Monday, July 31, 2017

FSA/OWI Archive, The Hole-Punch, and Photoshop

Those of us who are more or less familiar with the history of the FSA/OWI know that Roy Stryker used a hole punch to "cancel" negatives that he deemed not suitable for printing. So, there's a big pile of negatives out there with little holes in them. This is often reported as a Historical Travesty etc, and there are sometimes Dark Hints that Stryker cancelled negatives that did not support his propagandist program.

All of this is absurd. Most of punched negatives I have seen have the hole jammed through somewhere obvious but otherwise at random. Stryker wasn't trying to destroy information, particularly. Indeed, the negatives remain archive. To properly destroy the information, Stryker would have shredded them or similar, and he certainly wouldn't have carefully preserved them and arranged for their transfer to the Library of Congress. Techniques for destroying film certainly existed and were used by the government.

What Stryker was doing, at least mostly, was picking out the good ones. The propaganda campaign, which was very real, was executed largely by giving his team shooting scripts.

In some cases, a face is obscured, perhaps a sign or similar important detail is chopped out. In many cases, of course, another negative from the same group will be available, un-punched or punched in a different way. The point is that, in general, the punched hole doesn't really delete anything of historical interest.

Which leads us to Photoshop. This chappie at the University of Connecticut said to himself "what would happen if we used Photoshop's content aware fill to fill that hole back in?" and the answer is, obviously, "it does OK as long as there's nothing interesting in the hole". See his article here.

He goes on to speculate about what this might all mean. You'd think that as the Head of Digital Imaging and Conservation at a University he'd think this stuff through a bit, but no, what we get is this:

Yet, what are we to make of these surrogate negatives? Though they are not based upon standard content replication like their hole-punched brethren, the software-filled versions still hold a certain spell and feel of visual symmetry. From an archival standpoint we may even regard them as born-digital objects in their own right. Perhaps in the end they may simply be best considered informed guesses on fragments of displaced history.

"born digital objects in their own right," how terribly cute! What they are, sir, is they are bloody dangerous and little else. The trouble with these damned things is that part of them is false. Part of them is not indexical, it is guessed at by the computer, and we don't know which part. The thing looks and smells like a photo, and most of it is a photo, so we trust it. Part of it, an unknown part, isn't a photo. More or less by definition this process cannot add to the truth value of the photograph, it can only subtract. Taking historical artifacts and making them less true is probably not a great idea.

These things are definitely going to to muddled up with the real things, hopefully not in the official archive, but definitely on the interwebs. People will be using content aware fill to "fix" these pictures, and they'll be sticking them up on pinterest.

But wait, real research doesn't get done on pinterest, so we're OK, right? Yeah, well, real researchers also don't go painting over bits of history with bullshit like content aware fill to see what will happen either, do they? Oh, wait, yes they do. Of course real research is done on pinterest. People with loads of funny letters after their names pull random shit off the web all the time. And even if they don't, they do look at wikipedia, which is the distillation of random shit pulled off the internet.

It's probably not a huge deal. So someone makes a wrong deduction about how dresses were made in the 1930's based on some garbage photoshop invented in some picture. Big deal. Well, this is how history dies. So, yeah, in a way, big deal. It's one cut of a thousand, but I'm still not in favor.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Olive Cotton Award for photographic portraiture

There's a modest tempest in a modest teapot that's slopping around the photographic press and online communities. This picture:

won the $20,000 (little Australian dollars, I assume) award, and has been acquired by the Tweed Regional Gallery. What the hell even is it you might reasonably ask, since it's not obvious. The artist asserts this:

One day, not so long ago, I came upon my maternal grandmother hunched over a table, vigorously testing a series of pens by scribbling with each of them in turn on a piece of paper. Captivated by this busy repetition of gestures, so reminiscent of her character, I asked her to continue her task, but on a piece of 4 x 5 inch negative film. Having left these traces of her hand on this light-sensitive surface, she also, at my request, rubbed some of her saliva on the film, doubling her bodily inscription there. I then processed the film and printed it at large scale. A collaboration across generations, with her born in Hungary and me in Australia, the resulting image looks abstract but couldn’t be more realist; no perspectival artifice mediates her portrayal of herself or our genetic link, with both now manifested in the form of a photograph.

which is an explanation of sorts.

Naturally all the gearheads masquerading as photographers are up in arms. No Skill! No Work! It's Not Even a Photograph! which I gotta say to, pot, kettle, etc. The angry claims that there wasn't much effort expended are hilarious from photographers, who expend the effort of flexing a finger to make a picture. Claims of "no skill" are invariably fraught, there's no telling what a mirror might reveal. And, it is obviously a photograph.

Looking over the catalog that goes with this contest, you can see that nobody who submitted thinks this is about 5-light Sears Portraits. Nobody even thinks it's about the sort of thing Kirk Tuck does. This is about Collectible Fine Art, which means that it's all pretty outré. The winner stands out, but only slightly. So, the repeated complaints I have read about "the other contestants being cheated" are also bunk.

The one issue that leaps out to me is embedded in the artist's statement. Did Grandma test pens in pitch blackness? The scenario outlined for the process is, I think, simply false. There's no way this works. The film is fully fogged and contains no picture in any reasonable reading of the statement. This, I think, makes the whole thing problematic. The thing doesn't work unless Grandma was actually involved. Did Grandma actually scribble on a piece of acetate or similar, which the artist then contact printed onto film?

Weirdly, despite reading a certain amount of online, um, discussion, I have not run across anyone who's pointed this out. Which is extremely weird to me. Has all knowledge of film and its properties been lost?

For the record, I think the work is fine. Portraits don't have to have faces in them, Karsh photographed Pablo Casals from behind. Lots of people have done work photographing traces and ephemera of people, and those too can reasonably be included under the head of "portrait" if you're remotely generous. The work is interesting, and of the pieces we see in the contest's catalog, it's not at all obvious that this is not the winner.

Still, its essence as a portrait hinges on a story that is, in technical details, obviously false.

This raises some questions. If it's just scribbles the artist made, together with a story the artist wrote, is it still any good? Is it anything? If it's Art, is it now a Micro Fiction, rather than a photograph? Is it a prank?

Whatever the truth of the matter, I feel that Duchamp is smiling.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


There seems to be a little spurt of interest around automated photography, of using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to replace the human here, in one way or another. All part of the current trend of Rich Idiots in Silicon Valley being interested in AI, I assume.

A little background, speaking as a recovering technologist.

AI is a blanket term for a set of technologies that allow computers to simulate, with varying degrees of crudity, things humans do. Recognize spoken speech, recognize objects in pictures, play chess, solve logic puzzles, and so on. Despite the name, none of these things are "intelligence" in anything like human terms. These are all things I would characterize as remarkably simple, even stupid, algorithms (pieces of software) that produce startlingly, unreasonably, sophisticated results. In this context, "remarkably simple" doesn't mean "simple", it means "a lot less mind-bogglingly complicated than one might think."

Important notes in no particular order: There's no "person" in there in any meaningful sense, and in fact nobody knows how to even get started making a software "person." This does not appear to be a current area of study. The software that turns your spoken words into text has no relationship with the software that plays chess at a Grand Master level. The phrase "neural network" does not mean that the software resembles a brain in any meaningful way, the phrase just means another remarkably simple algorithm (inspired by real neurons) which can produce useful results.

Onwards. Colberg pointed out on twitter this project: Computed Curation. Philppe Schmitt (whoever that is) has bolted together some of the aforementioned AI technologies to make a piece of software that can sift through some photos and sequence up a photobook.

It does a tolerable, if pedestrian, job. The connections appear to be both simplistic and entirely linear. The only points of real interest are places where I suspect the computer has mis-read a photograph. We should also keep in mind that this might be entirely a scam.

Anyways, let us suppose that the software works as advertised. So what?

The point of a creative endeavor is that it is the output of a person, it is the result of intent driven by a lifetime of experience, experience remembered by the unreliable mechanisms of the brain. Without a person, there can be no intent. Without intent, there is arguably no creative output.

Schmitt's book is sequenced, as I noted, but there's no intent. It's obvious in a moment that this is a random string of pictures connected together with superficial visual similarities. The important point here, though, is that this is not a problem that can be fixed. This isn't simply an early version of the software, this is basic to what the software does. There's no place for an "intent" to be generated by the thing, and to get it right you first have to make a software "person" to have the intent.

This is not to say that some clever Johnny won't take a crack at simulating intent with, no doubt, a remarkably simple piece of software. This pseudo-intent, while potentially interesting, isn't actual intent. Remember, there is no ghost in the machine, there's no person in there in any meaningful sense. If it's good enough, I suppose it would say something or other about the nature of Art. If I can establish a genuine-feeling connection with a simulation, then what? It doesn't matter much, I am not much interested in yet another way to Trick The Brain.

An alternative is to provide a way for an actual person to encode an intention, and to have the software produce results based on that intention combined with the usual collection from the AI parts bin. In that case, what we have is another tool for artists to use. Maybe it's interesting, maybe it's not, but at the end of the day it's not much different from premixed oil paints.

Art is distinguished from much of the rest of human endeavor by lacking a well defined endpoint. I can define exactly what it means to win a game of chess, I can measure accurately how precise a speech recognition algorithm is. I cannot define precisely when a piece of Art works, I cannot define precisely when it is Good. Without a well-defined goal, software inherently has problems, and is left to thresh around a bit wildly. Art's result, Art's endpoint, is itself. The goal is in the thing itself, in the process by which it was made, in the human who made it, an an inextricable ball of entangled relationships. This presents a real problem for software.

Our friend Lewis Bush, writing his usual maze of misplaced apostrophes and abused prepositions (or is "A is different to B" actual British usage?) for World Press Photo over here is on the trail of something more interesting.

Journalism isn't Art, and there's no particular reason that algorithms can't do it just fine that I can see. Lewis is just throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall, a random selection of technological works in progress (that are mostly going nowhere) that he's stumbled over in his reading. Lewis, as usual, is fetishizing technology without much understanding of it.

There is real trouble here, though, which as far as I can tell, he's missed completely. Journalism will inevitably shift to accommodate automation. Lewis needs to recall his Sontag: we don't photograph the important things, we make some things important by photographing them.

Automated journalism will reshape the news. If the algorithms can't be taught to reliably make national elections an Important Subject Of News (to pick an example at random) then national elections will cease to be important news. We see this constantly in all walks of life now, the flexible human bends to accommodate the inflexible and stupid computer.

I don't know if we're there yet, but if we're not, it's very very close: Facebook's robots will select for us which pictures are interesting, and those will be the ones we see. A combination of algorithms and crowd-sourcing will select for us what to look at. It is literally inevitable.

News and journalism do suffer from the lack of endpoint problem that Art has, the difference is that it doesn't matter (in the current zeitgeist, anyways). Anything will do for news, now, as long as it generates the clicks. So, in fact, it has always been. News was whatever got the troubadour paid, news was whatever shifted newspapers, news was whatever got you to watch the TV, and now news is whatever gets the clicks. Still, there were humans in the loop, and ideas about what journalism "ought to be" which now and then got a little play. Algorithms will remove that entirely. The engineers will get it good enough to pull the clicks, and then stop, because that's what engineers do.

You can argue, I think, that Art currently also has to "nobody cares" problem, and that therefore software that does a shabby job of simulating artistic intent will do just fine. You might be right. Not sure the Art Market will put up with that for very long. They don't put up with anything for very long. The relentless pursuit of the novel will push the computer aside in due course, in favor of some new variant of the facile fast-talking young turk with a new story and a new My Sad Project project.

For journalism, perhaps there is space, suddenly, for a revival of Life magazine in some new, contemporary form. People are, thankfully, a cutely aware of the fact that Facebook is running their lives, that Facebook is skewing what they see in order to sell them stuff.

Prepare for some backlash! I don't know what it will look like! I hope it will be fun!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Sequencing: Spreads and Gutters

I've been thinking about the two page spread, the sort of "atom", or smallest indivisible unit of the photobook, and looking at what people have done with them.

The most obvious remark one can make is that, since the 2-page spread is (basically) what we "look at" each spread needs to function as a unit, somehow or another. You can make a (strong) analogy with composing a picture, since in a very real sense that is what you are doing in laying one of these out. The spreads, of course, have to work with one another, from one spread to the next, from the first one to the last.

The standard approach is to reduce the 2-page spread to a single picture. Usually, this is printed recto with the verso either blank, or carrying accompanying text. A title, a poem, whatever you like. Less often, we see single pictures printed across the gutter. Perhaps a full bleed spread, or something else.

If the author chooses to place more than one photo in a spread, the most common design is one photo recto, another verso, with the two pictures echoing one another in some way. Similar graphical design, similar textures, similar subjects, similar tonalities or colors. This is the easy way to make them "work together" to create a coherent spread.

Szarkowski's The Photographer's Eye is a remarkable example of this. Each spread contains, often, two or more pictures, and is its own little world. Sometimes it's a group of 5 pictures of hands. One places one of Evans's torn movie posters with ruined faces looking to the left, against Lange's Funeral Cortege which features a face in a window, again looking left. There's not a lot going on from one spread to the next, but Szarkowski manages to make each spread amazingly coherent on several levels.

I don't see any particular reason that one could not as well use contrast rather than similarity, but whatever one does, one needs to be cognizant of the rest of the book. If you make verso a high key portrait, and recto a murky architectural study, well, that says something. It's not "together" so you will need it to make sense some other way, in the context of the book.

Indeed, in all cases, one needs to keep in mind the needs of the book. Szarkowski has the luxury of making a survey, so one spread need not particularly related to the next, except in the sense of fitting the larger theme set in each chapter of his book.

It occurs to me that a real tour de force would be to create one theme on the verso pages, and a second theme on the recto pages, while simultaneously making each 2 page spread function on some fashion or another.

About the gutter.

I learned something from Sally Mann's Immediate Family about the gutter and its use. Mostly we consider the gutter a nuisance, a place where content goes to die. Print across the gutter if you must, but try to avoid having important picture elements drop into it.

Mann does something quite different. Most of the book is 2 picture spreads, one recto, one verso, with some strong relationship between the two. Now and then, we get a single photo. Often, it is printed recto with the verso blank. Then we get a handful of single pictures printed across the gutter. Mann can perfectly well just print things recto, she does this a lot, so, what the hell?

The answer is that she's embracing the gutter, which is bloody genius as far as I can tell. I swooned.

If a picture divides neatly into two, she prints it across the gutter with the gutter cutting it at the right spot. Three pictures for the price of one. In a couple of cases, she seems to be, rather, indicating an alternate crop, "take the whole thing, or if you prefer, just take the recto" which is 2 for 1, not quite the bargain, but still a nice price.

Anyways, the big lesson here is that printing across the gutter does not require that the picture be placed symmetrically. The gutter can fall wherever you like, so use it, drop that strong vertical element into the right spot.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Trend?

Perhaps a trendlet?

I've run across several bits and pieces of Modern Art, or references to Modern Art, or whatever, which take the general form of the artist refusing to admit that there's a concept behind the Art. "The meaning is fluid" or whatever seems to be the catch phrase. One collection on display right now in Vancouver is literally random detritus glued to a table, with the meaning "fluid" and "open to the viewer to interpret" or something. Which tells me "we glued a bunch of shit to a table and have no idea what it means either, fuck you, sucker."

We also see this in a fair bit of the sort of amateur-hour political art that is in vogue in some circles. "My practice deploys multiple media to interrogate the various aspects of the Corporatist Stateoid Mechansism" or whatever.

There is a certain vague sense to it. 200 years ago Art was largely about technique, artisanal skills. It was assumed, I think, that there were ideas and concepts and so on, but that was basically just assumed. Then we get photography and that leads more or less directly to conceptual art, where the work, the skill, is basically nil. The idea becomes dominant. Art is no longer about skills, it's about ideas. Naturally the next thing to do would be to jettison ideas.

The begs the question of what the hell Art's about now, and I think there's a real problem here.

Secondarily, though, we see a related problem.

We've all taken that picture of grandma, which has so much meaning to us. When we were naive and young, we probably didn't see why everyone didn't see what a powerful photo it was. Everyone else just saw a kind of blurry photo of some old lady they didn't know, after all.

In much the same way we have naive young artists taking, I don't know, a bunch of pictures of refugees. Because they are good lefties, they see a Powerful Political Statement here, and assume that everyone sees the same. It's obviously an indictment of the anti-refugee policies of The State, or of the policies that created the refugee crisis, or whatever.

The trouble is that it's not obvious at all. The Artist won't take a position, he or she insists on just documenting the thing. Positions, ideas, concepts, opinions, those are all so last century. We're in a post-conceptual world now, and Art is just printing out a bunch of appropriated pictures and letting the meaning be "fluid." Sure, your friends all get it, because they're basically little clones of you, with your same simplistic leftie politics, they'll recognize all of it and they will applaud you for your Powerful Work.

This, unfortunately, leaves things too open. Plenty of people in this world look at a bunch of refugees in a camp, or drowned on a beach, or whatever, and say "good idea! Send 'em back!" and plenty of people see the tools of The State and say "hooray, we're very powerful!" and so on.

If you don't, as an Artist, make your opinion, your concept, clear, then the critics will gabble on about "fluidity" instead of repeating the position (and then judging you based on it, to be sure, but they'll start by stating your case). If the critics don't state your case, then the only thing that has a chance of leaking into the wider culture is the raw "documentation" you have so cutely put together, and everyone who runs across it will interpret it according to their own lights.

This completely de-weaponizes Art as a tool of change.

Colberg, unfortunately, missed out on a lovely chance to get in to this. His most recent piece reviewed Generation Wealth, which seems to be one of the patented modern "just the documentation" pieces, with very little opinion stated by the author (although one cannot be sure, Colberg, infuriatingly, turns the bulk of the piece into a boring paean to his own sensitivity and forgets to tell us much of, well, anything about the bloody book). This could be usefully, I think, compared to the work of Gordon Parks (which he reviewed the week before).

I admit that Colberg might not be aware of this, it's not clear that the Parks book makes it at all clear what Parks was up to. A book of the photographs of Parks seems about as useful and sensible as a book of Shakespeare's verbs, but there you have it. I assume Colberg has done at least as much work as my trivial poking around, and is aware that Parks a) stated opinions and b) fomentend change, while modern efforts to do the equivalent to the modern oligarchy are mysteriously stalled out.

Anyways. I'm not blaming the academic artists for all the world's problems, but I do think that the ones that persist in not making their position clear aren't helping really at all. Their work is more or less by design not powerful at all. It is completely toothless.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Those Damned Iconic Pictures

I keep coming back to this. The single iconic photo, and its power. Or, really, lack thereof.

I noted in my previous remarks that, somehow, we seem to associate Single Iconic pictures with social changes that occurred before the picture was taken. This, I chalk up to memory effects, the fact that we tend to remember the last thing on a list, the more recent occurrence.

Noodling on it more I think there's also a process of rationalization. We want simple answers, pat answers. We want strong reasons.

I believe in anthropogenic climate change. Not that I want to debate it, but there it is. I suspect that the reason I believe in it is because Al Gore made this movie, which I found convincing. Why was I convinced? Not because the movie is air-tight. In fact it is precisely the sort of well-crafted self-consistent set of things that so often turn out to be bullshit. Did I check any of the scientific facts presented in the film? Nope. Are all those facts even true? Probably not.

I believed the film for essentially emotional reasons. It had the general shape of a strong argument, but more importantly it appealed to my peers, my politics, my history. In short, Gore's film is an effective piece of propaganda. Never mind whether it's true or not.

Over the years since, I have continued to rationalize my belief. The media has not had a Big Reveal that it's all bullshit, in fact the story remains more or less consistently the same. My experience teaches me that this further suggests that it's basically right, in some sense. Kennedy probably was not assassinated by the CIA, and Climate Change is probably a real thing.

True or not, the reasons for my belief are in fact muddy and emotional. All my rhetoric about science and media is merely window dressing, rationalization.

In a similar way I think we seek to rationalize and simplify reasons for changes we see in society, and sometimes those rationalizations crystalize around a picture, or a couple pictures (or a book, or a movie, etc). The US military adventure in Vietnam ended for a wild array of interlocking reasons, one large one being public outcry, a total collapse of public support. The reasons for that outcry, that collapse, are also myriad, interlocking, muddy.

But we like our history simple, so we seize on a simpler version: The US withdrew from Vietnam because of public outcry against the war which was in turn driven by Nick Ut's picture of a naked little girl on fire.

It's rationalization and simplification. The public outcry was driven by a bunch of factors, including but not limited to a steady, apparently unending, drip of media coverage of the war and its atrocities.

Worth noting: I am not the only person who thinks this. The Pentagon, manifestly, agrees. They're very carefully managing the steady drip of media coverage. We know almost nothing about the many dozens of adventures they are currently having abroad, and what little we hear is largely positive (we are heros!) or dramatic (a few of our boys and a helicopter died doing a Super Important Thing). There's nothing of the venal, stupid, dirty, bullshit that is 99.9999% of "warfighting."

A few Abu Ghraib's don't matter, it turns out, though everyone in The Media was pretty sure that one was the Napalm Girl moment that would spell the end of US involvement in Iraq. Oops. Not so much.

And all of this of course, is rationalization for my purely emotional belief that photobooks are the greatest thing ever and the fine print is a dead end. How's my propaganda campaign working for you?

Friday, July 7, 2017

Photos/Social Change/Gordon Parks

I've been doing a little light reading to fill in at least a little background on Gordon Parks. It's obvious that while his name rang no particular bells, his work has its boot prints all over me and my life. And that's not at all a bad thing.

While it is by no means clear to me that his photographic work was particularly seminal or important in the history of photography, it is crystal clear that he's socially, culturally, very important. He did a lot of work on race in America, and it is at least credible to say that he was very influential on that front. He took pictures, he wrote, he made movies. He composed music and poetry. He was, obviously, some kind of freakish polymath.

Let's start out by saying that he worked for Roy Stryker at the FSA/OWI, and then later at Standard Oil. This was a relationship that went on for 5 or 6 years. Not a long time, but enough. Stryker was a propagandist, plain and simple, and he was a good one. This does not mean that I disapprove of Stryker, particularly. When I say "propaganda" I mean it in a neutral way, you could as well say "strong story-telling" and it would mean more or less the same thing. What I mean is that Stryker was expert at -- it was literally his job for 15 years -- shaping a visual story to suit an end. There is no doubt that Parks learned from Stryker, and indeed it shows in the rest of his career.

To be quite clear, let me state it baldly: this is propaganda that the USA was in sore need of, and I am pleased as anything that Parks was able to do it.

There is this enduring idea that single iconic photos change the world. If you're me, you have some vague notions of this sort:
  • Nick Ut's picture Napalm Girl ended the Vietnam War.
  • Ansel Adams's photos of Yosemite led to the National Park System.
  • Gene Smith's picture of Tomoko halted pollution in Minamata.
None of these things is actually true. All of these pictures were taken more or less at the end of the events leading up to the result. More on that in a moment.

What actually changes this is a gradual normalization of ideas, a gradual shift in identity. While things are not perfect by any means in the world, we have shifted over the last 60-70 years. Corporations still pollute, but the general social consensus is that, when they do, they're evil, they're perverse. Racism is still pervasive, but again, the rednecks who do overtly racist things are evil weirdos. What we collectively, generally, consider "normal", has changed. Homosexuality, recently considered evil and perverse, is now rather more broadly considered normal.

Society, now as always, contains a complete spectrum of ideas. Change is not a mass exodus from one ideology to another, but is shift in where the median lies. Behaviors and ideas once considered normal, or acceptable, by most are now considered weird, wrong, by most. Correspondingly, behaviors and ideas once considered weird, wrong, and now normal and acceptable. By "most" people. Every mainstream position from 1980, 1960, or 1150, still has a group of adherents but it's probably smaller than it was in its heyday.

These changes are wrought slowly. LIFE and TIME did a lot of the spade work in their time. Some of the essays Parks did for LIFE are incredible, this is some seriously hot stuff. It's not clear it would be publishable at all today, in our twitchy press environment. It's possible that there is real motion in a retrograde direction now. We certainly see a lot of effort being expended to normalize an anti-Muslim attitude. Using, of course, exactly the same methods.

What Parks seems to have been up to is pretty straightforward, seen through the lens of Roy Stryker's approach to things. He's humanizing The American Negro from a variety of angles. Harlem Gang Leader, Black Muslims, and some ordinary families. I have not read the stories, but I am pretty sure that the narrative is one of normalizing. These are people, first and foremost, with some hopes and dreams and troubles that you, a White American, can identify with, and others that are somewhat mysterious to you.

This is basic stuff. Say some things which are true, which are identifiable, which connect with the reader. Then say some other stuff, the payload if you will. The payload might be true, it might not be. If you're Goebbels demonizing The Jew, your payload is probably some untrue stuff. If you're Gordon Parks trying to humanize The Negro, your payload is probably some true stuff. The mechanism is the same, though. How objectively "true" the payload is doesn't matter.

And then you keep it up. After a while, your readers have the idea that this is normal. They probably think they dreamed some of this stuff up themselves.

This, as far as I know, is the mechanism by which social change occurs. We'd like to think that social change can occur, that we can improve ourselves as a species, as a nation, as a company, as a bowling league, by rational discussion, through reason and common sense. I think that is false. We change collectively when someone has seized the microphone, and is delivering a carefully calibrated message. In days of yore, the microphone was frequently held by religious leaders, tribal leaders, feudal leaders. It's the media, today.

A wrapper of things we know to be true, a generous ladle of things we wish were true, all carrying a payload of things the speaker wants us to believe. A story shaped to gently shove us this way or that, a touch so light we don't really feel it.

It doesn't matter if you're trying to teach soldiers to hate the enemy, or teach white people to accept non-white people as humans, the mechanisms are the same.

Photographs play a huge role here, because they are things we know to be true, in their own peculiar way. But they do not do it through the single iconic picture. They work through the prosaic, the mundane, through repetition. Nick Ut's photo doesn't work because it's unusual, but because it's normal. Perhaps a little more shocking, but by the time Napalm Girl was published, the public had been seeing various horrors from Vietnam for 5 years or more.

I find it fascinating that we (or at least I) tend to associate a picture taken toward the end with the idea that this is the picture that did it, that effected the change. My theory is that, while it's the steady normalizing drip of pictures and words that actually do the work, the one we remember when it's all over is whichever one we saw most recently that was kind of striking. There are some documented memory biases that can have this result, the "Peak-end rule", and the "recency effect" at least.

This does leave open two questions that I think are important:

1. What, if anything, can be done about the pockets of "weirdos"? Is it just a question of keeping the pressure up, and whittling away at them?

2. What about the built-in stuff? An organization can be, for instance, sexist as anything without containing a single person who is sexist. The sexism is baked into the rules, the shared culture, the underlying ideas. Usually it's hidden under various veneers, so that the people in the organization don't even notice it.

Do the same mechanisms apply, perhaps targeted differently? How do I make a photo essay that addresses the fact "we've found that former race-car drivers make the best sales people for our product" almost entirely excludes women from the sales team? And if so, would it work? What social norm can be moved to address these things?

Do pictures work here, too?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017


I'm starting to have a problem with Jörg Colberg. His latest piece, a review of Steidl's study edition of the collected work of one Gordon Parks, which you can read here, is a great example. On the one hand, there's some good thoughtful stuff in there.

Everybody can make competent pictures, assuming they spend enough time with their cameras. A competent picture shouldn’t be used as the bar for anything (unless you’re teaching Photo 101). The bar should be higher, and it should be at the height that Parks put it for himself: make pictures that matter. Make pictures that convey a deep sense of urgency, where when someone looks at them even fifty years later they’ll be moved deeply. If you got someone to think that way, now or much later, then — and only then — you’re in business. Gordon Parks can show you the way.

This is basically a little drum I've been beating on this blog for several years (without mentioning Gordon Parks) so, obviously, I approve.

But then, but then. We stumble over Colberg's goofy habit of taking a swing at anything he thinks might be an establishment figure. This time it's Walker Evans, or more specifically, the "cult" surrounding Evans.

To this date, I can’t fully wrap my head around, for example, the Walker-Evans cult (which I will admit I find a bit creepy, too). I mean, I get the man’s importance. But what I don’t get is how there are few, if any, truly critical appreciations of his achievements.

To be honest, I have no idea what he's even asking for. What on earth is a "truly critical appreciation" anyways?

When you see the pattern (Sontag sucks, Steidl sucks, Evans sucks, Frank sucks...) it begins to feel like a litany of "oh, ok, everything that used to be good is shit" which, well, OK then. But you've jolly well got some work to do if you want to make that thesis stick, Jörg, and so far I ain't seeing it.

Then he sticks in his politics (of which we see a lot more on twitter, to our chagrin), which are the same sort of dime-store unconsidered self-contradictory stuff his undergrads no doubt espouse.

For the record, I'm on his side. I'm all for it. Throw the oligarchs out. Eliminate the military, and the corresponding industrial complex. Basic minimum income for all. Hell yeah, and viva la revolución. My family gives a good deal of money to local charities, and I quit my extremely good paying tech-sector job for a complicated mass of reasons, among them I can't stand the Silicon Valley habit of making tons of money selling bullshit, and figuring out the moral issues later, or maybe never.

Here Colberg's discount bin politics manifest in hand-wringing about why Parks isn't in the history books, with an implied "well, it's just racism, obviously" when there is surely the chance that it might be more nuanced than that. Colberg certainly doesn't know. For all I know Beaumont Newhall simply couldn't abide non-whites, but for all Colberg and I know, Parks simply wasn't influential enough. Being good doesn't make you important historically.

Colberg rather makes a point of not knowing (or at least not mentioning?) anything about Parks's actual historical role, so it's not clear to me how he can justify complaining about Parks's absence from the history books.

When you put together the "establishment figures are stupid" with "my politics are left wing and simplistic" you, at least if you are me, begin to recognize a very young person. These are precisely the positions one expects from a 19 year old who just joined the Campus Socialists Club. They are not, unfortunately, what one expects to see muddying the waters in someone's magazine-styled blog of criticism. Hence, my growing unease.

And yes, I am well aware of my role as a Pot here. Hush now.

For the record, the name Gordon Parks meant nothing to me when I saw it on Colberg's blog. It's possible that 20 years ago I was a total fanboy, or actively despised the man, but at present I remember exactly nothing. I take it as given that he was good, and a quick poke around certainly suggests that he was.

But good isn't enough. Being good isn't even relevant.

All that said, Colberg does make some legitimately good general points about what photography is for, what one might aim to do, and how one might distinguish between merely good pictures and important bodies of work. I'd like to see him write a lot more about that.