Friday, December 29, 2017

'tis the season

This is that gruesome season when everyone is going on about the photo crap they bought themselves for Christmas (I upgraded from the J7200 Wündërkämërä to the J7201 and it has literally changed my life) and people are starting P365 or P52 projects. Professional click-hunters are developing programs for these things. You can download/subscribe/follow some dude's plan, and go practice using The Rule of Thirds in week 13 or whatever.

Well, I'm some guy who talks rather more than he knows, why don't I do one of these things?

I will!

Unlike the others, though, my goal is to devise a program for conceptualizing and developing a project from nothing to something finished over the course of a year, one week at a time. I don't give a shit about "try HDR" or "take a macro photograph", I care about ideas and how one develops them. The end result will be a book, a magazine, a hang-able show, a portfolio. Some coherent body of work, and a complete structure for it to reside in.

A caveat: I have never pursued a project for a year in an organized fashion, so this will be something of an experiment. But, generally, it will be "based on" my working methods, and with a bit of luck will help me to refine them for myself, as well as develop something worthwhile for myself. I will be attempting the program myself.

The general shape of the thing is to break the year into 4 quarters of 13 weeks each. Each quarter will contain 2 "fallow" weeks in which you are to do nothing, I will schedule these where I think best but you may also use them as catch-up weeks. The goal is not really to prescribe a task for each week, but to shape the general course of work. If you elect to skip a week, or to re-arrange the work a bit, that's fine. Or you can follow along slavishly.

What follows is an approximate syllabus, to be expanded later. I will try to get the whole thing sketched out in the first week of January. The task for week 1 is clear, though, and it is to get out and press the button a lot. Shoot more or less at random, things that interest you, things that catch your eye, things you've been meaning to shoot, things that bore you. We'll take it from there.

First Quarter

In the first quarter we will initially develop a modest heap of vague ideas, and refine that into three coherent project ideas or concepts. We'll shoot a lot of material for them. In the end reduce that list of three by one. The aim here is to shoot, repeatedly, to get back out there over and over, to refine ideas into larger concepts, and to end with two really decent, coherent, ideas with a bunch of material for each.

Second Quarter

The second quarter will be devoted to filling out the two viable projects that remain, shooting interstitial material, looking for opportunities to expand or to refine. We'll take some time looking at other things other people have done, looking for ideas and inspiration. Some rough stabs at design and sequence somewhere in there.

Third Quarter

In the third quarter we'll end by finally selecting a single project. On the way we'll be doing more design and sequence work, which is likely to turn up yet more shooting that needs to be done to fill in and complete things. We'll be looking at other work specifically for design ideas to steal. At the end we should have two projects that are definitely complete-able, and mostly "done" in some sense. Those last trivial bits of work should easily consume the last quarter, it turns out.

Fourth Quarter

We'll knock out one of the two at the end of last quarter, and get on with the last one. Time to complete sequencing and design ideas, do some layout, and finally press print some time in December.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Citations of Future Events

I find myself doing this thing from time to time, in which I, roughly, accuse a photographer of copying a picture that was made later.

This is one of the more bizarre and fascinating phenomena which happens in photography, though. Obviously it's not literally true, but it happens anyways. More than we might imagine, I think.

It occurs because of several things which are more or less unique about photography. In the first place, we all tend to make quite a few pictures. Maybe dozens, maybe 100s of 1000s, the point is, rather more photographs than drawings, short stories, poems, or sculptures. In the second place, we're all taking pictures of the same world, with the same people and things in it, all behaving more or less the way they always do.

The effect here is that it's remarkably easy to produce an archive of pictures that contains some pictures that are vaguely reminiscent of, well, of practically anything. There is a certain sameness that occurs over and over, all the moreso within a specific genre or location. Two people doing street photography in Chicago are practically certain to shoot a fair number of similar pairs, pretty much no matter what.

The second wonderful thing about photography is that the edit occurs later. Often much later. These archives lie around for days, weeks, or decades. An archive of raw pictures isn't anything, no matter who shot it, after all. It's just a bunch of junk until someone goes through and pulls an edit out of it.

As a result, it is easy, indeed common, to see someone shoot a bunch of work in 1950, or 1970, or 2010 and let it lie fallow. Someone else then takes some pictures 10 years later, which are then published and become well known. Finally, someone goes through the original archive and finds, unsurprisingly, some pictures that look a bit like the ones shot 10 years later, and publishes those. Those pictures make it into the edit specifically because they cite the ones shot later.

This is usually ignored in the hopes, presumably, that nobody will notice. One could trot out the argument that so-and-so actually prefigured the work of so-and-so, and I dare say the argument has been made (it's jolly compelling if you're not attentive!)

The trouble is that it's not true. While the early photographer is of course not copying the later one, the later editor frequently is copying the earlier one. There's no prefiguration here, it's simply a citation of what is, in a meaningful way, an earlier work. Whether it be plagiarism, homage, or merely a reference, well that depends as always on what else is in play.

As photographers we tend to place too much weight on the moment of button-press. That is, often, not really where the work is done. Often, that's just raw material to be used later.

Friday, December 22, 2017


One of my lovely readers pointed me to this blog post by Blake Andrews. He is, roughly, putting up a defense of the "why can't pictures just be pretty?" position, and leaning on music as his metaphor.

The comments make me itch. Andrews mentions Bach so of course someone has to slip in a gratuitous anti-religion slam (gosh, you're very cool and with it for a 10 year old), and someone else has to say that Bach's music is basically math (no it's not, you idiot). But Andrews does have something of a point.

I'm not quite sure, to be honest, where his position actually is. He is, certainly, making at least the point that not every photograph has to be a moving essay on some Issue of Social or Political Importance. Perhaps this is in fact all he means, in which case his essay is a cheat. He's simply dressed up something universally agreed upon in radical clothes.

He provides as the other end of the spectrum the idea of something being "merely pretty" as if this were the only alternative to the Weighty Tome, and mentions music as an example of something which is allowed to be "merely pretty." This is a fascinating position, because music is absolutely not ever "merely pretty" in any meaningful way There is nothing mere about music, and certainly nothing mere about Bach's music.

This thing about music is that it seems to have a pretty direct channel into our emotions. I don't know how much is built in (pentatonic scale?) and how much is learned (western tonality certainly is) but the end result is that, within a given culture, music provides a vast and powerful toolbox for more or less direct manipulation of the emotions.

Here in the west we can use tonality, tempo, dynamics, voice leading, all kinds of crap. This piece is happy, this one is sad. This is a military march, this is a funeral march, and so on. There's a vast array of tropes that can be, and are, drawn upon, and musicians are specifically taught how to use them "and then modulate to a minor key and slow the tempo down for the serious, sad bit."

The closest thing I can think of to merely pretty music is a music box. Not one of the big ones, the little ones with the rotating dancer. There's no dynamics, no harmony. They merely plunk out the melody. And, note this, nobody actually listens to a music box. We wind them up and are charmed for a moment, as much by the little figure as by the tune. If the tune is familiar, perhaps it unlocks some memories. If the tune is unfamiliar, the sonic part of the object is a complete dud, despite being "pretty."

Music occupies the enormous zone between Weighty Tome and Merely Pretty. One only rarely encounters a piece of music that's actually about anything. There are almost no symphonies about The Problem of Homelessness. As noted, there is almost no music that is genuinely described as merely pretty. The vast majority of music is manipulative of our emotions. Some of it is deeply moving, some of it less so. But virtually all of it moves us.

This appears to me to be the point that Mr. Andrews is missing. No, photography need not always be about The Sorrow of Cancer. It is like music, and like music, it ought to touch us, to move us somehow.

If it is merely pretty, like the plunked melody from a music box, then it jolly well better match the furniture, otherwise, what the hell good is it?

Monday, December 18, 2017

Male Gaze And So Forth

I've been noodling on that side remark from Colberg a while back, and a few things have slowly percolated into my consciousness.

Happens I know a couple people who do or have in the past taken a lot of pictures of beautiful women without their clothes on, hired models for the most part. This is both a basic and ancient practice in Art, and also a complicated situation in these modern times in which women are no longer chattel but fully functioning humans with all the rights and privileges etc.

Somewhere in here it occurred to me that -- maybe -- the digital age of photography has truly enabled a genuinely new thing, a form of exhibitionism. Men and women have been flaunting it forever, of course. It is said that female apes (monkeys?) engage in concealed displays for the benefit of non-alpha males that they fancy, so in some sense this too seems rather ancient.

Still, the age of the internet has enabled people to share photographs of themselves rather more broadly. I first saw it in, um, around 1989 or 1990 when Usenet began to sprout newsgroups for the dissemination of pornography. A few brave, or perhaps foolish, people took to scanning homemade smut and sharing that, to quite literally a global and anonymous audience. No longer restricted to trusted friends, or nearby social circles, the home-made nude suddenly went digital and then a nanosecond later, global.

The home-made nude became public it became media.

Noodling on all of that, I am pretty sure I understand that while male gaze is a thing, it's not a concept you can use to make any sort of judgements about pictures (especially of naked women) without more context. I don't see how it can't make a difference how much agency on the part of the model is going on here.

In movies, female actors who wish to act are constrained by the narrowness of available roles. The models working for photographers occupy a spectrum of agency, from simply stripping for cash to buy food to a full collaboration. The internet exhibitionist who does it only for attention is fully empowered, at least apparently.

Ok, so hold on to those ideas. Male gaze, but in context, and something about agency.

Now you may read this piece, or just take my very brief summary of the bits that I think matter. Female artist Friderike Heuer, of mature years, agrees to be painted in the nude after her breast cancer surgery on the condition that she can photograph the process. Good for her. I keep saying that the way to empower the woman is to hand her the camera, after all. In it there's this quote from Ms. Heuer:

There’re ways of looking at each other that are not objectifying.

Taken literally this is a stupid remark. The our visual system is literally a mechanism for converting the world around us into a collection of mental objects. An immense percentage of our brain (damn near everything except visual system) is devoted to converting the objects that look like instances of Homo Sapiens back into mental representation of people, non-objects. Autism, in very general terms, is a name for the condition of not being able to do that well.

The only way Heuer's remark makes sense is if we treat it as a statement of intent to see past the object and embrace the person behind the person-shaped object. It is the statement to the effect that if the artist and the model and the viewer do their work right, we will tend to see past the object, and to see also the person.

And this, really, is what it's about. Are we attending to the picture? the photographer? the body in the picture? the woman herself? All of the above, of course, to one degree or another. Ms. Heuer's point seems to be to be something about how when we attend to the woman in the picture, we're doing something that's distinct from male gaze something which is, perhaps, better.

This, then, is part of my problem with the standard-issue business of empowering women by taking a shitload of pictures of a shitload of woman with their clothes off. How am I to attend to the woman behind the picture when I am confronted with a dizzying array of more or less identical pictures of different women?

These projects, of course, are about the project, or the photographer, and exist to aggrandize those. They certainly do not exist to empower women, that is a bare-faced lie, because they are literally structured to make the one way of viewing that truly empowers the women very difficult. We cannot but see this mass of naked flesh as a mass of objects, of bodies. A crowd is never a bunch of individuals, it is a crowd.

Putting it all together we have male gaze, but tempered by agency of the subject, and by whatever gestalt of factors might encourage us to see not the body, not the object, but the person. Part of that work falls squarely on the viewer, which I think is an interesting consequence.

While a female role in a film may well be written narrowly, while the character may really just be a placeholder for the hero to acquire at the end, we can still choose to look at her as a full character. After all, in the alternate universe of the movie, she is a real person, with a full life. It is not her fault that the film offers only a narrow view of her. The film makers have done both her and us a disservice in their portrayal, mind you.

Conversely, a photographer may present a fuller view of his model, or of the character his model portrays. Perhaps a series of pictures on some theme. We may choose to simply admire the bodies on display.

The exhibitionist may or may not choose to reveal herself as a person (or a character), and her admirers may choose to admire her person, or merely her body.

There's a whole bunch of people in play here. Model, artist, viewer at least. In some cases, we're all pulling together to portray and to see the person, or the body. More often, there's confusion, with various intents and effects, flying off in different directions. Viewers, especially male viewers, especially male viewers on the internet, will tend to see the body to the exclusion of all else. Their loss. Photographers all too often have no idea what the hell they're trying to do. Even the model's intent is all over the place. It may include a genuine wish to be objectified, to be admired as a beautiful thing.

Since no human being with working eyes admires me as a beautiful thing, I find the concept intriguing myself!

I don't pretend to have any pat answer to the moral issues here, and it seems genuinely difficult if not impossible to comb out. But, case by case, we can at any rate make judgments.

Heaven knows I love to make judgments!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Crit: Frédérick Carnet, The promise of a better world?

I've written about M. Carnet's work in the past, right here, reviewing his project "The Last First Day" which I liked. But not as much as I like the work I'm looking at right now.

You can examine the promise of a better world? right here, and you ought to. I will reserve my comments to "below the jump" as they say, and remind you to go look at the work before you read my remarks again.

First, two fragments.

Joseph Cornell made boxes. Cornell boxes, to be exact. As far as I know, no other artist has taken a credible swing at this, so it's an art form with, really, a single practitioner. What he did was to arrange objects in an open box. Nothing more. Glue, wire, that sort of thing. Just stuff. The effect is sometimes pretty much nothing, but sometimes it's quite startling. He's really just giving you a structured arrangement of more or less ordinary objects, and, zowie, it creates some sort of intense impression.

Fragment #2. All representational art does this thing in which there is a duality in play between the thing represented, and the representation itself. Photography, with its precise optical tracing of the thing, takes this to a kind of pinnacle. If I want to show you a thing and it is inconvenient to actually pry it loose and carry it to you, I will inevitably take a photograph of the thing. It is the way we do that. "Look at this" we say. Some photographs function purely as a way of looking at something, the photograph itself vanishes or is at any rate irrelevant. Some photographs barely represent anything, and what we're supposed to perceive is the photograph itself. Most fall somewhere in between.

If you haven't yet, go ye and look at M. Carnet's pictures now! Look carefully. These pictures are rather densely connected to one another.

Friday, December 8, 2017


Luckily for my wise and erudite audience, Mike C. has written an actually interesting piece, which if you have not yet read (and why not? Hmm?) you ought to read. It's the sort of thing I aspire to write when I am not consumed with fits of bile, and he makes a most excellent case for collage and related forms that begin with photographs and end up somewhere else.

Since this is very much a Thing (especially if we add in, which Mike doesn't, your basic "heavily photoshopped thing that look like a photograph but isn't any more") it's worth a good think and a spirited defense.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Damn It

The holidays are crushing me, so I have limited time and even less inspiration. About all I can do is get mad at Colberg, sorry. I have a couple of photographic projects in the queue to go look at and think about carefully, but for now it's just more grumpiness about some other blogger.

In Colberg's latest set of reviews he includes a book called Fruit Garden which looks like the usual set of wilfully ugly pictures clumsily pasted up into a thudding, uninteresting, narrative. He reads it as some sort of indictment of the Soviet System (and, gosh, thank god we're finally seeing some serious critique of THAT, eh?).

The way I understand his, um, somewhat disjointed discussion of the book, the phrase "Fruit Garden" is apparently a reference to Ivan Michurin, who was some crazy biologist or something in the USSR with some crazy ideas. Looking around a little you find that Michurin did indeed have a "Fruit Garden" in which he bred all kinds of fruit, and so on. So one naturally assumes that the book title is either a reference to this particular fruit garden, or perhaps even a documentation of it.

The fruit garden, the literal thing, we are led to understand, is one of those instances of the Soviet idea that if you just believe really hard you can make something work (but then, we are given to understand, it doesn't work, so there are coverups and lies, and glowing reports of success from the ruins, and so on). This book apparently starts from there and jumps off to some allegory or whatever about the USSR.

That's a very pretty story, it just happens to be totally wrong.

Michurin and his fruit garden predate the revolution by quite a while, and were roaring successes, even after the revolution. Michurin was a serious, dedicated, and fairly successful scientist. He believed some things about genetics which would, in the fullness of time, be proven wrong but which were by no means peculiar at the time. Michurin's name was essentially besmirched by the Soviet Science Complex, which used Michurin's name and accomplishments to promote what would ultimately be shown to be a completely wrong and crazy view of inheritance and evolution. The relevant name here is Lysenko.

Why does this matter?

Well, it is literally Colberg's job to place this book into context, to explain, to describe. He could have skipped the title entirely. But, having decided to explain the title to us, he is obliged to get it right. What he has done, in fact, is to plunge the title into further mystery. If the (successful) fruit garden is supposed to stand in for the (failed) Soviet philosophy, someone has left out some steps.

Was it Colberg, who apparently skimmed and misread the admittedly poorly written Britannica entry, and then declared himself done? If so, well, fuck him for a lazy asshole and he should get out of academia. While there is in fact a large and cozy place for this sort of shit in the academy, there ought not to be.

Was it the SPUTNIK guys who screwed it up? If so, Colberg should either ignore the title, or explain that they botched it. Since he did not, see above.

Is Michurin's garden even the actual referent here? The book talks about Stalin's personal garden, in the bits we're allowed to look at in the store. Where did Colberg come up with Michurin? One assumes that Ivan appears in the book, because otherwise Colberg (who has clearly never heard of the guy) wouldn't know to refer to him, right?

What the hell is even going on here?

We'll never know, because Colberg is sloppy and lazy. My parents, who were actual scholars, would not have recommended this man for tenure.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Male Gaze! Female Gaze!

This is going to be on the "rambling blather" end of things, not my usual masterfully tight, brilliantly argued, essays. Buckle up and drink a couple espressos to stay awake.

Not that I want to be in the business of griping about Colberg all the time, but one of my most excellent commenters reminded me about an aside in Colberg's latest that's worth pondering a bit. The relevant section is this:

From what I can tell, the idea of the female gaze is becoming more and more discussed — a much needed development, given how dominant the male gaze has been in the history of photography (and elsewhere). If I were asked on the spot to describe the female gaze I would probably say that it’s a gaze that is content with how much can be revealed by not revealing it all — unlike the male gaze that just wants it all (and that, where it uses shadows or forms, tends to be always a bit too sure of itself). The female gaze’s default never is to sexualize. Instead, it is celebratory in a way that involves the artist, the subject, and the viewer — again, unlike the male’s, whose default is predatory and whose main mode of work treats its subject as something not equal, something only good to be ogled at. That’s why the dominance of the male gaze in contemporary societies is so toxic: it excludes, and it dominates (one could argue that the neofascism that is now threatening to destroy so many Western democracies — Trump, Orban, Kaczynski, et al. – is a political manifestation of the male gaze).

This is, to an extent, merely an academician kow-towing to current trends and trotting out some vague "women are great" twaddle. But it's still worth a looksee, I think, because there are some real things here.

Male gaze as I understand it (15 minutes on wikipedia) comes from feminist criticism of cinema. It's ferociously complicated in the details and draws heavily on Freud who is completely discredited except in fields where he's still useful. But it's still, more or less obviously, a real thing. The point is that society has long prescribed pretty specific roles for men and women, pretty specific official narratives for their roles. Our cultural artifacts (movies, novels, photographs) are both driven by those social norms, and also prop them up, in a feedback loop.

The idea of male gaze can, I think, be boiled down to the ways in which these gendered social roles are revealed and supported. Women are objectified. Men get all the good tough lines, the harsh lighting, the fisticuffs. Women get soft lighting, they're sexualized, they get submissive lines, and in the end the guy gets the girl, not the other way around. The language around male gaze theory is a little rough, but it's obviously talking about a real thing.

Male gaze is associated with a stack of tropes. Hard light light on men, soft on women. Men are tough, women are soft. The camera lingers on the female body. Etc and so forth. These tropes are not the thing, any more than than hammer is the house, but they do get lumped together, and this is one of the places Colberg gets into trouble. When he gets into this business about shadows and forms, he's really out to lunch. He needs to go look at some of the pictorialists again.

Female gaze is defined in opposition to male gaze and therefore has some problems. The latter is, roughly, just a description of how things are, or at any rate were up until pretty recently. What's the opposite of gravity? Regardless, you can at least get some idea of what ideas might be present in female gaze, things like strong female roles, women getting to be in charge, men being lit with soft light and objectified, that sort of thing. There's a bunch of stuff you can do and lump under female gaze if you like, and I am on the record as being in favor of doing just that.

Colberg illustrates for us some of the trouble one has getting hold of female gaze saying, for instance, "The female gaze’s default never is to sexualize" which is actually a meaningless statement. Does it say "the female gaze does not sexualize?" No it does not, thank goodness, because that would be idiotic. No, it says that the default isn't to sexualize. What this means in real terms is that sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Now, male gaze (by definition) sexualizes. If it's not sexualizing, then it's not male gaze, it's just movie footage of something else. Does that make it female gaze? Who knows? Not me! Not Jörg!

The big area where Colberg runs in to trouble is, I think, that he's conflating authorship with gaze. Women are perfectly capable of producing work that falls under male gaze and Colberg himself just gave us some samples. The photo of Donald and Melania Trump:

Also the entire output of Leni Riefenstahl, to replay Colberg's unfortunate invocation of the name.

No doubt you could find some theorists who would argue that women are literally incapable of male gaze because they're women or whatever, but that is one of those things that is obviously just politics. It's only true if you are willing to let male gaze disintegrate into a meaningless set of mouth sounds. Annie Leibovitz obviously made at least one photograph that is virtually a prototype for the idea. Women are more prone even than men to decide that a good and worthwhile project is to photograph 100 (or 1000 or what the hell go big 10,000) women naked. To empower them, dontcha know.

It's very attractive to say that male gaze is a thing because it's just a bunch of old white guys in charge of making the movies and stuff. It's not true, though. These things are embedded in our society and, to a degree, it doesn't matter who's making the movies. Authorship no doubt helps, but it doesn't reverse things automatically.

Make gaze isn't even automatically bad. It's not as if nobody should ever portray a strong man or a sexualized woman. The problem is that we tend to not portray much else. When you're writing a film script, it's altogether too easy to just start ripping off "Casablanca" and suddenly you've got the well developed character Cliff drinking heavily and telling Robert to "play it" while he remembers his time in New Orleans with the pliant, beautiful, but not very interesting Amelia. If my daughters never saw any other movies, they'd get some pretty weird ideas that I don't want them to have. But they can watch "Casablanca" as far as I am concerned, because they watch and read all kinds of other stuff. Like LEGO DC Super Hero Girls.

So, gaze is neither the box of tropes that is often used to execute it, nor is it the authorship. It is the social construct, the manifestation of the construct in our art, our cultural artifacts, and the relationship between those artifacts and the society.

As for authorship. I definitely like female photographers more than male photographers. Partly this is because men are more prone to being nerdly. I think when you're looking at some dude's pictures, you are more likely to find that he wasted some of his finite resources on corner-to-corner sharpness and whatnot, and therefore had less energy to expend on getting the ideas right, the feel of the thing right, and so on.

It would be tempting, when looking for instance as a razor-sharp landscape, to make some noises about male obsession of possessing it all, in the mode of Colberg. To say that the sharpness is a manifestation of the probing, nay the LITERAL PENETRATION of the male INTO the now EROTICIZED landscape. This would be a bunch of shit, and would detract from the very real idea and the real problems wrapped up with the idea male gaze. What we're looking at is that men are more likely to be nerds, and Ansel told them to make it all sharp. They started fussing with their camera and forgot that the cussed scene actually feels kind of soft, windswept.

I genuinely do believe that women make photographs that look different. It's subtle, unreliable. I think it would be ferociously difficult to actually design a properly blinded test to check if it's even true. Can I pick out photographs made by women better than random? Maybe! Maybe not! How would you design a test to check?

Maybe I don't even like photographs made by women better. Maybe I can't identify them. Maybe I just happen to like a handful of photographers who happen to be women, and the rest can go hang. Don't know, and I don't think it matters much.