Monday, May 28, 2018

Critique: Yea or Nay?

I'm on the record as believing that no artist should ever pay the slightest attention to any commentary on their work.

I am also on the record as believing that an artist should definitely listen to what people say about the work.

So. Yeah. People have even noticed this.

In what follows I'm going to talk about what is commonly called "critique" as, instead, "review" because I want to avoid confusion with criticism, which is to my mind something quite different. So, the model goes: you show someone some work, and they offer you "review" in reply, addressed specifically to you, regarding specifically the work they have just seen.

It seems to be that there are really two distinct axes to what you might observe in these reviews. The first is a personal response:

"Great shot!"
"That model is super hot!"
"What a beautiful castle!"
"That is an insightful critique of Nationalism!"

Buried in here is, as often as not, a purely social function. Here is where we see the brisk trade in ego strokes, we see expressions of friendship -- or enmity, we see admiration -- or detestation -- of the subject matter, and we even see something of what I might consider criticism.

Nowhere on this axis do we find suggestions, or attempts to teach.

That's the other axis. That's where we find suggestions, things the photographer might have, or might yet, do differently. This is where we find the admonitions to lower the light a few inches, to clone out the leaf, to shoot at a different time of day.

On this axis there is inevitably an element of a power play. A question inevitably present in the reviewer's mind is "will they do it?" and the corresponding question "ought I do it?" will occur to the reviewee.

The most dangerous, and most common, suggestions will concern post-processing. "Clone out the seam" is many things, among them a direct challenge: Go do it now, and show me the result. There's a good chance the reviewee will have Lightroom of Photoshop or whatever up right now, and can do it immediately. If they do, they will likely be rewarded with ego strokes, and will be given more instructions to follow.

This is natural. We are all of us delighted when someone takes our suggestion. It's evidence that we are respected, that we are to be obeyed. It's evidence of our power. The very next thing we are likely to do is test the limits of that power, that respect, that obedience. That looks great! I think maybe crop a little off the left to balance the frame? is going to be the very next thing we try out.

The reviewee is developing a habit of obedience, of pleasing the viewer by complying.

This is terrible.

It is a process vastly enhanced by the modern digital workflow. Vast arrays of changes are a few clicks away. It's easy to comply and to get your attaboy reward. It is the most natural thing in the world to fall into a loop of review, feedback, and compliance. Once they've got you cloning stuff out and adjusting color balance on command, you're a short step away from putting the lights where they tell you to and shooting the subjects they like.

To be fair, this has always been with us. Back in the Dayes of Yore, though, review was offered on wet prints, proofs if not final results, and the reviewee naturally had a certain amount of resistance. Compliance was simply more difficult and time consuming. There was time for contemplation, time to digest and internalize the suggestions. Time to synthesize several suggestions into a coherent whole, rather than simply knocking them off obediently, one by one.

This, really, is the crux of the matter. Specific suggestions for what the photographer could have, or yet could, do, need to be digested and internalized. Ultimately the reviewee needs to please themselves first, and the reviewer, well, perhaps never. The reviewee needs time, emotional distance, to do this work, time and distance that are often simply not available in the hurly-burly world of digital/online/media.

The first axis of review I mentioned, the personal response, is less problematic. It contains no particular actionable advice, and so won't necessarily lead to a cycle of obedience. It can contain rewards and punishments, which drive the cycle, though.

I have no particular problem with Art made exclusively for the Artist, that can be a fine thing. If, as many of us do, you harbor at least some vague notion of touching other people with your Art, you do need some kind of connection, communication, contact, with the people of the world. And yet, you cannot obey them, you cannot seek particularly to please the people of the world without losing your own way. The challenge is to balance the opposing needs: to make contact, and to retain self-reliance.

What does this all mean? I think it means that we should take care in how we offer review, in how we seek it out, and how we accept it.

Show, as far as possible, finished work.

Offer, as far as possible, generalities rather than specific actions to be taken.

As far as possible, take time to digest. Commit to not placing hand to mouse for, say, 24 hours, and then do so with the intent to serve your own impulse, your own impression, your own idea, first.

Friday, May 25, 2018

I Don't Like Cameras

There it is. I don't like cameras.

Well that's not entirely true. I like fiddling around with precision equipment bristling with buttons and dials as much as the next fellow. I have in the past enjoyed testing these things, working out the challenges of how one might squeeze sharpness out of the lens and so on.

But as actual picture making tools, I don't like them much.

I find that I separate the two tasks of fiddling with the camera, and of taking a picture. The two are almost unrelated, and when they do collide, it's not fun, it's frustrating. On the best days, I am sufficiently competent to avoid having to do any conscious fiddling, so the camera is mostly not in the way. Other than physically. On the bad days, when some damned setting or another is in the wrong place, or I've forgotten which way the lens turns, or whatever, the camera and all its buttons and dials is merely an impediment.

I get the impression that for some people there is real pleasure in blending the two activities. Smoothly dialing in just the right set of parameters for the situation at hand with a swift sequence of motions, like a small boy solving a Rubik's Cube, and then BAM nailing that picture of the great blue heron taking off, I suppose I can imagine, kind of, the pleasure inherent in that. But in real life, I haven't much interest in Rubik's Cubes either.

I just don't like cameras very much.

Saves me a lot of money.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Art's Easy

Art is easy.

All you have to do, really, is look inside yourself and find some sort of emotion, idea, a feeling, something, of roughly galactic mass. Then you drag that out where you can see it.

Then, by a process I can tell you nothing about because you must discover it yourself, except that it will involve astronomical amounts of effort, you translate that galactic mass of whatever-it-is which is meaningful only to you, in to something that might be accessible to others.

I was watching a Sally Mann interview (I swear to God I do not do this all that often, just every now and then) in which she, as she often does, insists that she possesses not one scrap of real talent or genius, or even technical skill. She chalks it all up to luck and a lot of trying.

While I may have a few quibbles with Mrs. Mann on the first couple of points, it is worth noting that the really great artists work like rented mules. Mozart, who Mrs. Mann cites as an example of actual genius, was certainly a party boy. Lazy and incompetent. Still, he worked endlessly when it came to writing down music. In a working life of something like 20 years he wrote something like 200 hours of completed music, arranged, orchestrated, often with vocal parts and so on. At a wild guess, this works out to something like 1000 pages of music per year. Granted, it seems to have come into his head fully formed, so in a sense all he had to do was write it down.

Still, no matter how you slice it, Mozart's brief career involved a shocking amount of simple dumb labor.

There was evidently a famous rock climber, one of the early greats of Big Wall climbing, name of Warren Harding. He was one of the team that first climbed El Capitan in Yosemite, an ascent that took 27 days. Nnngh. On a later ascent on a different route, also many days in length, he and his partner seem to have finished the last couple of days without food or water. Possibly I mis-read it, and they had water.

Regardless, Harding's main useful trait seems to have been simply endurance. Endurance being useless without it, one can assume that he was also staggeringly stubborn. He simply wasn't a particularly good climber. Better than me I assume, but compared with his contemporaries, not top drawer at all. But he could really hang in there.

Harding, according to Wikipedia, related a story about climbing with an extremely skilled and technically competent British fellow who at one point exclaimed in frustration, "My GOD, Harding, you can't do anything!" to which Harding claims to have replied, "I know! But I can do it forever!"

And that, in a way, perhaps, is what Art is about in the end.

It's easy to start something. Much harder to finish it. And maybe, just maybe, the harder it is to finish, the better it is. Sometimes.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Photographing People

Just a short update, I think. I've been busy with many things.

One of the things is work on a project that has lain fallow a while, because I couldn't figure out how to finish it. Eventually I realized that the way forward (well, one of the ways forward, and the one that works for me) is to interview and photograph people. So, yeah, pretty much getting right up close to people, interacting in several ways, and so on. I actually have an audio recording device, and a camera, so it's pretty invasive.

I've been working on people I know or kind of know, or at least have exchanged words with. They need to be young, so there's at least a 20 year age difference which honestly means that I don't know them that well even if I know them some.

So, it's a bit fraught, a bit stressful. I have to screw up my courage.

But it's going well. Thankfully, the pictures don't need to be anything more than mug shots. I am having trouble remembering that I need copy space, but thankfully I have a habit of framing too loosely anyways, so there's that.

Hope to have something to show off in a week or so.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Modern Pictorialists

I am inspired here by a recent article on Luminous Landscape: A Moment of Clarity which I think is members-only, but you can still look at the pictures. I will, as an aside, remark that despite the title and the pictures it is not about simply slamming the Clarity Slider all the way to 11.

No, the piece is about a technique in which you nail your camera down firmly and then take a bunch of pictures of the same thing, doing the usual HDR dance of multiple exposures to capture loads of dynamic range, and then more pictures to get dramatic lighting, and then layering it all together in photoshop to produce a composite. The line that caught my eye was "Skies can be taken anywhere and dropped in" which is a classic bit of Pictorialism (against which the Pictorialist Emerson railed at thunderous length, to be sure). The result is, by the way, invariably a sky that looks pretty good but doesn't quite work. To my eye, David's pictures look like composites, and I think it's because the light doesn't quite work. It's close, but not perfect.

This sparked a memory of a visual artist and photographer who gets talked up a bit here and there, Antti Karppinen who has a variety of weird techniques in his composites, notably hue-matching various random elements. Which certainly creates a strong unifying force, but makes the results look ridiculously fake (albeit very painterly). Note, for instance, places where someone's skin tone is actually the same hue (although different values) as the wall behind them. Say what? That's just odd. Again, this strikes me as philosophically very Pictorialist.

But let's back up a bit and think about Pictorialism more.

In these degenerate times we think of it as mainly just scratching negatives and mashing on gum-bichromate prints until they look like lousy paintings. Maybe a bit of soft focus thrown in for good measure.

Pictorialism is, though, much more than that. It is the idea that photographs might usefully be designed to look like paintings. It is a set of techniques devised for accomplishing that. It is Impressionism re-cast in photographic terms, the idea that the photograph should "give the impression of" whatever you're trying to depict. It is the idea that the photograph should not precisely reproduce the world, but that it should re-create the experience of seeing that world.

This brings us naturally around to a completely different thread of Modern Pictorialism, namely Sally Mann.

I think this reveals an interesting bifurcation in the ideas that made up Pictorialism.

While people like Antti and David are, essentially, using a set of techniques to produce pictures that look cool, people like Sally Mann are using an almost 100% disjoint set of techniques, also recognizably Pictorialist, to make pictures which are.. something else. Perhaps Expressionist. Which overlaps, as nearly as I can tell, with Impressionist but which isn't quite the same thing.

This, I think, faithfully recreates the scope of the original Pictorialist movement.

On the one hand we have work that is, well, how to put this kindly: conceptually thin? Yes yes, I get that it's Cupid and she must be Artemis, but what's the point? Is it really just to cram in classical allusions? I'm going to rudely lump Antti and David in here. Overwrought, in a fairly literal sense, kind of twee. One of more sort of thin ideas, mainly just visual ideas, thrown down onto the page into what boils down to a fairly fake looking pastiche. Cool as hell, but not really something you're going to spend a lot of time with unless you're trying to deconstruct the photoshop methods used to make it.

On the other hand, we have conceptually fairly rich material. Usually less overtly over-worked, presumably because in general when you've got actual ideas and emotional impacts to make, you spend less time screwing around trying to mashing meaning and weight in with your fists.

In a very real sense, I think we're looking at a case of same as it ever was here. It's tempting to, again, throw the baby out with the bathwater and insist that only Straight Photography is worthy, and we certainly see an exuberent school of that line of thinking.

Perhaps, though, we could strike a path based not on the methods and "the look" of the thing, but rather on whether or not the artist is successful in imbuing the work with something worth being imbued with.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Hi Jörg

So take a gander at Jörg Colberg's latest, which is playing very well with the "woke" art community, right over here: "Picturesque Photography" and then look me in the eye and tell me that our friend isn't reading my blog. So, hi Jörg, glad you can find some ideas here you can use.

It would play a lot better if his indictment didn't apply pretty much just as well to him as it does to lots of other people. Much of the tripe he's praised roundly in the last few months falls under exactly the same aegis.

As a nice young woman I spoke to on Wednesday said, "It's like Orientalism, but for the midwest" and while Jörg may be slightly less guilty of it than some, he's certainly guilty.

Friday, May 4, 2018


Let's suppose that you're photographing some basically human things. So, we're setting aside Landscapes, Abstracts, Still Lifes, Macro Photos of Bugs, and so on. This is a lot of stuff, to be sure. But let's suppose you're shooting Street, or Documentary, or something like that.

The essential hurdle photographers run in to here is People. Can you, or Can You Not, photograph people from up close and personal?

People have a sort of bubble around them, I imagine it shaped a bit like this:

The edges of the bubble are vague, the size and the fuzziness are personal and contextual. The point is that the closer you get to someone, the more likely you are to have to engage them socially. You can get closer from behind than from the front. As you approach, at some point there's a chance of eye contact, of registering your presence. At some point there's an obligation to acknowledge the other person. At some point someone's going to have to say "Hi" or risk a horrid awkward silence.

There is, for everyone, a cost associated with entering the bubble. It's going to take effort and energy. In the first place you either need to interact socially, or consciously thrust down that urge. In the second place, there is risk of rejection, of a negative social interaction. This is true, I think, for everyone. Except, perhaps, for sociopaths of a certain stripe. We're social animals, and this is part of that.

Some people can and do enter those bubbles constantly, other people never, ever, enter the bubble. The latter take a lot of pictures of people from behind, or in the distance. The latter will often have a line of patter about how they want to abstract the humanity of the scene or photograph something Universal rather than specific or whatever. And, sure, that could be a thing. Those are legit pictures too.

I have a hell of a hard time entering The Bubble myself. I'm socially competent, but not very gregarious. I'm an introvert, so these things consume quite a bit of energy.

But here's the rub. If you won't enter The Bubble, your camera isn't in The Bubble either. And that in turn means that people looking at your pictures are not in The Bubble. They're outside. People in the frame are beyond the boundary of social interaction, they are safely distant. They might be far away, they might be turned away, they might simply be distracted.

Be keeping yourself emotionally safe, by taking pictures from that safe emotional distance you make pictures which are -- duh! -- emotionally distant. It's baked in. You can't fake it. We're social animals, we know intimately, powerfully, when we're inside that emotional-engagement zone, and when we are not. A long lens is not going to make up for your timidity.

As a consequence of this the emotional palette of your pictures is limited. You can go all the way from "dystopian hell" to "neutral." If the scenes are of a sort in which we expect social things to occur, and there is nothing social in the pictures, it's going to feel off. If you simply leave people out, you're likely to end up with an "abandoned" vibe, although it's just as likely you simply waited for the moment when nobody was in-frame. If you photograph people from behind, or from a distance, it will feel anonymous, distant. Even a crowd can be photographed as distant, aloof, unsociable.

Suppose you want to photograph human scenes, pictures in which we expect some sort of social engagement. Suppose you want to project a positive mood. Well, you're going to need to get into some bubbles and engage some people. Your camera needs to be engaged, so the viewers of your pictures feel engaged.

Perhaps this is what what's-his-name (was it Capa?) meant when he said something about "If your pictures aren't good enough you're not close enough."

Thursday, May 3, 2018


Mike Chisolm reminded me obliquely that Jack Kerouac wrote a lot of haiku, and that these are easily my favorite things in his oeuvre. So I went and got out my edition of these things and whiled away a little happy time.

And then I made a picture.

The sound of silence
     is all the instruction
You'll get

I call it incisive lens-based criticism of Kerouac's poem but you are welcome to consider it this picture that popped into his head after he read the poem which I think means the same thing.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

AmeriKKKa Sucks Porn

I ran across this thing this morning: Susan Lipper, trip: 1993-1999 which has, I suppose, its merits. Blah blah uniquely female perspective feminist etc etc. What it shares with a lot of other work we've seen is this vision of an America that is terrible. It is probably an "incisive critique of Trump's America" or some goddamned thing. We see way too much of this shit, because coastal elites and Euros love it.

Even middle Americans produce this garbage for the slavering effete. I'm looking at you, Alec Soth.

So I said to myself, "Self, this stuff is not only shit, it's lazy. Let's prove it."

This morning I went down to Railroad Avenue in my small city of Bellingham. I spent about 50 minutes shooting, about 1 frame a minute. The goal was to produce two completely different views of the Bellingham. I am intimately familiar with the visual landscape of this street, so I knew it would easily generate the breadth I needed, so in that sense I cheated. But really, I spent less than an hour, shot less than 50 frames, and came up with two miniature portfolios of 5 pictures each.

Portfolio A:

And Portfolio B:

I could, of course, have rendered either or both of these in high contrast black and white, probably a bit muddy. I am stretching my wings.

Now, one of these things is a profound and insightful critique which engages incisively with the problems of Fascism and poverty in America, which is populated by fucking cannibals and losers. The other is a more upbeat sketch of a fairly vibrant community. Which one is which I leave as an exercise to the reader.

Neither one is a true representation of my 55 minutes of wandering on Railroad, although that time was more pleasant than not.

It's all in the edit (both the "edit" of the sequence, and the edting the pictures), and it's not that goddamned hard.