Monday, February 26, 2018

Fetishizing the Digital II

In the light of what I intend to write here, you could argue that I am outright contradicting some parts of what I said in the previous remarks. You could make that argument. I'm not gonna make it for you, though!

So there's another aspect to "the digital" that gets dragged out which I am going to pretend I was saving for a later post, rather than outright forgot about. That aspect is that the digital photograph is machine readable. Which isn't in and of itself a huge paradigm shift. You could probably have built something or another in Victorian era that would "read" a picture in some whacky sense or another, although I dare say nobody did.

Be that as it may, whether by a series of tiny steps or in one giant and shocking step, we do find ourselves increasingly in a world in which we, and our things, are photographed automatically and the pictures fed to a machine. Your automobile license plate might be photographed at toll points on roads or bridges, or by police officers, the numbers on the plate to be fed directly to a computer for billing or various law-enforcement searches. We either are at or on the cusp of our faces being photographed and fed into facial recognition systems constantly and for various purposes.

Something I probably won't talk about now is that much of what we shoot ourselves is also fed directly into the machine, but let's stick to the pictures machines take for the nonce.

At this point we've arrived at the usual point, in which boffins are inventing new ways to ingest photographs and process them for no reason except that boffins gotta boffin and "I have a cool idea!" The shady buggers hanging around the boffins are yoinking the ideas and deploying them for shady purposes. Extending state control, expanding the neoliberal agenda, or the fascist one, or simply trying to turn it in to (more) money.

This can be viewed, and is in fact very neatly viewed, through the ideas of index and representation.

In general, the index is in good shape. These photos are automatically shot, and index whatever they're pointed at. Probably the indexing is a bit shoddy, the quality of these pictures is likely to be lousy, so, while the facial recognition program by god gets a fully indexical thingy of your face, it's done in bad light, it's low resolution, and so on.

Hold on to this point, it's going to become important in a moment.

At this point we have something like representation, but it's of a different sort.

Rather than worrying about how the index (which lies by omission) hits the human/social mind, we worry about how it hits the opaque algorithm. The algorithm works nothing like a human mind. Despite the cries of "AI!" and "neural network!" the algorithm in fact resembles a mind in almost no meaningful way. But, like the mind, the photograph interacting with the algorithm -- call this action machine representation -- can produce real world results.

Let us not lose track of the fact that the algorithm is in general but one piece of a human/machine system. There are always people involved, someplace. The point, though, is that the picture hits the algorithm first.

A friend of mine was driving his vehicle in Pennsylvania, when some cops pulled him over. They were pretty sure the car was stolen, their license plate scanner had pulled up a "stolen car" notification. Things got tense for a bit. Then the cops fiddled with their computer, grumbled, waved guns around, fiddled some more, and then told my friend he could go. He said, because he is smart, "Wrong state, right?" and the cops grumbled some more and nodded sourly.

So what happened here is that the index was perfectly adequate. The numbers were sufficiently rendered, the missing material inherent in the photograph was not relevant. The representation sucked, though. Interestingly, in computer science we also use the word representation to describe how a real thing, like a license plate, might be summarized in a chunk of computer data. So in this case, the representations were misaligned. Either the scanner or the database failed to note the state, and my friend suffered from having a Pennsylvania plate with the same numerical component as a Virginia plate on a car that had been stolen.

The index is the photograph. It is not "Washington State AUC4915."

The photograph, which is just a picture of the ass-end of a car, hits the algorithm. The algorithm them attempts the first steps of representation, and might come up with "AUC4915" or "Washington State AUL4915" or any number of things that are not in fact my license plate number. The action of representation proceeds through the system, representations being processed, altered, and matched against a database that might contain "Virginia AUC4915" or just "AUC4915" and continues with "STOLEN" and then the human part of the system wakes up and starts waving guns around. An arrest may ensue, or not.

In general we're going to see more of this. Face recognition will yield mistaken identity, and the wrong people will be detained, sometimes arrested, and occasionally shot.

You can draw a somewhat shaky line from this notion of machine representation to the traditional one, because in these degenerate times people are doing all this stuff with neural networks, which are trained with sets of existing pre-analyzed photographs. Those photos, the so-called training sets, are analyzed by humans with all the problems of representation that go in to that. Famously, google was identifying black people as gorillas for a while, a case where the generally accepted theory is that representation informed machine representation leading to results. More generally, machine representations are designed by people.

First of all, note how neatly the old and tired theory from the late 20th century seems to be working here, once we disassociate representation from its contemporary day job of supporting identity politics.

So, really, we have three things in play here that seem relevant:
  • Representation, in the human-mind sense.
  • Machine representation, the analog of of representation with the mind replaced with the algorithm.
  • Data representation, the actual structure of database records referred to by the algorithm.

These are all in play, given that the first one tends to inform the third one and, to an extent, the second one.

So what? Who cares and why should we care?

Well, as usual, I think there's value in having things parsed out to teeny little details, because I am me. Secondly, though, this gives us a pretty firm framework for understanding the social/digital mechanisms here. A dash-mounted license plate scanner in a police cruiser isn't a singular object. There are the policemen in the car, there is the database off someplace with the list of all the stolen cars, there are the contractors who wrote all the software, and so on. There is a complex of people and machines involved which, from time to time, produces a traffic stop, an arrest.

The photograph is the input that brings the machine to life, leading to the arrest. In the process, representations collide and interact. If they interact properly, the person arrested in fact committed the crime. If they interact badly, the wrong person is arrested. Or shot.

In computing, we call this systems architecture, but in these cases we need to be roping the human beings and the raw elements of how photographs function into our architecture. We need to understand how these things work. The ideas of the photograph, the index, and the three representations above all need to be grasped at some level. The interactions between them need to be explicitly mapped out and understood if we are to understand where errors are going to creep in, and how to fix them.

And that's just to get the system to work as the designers intend.

We also have questions of whether such systems are good ideas at all. Again, a thorough understanding of what's actually going on, how it works, how it fails and how it succeeds, are useful tools in the arguments against (or for) such systems.

In terms, for instance, of license plate scanning systems we can probably argue that the ship has sailed. The license plate is explicitly designed and intended as a key into a database (a filing system), so arguments that it should not be used as such are probably going to go nowhere. Arguing, though, for correct design, as well as enabling correct design, is still in play.

Perhaps the system my friend was caught up in was designed, in part, by people in a country where there is no state designation on license plates. Perhaps in India, or The Philippines, license plates are issued at a federal level and the numerical content is indeed a unique nationwide key. Perhaps the designed a database record format that did not include the state at all, and instead simply had the plate number indicated as a UNIQUE KEY. When deployed, the American users simply shrugged it off and worked around it, but not well enough.

This would absolutely be a failure of representation, possibly in all three senses. An understanding that representation as discussed in this essay is as much social as technical could have uncover that (hypothetical) problem earlier. An understanding of index might lead to the realization that the photographs weren't good enough to reliably capture the state information, which in the USA can be a bit of a bugger. And so on.

In a way, google's problem with identifying black people as gorillas is falsely comforting. It suggests that if only we have a more diverse community of engineers training our neural networks, then the system will work perfectly.

This is untrue. Machine representation proceeds through a dizzying set of transformations and computations. Google's problem was easy to spot. The sheer complexity, and the sheer mechanicalness, of machine representation is likely to produce far more subtle problems in representation, problems that are deeply inhuman, problems we will not recognize.

Just sitting here mulling this framework around, I can imagine pretty much endless scenarios in which face recognition systems could go wrong, and I can point to exact causes of the failures.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Fetishizing the Digital

I was running through a collection of essays over here: "Photography and the Essay" which is something of a mixed bag. Several of the essays are simply weak. Daniel Blight's is just a pointless dribble of namedropping and citations that says nothing and goes nowhere. There's some others that are pretty good but fail to make obvious connections and talk about the obvious things. Down at the bottom there's a sort of point/counterpoint on 21st century photography. Maybe there is a point and a counterpoint but to be honest I was not able to discern either.

Back up.

As a mathematician I had a certain amount of mathematical philosophy shoved down my throat, which is not the same as philosophy. A mathematical philosopher might remark that there is such a thing as a cat, and that there is a word: "cat". There is also, noted in passing, the "idea of a cat" and then you can go on to build a tower "idea of the word 'cat'" and so on ad infinitum but perhaps to no particular purpose. Philosophers in general, and practitioners of the Humanities in general in these modern times, seem to take special pleasure in muddling these things up:

After all, can we truly distinguish the word "cat" from the cat itself?

they might bloviate. I respond thus: Yes.

But they do not. Instead they conflate the thing, the word for the thing, the idea of the thing, the idea of the word for the thing, the phrase meaning the idea of the word for the thing as busily as possible, and then write another 20,000 or 200,000 words of bullshit originating from the mistake. This is, basically, the first portion of Sarte's Being and Nothingness with "cat" replaced by "nothingness" so as to make it sound cooler.

But back to the correct consideration of the relevant layers of reference, the world in which we know that the cat, and the word "cat", are two different things, one of which refers to the other.

There's actually a fairly respectable collection of theory around photographs that resembles this, in useful ways. First of all, we might have a cat, and then a photograph of a cat. Embedded in the photograph we have what we call an "index" of the cat, the photograph is indexical. There is a strict correspondence between the photograph and the cat. This bit of the photo corresponds to that bit of the cat, the cat's eyes are beside one another thus on the cat and also in the photo, and so on. We can think of an "index" as an abstract thingy that refers in a specific way to the subject, the thing it "indexes". In a useful sense, it's what a photo is when you remove consideration of the paper, the gelatin, the pigments and silver, and consider only the cat-ness aspects.

An index is more or less by definition truthful, without being complete. It lies, but mainly by omission. It is truthful as far as it goes. (this is the "truth claim" of photography, which is rather chic to dismiss, but it's not really dismissable. Dismissing it is just sophistry, like dismissing "red" because some things are not red. "Red" doesn't care, it carries on.)

The index leads to the idea of representation which is, roughly, what happens when index meets eye-and-brain. It's how the photograph creates the idea of the cat in my mind, in your mind, in the collective consciousness of society. These days representation is generally only discussed in the context of people of color and of women, not because it doesn't apply equally well to cats and vases, but because nobody in the Humanities wants to talk about anything except people of color and women. Which, you know, is fine. There's some stuff to talk about there.

(representation is actually broader, it makes sense in the context of a lot of things, not just photography, but it is concerned with both truth claims of the relevant media, and how those play out as people look, or hear, or feel, so the idea of index is intricately tied up with representation as applied to photos)

There's the rough sketch of the bones of contemporary theory on photography. Much of what people do in writing these days is lay it out again, and then say things like "representations of women are, wow, so problematic. definitely a problem. we should engage with this terribly important question" and then they kind of dribble on for another few thousand words, not addressing the question, and then they're done. Off it goes to or wherever, and you stick another publication on your CV. Perhaps some day you will rise from Associate Sub-Lecturer to Assistant Sub-Lecturer, and get yourself a rise of 2 quid per annum, if you write enough of these bloody things.

I could talk about studium and punctum from Barthes but in the first place these are idiotic ideas and in the second place I have literally never seen a reference to these ideas that was not merely namedropping Barthes. These are ideas that lead nowhere, that produce no body of work, they provide the basis for exactly nothing in the way of ideas, theory, models for thinking about things. Because, let's be honest, punctum just means "that special something in a few photos, the important photos which you, being a clod, dismiss as mere snapshots, that special something that only I, Roland Barthes, being extremely sensitive, can detect."

This is not a concept that's gonna go super far as a basis for new theory.

I will leave punctum out of my thumbnail of theory, therefore, despite the fact that it turns up constantly.

Anyways. The whole index/representation thing is getting a bit stale in some people's minds, and the other big and truly modern genre is the subject of this particular essay here. That is to fetishize the digital.

The academic commentators on photography have noted two things:

First: there's a great deal of digital activity going on in the world, a sort of invisible (except to the governments) activity which controls or effects a great deal of our lives. There is banking, corporate communication, political posturing. There's social media. One of the essays referred to at the very beginning even makes the fatuous statement that this is the "real" world, which is just the sort of hyperbole calculated to impress the idiots in your class, but which just seems silly to grownups. What the author means, obviously, is merely that the digital is pervasive, important, and more or less omnipresent.

Second: photographs are digital.

Then the goal is to strive to make some connection here. First you say something like "the idea of 'index' simply isn't relevant any more" and then you say something about 1s and 0s, and say some words about networks, digital communication, and neoliberals. Then you say some words about photographs being digital. Then you silently hope that the audience doesn't notice you have completely failed to make any substantive connection. And then you pronounce the need for new paradigms, new modes of thinking, in this new world of digitalness.

Do you then propose a new paradigm, or a new mode of thinking? Good god, of course not. You go back to talking about 1s and 0s or something. Perhaps you lurch sideways into government surveillance.

This is roughly equivalent to Gene Smith attempting to make some connection between photography and Chisso, on the grounds that both are chemistry things.

The reality is that these guys don't have a clue about the digital world. I worked as a computer programmer for 25 years or something, and I never gave much of a shit about the 1s and 0s. Yeah, they're down there someplace, who cares? They might as well be ants, or 0s, 1s, and 2s, or little tubes of mercury sloshing about. It turns out that 1s and 0s work better than the others, but the entire point of the discipline of computing is to make that irrelevant.

The old stale ideas of "index" and "representation" work just fine, it turns out. They're not terrible ideas. They're kind of basic, they're pretty much baked in to opto-mechanical imaging systems.

The mysterious blob of 1s and 0s, which requires an Algorithm to turn it into an Image, which is then Ephemeral, is just as much an index as a photograph. This little cluster of 1s and 0s corresponds to that bit on the cat, and so on. The blob of 1s and 0s is as we mathematicians might say "isomorphic" to a print, because we can make one from the other, and then make the first one from the second (OK, a scan of a print won't make a perfect copy in practical terms, but one could certainly make prints and scan them perfectly, with effort. You'd probably want to use TIFF not JPEG and there would be technical considerations, blah blah blah). If there is a mechanical transformation that converts one thing, reversibly, into the other, well then stuff that's true about either one will also translate pretty well.

What's interesting is that the properties of a JPEG file, as a blob of 1s and 0s, considered as representation, are a trifle problematic. While the file is isomorphic to the print, we can't actually see it. This feels like it might be very deep, but really, it's pretty much the same thing as turning the print face down. How, essentially, is printing a JPEG file onto a piece of paper, different from the action of turning a print face up? It turns out that an index is an index even if you can't see it. Representation is tied up with the seeing of the thing which is an index. This isn't particularly new, but it's not something we thought of a lot with prints, because the operation of turning them face-up was automatic, invisible.

This feels a lot like the cat, the word "cat", the idea of a cat, and all that rot, no? But if you're tediously careful and you keep all the moving parts sorted out, you can actually use these ideas to make sense of new stuff. Like digital photography. You can answer question like "how will the digitalization of photography impact our society?" with actual thoughtful responses, because now you can see what's actually new, and what's the same old stuff.

This is actually why we invent things like "index" and "representation", not so we can throw them out wildly to impress our friends, like Hendrix smashing a guitar, but so we can use them as a method of understanding new things. Sometimes we have to modify the underlying ideas to accommodate the new thing and, often as not, we learn something new about the old thing when we do. Just like the "print face down" thing above. Occasionally you have to toss the whole thing out. Not very often, though.

The impact of the digital world isn't that photographs are somehow suddenly connected, by the alchemy of 1s and 0s, to a neoliberal agenda. The impact of digital is very specific: it renders the index less reliable, less trustworthy. It renders larger the space in which the underlying "truth claim" of photography is falsifiable, there are fewer pictures that are in fact indexical, and many more that are constructs, that are non-indexical, partially indexical, or -- and this is the really important -- less indexical than they appear to be. Doctored photos are now the norm, not the exception.

In addition, digitializing makes reproduction a lot easier, so there's a lot more of it about. Sheer volume has its impacts.

That's it. There's nothing magic in the 1s and 0s, and the fact that the essayists in contemporary photographic "theory" think there is merely shows how little they understand either of photography or of how digital things work.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

People Pictures

Another notion that I cannot shake.

I have this idea that, whatever else is or is not present in a picture of a person, you can instantly tell whether the photographer liked, disliked, or was neutral toward the subject. At least in that moment.

In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as I have noted in the past, it is instantly apparent that Walker Evans liked one of the families, and disliked the others. Amusingly, the one he liked was the one most despised by James Agee (who mostly liked the other families because he was convinced that all the women and girls wanted to have sex with him -- Agee was appalling).

Sally Mann, interestingly, strikes me as having a quite neutral attitude to her kids as she photographs them. She obviously loves her kids to bits, but somehow in that moment she seems quite distant. Not disdainful, but neutral.

Arbus seems to actively dislike her subjects.

And so on.

It's a sort of crazy notion, I cannot at all see what the mechanism would be, and yet, it seems perfectly clear to me.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Toward a New Media

The World Press Photo whatever thing is trying to make their annual competition more interesting by announcing 6 candidates for the Big Prize, and they're pretty much all just pictures of brown people in the midst of violence, or as victims of violence. The usual snowflakes are bellyaching about it, and as usual they have a point, but as usual they're clueless about solutions. Really, what John Edwin Mason wants, what Jörg Colberg wants, what Allen Murabayashi wants, is for the system to remain exactly the same, except with them in charge. And they genuinely think they'd do a better job. And they absolutely would not.

Consider the media, as embodied at the moment in World Press Photo (WPP). What they're exemplifying is the philosophy of "if it bleeds, it leads". In the same way, Facebook, twitter, instagram, all focus on giving the viewer what will engage and enthrall them in this moment. We see the same in movies, in news, in short stories. Is the trend universal, or are we just seeing blips and bumps in most media? I don't know. I do know that social media in particular has taken this general notion to what I sincerely hope is its ultimate expression.

The artist, the critic, the novelist, the reporter, all these jobs have one thing in common, in theory. That common element is that they should show us what we ought to see rather than what we want to see. When those two goals conflict, the audience will not be delighted, particularly, if you force the former upon them. Therefore there is pressure, from the audience, to show them the latter. Social media takes this to the logical conclusion, and does not even pretend to force upon you what you ought to see (except for ads) and famously permits you to easily wall yourself an echo chamber of like-minded dolts.

Then you and your idiot friends can all sit around in the dark, talking about how fine this entirely imaginary Amontillado is.

As a side note: the people most likely to use social media to link to articles about this phenomenon are also the most likely to be vigorously using those features of social media that allow them to create that echo chamber.

But to the main thrust here. It's tempting to blame the WPP's "if it bleeds it leads" on simple greed, on capitalism, or whatever. But that's not it. Socialist countries are not precisely famous for their honest news reporting. No, the trouble is that whenever any kind of central influential role turns up, a certain type is attracted to the position. These are people who are not very interested in Art, or News, or Criticism, or Writing, they are interested in Influence. This happens regardless of the market system you are laboring under.

Influential roles attract would-be Influencers to fill them. Bureaucrats.

Bureaucrats will always do certain things: They will work to expand their influence. Actually, that's pretty much the only thing they do. Bureaucrats are often unaware that this is what they're doing, and are in fact convinced that they are struggling to improve the state of whatever it is they're running. See also Universities and Yacht Clubs. Generally, bureaucrats are not, and are mystified and upset by the fact that things keep getting worse for Art, Journalism, Teaching, Boating, etc. So they hire more bureaucrats, because obviously the problem is much worse than they thought.

Back to media.

You expand influence in media and media-like roles by pleasing the audience. You may also please advertisers, or the KGB, or whomever, but among the people you must delight are included your audience. Add to this the fact that bureaucrats are, by and large, uninterested in the actual supposed role of whatever they're bureaucratting (reporting truthful news, e.g.) and you pretty much inevitably end up with people hearing some version of what they want to hear rather than what they ought to hear.

Occasionally, passionate leaders will muscle their way in to these influential roles, and there will, briefly, be an interval of truly hard hitting news. Edward R. Murrow will tell the public what they ought to hear, and the devil take the hindmost. Stieglitz will display the photographs and art he feels the public ought to see, and to hell with popularity. And so on. If they're good at it, they become storied figures. Showing people what they ought to see has echoes through the ages.

The jerks who just spew out our clickbait are innumerable, but unremembered. Which effects how we remember these things. When the only names we can recall are the passionate iconoclasts, it feels like history is largely made up of Murrows and Stieglitzes, but it's not. It's made up of Eisners and Murdochs.

The system is essentially broken. The fact that these influential roles exist at all is the problem.

I think Larry Gagosian does pretty good work gatekeeping a big chunk of the Art World. It's not all home runs, but, you know, he seems to genuinely be a guy who's interested in doing his job well, in showing what ought to be shown, not necessarily what will be popular.

Obviously there are plenty of snowflakes who would disagree. Their thesis, though, is that because Gagosian is doing a shitty job (look, everything he shows is POPULAR and EXPENSIVE, it must be shit! in an absolutely marvelous inversion of causality), that someone else, should be doing that work. Someone else should be selecting who gets to Win The Game. And, you know, the snowflakes might have a couple names they could share on that exact point.

The snowflakes who complain about the WPP competition certainly visualize themselves as one of those strong and passionate voices, they see themselves as Murrow rather than Murdoch. I am dubious. Power is corrupting, and my fairly wide experience with people who hold it makes me fear to have it. I suspect that I would find myself rather more Murdoch than Murrow. The snowflakes I have mentioned, in my judgement, would merely run their friends up regardless of any sort of actual ability. In short order, they'd run out of friends, and find themselves making new ones. New ones on the hustle. New friends with a passionate desire to succeed. In fairly short order our notional newly promoted snowflake would find himself doing lines of blow off of hooker's asses, and then the game is up.

Again, the system is essentially broken. The fact that these influential roles exist at all is the problem.

What we need, not only in journalism, but in Art, in photography, is to break the model of centralized influence.

We've tried anarchy. Supposedly flickr and instagram were going to just let us build our own models, build some sort of distributed method of finding the excellent, finding bodies of work that makes sense. What ended up happening was that clicks and likes came to dominate, and the companies behind the "new media" decided that they should, in essence, seize the reins and use our own clicks to begin force-feeding us that which we want. What we ought to see isn't going to drive any ad revenue, so eff that. Note to libertarians: So dies every one of your fantasies.

No, we need something that structurally excludes (much) influence, that is built to be bureaucrat-proof, but has some properties such that it forces what we ought to see, to read, to hear, to know, down our throats. At least, a little.

So far I have the notion that once you subscribe to something, you can't just skip stuff. Like a newspaper, you have to at least flip past things to get to other things.

You've got to pay for it. Not much, but something. Which means that it must be desirable. There has to be some cachet attached to the thing.

Whatever it is that you can subscribe to has to be user-generated, somehow. Remember, no centralized influential roles. The users are, of course, everyone. So there's some system of rewarding good behavior. It's not just "Likes" exchanged for "Likes" there needs to be some way to signal "Hated it, but god damn it made me think" which is rewarded.

I think ways for users to indicate that things are connected to each other, related in some way.

Perhaps we can learn something from Wikipedia (although I suspect that is actually just a strong and passionate personality who will one day be outmaneuvered by bureaucrats, turning Wikipedia into another cesspool).

I don't know how to do it. But I think we'd better figure it out.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Fuji X1H Review

I don't fucking care. I don't even know what the god damned thing is, except that everywhere I turn on the web today it's the thing being reviewed (or not, Thank You Kirk!). I guess it's some sort of camera. With pixels and shit.

If you do care, you're fucking stupid. Send me your money, idiot. Contact me at for my address. Be sure to give me your phone number so I can call you up and yell at you about how dumb you are.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

My Sad Project

I present for your delectation a FREE EBOOK (or, if you prefer, a do-it-yourself book kit in the form of a PDF):

Click Here for My Sad Project

This took a surprising amount of time. It is lightly copy-edited, but to be honest it contains numerous deliberate errors and so I felt that spending a lot of time rooting out the accidental ones would be perhaps wasted. The first two pages are to be printed separately, one-sided. The rest prints out double-sided, and there are a couple pages of color which you may do with as you wish.

The only error I regret is the word "spin" which should read "spine" (or, possibly, "gutter") on the first page of instructions.

My thanks to Nigel for his insightly biography (have you been reading about P.D.Q. Bach?)

Visual vs. Performing Arts

One of my many astute commenters made a remark on the previous, pointing out a conflict between one thing I've said and another thing I've said. Both pretty recent, robust, declarations, too! It got me to thinking.

The performing arts have a long tradition of teaching, all the way up to the top. The best of the best, as often as not, still take lessons. The visual arts, at least in the last century, have less of such a thing. And that's interesting, isn't it?

I don't actually know the story in the performing arts, but I've seen some movies and read some books in my life, and I can speculate. So, what follows here is some mixture of fact, fiction, and speculation. cum grano salis as the poets say. A significant part of the lifelong teaching in the performing arts surrounds the management of injuries. Refinements of technique so that one does not hurt oneself in the dance, or to come back from an injury, or to deal with the changing body.

Photography in particular finds itself outside that world, because frankly the techniques are not that complicated, and the chances of injury are fairly slim. One might take a class from someone to quickly grasp some skill, say, portrait lighting, but one does not contract a long term relationship with a teacher to maintain and manage ones technique.

But that is clearly not all of it. There are certainly elements of expressiveness, of The Art, whatever that might be, in the classes a ballet dancer takes even at the top of their game.

My sense is that these teachers are at pains to avoid disturbing the artistry of these top performers. The goal of that aspect of the lesson is not to alter the artist's conception, but to help the artist discover and execute their own vision. I even saw a very very small dose of these a million years ago when I took piano lessons. Not that I am a top performer, or even a middle one. Perhaps a moderately capable 4 year old.

In any case, if for whatever reason you have contracted with a teacher to give you a lesson, you can reasonably expect them to tell you if your work is shit. What I hope that a teacher would do, though, is give you your head to pursue it the way you want, and more or less tell you what the results are.

"That's not working" might be a response, rather than an over-the-shoulder "no no, change that, do this, stop, back up" although that will happen too, but on matters of technique.

There's probably something to be said about the way performing arts separate expression and technique. Technique can be fiddled with on the fly, which is where the "no no, back up" ought to be coming in. In the first place, this is how you prevent injury, and in the second place breadth of technique enables expression. One might not say "that bit needs to be louder" but one might say "if you do this instead of that, you'll have more control over the volume in that bit" which is a jolly subtle distinction.

Anyways, there's definitely some conflicts in my thinking right now. I have very definite beliefs which contradict one another. Will it resolve? Will I catch fire? Stay tuned! Anything could happen!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Colberg on Roger Ballen and Art

Colberg's latest bit, here, is a review of Roger Ballen's book Ballenesque which is some sort of retrospective.

Our friend opens with some really quite sharp remarks on Art and what it ought to do. While I might state things a bit differently, and have, I agree with Jörg here. It's a lead-in to his discussion of Ballen, and ends up being a sort of weird apologia in opposition to what he actually has to say about the book and the pictures.

Colberg seems to sort of indistinctly dislike Ballen, although I can't quite be even sure of that. It might just be his knee-jerk "if it's successful it must be crap" response, but I'm not sure. There's a definite tone of "Ballen is too damn headstrong" throughout, I find, which I found to be wildly offensive. Ballen is right, and Colberg is wrong: the Artist cannot spare even a moment, not an iota of energy, worrying about what other people think.

Sure, when you're learning, when you're collaborating, it's a different thing. But when you're out there, there's simply nothing for it but to roll the dice, do your thing, and see what happens. We know precisely what happens when you insist of workshopping things, and looking (and taking) feedback. You get milquetoast bullshit. We get MFA students making the least interesting books imaginable about subjects drawn from the list of Super Challenging subjects:
  • Myself. The most uninteresting subject on earth but very very safe. Nobody in academia will deny your Lived Experience.
  • Racism in America. This is officially challenging, but is among the safest subjects ever. You'll get some angry tweets, though. It's ok, literally everyone else who sees your work will fawn over you for your bravery.
  • Sexism. See above.
  • How lame Rural America is.

Ballen has the temerity to do none of these things. He's doing something quite mad.

I'm not sure what on earth Colberg is trying to say drawing lines from Ballen to Arbus, Lipper, and Gilden, other than all of them seem to have the same complete lack of interest in their subjects. He's muddling up cruel photography with photographs of a cruel world here, and it's not clear he's making much sense.

All in all, Colberg's not got a lot to say about Ballen. He starts out strong, and if one applies his comments on Art to Ballen, one ends up easily with "this stuff is Good Art" because by god it gets up in your face and expands the old brain. It's like Dali, except real, right? But then Colberg wanders into the weeds of kind of hating on the guy.

I think it's also possible that the title is a joke, Ballenesque could be a reference to arabesque, as much as it is a naming of a style.

But the first bit is very strong.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Use Your Fist

Some years ago I read that Jane Bown, legendary newsie/portraitist, used to evaluate the light by holding up her fist.

This works marvelously well. Your fist is not a face, but it has lumps and planes and pointy bits and protuberances. You can get an instant evaluation of the character of the available light if you simply hoist the thing up and really look at it. Make a fist, hold it up thumb toward your nose, and really stare at it a second.

I did some pictures of kids for a friend recently. City hall in town here has this big lobby area, with some large glass-brick panels in the face of the building, which faces due south. It might not be your classic North Light but with the glass brick it's pretty damned nice. I threw up my fist, got the feel of it, and away we went. I mean, it's 99% rapport with kids and 1% photography, but still.

Thursday, February 8, 2018


Warming up for My Sad Project as well as blowing off some steam about a largish trend in photobooks:

Artist's Statement

(On medium because I want to publish it widely, or rub some people's noses in it widely, depending on how you view it, and I hate linking to this blog)

Sunday, February 4, 2018


While on holiday, I read this piece in the New Yorker. It's a more or less standard tear-jerker junkfest, although I don't mean to minimize the suffering of the players in it.

The summary is that a young chinese boy is raised to play the violin, exhibits great technical proficiency but lacks emotion. He goes on to Facebook to do that Facebook thing (I don't quite see how it's a Tech Pioneer as such), and after a while gets diagnosed with incurable, fast moving, brain cancer. In the last few months of his life he finally breaks through and learns to play with feeling. Of course he does.

The piece is poor exploitation, of course.

But set that aside, what we have here is a young man who spent, I don't know, a decade or two, being told that his playing was shit, because he wasn't emoting. Yes, yes, technical chops, but so what? It was shit. We see in the piece that he felt Joshua Bell was prone to "over-emoting," can you imagine the hubris? Here's some guy who's been told, repeatedly and consistently by his teachers that his playing sucks because he's unemotional. This guy looks at one of the finest violinists on the planet, and says "he's over-emoting." But of course he sees the light at the end, and gives a couple of brilliant performances and so on.

Dying of brain cancer, or seeing a loved one die of it, sounds extremely unpleasant. And, I am glad that Mr. Sun ended up with some performances he was truly proud of before the end. Good for him. That doesn't detract from the remarkable hubris on display, though.

The lesson here is, I suppose, that if everyone is shouting at you to be more emotional, maybe you should pay attention.

More generally, I think the lesson is to be open, to expose yourself. If you're not pushing it to the point of discomfort, you're probably reading as robotic and closed. The medium, any medium, tends to drain emotional energy from the message. You have to put double the amount in if you want any to come out the other side.

Or something like that.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Motif, Style, Dross

In his remarks on Alec Soth, which you can read here, Darren Campion treats us to this delicious sentence: Narrative, then, is the sum of this relationship between motif and theme which, although I cannot make out what it even might mean, is delightfully weighty and evocative, isn't it? Insofar as it means anything, I think it's wrong, but that's quite a different essay.

The point is that it got me to thinking about motif and concept, and what the relationship between them is.

And that got me thinking about what motif is, and how it differs from nearby things.

In music, the motifs are pretty clear, generally. At least, the composer sees them thus. It's this bit, see? And I repeat it here, and here, there is is again upside down, and then again, and so on, right? The rest of the stuff is obviously just filler! The unsophisticated clod listening (me) might not pick the motifs out very reliably, but you can't have everything. I have this idea that motif stands out audibly in different ways, maybe easier to separate ways, but that doesn't actually matter much.

But what do I mean my motif here anyways? As usual, I'm talking about groups of pictures. A book, a portfolio, a slideshow. What I mean by motif here is the repeated idea that "stands out" in some way. The red Mustang that pops up every now and then, the way the photos of children are heavily vignetted, and so on.

In a collection of pictures, there are a bunch of things which we can lump together as visible features. The pictures are black-and-white (or color). This one is big, that one is small. This one is dark, that one is light. They're all sepia toned. And so on, on and on. These visual things cut across both the pictures and the design that contains the pictures.

Motifs are the repeated visual things which stand out.

There is some sort of a dual, or oppositional, nature here. When I make a bunch of pictures, I might stick that red Mustang into some of the pictures as a motif. You, looking at the pictures, might not particularly notice the Mustang. I assume that you're attentive enough to note it, but it might simply not stand out to you, it might just be a car in the background. Or even a car that turns up a lot, and you might mutter "that Molitor guy must have shot all this crap the same afternoon, the lazy ass."

I'm going to lump everything else visible into two other rough categories:

There's style, which is all the visible stuff which, while it might not stand out, serves to bind the collection of pictures together, to create a clear look to the whole collection (or to these subset, or that one). If the black-and-whiteness isn't standing out, or wasn't intended to stand out, it at least holds the 7 black-and-white photos on pages 20 through 25 together. I might have intended it as a motif, you might read it as style. Or vice versa. Or maybe we agree.

And then there's dross, which is everything else. It's just the miscellaneous visible stuff that doesn't function in any particular way. There's a lot of this.

As analogy with a single picture: you photograph your subject (probably a fire hydrant), and that's the important bit, and then there's the clever relationship with the shop window and the pedestrian, and then there's a bunch of junk you have to put up with. The road, the tree over there, and so on. That's the dross. Ideally it doesn't do much, or any damage to the whole, but it's not doing much of anything.

Again, what I, the artist, might classify as style, or dross, might well read to you quite differently. You might see the trees and the lug nuts that I completely ignored, and perceive therein a motif. My precious red Mustang might read to you as dross, perhaps of the worst sort, getting the way of the trees as it so often does.

Why on earth would one even care about this sort of pointless parsing of bits and pieces, anyways? Well, for starters, I am the pointless parsing of trivialities guy. But I do have a larger agenda here as well.

I am concerned with the ways in which we make that tremendous leap from a pile of visible features, to a concept, to the big idea that's supposedly buried in a body of work. At the moment, I think that the leap is based on motif. Things that stand out are the obvious starting points for this idea, and a repeated thing that stands out makes it, surely, inescapable.

The red Mustang stands out, and it's therefore notable, important. The artist must have meant something by it. Wait, there it is again, we notice. And again. What is going on here, we ask, and perhaps we begin to "get it" in some fashion.

Things which lump into style, I feel, provide the basis upon which ideas are built. There's a mood set, perhaps, a flavor, a feeling. A strong style builds a foundation, and motif propels the idea upwards and out, perhaps.

If it's not actually true, I am finding it any any rate to be a convincing bunch of BS!