Thursday, August 30, 2018

Phase One: The Camera for Photographers who don't give a shit about Photography

So Phase One, for those of you who don't follow the press on these matters, introduced a new camera back series for their XF system, which peaks out at 150 megapixels. It also has their super amazing new Trichomatic color science, and a bunch of other bullshit.

No photographer has a need for this. The number of professionals standing around saying "gosh, I sure could use like three times as many pixels, slightly better color science, and a hell of a lot less depth of field" is very very close to zero, if not actually zero. We have reached the point where the specifications on this thing are well past what anyone can actually use for, well, for anything. This thing is a device you use to take pictures which show off the capabilities of the device. It is the exact equivalent of the $50,000 turntable with a 500 pound marble platter that really needs 30 minutes to spin up to a stable speed.

But then, my god, the completely imaginary acoustic properties really spring to life!

I could explain in detail why none of the specs are anything that anyone, yes even a professional, would care about, but that would be boring and any readers that care can work it out themselves, I expect.

This thing isn't a camera, it's a fucking confession:

Octogenarian Trump-Voter: Bless me, Padre,
   for I don't give a shit about photography.
Priest: Say 10 Hail Marys and pay me $60,000

While we have the hood up on this hot mess, let's take a look at the thing:

Look, if I'm paying north of 50 grand for something purely to stroke my ego, I don't think it's out of line to insist that it either have tits or a discernible design language. This thing appears to have been drawn from a design brief thus:

A metaphor for amnesia. A box intended to hold only unfiltered Baltic air tinged with grief. A child's toy.

It's vaguely modernist. Sort of Bauhaus, but stupid. Call it Bauhuh? The result looks like an industrial robot for middle management.

I assume that they're basically just copying the RB/RZ cameras from Mamiya, which is where they started. Those were built as boxy-but-cheaper Hasselblad alternatives. They were priced for the budget conscious professional who wanted an excellent medium format studio camera, but didn't want to pay the Hasselblad tax. And was willing to hit the gym, buff up a bit, to carry the fucker around. There wasn't supposed to be much of a design language. And I swear my RZ67 still looks like a Ferrari next to these atrocities from Phase One.

They seem to be doing OK, though. Octogenarian Trump Voters have more money than brains, and some of them are OK with ugly-ass boxes as long as they have enough specs. I assume the name of the game is to have more expensive kit than the asshole next to you on your next Antarctic Photo Cruise, so all that matters is that it say IQ4 on yours while his just says IQ3 like some god damned peasant camera.

It's only a matter of time before you'll be able to buy them in pairs, one to shoot with, the other to smash to pieces on the deck of the ship. Maybe camera smashes could become a thing. And then we'll all make hot toddies with 300 year old scotch using pokers heated in the flames of a pile of $100 bills. Because, why the hell not?

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Ferry Ride: Discussion

I'm certainly not going to claim "Ferry Ride" as a seminal work of profound art. It's a ride. On a ferry.

Still, I did construct it with some consideration, using pieces assembled over some time, and I think it worked out fairly well.

The first photo, high contrast, breadth, with the ferry pier in the foreground and a coal ship loading behind, is my hook. It's something one might see just as the ferry departs (although in truth we were arriving) so it is thematically a reasonable starting point. There's visual interest, a lot of contrast, some things to look at. Again, were I a reasonably popular forum member I dare say it would get its fair share of "great capture!" together with some quibbles about how "I would have done it differently" (presumably by adding fill flash, or HDR, or panoramic stitching, or something like that). Of the pictures in the sequence, it strikes me as the most visually arresting, although without being part of something larger it is just a snapshot of a pier and a ship, signifying nothing.

Next up there are a series of similar snaps of things one might see as the ferry moves outward. These are just records of things I saw near one ferry terminal or another. No dramatic framing, no clever use of leading lines of golden ratios, I simply center the object of interest and mash the button. Honestly, there isn't much more to do here.

This is essentially the problem with photographing these things. There simply isn't much to do. Sure, you can shove The Object around in the frame a bit, and sometimes you are blessed with two objects you can (by waiting) position relative to one another in various ways. But mostly you might as well more or less center the thing in the frame. Apart from things on the water, there is nothing much to photograph. The land is too far away to be more than a soft mess, and everything else you can see is either the ship you're on (which is visually rich, but a completely different photo essay), water, or sky. And yet, there is an experience here. One sees and feels and experiences things here and so, one supposes, there must be a way to photograph that. Looking through the pictures, though, it's just an endless sequence of centered nautical objects on a more or less featureless background.

This is my solution. Carrying onwards, though:

Now we get into the bits that are least interesting visually, and most interesting to me personally.

In the middle of the channel, some miles from land, there is often something to see. Usually that something is quite distant, a mote on the horizon. Sometimes you can make out what it is, other times not. The oblong white specks are invariably other ferries, nothing much else is white and boxy. I suppose one might see a cruise ship now and then, and mistake it for a ferry.

When I have time to look around, I find myself drawn to these objects stuck there between sea and sky, tiny, distant. If I have my camera, I will sometimes photograph it as precisely centered as I can, and then use the zoom function on the digital camera to get a closer look. My 50mm lens resolves somewhat, albeit not dramatically, better than my eyes do. Usually I learn something about the object in the distance.

For me, this process of peering at distant motes is if not the essence of these short journeys, at any rate one of the essential qualities of them. Thus, I give you the pictures (my view) and then a very very highly enlarged view of the mote in the distance. In the last one, I believe the mote to be essentially invisible in the full frame, but evidently a sailboat once you enlarge the critical region well past any sense.

And then, although the ferry journey itself completes, more or less by running through the same sequence in reverse, I leave it there. It felt right to leave it open, with the world almost but not quite lost in mist. Does the sequence continue to absolute oblivion? Or does it just reverse itself back into another ferry terminal, more or less indistinguishable from the one we just left? Your choice. Make of it what you will, I offer no opinion.

Anyways, the point here is that the first photo, visually punchy but intellectually weightless, acquires perhaps a tithe of intellectual weight by being placed in sequence. Similarly, perhaps, the last photograph, having no visual interest whatever being but one small step from a featureless grey rectangle, acquires its own tithe of visual interest by its position in sequence.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Ferry Ride

From time to time I ride a ferry, generally between the mainland of British Columbia and Vancouver Island, a 90 minute to 2 hour trip away, depending on the route. This passes across the Strait of Georgia which, while salt water, is not the open ocean by any means. Except in the worst conditions, land is always visible, albeit some distance away at times. The passage has moderately heavy traffic as these things go, but again the distance between ships, boats, marks, and so on is not inconsiderable in the middle part of the journey.

These pictures were shot on a handful of such trips, and constructed here into a kind of an allegory.

Near the ferry terminal, there is more traffic, things to see on shore, and so forth.

But as we move further out toward open water the traffic thins out, spreads out.

On deck, one tends to spend a great deal of time staring at empty water, occasionally noting an object in the distance. A ship. A bouy. A barge. A plane.

One peers into the distance, struggling for clarity of vision through 1000s of yards of air, mist, smoke. Trying, for no particular reason, to identify whatever mote it is on the horizon.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Arresting The Eye, Arresting The Mind

Years ago I recall Ctein going on, on ToP, about how when he was carrying a camera with a certain aspect ratio (square, 4:3, whatever) the world resolved itself constantly into compositions of precisely the right aspect ratio. He simply "saw" in the appropriate aspect ratio. I thought then, and still think, that he was exhibiting his blow-hard egomaniac side, and that this was in part utter bullshit.

That said, having spent some time reading up on miksang, and more time reading Thich Nhat Hanh, I am increasingly finding myself "seeing" more precisely, in an interesting way. In a way that is loosely related to the kinds of things Ctein was going on about, albeit without the aspect ratio thing. So maybe he wasn't making shit up, just exaggerating a bit, and expressing himself in his usual grating way. There is an interesting side note that makes this more reasonable about which more anon.

Anyways. The methods of miksang (for photography) and Thich Nhat Hanh (for living) are roughly similar, and involve a lot of personal awareness. One gently sets aside thoughts of the past, the future, of possibility, of wrongs suffered, and so on. One focuses on now, on here, on ones own sensations, ones own internal state. One breathes quietly. Awareness of oneself and of the immediate surround is the point.

In this state one can, as it were, "reach out with ones feelings" after the fashion of the Jedi Knight, and begin to see things in a particular way. A certain sort of thing begins to more or less pop out of the woodwork, and if one is attentive, one sees a certain sort of thing more or less all over the place. Usually simple compositions, with some visual interest, and a certain kind of balance.

In this state one can more or less grind this stuff out all day long. Since this is pretty much what all of Ctein's pictures look like, I am pretty sure that he's doing something like this. Whether he's using Buddhist methods or something else, I do not know. It's almost certainly some sort of meditative condition which "tunes him in" to this sort of visually interesting thing.

This is all very well and good. These are pleasing pictures, and if I were a popular (never gonna happen, fuck that) member of any photography forum or club I would no doubt get some "great capture" and "good eye" remarks, at least from the more voluble members. It will come as no surprise to long time readers that I thoroughly disdain this sort of thing.

These are pictures that arrest the eye in some sense. They are visually interesting, amiable, pictures. They are pleasant to look at, they require no thinking, they ask nothing of the viewer. People love this stuff and millions of people have learned to grind it out all day long, using one method or another. The Buddhist ideas merely allow you to get your keeper rate up to pretty close to 100% within a certain limited idiom.

I am, naturally, interested in pictures which arrest the mind. My apologies, again I have only one of these things, so it will perforce appear now and then:

This is my fake Winogrand, and it's all about the sightlines. It is hardly visually arresting at all. If you don't specifically notice the man in the picture and inspect his face (and there is little enough reason to do so), the picture is a big fat nothing. It is mentally arresting, however. There is a little human drama in here, a human story, questions are raised, and so on.

Here's another thing.

To you it's an overly warm snapshot of some people you don't know, it's essentially nothing. To me, of course, it is mentally arresting, being a picture of my children's grandmothers with a grandchilchild in the foreground.

The property of being mentally arresting, the property of engaging the viewer mentally need not be universal. I think that in some cases it is, or nearly so. Photographs of people, generally: an enigmatic portrait, a picture of profound suffering, grief, or other emotion. These things tend to reach most people. Amiable snaps of family reach not much further than the family, but they do reach that little distance.

Returning to the "merely" visually arresting photograph. One need not take the Buddhist path at all. You can manufacture these things as well. Sufficient post processing of practically any sort, applied to a minimally appealing photograph, will generally produce something that people's eyes enjoying falling on. Starting with flowers or nudes is a good idea here.

Serious Photographers (the ones who will explain that Professionals Need Two Card Slots) will disdain the fake risograph, but laypeople love it. The second one has proven quite pleasing even to photographic enthusiasts, I dare say on the grounds that it exhibits a great deal of Work. Both strike me as visually pleasing and intellectually void.

I think it is obvious that what I aspire to, and what I suspect a lot of photographers secretly aspire to, is that corner of the spectrum in which the picture is mentally arresting, is intellectually rich, manages to be more or less universally so, and if it was visually arresting that would be great.

A point upon which I am pondering perhaps to excess is this: The sort of "standard path" to photography starts out with a desire to make things that are at least a little bit mentally arresting. People talk about "capturing moments" and so on, taking pictures of their kids, their dogs, whatever, pictures which are fraught with meaning at least to the photographer. Striving to improve their pictures, there is all too often a side-trip into the visually arresting with dolts explaining rules of composition, and how to smooth skin into a sort of disgusting plastic, how to make eyes appear pasted on, where to stick lights for greatest appeal, and so forth. At this point there's almost no consideration of those "moments" fraught with meaning that started the whole thing.

Altogether too often, people never return from this side trip, and find themselves laboring to create visually arresting intellectual voids, which garner the approval of their newly discovered peers.

I'm going to suggest that if you do indeed aspire to make pictures which are both visually and mentally arresting, go forth and start making dramatically lit portraits, and take your time at it. Any idiot can make a portrait of someone standing there like a cow, it takes time and emotional commitment to draw out a good portrait, something that will genuinely engage the viewer over time. I would show you one of those, except I don't think I've ever taken one.

If you don't want to do portraits, I think you've pretty much got to start working in sequences. I can think of a small handful of single pictures which are both visually and intellectually captivating, which are not portraits. They exist, but are surprisingly rare.

Without the hook of the person in the frame, the enigma of the face stilled eternally by the camera, I know of no particular way to raise a question, to suggest an idea, reliably, without placing the picture in some context, some body of work, some set of repeated, remixed, ideas and themes.

With the sequence you can draw the viewer in with a basically empty but visually arresting photograph. Ideally, that photograph does embody some part of what you're going for, but perhaps does not fully reveal it. It might echo a theme, but not in a way one sees right off, not until one sees a few more of them. But it's visually arresting, to the viewer is pleased, or interested, and moves onwards until the meat of the thing, until the ideas begin to be revealed.

I have in mind a little thing I pulled together on a recent trip which I hope illustrates the idea, but we shall have to wait a bit to see.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Nikon Thing!

I don't care about the thing, or the other thing.

What I am fascinated by is how thoroughly the Camera Internet has exploded.

On the one hand the fact that Nikon didn't put in a second curd slot has somehow made it so nobody will use it. Having never put a cheese curd into a camera at all, I am unsure how that works. On the other hand, the sheer number of people bellyaching about their inability to place curds into the camera twice as fast seems to suggest that Nikon's marketing worked tolerably well. It's possible they will sell a few of these curd engines after all.

And then let us turn to the sad reality.

Between times the Camera Internet is filled with angry people telling one another to go "shoot some images" and complaining that "everyone just wants to talk about gear" and so forth, to the extent that one imagines that these people are serious, that they might perhaps be interested in photographs and photography. But then this sort of thing happens, and it becomes open warfare about how many cheese slots a professional needs, being fought entirely by people who have no idea.

Nobody cares about photography or photographs on the mainstream Camera Internet. Nobody. They are flat out lying, as much to themselves as to anyone else.

I hope they enjoy their cheese engines. There certainly seem to be a lot of buttons and f stops and things.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Wonk, wonk, wonk

This might be my most wonkish post ever. I don't think I've included diagrams before. But, as happens, I got to thinking on day.

Say we have some scene, a tree perhaps. When we look at the scene, we get a mental thing, a perception which is a fairly shoddy representation of whatever we're looking at. We, insofar as as we are even separate from the perception interact with that mental thing, our reactions and emotions affect, modify, the perception, there's a back-and-forth interaction here.

When we take a picture, we index the scene and create another viewable object, a photograph. A viewer, which might well be us, has exactly the same relationship with that object as we do with the original tree, the original scene.

Roughly speaking, we, at point A are trying to interact with a viewer at point F and to be blunt we're kind of a long way away. We're trying to spoon soup into someone's mouth, handling the spoon with tongs, which tongs we are manipulating with another set of tongs.

Most of the methods employed in photography can be viewed as trying to effectively shorten then length of the path from A to F

I think that an argument could be made that most gear acquisition is trying to shorten that index line, from C to D by making the photograph sharper, or more colormetrically precise, or whatever. Rules of Composition can be viewed as an attempt to jump the line directly from A to D from photographer to photograph in some partial sense, and they're usually justified by an appeal to the path from photograph to viewer with things like "people tend to find diagonal lines cooling" or similar rot.

Post-processing, which is not "photography" as such, places us into the position of the viewer, so we have a perception of the photograph, which we react to and so forth, but we add in another interaction in which we manipulate the photograph at D through photoshop, or by mashing the gum-bichromate, or painting on the print, or whatever. Again, we're jumping the line directly to point D in an effort to get closer to the ultimate viewer.

A consequence of post-processing of whatever sort, of these manipulations of the photograph, is that we extend the line labeled index in the first figure, the final print is farther and farther away from the original scene, farther away from our original perception, farther away from our original reaction to the scene. Now, the argument goes that in post we're actually trying to recapture our original perception of the scene, and to some extent or another that's true. But still, we've placed ourselves on the other side of the index line, so we are still in some sense both closer to the viewer (good) and farther from the original perception of the scene (bad). We are farther away from the original "selection" of whatever it was that was interesting.

I have argued in the past, and argue again here: photography is the bit on the first line of the first diagram above. It's the bit from A to C and extends along the index line a bit. It's the selecting part. Everything that happens after that could be done just as well to a drawing as a photo, and the result would still be a drawing, whereas without any of that a photo remains a photo.

This is not, as always, to suggest that post processing is evil or wrong, it's just not part of the essence of photography as such.

This is the Big Idea here: to shorten up that path from photographer to viewer, photographically, we need to shorten up the lines between A, B, and C.

Which is another way of talking about truly seeing, of actually perceiving what is in front of you.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Another Essay from Mr. Blight

When I was a mathematician, the primary tool I used was a thing called duality theory. In pure mathematics we are generally thinking about some class of objects, "groups" or "topological spaces" or what have you, and trying to figure things about about them. Surprisingly often, there is a duality in play, which means simply that if you have one of these things, any one, you can turn it into quite a different kind of object (and back again) in an extremely precise way. Now you have two things that you can think about. Properties in one class of objects translate precisely into other properties in the other class, and back again.

In a way it's a hyper precise version of an analogy. "A lemon is like a malamute" one says, meaning something or other, and then perhaps by thinking about malamutes we can gain some insight into lemons. A truth about malamutes might be much easier to perceive and to prove than the corresponding, equally true, truth about lemons. Ta da! It's a bit of a magic trick, and can be astoundingly productive in mathematics.

Daniel C. Blight, who has graced these pages before when I disassembled a blindingly stupid essay of his, will now re-appear. I regret that I will not be turning him in to a smarter and more interesting object in order to reason about him. Instead, he has attempted to deploy the power of analogy himself, with poor but entertaining results.

He starts out fairly strong. This first bit from Daniel:

Photographs view the world sideways, at an angle, elliptically, but never straight on, as much as one might hope.

suggests that he's seen Emily Dickinson's poem, or at any rate the first line of it:

Tell all the truth, but tell it slant -

but has forgotten the referent. Daniel is certainly not the first to bring up this notion in regards to photography, I am nearly certain that Sally Mann did so in Hold Still but Mann and Dickinson are practically the only names Daniel does not drop in this piece.

He proceeds onward to the notion that a photograph is like an essay, which is a good analogy to make. It's not clear that Daniel figured this one out on his own or not. Despite citing an astonishing 47 names (several of them multiple times) in a 3700 word essay for a name dropped about every 70-80 words, it is quite difficult to sort out which ideas are Daniel's and which one's he's simply quoting from other writers.

Anyways. It's a good idea. An essay and a photograph are both essentially rooted in some notion of reality, of truth, and proceed from that to somewhere else. Both are fragments, both are filtered through a lot of stuff. One is visual, and an index, the other is not, so the analogy is not precise. Still, let us see what Daniel can make of this, and what we can learn by examining this relationship.

Well, obviously, Daniel learns nothing and tells us nothing. He leaves the analogy there, and talks around it a bit, and that's pretty much that, because like all the other dolts in his little circle he has literally no idea how to discover new ideas. All he can do is rehash other people's ideas and stir them together in a pot trying fruitlessly to synthesize something new.

No, Daniel is going somewhere else. He wants to talk about essays about photography. He tries manfully to make the leap from the analogy of Photograph::Essay to the subject he's actually interested in, but does not manage it. He does this weird thing, though:

The relationship between the ways in which the photographic might describe literature, and the literary might describe the photograph is a regular occurrence in the history of photography, as we shall see. [...] Virginia Woolf writes of Julia Margaret Cameron that her photographs ‘reflect her literary friendships and tastes’

In this section it is notable that none of the three examples he provides can reasonably be considered to be photographs describing literature or vice versa, as he promises us. Photographing an author, which Cameron did from time to time, is not making a photograph that describes literature. No. Neither is referring to Proust's writing as "photographic." Daniel is unable to distinguish between two different things being more or less near one another in a paragraph or sentence, and two things behaving in the dual way mathematicians are fond of.

Apropos of nothing in particular, we have this gem:

Various historic conceptions of the photographic image have seen it described as the act of “writing with light”. One interpretation of the etymology of the word photography in Greek translates into “light writing”. In considering photography (Greek: fotografía) is the production of images made with light (Greek: phōtós) and finds a relation to the word writing (Greek: grafí), it is no wonder that various photographers have had literature in mind when making images.

Which is frankly bizarre. He makes it seem as if the etymology of the word photograph is subject to interpretation, that there are perhaps multiple conceptions of what this word means and the manner in which it arose. That is wrong. The word was coined by Herschel and introduced in a paper read to the Royal Society on March 14, 1839. There's no conceptualizing, there's no interpretation. There are verifiable bare facts on the table here.

Daniel seems to be unaware of the fact that the modern Greek word is a borrowing from English of a word constructed from Greek roots, none of which matters because regardless of borrowing back and forth the fragments mean, and always meant, and were mashed together because they meant, writing with light.

Daniel blunders on, listing more accidental coincidences of literature with photographs. Stieglitz (photographer) and William Carlos Williams (writer) knew one another, and so on. He tries to make some hay out of the grafia part of photograph to suggest a further link between writing and photography, but it doesn't come out to more than simply stating grafia means writing, see? writing and writing. But with light not ink. Wow.

If we found that Stieglitz also knew a plumber, could we then assert that there is some wonderful and meaningful connection between plumbing and photography, without actually exploring it even slightly? Well, yes, we could, I suppose. But it would be obviously stupid.

A brief and pointless side trip through the layers of meaning that a photograph might have follows. It's an index, a representation! It's 1s and 0s! But it's also a reflection of social constructs and interpreted/seen through the filter of social constructs! Zowie! This is yet another opportunity for some sort of dualistic analysis which Daniel completely missed, preferring instead sprinkle names wildly about.

Finally, agonizingly, Daniel drags himself around to what he seems to really want to talk about. Essays about photography are and always have been written almost exclusively by white men. Daniel C. Blight is, as nearly as I can determine, a white man, so he's carrying on the tradition, but apparently unhappy with it. In the midst of his lengthy complaint, we find, more or less as a representative example, this sentence:

This position is not to be confused with an anti-intellectual polemic against the stylistics of “literary sophistication”, but instead to make a socialist point with regard to the inclusion of various idiolects in coming to an understanding of what writing on photography has been, and might become.

Which says, roughly, look I'm not complaining about how white all these essays are, but I do think we need some essays about photography that aren't just a white man banging on in pseudo-academic cant in what might possibly be the pinnacle of the style "white men banging on in pseudo-academic cant" in an essay about photography. At this point one begins to wonder if this is just some sort of complicated joke, or if Daniel is actually so staggeringly unaware of himself and of the words that his flailing fists are mashing onto the screen of his computer.

Now, to be fair, Daniel's not wrong. Writing about photography is almost exclusively done by people like him, and like me, and like Colberg and so on. There's a few black guys like John Edwin Mason running aroound, but they write in exactly the same cant.

On that point, though, I think I can make one of those dualistic analogy deals here. Writing about photography is a bit like competitive adult hopscotch. Now, I don't know if the latter is actually a thing, but I bet it is, and I bet it's played entirely by ironical white men with tattoos and ridiculous beards. The fact that adult people of color and women don't play competitive hopscotch, while definitely skewed, is arguably not a problem. Hopscotch, like writing about photography, is not a discipline which leads to wealth, opportunity, or really anything interesting.

Arguably, women and people of color don't write about photography and don't play competitive hopscotch because they don't give a shit about essays on photography or hopscotch. And more power to them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Wall

I have have been reading a book on book design (Adrian Wilson's The Design of Books) which is quite wonderful. It provides a lot of information, a lot of detail to think about, a lot of ideas and concepts, and nothing specific in the way of rules. There are no dicta. He says things like "these fonts have a traditional look, so think about it before combining them with modern design ideas" (not an actual quotation).

In general I am struck by how frequently creative people who are actually good at creative things decline to boil things down to rules of thumb, dictates, and the like. There's far more discussion of what is possible, and what, in general terms, the various bits and pieces are likely to do.

I recently got into a discussion about rules of composition (again) and as always happens, it devolved into me and a few people like me staring goggle-eyed at a handful for people who cling to the Rule of Thirds and so on with a desperation that drives them into waves of fury when someone points out that these rules are based on exactly nothing, and are the contemporary inventions of people who would teach photography to camera owners.

While the rest of the world worries that Photography is being ruined by the fact that everyone has a phone and can take pictures, I suspect that far greater is the damage done by people who want to sell glossy softcover books about Improve Your Digital Photographs and people who want to draw clicks by cutting and pasting material drawn from other unsuccessful web sites.

I would rather know about a billion people just reaching out and shooting a flower because it's pretty than about one schmo lumbering through his way through one Formal Composition Based On The Golden Spiral after another. The latter, unfortunately, seeks to shove his ideas into the former, and pretty soon we have fairly pretty flowers all slavishly placed at the same location in the frame until all the beautiful flowers blend into one another and it's all garbage. There are major web sites literally filled with these things.

It feels like a wall has been erected.

You get a phone, you start taking pictures with the camera. They may be no great shakes, but they have a certain verity to them. See also this post from a while back, about a somewhat enigmatic snapshootist.

If you get interested, you start poking around the internet, or maybe you try to find a book. This is where the wall is. You will, inevitably, start to find "information" about how to put objects into the frame. Rules of thirds, Power Triangles, all kinds of shit. If you follow these dictates, your pictures will start to look like the other pictures you have seen and admired. In fact, they will start to look very much indeed like those pictures. Practically identical, often. Perhaps this delights you, satisfies you. I suppose there would be nothing wrong with that. It has, in some circles, become the established taste. While they claim it's all basically just da Vinci and Micheangelo, it's not. It's just some bozos trying to sell How To books, the ideas escaped, and became this sort of self-licking ice cream cone, a sort of cult of ideas that exist only in the world of Serious Amateur Photography.

But maybe you got sucked into it, because these ideas are ubiquitous in that narrow world which is probably where you looked, and you are now trapped at a wall.

People who have been photographing for a year or two or three will, from time to time, complain that they are "stuck" and curious as to "how to progress". Their peers will tell them to buy some stuff, and I suppose sometimes this works. But that's not the problem. They're trapped at the wall.

I don't know what percentage of photographers can feel that they're trapped. Maybe only a few. I kind of think that even one is too many though, you know?

The trouble is that the wall is tough. Many photographers who are, knowing or unknowing, stuck at this wall are the ones who will fly into a rage when you say things like The Golden Triangle is a modern invention, based on almost nothing. It is bullshit, and you should forget it, substituting instead actual looking, actual seeing, and actual feeling. If a fellow is one of those, well, I don't see how he's going to get past it. He's willing to fight a pitched and angry keyboard battle to avoid getting unstuck.

What's worse, is that this doorknob is promulgating this same crap. While one chap might be perfectly happy with rules-based pictures, and more power to him, he's creating more people similarly bound, and some of those people are going to hit the wall, they're going to feel it, they're going to know it, they're going to be frustrated by it.

Then when they ask their mentor, doorknob guy, how to get unstuck, he is going to suggest buying a macro lens and experimenting with oil drops on water, or something. The doorway to some totally new domain of crappy copies of utterly uninteresting exercises in technique.

Way to go, doorknob guy.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Luminous Endowment

I am disappointed to notice that The Luminous Endowment appears to have, if not folded up shop, at least stalled out. No grants since Novemeber 2017, and only a brief announcement that 3 of the 10 or so listed grants have been closed because of lack of funding.

The DxO grant might have been impacted by the financial implosion of DxO, but I have no guesses as to what has happened with the other grants.

All grants are currently listed as "Closed" on the Grants page.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Bowen Island, British Columbia

My family took a short vacation to this place, not too long ago, the details of which are neither here nor there.

I took some photographs and there were some things happening, which have prompted me to do a little research and think about some things, and so here we are.

Bowen Island is located at the mouth of Vancouver's outer harbor (Vancouver, British Columbia, west coast of Canada), in a sound (Howe Sound) that leads north. Vancouver proper is south across the harbor, and further in to the east a bit. About 10-15 miles by water, depending on where you're going. In the early twentieth century, the island was a tourist destination for people from the city, with multiple steamships heading out there daily. At various times various vacation indulgences were available. Day trips to sunbathe and ride a carousel, overnights, evening dinner and dance trips tucked back in bed at home by midnight. Other times, other people, stayed overnight, or for a week, or the whole summer long.

This was a common theme at least in the United States. On the east coast, people with sufficient funds (this went down as far as the thrifty schoolteacher) would vacation at "the lake" or "the shore" depending on their tastes. Coney Island to the Hamptons. My in-laws began visiting Lake Winnipesaukee in those days. Vancouver in the same era had Bowen Island.

More or less between the world wars, cottages were erected for rent. By the week, by the season, or year around. Small, 1 or 2 bedrooms, a common area, a tiny kitchen tucked out back under a shed roof. Tons of charm, comfortable and quaint. Sometimes with water views. Often, I dare say, with water views. Bowen is essentially a low mountain sticking out of Howe Sound, you have to work a bit to avoid sightlines that touch the water.

In the 1950s car ferry service arrived from Horseshoe Bay (the ferry route indicated in the map, above), first from a private firm, and then from the "nationalized" version of the same firm (the province bought them after a strike). This service has a different character, as it originates from more or less the furthest point west in the metro Vancouver mainland, rather from the centers of population. Today, this is the only service to Bowen Island, and it is essentially an extension of the highway system. The modern British Columbian ferry system is built entirely this way, to maximize the time on roads and minimize the time on water. While efficient for cars, it leads to a very car-centric system built around ferry terminals in far remote locations.

Artists of one stripe or another have been living and working on Bowen Island since the earliest part of the 20th century. At present, they represent something of an "old guard" of residents on the island. While the old guard is surely not all artists, the artists are more or less entirely old guard. They are part of what make the island desirable, fun, and interesting. There are no shortage of places to purchase poorly made pottery, a slapdash painting, or some trite photographs of tall birds standing in short water.

This old guard is, of course, in conflict with the newcomers. Since Vancouver began spiking wildly in the 1980s or so, Bowen Island has increasingly been the weekend getaway spot of the white and affluent. They don't want a quaint cottage, they prefer to own a modern home in what resembles as closely as possible a modern suburb, except with a better view and maybe a place to put their boat. And so they do that. The artists, on the one hand, like selling slapdash paintings to wealthy dolts, but dislike both modern suburbs and large boats, to say nothing of deplorable wealthy dolts.

As you can imagine, this leads to friction. The wealthy dolts and the old guard exist in an inextricable and not entirely friendly symbiosis, in the same way gentrifying dolts and sloppy artists live in every artsy little district undergoing gentrification (i.e. all of them).

This has manifested itself in the Davies Orchard.

At the ferry terminal, in Snug Cove on the island, a man named Davies planted an orchard, 100 years ago or thereabouts. This orchard now lies, according to the historical society Bowen Heritage, in the heart of the village of Snug Cove. I can attest that while this is true, it also lies on the outskirts, and indeed somewhat outside that self-same village, on account of the village being very very small indeed. Davies rented tent platforms to campers in the very early days of Bowen's tourist industry. In 1928 a group of cottages was built in the orchard itself, and the remains of this group is essentially the last of the historical cottages which formerly dominated the island.

When we arrived on our vacation, 9 cottages remained. 4 are available as rentals by the week. One houses Bowen Heritage, and another houses a museum.

When we left, there were 6 cottages remaining, as the 3 not counted above had been stripped hulks when we arrived, and were demolished when we left.

The old guard, the hippies, had left a single sign printed on two sheets of letter sized paper expressing their disappointment with the failure of the various relevant organizations (they are legion) to preserve the vital and significant history blah blah blah, but nobody bothered to show up for the demolition. Nobody lay down in front of a bulldozer. Bowen Heritage has a web site which has not been updated in at least two years.

The fight for history appears to be over. The orchard and much of the surrounding area is being folded into a large, already existing, park well suited to day activities. There is a softball field, where the local men play softball (men's softball? say what? they're very very in to it on Bowen Island, uniforms and the whole bit. Recall that, these are for the most part affluent white people.)

It's still a great spot to go for a day or a week. The island is no longer filled with quaint cottages, but it is filled with AirBNBs, VRBOs, and honest to god Bed & Breakfasts, invariably in four season modern homes in modern suburbs, but usually with a good view and access to a beach. Mainly you drive there, the ferry ride a short blip in which you are not actively piloting your vehicle for a few minutes, before you drive off the ship and into the thoroughly modern suburb where you will vacation.

You can purchase some art, take short hikes through classic Pacific Northwest Forest, walk your dog, buy an ice cream cone or a latte or, no doubt, some fudge. It is Island Living, still. But different. The frenetic and highly social days of closely packed cottages and dance floors with live bands on the waterfront are over. The carnival atmosphere, if it ever truly existed, is gone, each of us vacations in our sealed bubbles. Perhaps we exchange a few words over breakfast with the elderly couple also staying at the Bed & Breakfast before going to do our own thing, purchase our own blotchy mugs and splatchy paintings, hike our own dog around the point, and rent kayaks with our own family for a clumsy paddle in the afternoon.

The cottages, though, are largely gone. And not without reason.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Enlightenment! Truth! Propaganda!

Across the world we have people complaining about Donald Trump. Politicians, software engineers, artists, photographers. Colbergs.

A not uncommon theme is the notion that Enlightenment Values of reason and logic have abruptly fallen by the wayside, discarded by a madman, and replaced with wild delarations about FAKE NEWS and whatnot. The world, in the minds of many, is divided in to Before Trump and After Trump, and in the BT people were swayed by reason, by common sense. Why, a man could effect change with a properly formatted syllogism!

This is utter BS. What makes Trump distinct is that his lies are misaligned with the lies his own administration drags out. His wild-eyed and nonsensical stories are, as often as not, the exact opposite of the wild-eyed nonsensical stories peddled by his own staff. That's genuinely interesting and new, but the lying part isn't new at all. These are, and long have been, people for whom truth isn't an interesting idea.

What is infuriating to see from the Colberg set is the hand-wringing "whatever shall we do? this is unfamiliar territory!" narrative. Are these dopes so dumb as to be unable to make the leap from the fact of propaganda in general, and the Farm Security Administration photographs in particular, to this modern context?

There are reasons that those in power find the idea of Truth to be uninteresting.

The first is that it is devilishly difficult to actually get your arms around. My daughter knocks a cup off the table, and it shatters. That is a fact. But what is the true story here? She was riding her scooter in the house, too fast, and not completely in control. But also my other daughter left the cup on the edge of the table, on a placemat. The placemat had slipped partially off the table, so a corner was hanging over the edge, because Dad was distracted by the dog's whining to go out as he tidied up the table. It was that stray corner of fabric that the younger daughter brushed as she scooted past.

Is it the dog's fault that the cup was broken? Or was the root cause Dad's carelessness? Or is it the older daughter's failure to bring her cup back to the kitchen?

These things unpack indefinitely, back to the Big Bang, if you're not careful. A proper and Truthful Account of the Incident of the Cup unravels things to a degree, but not to the ultimate degree, and assigns cause in a just fashion. I am put in mind of the accident reports produced by the NTSB (which investigates transportation accidents here in the USA, with a degree of rigor and, well, taste, which simply has to be read to be grasped.)

The second reason power finds Truth uninteresting flows from the first. Given the inherently squishy nature of these things, the world lends itself to selective telling. If you're good at this, you can stick to factual statements, and still shape the tale to your own ends and give, ultimately, an impression which suits you best. It may or may not resemble the actual state of affairs as others might see it.

Power, having ends to which it would like to shape stories, finds this irresistible.

The official story of the killing of Osama bin Laden and Seymour Hersh's story of the same agree on almost every single factual detail, but are completely different stories. The former, naturally, makes the government of the USA look a lot better.

Imagine, if you will, a boxing match between Bob and Abe. Bob was awarded the win by the judges, having handily beaten Abe in the first two rounds, and finally knocked him out in the third round. How might one mis-report this?

One might report this with a photograph that was completely contrafactual. One might photoshop Abe into a frame showing his arm held aloft by the referee, indicating victory.

One might report this with a factual photograph taken in the first round in which Abe is shown smashing Bob in the face, Bob reeling backwards with his his face distorted by the force of the blow.

One might use a series of pictures, which the viewer would take as a representation of the ryhthm of the fight. You could show Abe consistently beating Bob down, with Bob finally landing a lucky shot in the middle of round three, apparently winning almost by accident.

The first would be the Trumpian mode. The judges, if they saw your report, would say "But.. that did not happen." The others would be the mode of a competent world leader. The judges would be unable to say that none of the pictures are true, but would likely hem and haw about "it wasn't like that" but would be easily discredited by demanding that they point out exactly which picture it is that's untrue. The truth, NTSB report style, is a subtle and nuanced thing, too complex to be grasped quickly, too complex to be summarized in a few sound bites, a few photos.

Now, you could argue that if you simply photographed Bob with his arm held up by the referee, indicating his victory, well then you'd have the Truth. And certainly that would be more true than the false reports I suggested. But it would not in any meaningful way be The Truth, it would simply be a shorthand easily grasped symbol that happens to align with what a sensible person would agree to be The Truth.

In the real world, few things have as clear and simple an answer as "to which contestant did the judges award the victory", the real world, especially the political one, has rather more issues which take the general shape of, "So, tell me, how did World War I start?"

In this sort of world, there is no simple summary. There is no single thread of story that sensible people would agree is true. There is only the mass of detail, of nuanced and subtle analysis.

Why did Hillary Clinton lose the presidential election? Was it because she labelled a mass of people "deplorables?" Was it because she did not campaign in the state of Wisconsin? Was it this? Was it that?

There is a long list of things which, if she had done any 1 or 2 or 3 of them differently, she might have won. If there are 50 things on that list, which one can you reasonably describe as "the cause" of her loss? What, in reasonable terms, is "the cause?" Well, none of them and all of them. There is no glib answer here, there is only the mass of detail.

When you have these masses of detail, these stories in which The Truth if present at all is multi-faceted and complex, there is an opportunity to carve out a narrative. Any selected thread through the mass will be, in a sense, a lie. If it be not a lie, well then it certainly is not The Truth.

Confronted with these complex and subtle stories like "Why did WWI start", "Why did Hilary lose?", "Why does Poverty Happen?" and so on, we can imagine that a person might dig through the mass of material and analysis, and having carried out a complete survey, develop a sort of gestalt understanding. Then we might imagine that many people did this, each arriving at their own gestalt.

Do these various broad understandings, arrived at by honest, earnest, and reasonable people generally agree or not? One might imagine a sort of cloud of these understandings, one point representing each person's view. Is that cloud diffuse, spread out all over the place? Or is it a dense mass? In the latter case, one might say that there is a sort of Truth to the whole thing, a fairly clear, more or less agreeable-upon notion of What Happened. In the former, perhaps there simply isn't.

And so when we carve out a narrative, a single thread, a voice, which takes on a particular viewpoint, is there even a Truth for that narrative to align with? Perhaps there is, perhaps there is not.

If that cloud of hypothetical gestalts of understanding be diffuse, then there really does not seem to be anything one can do except tell this story or that, according to your lights. There is nothing in play that really resembles a Truth. No judges agreed that Bob won, there's really just a mass of material and myriad interpretations of it, peppered through with the occasional fact like "the bridge collapsed" and "the dog died".

If that cloud of hypothetical gestalts be dense, coherent, then perhaps there is a Truth, roughly speaking, that one's narrative might align with.

That narrative would not be true, such a single thread, a single opinion, a single slice, will not an any meaningful way explicate the truth of the matter. At best it will be a symbol, a representation, which might align with some notion of Truth, if these even is such a thing.

Life magazine, it is generally assumed, provided us with wonderful picture-drive narratives that aligned with truths, where possible. I have in my hands an issue for October of 1946, with a little photo essay on the death sentences handed down at Nürnberg. We see before and after photos of Göring, Ribbentrop, Funk, Streicher, Raeder, and Hess. The before are generally official portraits from during or before the war, the men look well fed, arrogant, proud. The afters are from the trial period, and then men invariably look desperate, haggard, usually thinner. We have a photo of the transcript room, essentially a sea of paper, and a caption referring to millions of recorded words.

Turning the page we find photographs of the wives and children of some of the convicted, along with a few more or less random personal notes. So and so was a minor actress. So and so was rude to the other wives. A little personal touch.

In 4 pages, 18 photographs, and a few lines of of text, Life gives us the Nürnberg trials. These men, bad men (Striecher is a "Jew-baiter", Göring shifty, Life is not pulling its punches) have been tried, at great length and detail, have been sentenced to die, and have already paid a substantial toll. Their wives and children are ordinary women, suffering as well, grieving as one might expect. These men were not only architects of great evil, but also were people with wives, children. Parts of their existence were quite ordinary, parts were extraordinary, and their end will also be.

Is this Truth? Sure, the pictures are indexes, the facts described are factual, and even the overall impression is probably not something any sensible person would disagree with. Is it complete? Certainly not. Is it almost hilariously trivializing of a monumental moment in modern history? Yes. Yes it is.

The FSA photo archive is, I suspect, one of those veins of narrative drawn from a mass of detail which itself admits no agreed-upon truth. There is only the detail of the depression, of the plight of the American Farmer in that time, of the dust bowls, of the migrations. Nonetheless, drawn from this mass Roy Stryker drew a tale of the basic resilience and strength of the American, especially the rural American. He drew a story of trials faced with iron will, of struggle, of difficulty to be, inevitably, overcome. He drew from the mass of detail, a strong and clear argument for the power and influence of the Farm Security Administration. It is well documented that he did so deliberately, with real ability, according to a set of methods that were in no way mysterious.

Again, the pictures are indexes, the facts are (mostly) factual. The story given is in no meaningful way Truth, because there is no meaningful over-arching Truth here, there are only details and situations, individual stories, and the facts of the weather, the price of cotton, and so on.

And so on and so forth.

What is missing in this modern era is not an understanding of the methods. What is missing is the organization skills to make something happen. We see occasional photo essays here and there, notably the New York Times occasionally puts together a handful of pictures. But the NYT has sold its credibility with the masses long ago. We're left with dipshits like Reading The Pictures with their endless sneering pseudo-academic virtue signalling. We're left with dipshits like Colberg, bleating about how awful fascism is (again, mere virtue signalling).

Nobody is taking a strong editorial stance, backed up with credibility, to carve those stories out of the mass of detail. The press is trapped in some hideous middle ground between toadying to corporate masters and some half-assed attempt at even-handedness.

It's some sort of minor scandal when some photograph of a weeping child turns out not to have been one of the children forcibly removed from its parents by the recent catastrophic ICE policy here in the USA. Who cares? There were children removed, and they wept. This is not a picture to back down on, this is a picture to double down on. Why are we not seeing strongly positioned photo essays produced on a daily basis?

The methods are clear and well known, the motivation appears to be there, if we measure by the sheer tonnage of pearls being clutched.

The left appears to be in the hands of basically stupid people focused on their careers. Virtue signalling is the proper path to career advancement on the left, not strong editorial positions skillfully executed, unfortunately.

Friday, August 3, 2018


We're seeing a lot of discussion online about Nikon and Canon introducing new mirrorless camera lines shortly. As is typical, there's a lot of chatter of the form boy they have a hard row to hoe, they better come out with someone incredible if they're going to stem the Sony tide. This is silly and wrong.

This is akin to suggesting that when Chevrolet was planning to introduce automatic transmissions that their cars had better have wings and jet engines in order to stem the inevitable onslaught of Oldsmobile's Hydra-Matic. Of course Chevy didn't have to do anything of the sort. What Chevy needed to do was quite different. They needed to convince the buying public that a Chevy with an automatic was still a Chevy. Chevy merely needed to persuade people that whatever it was that made people buy Chevy cars (good value car for a relatively inexpensive price, sufficiently reliable, and so on) was still present in the version with the automatic transmission, and that the automatic transmission made the whole experience sufficiently better to justify the additional cost for at least some buyers.

Chevy was an established brand, with a great deal of what is termed "goodwill" in business parlance, when the automatic transmission was introduced. They had an established base of existing customers, and a large base of potential customers who, while they may never have bought a Chevy, had a clear idea of what "Chevy" means and could potentially be induced to buy at the right moment.

Mirrorless technology, with electronic viewfinders, has been coming for a long time. Right now Sony has been doing well with a line of these cameras in what is termed the Early Adopter market, the technophiles, the people who want to have the latest and greatest and are willing to suffer a bit for it. Sony cameras are, to be blunt, notoriously a pain in the ass. They're too small, they're buggy, they're difficult to use in myriad ways. And, they get talked up among Serious Camera Owners.. excuse me Photographers... as the second coming of Jesus. This is classic Early Adopter stuff.

Canon and Nikon, to be blunt, don't give a shit about Early Adopters. They want the mainstream.

It looks from here in the cheap seats as if the big two have decided that this is the time mirrorless makes the leap to the mainstream. The technology is mature, the Early Adopters have done their work, creating a zeitgeist of "mirrorless is the future" which is starting to resonate with the mainstream buyers. Mainstream buyers are, to some degree, starting to look in to maybe making the switch. They're suspicious of Sony, because when they dip into the photo press it's a mess of obvious hype and bug reports. And the cameras just look weird. And doesn't Sony make radios, microwaves, and movies?

Canon and Nikon have to be Chevy, today, and persuade people that these are genuine Canon and Nikon cameras, with all the goodness that goes with those names (whatever that goodness is), just slightly updated to the latest technology to make the picture taking experience a little bit better, a little bit more modern. The can still botch it, of course, there's no guarantee that they'll succeed. Sony could make that leap to the mainstream and become the dominant player.

This is not a technological competition at all, this is a product marketing competition. Can the Big Two build solid "whole products" that integrate into the brand well? Can they translate their goodwill into the new area? Can Sony build a good "whole product" and persuade the mainstream that their cameras and the accompanying ecosystem are mature, seamless, reliable, easy to use, and appropriately priced for the mainstream market? Can Sony overcome the "but they make microwaves" barrier?

Any outcome is well within the realm of possibility. Anywhere from 0 to 3 of the players (Canon, Nikon, Sony) could end up with a substantial mainstream market in mirrorless cameras. The current positions of the companies mean that Sony's path to success is quite different from Canon's and Nikon's.

But the big kids do not have to produce some astounding wunderkamera, and to do so would be a mistake. They need to make the same-old-same-old, only better. And they have to do their marketing properly.