Friday, September 28, 2018

Crit: The Phoblographer's "Emulsion" Magazine

Having cleared away the underbrush, I will now actually review this thing. I will repeat some things from my rather lengthy design study, since some readers may have found (incredible!) those extensive notes overlong and tedious.

The zine contains work from an even dozen photographers, and has two essential components, text and pictures in about equal acreages.

The text from each photographer is provided by the photographer, and per the application requirements contains some biographical information and the answers to some questions like "Who are your influences?" "How did you get started?" "What is your process?" "Why do you shoot film not digital?" and so on.

The pictures are about 1 dozen photos per photographer.

Overall it kind of works, as a kind of sample platter of photography. Here are some film-loving hipsters, and here are the pictures they made. There's breadth of material here: one has heavily hand worked negatives and prints, another has a whole body of double exposures, there's street photography, portraits, fashion-ish, and a few landscape-y things.

The pictures look to me less like film, and more like a hipster millenial's idea of what film looks like, about which more anon.

But there are some decent photos in here! As long-time readers know, I believe that any photo can be good, can make sense, in the right context. The nature of this project is that there is no context, essentially all these pictures are hanging out alone trying to be something. This is firmly in the tradition of the Single Iconic Picture style. As single pictures, there are about equal parts: Picture of hot girl, Competent example of some form, and Rubbish. There are also a small handful (less than ten) genuinely standout pictures that are actually pretty strong and interesting as standalone photographs.

So, this isn't terrible. I assume that many of you would find about the same ratios, but you might well reclassify things. My rubbish might be your standout. But I bet our choices would line up quite a bit, too.

Is it inspiring? I gotta say it might be, to the right person. There's a lot of ideas in here, executed well or poorly, they're ideas. In that sense it's pretty good. It's better than looking at instagram or pinterest, that's for sure.

The text comes from Chris's idea that we should get to know the artist, which is a worthy goal. The trouble with stacking 12 of these things together is that you start to see roughly the same answers over and over. It is tedious, and also reveals something: when you "fill out an application" like this, you answer with some mixture of honesty and what you think the application-reader wants to hear.

We see the same names dropped over and over as an influence (but we never see any visual indication of an influence). Ren Hang is mentioned twice, but in the first place he's clearly not an influence on these photographers, and in the second place he died and was all over the photo news at precisely the time these applications were being filled out. Hmm.

We see the same answers over and over for why film over digital.

The bio information is potentially interesting -- I find it dreary in the extreme, but I think normal people like it. Occasionally there is something about process that's interesting, but more often it's gibberish.

Providing us material as-written from a bunch of artists seems to be to have been a mistake. Many of these artists don't speak English as a first language, and this material is essentially just a piece of email anyways. Mangled sentences, half-formed statements, and typos abound. This is by no means the fault of the photographers, they are mostly not writers. They've simply been hung out to dry by editorial choices.

Overall, the text is probably a 5 out of 10. I'm sure some people will enjoy it, especially if they only read their own, or their friend's. Reading all 12 is a bit of a slog.

Back to the pictures.

Part of my interest in this zine was to see if there was evidence that people were submitting digital photos as film, just to get published and get a copy of the zine. There's nothing conclusive, but there is evidence.

Let me start out by saying that a good fake is somewhere between very hard and impossible to spot. I know for certain that Chris cannot spot a good fake. Note that "film emulation presets" and so on are not good fakes, they are in general terrible fakes which generate not a film look at all, but rather a hispter's wild misconception of a film look. Any evidence is going to be in badly made fakes. I looked specifically at blown highlights and grain/noise.

These are a couple photos in here that have very digital-looking highlights and what looks a lot more like digital noise than grain, to my eye. There are a lot of photos in here that look a lot more like "film emulation" than film. There is a startling lack of visible grain structure.

So, while there are a couple I would tentatively point out as likely fakes, the overall sense is that there's gotta be some in here someplace. When you're surrounded by Elvises, there's probably an impersonator someplace in the bunch.

Would I recommend this for the current list price of $45? Not in a million years. Chris's price for this thing is $21.99, he wants you to give him a clear profit of $23.01 per copy which is completely bonkers. Maybe he passes some of this on to the photographers? I dunno. I dare say they're not exactly flying off the shelves.

For $45 there are literally 1000s of better photo books out there. Buy one of them. But if you can pick one up used for a few bucks, or if your friend has one, flip through it. You might get an idea or two.


  1. Having done film photography on and off for some six decades or so, I find much of the film/digital discussion/obsession amusing. The last time I taught Photo 1, I realized, in retrospect, that one or two students might have snuck inkjet prints past me as silver gelatin prints. I had never even thought anybody would try that, and so wasn’t looking for it. What amuses me now is the earnestness with which some photographers post shitty black and white darkroom prints, very proud of their accomplishment. 99.9 percent of the time I do not see any reason to work in film, other than for one's own enjoyment. To me, the output just doesn’t merit the hoopla involved. This doesn’t mean that process doesn’t matter. Sally Mann’s wet-plate Southern Landscapes are superb, and much of what makes them so outstanding is the process used.

    1. I am hardly one to complain if someone says that their process, whatever whackiness it may include, is important to them. That said, the people contributing to "Emulsion" are for the most part hipster types (or selling TO hipster types) who are hoping that film materials and film processes will make either them or their work "special".

      It does not succeed.

      The pictures reveal nothing special. While it's possible these photographers would be even less special if they used digital, they are not achieving any particular heights.

      The exception is the heavily hand worked stuff, which, while it also uses a lot of photoshop, does definitely look distinctive and analog. I'm not convinced it's much good, but by god it looks different.

  2. Andrew, I have an editing question. At what point does one edit original, written material, that is in the vernacular. This is from a friend of mine whom I have been photographing for years and I want to put together some kind of publication, mostly photos, but of course, include her writing. My problem is at what point do I lose the authenticity of her voice, and at what point do I cause embarrassment by not editing?
    Here are examples:

    “Let me tell you a story about my roots. I come from a small farm so far back in the woods, as they say, had to pump sunshine my way but as a small child, it was home. The smell of pine in the air and the tobacco hanging in the barn drying from all the hard work that comes with it, but being the granddaughter of a farmer and a die-hard fisherman granddaughter my roots run deep learning how to farm the land and the water but little did I know that my life had just begun when mama showed me the life of sunset of the evening and where fiddler crabs cross at low tide the spider monkeys jumping from tree to tree and honeysuckle was lingering in the air…..
    The homestead set under large oaks we had shade to get over the heat and big orange trees to quench your thirst when night would fall. The bath house was the swimming hole which was right across the cabin ....1 bar of soap and a towel bathing under that big black velvet sky the light of the stars was like diamonds shining down on you. This was just as nice as having modern conveniences all cleaned up and settling down for the night. Grandpa would tell you stories of the wild hogs and panthers that was lurking in all the wood around us I knew the outhouse was outside the house and only a small flashlight to see by this night I would wait until morning to go…..”
    [PS – no need to publish this unless you would like to, and/or feel free to edit it prior to publication.]

    1. This is a really hard question ;)

      I think it is always acceptable to correct misspellings and punctuation things like "its" versus "it's" because those in no way change the voice (unless this is specifically represented as written material, say, a hand written note, where the errors may be an important "tell").

      For this sort of thing I can imagine two different directions.

      One would be a light edit, to break up run-on sentences and maybe clarify sense without altering the word choice and rhythm.

      The second would be to format it more like poetry. Let those long sentences run on like a stream and wash over you. Maybe indent each one differently, and use a wide margin with a small font?

      And of course always run it all by the original author!

      I would pretty much always dump the ellipses. That's a modern tic and I hate them ;) Use spacing instead!

      But that's just off the top of my head! It's a HECK of a lot easier if you decide to just rewrite it in your own voice, but I gotta say I love the flow of her writing.


    2. Many thanks, Andrew! Well, it ain’t easy. Yes, it is handwritten, on lined three-ring paper, with decoratives ‘scribbles.’ I have notes from another friend, on something else, and they are handwritten also, but larger on plain white paper, so there I can scan them and pretty much use as is.
      One of the particular challenges with this material is that it is only ‘a couple’ of years old, and was written by a woman in her thirties, so you can see how the ‘story’ is kinda mindblowing. Just reading the words you would think it was written by somebody in their eighties.
      If you are interested you can see a screenshot of a couple of pages of my InDesign layout on my blogspot blog. I don’t really keep that blog up-to-date, but this one I just posted a few days ago:
      I definitely do not want to re-write the story in my own words, nor do I think scanning the notes and using them with the photos would work. I might make a scan of them an appendix though.

  3. This may be an idiotically naive observation, but won't all these "film" photographs have been scanned by someone at some point, at which point any unique "film" qualities will have disappeared? Indeed, won't they immediately simply become inferior digital photographs?


    1. To me film photography nowadays is only ‘special’ or worth the effort, or special attention, if the photographer develops and prints their own film, making silver gelatin prints.

    2. That is essentially the fly in the ointment, isn't it?

      What you have is a digital picture of a physical object. If the goal is to simply make a picture of the thing that was in front of the camera, the analog stop appears to simply be stupid.

      If, on the other hand, you're explicitly photographing the photograph there might be a point. One of the artists, Kay Adams, presents us with pictures of heavily worked photographs. The reworking is at least partly by hand, and I will say that using photoshop to simulate the appearance of bleach and microwaves would be difficult.

  4. I think film photography is as much about camera touching as it is photography.