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.


  1. Love it!!! - Always food for thought!

  2. Eliminate the MIC? What a nice problem to have. My country has been trying to struggle past the bureaucracy to get one for the last 50 years.

    Well not just the bureaucracy, Lockheed offers progeny scholarships to Stanford and Princeton. Reliance and L&T pretty much can't, what's the newly promoted captain going to pick?

  3. I highly recommend Gordon Parks' autobiography, "A Choice of Weapons." Not much there about his photography per se,but his life is fascinating.