Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Wrong Tool for the Job

I have in the past railed against the fact that the go-to "tool" in the world of photography for empowering women is to go take a hell of a lot of naked pictures of women. There's another thing, of which I can find at least two instances, which is to photograph women having orgasms as a way of empowering them.

Here's the latest incarnation to cross my field of vision, but we also have Hysterical Literature, a series of videos along more or less the same lines (although these are hilarious, because the women are attempting to read). A quick google search, with a vigorous sifting out of porn, shows that this has been going on for a while. Someone comes along and "shatters this taboo" pretty regularly, and usually does it in the name of empowerment or something.

Using an essentially exploitative medium like photography to empower someone is a little like trying to cure alcoholism with heavy drinking. When you take a picture of someone, you're taking something from them, not giving them anything. While the orgasm photos are not as egregious as the nudes, they're still essentially voyeuristic, prurient. Now, full disclosure, I kinda like them. They're titillating, funny, engaging, interesting. What they are not is empowering. Nobody is giving that woman's sexuality back to her. Arguably we're not taking it from her, either, but by God we're trying.

This isn't just about sex. If you want to give someone power, photographing them just isn't a good way to do it. Photographing homeless people to "empower" them or "help" them is widely recognized as a bankrupt philosophy, but somehow you can trot out the same line of garbage for your weak-sauce porn, and people will still gobble it up.

If you want to give someone power through photography, hand them the camera.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Conscientious, Palladium, and Found Photos books

This week, Jörg brings us more reviews, and one of the books reviewed has a helpful video which lets us actually look at the thing. Note that while Jörg recommends the book and expends a lot of words in the section that is ostensibly about the book, when you check closely you see that he actually devotes a grand total of 157 words to actually reviewing the book.

Apparently making books out of found photographs is A Thing, and I have to believe it can work. That this can work is an inevitable consequence of my philosophy of photography. On the other hand, I don't think that it always works and I am starting to think that contemporary, mainstream, ideas about photobook making prevent it from working.

Here is a video about an artist making such a book with MACK which I watched some time ago, and which gives a lot of insight. You can peruse a short preview of the actual book here.

Here is a video of someone leafing through Palladium, the book Jörg reviews. Turn the sound off so you don't have to listen to the absurdly twee "movie soundtrack" crackling and, for reference, it looks weird because they had the person leaf through the book back to front and reversed the video, just to raise the "twee" level to idiotic and desperate heights.

Looking at both of these books, we see more or less the same stuff. Little fuzzy photos with weak blacks and grey whites on big white pages, often verso and recto, sometimes only recto with full bleeds (invariably printed without any understanding of the gutter, just slapped down there) sprinkled in at random. Strand's book has some poetry in it, and a little bit of "design stuff" sprinkled in, whereas Palladium does not. There are other interesting similarities between the books which could be completely random, but might also indicate some tropes that the Serious People are borrowing from one another.

Hilariously, in the video with MACK, we see Mack himself worrying intensely about the ways the photos are rendering on the printer. Dude, these are newspaper clippings and shit, fussing about midtones or whatever is pointless and makes you look like an idiot. Obviously Mack is performing for the camera "ooo, look what a dedicated printer I am, I am so fancy, I'm just as fastidious as Steidl, but not as weird" which makes him look even sillier.

I see a bunch of things going on.

The first thing I notice is the aesthetic. Apparently the way you signal that this is An Important Book Of Found Photos Sequenced By A True Artist is you make the pictures look shitty. Now, I'm on board with a shitty looking picture from time to time. A full range of tones doesn't earn you any prizes from me. But still, it looks like these people are willfully making things that look like newsprint (on, no doubt, very heavy paper.) You can tell, in Palladium in particular, that they're doing this on purpose since all the pictures enjoy exactly the same weak tonal range. Strand's book is more varied, but I still suspect them of "vintage-ifying" pictures as needed.

The second thing is that I suspect strongly that the way you make these things is you sit on a huge pile of nothing pictures sifting and sorting them until you go slightly mad and start to see meaning and pattern where none exists. It's possible that Palladium is rife with cultural subtext visible to Europeans, or former Soviet bloc citizens, or whatever, but to me it looks like all these pictures could have been taken in NYC in one of the seedier theaters in a neighborhood with some Russians. The sequencing and design is dunderheadedly simple, which is exactly what you want when the pictures are awesome. These pictures aren't awesome.

Palladium's sequence is very structured, to the editor's credit. But it strikes me as structure without meaning, without purpose. It's a folly, not a church.

This book appears to me to be simple "box of pictures" design, and the pictures can't carry it.

Strand's book is more design-forward, and the subject matter of the pictures is far more compelling. I can't really speak to the sequence, but it's clear from the "making of" video that she's using the "stare until you go mad" method. I have my suspicions about the sequence, given that all the pictures are basically "a female human holding a snake" but it's possible that the book actually works in some interesting way.

I am slowly becoming convinced that the whole notion that sequencing is something very very difficult that you must labor over for months is not only unnecessary but actually harmful. I believe you start to see chimeras.

I think you have to see the concept before you sequence, and then you have to do it relatively quickly. It might still take you a year by the calendar, but you mustn't spend that much actual time on it, because you'll start to delude yourself. You cannot afford to bury that first sparkle of inspiration, that creative bolt of lightning, in endless boring sifting and fussing.

These people are fussing over their canvas, painting and repainting, until the whole thing turns into a muddy mess. But by god, they see angels in there.

Once you're making a book of your own delusions, you substantially reduce the chances that people are going to connect with the work, that they'll be able to find something to take away. If you can grab hold of whatever it is that you saw before you went mad, and get that down on paper before it slips away, maybe you've got something.

It's not like anyone ever takes away what you put into the thing, they don't. Maybe what they get is close, maybe it's not.

But at any rate, if you're just putting in the mad delusions causing by staring at a huge pile of snapshots, I you're one more step removed from the audience, and that can't be a good thing.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Huge Pantheon

It happened to me again a few days ago. I stumbled across yet another major name in photography that I felt I should have known, because of that name's stature. Never heard of the guy.

My wife gets the Saturday Wall Street Journal (when the delivery people remember), which is an excellent paper if you ignore the loopy editorial pages. Sometimes it comes with a glossy fashion and art magazine, which is really quite wonderful. The Journal is making a play to be the Vogue of yesteryear, I think, and doing a half credible job. Anyways, they do semi-in-depth pieces on contemporary artists, and this one featured Thomas Struth.

Apparently, Struth is huge. He is a Big Deal. He's Düsseldorf school, so that's the Bechers and Gursky and those people. Looking over his pictures, he certainly seems to be in that area of work that appears to be willfully difficult to make sense of and, in this case, I simply haven't got the time or energy to make the effort. I dare say there's something there if you soak in it with an open mind, and so on.

The point is that this happens a lot. Some luminary from somewhere between 1950 and now is pointed out to me, and I think ""oh my god, I am an unwashed savage, how do I not know this artist?""

I have decided that the trouble lies not with me, but with the size of the pantheon. It turns out that the art world is absolutely crawling with second-tier photographers. The top tier being, for our purposes here, the photographers that get talked up regularly in mainstream press. What I mean is the difference between a highlighted piece in a general interest section of a major newspaper, and a short "this event is happening" squib in the arts-and-events section. It's a fuzzy line.

Now, if I were a professional critic, and spent all day every day living and breathing the Art Press, I dare say I could be faulted for not knowing most of the second tier, but damn it, I'm a civilian. As an interested civilian, I claim that I ought to be roughly familiar with the "top tier" and with a random smattering of "second tier." Conveniently, I simply declare anyone I've never heard of as "second tier," see how neatly that works?

Anyways, I have decided to stop worrying about the fact that I have never heard of so-and-so, and to stick with being delighted when I find that so-and-so is interesting.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Book Design Notes IV

The book is done, the test book received and examined, corrections made. I have ordered a handful of them for myself, and they're LIVE IN THE STORE on blurb.

Order your copy here! Or, more to the point, click on the "Preview" buttons until you get an actual preview (I think it might require a click more clicks than is reasonable, leading me to suspect that Hewlett-Packard, my former employer, is doing web design for blurb as well as supplying printers).

If you do buy it, I will earn $2.81 in US dollareenos. So, there's that. Consider how much you want to fatten the capitalist before you go adding it to the olde carte.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Dying for Likes

In the usual places we're seeing the monthly "Urbex (urban exploration) photographer dies in fall" story making the rounds. These are guys that trespass on rooftops, on ledges, in abandoned buildings, and so on, to take photographs. You've probably seen their pictures. The peeling paint covered over with graffiti, the rooms filled with mysterious junk, the long long hallway. Sometimes they bring a hot model along to decorate the scene, sometimes not.

Back up.

I was one of those amateurs, for twenty years, that was searching. Not Urbex, but I was still looking for something. I knew the iconic photos, and I could tell there was something there. Moonrise over Hernandez, Behind The Train Station, Migrant Mother, and so on. I didn't know what was there, but I wanted a piece of it, and I couldn't get it. Gear and technique didn't get the job done, tried that out thoroughly. Getting out there to shoot similar subjects also no. Not to say that I accomplished the same degree of technical perfection or of timing that the really good ones got, but enough to be certain that it didn't matter. Getting a sharper lens, timing my shots more precisely, that wasn't gonna do it, because there was something else there. Something I was missing.

Projecting my own pattern on to the modern milieu, I see millions of photographers laboring away for Likes on social media, and I cannot help but think this is the same search, performed somewhat differently.

The essential difference is that if you do the marketing work (follow people, comment, like their pictures, engage, engage, engage) then you can get all the Likes you want. It's just work. Or you can buy them. The point is that if you translate your search into a search for Likes, the solution is clear and doable. You just have to do a lot of work that's got nothing to do with photography or art-making. I tried that too, but Likes were not the something I was looking for.

I cannot help but think that for most people the Likes are not enough. I offer as evidence the fact that people continue to buy new gear, they travel to new places, they experiment with new methods, new angles, new materials. They're still looking for something, I submit.

To be fair, many people simply enjoy the process, and more power to them. Maybe you bought the Polaroid because you just love the way it looks and feels, you love the results. But really, let us be honest, many of you bought it because you hoped it might bring you that special something you can't quite put your finger on.

This manifests itself most forcefully in the Urbex community. These guys are literally all taking the same pictures. They share locations, methods, they take one another on tours to their "secret" spots that only they and every graffitist on earth knows about. Abandoned buildings all look pretty much the same. Long long hallfways ditto. Decorating it with a model will get you more likes, but only because "hot chick." So when an Urbex guy (or, very very rarely, gal) wants to try something new, it often manifests as climbing out on something, getting a little further up, or out, or deep, and then they get killed.

While it's glib to say what I said in the title, they're dying for Likes, I don't want to believe that's quite it.

I think they're looking for something bigger, and Likes is just a proxy they're settling for, for now. I think they're trying for that special something they saw in the photos they've so-long admired. But what? What even is that?

I'm gonna save your life now. It's not a slightly more extreme angle, it's not a never explored abandoned mental hospital.

It's meaning.

Meaning, broadly construed, of course.

What do you want to tell me? No, no, not words. Not an essay. Not a poem. Pictures. What are your pictures trying to convey? Work on that. This means staring hard at the day's take, trying to make sense of it. This means introspecting, searching inside yourself, struggling to make sense of your life, your pictures, where you are and what you think. What's your opinion about this abandoned building? Do you have an idea? A concept? A vision? Show us that.

Don't climb out on that pylon, just to get a few more Likes. If it's essential to your vision, sure, go on out there. But for god's sake, wear a harness.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Way We See

I despise the notion of "levels of photographer" but I am going to sketch out a sort of a progression anyways. Sorry about that, I hate myself a little right now.

The neophyte with the camera mainly sees the subject. The flower, Aunt Martha, the thing they want to take a picture of. Many camera-carriers happily remain here. These people famously photograph people with trees "growing out of their heads."

After a while, many of the more serious camera owners will read things that tell them about, well, various graphical features. They might notice leading lines, or intersections of lines. The might notice bright spots, shadows, the way the light falls. Most of the rest of the camera carrying community stop right here, slowly stirring around the short list of technical/graphical features they notice and photograph. These folks almost never photograph a person with a head-tree.

Serious photographers who are successful at communicating things, I feel, manage to simultaneously "go beyond" a sack of graphical tricks, and at the same time to return to the naive subject. Of course, I count myself among this sainted number. And, naturally, you as well, gentle reader.

The same applies to looking at photographs. The naive viewer says "what a pretty flower," the more sophisticated camera owner says "tsk, the flower is centered rather than placed on a Rule of Thirds Power Point," and the artist says "what a pretty flower" but in a more thoughtful way.

I think, I like to think because it's the way I do it, that the Serious Artist sees the whole frame of the photograph. They grasp the whole as a collection of forms and tones and lines and colors all in balance, or not, etcetera. And they they see a pretty flower, and the way the picture reveals the pretty flower without clutter (or with clutter, as is fit and meet.) But at the end of the day, it's still the pretty flower.

Saturday, October 7, 2017


This is a prototype of a book project built around an essay, again. So, it's not commentary or criticism, it's my attempt at Art, again

In 1776 some fellows wrote these words, and some other fellows signed the blank space found below them:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Some 13 to 16 years later more words were written and ratified, as follows:

Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 2: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

These are, of course, some of the central texts of the United States of America. The first is the core of the Declaration of Independence, and the second are the first and second amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Arguably, these are pretty much the only bits of these larger central texts that the average citizen has much familiarity with in these modern times.

I am not much interested in what the authors or signers of these statements might have meant. They are all 200 years dead, their intentions are surely academic. Yes, yes, Jefferson and Washington were terrible assholes. Or not. Whatever. Neither one of them is saying a lot these days.

Nor am I much interested in contemporary legal theories of what these things mean. Not that these are not interesting questions, but they are irrelevant to what I am saying here.

What I am interested in is the cultural impact of these things, how we citizens and residents of the United States, have internalized these words, what we make of them, and how they influence the ways we think and live.

Utterly entrenched in these words is the idea of individual liberty, the right of each of us, one by one, to seek out what it best for us and ours. Entrenched in these words is the idea that the government should at no time and in no way attempt to restrict our individual freedoms, our individual search, our individual labors. Ours is a nation built, the idea goes, on the efforts of individuals. The railroads were built not by Chinese laborers but by titans of industry, working practically alone. The west was won by steely-gazed men with Colt pistols and strong-willed horses.

Still, this freedom and liberty business is a pretty good idea. Empowering the individual to seek out what is best is a good thing. Each of us should feel and be free to pursue our dreams. It is not unhealthy to feel that perhaps without individual striving things might go badly for us. Around the world parents try to imbue their children with these ideals, among others.

These ideas do ignore the group, the tribe, that force that is all-of-us, together. They minimize these ideas, and perhaps that is not so beneficial. The myths of this nation are not quite true, the railroads were built by shared labor, the west won likewise. Most of the large scale success here in the United States was through group effort, through teams of self-effacing (not always willingly) people working as one toward a larger goal, as well as by oppression, exploitation, or elimination of other people, other classes.

Still, I believe firmly in the ideas of individual pursuit of hopes, dreams, success. Up to a point.

With so many millions of us so deeply imbued with these beliefs, there will inevitably be outliers, in all directions. Some few will utterly eschew individuality in favor of the commune. Some few will observe opposite theories. Some few will seek to elevate their own individual liberty above everything and everyone else.

The worst results hold when we fetishize the objects we identify with our Liberty, when we feel that certain objects contain the answer.

The Car

The first world as a whole has embraced the absurdity that is the car. Several tons of steel and plastic, nowadays bristling with computers and cameras and air bags, simply to transport, usually, a single person and a few personal odds and ends from one place to another.

The United States has taken this to some sort of ultimate pinnacle. Our lust for personal liberty has obliterated every other method of getting around, in any practical way. Ask yourself "how would I obtain a pair of socks without using my car?" (of course you'd jump on amazon, tsk, but amazon would use a truck in the end anyways.) In the United States, for most people, that is a virtually intractable problem requiring half a day of bus travel if it is even possible.

We've built a nation around the car. It is, for all practical purposes, impossible to live here without a car. You cannot hold a job, you cannot purchase food and clothing, you cannot obtain medical care, without a car. Certainly there are a few people without cars, who beg rides and use public transit. They are miserable. There are a few places in which walking or bicycling to much of what is necessary is possible, I live in one of them. But mostly, Americans rely on The Car. 95% of American households own a car. And The Car is completely crazy. It costs the average American something like $8000 a year to own a car. This is a crushing burden for all but the best-off of us, and yet we shrug it off as a simple necessity.

Ordinary people cannot imagine going to work by bus, "What if I want to run an errand at lunch?" and so on. Our personal liberty demands the ability to simple go when and where we choose, at any moment. Public transit systems across the nation are dead or on life-support, the country is enmeshed in a web of highways, interchanges, streets, parking lots, gas stations, repair shops, car dealerships, car factories. Trillions of dollars of infrastructure exists so that we can go when and where we want.

The United States sees almost 11 traffic-related fatalities per 100,000 people, per year. We are by no means the worst here, but that is because of our safe cars, safe roads, and fairly thorough enforcement of traffic laws, not because we're not driving the damned things basically all the time.

There's nothing inherently wrong with The Car. Cars are ubiquitous, globally, and in the end they're just a thing we use to move ourselves and our stuff around conveniently.

But. But.

The Car is central to our identity, here in the USA. It represents freedom, it represents our selves. The American passion for Liberty has, to our detriment, caused us to view The Car as the answer to many problems to which it is not necessarily the best one. The Car has cost us, and cost us greatly.

It should not be the answer we treat it as.

The Dollar

Ahhhh, money. Everyone wants it, everyone needs it. Nobody even knows what it is. It's a medium of exchange. It's labor distilled into convenient chits. It's the only known way to efficiently compute solutions to the problem of distributing goods. It's power. It's speech. It's lovely. It's sex.

It's a government plot to control us all.

Money is global, it's not a uniquely American invention. One might argue, though, that it is in America where we have most perfectly distilled the cold pursuit of it against all opposition, against all common sense. America has 5 times as many billionaires as the next nation in line, and our per capita billionaire count is ridiculous.

Money isn't a bad thing, we need it. You cannot run an economy -- in the most basic sense of a system that gets food into the mouths of people, at scale -- without money. The ruthless pursuit of money, on the other hand, is not particularly good for anyone. Not even for the billionaires who are a famously restless and unhappy people.

The trouble is that people in general, and Americans with their infernal pursuit of Liberty more than anyone, sometimes perceive money as the answer. "If only," we imagine, "I could get a million dollars" or a thousand, or a hundred, "then my problems would be solved." More often than not, it isn't true. Money, it is said, cannot buy happiness. Americans, there is no kind way to say it, do not believe that.

Lottery winners are famously less well off 1 or 2 or 3 years after winning, as a class. Billionaires cannot give up the relentless pursuit of more money, far past reason. Men so rich that they cannot purchase more power, more sex, more influence because there simply isn't any more for sale cannot give up the pursuit. Money, in the worst cases, makes heroin look benign, except that the victims are all too often everyone except the addict.

Money should not be the answer we take it for.

The Gun

Whether the second amendment is really about militias, privately owned guns, or donuts does not matter. We have internalized it as a central idea of gun ownership as American. Some deplore it, and some approve it; all agree that it's deeply American. The myths and legends of the American West helped entrench these ideas, our heroes are soldiers, sharpshooters, experts with the rifle or the pistol.

Sergeant Alvin York is famous as the pacifist who became a war hero, because of his skill with guns. A pacifist. They made at least one movie about him.

Guns, guns are just tools. They're things. They're not more dangerous than chainsaws, or cars, or fire, or poison. Wags are fond of saying "guns don't kill people, people do" or sometimes "bullets do" or something.

In a literal way, these things are true, but the deeper truth is that whoever says this is looking for a way to not talk about what it is that kills people. Guns kill people in a lot of ways, but the uniquely American way they kill is enabled by their power as a fetish object. Little kids raised on videos are fascinated with Dad's gun. Unhinged men collect the things and purchase gimmicks to enable them to shoot them more efficiently. The suicidal snuggle their gun, the solution to all of their problems except one.

The trouble arises not with gun use or gun proliferation, it arises when someone gets the idea that the answer is embodied in the gun. Perhaps the answer is to put the gun to his own head, or to shoot his girlfriend, or his dog, or a whole batch of people at a concert. Perhaps the answer is to shoot that cop, or that perp, or that enemy.

In America, The Gun, like The Dollar, and The Car, are sex, power, independence, Liberty.

The Gun, like The Car, and The Dollar, enables me to choose. The Gun enables me to make choices that are denied to people who do not possess The Gun.

In this world there's two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You: dig.

This is baked in to our culture. How often do we think or say "man, if someone would just shoot that guy things would be so much better."

If people would only stop thinking that the gun is a mystical object which can, somehow, make things OK, they'd stop shooting so damn many of one another. The Answer is not to be found in The Car, in The Dollar, or in The Gun. Our Liberty, our Personal Freedom, is surely larger than these fetish objects in which we see such power.

It is true that each of these objects truly does enable choices, each enables a certain kind of Liberty, of Freedom.

Those with loaded guns do not dig, those with running cars do have jobs, those with money make the rules for everyone without it.

These are all terrible ideas, and they're rotten ways to engage in the Pursuit of Happiness.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reality and Photos

Mike over on ToP asked out loud if photographs look less "real" than they did, which I found a fascinating question from one as erudite as Mike.

It has already been pointed out to him that photographs don't look real no way no how, and he's probably just trained himself to think of the photos from about 1930 to about 1990 as "real looking" which is perfectly right.

That which we perceive, we think of as something like a photograph. In that, we deceive ourselves. What we perceive is in fact a memory, albeit a very recent one, of a visual field recently constructed out of bits and pieces by our big fat brains from a very lousy but deep collection of visual information.

Consider, therefore, memory. We imagine that our memory of Aunt Sally's birthday as a set of mental photographs, more or less. But stop there, freeze it. There's Aunt Sally blowing out the candles on her cake. Who else is there? Bev, Sam, Jane. Who is seated to Sally's right.. Um. Um. Bev? Or was it Sam? Don't you remember, Sam couldn't make it, he wasn't even there.

Memories are nothing like photographs, once we actually peer into one we find a squishy mess that is long on certain types of detail, but surprisingly short of actual visual facts.

Hold that thought while I relate a story.

I once remarked to my father that Lewis Carroll had really done a remarkable job of writing down what it is like to dream, in his Alice adventures. My father replied with his usual insight: yes, the books capture with wonderful accuracy the way we dream after we have read Lewis Carroll.

How I dreamt before I know not, or even if I did, because I heard Alice read aloud before my memories begin.

This begs a similar question. How did we remember things before the photograph?

Did we remember things, or rather fancy we did, as the sort of accurate visual record that resembles a photograph? If so, how on earth did we describe the experience of a visual memory? Did people say things like "my memory of such and such is like a marvelously detailed painting?" I suppose I could do some research, but that sounds exhausting. Is it possible that (our notion of) our visual memory was experienced differently before we had the photograph as a reference idea?

One could go find one of those rare untroubled tribes in the rain forest who have never experienced a photo, and ask, but I hear that sort of thing is frowned on.

ToP Print Sale

The Sale Is Over, I have unlinked the link.

Mike asked nicely (not me specifically, he asked everyone in the world) so I am doing it.

Current print sale going on over at ToP. Gordon Lewis's "Precipitation" available (again) for $155 (includes shipping to Anywhere) printed 8.75x12 on 11x14 paper. I like this picture a lot.

Full disclosure: For about 3 or 4 reasons I can name, I am not buying one. But that doesn't mean you ought not, if it's even remotely your thing, you know that this is the next best thing to free.