Monday, April 30, 2018

The Kitsch Machine

If you gave a budget and some sort of control over policy to an architect, you would not be surprised when many of the solutions produced by that office involved building something. Replace the architect with a sailor, and boats will start to appear in the office's projects. People tend to fit the tools they have to the problems they need to solve.

When you purchase a camera, more often than not you will attempt to buy the "best" one within your constraints of budget and other preferences, which usually means that you're buying the camera with the most megapixels you can afford. Lately, less so, because everything has too many megapixels, and even the least interested consumer is starting to realize it.

Regardless, you probably know roughly how many megapixels your camera has, and you're probably roughly aware that the more you've got, the sharper your pictures will be. Or, more properly, can be. Might be. If you do the work properly.

One of the consequences of this is that people want to make sharp photographs. In general, they spent money for the sharpness. The tool they have in their hand has, still, a single Most Important figure of merit, which is how sharp the pictures it makes can be. Like the architect above, we're drawn to making sharp pictures. We know, or are rapidly taught, the importance of obtaining correct focus, of using an appropriate shutter speed, of using a suitable aperture, all in the pursuit of sharpness.

Naturally, we saw all these things in the days of film as well. Group f/64 was all over this stuff.

I think, though, in the days of film, there was more space left in the minds of photographers for the option. Many chose the route of sharpness (curse you, Ansel Adams, and your clear, accessible books). Not everyone did.

In this era, it seems to me that sharpness barely a choice. To make an unsharp photograph on purpose is as absurd as trying to sew a shirt with a knife, the tool simply doesn't fit the job.

It requires an effort of will to conceive of and shoot this picture:

Exhibit B. My camera has a feature which is widely enjoyed by other cameras. It has a cluster of focus points, which I think of as magic dots in the viewfinder which can be used to select what the camera should focus on. You can set the thing up so that the default focus point is one of them, whichever one you select. But, here's the cool thing, set it up right and you can focus on a thing, and then as the thing moves in the viewfinder the camera will follow it. The magic spot in use will follow the child, the car, the bird, as it and the camera move. Focus, ideally, will remain locked on the thing more or less whatever it does.

Once you discover this feature, and learn how it works, you're likely to start thinking about ways to use it. It might occur to you to go to a racetrack, just to shoot cars, Because, your camera can do that. I tried to use it with kids, but it turns out that it can't maintain focus on children that have left the frame, which they always do, so it's really more of a sports-mode feature.

I have no solid read on how many people went and spent a bunch of time shooting sports of various sorts because their Nikon camera was particularly good at following cars and players around, but the answer is unquestionably more than zero.

Compare the modern camera with the ancient. The view cameras and box cameras of yore were simple devices for projecting light onto a rectangle of film. The design made little to no judgement about focus, about sharpness, about really anything. Project light however you want, it's up to you.

The modern camera adds to this a motley array of conveniences which, in their design, implicitly judge. They meter tells you what your exposure ought to be. The autofocus module tells you that your focus should be sharp. Some cameras will warn you if they think your shutter speed is too low. The design drives toward a common singular goal of the sharp and colorful photograph, whatever the circumstance. Of course, this is because that's what the market wants. It is in general what people want: a sharp and colorful representation of what's in front of the frame.

The design has enshrined this general preference of the buying public as the ne plus ultra, as the actual defining characteristic of a good photograph. The general preference of the public has become the standard by which people who ought to know better (serious photographers, whatever that means) judge pictures. Arguably, the modern camera is literally a kitsch machine.

Say what you will about my bamboo picture, you're unlikely to describe it as kitsch.

I do know that we have way too many pictures of pee-wee football players in perfect focus, and way too many pictures of brightly logoed cars whizzing by a camera on a racetrack that looks like any other racetrack in the world.

Now, for many people it appears that this is photography: learning the capabilities of the machine, and developing the skills necessary to use those capabilities to the utmost. This is a perfectly good hobby, and I don't grudge it to anyone.

It's a bit like jigsaw puzzles (and I love jigsaw puzzles, to the extent that you probably should keep me away from them since I cannot stop once I start assembling one). Every camera presents new challenges, new features that can be learned, and in the end you get a picture that shows off your success with the new one.

It doesn't produce pictures that are interesting to look at, except as evidence of the hobbyist's degree of success, and I don't care about anyone's panning skills, or their ability to correctly use Back Button Focus.

It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, nobody really wants to look at the picture you made at the end. It's just kitschy evidence that you can perform a task.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Against "Craft"

Perhaps I've been reading too much LuLa lately, but it strikes me that we're constantly subjected to a drumbeat based on the notion of "the craft of photography." You can probably visualize the old bearded guy with the meaty, moist, lips rambling on tediously about "crahft" and reminiscing about the darkroom and The Fine Print.

Now, to be sure, I am not opposed to craft as a general idea. Doing a decent job at taking and printing pictures is great, and far be it from me to judge someone who wants to devote what seem to be absurd efforts to getting the smallest details Just So. It's your Art, make it the way you want it to be.

The trouble is that "crahft" is used to smuggle in a bunch of unsavory stuff, and it's that stuff I object to.

The first thing is that "crahft" discussions usually lead more or less directly to tools, and we learn about how craftsmen, true craftsmen, insist on the very best tools. Craft, after all, is about precision, attention to detail, an obsession with the smallest elements. Which, to an extent, is true. Except for the part about the very best tools.

While there are certainly craftsmen who have carefully organized shops filled with the best tools, this more accurately describes the moneyed dilettante. More often than not, a proper craftsman's shop will look like a shed into which garbage has been shoved for 30 years. Sally Mann, in a short film attached to her current show, describes with evident delight how she broke her ground glass, and now uses a piece of ordinary clear glass which she has covered with scotch tape. I am not making this up. I saw this object in the film. Now that's a craftsman.

So, when some old bugger with a long white beard and thick moist lips slips inevitably from "crahft" to discussion of how important it is to have the latest Sony A17 WhateverTheFuckIII, he's pulling a fast one. Either he doesn't actually know anything about "crahft" in the first place (likely), or he's selling something (probably), or he's justifying his own recent purchase of some silly gizmo (almost certainly).

Onwards to the second thing smuggled in with the discussion of craft.

If it's craft and highly technical and you need the best tools then surely it is also very hard. Right?

It's not.

I know how to do a lot of things toleraby well. I can bake a loaf of sourdough bread, I can cut dovetails, I can paint a wall, I can write, illustrate, and bind a book. Some of these things are harder than photography. None of them is easier.

Photography is pretty easy. Sure, you can work away at it, and get really really good at it (which I am not, particularly) and things come more smoothly and easily, and you get to the right answers faster than I do. Just like anything, you can always expend effort and get better. Just because you spent 1000 hours learning how to light and are now truly, legitimately, really good at it, doesn't mean that it's inherently hard. If you'd spent those hours on making cakes, you'd be damned good at making cakes. If you'd spent that time learning how to cut dovetails, well, let's be honest, you probably still wouldn't be that good at cutting dovetails unless you're some kind of dovetail savant.

The old bugger talking about "crahft" might not be selling a WunderCamera 2000, he might be selling you a workshop.

I print about as well as I do a bunch of other things, which is to say, "not bad, not brilliant, but not bad". I came into photography in the glory days of roll film, when the best emulsions ever were being introduced, when multigrade papers were getting really good (another thing: Sally Mann uses Ilford MG, so there) and so on. I can find my way around a darkroom, and honestly, it's not that hard. See above.

These days, almost nobody wants to go back to the darkroom. There's a lot of excuses, but the answer underlying it all is that digital is a hell of a lot easier.

Back in ye olde wet plate dayes, sure, there was some serious technical stuff, some real physical skills to master. By the time I started in, if you could follow simple recipes, you could shoot, develop, print, just fine. At least black and white. And now things are much much easier.

It's just not that hard. The degree-of-difficulty has been steadily trending downward since 1840, and we've reached the point where anyone can do it.

So, when someone starts talking about "craft", or worse, "crahft", just tune out. No need to be mean about it, but you don't have to pay attention either.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Gear Gear Gear Gear Gear

Almost on cue after my previous remarks we find this piece up on LuLa: The "Real" Factor. It's members only, but don't worry, the text is just a rehash of Ming Thein's "transparency" argument for why he needs a bajillion megapixels, except Harvey calls is "real factor" and uses less pseudo-academic language.

You can look at the pictures whether you are a member or not. These are pictures that Harvey claims illustrates this essential reality he's achieved in an extremely small number of pictures in his career. He talks about sharpness, color, and tonal rendition. Well, he's got 4 criteria, but sharpness is two of them.

So, look at his pictures and judge if they look "real." I'll give you my answer in a moment.



Nope. The colors are absurd, the shadows are ridiculous, and so on. These are highly marketable, highly stylized, kitsch. Harvey is an award winning photographer, and of that I have no doubt. This sort of thing attracts blue ribbons like crazy, if it's well executed, and placed in the right venues. I am certain Harvey executes and places them with consummate skill.

This entire concept of "real" or "transparent" is fundamentally flawed. I've written about it before.

In that piece I go on a bit about how a photograph is in no way going to literally fool anyone into thinking that it is "real", that it is a transparent window into the scene. Then I get sidetracked into Impressionism (for good reason).

Of course the photo won't fool anyone. And of course a very very sharp and detailed photograph does not particularly mimic how we see. We see rather blurry little bits and pieces, and then our brain invents a great deal of material to fill in the blanks.

I guess there is an argument that the real world is very very detailed, and that therefore a very very detailed photograph, when "seen", will better mimic the experience of "seeing" the real world. This doesn't explain Harvey's boosted shadows (which are emulating NOT the real world, but rather the way we apprehend it, adjusting our eyes to the darkness and penetrating the shadows, adjusting back for the brighter areas). This doesn't explain Harvey's boosted colors, which are pure impressionism.

Harvey's text makes it pretty clear to me that he's not sure if he's being an Impressionist, or a Realist. While you perhaps could navigate some compromise position between the two, to my eye, he does not.

While I am certain that Harvey's pictures are exactly the way he wants them to be, his philosophical basis for his choices strikes me as flawed. On the one hand, he elevates one aspect (sharpness) because it emulates reality and therefore will be seen as real, but on the other hand he fiddles with color and tone to represent it as it would be seen in the real world.

The truth is that we apprehend photographs and the real world quite differently. Depending on how big the print or screen, we do more or less scanning. We never have to refocus, things that are "far away" are not. We generally do not have to adjust our pupils for light (although it's possible that someone will build, or has built, some crazily high contrast screen, it's not generally the case).

While I'm not going to particularly begrudge someone their megapixels, I think it behooves us to understand what the megapixels are actually doing. They are not, in particular, making your patently unreal object (photograph) look real.

My experience with "sharp" photos versus "not sharp" photos is that the former do tend to focus the attention on the subject matter, while the latter tend to focus attention on the photograph itself. In that sense, perhaps, a certain transparency is present? I'm not sure if more sharpness produces more of this effect, to be honest. It feels to me as if, once you get to the standard acceptable sharpness, any further detail doesn't really do much. If anything, it creates an impression of a sharp photograph and, depending on how it's handled, risks drawing attention away from the subject matter and back to the photographic object itself.

Groping my way forward here, it strikes me that there is a sort of envelope of what a "normal photo" looks like, about so and so sharp, colors about like that, and so on. Black and white photos can also appear "normal" at least for some of us (younger people seem to be put off by them).

Inside the envelope of normalcy, the subject matter dominates. Outside this envelope of normalcy, the photo-as-object begins to assert itself.

Harvey Stearns photographs strike me as near the edge of that envelope. Stick them up next to a bunch of my crap and they will look completely crazy. Stick them up in a hotel lobby with a bunch of other candy-colored landscapes, and they will look perfectly normal. Presumably, in that context, they would look 'real" in some reasonable sense. Not, I maintain, because the color science in the cameras is particularly awesome, or because there are so many pixels, but merely because the pictures look "normal" and therefore the photo-as-object intrudes as little as possible.

All in all, whenever I see one of these transparent apologias for "why I have to keep buying the latest camera" I find the whole thing exhausting, but always want to rouse myself to respond. And, from time to time, I do.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Just Stop!

Mike over at ToP has a post up which you can read here in which he talks about missing photography.

Now, to be fair, Mike is in a business. He writes about photography for a living, online, and that basically means that he has to bend a knee now and then to the gearhead. If you want clicks, you gotta talk about equipment, toys, software. But, Mike is talking about something that's more generally applicable. If you feel sometimes like Mike, my advice is: Just Stop.

You don't have to buy a new camera, a new Pocket Wizard, a new strap. You don't even have to know about these things. You don't have to read about this things (unless, like Mike, you write about photography for an online audience, for money).

In fact, it's harmful to spend much effort on these things. You can spend 6 months "mastering" a new thing, only to find that for your kind of photography, what you really need is a few more cross-type focus points, so, damn it, now you have to buy the new new thing and spend six months mastering that.

You don't have to. People used to manual focus the things you "need" the better auto-focus module for, you can probably make the thing you just bought work.

You don't even have to "master" the thing you have now. You only, really, need to find one or two ways to use it that are good enough for whatever pictures you want to take. I own an 8 year old bottom of the line Nikon, and I still don't know half of what it does, and I don't care. I spent some time drinking with an award winning photojournalist who worked with a "Canon 1-something, I dunno what" that he used exclusively in manual. He knew one way to make it work for him, and that was enough.

Time spent reading reviews, time spent monkeying around inside your camera's manual, time spent "testing" and "mastering" this feature and that, this is all time spent not taking the pictures you want to take. It's just a distraction. Just Stop It.

Now, distractions are not all bad. Sometimes we need a mental break, something fun to do to take our mind off the problem at hand. Maybe dorking around with metering modes is a good way to free your unconscious for an afternoon. Ok, fair enough. Maybe you'll even learn a useful thing, maybe not. Maybe you really do want to make something that requires a different camera or a different lens, in which case a little research would fit in.

The people who do really good work are, as often as not, almost but not quite completely stopped on the gear acquisition train. Every now and then they add something new to the quiver, but mostly they're working with what they've got and have been for years. There are exceptions, of course. A few really capable people are also gear buying maniacs, and a few haven't budged since 1962. Most, though, move very slowly and surely through the acquisition of new (or old) tools and methods. A sort of peripheral vision, keeping tabs on what's out there, what's possible, but without too much interest. A little testing now and then, and, more rarely, a new tool taken up.

Ming Thein and Kirk Tuck both talk about "sufficiency." The latter is currently on a journey in which he appears to be learning that "sufficiency" is available on a much larger collection of cameras than is commonly thought. God damn near all of them, I'm starting to think. Thein has somewhat different ideas.

Me, I think that "sufficiency" can be found with god damn near all of them.

There was an obnoxious asshole I ran across once (no, not me, not this time) who explained that you don't actually need a billion millimeter lens for shooting, say, wild birds. At least not if you work at it. He showed off some startling pictures of small birds taken with a 50mm lens. He's just worked out how to get Really Close. He may have been obnoxious and stupid, but that single remark was worth the price of admission. You can do a lot more with the gear you have than you think, if you just work at it harder.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Lead with the Idea

I think something every photographer struggles with is this: My pictures look like everyone else's (or like that person's). I've talked about it, albeit in the distant past. At that time, I made the remark that while all pictures have been, in some sense, already taken, not every picture has been placed next to every other picture.

This leads me down two separate paths. The first is that it is in fact not necessary that your pictures look like someone else's. Sally Mann makes pictures that look different, because she makes aesthetic choices that would strike virtually all other photographers as completely insane. Many of her pictures look like a horrible mistake, or just rotten judgement. It is only when you assemble this battalion of catastrophe that it begins to fall together into something.

The second path is that it doesn't matter if your pictures look kind of like someone else's, but there is an If here. And it's a pretty big one.

Before I get to that, I will update on my P52 project: Languishing. I have discovered, again, that I am unfit to work in this way. By starting from pictures, and searching for the idea, I got only kind of bland ideas that I had no particular will to pursue. The best ideas were watered down versions of ideas I am already pursuing in other ways. For me, at any rate, walking around with the camera and looking for something to make of the pictures simply does not work. Or at any rate it does not work as well as starting from something I feel some real passion for.

Sally Mann, again. The work I saw in DC, "A Thousand Crossings" is in some sense a remix of work she already did, for a variety of reasons, with a variety of ideas. What I perceive as the core of the success here, though, is that all those various ideas sprang from a common place, Mann's love for and relationship with The South. There was, underneath Immediate Family, underneath Proud Flesh, underneath Battlefields, an abiding love and a complex set of emotions toward The South, and it is this that she extracted from the earlier work. Notice that Still Time, At Twelve and much of the more macabre death-related material does not appear (for example, there are probably other swatches of her oeuvre missing as well). That work did not share that common underlying theme.

So, the work was not particularly made with a conscious connection to the idea that eventually came to be the core of the thing I saw. But that passion was there, tucked away, supporting.

I think that really good work often (always?) comes from such wellsprings. I think, in the end, the best work is driven by some underlying passion, something that the artist deeply believes, that the artist is fascinated or obsessed with. The artist may or may not be conscious of it.

This is the big If referred to above.

If your pictures look like everyone else's, don't worry about it. Worry about whether there's any fire in your own belly. If you're just walking around taking pictures that are vaguely interesting, well, so be it. Perhaps you're honing some skills.

If you're just walking around taking pictures which you find yourself weirdly in love with, well, maybe there's some passion. Don't force it, but it might be worthwhile gently teasing it out into the open so you know where you're going. Or maybe you'll archive the pictures and find them again in a decade or two and it will burst upon you like a thunderstorm what you were actually doing.

A depressingly common case among artists seems to be walking around taking pictures that support some thesis the artist doesn't much care about, but which is in vogue. This work isn't very strong either, but it looks strong to the Art Community because it supports a chic thesis.

If you're driven by passion already, great. You're ahead of the game.

No matter how you slice it, I think that if there is a passion, a love, an obsession somewhere inside you as you're making your pictures, it simply doesn't matter if they look like someone else's, or like nobody else's. It doesn't matter if they're sharp or blurry or dark or botched. As long as they're the right thing, as long as they feed that fire, your work has a shot at coming together into something distinct and valuable.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Few More Random Notes about Sally Mann

There are a handful of other observations I want to make, which didn't fit into any sort of "review" framework.

The first is something you're unlikely to notice in other showings of her recent exhibition, but in the Washington DC show the audience was almost exclusively white with a few asians, and the guards standing around directing people and keeping people from touching the pictures were 100% black. Not mostly black, every single one was black. In fact, all of the security personnel in the National Art Gallery are black, as far as I observed.

Washington DC is a town in the South of the USA, at least in a sense. It is largely African-American. There is a sort of existing population, that is largely black, and a more transient and affluent population of politicos and bureaucrats (and, of course, masses of tourists) who are almost exclusively white. These lines are not absolutely strict, of course, but the population demographics are extremely distinct.

It was telling to have right in our face the reality of the USA so lovingly depicted in the photos. I have to wonder what percentage of the attendees noticed this.

The second random note is this. These two photos both appear in the show:

The first one is the riverbank where Emmett Till's body washed up. The second is a picture of Emmett Mann and his family digging and playing in the mud along a different river.

This is a coincidence. These pictures were made 15-20 years apart, the provenance of each picture is well known, and (given that provenance) I don't see any real way that one could have been deliberately built to look like the other. Two Emmetts, two rivers, two ditches. Funny, that. I dare say Mann has noticed this too. I wonder what she thinks about it.

The third note is that the missing picture of Emmett Mann at the end of the show does appear in the show catalog. Which, in a way, is nice because we get to see it. I don't know if they simply ran out of space, or if Mann made a late change to what she was willing to hang, or a bit of both, or something else entirely. But there it is.

The show catalog, by the way, as I have mentioned(?), is excellent and inexpensive. The essays are by and large crashingly boring, navigating that worst possible course between academic and accessible. I guess someone's got to have a whack at Explaining Sally Mann in one of these things. Of the multiple essays I have been bored into stopping on all but one of them. They're not bad as such, they're just far too long, they're basically kind of dull, and many of them are unconnected to the pictures in hand. We get a lot of stuff on Sally Mann, we get a lot of stuff on Wet Plate, but not too much on what the hell Mann is on about here.

It's worth it just for the pictures, though.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Thousand Crossings, the Sekrit Decoder Ring

As long-time readers know, I am very interested in how multi-picture presentations are constructed. So, when I was at the Sally Mann, I noticed certain things and made some fairly detailed notes. In this bit I will discuss what I observed! It might be of interest to you if you're planning a book or an exhibition which has more than a single theme. If you're not, well, maybe skip this one. I'll get pretty detailed, and probably will be "seeing" things that are, well, not necessarily there.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Show Review: Sally Mann, A Thousand Crossings

The executive summary is: go see this show if humanly possible. With the caveat that it is Art and you need to be open to that. If you go in with some thickheaded photographer's eye getting all judgey about sharpness or technique (Mann is a better technician than you are, shush), you will be disappointed, and you will miss the point. Ditto if you enter all fascinated by collodion processes.

The curators will try to distract you with chatter about process in a couple of the show elements. Ignore the movies, at least initially. One is a distraction, and the other two are interesting as codas, but not integral to the show.

The show travels, and here are the other venues:

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem
        June 30–September 23, 2018
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
        November 20, 2018–February 10, 2019
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
        March 3–May 27, 2019
Jeu de Paume, Paris
        June 17–September 22, 2019
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
        October 19, 2019–January 12, 2020

The catalog, at $45, is an insane bargain. It reproduces the show in full, I think, and contains a lot of other pictures and a tremendous amount of commentary some of which is, I assume, interesting after a fashion. I admit there's a certain amount of droning on about wet plate processes, as if that mattered. But the pictures are excellent and the book is enormous.

Further discussion "after the jump" as they say,

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings

I've just had a quick walk-through of the Sally Mann at the National Art Gallery, more to come.

This is a public service announcement, though. Go see this.

If you're interested in the kinds of statements and explorations photography can do, this is not to be missed. This is a more nuanced, more coherent, statement than any of the books I've seen from Mrs. Mann, and she's done some mighty fine books.

If you have been thinking "hmm, maybe" the answer is "yes, definitely." If Mann is at all your cup of tea, this is worth getting on a plane.

It's political, it's personal, it's a force of nature. It's in some sense a retrospective, but it pulls things together and says some stuff. It's not just a greatest hits show, at all, although it has some of the greatest hits on it.

See it if you possibly can. If you can't, at least buy the catalog. The show strikes me (after a quick skim of both book and show) better. Fewer words and I think I like the way it's put together better. But the book is also good.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Trip to DC

As noted earlier, I will be in Washington DC on vacation this week. So, no blog posts, but I swear I'm thinking of stuff. Like, what could I actually tell someone that might be useful, if they showed me a picture?

Drop me an email if you want to hang out. I'll be in town mainly Wednesday and Thursday, checking out the Sally Mann at the National Art Gallery.

If you think it might be a good time to rob my house and see if there's anything of value that my kids haven't busted yet, be advised that my wife and the 80 pound pit bull mix are still home. I dunno what the dog would do to an intruder, probably nothing. She's very lazy. But she's still a 80 pound pit bull mix, so, you know, take your chances.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

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

Because M. Carnet's work delights me, and because he honors me by keeping me up to date on projects which he judges will be to my taste, I quote a comment he left on a somewhat earlier post, referring to his project The promise of a better world?. Because I think you should know this as well.

The serie is no more in "work in progress" section ! ;-) I just added 3 more pictures and the serie won't be touch anymore. We can consider it as "completed". Or may's the first part of a trilogy ? ;-)