Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sequencing III

I am working on a book about Bellingham's Summer, which is a somewhat abrupt and slightly mad time of year. The days are very long, and often very bright. We're sleeping poorly, and furiously trying to get all the Summer in that we can in the few short weeks we have.

Here I experiment with musical themes.

Theme One: the fecund growth of plant life, which we introduce with these pages of morning glories.

The theme of growth and multiplication should be clear, surely? I had thought to have one more page, a 3x4 or a 4x4 grid, that fills the page even more fully than the 3x3, but goodness it's a lot of work to mock these things up.

Once the theme is set, we can reference it by inserting the opening picture of a single tendril.

We can repeat this theme with variations, these two pictures could be substituted in for the first and last pictures, without loss, I think:

Obviously we could mix up the pictures in the collages, or replace individual photos. We could play around with sizes when we recapitulate this theme (or any theme).

Theme Two: photos drawn from the local Farm Market, which is really a sort of weekly fair. A few people making balloon animals, or doing face-painting for kids. Some buskers. A bunch of people selling produce, a bunch more selling made food, and yet another bunch selling candles, art, crystals, and so on. And masses of humans.

These pictures are all the same size, a sort of bass line. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM, of people.

Again, you can obviously swap in any similar pictures without losing the sense of the theme.

Theme Three: The lawnmower. This thing is rotting on the lawn about three houses down from me. I intend to use it in the latter half of the book, representing as it does a cutting down, a decay, an ending. We start with a mild picture of a wheel, with a strong botanical component to echo Theme One, and end on a rather more dissonant shot of the blades.

In this way I visually prepare for the dissonance, the unpleasant departure from what we've seen up to now. These photos are treated differently, and in the final product I expect each theme to have its own toning and contrast profile, to further clarify the point.

In the final book, this theme will probably be introduced in a spread-out fashion, spacing the pictures out by a couple of pages. I might end the book with a recapitulation of the theme, the same three pictures stacked onto a single page, recto, and then turn the page for a final photo of rain/cloud/storm, the gloom of fall closing in.

In closing, an idea for harmony. Here is a variation of theme one, starting partway through a variation on theme two. Imagine this as three pages in a row.

Why would I do this? For fun, of course! And as a way to pack content into pages, and to be, perhaps, appealing and interesting. To express what it is about the Summer in Bellingham? Or if it doesn't do that, well, at least to be absurdly precious.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Two Books on Photobooks

I recently reviewed, in some sense, Colberg's recent book Understanding Photobooks, and shortly thereafter I had commended to me the book by Swanson and Himes, Publish Your Photography Book. I have now read the second one thanks to the generosity of one of my regular readers (thank you, J!). The copy I have is a first edition, not the newer second edition, so bear that in mind.

While I was expecting these two books to cover roughly the same ground, it is immediately obvious to even the inattentive that the titles do not suggest any such thing. And, indeed, they are quite different books. One might say that they do cover roughly the same ground, but the areas of intense focus are almost completely separate.

Colberg's book is aimed at the Serious Artist who wants a design-forward book, essentially an Artist's Book, but printed on an offset press in an edition of several hundred to a few thousand. His book will be most useful to you if this describes you, but it will remain useful to you unless you are very far indeed from that model.

He covers, briefly, the process by which titles are acquired by publishers, but spends the bulk of the book talking about artist-focused issues. Sequencing and editing, the role of design, the characteristics of various bindings, the kinds of issues that arise relevant to the artist in printing, and so on. He talks about marketing, a little bit, but perhaps a little more about markets.

On the other hands, Swanson and Himes are more broadly focused. Their target readers are anyone who wants to publish a book of photgraphs, from the Colberg set to the people who want to make a giant beautiful coffee table book to the entomologist who wants to publish his exhaustive library of focus-stacked bee photographs for his colleagues. Their book is roughly equally useful to all within that spectrum. While the list of topics covered is roughly the same as Colberg's list (with the exception of sequencing and editing -- S&H offer almost nothing on this topic) S&H is much more focused on How To Get Published.

They provide a breakdown of the various roles within a publishing house, they give you worksheets and timelines. They offer detailed suggestions on how to contact a publisher, how to find the right publishers. They give a list of publishers' web sites. They break down, in rather more detail than does Colberg, the nuts and bolts of acquisition, development, manufacture, and sales of photobooks. They also have a somewhat more open view, possibly because they're reporting on a somewhat earlier time, but also surely because they're talking about a broader range of publishers. Where Colberg cautions against one thing (using PoD books for dummies, say), S&H might treat that as a perfectly reasonable choice to approach many publishers with. Both might well be perfectly true within their relevant domains.

Both books emphasize some of the same things. Both are adamant that concept is vital, it is the starting point. Both emphasize the utility of working with physical prints, and physical dummies.

Both are wonderfully vague about how much you, the neophyte artist, can be expected to cough up in up front costs.

As a separate remark, the actual design and construction of the books differs greatly. Normally I don't care about this, but these are after all books about books, so it is perhaps fair to make this comparison. Colberg's book, as noted, feels cheap, and has at least on substantial design flub (white text on a light grey background). Swanson and Himes book, on the other hand, is beautiful, feels luxurious and expensive, and is much better designed. You could argue that they got carried away with white space, I guess, but that adds to the feeling of luxury. The page counts are similar, but the S&H book is twice as thick with only 10% more pages.

S&H uses a fairly heavy page stock, while Colberg's book uses a light, almost magazine weight, stock. Which is, honestly, kind of yuck.

I think Colberg has more words in his book, although the sizes are similar, but S&H give you a much broader range of extended quotations and discussions from a wider variety of industry players. While Colberg gives us a collection of breakdowns of book designs as inserted sections, S&H give us a inserted sections from industry players -- publishers, authors, designers, and so on.

S&H does, after a fashion, echo Colberg's book analyses with a separate chapter of case studies, but their cases are clearly more mainstream books than the ones Colberg highlights.

The S&H book is clearly a useful resource if your mission is to get published. Colberg's book is clearly inferior as a resource if that's what you're looking for. If you want to know how to make a book Colberg has a great deal more information, and might have enough to get you started on the job of actually getting published.

From the books I have read, the perfect combination is surely Keith A. Smith's Structure of the Visual Book together with Swanson and Himes Publish your Photography Book. I would swap in Colberg's Understanding Photbooks in place of Smith's book if you're not much interested in expanding your mind on sequencing and what might be a book. If you have a pretty clear idea of what you want to accomplish, and you're happy to simply depend on a good designer, and you're not looking to make a full-on Artist's Book style of object, Colberg will probably suit you fine. Smith can be slightly heavy going at times.

This, though, is the conundrum. The artists that Colberg wants to talk to most are precisely the ones that probably ought to read Smith instead.

All three books are about the same price, I think. Something like $US30 plus or minus a bit.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Khadija Saye

Khadija Saye was a young photographer killed in the Grenfell Tower fire. There has been an outpouring of grief in the photographic community, with dozens, perhaps 100s, of retweets of the "such a loss, so sad" form.

Interestingly, this vast outpouring of grief generally just copies (automatically?) the same handful of tintypes from a recent show of her work someplace.

I am going to go on the record and say this: I had never heard of her, and I do not believe that most of the grievers had either. In general, they cannot be buggered to even google her and see if she did anything except these tintypes. Even the online "press" (PetaPixel, PDNOnline) simply copies the same pictures. You have to go to her obit on BJP's web site (or, you know, her own damn web site) to see if she did anything else.

I offer no grief here, beyond the general sense that it is always a tragedy when a life is cut short, whether that life had promise or not. Was she destined for greatness? I do not know, and it does not matter. The tragedy is the same whether she was to be the darling of the Fine Art set, or a grocer.

I will say that she did some interesting pictures. Here is her web site. I commend to you especially the Eid project, which works, for me, on several levels. I don't know anything about it. It appears to be a religious gathering, and also a gathering of people from perhaps a shared culture, and also a beautiful study of color. Saye could see, she could edit, she could sequence.

Note the colors of the carpets, of the robes (religious?), of the "street clothes", and on the floor itself. Perhaps this group of people just happens to use the same color palette for everything, but even so, that in itself is a nice observation.

I think her use of color, and her observations of contemporary African-descended peoples, are both much more interesting than some staged tintypes of.. well, of we know not what, honestly, other than the line or two about "migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices" which really tells us nothing.

But your opinion may differ. Regardless of any considerations of your opinion and mine, she at least deserves our attention to all her work if we are to attend to her at all.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Putting the Depth Back

Susan Sontag argued, long ago, that the photograph replaces reality in our mind. Sally Mann echoed this in much more recent book, remarking that where there are photographs, her memories are of the photographs rather than the people. Darren Campion over on his excellent blog spent a little time thinking about Sontag (part 1, part 2) and makes the claim that Sontag is a little too obsessed, and that photography need not do this, that this is just one common way in which photography behaves.

Me? I kind of think it's baked in to photography and the human psyche. It strikes me as basic. It's possible that I am just slavishly doing my best to agree with Sally Mann, though. Anyways, that hardly matters. The point is that photography frequently does behave in this way. The photograph of the thing frequently replaces the thing itself in our mental space.

This is somehow related to Equivalents, although it's not the same thing, but that's not where I am going today.

Consider the "primitive man" to use a no-doubt almost criminal expression. It's so much handier than "humans living long ago, pre-technology, in smaller communities more closely integrated with the world around them" though. These people did indeed live in closer contact to their world. Their worlds were far far smaller than ours, in some meaningful way, and they lived in that world largely without the help of Media. In those communities, a few of which still exist, the answers to the most trivial questions can be infinitely complex, because these people often perceive far more of the interrelated nature of things. The see the web of cause and effect, or relationship, that extends infinitely far in space and time. Where there are gaps, they gloss over with a god or a sprite, but often they have a far more nuanced and detailed understanding of their little worlds.

The modern world is vast. Not just geographically. We have medicine, science, space, planets, other nations, other cultures, machines, and creatures from far away, all available to be understood. After a fashion. To make sense of it all for us, we have the Media, broadly construed. We have handy books and television shows and web features that will tell us about why WWI started (the assassination of the Archduke, of course!) and which will boil damn near anything else we care to learn about down to simple causes and tiny soundbites.

It is inevitable. The world is too vast to be grasped in anything like the way an aboriginal person of 500 years ago might grasp the relationships between certain plants and animals in her environment. We actually need simple explanations for things. "It's Trump's Fault" or Obama's, May's, Merkel's, or Modi's. In fact, this is basically never true. Anything we might conceivably blame on Trump is surely the result of 100s of actions by 100s of players, at least. Trump, at best, it the most recent and most influential of a cast that has been working on this plotline since the beginning of time.

This, incidentally, is why anarchy won't work. People haven't any interest in returning to the narrow, simple, worlds of the past. Burn the media down, and the people will instantly construct another one. We demand simple answers and a complex world. Someone is certain to step up with the answers for us, and as soon as you have a Media, you'll have all the rest of it in short order.

Alright then. The media is an inevitable product of modernity, as well as a supporting structure of it. Photography with its special characteristics is integrated fully into the media, along with everything else. Photography is one of many modes which provides simple answers. It replaces deep understanding, and memory, with the simple picture that shows us The Truth (as whoever is in charge at the moment wishes us to understand it).

I've written a few times about various notions like trame and network, suggesting that Good Photographs should at any rate hint at the external world they're drawn from. I think one might usefully re-frame these remarks as suggesting that the photograph -- while it will inevitably do its dire work of replacing memory -- ought to at any rate replace memory with something that has the same connections outwards to reality as the real memory would have.

The photobook, the essay, can do this far better even than a single photo. If Gene Smith's Minamata does nothing else, it teaches us that this is possible.

My understanding of the tragedies of Minamata is not the real understanding. I cannot grasp it in the way the people who lived it do, nor in the way the later generations living with the outcomes do, nor even in the way a Japanese citizen grasps it. Mine is further removed, mediated through this book. The book, however, by its design, does not encyst a version of The Truth into a neat little package, a small world unto itself. The book, by its design, remains connected to the messy, interconnected reality.

While it would be better, um, in some sense, for me to understand Minamata first-hand, that is impossible. I am the wrong age, in the wrong place, of the wrong parents. A mediated understanding is all that I can have. Better, I think, a mediated understanding of this sort than the other sort, or none at all.

This permits me both the larger world of modernity, with the necessity of Media and therefore Mediation, without the grotesque fallacy of the pat answer, the nifty package of false Truth.

This, I think, is something to strive for.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Photobook as Equivalent

If you've spent any time knocking around the history of photography, you've probably run into Stieglitz's "Equivalents", these pictures of clouds that he claimed were "equivalent" to some emotional state, or something like that. Minor White went on at some length about this idea of "Equivalent", and seems to have considered it fundamental to photography, or at least to the photography he thought worthwhile. It has something to do with the idea that the photograph represents real things, but that upon viewing it evokes something quite different in the viewer. I think it's more than an evocation, though, it is that the viewer seems the picture as a symbol, an embodiment, of what the viewer feels. There is, in short, something like equivalence, natch.

Anyways, this is one of those concepts that has always felt a bit dodgy to me. I've never seen anyone write about it in anything like a clear fashion, which is rarely a good sign.

Minor White seems to think that, whatever it is, it might be pretty personal, pretty subjective (rather than intersubjective!). Everyone might get something different out. White also seems to subscribe to the theory that only some people can do it, that you might need to be specially attuned, or specially trained in order for an Equivalent to work. I find this notion to always be pretty offensive and useless. Art is bullshit if you need to go to night school to "get" it.

So what am I on about with the Photobooks?

When I look at a picture, I can kind of fill in a world the picture lives in from my imagination and experience. I imagine, at least a little, what's outside the frame, what happened before and after. So I fill out things "horizontally", but there's also a "vertical" filling-in. I react to that "horizontally" expanded view of the picture. I might have some emotional response, I might enlarge my mind on a good day, all that sort of thing. However you put it, even a crappy picture probably ripples outwards in several dimensions in my mind. Whether that's an "equivalent" or not, I can't say, but it certainly happens.

Let's suppose that a functioning "Equivalent" is one where that multi-dimensional space of mental ripples is roughly related to what the photographer had in mind, and that the photograph reads as some sort of symbolic representation of those ripples, rather than simply a thing that kicked the ripples off.

I visualize a photograph as a sort of grappling hook the photographer throws toward that whole complicated mental space, hoping perhaps to hit more or less near a specific spot. Weston seems to want to hit the "sex" part of my brain, which is a bit of a cheat because, let's be honest, it's a huge target.

A portfolio gives the photographer many casts of the hook. The idea can become clearer, there's a much better chance of a portfolio of work doing that "Equivalent" thing, surely, whatever it is.

A photobook is one step farther, since it allows the artist to shape the relationship between the photographs. Consider Keith Smith's notion of the book as, really, a single composite picture built up in the viewer's mind by reading the book, present and complete only after finishing the book. The book, considered this way, is perhaps a single cast of a gigantic grappling hook, ideally so large that it cannot help but get a piece of whatever the artist is aiming for.

Of course, it is also multiple casts of the hook, like a portfolio. So, in a way, it gives the artist several different ways to hit the mark.

It's a rough idea at the moment, but I might almost believe in the possibility of a book (or book-like object) of photos behaving as an Equivalent, in a pretty general and accessible way.

Monday, June 19, 2017

More on Sequencing

I'm probably going to keep writing about sequencing, which is odd, because I am increasingly thinking that most people who think about it at all overthink it. We treat it like composition "If only" we think "I could get the right sequence, then my work would suddenly be amazeballs." In reality, if you have good content I am pretty sure any sensible sequence is fine. If you have awful content, no sequence will save it.

Colberg's book drags on at length, but is largely concerned with how to get from one picture to the next. Notably, he advocates the "print 'em all out and agonize over it forever" approach, which has the following very interesting consequence:

You can't do repeats. You've only got one print of everything

And once you see that, you see immediately that this approach makes a lot of stuff hard. There's no clear way to visualize collages, or repeats-with-changes (what if I want to foreshadow with an ultra-low contrast version of a picture?)

I think, to be honest, that you need to spend time with the pictures, but more time away from the pictures, imagining things.

Right now, I am thinking about pacing a lot. Keith Smith points out that boring/repetitive material picks up the pace. 10 blank pages in a row would get flipping quickly. 10 identical pictures, much the same. 10 similar pictures with obvious differences, much the same. 10 similar pictures with extremely subtle but important differences -- the exact opposite effect (assuming the reader notices).

Imagine a picture A, with some subtle variations. Maybe A1, A2, A3 are all just successively tighter crops of the same photo while B is a completely different picture. Imagine this series of pages, denoting a blank page with a lowercase b:

A b A1 b b A2 b b b A3 b b b b B

I visualize the pace picking up, faster and faster, even perhaps a little frustration, and then suddenly B appears and the flipping stops. STOP. What possibilities are there in the reader's conception of the relationship between A and B? And how on earth would you imagine this if you were fixated on sorting and re-sorting a pile of physical prints?

What is A1, A2, and A3 were not just tighter crops, but also printed smaller? Or larger? Perhaps B exhibits a radical size change as you flip wildly past A3 and the 4 blank pages after that, as well.

What if B was a repeat of the first picture in the book?

Keith Smith's book is basically 200 pages of this sort of thing. If your mind isn't bigger by the time you're done with it, you are a blockhead.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Clary Estes Again

This young woman writes pretty well, and is thinking about things pretty hard. While I don't agree with everything, and I think she's naive, I also think she deserves to be read more widely.

Read her recent medium piece on photojournalism here.

The Ugly: Why Care?

I've been frothing at the mouth a bit about the ugly side of photobook publishing, notably the pay to play aspects, and one might reasonably ask why one should care. I've asserted that it's bad for Art and one might reasonably ask on what grounds I make that statement.

As an aside, let me clear up one point, and add some information that I have recently learned! It's obvious that not the whole publishing industry is like this. What's less obvious is that the entire photobook industry is not like this. The biggest fellows mainly publish established players, but Aperture at least seems genuinely devoted to finding good new artists and also seems to minimize the pay-to-play (I cite as evidence: I couldn't find anything about pay to play in a quick perusal of their web site, and Colberg doesn't mention them, so, not that strong a case).

One of my readers has done books with a small/boutique publisher that doesn't demand up front payment. That reader has indeed "leveled up" on the strength of those books. So, there is evidence of a system of real publishers out there. They're all muddled up with the fakes, though.

The pay-to-play model for photobook publishing (and, I dare say, other facets of the industry) has a couple of effects that we could do without.

First and foremost it selects artists based on their ability to raise money. The wealthy, the trust-fund-beneficiaries, the expert grant-writers, all bubble upwards (at least within this incestuous little self-licking ice cream cone universe), and none of those things particularly correlate with talent. Indeed, they take away from the work. If you're constantly busy mooching and writing grant proposals, you're probably not doing your best work.

I have seen it argued that this is not a problem, because it has always been this way, and to that I have two responses, the first of which appears in my second point here:

Secondly, it separates the money from the gatekeeping functions, which diffuses the gatekeeping. In the Badde Olde Dayes, you had a Medici who had, well, some sort of taste and a stack of money. He kept the gate, and he paid the money, and there you were. Good or bad, you sure as hell had a coherent vision being paid for. At least, in theory, and sometimes.

These days you have committees of people handing out grants based on who writes the best bullshit, committees who are surely, at least some of the time, deferring questions of taste and vision to... well, someone else. Then you have the publishers, who are struggling to make payroll, pay leases, and who may be more interested in things like book design than photography doing the rest of the gatekeeping function. As I have noted, I suspect that many of these people are unserious people simply playing at it anyways.

In other words, it hasn't always been this way.

The second, and more important, response to the "well, it's always been patrons and whatnot" argument is that in this modern era it doesn't have to be that way any more. I know homeless guys who have 100% of the resources necessary to do a decent book on blurb. They have a phone. They have enough money to buy tape, a blank notebook, and 4x6 prints to make a dummy. They can use the computers at the library to use blurb's online design tool to make their book, and they can get together enough money to buy a handful of copies. Not that they would but the point is that a literal homeless bum in the USA has the necessary resources to do a PoD book.

The system that Colberg endorses, the system that we are supposed to believe is a necessary part of the Serious Art World, turns artists into grant-writers and fundraisers, and then it consigns them to 18-24 months of development hell to get the book finished. All this is effort and time that is taken away from actually making art.

The old patronage system took the explicit form of "You are my chattel, now go do your thing. Probably with a bunch of restrictions and requests and demands, but do your thing." The modern system of grants and competitions which infests photography explicitly gets in the way of doing your thing. You're supposed to constantly attend events, write proposals, and take meetings. A modicum of success means, mainly, more meetings, more events, more proposals, and even less photography.

The single most important thing a would-be novelist needs to do is write novels. Do you want to be an actor? Then go act. Painters paint. Photographers, apparently, fundraise and agonize over how to best use the 7 gatefold pages their budget allows.

No wonder much of the high end photobook market consists of boring monographs by old men and endless iterations of what Mike Chisholm so hilariously characterized as My Sad Project. I'd be pretty fucking sad too, I guess.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Understanding Photobooks: The Ugly

Colberg presents us with a bit of a problem in this book of his. He is unabashedly in favor of traditional publishing, for reasons that he does not make particularly clear, and he is distinctly coy about the down sides.

He explicitly dismisses Print on Demand, repeatedly. He mentions that, in many cases, the photographer may be asked to pay for some of the costs up front when doing a book, but is too shy to mention any numbers. The number you're wondering about is north of $10,000, often considerably north. Let us recall that the up-front out of pocket expenses of PoD are less than $100 unless you are making a very fancy book indeed. Somewhat less than the $15,000 to $50,000 traditional publishers are likely to want.

Colberg is almost as dismissive of self-publishing, claiming that you want to work with a publisher because they know what sells and how to sell it. A few pages later he notes that you'll have done well if you sell 400 copies and don't make a nickle. Which is it, Jörg? Because it sounds to me a lot like these guys haven't got a clue what will sell, nor how to sell it. My evidence is this: They don't sell hardly any goddamned books.

There are people running kickstarters that sell books on this scale constantly. Kickstarters! Not that this route is easy, Colberg points out, correctly, that order fulfillment can easily turn into a nightmare, and you might wind up losing your shirt if you didn't figure out total shipping costs right, but still. Shifting a few hundred copies does not require the services of some magical Euro elf.

Dewi Lewis lays it out for us, although he wisely avoids doing it all in one place. He says, in Colberg's book, that he covers 50 to 60 percent of the $400,000 to $500,000 they spend on production costs each year. That is to say, Dewi is taking between $160,000 and $250,000 a year from the artists to cover production costs. The Dewi Lewis web sites states that they do about 20 titles a year, and also that unless you are an established photographer, you will be asked to "underwrite the risk". Which I think means, roughly, "If you are not Martin Parr or equivalent, you'll be covering the production costs" which begs the question "why on earth would I not self-pub?"

I asked around, and this is in fact basically the situation. Non-famous people pay up front. God knows what the back end of these deals looks like but given that the publishers appear to hold the whip hand, I assume "not great" is a solid guess.

Colberg hints at the real answer, saying that a Real Book might wind up in the hands of a curator, or gallerist, some influencer.

Let me tell you, if I was about to drop $35,000 into the hands of a publisher to do my book on those grounds, I would want some references. I would want to talk to someone who had gotten some success out of a book with MACK or Dewi Lewis on the colophon. My guess is that after I demanded references they'd simply stop talking to me, but who knows?

Colberg has about 21 quotes from publishers in the relevant section of his book, and two from an artist (and those deal with how tough it was to do distribution of a very successful self-published book). Nothing on "I published with Steidl and the next day Larry Gagosian wouldn't stop leaving me messages" for instance. Colberg teaches in an MFA program, surely he knows some artists.

So what's going on?

Well, nobody's getting rich. Dewi Lewis is probably selling 10,000 books a year, grossing, I dunno, half a million bucks or so. He's also taking $200,000 or thereabouts off of artists, for revenues of something under a million, which is covering the production costs and a few salaries. I could be off by a few thousand books, a few $100,000, but no matter how you slice it nobody's getting rich.

Here is another small datum. Colberg says that some publishers won't look at a PoD book dummy. I cannot imagine a legitimate reason for this, but it is easy to imagine bad reasons. "You have blurb on you, you are corrupted." At least some of these people don't want you messing about on blurb et al, and one cannot help but imagine that it's because they would prefer that you not discover that PoD is actually good enough for many projects.

What they are doing is having a good time pretending to be publishers.

Vanity Press no longer means enabling people to pretend to be authors, it means enabling people to pretend to be publishers. The correct answer for most of these projects is "Your project is shit. No." but it turns out that the answer is occasionally "Oh, you have $50,000? Let me see those pictures!"

The difference between this and a proper Vanity Press is that these guys are pretty pretty princesses who will often still say no if they don't much like your project. Unfortunately, what they like is often un-sellable garbage.

What I suspect is actually going on here is that there is a substantial ecosystem of Artists, Designers, Publishers, Editors and So On who all work for one another part time, and who publish one another's books as well as the books brought to them by the marks. One of the books Colberg discusses in detail is authored by one person, designed by another, and these two show up elsewhere in Colberg's book as the designers of someone else's book. I think we're looking at a community of a few hundred, maybe a couple thousand, people who wear various hats and who are eking out a living here. A few of them, one assumes the publishers, seem to be doing OK. Presumably they pay themselves the largest salaries, after all, they are the boss.

Somebody gets a grant, borrows a bunch of money from mum, or just saves their pennies from the waitressing job for 20 years, and scrapes up some cash. This goes into the system to support it. Occasionally, some books are sold as well. Well, that's not fair. Dewi Lewis makes 2/3 of his revenues from selling books, which in the absence of other information we might as well take as the benchmark.

So, as a first swag, the Proper Publisher business is supported 2/3 from selling Martin Parr and a handful of other well known names, people who are already famous, and 1/3 extraction of cash from hopefuls, who are wishing desperately that the book will open the right doors.

Probably there is also a set of galleries and whatnot, the same blokes, who will in fact perk up when they see you have a book with Dewi Lewis. So in fact dropping the $35,000 or whatever to do the book probably does actually open these doors. Is it opening doors because you are a proven fundraiser who might be good for another touch? Or, is it opening doors because Michael Mack signed off on your work and so it might actually be good?

Probably a bit of both.

Either way, it's a pretty scandalous business, fairly seedy, and quite bad for artists. It forces the un-famous author into the role of fund-raiser, grant-writer, penny-pincher, mom-can-I-borrow-50,000. Then it runs that un-famous author through a lengthy process of editors, designers, and other helpful experts who will stick their nose into the project over the course of up to two years.

Now, I like collaboration. I approve of it. Being stuck endlessly toiling on a single project with an every-changing cast of collaborators, not all of my own choosing, and who I am increasingly invested in getting along with no matter what, well, that doesn't sound like fun. When you're in it to the tune of $30,000 of mom's money, and 12 months of effort, when the publisher trots out this new friend of his who's a designer, what are you gonna do?

What if you just don't like this guy? What if you think this guy's ideas are shit, are ruining your vision?

You got the strength to fire him anyways, to push back? I dunno. Maybe you do, maybe you don't. It's a tough spot to be in, and while it might not happen to you, it sure as hell happens to someone now and then.

Colberg is colluding with this system. His book is, explicitly, a how-to manual for entering this system in the role of "sucker".

Colberg explicitly and repeatedly urges his readers to avoid PoD and to avoid self-publishing. He explicitly advocates for the system I have described above, while simultaneously painting it in mildly rosy colors.

I won't go so far as to say that Colberg's view of things is a lie, or even wrong. It is distinctly biased and incomplete.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: Understanding Photobooks, Jörg M. Colberg

The short review is that this is a complete primer on the production of a commercial book, from the point of view of the Serious Artist who wants to publish a book with a Serious Publisher. As such, it seems to me a pretty good resource, with a few issues. As you diverge from the Serious Artist/Serious Publisher model, the usefulness of the book drops. However, even if you're hand-building a 1-copy edition of an Artist's Book (roughly the exact opposite model) you may well find something of use in this book.

I approve of much of what he says. I learned several things about book publishing, which was a surprise to me. Colberg recommends things like "make physical book dummies (mockups), in fact, make a series of them" which strikes me as excellent advice. If you don't know much about the creation and manufacture of books, you're likely to learn quite a lot from Understanding Photobooks. If you're thinking about making a book, I think this may be a good buy, almost no matter what kind of book you want to make.

You will almost certainly find aspects of the book that do not apply, that are simply wrong for you, or that irritate you. Plug onwards. It's an easy read, it's accessible, and you will find useful gems.

Should you buy it? That is a tough question. Keith Smith's Structure of the Visual Book will teach you 1000x more about sequencing, and nothing whatsoever about publishing. Swanson and Himes Publish Your Photography Book -- which I have not read -- appears to cover much of the same ground in much the same size of book at about the same price. It has the virtue of being well respected, and in a second edition. As for me, I am not unhappy to own Colberg's book, but I am casting about for a chance to read Swanson and Himes.

Thus endeth the executive summary. Onwards to a more detailed discussion.

This book is, it turns out, actually two different books. The first is described above, the second book is essentially an apologia for the "traditional publishing" industry that makes photobooks. This essay will concern itself, as far as possible, with the first. The second I will deal with in a second writeup.

Colberg has an engineering background, and it shows here. As usual, he eschews the language of Arty Bollocks throughout, the whole thing is quite readable. He has a tendency to try to algorithm-ize everything, although you can practically feel him struggling against this tendency as well. He knows as well as you and I that there is no fixed algorithm here, and he tries to present his organized processes as suggestions, as recommended courses for the first-timer, to be altered as necessity and whim dictate.

The over-arching example of this is his insistence that you start from a completed photographic project, with a clear concept, and then follow a series of steps that end with the completed book in bookshops and for sale online. Colberg does say, repeatedly, that much of what he says should be taken as a guideline, and perhaps a useful "recipe" for the first time book-maker. It is not always clear what he intends as a guideline, and what he means as an absolute, however. Often he uses absolutist language for things that strike me as more like a guideline, and his general remarks lean away from absolutism. I recommend taking virtually every single statement in the spirit of a guideline, to be taken up or discarded as appropriate.

The book is structured around the various phases (editing, sequencing, design, print, binding) that make up the process of making a book, punctuated with "worked examples" in the sense of a more or less detailed examination of this specific book or that. Some of the examples are interesting and well designed, and others are, well, less so. In my judgement. Colberg's preference is for excessively design-heavy books.

Understanding Photobooks lacks in negative examples, even hypothetical ones. Colberg repeatedly comments that there are many many bad photobooks in the world, but he declines to name names. This, I suppose, I can understand. Unable or unwilling to name names, he should have distilled the problems into hypothetical examples, and gone over those. In the end, we see a handful of books that Colberg thinks are good, and we get a fair amount of general discussion about what makes things good, but very little about what makes things bad. The closest he comes is a handful of remarks of this sort: he notes that certain bindings don't open fully, and therefore are not well suited to photos printed across the gutter. These small samples of potential bad choices are, in my estimation, not enough, and his examples of what constitute good choices are, in my estimation, often quite weak.

A few general remarks in more or less book-order.

Colberg starts, correctly, with the statement that your book needs a clear concept from the outset. You've got to know what the hell you're trying to do before you can really make much progress. Everything flows from the concept. Colberg makes a solid argument here, and gives a good example (albeit a book I would never consider buying, but a book that makes his point quite well). He points out that narrative is really just one way to organize a book, and that other approaches can be deployed successfully. I think one could argue that he and I see eye to eye here, meaning and/or concept are necessary, pretty much everything else isn't.

In here Colberg sketches the process by which concept is converted into a book, how it flows into editing/sequencing, and thence into layout, design, and so forth. In reality, everything depends on everything else in a gigantic messy ball, but he does a good job of combing out the important dependencies and suggesting a general way to navigate them.

The chapter on editing and sequencing is fairly weak. He covers the basics. Connecting pictures one to the next through form and/or content. Narrative structures, both literal linear narrative and an example of a sort of montage of pictures that foreshadows and sets up a larger narrative. A little discussion of pacing and intensity. It goes on and on, and covers the basics, but without getting very far. He starts out on the wrong foot asserting that you should always choose the strongest single image from each grouping of similars, before proceeding to sequencing. He hints that you might wind up using a weaker picture from the set later, but doesn't explicitly state it (at least not that I noted). He's pretty dogmatic about how you ought to sequence (the tired canard of "print them all out and stick them on the wall") and his examples are remarkably thin. The nadir of the chapter is an example of straight narrative drawn from Hesitating Beauty by Joshua Lutz. These are all willfully ugly snapshots. Natch.

1. Picture of glum middle aged man.
2. Picture of glum middle aged woman holding something.
3. Reverse angle of same woman, she's holding a b&w photo of a young, happy, couple.
4. Similar photo of a young happy couple.
5. Photo of a decorative wall that's been made to look like its bursting/collapsing.

    I DON'T KNOW!!!!!

Seriously? You think I am making this up, don't you? Especially the wall. But no, someone actually put this sequence into a book, and Schilt published it. This garbage looks like Woody Allen and Diane Arbus had a love child, who suffered brain damage in a tragic car accident, and now makes art with a broken camera.

As an example to drive the point home to even the most dunderheaded, I suppose it serves, but I would be embarassed to publish that sequence.

The chapter on design reads a bit like "hire a designer" written out 1000 times, but it does also make the point that design should serve the concept, which point he's already made several times. It is remarkable that in the chapter on design, Colberg is almost completely silent on what design actually is. The chapter essentially consists of discussion of what it does, why it matters, why you should hire someone to do it, and (a little) how to collaborate with that someone. These are all good things to say, but one does arrive at the end wondering a bit what design actually is.

The next bit is production, in which he briefly discusses bindings, the necessity to hire other people, paper choices and whatnot, and notes that preparing photographs for print is complicated (especially if you're printing offset), and that you ought to hire someone to do it. Again, he hammers the useful and correct point that production, bindings, etetera, need to serve the book's concept, not the other way around.

He wraps up with how to make a photobook in 17 rules, which reads exactly like a long listicle. "Collaborate!" "Avoid Shortcuts!" "Have a Budget!" and so on. It's embarrassing, and one gets the sense that Colberg was struggling to hit 200 pages (which he does, barely). Should have gone with a bigger font instead, Jörg.

In general, this book appears to be aimed at Colberg's MFA students. It assumes that you know basically nothing, and walks you through the basics, but without much depth. There is a brief discussion of each of the major bits and pieces, with generally worthwhile discussion of how these parts interact, and the kinds of problems that are likely to arise. The design of a book and the sequencing of the pictures, while separate tasks, can interact in powerful ways. Finalizing certain design details may require that you go back and revisit the sequence, and so on. The choice of binding will likely affect how the pictures are laid out on the page. Etcetera and so forth, but never with much depth.

Colberg's solutions to most of the big problems are "hire an expert" starting from his recommendation to go with a Real Publisher (MACK, Steidl, Dewi Lewis, etc), but flowing on through hiring or enlisting people to help you edit, design, prepare for print, and so on. He recommends throwing yourself on the publisher's mercy for distribution, marketing, and sales.

This is in line with his relatively light treatment of all the relevant problems. Rather than discuss details of bindings and the kinds of problems that can arise in any depth, he simply recommends that you have a professional helping you out. Rather than give a brief primer on design relevant to books, he recommends hiring a designer.

Colberg's other big solution is "make physical book dummies," starting from pasting pictures into a cheap spiral notebook.

These two "big solutions" are defensible, but Colberg is a bit too absolutist on these points for my taste. None of these things are rocket science. I am not a graphic designer, but as long as I keep it simple and stick to stealing other people's good ideas, I am pretty confident that my book designs are OK. I am not a master binder, but I can make a pretty good looking book. I am not Keith Smith, but my edits and sequences are... well, they're maybe passable on a good day. The point is that you can learn these things.

Physical dummies are a good idea, but it's not clear that you can't do a perfectly good job of this with a series of PoD books in concert with carefully using the computer (a pattern he explicitly cautions against, without much of a convincing argument).

Interestingly, Colberg constantly beats the drum of "limitations are good" and "compromise is a necessary part of book making" while simultaneously advocating for what amounts to a spare-no-expense Rolls-Royce process. He's distinctly down on print-on-demand, making a point of dismissing it at least three times. These are not the only contradictions in the book.

The other truly annoying tic Colberg has is that he forces the reader to do quite a lot of work. The clearest example if the chapter on design, in which he say that you need to hire a designer, repeating more than once that it's about more than the margin widths. As noted previously, he does not remind us what design is, what a designer actually does.

Now, this is not a huge deal. One can in fact work out from the rest of the book what a designer does, and fill it in. Ditto various other places where the same tic appears, where he argues stridently in favor of something or other without giving much of a rationalization. It makes his arguments feel weak, however. And, to be honest, I think his arguments are weak.

The strength of his position is not enhanced by the design and editing of the book itself. Unless, I suppose, he intends the book itself to be that negative example I bemoaned the absence of, above. But no, the book is flawed, but not bad enough to serve that role!

His examples sections are, incomprehensibly, typeset with white text on a medium gray background, illegible in anything short of excellent light (especially the captions, which are set in a smaller font). The text, while not a mess, could have used a better editor. Consistent misuse of like vs. as, he uses the word amount incorrectly now and then, and I found at least one outright typo. I am a pretty close reader, and I expect to notice an error or two in even the best books, but Colberg's concsistent mis-use of what I assume is his second language should have been corrected.

Finally, he's very repetitive. Text and pictures found in the worked examples sidebars are often repeated in the main body. Even apart from that, he repeats the same points in the main text too often for my taste. A good editor would likely have chopped the book by 10-20 percent without loss, resulting in a tighter (albeit somewhat slender) volume.

I don't think Focal Press is a self-pub operation, but this thing felt like a quite well done self-pub book rather than a commercial product.

Despite these flaws, I think it is a useful volume, and I am pleased to have purchased it. In part, because it's quite inexpensive. You should perhaps own a copy, but have a good stiff drink before reading, lest you hurl it violently against the wall and damage the spine.

I regret that I am going to have to say some unkind things about Mr. Colberg in the next essay. This genuinely pains me, as I think he is one of the few genuinely smart voices in the area. Relative to the unkind things I intend to say about the industry, however, it will be as if I were hand-feeding him a fine cake. So there's that.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Why Sequence II: Examples

I'm going to try to think through a couple of examples. Not of "how" but of "what" -- specifically, how do I want my readers leafing through my book. What order do I want them looking at the physical pages in.

First, I am going to channel QT Luong, who recently put out a book of photographs from every single one of the US National Parks. QT reads has been known to stop by, so, "hi!" and this is just an example. His book and his concept may be completely different. However, it would be reasonable, I think, to approach a project of this sort thus:

1. I want readers to go through the whole thing in order, first.
2. I want readers to be able to find favorite photos easily.

The first suggests that the sequencing should have a firm forward drive. Readers should feel a desire to turn the page, contemplate, and then turn the page again. And so on. The second suggests some sort of useful organizing scheme, likely by location. Perhaps the book should proceed East to West or something, so when you want that one amazeballs picture from Zion, you know it's not at the front, and not at the end but about.. here.

Next, let's imagine we're making a visual telling of the story of Jesse James. Obviously a forward narrative drive makes sense, again. We might want to introduce a flashback, and we might even hope that the reader would literally flip backwards in the book to review those pictures. We might want to foreshadow, and hope to drive the reader to flip back to that foreshadowing picture or sequence when, later in the book, the relevant events begin to unfold.

The trip through this vaguely literary narrative, thus, would explicitly include backtracking in addition to the forward drive.

More generally, we might introduce pictures or sequences that make little sense, or make different sense, until something later is seen. Again, we'd like to see some backtracking (perhaps literal, perhaps just in-memory).

In the ultimate backtracking, we might want to finish the book in a way that demands the reader go back to the start. In the same way the movie "Memento" concludes in a way that makes us re-examine the entire film, our book might try to create a literal loop, requiring two consecutive readings to fully grasp. Two books, as it were, for the price of one.

Yet another coffee table book that is less completist that QT's might not even demand a front-to-back reading at all, it might need no forward drive at all. It might be purely a reference, intended to be dipped in to at random. You could even imagine a random-access with backward flow, with the big important pictures preceded, perhaps, by details and text that readers might or might not want to consult.

You could almost map this out, with a little box representing each two-page spread, and little arrows leading here and there. It's kind of how I visualize it. Arrows might represent remembering, physical page-flipping, or something in between, something else. No plan of this sort of likely to literally work in all details, but one can hope for a general thrust in the general direction. Some readers might do this bit, others another bit.

As with other aspects of Art and Photography, I believe firmly that if you put a lot in while simultaneously leaving space for the viewer or reader to find their own way, they will in turn get a lot out even if it's not exactly what you put in.

These are all different experiences of the book. Much of the lifting is done by the pictures, of course. Some of it is done by details of design. Some, however, is done by the sequencing. All, I suppose, should be working together to try to produce the right sort of effect.

I have a few other things to write about, but I will return to this and try to mention some actual ideas for generating these effects that I have observed here and there.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Fake Vernacular Photography

I think I am thoroughly on the record as approving of "vernacular photography", of the snapshot. What it lacks in technical merit it makes up for with the power and mystery of reality. When I find a crumpled snapshot on the ground, it connects me to a life, a series of lives, about which I usually know almost nothing. This genuine connection, this mystery, is precisely from whence these things gain their power, and it is considerable.

At the moment I am reading Colberg's book on Photobooks, about which more in a little while (I'm not finished with it yet) and I have become infuriated by a some of his examples.

He uses several of these things which are obviously meant as explorations of some personal problem (either the artist's or someone else's) through "the language of vernacular photography" which means "willfully ugly fake snapshots".

So, yes, indeed. We have a book made up of staged, fake, vernacular photographs, exploring, no wait, surely interrogating, the fascinating world of "how my mom's schizophrenia impacted my youth" or something.

We are looking at gutless, powerless, photos, willfully ugly, talking about a subject that almost nobody gives a shit about. Look, I get it, your family life was tough (although, to be honest, if you're willing to fake the snapshot aesthetic, I cannot ignore the possibility that you're faking your problems as well). And if you forced me to listen to your story, I would cluck my tongue sympathetically.

But it's a big world, everyone's got problems, and at the end of the day I don't give a shit about you or your problems. I don't know you, we have no connection (beyond that you're trying to sell me a book), and there are many many people I do care about to expend my caring on.

Amusingly, Colberg starts out by explaining that the market for photobooks is tiny, and consists mainly of aficionados who read photographs in specific ways. Of course it's tiny. Frankly, it's a miracle that you can sell 400 copies of a book of shitty fake snapshots that clumsily tells a possibly fake story about some personal problem, Who the hell wants a thing like that?

The game here, obviously, is to try to hijack the power of the vernacular photograph, but it fails, completely, for the reasons above. As soon as the staging becomes clear the enterprise collapses completely. Well, except for the 400 wankers who plug their ears and sing loudly, because they Want To Believe.

Now, Art qua Art is not well served by populism in particular, but this kind of explicit anti-populism, this explicit effort to make awful things that nobody on earth could possibly like, also does not serve well. Perhaps some sort of middle road, you know? And while you're at it, throw in some more universal themes. Blah Blah Blah My Problems was a thing in literature for 15 minutes a decade ago, and a) it's mostly over and b) it doesn't translate very well anyways.

All that said, Colberg's book looks at this moment (about half way through it) like a maddeningly irritating book that you really ought to own if you're interested in photo books of any sort (even photo books that might appeal to a real person).

Gimme a couple more days, I should have something coherent to say about it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

In Defense of Sontag

It's become quite chic to dismiss Susan Sontag as outdated and rather silly.

In serious fields, there are seminal works which we don't dismiss. We might update terminology and notation, we acknowledge that certain aspects turned out to be wrong. We might note that updated ideas have rendered some of the material moot, that we now think about certain things in a different way. Some things might even become untrue as the world changes.

Nobody uses Newton's formulations of Calculus any more, but neither do we dismiss him. We respect and, honestly, revere him a little. Even though his notation sucked, and he was a lunatic, the ugly reality is that he got a lot of the ideas right.

Sontag seems be dismissed mainly because her writing is 40+ years old.

She got a lot of stuff right, it turns out, and a lot of the stuff she got right isn't going anyplace until the human brain starts to work differently. She was also a pompous ass, and wasn't right about everything. So it goes.

My favorite is when someone disses Sontag, and then proceeds to parrot ideas that appeared, if not first then quite early, in Sontag's writing. To be blunt, it's pretty hard to say much about photography that is both interesting and true without slamming into a Sontag idea almost immediately.

So, rather than peeing on Sontag, perhaps critics of photography should recognize her work as what it is: Seminal, with all the good and bad that implies.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Why Sequence?

Computer problems at home result in low posting rates. Also, less to say.

I have a copy of Colberg's book on Photobooks in the mail now, arriving in a couple of days. As a warmup, I am re-reading Keith Smith's book on the same subject and making notes. Mental and otherwise.

In trying to make notes and organize my own thoughts, I fiddled with this and scribbled that and eventually concluded that it all needs to flow from what on earth you are trying to do with your book. Therefore, I want to start out a series of short essays, notes, on sequencing, by thinking through that first step.

What do you want your reader to get out of your book? Keith Smith talks about this idea of a composite picture which is in some sense the totality of your book. If you're making a Japanese folder, the total picture might just be the whole thing unfolded. Since I want to stick here to the western codex (a "normal book" to most of us, a bunch of identically sized rectangular pages bound together on the left edge) this composite is necessarily what is formed in the reader's mind by reading the whole book.

This might be simply an impression of what your best work looks like, if you've made a greatest hits monograph. It might be the actual story, if your book was an illustrated telling of the story of Jesse James. It might be something else. A sense of a place. An understanding of some person, some event, some entity. It might be sense of the sublime, a personal connection with God, or a thorough grasp of how faucets have worked through the ages.

Your aim might simply be to make certain a political, religious, ethical position appear reasonable, normal.

The point of the sequence specifically and book design generally is to bridge this gap from a pile of pictures and text to that total, composite picture.

The first job you have to do is to work out how you want your book to be read.

In most cases the reader is going to start by leafing through it front to back, in a more or less cursory fashion. Let's set such preliminary poking-around aside. What do you want to happen when your reader first sits down to have a serious look at your book? Then, what do you want to happen when your reader returns to your book later, for another moderately serious look?

Do you want the reader to chug through the pages at a fairly steady pace, front to back, and then mull it over?

Perhaps the reader ought to linger on this picture or that one? Slow down through this set, speed up through that?

Should the reader backtrack and re-imagine some pictures when they reach a particular pivotal picture?

Should the reader recall a related picture upon seeing this one, and understand the remembered one differently, in a new way, or a deeper way?

Which pictures give context to which others, which pictures are modified, re-understood, by seeing others?

Even the most basic monograph, the greatest hits book, wants to be read to completion. You want your reader to keep turning the pages. While it's certainly true that if the pictures are good enough, that might keep the pages turning, why not help things along?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Art Project Concept

My three year old had me up last night around 1am, so I had a little thinking time. I spent that time thinking about how I might make some Art which is somehow related to my earlier remarks on cultural change and the potential effects on the future economics of photography. I know, I know.

Still, if I am to take the problems discussed by Lewis and Ben seriously, there it is.

The basic unit of the work is a set of four versions of the same picture.

The first is large, maybe a classic Fine Print, maybe a Richard Prince style Instagram appropriation printed big but with all the Instagram crud left surrounding.

The second is small, snapshot sized. It's the same picture, removed a step. A photo of the large print. A photo of a phone with the picture on Instagram, Facebook, whatever.

The third is an illustration, a drawing based on the picture. Something simple. Also quite small.

The last is just a textual description of the picture, and perhaps the smallest of all.

Expand the unit to five pictures (somehow) or contract it to three (somehow). What about framing/presentation? Does the text get the biggest and flashiest frame? And why would it, or would it not?

Make a bunch of these. 3, 4, 50. There's a conceptual exhibition for you!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Economics of Photography

Lewis and his boneheaded friend got me noodling, as these things often do, which is why I read things I think are stupid as well as things that are clever, and things that are simply informative. Dissent makes you smarter, it makes you question things, it makes you seek answers. Dissenting opinions and ideas are what make you think.

Consider the industrial revolution. We have machines and steam and crap, and everything changed. The details are not terribly important here. The important things we see in the 1800s are things like the standardization of screw threads and a bunch of other things that mean, effectively, that mechanical contrivances can be made and used that are beyond the ability of a blacksmith to hammer out on his anvil.

Then along comes Henry Ford and invents the assembly line, and now we can build not only build complex machines, we can do so fairly cheaply. The age of the automobile is upon us. The marginal cost of an automobile-complex machine becomes remarkably low, although not zero.

Fairly quickly the buggy whip makers all go out of business, and the very face of travel itself is altered. It is no longer a big deal to go visit grandma 40 miles away. Visiting friends halfway across the country is not an expedition involving steamer trunks of crap and trains, we simply toss a pair of clean underwear in the back seat and go.

This is awful for the blacksmiths and the buggy whip makers. The world ends, from their perspective.

The world changes in ways that we did not predict, which seem blindingly obvious in hindsight. Motels and hotels are big business. Roadside diners. Truck stops. Gas stations. None of these are particularly new things. We have had roads, we had services for travelers along the roads, for 1000s of years. Canterbury Tales tells us all about it, from what, 700 years in the past or so, but the economic balance of these things changed. We still have buggy whip makers, I can still buy a whip. For horses. There are just a whole lot fewer of them. We still have hotels, just a whole lot more of them. The world convulsed, changed, as we learned what to do with this new "car" thing, and evolved into what we see today. It has further adapted to include air travel. Trains, sadly, not so much.

It's stupid to even say it: the economic convulsions that evolved out of the automobile were vast. More importantly, at least here in the USA, our cultural relationship with travel, and with distance, changed profoundly.

Consider now the state of photography. It's not the same as the industrial revolution, or the assembly line, but some things are similar.

There are, perhaps, three specific points that are worth noting:
  • The marginal cost of making a photo is very close to zero.
  • Digital implies infinitely malleable, plastic.
  • Digital and online implies infinitely automate-able.

Next, consider some recent trends that anyone who keeps track up the industry (e.g. reads PetaPixel) knows about.
  • Infinitely many pictures exist, and more every second.
  • Selfies, selfies, selfies.
  • Photoshopped pictures power fake news.
  • Social media influencers "make money" but use robots to inflate their apparent influence.

These all pretty straightforward consequences of the first three points. The last is an interesting case, and we can generalize it.

As soon as third parties are willing to pay people for behaving online in accordance with some algorithm controlled by that third party, an ecosystem of robots to milk that algorithm will arise. If you can get paid for having followers on instagram, you will be able to buy followers for roughly the same amount of money. If you can get paid for frobulating the whatsists on, you'll be able to hire an army of frobulation robots for a few pennies less than the money they'll make for you. The reason so many web sites are incomprehensible messes of ads is because those are not even supposed to be human readable web sites. They're there to be "read" by robots operated by the web site's owner in order to drive advertising revenue. So-called "ad-tech" is a third-party algorithm that pays for clicks, and so of course robots have arisen to click. Ad pricing on the web is in free fall, and that's part of why.

Many industries seem to be trying to be that third party, using algorithms to broker payments to amateurs, and this is a non-sustainable model in a very general sense. The web is a fine place for many kinds of business, but not that kind of business. The buggy whip business is collapsing, has collapsed. Marketing trying to re-invent itself by using "social media influencers" instead of supermodels and fashion photographers isn't working out either, because of the inherent properties of the digital photography ecosystem, which is what made the trouble in the first place. Robots and photoshop will destroy any efforts to make this work.

News media trying to reinvent itself using "citizen photojournalists" instead of actual photojournalists isn't working out so great either, again because of the inherent properties of the digital ecosystem that caused their troubles in the first place. Robots and photoshop.

On the one hand, we have to consider the possibility that the photograph is going to go the way of the illuminated manuscript. The idea of there being money associated with these things may simply be silly, there may be no "ecosystem" that works, any more than there is an "ecosystem" that supports monetizing handwritten notes on postits.

On the other hand, if it is possible that photography might remain an economic force, it will be in some way that embraces the new digital model rather than struggles against it. Sell gas, meals, and hotel rooms to drivers rather than trying to figure out how to make a car-compatible buggy whip.

I have no idea what it looks like, and it is probably unknowable. We did not know, in 1908, in what ways we would even use the automobile. Without knowing that, there was no way to predict in what ways the automobile would alter the landscape. The most common guess would probably have been that we'd use cars a lot like we used horses in 1907, and that guess was completely wrong.

The idea that in the USA the automobile would become a tangible symbol of independence, of freedom, to the extent that it is common and normal for miserable sods to drive an hour each way to their job, in heavy traffic, 5 days a week would have seemed complete madness. Obviously everyone would continue to use the streetcars, or walk. The idea that people would routinely drive 1000 miles to visit friends would have seemed absurd, who even has friends 1000 miles away?

In the same way, we cannot know what sorts of economic models will spring up around photography, if any, until we know what photography will become to us as a culture.

At present, photography seems to largely be what it always was, only moreso. More pictures, more self-indulgence, more news photos, more fashion photos, more lifestyle photos, more portraits. There's a trend toward "amateurish" in all these things, naturally, as photography is truly accessible to billions. There's a trend toward "faked" as the plasticity of the digital photo becomes more and more forward in our thinking -- not just photoshop, but face-swapping apps on our phones and the like. I've proposed that computational photography might usher in a whole brave new era of "fake".

The things we can take away, I think, are that any economic power that photography has in the future will have to either avoid or embrace the problems of plasticity, of automation, and of ubiquity.

I cannot shake this fact from my mind: During gold rushes, the people who make money are rarely the gold miners. The real money is in selling eggs, shovels, and baths.

While it's possible that photography will remain roughly the way it exists today, with all economic power gradually squeezed out of it, it's also possible that an automobile-like transition might occur.

Two things are possible:
  • That photographs will retain indefinitely something of their cultural impact
  • That they will not

By this I mean that the photograph will (or will not) retain its power to interest us, to attract our attention. Consider the line drawing, the illustration. We are awash in these things. The drawings in the instruction booklet, the inset map that shows where the advertised store is located, the illustration of the ear showing how small the hearing aid is, and so on. We don't notice these things, they only intrude upon our consciousness when we're attracted by something else.

(take a moment, look around your home, look for illustrations. I dare say you will be amazed at how many there are, and how few you have noticed.)

A photograph, contrariwise, attracts us. We look at the photo to see what it is, and read the caption, and then perhaps the article. A photo is a point of entry, while an illustration is something we literally don't notice until we're well-engaged with whatever the container is.

This might change. With the vast stream of pictures and, more importantly, the growing untrustworthiness of the pictures on all levels, this might change. We cannot trust that the picture was not photoshopped. If not 'shopped, it's likely to be false in other ways. Perhaps it shows an instagram "influencer" with 150,000 followers (149,999 robots and her mom) enjoying herself at a fine hotel in Egypt when in fact she is miserable, terrified, because she doesn't even have plane fare home.

If photographs vanish into that same mental and cultural space now occupied by the illustration, if they fail to attract attention (and we're starting to see this, I think) then what? News and fashion and business are already transitioning more and more to video anyways. Whence the still photograph?

Perhaps it becomes intensely personal. Nobody really looks at anyone else's pictures even now. Ever seen someone "reading" instagram? 1 second per photo, tops. Flick, flick, thumb a like, flick, like, flick, like, flick, flick. One gets the sense that they are liking photographs based entirely on who took it. No, photography for most people is an output-only medium. Perhaps we eventually stop looking, really looking, at any photographs except our own.

Where do the economics land, then? Is it in selling costumes for selfies? Selling purely virtual costumes to edit on to your selfies? Or something else, something so obvious (like motels) that we'll never guess it until it's already taken over the world?

I don't know if there will be a massive, imperceptible, cultural shift in how we understand photographs. I don't know what shape it will take, if it occurs. I don't know what the consequences will be.

But I do think that the automobile suggests the scope that is possible.

Friday, June 2, 2017


I'm not sure but I think this might be a forgery.

Arty Bollocks

My earlier remarks might give the impression that I am among the "the emperor has no clothes!" crowd, decrying arty bollocks as inherently gibberish, as a terrible blight on the world.

This is not the case. Lewis Bush thinks I am an awful person, and most likely takes comfort in the idea that I don't know what I am talking about. And, of course, to an extent, he's right. I am not as they say "skilled in the art". Still, I do have a rough grasp of International Art English (I once again commend to you the excellent and hilarious piece on triple canopy). I can, in fact, muddle my way through a lot of this stuff.

Let me give an example, of sorts. My PhD thesis in mathematics was about "continuous functions between topological spaces which are both compact and zero-dimensional" which, if you are a normal human being, makes your eyes glaze over precisely as much as Lewis and Ben's dribbling does. The difference is that if you got on wikipedia and started poking around, searching for things, in a few minutes you would likely be convinced that all that jargon actually does go together, and that it most likely means something. What it means, even roughly, would be several hours of tough sledding for anyone who hasn't taken a course in point-set topology.

But the point is that you'd get the idea, pretty quickly, that it probably means something.

I have come around to quite liking the Artist's Statement. Arty Bollocks can be quite poetic, and if all you really need is a sort of word-cloud around an idea or two, it works quite well. It's just quite difficult to have a conversation in. Arty Bollocks is in fact a language, in which you can actually say things. It has less of a compressing effect than most technical terminologies, and seems to often actually expand the word count over what common English might use, but you can in fact say things. This expanding effect is really what makes it so hard to converse in, you have to spend so much time trying to dig out what the other fellow is saying that you can't simultaneously form a response, so in the end you just blat some canned Bollocks back.

It's like trying to converse in sonnets. You can either marshal up your own allegories and rhymes, count out your own meter, or you can puzzle the other fellow's out, but you cannot practically do both in real time.

A proper technical jargon compresses meaning into precise, detailed, nuggets, and makes conversation much much easier.

But, you can say things in Arty Bollocks, even fairly precise things:

My work centers on interrogating the politics of representation by minutely examining the specific mechanisms and processes by which meaning is constructed. The central thesis I propose is that this meaning essentially arises through the dynamic interaction of shared cultural semiotics with the deeply personal mechanic of individual memory.

Now, I just wrote that piece of crap, but it actually does mean something. First we can clear away the clutter of extra words that the talented speaker of Arty Bollocks jams in all over the place. Adverbs, for instance, can almost always be dropped without loss of meaning. I will leave in the words that actually carry meaning, but otherwise leave it alone:

My work is about the politics of representation, it examines the mechanisms by which meaning is constructed. I propose that this meaning arises through the interaction of shared cultural semiotics and individual memory.

Which is still pretty much gibberish, but shorter. If you poked around a little, you'd find that the "politics of representation" is a term of art which covers, roughly, the ways meaning is constructed, in society, from visual material, from media in general. This is a whole area of study, and it's probably kind of interesting. I assume one could do real work in it, although I have no idea if anyone bothers.

Anyways, having discovered that, you'd notice that the next bits are in fact about how meaning is constructed, and you might reasonably guess perhaps this mess actually means something.

Then, wonder of wonders, I actually propose a sort of mechanism, having suggested that these things are what I am interested in. Something about the interaction of widely understood symbols ("shared cultural semiotics") and personal memories, which isn't any more bullshit than any other random made-up mechanism I could pull out of ... the darkness.

So, in the end, it means this:

My work is about the ways in which we construct the meaning of media to which we are exposed. I propose that this meaning arises through the interaction of individual memories with symbols and ideas we share widely across our culture.

Which, natch, is quite a bit shorter than the original, and it sounds a lot less intellectually weighty. One might reasonably ask "what the hell else would meaning arise from, anyways?"

Then, of course, if I were a real boy, I'd go on to expand what kinds of widely understood symbols I mean, and what kinds of memories I mean, and probably provide some examples, maybe some interviews with real people, some worked examples of how, let's say, the meaning of a poster, an advertisement, a news report, might be constructed. Actual research, you know?

The difference between this and the Bush/Burbridge interview is that searching around and unpacking the terms of art in the interview renders the whole mess more confusing, more opaque. This is because these guys aren't actually having coherent thoughts, they're volleying canned phrases in a language they don't really understand. Phrases that, to be sure, sort of orbit around the ideas they're interested in (social media sucks, photography is awesome, I want tenure), but which don't cohere into any actual meaning and don't actually go anywhere.

I think probably Arty Bollocks isn't a good language for conducting interviews in. Perhaps Lewis should look in to English, or German. Those seem to work.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Academic Artists

... or, I read this bilge so you don't have to!

Let me start out by noting that both of my parents were academics, in the Humanities. My mother taught in the English Dept, my father, Classics. Both were serious scholars. My mother examined Swift but, notably, did not write satire herself. My father was a specialist in Aristophanes and his contemporary critics but did not write plays himself. My sister has a PhD in biochemistry, I have one in Mathematics. So, I'm not some "academics are dumb eggheads" guy, I was literally raised by academics, and was an academic myself. I know, in short, the difference between real academics and fake ones. If life dealt me slightly different cards I would be holed up as high in the Ivory Tower as I could climb.

As a guy who shoots, designs books, and writes about photography, I can assure you that if you wear a bunch of hats and your name is not Goethe, you're probably not doing any of the jobs particularly well. But anyways, J. Colberg retweets 1000 Words Magazine's stuff, for reasons I cannot fathom, but it causes me to obsessively go back there try to figure out what I am missing. Colberg is, as you know, a real boy. He thinks and writes well. 1000 Words, on the other hand, is pure and unadulterated pseudo-academic bullshit.

Let us take a little tour through an Interview with Ben Burbridge conducted by none other than Lewis Bush. I will start by quoting my favorite exchange. They're zipped through some formalities "You curate, write, direct, dance, shoot, masturbate, pontificate, bloviate, and paint? Me too!" to demonstrate that both of them are dilettantes. Now Ben is talking about the second of two books he has in the pipe.

Burbridge: The other book is an effort to draw together various things I’ve been thinking about during the past five years or so, in relation to the idea of photography and ‘communicative capitalism’, a concept I’ve borrowed from the political philosopher Jodi Dean. I didn’t set out to write a book initially – I just followed my interests as and when I got the chance to do some work and then, a year or so I go, I realised that maybe I was sitting on enough material to draw together as something like a book. It deals with the ways in which photography is directly implicated in the political and economic machinations of neoliberalism, not so much in terms of the depiction of political and economic subjects within photographs, more in terms of the politics and economics of photography. It’s an effort to critically address diverse corners of a recent photographic landscape in terms of labour, profit and power. I do this with reference to a wide range of contemporary art practices, which provide the lenses through which this landscape is brought into focus – both because photography’s political-economies seem to be an important emerging interest for some artists, but also because they prove a significant blind-spot for others when they look to photography’s uses in the larger culture. Fairly traditional approaches to appropriation, for instance, seem to be very poorly suited to addressing questions of how the photographic cultures they explore are monetised, or how those processes are implicated in the broader dynamics of free-market capitalism. The book also tries to position the field of contemporary art – and, indeed, my own work as an academic (which would include this interview, of course) – within, not outside the issues studied. In that sense, I’ve gained a lot from recent discussions of institutional critique, particularly from artist-writers like Hito Steyerl and Andrea Fraser. I think Fraser’s idea that economics should be central to what artworks mean not just socially but also artistically provides an interesting jumping-off point when it comes to writing about photography, art and politics today.

Bush: I’d like to briefly pick up this idea of the way photography is implicated in neoliberalism, and capitalism more broadly. It’s a fascinating topic and one of significance for anyone who uses photography, almost regardless of how they position themselves, whether as artist, documentarian, professional or amateur. It seems to me that ‘serious’ photographers of most leanings have been aware for several decades at least of the extent to which the camera is inescapably meshed into a history and politics of seeing that complicates our use of it, in terms of the politics of representation for example. Relatively few seem to have applied the same thought to the way photography is part of a similarly problematic mesh of economics that one has to work within, whether one does so consciously or not. There seems to be an ever growing awareness in wider society about the way our lives exist within these diffuse meshes, most tangibly manifested perhaps in digital networks and the data we generate through their use, and an awareness also of how our lives are also shaped by these things. Do you think the moment is particularly ripe for photographers to engage more fully with these issues, as they have already engaged with issues around, say, representation?

Burbridge: I’m not sure.

Allow me to decode what they're saying. This took a lot of looking stuff up, and then bashing determinedly through a lot of excess verbiage. communicative captialism here refers to the present day capitalism in which we have this network that grants billions of people more or less an equal voice, we're all talking to one another, but unfortunately democracy is not magically emerging in a new and beautiful form. To first order this can be summarized as "Facebook sucks, and has not solved any problems, but they're making a bundle on us."

Neoliberalism is pro-capitalist liberalism. To leftists, it is Fascism-lite, or perhaps worse.

So Burbridge has used this idea, and his book is about how photography is "implicated in the political and economic machinations of neoliberalism" but not by what it depicts. It's not about photographs of stuff as such, it's "more in terms of the politics and economics of photography". When you dig through this, I think it must be referring, essentially, to the fact that photographs (yours, mine, everyone's) are powering social media, are a part of this communicative capitalism.

Then there's some stuff about labor, profit, power. Which, I think, must mean "Facebook is making a bundle off everyone's pictures, and not paying people". Blah blah "photography's political-economies" means what, exactly? Is photography trying to economize on politicals by using fewer of them? More likely it's just vague blather about "politics, economics, you know, all that stuff."

And, apparently, "Fairly traditional approaches to appropriation" seem to be "very poorly suited" to whatever the hell he's on about. Which, I guess makes sense, since he seems to be saying (basically), "Facebook sucks because it is making a bundle off us."

The business about how the book attempts to position contemporary art "and, indeed, my own work as an academic (which would include this interview, of course)" within the issues studied rather than outside seems to be nonsensical cuteness. If contemporary art (i.e. what you're talking about in your stupid book) is "outside" the issues you're talking about in your stupid book, then what on earth would your stupid book be about? What does it mean for "art" to be inside versus outside "issues" anyways? And to cutely include this horseshit interview within "my own work as an academic" is to expose the whole enterprise, isn't it?

Then Burbridge namedrops a bit, and asserts that the economics should be central what what artworks mean, which is a mysterious statement that probably means something but without context it does not. Does he (or, well, Fraser) mean the Art Market, or the fact that Rich Oligarchs buy Art? Or that capitalism is the system that enables the private ownership of Art? Or does he just mean that Facebook is making a bundle off everyone's pictures (well, of course that's what he means, but he's too cute to say so).

The Bush replies, saying "that's fascinating" and then "serious photographers ... have been aware for decades ... of the extent to which the camera is inescapably meshed into a history and politics of seeing" which, um, as far as I can see, doesn't mean anything. "Politics" means something, and not just elections and national leaders and so on. It's about the mechanisms of status and power and whatnot in any sphere. "politics of seeing" on the other hand doesn't mean a goddamned thing except "I have been to Art School and shove the word 'politics' in wherever the word 'dialectic' doesn't seem to fit." Then it turns out that "Relatively few" have thought through what happens when you replace some unguessable portion of the previous gibberish with "economics" which, as far as I can see, turns it from one meaningless sentence into another one no matter how you plug "economics" in.

Anyways, as soon as Bush got the camera inescapably enmeshed into a "history and politics of seeing" the wheels had pretty much fallen off, and no amount of blather about diffuse meshes can save him. Bush is also saying, basically, "Facebook is making a bundle off us, and that sucks" which you can see when he gets around to "most tangibly manifested perhaps in digital networks and the data we generate through their use" without specifying any of the less tangibly manifested manifestations.

Burbridge, wisely, replies "I don't know" which cracked me up, because it's pretty clear to me he's thinking "WTF did this guy even say? What issues? Oh god, get me out of here. Is it my turn to talk again? Yay!" and then he wanders off into the weeds talking about Web 2.0, Occupy, and Edward Snowdon, which is just a bunch of dog-whistle bullshit that means "I spend a lot of time on twitter."

I'm sure these guys are trying to pull together some general theory of how communicative capitalism is affecting photography, but it's a bit like a general theory of pre-Renaissance English Epic Poetry. I mean, it's pretty much just Facebook after you clear away the underbrush, isn't it? Google's in there making a pile of cash too, but they're not doing it by smearing your photographs all over everyone else's feeds or whatever. And, yeah, flickr and some also rans are in there struggling, but they're irrelevant blips. It's pretty much just Beowulf.

Finally, several 1000 words later we're done, thankfully. It's fairly hilarious because the two guys are clearly talking two different and mutually incomprehensible dialects of pseudo-intellectual gibberish. Whenever you can discover some actual meaning in a sentence or two here and there, it is invariably trivial, and invariably unconnected with whatever the other guy just said.

Yeah, academic artists. Just say no to the MFA.