about economic growth. You art should specifically speak to the audience you have in mind. If you're trying to influence businesspeople, tell them about money. If you're trying to influence working people, tell them about jobs.

Step three is to work up something artlike to speak to the heart. Show them some little kids before, and after their parents get jobs. Tell them some personal stories of desperate flight, of rescue, of success, of gratitude to the host nation. Again, target the audience.

Step four is to blend the two into a coherent whole.

It doesn't even have to be true, although obviously I disapprove if it's not. I've just detailed how propaganda actually works, and it doesn't work through extensive use of subordinate clauses and the phrase "of course", it works as described in my handy 4 step guide. You might say that propaganda is terrible, but I say that propaganda is, for my purposes here, nothing more or less than political art that works. The alternative is political art that doesn't work.

To be blunt, I cannot see how Mosse could possibly be on the right track. By showing us refugees with freakly thermal imaging, he cannot possibly be shaping the hearts of the audience in positive ways. Creepy alien creatures are coming for us! Fuck! Run! is pretty much the normal gut reaction to the stills I've seen. Perhaps Mosse wants to influence people to support carpet bombing the refugee camps, though.

Anyways, I don't know whether political art is shittier than political art criticism these days, or vice versa, but I think they both tend toward the awful. At least in the Art School world, and the other spheres that revolve around it. There are surely people beavering away in isolation doing something better. Me, for instance.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Some African Photos

I present to you two bodies of work from Africa! Taken, in both cases, by white Africans. Obviously white people can be Africans, that's not my point at all. I think it's pretty likely that I share more cultural touchstones with these artists than I do with, say, Peter Magubane, with whom in turn I suspect I share more than I do with many other African photographers.

Both bodies of work are the sort of thing which, I regret to say, we see too goddamned much of from Africa, especially from white artists. Both are pieces of the "Africa is so poor and screwed up" narrative, and neither one offers any solutions. That said, I like one of them, and I dislike the other. This might be simple prejudice on my part, or perhaps I can make a case. Let's see!

First up we have the Greylingstad series from John Barrow, who shared the link in a comment a few items back. Thanks, John! It's a pretty effective body of work, essentially documentary but with some real visual appeal. John provides us with a lot of background, without thrusting a large bolus of words upon us. We always know what we're looking at; we're never swamped in text.

It is a familiar story to us in the USA, the small town passed by and slowly sliding back into the earth. It is a familiar story, but with a decidedly not-USA flavor. Notably, there are photographs of what appeared to me to be distinctly derelict businesses, a shoe repair shop that was obviously long defunct. And then, weirdly, another one. But no, they're the same one, with a paint job and an expansion between photos. At the time the photos were taken the shop was very much a going concern.

What to me were clear "tells" of a long-closed shop were in fact merely the indications of a business being run on a very small budget. Africa versus the USA. Without the text, I wouldn't have noticed this.

The second body of work appeared on PetaPixel, here or you can find what I think is identical material (less one picture, I think, but with the artist's statement more clearly demarcated) on the artist's web site here.

This is a substantially more enigmatic collection. Much smaller, for one thing, and much more "obvious" in the sense that photographing hard-luck cases is a well mined out area of photography. We're looking at street kids, 13 (14 on Petapixel) photographs, giving some depth. We see kids having fun, kids of various ages. We see what it presumably a pile of trash of the sort the kids pick through, we see light through trees for no reason I can discern (is the foreground fog coming off a trash pile?). We see a few pictures of kids looking impoverished, but weirdly enough the kids seem to be surprisingly well dressed. Their clothes, while neither sterile nor new, often appear fairly clean and in decent repair. My kids are often dressed more shabbily.

While the artist's text paints a grim, and no doubt accurate, picture, I find her photographs to almost contradict the text. There are three or four pictures in which the kids look particularly impoverished, at best. In some of those they could simply be sleepy.

While I applaud Jern's desire to show us depth, to show us that these children are more than miserable cases for charity, I'm not sure she's succeeded even in that. The collection is too sparse, too open to question.

Where do these kids come from? Are they orphans? Kicked out of the house? Runaways? Where do they go when they grow up? Why do these particular children all look essentially healthy, is that an illusion, or are they in fact oddly healthy and neatly dressed?

The question I have to ask myself here is Is there something inherently African, inherently Kenyan, which I am missing and which would unlock this puzzle? Or is this just a kind of lousy little portfolio?

Without the text, I would assume that most of these pictures were not of homeless kids. I would assume that there were a few pictures of homeless kids, a few pictures of children who were substantially better off, and a picture of some attractive trees with the sun piercing the leaves.

More importantly, though, I think that Jern is explicitly political and yet offers no guidance to the viewer. This is a terrible state of affairs she seems to say, but while she implicitly demands that I take note, she gives me no guidance as to what I might do. In contrast, Barrow is not trying to make any political statement, as far as I can see. He seems to be saying that Greylingstad is simply something that happens and, while sad, there's not much to be done about it.

If I am prejudiced against Jern, and I probably am, it is because I am sick to death of having my consciousness raised and then left to dangle. Educating me, or really anyone, on the point of the world has some terrible things in it is beside the point these days. How many more times must I be told this before someone gives me a tactic I can use to actually do something to make the world less terrible? Or is it hopeless? If it's hopeless, why don't we just say so, rather than willfully trying to stimulate my in-built guilt to no apparent purpose?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Video Isn't Photography

Or, if you prefer, Still Photography isn't the same thing as Motion Photography. I don't care much how we name the things, I care that we stop muddling them together.

There is a depressing tendency to treat these two under more or less the same umbrella, to suppose that motion photography and still photography are more or less two variants of the same thing, or that one is a special case of the other, or whatever. Anyone who does one can probably do the other, and (especially) a critic of one ought to be able to criticize the other just about as well. The skills in various cases should pretty much translate straight across.

Technically, sure. The equipment used to make these things is similar, and shares some of the same technical details. They are 2 dimensional, visual.. I am running out of similarities.

In every other way, they have almost nothing to do with one another. Still photography more resembles painting than it does motion photography. You could make a case that it more closely resembles sculpture than it does motion photography.

Consider the differences between still photography and motion.

They are made completely differently. In one case you are looking for (and recording) one or more instants, and in the other you are looking for (and recording) stretches of time. This changes how you manage the set and the people (if any) on it, how you move, how you hold the camera, how you light. Let us set aside entirely the considerations of sound, although sound is hugely important in modern motion photography.

They are consumed completely differently. A photograph is consumed on my schedule, a video on yours. This is an oft-overlooked difference, and it is huge. Just sit and ponder that for a moment. I can look at a picture for a moment or an hour, if I like. A video I cannot. I can pause it, repeat it, rewind a bit, perhaps play it again in slow motion, but ultimately one frame will follow the next more or less on the artist's schedule, or the piece won't make any sense.

They behave completely differently. A photograph (or painting, or sculpture) represents a single moment, a facet, a single slice of something. A group of them represents several slices. The work demands that the viewer construct whatever it is that these are supposed to fit in to. Video gives us that world, still constrained visually, but not temporally. You can argue that film is just a whole bunch of slices, but you are being facetious and you know it. The perception of video is of continuous time, that's the point, and as such it's different.

Roland Barthes was a bloviating idiot, but he got this part right. Motion photography is almost completely unrelated to still photography.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Contextualization, Wot? Wot?

I'm still gnawing on how to map out a "new criticism" (which, if my record remains consistent, will turn out to be roughly the same as the "new criticism c. 1974"). As noted ad nauseum I'm pretty sure that the right way to think about pictures is (now) as collections, portfolios, what have you. Campion's essay, noted earlier, talked about what he calls narrative, what Keith Smith calls sequence and which I call, more or less, photography that isn't shitty.

I'm being unfair, of course. I can think of at least one form that's not shitty that's also none of these things, and that is the typology. Increasingly I am running in to things which read a bit like a typology and a bit like a sequence, which is dangerous territory to be mucking about it.

I think a program for criticism of photograph has to acknowledge several things.

  • Context matters, we need to be open to it. Expecting the viewer to simply read it in the pictures is wrong-headed.
  • It is the body of work which matters, not the individual frame.
  • Specifically what matters is what happens when the viewer looks, carefully, at picture after picture, with the right context in mind.

Context matters, we need to be open to it. Expecting the viewer to simply read it in the pictures is wrong-headed.

This is, I think, sort of obvious, and yet we see a lot of denigration of the mixing of text with pictures. The conceit that one should be able to "just look at the images" and understand what is there. The conceit is that the "images" (and it is always the "images" never the pictures, never the snaps, never the photos) should be strong enough. This is to literally build in cultural bias. The only way the "images" can be strong enough is if they're coded to the culture of the viewer.

If you're going to make sense of extra-cultural work you're going to have to do some reading, you're going to have to have someone help you out with the underlying cultural referents. And, realistically, if you're going to understand anything interesting, you're going to want a few words, a caption or two, to point the way.

Pictures don't mean anything unless you've got a mental model to plug them in to, to fill in the world the individual frames were snapped from.

It is the body of work which matters, not the individual frame.

This is the little drum I have been beating for ages. In this day and age the individual rock star photo, the "gem" photo, is altogether too easy to make, even by accident. It always was easier than we admitted, and now it's not very hard at all. At the same time, photography's ambition has expanded. In order to encompass meaning, as well as simply to demonstrate that the work isn't an accident, the photographer simply has to be able to build up a body of work. A narrative, a typology, whatever. Something meatier and bigger. The greatest hits monograph deserves its miserable death, it was a relic of times past.

Specifically what matters is what happens when the viewer looks, carefully, at picture after picture, with the right context in mind.

This is simply a consequence of the first two. What photography is, what it should be, and the way we should judge it, as how the body of work functions as a collective object, with the appropriate context held in mind.

A single picture carries too little meaning, and might be simply an accident. Therefore we must look at many pictures. To understand any one of them, and to understand the relationships between them, we must understand something of what is in the pictures, what bits are important and which are not.

A portfolio of portraits of Mennonites would be rife with coded meaning. Is the fabric a print or solid? Buttons or hook-and-eye? Hats? Beards? All this stuff contains information about subject's sect. To even know what items code meaning, and which ones are irrelevant, you have to have a bit of background. If you're African, it's possible that none of it means anything to you. Does the brick wall in the background mean more or less than the trim of the man's beard?

If I am trying to make some statement about Mennonites, you'd have no hope of grasping it without some background. Let's suppose that I like the hook-and-eye folk, and make sympathetic pictures of them, while the button-folk less so. You might well glean that I prefer brick backgrounds, if I happened to mostly shoot the first group outside a brick building and the latter in front of a clapboard wall.

Similarly, a portfolio of photos of a smallish but diverse collection of people from various sub-sects of some non-Christian African sect would carry no meaning for me, although obviously I could identify myriad minor differences between one picture and the next.

This all argues, I think, for the acceptance of artist supplied text, background. In many cases, the more the merrier. Do you want to communicate globally? Best to write a fair bit.

Conversely, though, the context must serve the pictures rather than the other way around. If the pictures merely illustrate some text, then we're not really looking at photography but rather an illustrated essay. If the pictures are just a random jumble of bullshit stuck up next to a boring essay of Arty Bollocks, even less so. This is why it's phrased:

Specifically what matters is what happens when the viewer looks, carefully, at picture after picture, with the right context in mind.

Rather than:

Specifically what matters is what happens when the viewer reads the artist's statement, carefully, with the pictures in mind.

The latter is, at best, the work of an essayist, and at worst the work of a bullshitter who will never, ever, be repped by Gagosian. Although he or she might get some glowing reviews from Internet Intellectuals.

And this, just to wrap up a thought started at the beginning, is why the difficulty with that zone between the typology and the sequence. The typology simply shows us the same sort of thing over and over again with the simple insistence, the demand, that this is interesting. It challenges the viewer to construct meaning from the tiny differences. The sequence celebrates the differences, and arranges the pictures in such a way, ideally, as to help us identify which differences matter.

By going someplace in the middle, the risk arises that you're simply being lazy. Are you making a soup, a sandwich, or an incomprehensible mess? Usually the latter, it turns out, and then the artist tries to patch it with an messier artist's statement.

Anyways, snarkiness aside, the photography critic's job has to be something like this, then.

The photography critic must start from the relevant context, reading whatever the artist has supplied as well as rummaging around to whatever degree seems reasonable to fill in the necessary background information. The pictures then must be viewed, and judged, within that context. What meaning do the pictures carry, after we understand sufficient of the surrounding context? How well do the pictures carry that meaning?

As a secondary concern, how well does the surrounding material supplied with the pictures work? How well does the artist elucidate the necessary background?

And finally, how accessible is the work to the expected readers of this bit of criticism? Will the artist's statement suffice for us or is more needed? Is the artists's statement even on point, or is it a distraction?

The judgement of the critic then assumes a new possible dimension. Work can be good, it can be bad, and it can be incomprehensible. It is, ultimately, perfectly reasonable for the critic to simply admit defeat in the face of a too-high cultural barrier, with the expectation that many of the readers of the criticism might find the wall similarly insurmountable. If we wish to be open to extra-cultural work, I think we need to be willing to admit defeat from time to time.

Ideally, some later, wiser, more educated critic might make some sense of the work for us.

Worth Reading: Darren Campion

This is a new fellow I have run across. He writes interestingly about photography, somewhat in the same vein I do. Of course, I think he's too wordy (whereas I am Just Right) and I think he pushes a trifle too far into Arty Bollocks territory (ibid. as it were).

He's written a two part essay which I think is worth a read. On Narrative I and On Narrative II.

I think some references to musical structure would have served him well, and we continue to see the trend of everyone and their dog inventing new meanings for "series" and "sequence" respectively. But stick with it, if this sort of thing interests you.

He also seems to do long form book reviews. Well, at least one, I have yet to dig very far into his archives.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Note on Salgado's Genesis

Inspired by this "book review" from Ming (how can you review a photography monograph without talking about the pictures?) I decided to go look at Genesis to see if Ming's complaint about too many pictures is right.

In a way it is. There's a hell of a lot of pictures in this thing. Lots of repetition, in a sense. It just goes on and on.

If we suppose that Salgado has some idea about what he's doing, we wonder if there is a reason for this, and after a moment it comes to us. He's showing us the world, or at any rate a good sample of it. The world, it turns out, is big, and contains a lot of things. Salgado's point is that there are a hell of a lot of pictures in this book, but at the same time not nearly enough. It comes home to us, if we're paying attention, that he is in fact showing us the thinnest sliver. A half-dozen or so tribes of more or less pristine peoples. A whole lot of penguins, but not nearly all of them. A few pieces of ice. A selection of rivers, mesas, valleys, plains. And so on.

There's an enormous amount of material spanning the globe, and it all looks similar, and yet subtly different, and it's all just a tiny slice in the end. Primitive tribes look a lot alike, massed animals look a lot alike. Land looks similar to other land, water looks similar to other water. And yet, everywhere you go, there are differences. This tribe's men wrap their penis this way, the other tribe's another, and this lot lives in cold places so they cover up.

There are elements in here of The Family of Man, in the effort to simply catalog a lot of material. The two shows would work very well together. And would be inconceivably vast for the instagram generation, nobody under 40 would make it through alive.

The power of repetition and bulk to make a point. It would not have occurred to me, possibly because I would never have the will to take so many pictures.

Notably, a lot of the pictures don't really look like Salgado. There's a ton of purely documentary material, and a surprising number of pictures in which the subject is largely lost against the background (which, I assume, is again the point -- in the real world leopards and native peoples are often making a bit of an effort not to stand out, so the figure-to-ground trope of two-dimensional art is in fact wrong).

I will go so far as to say that this isn't a monograph in the traditional sense. There's simply not enough visual connective tissue. While the book flows, and pictures do relate visually to one another, there is so much visual variety that the cohesiveness the book has is largely not visual. It's conceptual. This group of ten landscapes flows, but then we're in to a bunch of documentary of a tribe (which also flows) and then we're on to massed penguins, and so on. The concept hooks it all together beautifully, but the graphical connections we expect from a monograph are confined to short sequences within the book.

Anyways. Not a review. A review would be quite large, I think, and you'd still have to pick one angle of attack or another of many possibilities. I had 30 minutes to deploy my "contemplative" method, and that's what came out. A couple of notes, and an overall flavor.

It's a good book, but not one I would choose to own. It's simply too big, and the point it's making isn't worth the space. To me. Your mileage, as the say, may vary.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Poncy Title

I want to write something about criticism, and the natural title here would be something like "Toward a New Criticism" but I almost choked to death on my own bile trying to write that, so, nope. Anyways, here is another quote from Jörg Colberg of Conscientious Photo Magazine, from this piece:

In addition, the problems with the current add-on approach becomes vastly bigger once we’re dealing with artists outside of the larger context of Western culture, for whom the likes of Walker Evans or William Eggleston often are simply completely useless reference points.

I don’t write much about the history of photography, so I might have to leave the job of re-framing the discussion to others. I do realize, though, that what I’m asking for is both a revision of the history of photography and institutional critique of its writing at the same time. That’s a lot to ask for.

I am going to construe this broadly as a request for someone, for the academy, to produce a new model of criticism for photography. As I have mentioned before, I think I am whittling away on that in my own small way, but for the moment I want to poke at the "outside the larger context of Western culture" elements a little. I think Jörg is right that this is a problem. I am spending some time explicitly looking outside the west for photography, and I am finding it... interesting.

Let's start with cphmag's most recent piece. Margo Ovcharenko is a Russian photographer that Jörg interviewed. To my eye, she takes the same boring shit every western art student shoots. Gratuitously naked pictures of her friends looking every-so-languidly bored. A bit like Ren Hang, but with less graphic design and without a shred of humor. She mouths the usual shit about how a portrait really contains the photographer and the viewer as well, and how her work is political, and how she spends a lot of time looking at Constructivist Art and so on. There's no evidence I can discern that she has a single visual idea, or anything whatever to say. "Being queer is super hard, here's some pictures of naked queer people" and so on. Being queer is super hard, but it's not clear how random photos of naked gloomy queer people is relevant.

But step back a little. I have spent enough time with Russians to know that politics means something quite different to a Russian than it does to me. Something largely incomprehensible, and infinitely depressing, although they seem to roll with it OK. It is possible, I have to admit, that Ovcharenko is in fact making clear political statements that I am simply missing. Does the pattern of that tattoo mean something? Does the dress on the wall immediately jump out to the Russian as meaningful, or is it just a dress? Ditto the giant book.

I don't know. Given the "tells" in Ovcharenko's blather, I suspect the answer is "no" and that she is in fact a privileged child, fully engaged with the western student ideas of modern art. But I don't know and further more I can't know without spending a decade in Russia. At least.

Let's take a trip to Africa. Russia has long been connected to European culture, although never quite of it, and so perhaps there's more commonality. Africa is a different story, and not a story I care to start trying to tell, not least because I would botch it. Here's a picture from this set of pictures, "The Wall of Men":

What can I say about it? It's striking. It's not a typical western picture of Africa (which is all fat dictators, starving children, people in brightly colored tribal dress posing for the camera, and elephants). I like it.

But what does it mean? I have no idea. I can make no sense of anything. The face paint? The ... is that a broken bowl? the shell of a huge nut? What about the light flowing from it? The picture seems to be called The Ash, which doesn't help me at all. Maybe none of it means anything specific, but perhaps every aspect of this picture is rife with meaning for someone from the right region of Africa. I don't know and further more I can't know without spending a decade in the right part of Africa. At least.

Here's another picture, from Desta for Africa Creative Consulting (DFA). Their Photography link has a bunch of work that is dictinctly non-European/American, quite striking, and again not at all what the west thinks about Africa:

This is a picture that certainly could have been taken almost anywhere. Chickens, flip-flops, plastic objects are global. But what does it mean? In the USA this would almost certainly be some sort of vision of poverty. We're left with the idea of a chicken inside a human habitation, someplace you would take your shoes off. In the USA, this probably means The Deep South and it probably means Poverty.

What does it mean in Ethiopia? I have no idea. Maybe it means exactly the same thing, maybe it's just an attractive picture of normal home life, or an obvious reference to a specific kind of a religious structure/context. I don't know and I can't know with putting in the time.

What I mean, throughout, of course, is that while someone could explain one picture or another to me in a few minutes, or possibly even seconds (err, yeah, that doesn't mean anything in Ethiopia either is always possible), I cannot gain facility with understanding pictures in general without being steeped in the culture.

If Jörg Colberg is asking Westerners to criticize pictures made globally, it's a fool's errand. So let's assume that's not what he's asking.

What he's specifically asking for is a framework which allows, which embraces and welcomes, which includes, international work. Perhaps, then, what he's asking for is simply room for critics from other nations to tell us about their pictures. In the west we usually don't see pictures of Africa made by Africans. When we do, it's probably just a packet of pictures thrown, as it were, over the wall. We have no context. In order to make any sense of these things we actually need to see some criticism, that is a large part of what criticism is supposed to do after all.

I cannot control what the western press publishes. I cannot control what African critics (or Japanese critics, or Bangladeshi critics, or... ) write, nor can I control how their writing is disseminated. I can control one thing, though.

I can write as if my readers were international. I can be, for the western outpost, what I so want from the non-western outposts of culture. I'm going to try, anyways, to write more as if my reader didn't have those cultural referents. As much. I hope it doesn't make me too boring.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Practice of Contemplative Monograph Reading

I decided to try an experiment, based on the ideas of Miksang which I talked about here.

I don't know about you, but for me going through a photography monograph can be a bit of a chore. A pleasant one, but nonetheless a chore. I try to discern the overall "logic" of the book, struggle with what the artist is "going for" and so on. There is the inevitable repetition to drive points home. I'm always looking for the ways one picture related to another, and so on. I do it because it's worth it, because I am deeply interested in these things.

Last night I picked up American Photographs with the intent of using the Miksang approach to seeing the world on the book.

Calm the mind, relax. Open yourself.

Leaf through the book at the relaxed pace of the flâneur, letting the eyes roam gently, freely.

Take each picture in, gently, easily.

When something catches your eye, specifically, "put in the clutch" or "stop pedaling" and mentally coast, still looking.

Without naming things, without analyzing, let the vision roam over whatever it is that caught the eye, and then outward across the frame.

When you're done, move on to the next picture.

First and foremost, it was a very enjoyable experience. There was still discipline involved. Aha, his white hat caught my eye, he looks shifty and... stop it! Stop naming things and just look! but the experience was more relaxed than my usual studious approach.

While I am not really sure, I suspect that the end impression is similar to that produced by a close reading. A lot of details get lost, perhaps? At the end, I think I will know what I saw, but I am less likely to know why.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Coffee, Wine, and Art: Redux

Commenter Nigli, who knows a thing or two about it, has corrected me on a few points regarding wine and the tasting of it. In hindsight, I see I said some pretty idiotic things. Thanks Nigli!

It's obvious to anyone who is thinking clearly, i.e. not me, that there are things you can legitimately taste in wine (coffee, etc). This wine is bitter. Even a clod like me has experienced this bottle of wine is more something-or-other than the last bottle we opened. Some of this is, perhaps, suggestion. I am not immune to the fact that one bottle says Chianti and the other Syrah, but still, there is obviously something there.

Equally obviously, some people taste in detail than others, and furthermore these things can be enhanced by training and practice. Nigli mentioned a number of chemicals which are important, and which it is literally his job to taste. I believe him!

Translating this to Art, in particular photography, there are obviously things any clod can see. This picture is darker than that one and the like. There are things that more perceptive people and people with different backgrounds will note that other people will not. Things like this picture resembles that picture Diane Arbus took for example.

Still, the power of suggestion is quite real. If you dye a white wine red, clods like me will start tasting "red-like" qualities, and sommeliers will get confused. There is no doubt in my mind that one can plant suggestions of flavors that are not objectively present even if that flavor is a tasteable quantity. Can you slide these games past a trained palate? I assume, without evidence, that it depends on the owner of the palate, but that the answer is "sometimes, but sometimes not."

So in terms of flavors, there's stuff that's real in the sense of being objectively present in the beverage in some measureable sense, and that slides over in to stuff that's not real in the same sense. Then there's perceptions of flavors, which are a lot more plastic, a lot more subject to manipulation and suggestion. Obviously if you're perceiving something that's not objectively present, that's manipulation and suggestion at work. I dare say, again without much evidence but with great confidence, that suggestion can manipulate a person's perception of the stuff that actually is objectively present as well.

Now that this has been all muddied up properly, let's get back to the point.

The point is that when you look at Art (or tasting coffee), you're deploying a mental model which is informed by many things. Some of those things are inherent in the Art (or beverage) and some of those things originate elsewhere (the artist's statement, your memories, the text on the bag/bottle). Sometimes these areas overlap. The coffee does have notes of chocolate, because it has high concentrations of this chemical or that, but also because the bag told you so.

Consider these two notions:

Many of Henri Cartier-Bresson's photographs encapsulate a "decisive moment" which means something or other.

"her [Diane Arbus's] true subject was no less than the unique interior lives of those she photographed" -- Szarkowski.

These are both received wisdom. I mean, my God, Szarkowski said the second one! In my opinion, the first one is objectively true, in some sense, and the second is simply idiotic. I do think there's something to Arbus, but Szarkowski mis-identified it. Which is telling. However, I am no less subject to all these factors than anyone else. My opinion is really just a mildly educated and thoughtful guess.

To put it differently, I think there are objective, albeit perceptual, qualities in photographs. I fervently hope that people, in general, in some kind of blinded study would see something extra, something special, in at least some of what we consider the good pictures, the good portfolios, the good work whatever it is. You might consider this obvious, of course there's such a thing as a good photograph, what kind of dunce would even ask the question? Consider, though, that Szarkowski sees one thing in Arbus, and I see quite another (and Germaine Greer agrees with me).

If I am wrong, if the only difference between this picture and that picture is what it's a picture of and how the viewer has been primed, then photography has a problem. It's still not as simple as well it's all just subjective innit, wot? because whatever we do experience it is shared. The problem is that in this case the experience isn't based on the pictures, but on the story surrounding the pictures, which begs the question of what the pictures are for. If so, then it truly is the case that anyone can be a photographer, because photography is, then, truly about the stories we weave around the pictures.

My belief is that the story we weave is hugely important, but it's not the only thing that's important. There's something in the pictures too.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Germaine Greer on Arbus

I stumbled over this article this morning. Germaine Greer talks about the experience of being photographed by Arbus, and then talks about the photographer's work a little. The money quote:

She may have thought she was getting the mask off, but what she was photographing was actually the clumsy ill-drawn mask itself.

Hey, wait a sec. That sounds like something else I read recently. (full disclosure: the cited piece is 11 years old, and it's possible that I read it and forgot it).

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Conscientious Photo Magazine

Jörg M. Colberg is a pretty erudite guy, with some good ideas. I don't agree with everything he writes, but he's one of the few people out there who's really wrestling with the problems of photography in the here-and-now. I am going to quote a couple choice bits from the most recent piece:

Here is an aspect of photography that we possibly need to re-explore, the cult of the gem photo, where a project can only contain very good pictures. As Rydet shows, there are other ways. Maybe the fact that she was not producing work for the heavily commercialized gallery market worked in her favour of opening up her mind to seeing the — pardon the pun — bigger picture more than the individual gem. This is not to say that these photographs aren’t good. They are. Some of them are amazing. They all are poignant in the kind of innocence sense that has a hard time surviving in market dominated environment we now live in.

And then a bit later this:

Unlike Rydet, Herzog has made it into the history already in those ways that our somewhat hype obsessed culture deals with those things: instead of changing the history, the addition is framed around the newly member’s exclusion, which is then written about gushingly ad infinitum (the most spectacular example of that, of course, is Vivian Maier). At the same time, the new addition is squeezed into the same-old Procrustean bed that has served us so poorly in the first place.

And finally, on the subject of (as I understand it) how we understand new photographers, how we perform criticism, how we view photography:

[...] sometimes you need to step back from what you have, have a hard look at what is in front of you, and then think about whether disassembling and re-assembling might not be a better approach. That way, those newly added don’t merely become supporting beams of what we all take for granted. If you think about it, this approach actually diminishes the newcomers’ achievements considerably. In addition, the problems with the current add-on approach becomes vastly bigger once we’re dealing with artists outside of the larger context of Western culture, for whom the likes of Walker Evans or William Eggleston often are simply completely useless reference points.

To which I respond preach it, brother! and also I'm right over here, nibbling away on it..

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


When photography was young, when wet plates ruled the waves as it were, it would have been almost inconceivable for one photographer to make 100,000 pictures. To do so would have been a decade or more of continuous labor, and the you'd probably poison yourself or blow yourself up before you finished. As the decades passed, it got easier and easier. In the era just before ours, it was feasible for a normal, albeit dedicated, person to shoot 100,000 or even more frames of film.

Add to this the notion that painting and drawing are the natural antecedents to photography, and we arrive naturally at the notion that the single picture has some weight. While painters wailed (reasonably) about the relative ease of making a photograph, there was still the notion that the single photograph encapsulated the thing, that a singleton had weight. Indeed, the problem was that the unit of merit, the single picture, was too damned easy.

Roll the pointer forward to the present day. It is now feasible for anyone with even a modicum of dedication to shoot 100,000 frames a year.

Anyone can be a great photographer now, you just may have to shoot more frames. Anyone who is not willfully shooting bad pictures, anyone who has even a modicum of taste and creativity, can shoot the occasional really terrific photograph. If necessary, simply add a measure of randomness to your process, and shoot even more.

If the measure is the single picture, then the only difference between a great photographer and a dog is simply that the dog has to shoot more.

This is not to say that the single picture is bad. It's like a grilled cheese sandwich. I love grilled cheese sandwiches, they are wonderful. They are fully democratic, as well. Anyone can make a grilled cheese sandwich. Anyone can take a wonderful picture.

Still, the logical conclusion is that either there is no difference between a great photographer and a dog, or that the difference lies somewhere else.

The difference is, I maintain, that the great photographer, even the good photographer, can do something more than make good pictures one at a time. This creature can make a collection, a book, a portfolio, that embodies one or more ideas. These ideas and they way they were executed forms a back-story for the collection, enhancing its strength for those who know the story. Even absent the back-story, however, the ideas can be discerned, more or less, roughly perhaps, by anyone willing to take the time to examine, to look closely, and to think. Even more, the ideas lend flavor and depth even to those less willing to inspect. It's a stretch, but I think that sometimes really strong work can just feel more potent without much examination, without much thinking.

Diane Arbus photographed the masks we wear, the artifice behind which we hide ourselves.

Robert Frank photographed America as he understood it.

Ansel Adams photographed the same subject, as he understood it.

Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed little tableaux, each of which embodies in an especially potent way a moment of genuine life, of truth.

Frédérick Carnet photographs a dream of abandonment, of apocalypse off-screen, of aftermath.

Karel Kravik photographs an unsettling dream of childhood past.

Sally Mann photographed death in its many aspects, and makes us see that, among its many qualities, it is beautiful.

Any one picture from any of these bodies of work could have been shot by anyone, even the rankest amateur. Nobody but the artist in question, could have shot all of them and put them together in this way. A lucky amateur could perhaps have shot one frame from each of several of these bodies of work, or even a couple from one of them. But to shoot the whole thing? No. Serendity will take you farther than you think, but not that far.

Photography, if it is anything more than a convenient way to document things, inherently is the portfolio, the collection, the book. The single picture is irrelevant.

This, I believe. This is my manifesto.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Coffee, Wine, and Art

I thought about doing a parody piece on coffee, because I happen to think that effete posturing about coffee (tea, wine, audio reproduction equipment) is silly. It didn't really gel, though. So this is what you get.

There are whole clouds of terminology and perception around coffee, around wine, around audio reproduction equipment. "Notes of chocolate", "Three-dimensional sound stage" and so on. You can spend endless amounts of money chasing every finer gradations of these things, which probably don't even exist in a real way. They are, mostly, products of a manipulated set of sensations.

By "don't exist" I mean something pretty specific. I mean that properly designed double blind study, a control group will taste "notes of chocolate" no more often than random, while the test group (prompted to taste it) will taste those same "notes" much more often than random. Perhaps you could prompt one group to taste chocolate, the other to taste plum, or similar. The point is that a properly designed study will reveal that most of these things do not originate in the beverage, but in the surrounding discussion. These studies have been done extensively for audio reproduction equipment, less so for wine, but the results are generally the same: identical to placebo.

Well, so what? I am fond of saying in audiophile mockery sessions that just because it doesn't exist, doesn't mean you can't hear it. Sensation is a complicated thing, and most of it is lies made up by our big fat brain anyways. It should come as no surprise that if I tell someone that the wine they're about to taste has "notes of raspberry" that they'll taste raspberry, whether a control subject does or not. Why should I deprive someone of their chocolate notes by getting all Science on them?

It comes down to the same mental models we use when reading and looking. There's a lot of stuff that goes in to how a glass of wine tastes, and the wine itself is a surprisingly small part of that. Much the same can be said about photographs, both individual ones and collections of them. We happen to know that Robert Frank was a man on a mission as he shot The Americans and that surely colors our view of the book. I have claimed that his mission shows in the book, that one can actually see the results in an objective way, in a way that one cannot with other books which I consider to be lesser books.

Surely what I mean, then, is something like this: in a well designed properly blinded study, subjects would perceive something of the criticism, the judgement, the depth, that I do. That a properly blinded study would find greater depth in The Americans than in Vivian Maier: Street Photographer.

What is obviously not true is that a test group with full background information would get out essentially the same experience as a control group with none.

It is absolutely the case that a major part of the experience of either book is to be found in the background information.

This, then, begs the question who cares about the no-background experience? By blinding a study, in this case, all you're really doing is depriving someone of the chocolate notes they so enjoy in their coffee.

Still, my claim stands. I genuinely do think that a properly blinded study would discover a qualitative difference between The Americans and the Maier book (or, for that matter, a book of Atget's pictures, since he was essentially the same sort of thing, hat-tip to Mike C!). We are currently still suffering from the belief that single pictures are the thing, and that therefore every group of 40 or 50 "good ones" is essentially equivalent. Greatest Hits books are not distinguished, adequately, from coherent Photo Essays.

Now, it is certainly possible that there isn't actually any real difference, in the Science sense. Perhaps, once you properly blind your study, the differences completely vanish. I don't think so, but I have to accept that it's possible.

If the differences do vanish, then we really need to reconsider photography as an art form. If, without background information, one cannot qualitatively distinguish any two collections of well executed photographs of appealing subjects, then that background information becomes an essential part of it. We wind up in an uncomfortable world in which the process the artist used is indeed a vital, essential, part of the finished product.

We already know that the process is, often, a valuable addition adding depth and interest, but we currently seem to be loath to embrace the idea that it is essential, that the enterprise actually collapses without it.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Whence Greatness?

As I see it, the central problem of photography (or one of them, at any rate) is that anyone can take a good picture. Anyone can take a great picture. Even the greatest of photographers shoot a lot of duds. So what is it that differentiates a great photographer from a good one, and a good one from a mediocre one?

Let us be honest. It is possible that there is no difference. The great ones simply shoot more frames.

The commonly held notion is that the better the photographer, the higher the "hit rate" but while possibly true, it's also just silly. Who cares how about hit rate? Can I be Walker Evans if I just shoot a million frames and sort a lot? Why would I be a lesser photographer just because I had to shoot more, if the result is the same? The "hit rate" discussion collapses under its own weight immediately when you examine it. (of course, it matters for professionals who have limited resources to produce a known number of acceptable frames, let us set that aside and think about everyone else)

This, obviously, is related strongly to my previous posts on Vivian Maier. I claim that she likely wasn't a great photographer, but rather a good (and vernacular, i.e. snapshootist) photographer who has been rather sharply edited. Indeed, my wife just leafed through Maloof's book, and her reaction was telling. These are good pictures. They are appealing, they are interesting, they are visually arresting. To my wife, the resemblances to Frank's, Arbus's, Evans' pictures salted throughout are irrelevant, she doesn't catch those references. So what? The pictures are just plain good. Not all 150ish of them, but let's say a good 70-100 of them.

In what follows, I will refer only to Maloof's book, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, and to the editor, John Maloof. The other one I have on hand is, as I have noted, quite a different thing.

So what the hell is Molitor on about? People like the pictures, even he admits that they're good, but he refuses to admit that Maier herself is "great." Obviously he's just insane and should go lie down for a while. Why doesn't Andrew want Vivian admitted to the Hall of Fame?

The distinction, I maintain, is in something I vaguely refer to as singleness of vision.

The difference between a monograph from a "great" photographer, and Vivian Maier: Street Photographer is in that singleness of vision. It is this which gives the former weight and longevity, while the latter is destined to be a briefly very popular moment in time. It is, ultimately, the process which shines through in the results.

By focusing on a single (or small set of) theme(s), idea(s), the photographer builds a body of work which is coherent, roughly. The ideas have probably grown and evolved as the pictures were shot, sorted, examined. But the process is a roughly coherent one, and the final result then is ideally rather like a symphony. Ideas are developed, inverted, recapitulated. New ideas arrive harmonically. Perhaps one or more crescendos appear. Rachmaninov felt that every piece of music was balanced on a single moment, the peak moment, and everything else in the piece must support that.

To compare with those two ur-monographs, The Americans and American Photographs, I think we can reasonably say that the two classics are both documentary in nature, showing us at least something of what America Was, but also are coherent commentary. These books represent a point of view, an opinion, of America. They show, and they judge. They are, in a way, criticism as well as documentation.

Maloof's book of Maier's is more like a medley from the Boston Pops. Wonderfully arranged popular pieces, blended appealingly into a single performance. Well, Maloof isn't quite that talented, but you get the idea. The number of people that collect recordings of Medleys From The Boston Pops is quite a bit smaller than the number that collect recordings of Beethoven's 6th symphony, I dare say. The Pops Medley is wonderfully accessible, people like it. Beethoven's symphonies, while in vogue this century, are not nearly as accessible, enjoying them is, if we are honest with ourselves, occasionally a bit of a chore.

Maloof's book has to be like this, since there is no (I maintain) underlying opinion buried, encoded, in the pictures. Maier had no critical intent in these pictures, no intent to uplift, or to cast down, or to enlarge, or to thunder angrily, or to praise, or to bury. She was simply taking pictures. Therefore, any attempt to make a monograph that does any of those things is necessarily false, and therefore we can be grateful that Maloof did not.

Still, Beethoven lasts. In part because the brilliant minds of the academy assure us that Beethoven is great, important, but also one hopes because even a rubes like us can tell that there's something there. We're willing, from time to time, to do that chore and sit through the dull bits until we get to that bit where's everyone's yelling FREUD! over and over again for some reason, because we like that bit a lot.

It's a bit like the difference between kitsch and Art, but with less daylight between the two ends. The Medleys are still marvelously crafted, well played, good music. We need feel no shame in liking them, they're "accessible" rather than "low-brow" and so it is with Maier's work, and so it is with a great number of other monographs and exhibitions, I dare say.

But I still don't much like John Maloof.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Vivian Maier

I have in my home at the moment two of the books of Maier's photographs, borrowed from my local library. Vivian Maier: Street Photographer from John Maloof's collection of 100,000+ negatives of Maier's work, and Out of the Shadows from Jeffrey Goldstein's somewhat smaller collection (20,000 to 40,000, I have seen several different numbers). From these two books I am attempting to cut through some of the unavoidable editorial oversight to try to make some sense of the underlying archives, to make some sense of what Maier might actually have been up to.

There has been a great deal of overt myth-making surrounding this body of work, and given the degree of hype we've seen over the last decade, we can be absolutely certain that there is somewhat less there than the hype makes out. That is simple arithmetic -- the hype machine will, of course, take the most optimistic view of whatever it is hyping, and will slip over from time to time into pure untruth. Reality is therefore certain to be at least slightly less remarkable, and is likely to be quite a bit less remarkable.

About three years ago, I made some remarks roughly about Maier and some related things, which you can review here if you like. I had not at that time looked at any of the books, but had spent some time poking through Maier's work online. This current essay is more or less an update of those remarks, and may reflect some changes in thinking. I think I may have been more generous in the past.

What do we actually have here, and can we identify anything of it through the fog of hype? I think I can, and I intend to try.

First let us examine the books themselves a little. Maloof's book is of course all street photography, he has (we will find out in a little while) selected only things that qualify as street photography from his archive, and has sequenced them in what appears to be roughly chronological order, with some effort to give us appealing or witty pairings on verso and recto pages. There are a couple handfuls of photographs that remind me of specific photographs by other noted photographers:

Diane Arbus shot a couple things that look a lot like this.

This looks at least a little bit like some of Paul Strand's photos.

This one is quite reminiscent of several of Stieglitz' pictures.

This one, interestingly, looks like a Cartier-Bresson, or would if you lopped about 20 percent off the left side. Unlike the others, it does not remind me of a specific picture, it rather feels "in the style of."

There is a bunch of what we now call "street portraiture" which superfically resembles more of Diane Arbus's work, but upon closer inspection we see that it is rather more ordinary. The subject is either unaware of the camera, or is fully aware and posing. This is the sort of drivel that is, honestly, easy to bang out all day long. Find an interesting character, photograph the interesting character, repeat. You can take endless workshops on how to do it. Still, it has documentary interest, I think, spanning decades as it does.

Then there is the filler. The worst of it is this thing:

Possibly with some context it would be interesting, but as it is it is a completely uninteresting photograph of a random crowd. There's also this one:

Which is interesting on two fronts. First, a very very similar photograph appears in the other book. Second, it is exactly the sort of photograph a tyro thinks is Just Terrific.

So, Maloof (the editor of this book) has selected something like 150 pictures, some percentage (10, 20) of which specifically remind me of specific other photographs by other photographers, another 30 percent is perfectly decent street portraiture of the easy sort, and then there's a mishmash of different subjects, exactly one picture of which seems to be "in the style of" another specific photographer (the H C-B-alike noted above) and a few bits of absolute filler which I find it hard to imagine even Maloof was pleased with.

Maloof makes no effort at scholarship. There is no attempt to date any of the pictures, or even to locate them. There's a little hagiographic forward, a few lines of additional text, all basically about how mysterious Maier was and how wonderful her photographs were.

Let us recall that this is a woman who left behind several storage lockers full of stuff, and hold on to that thought.

The second book, Out of the Shadows is pulled from Goldstein's collection. It includes a much broader range of work, and quite a lot more scholarship. Photographs are all approximately dated and located for us, and there is a lot more text detailing Maier's history, snippets of conversation with people who knew her, and so on. It turns out she wasn't actually all that mysterious, she just didn't talk about herself a whole lot. While the authors of Out of the Shadows cling to Maloof's Mystery Woman trope, they simultaneously make it clear that there was very little mystery. Remember, now, about those storage lockers. If you can't figure out a few things about someone from several tons of personal crap, you're not much of a historian. Maier is quite a bit less of a cipher than many of us.

Anyways, onwards to these pictures. There's a lot less notable in here. The Frank-alikes and the Arbus-alikes are all gone, what we have are well made snaps of various trips and locations. Lots more street portraiture as described above, a lot of found still lifes, shadow play, textures. There's a whole section of torn paper scraps on the ground, on the street, in the trash. Newspaper headlines appear a lot. And so on. This books has several hundred photos in it, quite a few more than the Street Photographer, and far more widely spread in genre.

This book also contains a lot of breathless hagiography, but at least it also contains a few facts, a fair bit of research, and broader view of the photographer's work.

The reproductions are somewhat lower contrast, which to me suggests a less hipster and more honest approach.

In short, Out of the Shadows is a vastly more serious book than Street Photographer and is vastly more interesting. Combining the two provides, I think, some real insight.

So what does this all mean?

Let's pick on Robert Frank a bit. He went out and shot a ton of film to make The Americans, all on a specific theme. He was looking for something, some essentially American thing. Then he went through his 35,000 negatives or whatever it was, and picked out a small set of them, printed them, and finally had the lot put into a book with a foreword by Jack Kerouac (rejecting, I think, Walker Evans in favor of Kerouac). So this is a complete project. This is a man on a mission. Frank had a singular vision.

The conceit with Vivian Maier, tucked away and never explicitly stated, is that her street photography is something of the same. We imagine that, in some sense, she had some master plan which was never executed, which the helpful pirates of her collected negatives are now completing on her behalf. Maloof scents a hint of Frank's work in a few of Maier's pictures, a sniff of Arbus, and pulls together a "might have been" book of street photography. He wraps it in all the tropes of an artist monograph, the book is very much in the style of The Americans, which resulted from a coherent and vigorously pursued plan. There's no evidence whatsoever that Maier even had any such plan, let alone would have pursued it.

Indeed, all the evidence we have points the other way, that Maier in fact did not have a plan. She was, like so many other people, simply taking pictures of things that caught her interest. This evidence comes in two basic dollops. The first is that she was remarkably catholic in taste, she shot everything. People, buildings, trash, dead animals. Children, the poor, the rich. Cars. Street. Shadows. Herself (a lot), and so on. The second is that she does not seem to have even begun on any sort of plan, there's no mention I have discovered of any effort to organize, to sort, to cull. The people interviewed seem to universally agree that she shot a lot of pictures, but didn't talk about them or show them around much.

It would be easy to suggest that the camera was for Maier a shield and a portal through which she related to the world, that the negatives themselves were ultimately not the point. That is certainly possible. It's also irrelevant.

All this begs the question of what it is that makes the photographer. What makes a photographer great, or influential? Which parts of the process are inherent, and which can be dispensed with, without losing that essence of greatness? I maintain that it is, essentially, the singular vision.

The Maier project, to be blunt, more closely resembles the process of pulling together a book of found, vernacular, photographs than it does the process of pulling together a traditional monograph. Her books are being pitched, essentially, as the latter, and they are, in reality, the former.

This is not to say that Maier was awful, certainly not. I have seen something like 500 pictures of the 140,000 or so she's left behind. That's one in 1:280 or thereabouts. There's no doubt that Maier had at least a little bit of an eye for how to fill a frame appealingly (I quite like the "found still life" material she made, she had quite a gift there, in my opinion). She had some ability to photograph people on the street in an appealing way. She seems to have, from time to time, made a photograph that looked a bit like someone else's better known photograph.

She also, it is clear, shot plenty of duds. The editors of these two books were unable to fill them completely with anything resembling "keepers". The editors of Out of the Shadows duck around it by being completists, they're showing us various stages of development, they're showing breadth, so of course there are some duds.

What she is lacking is any singular vision. Despite the claims by the hagiographers, there is simply not a unifiying theme here. There is no signature Maier style. All of it looks vaguely like everything else. This one looks like an Arbus, that one like a Strand, most of them are indistinguishable from the vast swathes of Street Portraits we are inundated with, the shadow play looks like shadow play. The rather lovely found still lifes look a lot like late 19th century still lifes. She's simply shooting everything, anything, that catches her eye as interesting.

What we are looking at here, almost certainly, is a modestly talented vernacular photographer. She has no particular vision, because she doesn't need one, there's no evidence that she was remotely interested in any such thing. To suppose that she was basically a Robert Frank is not merely absurd, it is arguably insulting and disrespectful. Why the hell can't we let this woman be what so she obviously was, a woman with a camera who took pleasure in photographing things, lots of things?

John Maloof, whether deliberately or no, has run a remarkable scam on the photographic world. He managed to recruit a few notable names to his cause, and trotted out a handful of vaguely familiar looking pictures, and on the strength of that managed to tip the whole community over into gasps of joy and pleasure. Everyone loves a Cinderella story, especially is Cinderella is helpfully dead and out of the way, after all. Maloof managed to confuse people in a very very specific way. By showing us a photo that looks like that one Arbus photo, or that one Frank picture, or those two Evans photos, he has buffaloed everyone into thinking that the Maier is similar enough to Arbus/Frank/Evans to be interesting.

There is a huge gap between "made a picture that looks a lot like that one by Ansel Adams" and "shoots like Ansel Adams" and that difference is extremely important. Anyone can make one picture that looks a lot like another picture, and if you shoot 140,000 frames, you're practically certain to get some hits.

My theory here is that Maloof and his co-conspirators pulled out these vaguely familiar photographs, and then dressed them up with a bunch of words about Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans. The photographs supported the text, by golly, they do look like that. This created a self-reinforcing spiral in which more credible names were persuaded and made more statements about Kertész and so on. After a little while it becomes received wisdom that Maier is the reincarnation of pretty much anyone you want her to be, except that she also has her own inimitable style, her own instantly recognizable je ne sais quois. The coincidences of appearance of a handful of pictures, together with an obvious visual competence on Maier's part, together with an entirely imaginary Mystery Woman About Whom Almost Nothing Is Known, and a healthy dose of luck, birthed a genius, of a sort.

In particular, this is (in my opinion, as if that needed to be repeated) another example of how our mental model of what we see can be colored and indeed managed. Maloof and his cohorts have managed us, collectively, so when we see Maier's pictures we know already that they are wonderful, they carry echoes of not one of the greats, but all of the greats. And so, of course, we tend to see that. Unless we are very careful, unless we check and re-check, to be sure of what it is we think we see.

I do not pretend to know if the scam was purely deliberate, purely unconscious, or somewhere in between. It is obvious that Maloof very much wants to have discovered an unsung great (who on earth would NOT want to, after all?) and that in the service of that he has done a great deal of the work. Maloof has a singular vision, but unfortunately it is not a visual one. Despite his best efforts, even the smaller book of pictures he's pulled together lacks any coherent photographic vision. Despite his best efforts, it shows the seams of the ex post facto idea of Maier he has assembled out of component parts. This is, in part, because Maloof simply isn't very sophisticated, and partly because there probably isn't that much material (i.e. excellent street photographs) to work with.

That said, these are still quite fun books to look at. They are packed full of history and occasional flashes of genuine wit. There are lots of interesting looking people, capably shot, and who doesn't like that? These books are markedly better than those horrible (and yet appealing) Local History books but enjoy much of the charm of them.

That said, I still don't much like John Maloof.