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!)


  1. While it does not bother me that it is your handwriting, I understand the concern. Perhaps a simple statement in the book somewhere, something like this would settle the matter: "The captions are verbatim quotes from the subject in the photograph, however, the handwriting is the photographer's."

  2. My problem here isn't with the project itself -- it's art, after all, so you should do with it as you wish! -- or how you treated your subjects, but the fact you initially claimed it to be one thing and now reveal it to be quite another.

    In an earlier blog post about it, you wrote:"Since the point of these pictures is to present truthful testimony, I think it's important that the photographs be truthful."

    Now, if I put my paralegal hat on and parse your words carefully, I can see that you didn't quite lie, exactly -- presumably, at least the photo portion of your photographs is truthful -- but taken in toto, what with your cropping of the subjects' words and then faking their handwriting, it's my belief you missed your mark and the final, finished photographs you delivered are far from truthful.

    As a viewer, I feel deceived. Especially when it comes from you, someone who has written at length and persuasively about the importance of authenticity -- and unfortunately, the frequent lack of it -- in a lot of today's photography.

    Of course, if you were a magician instead of an artist and I was watching a magic trick instead of looking at an art project, then my reaction would be completely different.

    That's because I expect to be deceived by a magician and would be very disappointed if I wasn't!

    But I don't necessarily expect to be deceived by an artist and certainly not after they introduced their project as you did this one.

    And I'm not buying the "well, they could have said exactly those words and then written them in exactly that style of handwriting, so what's the big deal?" excuse.

    You made a point of aiming high with this project and even wrote about the challenges you faced while working on it.

    Then due to logistical issues, you wimped out and lowered the bar, apparently thinking no one would notice or if they did, that it wouldn't matter.

    Well, someone did notice and someone does think it matters.

    Molitor, I am disappoint.

    That said, I do credit you for being honest about what you did. 8^)

    1. I think this gets, at least by analogy, with the central problem of photography. Yes, I am interested in "truth", but also I note that artifice is a part of the process.

      Photography draws its power from that well of "truth", but inevitably is mired in artifice and untruth.

      I'm not going to go back and "fix" the project in any way, it is what it is, and it has its flaws. So be it. Will I think harder about these issues on the next project? Absolutely.

      I find the photograph with handwritten testimony to be an interesting form, and I will continue to exercise it. Will I impose upon my subjects to write? Maybe, maybe not. I don't know! But I will certainly think harder about it.

      Thanks, JG, for your insights.

  3. Uhmm, I don't remember that Andrew claimed that the handwriting was from the portrayed persons - so I don't think that it's untruthful. Yet I also implicitly assumed that it was from the portrayed persons. Isn't that funny - like some Gestalt thing going on. In my opinion, it's not a big deal for a body of work which I find very interesting.

    I then discussed the matter with my wife. Her take was that she wouldn't have made the implicit assumption that the handwriting was that of the portrayed in the first place. She also said that she would consider it untruthful to make them copy something redacted by somebody else (i.e. Andrew) in their handwriting. The redacting itself she didn't consider problematic. Finally, as the discussion was about a work of Art, she thinks that "truthfulness" and "objectivity" are inappropriate categories for judgement.

    I must confess that I had a hard time deciphering the text. Of course, handwriting taught in Germany (my country) might be different from what they teach in US schools. Maybe the handwritten text could be replaced by text set in a fixed width font (for instance "Courier")? I think it also implies authenticity, as it was used by Telex systems and mechanical typewriters. In addition, it improves readability and avoids any issues with handwriting.

    Best, Thomas

    1. In the book form there are literally no words from me about these pictures. They are presented without comment, without being referenced by the printed text -- at all.

      Accompanying them are some hand-written quotations from Martin Luther King, each a blank white page with the quotation written out in felt pen, attributed thus "- MLK"

      So there are faint faint tells that maybe Molitor is doing the writing, and the reader is left entirely on their own to work out what is going on.

      That said, there is no denying that I have left the door open for the "well, the subjects wrote" it interpretation, in two ways:

      1. I vary the style of handwriting, for several reasons.
      2. I say nothing whatever about who or what is going on.

      It's not at all unreasonable, I think, for a reader to assume that the text was physically written by the subjects. I think it is also not unreasonable to assume the opposite.

      But, I am unlikely to take a formal poll on the matter, so I can't really say.

      That said, JG saw it one way -- a way I accept as a reasonable reading -- and was disappointed and shocked to find out that it was untrue. This is a perfectly respectable response, and one that have caused me to think quite hard about these issues, which is something that genuinely delights me.

      It's almost as interesting to see the breadth of response, though. Honestly, it is truly exciting to see. Something is working! People care enough to be upset! Other people have other opinions! OMG! THIS IS SO AWESOME!!!!!!

    2. As for the text itself, yes, using a different font, an "informal" font (Comic Sans?) might be appropriate. It hits at least some of the veritas, the casual note of conversation, while retaining legibility and removing ambiguity about who wrote what.

      That is very very definitely an idea I am considering for future work.

  4. I quite like the use of text, captions, and writing in Deborah Turbeville's "Past Imperfect" [Steidl].

  5. Looking at the pictures I wouldn't have thought that the subjects had written the text themselves. I can't think of a way that would've been at all organic, since you're editing the text down and placing it in a particular orientation in the picture. To me, the handwriting came off as a stylistic choice, not as real deception. For better or worse, it of reminded me of the kind of thing you get with mailings where they're meant to look handwritten to give a personal touch, even though it's clearly not handwritten.

  6. Couldn't give two hoots about who wrote the words as long as they were said by the people.

  7. "Finally, as the discussion was about a work of Art, she thinks that "truthfulness" and "objectivity" are inappropriate categories for judgement."

    I think that this hits perfectly the spot.
    Many years ago, a teacher said to me that "Art is using a medium to express a point of view or tell a story. Then, naturally, there is good art and bad art".
    I think that you convened very well what those people think, so I think your is "good Art".