Thursday, June 28, 2018

Pure whimsy

I mostly dislike taking photographs that mean nothing and are purely decorative.

Still, there's a neighborhood thing, and people are setting up stuff in their yards early in July one afternoon. Yard sales, art shows, live music. I decided I'd set up a table and see if people wanted to buy some books. But that's boring. So I figured I'm make some "art" and put out a box of it "make a donation, grab a print" with donations to go to the local elementary school's PTA. Books also available at very affordable rates. We'll see how it goes.

Anyways. I've been experimenting with a kind of fake mimeograph process. I've seen some stuff printed with two or three colors using something like a mimeograph machine (I think it's actually called another thing, but it looks like, and apparently is related to, mimeograph). It's kind of fun, and with the right subject matter is has a sort of weird appeal. Plus I can bang these things out in a few minutes from pressing the button to saving the file.

A Sketch History of Early Color Photography

I ran across yet another case of Holy Cow Look At These Russian Photos, in which the photographs of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky were showcased. In 1902 Prokudin-Gorsky learned the method of shooting three negatives (color separations) and then projecting them in registration through filters to produce projected color images. He didn't invent the process, although I dare say he may have fine tuned it. From about 1909 to about 1920 he was commissioned to travel Russia taking color photographs, and he created an interesting archive of these color separations.

In recent years, these negatives have been dug up, digitally registered and colored, and now they pop up every year or so someplace with some sort of garbled historical information.

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky - 3-Color Separations, Digitally Rendered

This is by no means the entire story of early color photography. Let us go to work and clear away some of the underbrush and get a slightly clearer picture of what was actually going on.

In 1861 James Clerk Maxwell performed a demonstration that proved out the technique Prokudin-Gorsky would eventually use (two years before the photographer was even born), based on the work of Thomas Young and Hermann von Helmhotz who had developed a workable theory of human vision based on trichromacy in the preceding decades. Combining light in the colors of red, green, and blue carefully one can produce the appearance of any visible color. More or less.

At this point all you need is some black and white emulsions that respond more or less equally to the various colors, which don't turn up for a few years, and you need to solve some mechanical problems. But the color separations method of color photograph-taking is essentially solved at this point.

Color prints (see below) from the technique of shooting three color separated negatives exist from at least as early as the 1890s, and the methods have been in continuous use ever since in one form or another.

Proceeding from here, we have a couple of interesting paths to chase down.

Lippmann's Process

Gabriel Lippmann invented a process for color photography around 1890 that does not rely on trichomacy. It actually records the wavelengths of light falling on the apparatus. This makes it, I think, unique. It has no digital analog, and the only thing that looks much like the method at all is holography.

Lippmann was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1908 for this work.

Gabriel Lippmann - Lippmann process (1891-1899)

Roughly, you coat a plate with a very thin emulsion, of a thickness equal to only a few wavelengths of visible light. You float this thing on pure mercury acting as a mirror, emulsion-side down. An image projected onto the back side of the glass plate passes through the glass, through the emulsion, and reflects off the mercury passing through the emulsion a second time. Because the emulsion is very thin, the light's interference with itself, as it passes through the emulsion and back, creates a distinct diffraction pattern. It is this diffraction pattern that is photographically recorded.

By passing white light from a diffuse light source through the developed plate, which is roughly a custom made diffraction grating, the original image wavelengths are reflected back strongly while other wavelengths are attenuated. Viewed under suitable light, from the proper angle, a Lippmann plate reproduces the original colors of the photographed scene.

Note: This is not a perceptually similar color made up of Red, Green, and Blue. It is an approximation of the actual original color spectrum.

Viewing a Lippmann picture must have been a strange experience. As I understand it, the thing is essentially a dirty glass plate. Place the dirty side against a mirror, and stand in the right spot, and a color picture glows into life.

The Lippmann process was difficult to execute, used very very slow emulsions, and was somewhat difficult to view. Notably, from the wrong angle, the photograph appeared as a negative! A final problem is that Lippmann plates could not be reproduced or printed.

While the process was never commercialized, and it is not clear that anyone except Lippmann himself ever used it, Lippmann's process is a strong contender for the coolest photographic process ever. There have been recent, somewhat successful, efforts to revive it.


In 1893 John Joly invented what we would, in this modern era, immediately recognize as essentially a Bayer array. He manufactured a grid, a tiny checkerboard, of red, green, and blue filters. By exposing a plate through this grid, creating a positive black and white image from the exposed plate, and then viewing the result through the self-same colored grid, Joly was able to create a colored image.

Edward Steichen - Autochrome (1907)

This process was refined and made simpler to manufacture at scale by the Lumière brothers, who replaced the regular screen with a single-grain thick layer of potato starch grains, dyed in three colors, with the gaps between grains filled with lampblack. This essentially creates an irregular, randomized, Bayer-like array which can be applied like an emulsion. Microscopic enlargements of this material look rather like an abstract stained glass window, and are quite pretty.

Wikipedia User Janke - Microphotograph of Autochrome Filter Array

This layer was permanently bonded to the photographic plate. The plate was exposed, and then processed using a reversal process. Thus the plate admits light through a red grain of starch proportional to how red the light falling at that point was, and similarly the other colors.

The resulting plates were essentially a color slide film, and were commercially available in 1907. These were the dominant color film stock until the advent of Kodachrome. 100s of thousands of Autochromes were shot, and many still exist today. In particular, a large archive of 72,000 autochromes created under the direction of Albert Kahn, and another archive of 15,000 belonging to the National Geographic Society. Edward Steichen and many others shot a fair bit of Autochrome. It was entirely accessible to the amateur, being a fairly standard black and white reversal process.

Competitors to Autochrome existed, based on more regular colored grids, but being essentially identical otherwise. Dufaycolor is a notably successful example, but nothing rivaled the popularity of Autochrome. All of these processes share the idea of a mosaic of colored filters, permanently bonded to the film stock, used both for shooting and viewing.

Plates and films using these techniques were available until the mid 1950s.

Layered (Modern) Emulsions

Kodachrome appeared in 1935, followed closely by Agfacolor Neu in 1936. These are the first two examples of what would become the standard structure for color film.

Modern color film emulsions are made in layers, producing three color separations at once. The layers of the emulsion are separated by color filters. Light exposes the top layer, is filtered, exposes the second layer, is filtered again, and exposes the third layer of emulsion. Developing the whole thing produces three layers of black and white negatives, which are then converted very carefully, in place, into three monochrome layers in three dye colors. The filters embedded in the film for shooting, and the colors of the dyes in the final developed film, are selected appropriately for positive or negative uses.

This essentially creates three color separations, each colored appropriately, in-place for perfect registration.

An important element here is that having done away with the colored mosaic filter, you no longer need to register your image precisely with the filter in order to reproduce the image colors. You can duplicate one color image as another color image using the same or similar materials, without having to line the red cells precisely with red cells, blue with blue, and so on.

Printing in Color

Neither Lippmann's process nor Autochromes particularly solve the problem of color printing. Early processes for color printing universally relied on the method of color separations.

While multiple materials were used, the general theme is roughly the same. Use the three different negatives to make three different pictures, each tinted an appropriate color, and then combine them. One process made three black and white transparencies from the three negatives, and chemically dyed the silver in Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow (the familiar CMY of CMYK printing). Placing the three resulting images atop one another produces a color image.

Heinrich Kühn - 3 Color Gum-Bichromate Print (1904)

Gum-bichromate processes allow monochrome printing in a variety of colors from a black and white negative. By appropriately, and carefully, printing each separation negative together on a single sheet of paper, a color image could be produced.

The carbon and dye transfer processes both work by photo-chemically hardening gelatin in the pattern of each of the three negatives, and washing away the softer gelatin. The carbon process dyes the remaining gelatin suitably for each of the three colors, strips the hardened and dyed gelatin off the backing, and layers the three sheets of this dyed gelatin together to make a print. The dye transfer process instead uses the gelatin as a sort of printing plate, infusing each gelatin image with dye and then pressing a sheet of paper down onto the dyed gelatin to transfer the dye to the paper. Repeating this three times for each of the three colors produces a color print made up entirely of dyes, with no gelatin.

Louis Ducos du Hauron - 3 Color Carbon Print (1877)

Until the modern layered emulsions were available, the only practical approaches to printing multiple copies of an image relied on using color separated negatives, because it was the only shooting method that did not require a precisely aligned color filter mosaic. Most modern color photographic prints use a layered emulsion, similar to that of film, and similar chemistry to produce a colored print similar to that of a carbon print except that it is made in-place, all at once.

In Summary:

Modern Analogs

It is perhaps fun to notice how little there is that is new under the sun.

Lippmann's method is, apparently, far too cool to have a modern analog. Autochromes and their variants are clear predecessors to the Bayer and X-Trans arrays in almost universal use in digital cameras today. The Foveon sensor resembles a layer film emulsion. Color separations are still used in scientific instruments, usually built behind an optical splitter of some kind rather than making three separate exposures, however.

And there you have it. It's a little more complicated and more interesting than one admittedly prolific and capable Russian fellow.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Buy My Boooook

I have set up another book for sale on Blurb: Rogue Photo 1: US.

It is based on material previously seen on this blog, here and here, combining these two into a Beautiful Softcover Trade Book available for $USD 12. My proft: $USD 2.89 per book. Given that my process involves giving away about (gulp!) $100 worth of there things, it's gonna be a while before I get rich.

Anyways. The preview is set to All Pages so you can see the bits and pieces of interstitial material I added, and so on.

No refunds. Satisfaction Not Guaranteed.

If you don't like that book, there are others.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Would/Could II

My touchstone in the Would/Could remarks I made earlier is really Sally Mann's Battlefield series. If someone handed you a small print of one of these things, without context, you would probably dismiss it out of hand. It looks for all the world like someone's first attempt at collodion, a test shot of their back yard. Why on earth would someone shoot this? you might reasonably ask. It is only in an appropriate context that these pictures can be rather more like being hit with a hammer.

The point is that Mrs. Mann chose to shoot those pictures, those apparently bland landscapes. She chose to play games with the process to bring in serendipitous possibility. Her could is strong, there is much of photography that she is capable of. Her would is stronger, she chooses to take photographs that are difficult and complex, that work together with other photographs.

This essential quality is something I continuously struggle to understand in some fashion or another, specifically because it is exactly this that I aspire to.

In order to understand what works, we examine it, and compare with what doesn't work. To that latter end, let us re-introduce Mr. John Penner[*], who will serve as well as a million others as an archetype of that which I do not aspire to.

You can see John's pictures here: John's Photography where you will find a lot of stiffly posed and Correctly Lit photographs of people.

I do not pretend to know John's mind, particularly, but examining his pictures one can practically see the flowchart. Let us imagine a little. Fat people get posed this way or that, skinny people in other ways. John makes choices, but only per the flow chart, where it grants options. John's ability with lights is fine, his could is adequate to his needs. In my sense, he has no would whatsoever. His choices are almost entirely technical. A man is posed this way or that way, because he is a man. A woman is lit this way or that, based on what John has read, or otherwise learned, about how women ought to be lit.

What is lacking is any emotional connection or response. This is standard storefront portraiture, which one can find infesting almost any city in the USA or Canada. The shop is invariably decorated with large ornately framed photographs of grimacing teenagers propped up in ill-fitting suits in front of an ugly mottled green background. You know precisely what you'll get. An awkward experience, blessedly quick, resulting in one or more "clear" photographs that look like you, if you had been flayed and then coated in a sort of flesh colored liquid plastic.

John and his ilk give no appearance of any kind of vision, any notion of what they are particularly trying to portray about their victims. They give no appearance of any capacity for imagining such an idea, or how to go about executing it if they did. Photography is for them, as it is for so many people, merely a sequence of technical problems, each with their prescribed solutions. Photography is a process of matching solution to problem, and executing.

Videos of Mann working exist, and are interesting. While there are technical problems to solve as she works, she gives no appearance of attending to them whatever. She seems to me to be in a sort of reverie, a nearly ecstatic state. She looks, she exhales, she mutters something like "ahhh, that's it. hold still" and appears to be accessing something we cannot perceive. If there's a person in front of the camera, the appearance is one of Mann, the subject, and some sort of muse, in some mostly silent communion. There is no mucking about with light stands, no test shots. Man cleans a plate abstractedly, perhaps narrating for the person filming her, but paying almost no attention to the rather finicky details of wet plate work.

Mann appears to be interested primarily in reaching some sort of agreement with whatever or whoever is in front of the camera. There's probably a lot of failures. But sometimes, it works.

I had a conversation with my neighbor Alan, an historian and a (professionally) religious man a few weeks ago in which he characterized religious faith as a distinct epistemological category. It isn't merely belief and it isn't knowledge, it is its own thing.

I rather think that it might be useful to think of that thing that art gives us is yet another one of these things. It's not faith, it's not merely belief, and it certainly isn't knowledge. But it is, when it's working, perfectly convincing, deeply felt and understood. It might be beyond articulation, though an articulate person can usually offer some words that surround the thing. I don't have a word for it, and I rather wish I did.

So the would to which I aspire is not a choice based on knowledge, or any of those other epistemological categories, but rather based on this Art thing. The choice to shoot this versus that, is directed perhaps by that muse that Mann is in sympathy with on the better days. A good portraitist is accessing this kind of thing as well, they and the subject have groped there way to something more felt than known, something ineffable, and then there's that "ahh, that's it. hold still." moment.

I'd like a piece of that, please. Just a little one.

[*] John Penner objected by use of one of his pictures, and elected to make an ongoing pest of himself in my email over a period of time based on his complete failure to understand Fair Use doctrine, and so he has earned the privilege of being held up as the example of an archetype until I either forget where his web site is, or no longer require the use of such an example.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Could vs. Would

The most common questions photographers ask about a photograph, or another photographer, boil down to could questions. What skill, technique, what tools do I need, so that I could take such and such a picture? How can I become a photographer who is capable of such and such a photograph?

The filp side if this is the would question. How can I become the photographer that would choose to make that picture? Would choose to shoot that photograph, or that one?

This question is almost literally never asked. It's approached perhaps obliquely in videos about how to develop your style, or whatever, but only obliquely.

This matters, because all the could questions are relatively trivial.

I see people buying mannequins so they can practice their lighting. They want to become a photographer who could set up loop lighting, or Rembrandt, or broad, or high key, or whatever. What they miss is the would question which is really, becoming the photographer who is tuned into the subject enough to take the picture that's right. It's about becoming a person who would do something as much as anything else. Screwing around with a statue to learn how to shoot portraits has got to be one of the most tragically wasteful exercises ever.

When you're in front of a person with a camera, there are 1000 pictures you could take. You could take 24 frames a second. But which one or two or three would you take, would you choose? Do you even have an opinion? You should. And it shouldn't be based on a bunch of technical posing or lighting bullshit. The ability to work with a person, to develop an opinion about which picture you would take, might be the entire point.

And so with everything else. What landscape would you shoot? What still life? Which photograph of Formula 1 cars would you take?

All those could questions are things you can answer pretty easily. Don't overthink 'em.

Become the photographer who would take the pictures that carry some weight that matters to you.

Saturday, June 16, 2018


Commenter JG raises an interesting point with regard to the work I put up in this blog post which I will interpret perhaps somewhat freely (don't ascribe anything I say to JG, especially not anything dumb that I say).

First let me make clear that I think I am on solid ethical ground with respect to the subjects. I made it painfully clear to all that they had the right to withdraw, demand edits or changes, and so on. Their approval, I said repeatedly, was mandatory, because I am attempting to in some sense tell a truth here. In all cases, the subjects at any rate had the opportunity to review the final picture, check the words, and so on. In a couple cases I got no reply, so I cannot swear that they looked, saw, and approved, but in most cases I got a clear thumbs up and in the others the opportunity was there. In all cases the subjects very much projected an attitude of "hey, you do what you feel is right, it's all good" from the very beginning.

I am very comfortable that I treated my subjects well.

This leads around to the viewers, however.

I elected to use handwriting rather than print for the quotations, primarily to lend a sense of veritas to the thing. There's also a stylistic element, there are a few other elements in the book that are also hand written, so the book has the main theme in print and the counterpoint in handwriting, but that is distinctly a secondary use.

I could weasel around and say that it's obvious that the people didn't write it themselves, Jackie and Clove mysteriously have the same handwriting and there are a few other tells, but that's bullshit. I mixed up the writing styles for visual interest, but also to lend a little weight to the notion that these at least could have been written by the subjects. I certainly, willfully, leave the door open for you to believe that. It wasn't a fully conscious choice, but it was without question a choice I made.

So while the pictures are of the real people, and the words are the words they spoke, I have not only selected a few of the words they spoke, and I have written them out in my own hand as a device. The result is a blend of truth and artifice, with the line between the two made vague, and made so on purpose. It isn't the main purpose, it wasn't a part of some nefarious master plan, but I made those choices, and there they are.

Still, there is always a lot of artifice in photography. There is the usual litany of elements: the pictures are not in color, they represent a slice of time, they are of a pose, they are cropped. The quotations are "cropped" as well, and I led the people through an interview which surely skewed their words, and anyways those words were spoken then at a specific moment in time. Those people are all slightly different today. Etcetera and so forth.

I can live with one more element of artifice, but as JG notes (I think), it is artifice, it is a falsehood, smuggled in somewhat under the cover of darkness.

How does it compare with, say, photoshopping out a lamppost? (something I would never do!)

Friday, June 15, 2018


Having recently made some photographs that feature quotations, I was struck by the resemblance of a quoted remark to a photograph.

If I talk to you for a while, or read something you wrote, I might pull one of two lines of material from that. A sentence, a phrase, a short paragraph. By selecting what of that which you chose to say, I act in a role equivalent to that of the photographer. The photographer and I each select a single limited snippet of a larger whole, and display it.

This could be my best effort to represent the whole. It could be completely slanted, up to and including being the precise opposite of your actual intention in your words.

I am, in effect, "cropping" your words. This inevitably will emphasize certain aspects, de-emphasize others, and thus shape perceived meaning. In my previous post, I showed you some photographs and some quotations. The quotations, while verbatim and literally true in that sense, represent a conscious effort on my part to cast the photographed person, or people, in a revolutionary mold. I tried my best to balance the actual intended meaning of the interview as a whole with my desired narrative, and I am convinced that I dealt fairly with my subjects. I did warn them, every one, that the intent was to select quotes and to shape meaning.

And so I did that. I shaped the meaning of their words.

And then I superimposed those words, with their shaped meaning, on another object (the photo) intended to increase the perception of veracity.

I have made things which appear very true: This actual person, who you can see, spoke these very words.

And yet, the meaning was shaped. I bent the words spoken to suit my artistic goal. Not, I hope, too far. Not, I hope, beyond what the subject might reasonably have meant.

Indeed, I hope that by shaping their words, I can in some small way influence my interview subjects to adopt the slightly radicalized, the slightly more pointed, position that I imposed upon their picture. I will be giving a copy of the book to each of them.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

More Work

Some time ago I wrote this blog post about America's obsession with Guns, Cars, and Money. I even threw it into blurb's book making tool at some point, and fiddled around with it and tried to make sense of it.

Gloomy, depressing, and not necessarily with much of a point to it.

Eventually as I reported earlier I decided to interview younger people and see what they had to say, maybe build a more optimistic counter-narrative to go with the gloomy essay.

These are the results of those interviews, and the book is now in production. An edition of TWENTY FIVE which is a record for me. I'm going big.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Knowledge and Stuff

A friend of mine blogs on what I think I can fairly call a virulently anti-religious web site. While my friend is a bright fellow who is working hard to figure some things out, the community present there is... not. There's a lot of talk about how objectively stupid it is to believe in God which devolves rapidly into a competition to see who can most quickly illustrate their total unfamiliarity with the Old Testament while simultaneously saying the most horrible things about Christians.

I am not a devotee of any religious faith, but I find this sort of thing incredibly boring. Still, as this sort of thing does, it got me to thinking. "Why, exactly, is it objectively stupid to believe in a diety?"

So, my rough and ready grasp of mathematical philosophy in hand, I spent some time with Wikipedia's page on epistemology. I understand philosophy the way a welder understands ship design, which can carry you a surprisingly long way.

My rough and ready summary is that Epistemologists are concerned with the difference between a Belief and Knowledge. The latter is distinguished from the former by a process of Justification. Justification takes several forms depending on which school of epistemology you hew to, but in general comes out to a correspondence with the real world, in the sense of having predictive power.

Knowledge is the collection of beliefs about the strength of metal that allow us to build a bridge that will not fall down when the train passes over it. Whatever the process for justifying our beliefs about metals, welds, truss shapes, and so on, they are justified, the proof of the justification being observed when the train passes over the bridge without a collapse.

Knowledge is great stuff, I approve of knowledge. I was trained as a mathematician, and spent 20+ years writing software. I love predictability and correspondence with the real world.

But the religious believer, confronted with this and asked to provide Justification for their Belief in a God, correctly responds "but I'm not trying to build a bridge here." The sort of half-assed rationalist program that insists belief in a deity is "just objectively stupid" is itself simply on the wrong track. Predictability, correspondence with the real world, all those things that distinguish Knowledge from Belief, are simply not on the table. Someone in the conversation is definitely objectively stupid, but it's not the believer.

As a non-believer myself, what the hell does this have to do with anything, let alone photography?

Well, I suspect that Art falls into the same general camp. We're not trying to build bridges here. Predictability and correspondence with the real world are not relevant factors here.

We're trying to create experiences, feelings, emotional reactions. We're trying to create impressions and ideas. We know we're not going to get through to 100% of the viewers. Some artists might not care to get through to any viewers at all. Some would be content with half. Even talking about what percentage will "get it" seems to miss the essential point, somehow.

While human vision, sensation, and the human brain are (we suppose) just physics when all is said and done, this does not mean that some rationalist approach is going to get us anywhere. We might as well try to predict the weather by modeling the atmosphere as a shitload of molecules. We might as well try to understand biology in terms of Quantum Physics. None of these programs work, and so I theorize that any sort of rationalist approach to Art is at least as doomed to failure.

Arnheim and people like him have made credible cracks at nibbling away at it from a rationalist stance, but in the end they have not turned Art into a Science. They have built or discovered a handful of rules of thumb, perhaps a staff to lean on as we embark into the wilderness. The staff does not render the wilderness tame.

Luckily, we don't have to model the brain as a vast collection of interacting molecules. It happens that each of us possesses a more or less functioning brain of our own.

We have the capacity to feel, to emote, to imagine. Vast portions of our brain appear to be devoted to guessing what someone else's brain is up to based on facial expression, body language, eye movements, and so on. We can use our own brain to feel around what others might feel. If we let go of the Justification demanded by Knowledge, we can do something lovely, something that has its own, forgive the new-agey verbiage, its own truth.

Good work is done, I think, by following pure, unjustified, Belief, wherever it may lead.

Photographers, and I count myself among them, are perhaps alone among Artists in seeking some sort of rationalist underpinning to the enterprise. They want to know what the effect of moving the light up a little will have. They want to know how to make pictures that people will Definitely Like. They want the predictability of Knowledge.

This shows up in endless books about how to take better pictures. This shows up in the fanatically metric driven sharing web sites, in the burgeoning cottage industry of AI software that will Judge Your Picture or Fix Your Picture.

Photographers want Knowledge about photography. They don't want to Believe things, they want Justification. They want to be able to stamp out Good Photography in a predictable way. Photography in popular culture, in the magazines and web sites, proves over and over and over that the rationalist approach to Art is utterly bankrupt. It leads nowhere.

But we're not building bridges here.

You're on the wrong track entirely. Look more. Feel more. Just wing it sometimes.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Female Gaze II

I may have been slightly hasty in my previous remarks. Go figure!

I spent some time this morning just plain poking around to see what "female gaze" seems to mean out in the wild. The primary usage is in movies and TV shows, in narrative motion picture world. It makes a lot of sense there. These objects are built on a story which can be -- for instance -- literally told from a woman's point of view. There is a wealth of telling detail in the plot, the script, the set decoration, the direction, which can make the whole thing read as "real" at least in theory. Usually female gaze implies some degree of female authorship; the writer, the director, or both may be women. But the staff as a whole is assumed to be mixed, which helps to dodge a problem I'll go in to shortly.

I will believe, at least tentatively, that there are movies and novels which could only have been made by a woman.

If you restrict your search to "female gaze photography" you seem to hit a pretty short list of things. All of them are photographs of women by women.

Some pieces you'll see are retrospectives, which more or less reiterate the basic notion that women tend, slightly, to have a more emotionally open take, a more sympathetic eye. There's usually a sniff of "woo, women photographers, so special" but it's not overt.

Some pieces you find work on an overtly feminist narrative, usually talking about new and upcoming female photographers who are expressing a new, distinctly female, view of the world. This is where you find the nudes, but you also find a mass of outré gimmickry. Let's throw grass on the naked model, to subvert the patriarchy! Sherman gets dragged out in these pieces pretty routinely. The trouble with this work is that there's nothing particularly female about it, it's just outré pictures of women with some feminist text attached about how the gimmicks are actually bold attacks on heteronormativepatriarchy. Think up some gimmicks and you can do it too.

There does not appear to be anything here that is the equivalent of the mass of telling detail we might find in a movie written and directed by women, a mass of detail inaccessible to most men, a mass which renders a distinctly feminine take on the story. It's just grass clippings and blank expressions.

The last major thing we find is book projects. Again, pictures of women by women, which may include some of the material mentioned above, or may (as in the case of, say, Rayon Vert) be more or less just perfectly nice pictures of beautiful women, portrayed sympathetically, but not unusually so.

Notably missing in all of this is much of any reference to Berger's idea of portraying woman as they are, as their true selves. I, a white heterosexual male, have more truthful pictures of my wife than anything I saw in my morning's research.

Notably missing also, at least to my eye, is much sense of these works being things that could only have been made by a woman, or by women. If you weaken the proposition to would only have been made by a woman, it's not quite as bad. But still, nude women looking emo, blank-eyed models staring neutrally at the camera, lesbians holding hands, seem to be things that not only would have been made by men, but have been, ad nauseum.

The rebuttal to my position is likely to be something along the lines of "Andrew, you're just not seeing what I am seeing" which is possible. I am not, however, a wildly unsophisticated viewer of photographs. If I can't see it, you can be certain that many many many other people can't see it, and you should probably be open to the possibility that whatever it is you see is not actually present.

A common thread through the whole mess is this high risk strategy:

The use of the phrase female gaze is invariably used as part of a program to carve out a women-only space in Art. In cinema, this seems to actually make some sense. Complex narrative does genuinely reflect the lived experience of the author, and at present men and women experience life differently.

In photography this simply is not true. Your lived experience turns up, perhaps, here and there in small ways, but there is no monopoly on any of the material. It's simply too easy to copy tropes, and to borrow ideas, even unconsciously.

If, as a man, I attempted to write a novel or a movie from a woman's point of view, it would be a pastiche of lifted scenes detailing what it's like to check one's makeup in the mirrored walls of the elevator, and so on. The seams would surely be visible, and the whole would surely read as both false, and plagiarized. I can lift a photographic trope seamlessly, however. I don't have to stitch 100s of the things together to make a movie, I just need to borrow a couple to make a series of 20 pictures.

Female gaze in photography, as an attempt to carve out a women-only Photography, has two basic problems.

There doesn't seem to be anything particularly "female" or "male" in photographs, beyond a barely discernable subtle trend. Thus, this Photography risks (and is well on its way toward) becoming a set of tropes that you simply bang out. When men copy it, you can yell at them, and dismiss it as bullshit because they "don't get it" but their pictures will be indistinguishable from the "real" ones.

While I will stipulate that there may be a distinctly "female" way to make a film or write a novel, photography feels a lot more like carpentry to me. While there might be a female way to drive a nail, in the end the house will look much the same whether built by men or by women. So with the photograph.

The second problem is that once you segregate Art into "women-only" and "everything else" you set up to be attacked. The very next step in the program is for the power structure to start tearing down the women-only Art as inferior. If you've let it fall into the trap of simply being a basket of dunderheaded tropes, the attack is going to work, and by god it should work.

By all means, celebrate, uplift, encourage, and above all pay the female photographer. But don't pretend that her vagina magically imbues her pictures with some special, indefinable but clearly visible (albeit only to the anointed) way. It doesn't. If you see anything, you're almost certainly just seeing a handful of the emerging basket of easy tropes that are well on their way to defining the "female gaze" genre of uninteresting pictures.

If indeed we do end up with a simple basket of easily ripped off tropes being "female gaze," well, that's going to be a tremendous waste of a lot of things.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

"Female Gaze"

I'm not sure I actually have much to add past what I wrote some time ago back here. But I am going to take a swing at it, because I've been reading and thinking for a while now.

The executive summary is: I think the phrase "female gaze" is, mostly but perhaps not entirely, code for "pictures of boobs but it's ok to enjoy them because female gaze" which is basically a scam. The goal is to make pictures men will like (boobs) while giving them an escape hatch from just being pervs.

I've been slowly working through a couple of volumes on the history of women in photography. Essentially, it seems to boil down to "same as it ever was." There have always been opportunities (variously limited), there have always been female photographers (sometimes more, sometimes less, never as many as male), there is often pushback, there is lower pay, there are specific genres that tend to be female dominated. But always, there are a few, a very few, who break into the most male dominated corners of the profession, of the field.

Having looked in the last weeks at many hundred photographs exclusively by women, I am slightly more firm in my notion that I could pick photographs by women out at a rate slightly better than random. Designing a proper test, though, remains intractably difficult. At this point I would simply recognize a lot of the pictures by female photographers that you could dig up easily.

Still, there does seem to be a slight tendency toward better emotional content, a more open, perhaps tender, approach. A difference more felt than seen, and correspondingly difficult to get your arms around -- and therefore quite possibly a chimera after all.

Whatever the differences, they are slight, unreliable. Men and women take, mostly, the same pictures. The difference between Artist A and Artist B will always be far far greater than the difference between Woman A and Man B, as photographers.

Back around to that male gaze thing.

As noted in the comments the last time I visited this, John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" is relevant. Notably, Episode 2, which centers on The Nude. I spent some time watching and rewatching this thing lately, to try to extract from it Berger's way of thinking of these things and see how that fits with my own. I think I am largely aligned with him.

As I understand it, Berger's position and the approximate position of the women he interviews in the latter half of the segment, is that women are visually judged as if they were being examined by a man. There are ideas of availability (for sex), of the woman waiting for the man, and so on. This particularly appears in The Nude (The Nee-ood) in which the woman is explicitly displayed, is wearing in some sense a costume of her own flesh, posturing submissively for the male viewer. Even other women will judge a woman on these same criteria, because (as I noted in my earlier remarks) this whole mess is a long-standing social construct.

Berger notes that, occasionally, a woman will be depicted in a way that actually suggests herself, on her own terms, as she actually is rather than as she is objectified.

All of this material seems to swirl around the same set of ideas I favor when thinking about portraiture, the idea of the various masks we wear. There are the unguarded moments, the subject at ease just before perceiving the camera. There is Arbus's favorite instant, a moment later, when the face closes. There are various other masks that the poor portraitist imagines is his art -- the "camera face", and then there are the other poses and masks that appear later as the subject and portraitist work.

Berger's discussion, while never using the phrase, is clearly about "male gaze" probably because that phrase does not appear until 3 years after Berger's show. What makes it interesting and useful is that he provides a useful, if largely hypothetical, notion of what the opposite might be. If the underlying idea is of the woman posing or being made to pose, as an object for the judgement and pleasure of an abstractly conceived male viewer, then the opposite is the woman not so posing. In this, the woman appears as herself, as some kind of truthful representation of herself.

This, now, a bit sticky. Is this something that even makes sense? Is there a singular true Self that might shine through? I am not certain. I am content, though, with the notion that a picture might reveal more or less of some True Self or another.

The simplest case here is surely the action shot. The nude dancer, the nude rock climber (see Stone Nudes) are at any rate surely too busy to be doing much submissive posing for a notional male viewer.

As an aside, occasional commenter Eric Kellerman, accomplishes this is much the same way. He's doing some abstracting, and in that way objectifying his subjects, but they certainly are not "posing" in Berger's sense, they're not focusing on appearing available to the notional male viewer. They're quite busy making abstract shapes, they're fully engaged in something else. In a way, the game here is to override the default, easy "pose" of available-to-male-gaze by insisting upon another pose, one that demands the entire attention and body of the model.

Just as I imagine I see a specific moment in an Arbus picture, a specific mindset in the subject, one might imagine a similar phenomenon in a more passive picture. Berger makes the case for 3 paintings which he characterizes as quite different from the usual European nudes, which he feels depict the woman as herself rather than as the object of the man's view. Looking at these, I see, I think, what he means. The women, while more or less in repose, feel more introspective, they feel as if they are perhaps not posing, posturing, intimately aware of the painter's gaze. The subjects appear to be in themselves, inhabiting their own bodies as it were, without much concern for the viewer. They are, in a way, just as busy as the Stone Nudes, but with their own thoughts and emotions rather than with The Wall.

Which leads us around to Jörg Colberg's latest, a review of yet another bunch of sexy pictures of young women, by a woman, supposedly under the safe umbrella of the female gaze. Now I don't know what the hell Jörg means when he says "female gaze" and I am moderately certain that he doesn't either. He could no doubt write or speak a torrent of words about it, but they would not mean anything.

Let us examine the sample pictures from Rayon Vert through the lens of my interpretation of what John Berger has to say.

I dunno about you, but I ain't seeing it. These women appear to be completely aware of the gaze of the camera, indeed they appear uncomfortably aware. They strike me as struggling to pretend that it's not there, while simultaneously posing in the usual ways. The first one, in color, might be a moment as the model is in motion, or any number of things, but what it appears to be is a model literally thrusting her nipples toward the camera, while demurely looking away in a transparent and clumsy sham of introspection and unawareness.

This is soft-core porn dressed up in the guise of 3rd wave feminism, with a bunch of words about rejecting the patriarchy. This makes it ok for people like Jörg Colberg to look at some pretty young tits while allegedly not being patriarchal assholes.

I like looking at pretty young tits, whether they're posing, posturing, oblivious, or something else entirely. I decline to feel shame about this. I also decline to be taken in by some would be artist "giving me permission" as long as I toe the line on a bunch of post-modernist bullshit. I don't need your permission, and I don't need your po-mo bullshit either.

Now, I dare say it is possible to truly photograph a nude woman, in repose, at a moment of un-selfconsciousness. A woman, perhaps still posing, but at any rate not posing under the aegis of traditional male-based ideas. It might be easier to photograph such a woman simply pretending successfully, it is after all, called "acting" and I suppose it's possible. It's bloody rare.

I can think of a small handful of such pictures, maybe.

What seems to be all too common is female artists photographing naked women, often but not always beautiful, and then writing some nice sounding text that lets men off the hook because "female gaze", which allows the men to quietly and yet publicly enjoy the tits, leading the men to say nice things about the art. That's one way to get a grant, a show, or a book deal, I suppose.

Monday, June 4, 2018

A Case Study, of Sorts

For a project that's growing slowly closer to completion, I am photographing and interviewing younger people.

The most recent interview was with a couple of my neighbors, a young couple that I had first thought were lesbians. After I met them (we have dogs, and thus meet from time to time in the natural pattern of walking the dogs) it became clear that there was something more subtle going on. This is not my first rodeo, so I didn't bother trying to guess exactly what, simply filed them in to mental "nice dog people, some gender thing going on" folder which, I admit, is empty at the moment except for them.

Recently I accosted Clove, one of the two, and requested an interview/photo session, which was granted, huzzah! In the course of this discussion, Clove clarified that they are "gender non-binary" and prefer the use of the pronouns "they/them" and that I should refer to them as such in any completed work.

As an aside, I appreciate profoundly what appears to be a trend in the non-binary community to use "they/them" pronouns rather than any of the neologisms "ze/zir" and so on. I never could get the neologisms straight, but even the AP accepts "they/them" as gender neutral singular. Thank you, gender non-binary peeps!

Anyways, the work I have in mind doesn't actually refer to the subjects in the third person, so it was a non-issue.

What's not a non-issue is the mugshot that accompanies their testimony. It occurred to me that since neither Clove nor Jackie typically project much in the way of masculine cues, I (and presumably other people) tend to read them as feminine. Thus a photograph of them together is likely to read as "lesbian couple" which is not correct. OMG! This "coding" business is actually real. Since the point of these pictures is to present truthful testimony, I think it's important that the photographs be truthful.

As another aside, I find it interesting that "not masculine" seems to come out "feminine" in my brain. Would "non-feminine" read as "masculine" to me? I don't know. Jackie and Clove do present, I think, a few feminine cues. But subtly, and not all is clear to me.

So, I put my mind to it, and shot them as neutrally as possible. Even shoulders, looking straight on, neutral expressions.

I think it worked pretty well. It reads, to my eye, as ambiguous and distinctly neither masculine nor feminine.

Since I haven't asked for permission to use their pictures generally, I won't share here. The Final Project will be viewable as a book preview on blurb in a few weeks, and I might do a blog post with the work presented as itself earlier. I will cite this post as suitable.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Digital Flow

In my previous remarks I pointed out that it is possible, even easy, with a digital workflow, to fall into a pattern of crowd-pleasing.

This, I am coming to think, might be a more general problem. I see people saying things like "color? Or black-and-white?" and they throw up some picture with a black and white conversion of it for comment. Others weigh in, invariably about 50:50 color versus black-and-white, with the usual inane blur of trivial suggestions. Take this as a proxy for myriad similar conundrums.

Not that I am some film zealot, but if you shot a roll if Tri-X or TMax "back in the day" you pretty much had one choice, which was black and white prints. After a while, even if nobody pointed it out, you'd notice some things, at some level. Perhaps not even consciously. You might notice, for instance, that without some care in framing the thing in the foreground would get visually muddled up with stuff in the background. You might start to place tonally light subjects against dark backgrounds, and vice versa, or some other things.

In these modern, degenerate, times, you have more choices. You can try color, say. Maybe the subject is red, and the background is green. In black and white the foreground and background are an indecipherable muddle, in color they're distinct. You can't put your finger on it, because you just got your camera, but you like the color one better.

I suspect, rather strongly, that the vast flexibility of the digital workflow presents myriad opportunities like this one to do what we might think of as the opposite of learning. Because you can so often bang away on the sliders until it "looks good" and because even if you can't, you can simply move on to the next frame in a fraction of a second, you can avoid learning anything. I am constantly surprised by how unclear many people are about what the sliders even do.

The slower and far more limited processes of film made us stop and think. You were far less likely to simply try some random thing, because even if you had the negative mounted and the chemistry mixed, you're still looking at a commitment of several minutes to try your idea out on a single test print. It paid you to think for a moment. Now you can grab the slider and start moving it before you even consciously decide to.

I am, by the way, intimately familiar with this dynamic because my biggest failing in the darkroom is that I don't sit and think about the print enough after it comes out of the fixer.

Now, you certainly don't have to be a dope and simply mash sliders. When I go to work on some picture, I generally have a very clear idea of what I want, and I just do that. I am time constrained, and have no interest is simply milling about in folders full of pictures tinkering with them at random. There are loads of people, though, who seem to find precisely this to be a jolly way to spend an afternoon.