Thursday, November 29, 2018

Photography: AI Everywhere

To my longer-term readers: this is a pulling-it-togther post largely, but not entirely, redundant with other recent posts. It is intended for a somewhat larger audience.

There are two major trends in photography today.

The first is the ever increasing numbers of photos being made. I can't even be bothered to look up how many billions of photos are being uploaded to Instickrbook every minute or every day or every year. It's a lot. This is usually talked about in terms of how many photos there are, and how we are drowning in them.

This isn't quite right. Unless you're an instagram addict, most of the pictures you see in a day are still mass media: ads, news, entertainment. You see maybe a few hundred of those billions of snapshots. A picture of a movie star might be seen by a billion people, whereas your picture of your cat, or even of that pretty model, might only be seen by ten. The billions don't affect us much on the consumption side.

The billions are a reflection of how many people are now picture-makers. 50 years ago, maybe 1-2 percent of the world's population was a picture maker. Now, it's more like 20-80 percent, and rising. Is it reasonable now to say that basically every person on earth has had their picture taken? Has almost every object, every car, every hill, every waterfall, every beach has been photographed? If not yet, soon.

It's not really so many photographs! it's so many photographers!

A selfie styled using an AI, duplicated by cloning

Hold that thought while we take a look at the second trend: AI, neural networks.

All the top-end phone cameras use neural networks for something, be it Apple's Portrait Mode, or Google's low-light photography. We're changing from a world in which you pull pixels off the sensor and manipulate them in-place, leaving them fixed in their rigid rectangular grid except maybe for a little bit of cloning (usually). In the new world we will dump one or more grids of pixels (frames, exposures) into a neural network, and what pops out is something new.

Perhaps soon we'll see sensors designed to be handled this way.

Perhaps sensors will have some big photosites for high sensitivity, and some small ones for detail (noisy). Perhaps the Bayer array will be replaced by something else. Perhaps it would be reasonable to skip demosaicing, and let the AI sort that out. Take a couple of exposures with this crazy mass of different sized pixels, some noisy, some not, some overexposed, some underexposed, some colored, some not. Throw the whole mess into the AI that's been trained to turn these into pictures. At no point before the AI starts working is there anything that even remotely looks like a picture, it's twice as raw as RAW. Maybe.

But whether sensors go this way or not, AI/neural networks are with us to stay.

As a simple experiment I used one of the online AI photo tools to uprez a photograph of some fruit, which I had first downrezzed to 100x80 pixels. The tool gave me back a 400x320 pixel picture which it created.

It looks a bit soft, but it's not bad, and it's much much better than the 100 pixel mess I gave it to work with. Here is the original, downrezzed to a matching 400x320 picture:

We can see that the AI was able to re-paint convincing-looking edges on the fruit, which were formerly jaggies from the downrezzing. The AI did not put the detail in the surface of the fruit back, obviously. How could it? While this is a pretty simple system, it is essentially painting a new picture based on the input (jagged) picture, and its "knowledge" of how the real world looks. Most of the little defects and splotches on the fruit are pretty much gone in the reconstructed one.

So, here's the key point: The uprezzed picture looks pretty real, but it's not. It's not what the fruit looked like.

There are really two areas where AIs can do things we don't want, and they're really simple. One is "what if they work wrong?" and the other is "what is they work right?"

Wrong is easy, everything gets rendered as a huge pile of eyes or kittens or whatever. It's amusing, maybe, but just wrong. What if the AI takes in a blurry picture of a toy gun, and repaints it as a real gun based on what it "knows" about guns? It's funny, or irrelevant, right up to the moment the picture turns up in a courtroom.

What about when it's working right? What happens when your phone's camera insists on making women's eyes a little bigger and their lips a little fuller and their skin a little smoother, and you can't turn it off because the sensor literally won't work without the neural network? Is this good or bad? It depends, right?

Apparently "snapchat body dysmorphia" is already a thing, with people finding dissatisfaction with their own bodies arising from their self-image as seen through snapchat. Retail portraiture often renders the subjects as a sort of plastic with worryingly intense eyes, but imagine what happens when you can't even obtain a straight photograph of yourself unless you know someone with an old camera.

Now put these two trends together.

Five years from now, maybe, pretty much every camera will have some kind of neural network/AI technology in it. Maybe to make it work at all, maybe just for a handful of shooting modes, maybe something we haven't even thought of. This means pretty much every picture that gets taken is going to be something that an AI painted for us, based on some inputs.

This means that in 5 years, maybe 10, not only will everything and everyone be photographed, but also every one of those photographs will be subtly distorted, wrong, untruthful. Whether we want them to be or not. Every picture of a woman or a girl will be subtly beautified by the standards of some programmer in Palo Alto. Every landscape will be a little cleaned up, a little more colorful. Every night photograph will be an interpolation based on a bunch of very noisy pixels, an interpolation that looks very very realistic, but which shows a bunch of stuff in the shadows that is just flat out made up by the AI.

We're going to have billions of cameras, from a dozen vendors, each with a dozen software versions in the wild. If there is a plausible scenario for something that could go wrong, at this kind of scale you can be pretty sure that somewhere, sometime, it's going to go wrong. Sometimes the AI will simply behave badly, and at other times it will behave exactly as designed, with lousy outcomes anyways.

The thing that makes a photograph a photo and not a painting is that it's drawn, with light, from the world itself. Yes, it's just one point of view. Yes, it's a crop. Yes, some parts are blurry. Yes, it might have been cloned and airbrushed. But with those caveats, in its own limited way, it's truthful. The new world, coming with the speed of a freight train, is about to throw that away. Things that look like photographs will not be, they will be photo-realistic paintings made by neural networks that look a lot like what was in front of the lens.

They'll be close enough that we'll tend to trust them, because the programmers will make sure of that. That's what a photograph is, right? It's trustable, with limits. But these things won't be trustworthy. Not quite.

These magical automatic painting machines, will be trained by the young, the white, the male, the American, by whomever, for use by the old, the non-white, the global. Even if you object to "political correctness" you will some day be using a camera that was trained to paint its pictures by someone who isn't much very like you.

There will be consequences: social, ethical, cultural, legal. We just don't know entirely what they will be.

Instagram Changes!

Instagram is making changes to allow alt text for the visually impaired. At first I thought "wow, that makes no sense" and then I realized that text is searchable in ways that pictures are not.

This initiative (powered by AI/neural networks again, by the way) has nothing to do with the visually impaired, and everything to do with making their pictures ever more searchable, every more advertisement-capable. It's another place where people can shove brand names of products they're definitely not being paid to endorse.

Will the automated/AI-powered text descriptions recognize brands? That would be awesome. Even if not, the manual variation will surely allow it!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

So. Many. Pictures!!!

It's probably been written about so many times that these articles are actually tailing off. I am pretty sure I have taken a swing at it a time or two myself, and probably said some dumb things.

As everyone knows, a billion or a trillion or a godzillion photos are uploaded to the internet every minute or day or year or something. So many photographs. It must mean something, it must have some impact! Usually people say that it's causing us to devalue photographs in some sense, because we are so very very awash in them.

Except, here is the interesting thing. We are not awash in these pictures. Depending on your habits, you might see 10, 100, maybe 1000 of these photos uploaded by the phone-waving unwashed masses. A billion photos are uploaded, but you are not looking at a billion photographs. One photograph of the Duchess of Cambridge gets viewed a billion times. Your photograph of a cat is viewed 10 times. A billion photos of cats has, from the consumption side, the same weight as 10 photographs of Kate.

My personal consumption of photographs is, like everyone else, almost entirely mainstream media: ads, entertainment, news. These are thrust at me a dozen at a time, every few seconds that I spend online. Only when I go to social media do I see anything from the much-talked-up billions, and then at a remarkably slower rate. Even a devoted instagram-scroller is consuming a 1 photo every couple of seconds. At 10 hours a day, this insane slob is consuming 18,000 photos from the billions.

Flip through a print magazine, and you'll get, I dunno, a couple hundred pictures. Flip through a news web site, at this very moment there are something like 60 photos on the front page of If you're like me, you're seeing a few thousand photos a day. Mostly mainstream media, a few Serious Photographs (I usually have a photo book or something lying around for a bit of a read for a few minutes here and there during the day), and a few hundred of the social-media photo storm. If you broke every phone camera on earth at this very second, my consumption of photographs tomorrow would remain numerically much the same, and probably a little bit more pleasant.

No, the substantive change is not on the consumption side. There is no "devaluing" of photographs because we're exposed to so many of them. There isn't even any substantial extra exposure to photos.

The substantive change is on the production side. It is not that we look at more pictures, but that we take more pictures. In the 1970s there were sold a few million cameras a year. There might have been in 1980, I dunno, if we're generous, 100 million people with the capacity to take a photograph, or about 1 person in 50 on earth, about 2%. Now there are something like 70% of all humans own a cell phone, which means that not only can they take a photograph, they can probably upload it to somewhere. Even if we restrict ourselves to active Facebook users, it's something like 25% of the world's population.

It feels like the change from 2% photographers to 25% photographers is a lot more significant than a change from seeing 2000 photos to seeing 2200 photos per day.

What does that mean, though? Something to ponder.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Oh No! The Index!

Long time readers, as well as n00bs with some exposure to the right sorts of rather pointy-headed theory, will recall that straight photographs are considered as "indexes" of whatever the camera was pointed at. In general, you can take an arbitrary speck of tone or color, and trace it back to the original scene and say "that bit comes from that bit" for every bit. Slightly more generally, you could probably say something like this:

There is a breakdown of the index into a large number of very simple units, which breakdown has the property that each of the units can be uniquely identified as coming from a specific very simple, equivalent, aspect of the original scene.

So this covers raw files, but also things like spectral decompositions and so on.

The point of the idea of "index" is that is exactly captures how much truth there is, notionally, in a photograph. A photograph faithfully and truthfully records certain tone and optionally color aspects of a scene at a moment in time, from a certain angle. A photograph is not isormorphic to the world, but it is isomorphic to that and that is what makes photos photographs and not paintings, not drawings, not whatever else you might imagine.

It is from this extremely limited isomorphic correspondence that follows the so-called Truth Claim of photography which in its most straightforward expression is that a photograph is what it manifestly is -- an index.

All this shit is basically tautological. An index is more or less defined to be whatever the hell it is that a photograph is, and the "truth claim" is that a photograph is an index. Wow. Deep. But the point is to pick apart what the hell it is that makes a photo not a painting. That picking apart actually does turn over a few interesting rocks. So, attend to the rocks we just turned over, above, rather than the circle of definitions.

Enter machine learning, neural networks, and contemporary high end phone cameras.

Google and Apple at least, and the rest cannot be far behind, have built some cameras that use one or more physical cameras which, depending on mode, each take one or more photos in the sense of indexes, and dump this pile of bits into a thoroughly trained neural network to produce an output JPEG (or raw) file.

Now, I ain't no expert on neural networks, but I am pretty confident of this: You shove a bunch of data in, and a bunch of data comes out. The stuff that comes out is strongly and... somewhat predictably... related to what went in. But the relationship is very holistic. There is no "this pixel came from.. " in play here. Each individual pixel of output comes from all the pixels input, in ways that are often profoundly not obvious.

What comes out of these modern AI-driven cameras is not an index.

It looks like a photograph, it looks like an index. But it's not. And there are tells. Girls look prettier, with fuller lips and larger eyes. The tonal range looks a little funky, because it's actually built from a shitload of pictures made in total darkness. The colors are almost psychedelic. Whatever. Occasionally there are hilarious fails where the AI gets confused and renders everything as heaps of kittens. Ok, not yet, but we all know they're coming, don't we?

Ok, so what? We're pretty used to doctored pictures these days, right?

Here's so what: In five years a device that actually produces a photographic index is going to be a special purpose device, purchased for that purpose, by retro weirdos who produce very few photographs. Virtually every photograph we see five years from now will not be an index in any meaningful fashion.

When photography was introduced, it was a bit of a surprise that the indexing properties turned out to be important. Sure, some people quickly (10-20-30 years) skipped past it's an easy way to paint to this could be used to teach, or as evidence, or something. I'm not sure anyone saw the general public trust in photos coming, though.

Now we see that trust being thrown away not merely here and there as a conscious choice of the Photoshop-hero, but as a basic operating principle of actual device we call a "camera", and it's not clear what the long term effects are. Let's repeat that: Photographs, as cultural objects, are on the cusp of collectively ceasing to be indexes. The circular mess of definitions we started with is about to collapse.

We're already seeing people experiencing body issues because not only all the photos of everyone else online are weirdly beautified, but the photos they see of themselves on snapchat or whatever are beautified by the service.

What happens when it becomes literally impossible to get a straight photograph of oneself?

What happens when journalists ("citizen" or standard-issue) are all using AI-powered phones? Is Putin really sneering or did the AI just try go make him handsome?

Will someone start building special "forensic" cameras to produce photographs admissible as evidence? What happens in the inevitable 20 year interval while the legal system catches up, and people are getting convicted on the basic of AI glitches (or freed on the basis of postulated AI glitches)?

What other social consequences will there be?

Me? I am perfectly aware that I am a fat, old, white man. There's basically no way to worsen my body image, but what about all the young pretty people? Why won't anyone think of the kids?

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Art? Or Artists?

This piece in the New York Times is getting passed around in the usual circles: 8 Artists at the Paris Photo Fair Who Show Where Photography Is Going.

So, there's a bunch of problems with this piece. Not least it the fact that the piece makes no convincing argument whatever that this is the future of anything, we see nothing even remotely new here. These are all safe, comfortable projects retracing familiar, safe paths.

More important, to my eye, is the fact that almost nothing whatever is said about the work beyond how it is made. There is nothing (ok, there's 1 sentence, I think) about what the work might mean, what it is about. One could argue, I suppose, that since the piece is actually about the artists this makes sense, because there is a certain amount of material on the artists. So and so is gay, so and so is mixed race, and so on and so forth.

But that doesn't explain why there's so much material on how these objects are made.

To my eye it appears to be about equal parts "how it was made" and "who is the artist" with almost but not quite nothing about what the work might actually be about, what the point of making these pictures might conceivably be. While the work might be meaningful, powerful, insightful, I think it is telling that the way the work is being pitched is essentially "cool people using cool processes to make, well, whatever, who really cares?"

Now, this is the New York Times, which has long felt that whatever goddamned random jumble of words they choose to commit to paper is essentially the only thing that matters, but this piece seems especially egregious.

There's also the problem that John Steinbeck didn't live in the Central Valley, so I dunno what Louis Heilbronn is on about. Some combination of wanting to namedrop the big name, and confusion about details.

Anyways, this all seems to play into some kind of Warholian school of brief fame, as opposed to anything about making art that's worth a damn.

When you're talking about Art it's probably not sensible to ignore the presence of the Artist (most of the time). The Artist is hanging about the place. The processes are also lurking around. It makes no sense to talk about a sculpture without acknowledging that it is a sculpture with all the whatever-it-is that might imply in your discussion. Similarly, photographs. Or photographs printed on mulberry paper, wetted, and then sculpted. Sure, these are all real things, and we should not ignore them. They help us to define the edges of the work, if nothing else, in the sense that we don't wind up using the standards and ideas of, say, theater, to talk about a painting.

But you cannot substitute some things for other things. In the end, Art that doesn't provide an Art-like experience is lousy Art.

If you're attempting to generate that Art-like experience through the interestingness of the artist and the process, rather than via the work itself, well that's all well and good. Also, that's called Performance Art, not photography, not sculpture, not painting. Performance. Art.

And even then your performance ought to mean something, ought to have something to say, an opinion, an idea, an emotion. All too often even this is not the case. The name of the game, often, appears to be to dazzle the audience with enough confusion about just what the hell is going on here that they somehow miss the fact that there's no point to the whole operation.

Related to this are some remarks I made on Khadija Saye some time ago. We can discern in the love affair the European Photo Elite had with a bunch of tintypes she made just before her death much the same set of stuff. I argue, convincingly I think, that the very best we can say of these pictures are that they are almost completely opaque. For white euro-derived people like me all we're likely to extract from these pictures is a re-iteration of that oh-so-healthy "Africa! Mysterious Continent!" reaction.

But god damn the Artist has such a Cool story, and the Process is also Cool, and the pictures, well, whatever. Tellingly, all the discussion of this work was about the Artist, her tragic death, and the coolness of the process. Nobody seemed to have a clue about what the pictures might mean, how they might enlarge us, educate us, make us feel. They're just there and let's get back to the tragedy of Grenfell, ok?

I consider it perfectly possible that the work was in-progress, and that had it been completed it might have become a thoroughly remarkable piece of important art. But, as it stands, being a handful of tintypes of things I do not comprehend, and which I see no reasonable way to learn enough to comprehend, I am not seeing it.

If the point is "Hah! Got you, white boy, and your Orientalist reaction!" well, sure, but it's not as if we're lacking in pictures that do that. National Geographic produced 100s or 1000s of magazines filled with Africa! Mysterious Continent! And, to be honest, whatever there is in Saye's pictures, they feel far more sympathetic than that. I don't comprehend them, but they look a lot deeper than some cheap shot against racism, they appear to me a well of meaning that is beyond my grasp. But, I could be wrong, because at the end of the day I don't grasp a single syllable of it. Just as I am pretty sure the Voynich Manuscript isn't a collection of ribald jokes, I feel that Saye's pictures aren't just a cheap shot.

More importantly, nobody else seems to have any idea, and they mainly don't seem to care.

In contrast, I am currently working my way through this photo book, Firecrackers, which while by no means perfect does in fact manage to strike something of a balance between Artist, Process, and Meaning. It's a survey, and some of the work strikes me as better than other work, but in virtually all of it I am getting something out of the pictures. Supplied writing about the Artist and Process, while occasionally swerving dangerously near to the mire of Arty Bollocks, fills in the picture in interesting ways.

So, anyways. It can be done. Maybe not by the NY Times, but it can be.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Gap between Expectation and Reality

Luminous Landscape published more or less the standard piece (albeit a good instance of it) on why manipulation in photographs is OK. There's the usual business. Viewers ought to be OK with manipulations, because, reasons in this context or that although of course not in newspapers heaven forfend. This segues as expected into well all photographs are manipulated in a sense, right? with the implied result that a little Photoshop cloning when we've already adjusted the saturation, eh?

All this is generally just rationalization for whatever the photographer wants to do. Disagreement is interpreted, usually, as an attack and we're off to the races!

All the usual discussions are simply smoke, covering fire to prevent people looking at the real issue which is, as my title here suggests, the gap between expectations and reality.

There are times when a person approaches a photograph expecting it to, in some meaningful but squishy and difficult to define way, look real. Ansel Adams made photographs that did not objectively look real at all, but at any rate his goal was to make them feel real. If you've seen his pictures and also been to Yosemite, it's possible you have observed that his pictures do not look real, but the place does kind of feel like that, and people like his pictures. So, what truth, what reality people expect has a fair bit of wiggle room.

I managed to disappoint one of my readers (who we may safely assume stands in for a larger group, possibly notional) by taking pictures of people and hand-writing -- in my own hand -- testimony from those people onto the picture. The nature of the picture does indeed suggest that the writing is in the hand of the person in the picture, and mine are not like that. The expectation did not meet reality, resulting in unsatisfactory results for all of us.

It depends on the context, it depends on the viewer, but I think that to a very large degree it depends on the picture. If the damned thing is sharp and not obviously composited or distorted, odds are the viewer is going to think that whatever you pointed the camera at looked like that. Their expectation is for a certain degree of reality, and if they find that you cloned out a highway they're going to be disappointed to one degree or another. No amount of explaining how they ought to feel is going to change that, all that's likely to do is make the photographer, who feels attacked by the disappointment, feel better about his heavy-handed cloning.

This happens to connect up neatly with John Maloof's work on his archive of Vivian Maier's negatives.

Here again we have books which, to my eye, set certain expectations. Their authorship being attributed to Maier, we are led to believe that these things are somehow connected to her. These are perhaps the books or portfolios she would have made if only she'd had the chance. These are the collections that represent her, perhaps. There's any number of ways to interpret these things, but an intimate connection with the photographer appears in all of them. The expectation is that these are somehow, inherently, the work of the photographer or at any rate a best effort at it.

The reality, on the other hand, is something quite different.

First of all we know exactly what she would have done, which is nothing. She had plenty of opportunity to do many things, and simply had different priorities. The story of her demise in destitution is carefully laid out so that the reader will naturally extend it over her lifetime, leading us to imagine a stunted life of limited opportunity. In fact, Maier's life was more complicated, and she wavered between firmly middle class for much of her life and, for a time, was mildly well-off.

This leads us around to whether or not, supposing she had made different choices, how would she have chosen to represent herself? Or, how can a third party reasonable choose to represent the artist here? As detailed at great length in previous remarks here, or in the more recent posts focusing on Maloof, we can be pretty sure that the books we're seeing are none of those things (with the possible exception, I think, of the Selfies book which I suspect is roughly the last things she would have published, but might actually represent her as an artist best of all).

It's not that these are inherently bad books. In a way, a collection of vernacular photographs that show strong stylistic resemblances to the Great Photographers of the 20th century is a fascinating and wonderous document. It's just not Vivian Maier.

But, the gap between expectation and reality is large, here, and it should be noted and deplored.

Monday, November 19, 2018

fujirumors wtf

I am getting a lot of hits from the Fuji Rumors web site, which makes exactly zero sense. Is this just some robot faking a referrer to drum up traffic for Fuji Rumors, or is there actually, in defiance of logic and all that is holy, a link from there to here?

I'm not even sure why there would be a web site devoted to rumors about a mountain. How much gossip can there really be?

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Whence Greatness, Again

The title here refers to a post I made some time ago which long-time readers may recall at least a little. That post is still perfectly spot on, in that it more or less perfectly encapsulates my thinking on this. It might also provide relevant background for these remarks. Like every word I have ever written, it is pure gold, worth revisiting regularly.

Consider, if you will, the following thought experiment. Suppose one constructed a simple robot, which simply rolled about the streets of a reasonably sized city, taking square photographs with a normal length lens from about waist height. Yes, black and white, of course, what sort of animal do you take me for? Let say about one exposure, autofocused on something roughly near the center of the frame, every 5 seconds.

Turn it loose for for 700,000 seconds. Call it 20 days if we stick to about a 10 hour shift during the daylight every day. This produces an archive of, what hey, 140,000 pictures.

Will there be some good ones? Even stellar ones? Yes. There will be. Likely you would be startled by the occasional quality that would turn up. Before you get too het up, let us consider how these pictures would differ from those of the amateur with 100,000 photos on a huge RAID system, who to be honest probably has far fewer really good individual pictures. Our amateur, regrettably, almost certainly has any number of bad habits. He almost certainly "works" a scene, taking 10 bad pictures where 1 would do. He almost certainly has some stupid ideas he has borrowed from flickr, or instagram. He is quite likely burning exposures "practicing" things by photographing his cat using his new beauty dish.

Our robot, on the other hand, takes no duplicates at all. Because it is not fumbling with autofocus and exposure modes it does not understand, it generally gets pictures that are more or less properly exposed and properly focused. But mostly, in its little robot heart, every picture it takes is a brand new unsullied and completely earnest attempt to take a good picture of whatever is in front of the lens.

This is how I know that the robot would produce good work, albeit at a very very low rate: I have made myself into that robot. I have set aside my preconceptions, my bad ideas, my stupid tropes, and simply blasted away. The results were fascinating. If you have not performed this experiment, I highly recommend it.

Based on this, I feel comfortable asserting that while the rate will be low, there will be many hundreds of pictures which, with perhaps a moderate crop to account for the robot having not even the rudiments of framing but simply pointing at random, are pretty good. This one might look a bit like that one Stieglitz, that one a bit like an Arbus, and so on.

Now, there is no artist here. So of the three options I suggested in my previous remarks: 1. Find the artist, 2. Create a fake artist, 3. Pull out the greatest hits, only the last two are available. I am certain that the last two would be completely available, though. You could certainly pull out 10 or 20 things that are sufficiently reminiscent of "great photos" and mix them in to another 100 things that are generically pretty good and vaguely in the same style, and produce a book indistinguishable from Vivian Maier: Street Photographer. You could also produce probably several books that appeared to be coherent bodies of work by selected accidental repetitions of tics, tropes, ideas, and sequencing the resulting pictures carefully. The latter books would be far less marketable.

What is unlikely to happen is that you are able to extract a portfolio of work that is both coherent and appealing. God knows that the vernacular photography crowd can manage coherent, and occasionally they hit upon a particular tic that is humorous enough to carry a project. I am thinking in particular of one project (book? show? maybe just someone's inspired tumblr?) in which every photograph includes the cast shadow of the photographer. This, it is worth noting, means that all the photos are lit the same way, in addition to "including" the photographer, so there's a great deal of stylistic coherence here. And, it's kind of witty. But it certainly isn't great, or even important, or much interesting past a few chuckles and a flip-through.

Why do I think it would be hard to extract a portfolio that was both coherent and appealing?

It boils down, essentially, to statistics. If 1 in 100 photos is, at least a little bit appealing then we have 1400 candidates. Say portfolio needs to contain at least 50 photographs to be a meaningful "body of work" for an imagined artist. It's pretty easy to pull a coherent collection of 50 when we have 140,000 photos to choose from. It's lot harder when we have only the 1400 (or fewer) appealing ones.

This applies far more broadly than our little notional robot, by the way. With all these photographers running around with digital cameras, we see tons of people grinding out more or less appealing pictures that are more or less copies of other appealing pictures. The hand of the photographer is largely invisible in these, completely overwhelmed by the hand of whatever influences are driving the stupid pictures. More rarely, we see photographers grinding out coherent collections of pictures built around some sort of shared notion, some sort of an idea and very often these pictures are not particularly appealing.

This, fundamentally, is why the pre-1950 idea of the single great "image" is an idea that deserves to die.

In 1850 a good photographer was one who could reliably get any kind of picture whatever to appear on the plate. 50 years later this is now easy and the bar rises, you have to be able to place forms and tones and so on, to create a single appealing picture. This sticks with us as the underlying conceit, even though increasingly artists are in fact producing coherent portfolios of appealing (in some sense) pictures. There's a bit of a glitch when color becomes dominant, and then digital shows up. The bar rises again, because now literally anyone can take as many "good ones" as they like. Exposures are free, so just make a lot of them.

The fact that so many photographers somehow manage to produce no "good ones" at all is a social problem, as noted above, not a technical one nor one of talent/lack thereof.

Even I, saddled with my own set of bad habits and foolish tics, can manage to produce a couple of appealing pictures, a couple "good ones" in a year of a few thousand exposures, pretty consistently. Very few of them are worth a damn, though, because my ability to combine appeal with idea remains low.

No, the bar has risen, and the measure of a good photographer is now: can produce bodies or work that are both more or less coherent and appealing, around ideas that are at least roughly interesting.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Curator of The Estate

I was going to update this with a tl;dr executive summary, but then I said to myself "why would I do that?" and so I am not.

There are many things a curator might do, depending on circumstances. But, in one case in particular, a case of some interest to me, the curator is limited to precisely one job.

Suppose that you come in to possession of a collection of disorganized... stuff... as the result of someone's death. You might be Max Brod suddenly saddled with Franz Kafka's papers. You might be one of the several people who somehow managed to get the right to paw through Emily Dickinson's papers. You might be John Maloof, or John Szarkowski, with an immense pile of someone's undeveloped film. In all these cases, and many more besides, it might occur to you to whip this material into shape and publish something under the name of the original author.

It is this case that I am interested in, and in this case the curator's job is severely restricted. If you intend to publish Disckinson's poems under the name "Emily Dickinson" it is essential that you publish what is actually the work - the final result of the process of writing poems - of that person, as best you can. If you make up a bunch of your own poems, or edits hers into something quite different, then you are telling a lie when you publish the work under her name. It is immoral and wrong to do that.

Let me state it clearly, then: If you are the curatorial executor of someone's disorganized mess, with the aim of bringing to the public that someone's creative "work" you have a very precise job, and there is no wiggle room: To locate, within that disorganized mess, the artist, and to reveal that artist to the world through their work.

It may turn out, when you try to do the first part, that you cannot locate the artist. Perhaps there is no artist, perhaps it's just a mess. Perhaps it is beyond your power to locate the artist. This must surely happen a great deal. For every Dickinson there are thousands, or millions, of people who leave piles of paper with writing on them. The first couple of curators of Dickinson, if wikipedia is to be believed, performed their work shoddily.

There are indeed several risks here, and one of them is greatly magnified in the world of photography: whether or not there is anything worthwhile in the mess, it is altogether too easy to construct something out of it that is not the artist.

Don't believe me? I direct your attention to the seemingless endless masses of work being churned out based on "found photographs." If someone can build a coherent book around a collection of a few thousand Polaroids they have collected over the last decade or so, I can assure you that it would be as nothing to produce a dozen completely different but equally coherent books around Vivian Maier's negative stash. Alternatively, go out into a city and shoot 1000 frames without much concern or care, and then go home and see what you find. Suffice it to say, it is manifest and obvious that an insufficiently delicate curator could certainly manufacture something completely false out of a large stash of pictures.

Let us suppose then that you are able to locate the artist in there. This is a gestalt of stuff hard to categorize completely, but it certainly includes choices of subjects, stylistic tics, and bigger ideas. One might find several groupings of stuff, and thus end up trying to tease out this thread or that theme. I dare say it is difficult work, and the diligent worker will inevitably be plagued with worry that they are missing something, or that perhaps they are actually just inventing an artist by accident.

Indeed, what comes out cannot even at its best fail to be something of a hybrid. Even if you were gifted a completed, brilliant, novel and found a publisher for it there would still be the copyedit, and still commas would be removed by, well, by someone, commas that the original author might have firmly marked stet, let it stand.

And then we come around to John Maloof and Vivian Maier.

She left behind something like 140,000 exposures, of which John has, I forget, a lot. Could John have created any number of entirely synthetic "photographers" from this collection? Easily. Identify a handful of stylistic tics, pull all examples of those and put them into heaps. Cull a couple of the bigger heaps for related collections of subjects or conceptual themes. Done. This is literally SOP in the vernacular photography world. They do it every single day of the year, more often on holidays.

Now, this also is almost exactly what you do when you are as I suggest above "locating the artist" within the mess. The difference is that your time with the archive convinces you that the stylistic tics and subjects and concepts are genuinely indicative of the artist.

Consider this picture:

This definitely looks like something. The juxtaposition of the woman's legs in motion with the newspaper headline, it feels weighty. And sort of familiar, but let's set that aside. If we kept stumbling over these downward looking juxtapositions, that might suggest something. If we kept running in to feet next to other things, maybe. Or whatever. Based on what little is available, though, what I suspect is that this is a picture of a newspaper headline and the woman's feet are an accident. Maier liked headlines, she shot a lot of them. It's possible that she shot one at the end of every roll as a sort of date stamp, to be honest.

What makes the picture interesting, what will certainly cause the fans to coo, is the juxtaposition. Listening in, we'd be treated to breathless essays about the genius of the photographer, essays as free of ideas or content as they are of breath. We will never see another picture of this sort, however. Instead we will see a glum midwesterner seated vacantly behind washed out balloons. And then a man inexplicably hidden in a hedge. And then, just a newspaper. And then silhouettes on a green translucent texture that looks like a cheap copy of something Jay Maisel made. And on and on, no two photographs showing the slightest sign of being made by the same hand.

Lest you think it's just me, allow me to quote the Roberta Smith writing in the NY Times:

Maier’s photographs lack the consistent, indelible style of Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand or any number of her contemporaries. Instead they may add to the history of 20th-century street photography by summing it up with an almost encyclopedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction. Yet they maintain a distinctive element of calm, a clarity of composition and a gentleness characterized by a lack of sudden movement or extreme emotion.

Yeah. What she said. But you know, Roberta, there might be another explanation...

Whether or not there is an artist to be located in the Vivian Maier archives we may never know. What we do know for certain is that John Maloof has neither located, nor created, an artist. He has simply extracted a set of greatest hits, a marketable mess of unrelated gibberish which feels so familiar that we're willing to mistake it for excellence. He's simply pulled out the good ones, without any effort to pull out a coherent oeuvre (whether real or imagined).

The only reason this works is that so many photographers and viewers of photography remain locked into the notion of photography as the act of finding "the good ones." They, we, our community, tend to think of even a body of work as nothing more than a collection of excellent single pictures. It therefore does not jump out at most appreciators of the work, even the well educated and erudite ones like Mike J, that these collections are incoherent. Many of the individual pictures are excellent, after all, so it escapes notice that every picture might as well have been shot by a completely different photographer.

Maloof has not given us the oeuvre of an artist, even a fake one, he has given us the result of an editor pulling the best single frames from a gigantic pile. The output of an artist, even a poor one, does not look like this.

It is perhaps worth recalling, as a sort of aside, that John Szarkowski seems to have had difficulty locating Winogrand in those last few thousand rolls. I had a look myself, and I couldn't find him either.

Maloof has not merely failed in his duty as the curatorial executor of a woman's mess of stuff, he has not merely put perhaps too much of himself into the artist he's created, he has failed even to produce an artist at all. He's made a lot of money, though.

And therein lies the crux of the whole scam. A fellow accused me of hating on Vivian Maier for "transparently self-serving" reasons, but I assure you that my opinions and the expression of them have failed to serve me in the slightest. Nobody has given me any money, or even a light snack. I have received no invitations to speak, nor fellowships. As nearly as I can discern, no benefit whatever has accrued to me for expressing these notions.

Allan Sekula, however, no doubt received a small honorarium for his hagiographic essay, and there is no doubt in my mind that Meyerowitz also accepted a little money to write a foreword for the new book of color. Indeed, there is hardly a person involved who is not in a position to profit, here. A gallerist might stand up and say "this is a sham" but what would it profit him? Not one sou. If you're not making a profit off this very popular character yet, just wait, perhaps you will next year. There is literally no up side to pissing in to this particular breeze, so it is hardly surprising that we see very little pushback.

And, to be honest, I cannot shake the notion that guys like Sekula are willing to play along because whether or not they're even paying enough attention to notice, they do know that Maier is not important in the ways that matter. She's popular, she's a money-maker, but she's not going to be influential, she will never have any students, her work will spawn no theory, no schools of thought, no new insights real or imagined. All the essays are the same, simply droning on in vague terms about her skill, her observational power, her mysterious past, and so on. Her impact on photography as an art, as a practice, as a business, will be nil. Her impact on the business of making money off dead artists might be slightly larger, but seriously, even there it's pretty much business as usual.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

- Upton Sinclair

Friday, November 16, 2018

Photographing Poverty

I am making a little project of reading the LIFE essays by Gordon Parks, the black photographer and writer who produced quite a few important studies of the situation of black Americans for that magazine. Most recently, I read through "A Harlem Family" from LIFE Magazine's March 8, 1968 issue. Google books, happily, seems to have all or most of LIFE available online. It's a bit of a hassle to read this Enormous Format magazine on a small screen, and anything printed across the gutter has to be mentally re-assembled, but we make do.

Gordon Parks was sent out with a couple other journalists after the race riots of 1967 to go figure out, and then explain to LIFE's readers, what the hell was going on in the ghettos. Parks found a black family willing to be his subjects, the Fontenelles, living in Harlem. Over a period of some weeks he spent time with the family daily, learning their habits, moods, the patterns of their lives. He photographed these things, after a little while, and wrote a rather moving essay to go with it.

The piece put me in mind more or less immediately of the assignment from Fortune Magazine, given to James Agee and Walker Evans, to go out and similarly study the Tenant Farmer of the American South, and to similarly explain it to that magazine's readers some 30 years before Parks did his project. Both mothers, tellingly, despair vocally about their inability to make their homes "pretty."

The similarities are almost startling. Both are in-depth studies, performed on a timescale of some weeks, of more or less a single family (in the case of Agee/Evans it's an extended family spread over three nuclear families, but in a very real way it's still one family), living in abject poverty. The results are both very very similar, and also substantially different.

First, the families themselves. In many ways the Burroughs family (the center of Agee's study) is much more abjectly poor than the Fontenelle family. Their clothing is far worse, they have as near as I can tell no cash money and no friends who have cash money (more on this in a moment). Death is always very near: it is normal that many of your children will die, a serious injury is likely to end in death as no medical care worthy of the name is available, every service you might want to use or item you might want to buy is miles away and mostly you walk. On the other hand, the Burroughs have ample, albeit bad, food. They have work, much of the year. They have, curiously, access to quite a bit of credit from their landlord. The Fontenelles, in contrast, have access to medical care (although I dare say it's expensive). They can get to government services, which may or may not help them. When Mr. Fontenelle is out of work, he probably has friends who are working, and who therefore have a little money. This in turn allows him to get drunk.

Both live in deplorable conditions, with rats and other vermin. Both live in profoundly inadequate housing, with actual holes in the walls.

The Fontenelles enjoy what can be viewed in a way as a luxury: Mr. Fontenelle can beat the hell out of his wife, who can then throw boiling water laced with sugar and honey on him, sending him to the hospital. The Burroughs must consume all their energy with work, at least in the summer, it is not clear that violent relations are even possible. Mrs. Burroughs has no honey, nor sugar, and would not waste sorghum so. If either were to become severely burned, the consequences would be catastrophic for the entire family, and likely the person with the burns would simply die. Mr. Fontenelle can get drunk, Mr. Burroughs cannot, no matter how much he would like to, because access to both whiskey and the cash to buy it are simply out of reach.

The truly common thread here, which is shared entirely with their modern counterparts who live otherwise in circumstances both the Fontenelles and the Burroughs would surely consider unimaginable luxury, is that all families in poverty are trapped. They live within a system that demands all that they have in order simply to maintain their tenuous grasp on their living situation. Screw up, outside of whatever the acceptable boundaries are, and down you go to a level of poverty that is unimaginably terrible to you, and possibly to your death fairly soon.

So there we have the thumbnail. Poverty has very little to do with what little luxuries you can or cannot afford, but with a state of mind that arises from the fact that you are trapped, that you are expending all your effort merely to avoid falling, all with little hope for advancement.

But what about the photography?

This is very interesting, it turns out!

Both Agee in his words, and Evans in his photos, are at great pains to ennoble their subjects. Agee doesn't like Mr. Burroughs, but nonetheless waxes lyrical about the beauty of the endlessly patched and fragile garments the man wears. He mentions how lovely the cornshuck hats made by one branch of the family are -- beautiful but indicative of a very low social status, and so despicable. Agee shows the labor as crushingly hard, but even so seems to find a sort of mythic beauty even in that. Evans photographs of the family are likewise ennobling, showing them as tall, strong, charming, handsome, animated, curious, thoughtful. Evans depicts the interiors of the houses as a series of sort of shrines and elegant still lifes.

One comes away from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men not only appalled at the horrendous, crushing, poverty and the cruel system that inflicts it on these people, but also in a sense thrilled at the heroism and essential spirit of the people in the story.

In contrast, Gordon Parks work for LIFE does not ennoble the Fontenelles particularly at all. The pictures are dark, and ruthless in their cataloging of the depravity of the conditions in which the family lives. We see holes in the walls, we see rags and filth. We see Evans-like details, especially of the mother's inevitably fruitless efforts to make the home "pretty", but rather than Evans' reverential treatment we are shown the pitiable side of the business. We see huddled children, staring blankly, rather than the animated and curious faces of the children Evans photographed.

Interestingly, to compare Agee's writing and Parks' we might well conclude that the Fontenelle children are in reality far more engaged and animated than the Burroughs kids, but the pictures imply exactly the opposite story.

Insofar as Parks ennobles anyone, it is Mrs. Fontenelle who by his account is the only thing keeping this thing going at all. She is beaten, both in the literal sense, and in the sense of having lost, utterly, and of being exquisitely aware of that. And yet, she carries on, more or less because there isn't anything else to do. Agee suggests that, contrariwise, every member of the Burroughs' extended family carries on, beaten, because there isn't anything else to do. Some of the Fontenelles, one imagines, feel they might somehow have options, but none of the Burroughs do.

And so we have two stories, of two families. The family who is, in the particulars of living, objectively better off albeit just as trapped and just as essentially poor, is depicted in a tone and manner than suggests a far worse situation. The earlier family, in most particulars objectively far poorer but again just as trapped and just as essentially poor, is depicted with a tone and manner that makes them seem better off.

I find it fascinating how some things are reversed from reality in the reportage, and yet how the essential underlying reality of poverty is perfectly discernible in both cases.

Searching for explanations, one more or less immediately comes across some facts.

Parks grew up poor and, of course, black. He could more or less instantly identify with the Fontenelles, their story is his story. He escaped, as people occasionally do by some combination of good fortune, talent, and hard work. One could be forgiven for supposing that Parks displays his subjects without much nobility because he knows full well there is no nobility here. His sympathy seems curiously muted, but there you have it. These people are, for Parks, exquisitely real, as is their situation.

On the other side, both Agee and Evans are children of money. They are well educated, well off, and both quite definitely absolute snobs. The Burroughs family is something beyond their comprehension (in the same sense that it is beyond mine, and most likely beyond yours -- we can master and deplore the facts their story, but after some point we are unable to feel it and grasp it essentially, our empathy can carry us a ways, but not to the end of it.) It is reasonable to suppose, but unprovable, that they both chose to ennoble their subjects as a way of coping with the reality their noses were being rubbed in. Perhaps it was a way to find some sliver of good in what was so obviously unrelenting cruelty. Or maybe they were both just kind of effete idiots, prone to such blathering.

Anyways, there you have it. Perhaps by comparing these two things we can learn a little something about the condition of poverty, I don't know. I feel like I am a trifle wiser for it, perhaps.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Vivian Maier, Again

Confidential to David S.: You're welcome!

Mike over on ToP mentions Yet Another book by the (not even slightly) mysterious nanny, this one of color photographs. I have not seen the book, but if you flip through the color section of John Maloof's web site we find more of what we ought to thoroughly expect at this point.

All the pictures look vaguely like other pictures we've seen. This one looks a bit like an Elliot Erwitt, that one looks a bit like an Alec Soth, this one looks like some random contemporary MFA candidate's Serious Work (or like she pressed the shutter button by accident, I could go either way). Oh look, here's one where you photograph some random scene, but hold up some optical thing in the middle of it, to create a circle of upside-down and magnified (or whatever) scenery. Some of it looks like black and white photography that happens to be shot in color, a little bit of it actually looks like color photography, in the sense that color is actually playing a role in the picture.

You could certainly argue with whether I have Erwitt or Soth pegged properly, but the point is that we've seen all these pictures before, and not in the same place. This is an incoherent pastiche of vaguely familiar pictures, not the body of work of an artist, of a serious photographer.

That is to say, it is exactly like all the Vivian Maier books.

What is plain and obvious to anyone who hasn't been sucked in by the myth is that there is no Vivian Maier style here. Since she appears to be "copying" artists who post-date her, often by many decades, we are (again) drawn to the inescapable conclusion that this is entirely a work of curation. Again, we are left wondering what her pictures actually look like, when not clumsily sorted into these pseudo-derivative messes designed purely to sell books.

Is there, in fact a real Vivian Maier that could be discovered if we were not being spoon-fed these cheap copies of other photos? Or is it really just a mass of random snaps, large enough to pull a handful of highly marketable monographs out of, marketable if you wrap them up in a good enough story?

As an aside, I see that the amazon description of the book continues to pound the "mysterious nanny" story when in fact we know more about Vivian Maier than we do about Napoleon, and nobody refers to him as an enigmatic, mysterious, Emperor.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

I'm Not Even Sure What This Means

Someone, as you may recall, signed me up for some magazines (I assume Chris Gampat, in a fit of pique over my remarks on his terrible magazine), which subscriptions I cancelled immediately of course. However, this has not stopped them from sending me a few mags. Free magazines! Thanks, Chris! The most recent gift was a copy of Vanity Fair, which has a pretty good collection of fairly high end fashion adverts.

I love fashion photography. Not for the clothes and the girls, although those are certainly very nice. I like it for the sheer weight of artifice.

Here's an easy one.

Armani has been rocking this crazy out of focus thing for, at least a year I think? Anyways, check the color palette. It's pure slate greys, with a very slightly gold touch of silver in the strap of the purse. Which is echoed in the indistinct mass of decorative crap around the model's neck and chest. Very consistent.

So what? you say, this is probably a composite on a digitally drawn background, or at best in a studio.

Ok, look at this Coach ad:

The model is styled to the nines here. Skin tone, the glasses, the blouse, the coat, it's all the same ultra-warm brown tones. Beautiful, but just good styling. But look in the background. Those buildings in the distance. The same hue. Some are quite bright, maybe more yellow, but there's that one brick wall back there that's practically a perfect match for the fur on the coat. It's eerie.

Bottega Venata:

We've seen these colors already. Warm browns and slate greys are In. Ok, so they lit the phone booth to match her jacket. Good work, set crew. But wait, see those safety barriers in the background? Same damn orange hue as her lapels and purse.

House Dior:

Yeah yeah, same slate greys. Nice choice on the balcony doors, the whole balcony is all pale greys, a little slate, and blacks, just like the clothes. Did you spot it yet? Check the architectural detail in the background that hits the models at chin height. The shadows and stonework are the same yellow/orange as those absurd epaulets on the one model's jacket. Even the lettering at the bottom is yellow.

And last but certainly not least, Calvin Klein:

By now you should notice instantly that the trees in the distance are the color of faded denim. Nice detail of the railing hitting just at her waistline. But did you notice how the horizon lines hits their jeans? That's not an accident.

I love these things, because they are so very very made. The point of these exercises, surely, is to make the photographs feel fully controlled, to let the viewer know, mostly unconsciously, that these pictures were made by someone who was totally in control of every aspect.

I feel a kind of surrealist element here (which by the way D&G hits pretty head on in their ads) but since it's usually subliminal I'm not sure it really counts. These things, glanced at, appear to be just pictures of models, in clothes, standing around looking vaguely surly. Is there a word for "surrealist, but hidden, unconscious?" I dunno, but I feel like there should be one. If it's not just "surrealist."

Saturday, November 10, 2018

"Engages With"

The phrase "engages with" is one of the more irksome in the art world. Along with "necessary" which means "this thing aligns with my simplistic acadamy-approved leftist politics" it is the phrase that most vigorously provokes my temper.

Political change in this world occurs in precisely two ways: Someone votes for something, or someone shoots someone else.

Everything else boils down to persuading people to do one thing or the other thing. Ghandi and Martin Luther King worked quite hard to persuade people in legislative bodies to vote in certain ways. Lenin worked quite hard to persuade other people to shoot yet other people.

Politics, political action, therefore, must ultimately come down to asking people to either vote, or to open fire. At the end of the process, you need to persuade people to vote "Yes" or "No" on a specific thing, or you must provide people with guns, bullets, and an identifiable target. One step removed from that, you can talk about the general shape of things which ought to be voted for (or shot). You can step back a little further and talk about changes you'd like to see in the world, and what kinds of things we might choose to vote on, and who ought to vote for them.

Art which "engages with" an issue invariable takes another ten steps back, and merely deplores the way the world is.

This is, to be sure, a starting point. You've got to clearly delineate what's wrong before you can proceed through the next steps. You need to explain what's wrong with the world as it is before you can hope to open a discussion of what the world might be, and thence the discussion of things we might vote on (or shoot), and thence the discussion of wording and how to persuade people to vote, and thence the persuasion to actually vote, and thence the counting of the votes and finally the battle to see the results of the vote actually take shape.

"Engaging with" is easy. You simply pick out something all your friends deplore, and deplore it. There is no intellectual effort here to even work out what the next step might be, let alone any of the actually difficult slogging through the steps after that one. The game is entirely to develop new and ever more outré ways to express how sad you are. "I know, I will make a sculpture of Donald Trump out of my own shit" (except I assume that's already been done). I see no way that a fecal sculpture of Donald Trump leads to impeachment hearings, or even a US president from another party in 2021. It will garner shivery and excited reviews, though, which is rather the point.

Gene Smith's Minamata, one of my big touchstones here, details what happened inside the Japanese government and judiciary, it details the response of Chisso. Aileen Smith took a side trip to Canada to investigate methyl mercury pollution there, and identified specific things the government was not doing, what the government was doing that was insufficient and thwarted.

While the Smiths did not call out specific remedies, and did not call for so-and-so to be shot, they did dig deeper than simply deploring the situation in Japan and Canada. They named names, they called for specific actions. They provided a historical record as a template. They were not lazy, nor were they merely working hard but ineffectually.

Another personal touchstone. You might say that Sally Mann's work on racism is too far removed from concrete steps of political action, and it certainly does not do much more than detail and deplore the situation. I think her work is more of a personal lament than a call to action. I don't see it as an attempt, particularly, to foment change. Perhaps I am giving Mann a pass here, because of my fondness for her and her work.

There is no denying, though, that Mann is doing difficult emotional labor here. She is examining the world around her, but at the same time herself. While it might be a stretch to say Mann's photography is really about Sally Mann, certainly there is a lot of Sally Mann in there. One can usefully grasp the work as being about Sally Mann (whether it presents a true telling of her is another question entirely, but it is certainly a telling if not the telling.)

Art that "engages with" leaves out the hard political work of devising next steps, but also seeks to avoid the difficult emotional work of the lament for how things are. In this sort of hybrid of a call to political action and of a personal lament, the artists are able to pick and choose the bits and pieces, somehow always selecting the easy bits, the trivial bits, and leaving out the hard ones.

These people want to use the documentary methods, to retain their safe distance and avoid emotional, personal, labor. Yet they also do none of the work that ought to follow a political call to action. They abdicate all responsibility, in favor of the cheap and simple deploring of whatever it is that their friends agree is deplorable.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018


As it happens, one cannot become a mathematician without learning from other mathematicians.

Well, I dare say that there are occasional weird geniuses who could manage it simply by reading, but these people are extraordinarily rare. Math departments often have one or two unaffiliated but tolerated kooks hanging around the place who fancy themselves members of this rare breed, peddling their theories of quantum marshmallow gravity or whatever. They are tolerated, I think, because the main difference between these kooks and the Real Mathematicians is that the latter agree on their underlying system of abstract craziness, and can generally reproduce one another's fancies. Occasionally, some fancy or another manages to match up with the real world and someone can build the Hydrogen Bomb which always exciting.

In any case, mathematicians are aware, I think, that the veil between kookery and mathematics is fairly thin, so the quantum relativity guys are not dragged off by security as long as they don't pee in the staff lounge, or drink too much of the coffee.

Mathematicians are mildly obsessed with the family tree of master / apprentice relationships, who advised whose thesis, and so on. Also, with who has published papers with whom. Essentially all mathematicians can trace themselves back to Gauss, by one path or another. There is little in the way of "islands" in mathematics.

Hanging around with other mathematicians for many years is necessary to master the processes and techniques of mathematics. The kooks in general have no such mastery, but simply ape the general shapes of things, poorly.

A side-effect of hanging around and learning the methods, though, is that one also learns a surprising amount of aesthetics. The bearded fellow at the front of the lecture hall intones "A beautiful theorem of Banaschewski" and later your advisor, staring at your scribbled idea, mumbles "well, it seems right, but it's very ugly" and so on. A few years of this and you've got a pretty good notion of what pretty mathematics looks like, as opposed to the other sort.

The kooks may, interestingly, have some grasp on the aesthetics, but lacking the mechanics, being as it were an island of one worker with no connection to anyone else, they don't actually have anything interesting to say.


Painting is, I believe, similar. The methods and processes of painting are complex enough that if you want to be any good at it, you've got to hang around with someone who knows this stuff. You can struggle along with some books, but if your experience is anything like mine, you cannot really even learn to draw from a book, let alone paint.

In the process of learning how to get paint to stick to canvas, and how to mix green, and where to hold the brush, you're likely to learn something of aesthetics. Indeed, in the fine arts, it's likely that your teachers will be at some pains to pound some such notions into your head.

While Painting with a capital P may not be quite as thoroughly connected a family tree as mathematics, I do think that there are not too many small islands of thought, technique, and method. Mostly, everyone learned from someone else, and they learned from someone else, who collaborated with someone, and so forth. Perhaps not back to Leonardo, but many steps.

Consider now photography.

Photography is at its heart, as I have argued elsewhere, entirely a process of selection rather than creation. The mechanics of the process are so thin as to be negligible. The essential thing in photography consists of nothing but the aesthetic considerations, all those pesky issues of what it looks like, what it means, why is it good, or bad, or stupid, or monumentally important.

Photography distills fine art to exactly those details which, in other disciplines, are passed on more or less osmotically through a long apprenticeship, through long collaborations, through long associations with other workers in the field so necessary to master the techniques and methods.

Tragically, photography simultaneously removes all immediate need for any such associations. You can in fact master the processes and methods of photography simply by reading the manual. This is indeed the entire point of all commerce in the equipment and materials of photography -- to enable the amateur to more and more easily master the methods and techniques of photography without any kind of apprenticeship.

This has led to endless little islands of thought and method. I was taught, to the extent that I was taught by anyone which is not much, by my father who learned it as far as I know from the manual. I am one of an island of two. There are endless islands of one out there, the 'self-taught' photographer is practically a cliche.

This is not to say that apprenticeships are not available; but there are, and can be, no "schools" of any meaningful sort. God knows I can take a workshop from any number of assholes, none of who learned anything from anyone. Ming Thein sits at the top of a family tree, an island of photographers with, I dare say, hundreds of members. None of these photographers have much of a connection to any larger tradition, it's simply Ming's ideas which he got mainly from the manual, and perhaps a few videos on technique. Virtually none of his students will successfully have many students of their own. This island of workers might peak at 1000 photographers before they start dying off, and in 100 years there will be nobody alive who learned from anyone who learned from Ming Thein.

There are a few programs that produce little collections of bores (I'm looking at you, Düsseldorf) and the result is a few dozen or a few hundred students all doing more or less related work, all working from as well as building a Tradition of some sort. These schools are inevitably going to be drowned out. You don't have to go live with Thomas Ruff for five years if you want to take pictures, so mostly people won't. Whatever sense of aesthetics Ruff has learned, rebelled against, and expanded into his own will not last much past him. The Düsseldorf school might last 3 or 4 generations, but I predict that in due course there will be nobody alive in the chain of teacher / student with a connection to the Bechers.

In short there is no Tradition in photography, and this appears to be irrevocably the case.

I don't suggest that Tradition is the be all and end all, but it is the path through which more than technical knowledge passes. Ideas about what is beautiful, what is good, what is meaningful, and what matters are also passed down through Traditions.

Photography, unfortunately, lacks these things. For better or for worse.

Sometimes, to be sure, for better.

Friday, November 2, 2018

"Photographers" are Weird

By "Photographers" I mean, probably no surprise to anyone, camera enthusiasts.

By weird, in this case, is their willingness to judge a human being based on their photographs. Not even photographs of the human being, but made by the human being.

The more interactive I am in the world of photography, the more frequently I get the "oh YEAH well let's see ur pix" which is code for "I disagree with you about something, and I intend to bolster my philosophical position by mocking your photographs, completely independently of whether they are any good or not" which is absolutely the damnedest rhetorical flourish ever.

So, disagreement with Andrew turns into judging Andrew's pictures as shit. Which they might be, sure, but it's clear that they want to judge my pictures based on something I said about The Nature Of Art or whatever, not on whether the pictures are shit.

Conversely, when I piss in someone's cheerios and say things like "I don't think Ming Thein was ever a hedge fund manager" or "Chris Gampat is a terrible designer" or "Patrick Laroque is a hilarious idiot" or "Olaf Sztaba is a grifter" or "Michael Reichmann's margins on this Galapagos tour are insane" (all of which I have said and stand behind) the argument against is that their pictures are wonderful.

What on earth do their pictures have to do with what I just said? Nothing! Nothing at all! If you could tell a man's character by the photographs they make, well, a lot of very good pictures would have turned out a lot worse. Conversely, if being a good and upright human was all that was required to make good pictures, we'd have more of those.

I honestly have no idea what to make of this phenomenon. Are these people just imbeciles? It's possible, but it seems remarkable that so many of them would be.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Photography, Journalism, History

Photographs are true. As far as that goes. An unaltered photo depicts in correct perspective what was in front of the lens at the moment the shutter was pressed and is, as far as that goes, absolutely truthful. Photographs are not truth. There are things outside the frame, things that appeared earlier, things that appeared later. Indeed, there is, literally, an entire universe that lies outside the frame.

John Edwin Mason, a card carrying member of the cult of Edward Said's Orientalism complained on twitter recently about a photograph that appears on the cover the NYT Magazine. They've published something on the conflict in Yemen, and included in their coverage is a picture of a malnourished little dude, naked, held by some people wearing what appears to be hijab. One assumes that the people are women, possibly relatives, and the little dude is malnourished and insanely thin as a result of the conflict.

Mason and Colberg get into a little mutual stroking, as they are wont to do, talking about how problematic this picture is, how it evokes the White Savior, etc and so forth. Interestingly, they seem to agree that it's a failure of knowledge and wisdom on the part of the NYT photo editor responsible, although it's a bit tough to tell on twitter of course.

Let's back up a little.

I don't know the details, but I would bet my bippy that the conflict in Yemen is one of those fractally complex piles of shit that 1000 pages of dense research and analysis would not suffice to unravel. The "truth" here most likely stretches across the globe, and back in time 1000 years. It is, certainly, another Sunni vs. Shia pissing match. It is probably related to the fact that the Saudi rulers are, culturally, narrow minded genocidal savages. Their enemies (which is everyone, but in this case it is the Houthis) are probably also a very difficult bunch of rebels, terrorists, whatever. I assume that if you kept digging you would find somewhere in there various tribes of Bedouin shitheads who were killing one another with camel thigh bones 1000 years ago over some argument having to do with a melon.

Without a doubt, buried not very deeply, is the American hegemony's love affair with Saudi Arabia, and the American military industrial complex's desire to a) consume materiel and b) test out their weapons systems on other people's bodies.

And so on, you know, it probably goes on forever in all directions. So this this is probably a mess.

To report on it, you have to frame it. You have to, in the manner of a photograph, "crop" it to what you see as the essentials. If you behave as a responsible journalist, or a responsible historian, you will end up with something that is in many ways like a photograph. Everything you say is true, what you have placed inside your "frame" is true and accurate. Because you are responsible, and care about truth, you have made a good faith effort to "frame" the story in a way that captures what is essential, in a way that gets at the underlying reality of the situation. You are trying to create a summary of the situation in 1000 words that more or less lines up with the result a team of scholars would arrive it in their 10,000 page magnum opus.

As a journalist or historian, this is the goal. You're not achieving it. Not if you're the New York Times, nor if you are John Edwin Mason, nor if you are Jörg Colberg, nor if you are Andrew Molitor (although in the last instance you will at least be pretty.)

There are fundamentally two ways you can disagree with journalism, with history, or with a photograph.

The first is if the piece is outright false. You read it, you look at it, and you glean from it some statement of fact which is factually wrong. The photo clearly depicts a victory when in reality there was defeat. The article asserts that nobody was killed, when in fact many died.

The second is when you disagree with the framing. The photograph, while true as far as it goes, has cropped out essential details. Remember, the photograph cannot but crop out an entire universe, and a 1000 words in a magazine cannot possibly explain anything complex. That these things, all of them, are radical crops is built-in, inevitable. Given the breadth of human experience and understanding, it is inevitable that some people will feel that essential things are being cropped out regardless of how you frame it.

Mason and Colberg are simply complaining that the NYT is framing the Yemen story in a way that they disagree with. They would prefer that the frame instead place the blame squarely on the government of the United States of America, and this is because they are academics in the United States of America and that's how these people signal their virtue.

Note that their preferred frame is, if anything, even more simple-minded and incomplete than the one the NYT has elected to use. Their preferred frame eliminates a vast swathe of material that other people (notably: people of color living in the middle east) would consider essential (e.g. the Saudis are genocidal shitheads, an essential detail in the minds of many a Semite.)

The idea that the NYT is choosing not to implicate the US government through ignorance or incompetence is laughable. The NYT has been for my entire lifespan and probably well before that the willing lapdog of the US government. They are highly skilled professionals. They frame stories in a way that accomplishes many things all at once. Their frames please their readership, which is generally a pro-USA albeit left-leaning elitist. Their frames also please the government bureaucrats who helpfully provide them with with so much of their global news, complete with pre-fabricated frames. They can sell papers and protect their sources at the same time.

Now, it happens that I more or less agree with Mason and Colberg. Our shared government should be implicated a lot more in a lot more things around the world. Not the elected imbeciles, they are 90% irrelevant. I mean the bureaucrats, the machine of government, that massive system of humans and processes and tradition that is hell-bent on any number of extremely weird, perverted, and outright stupid enterprises which we might loosely lump under the head of American Hegemony.

But, I am not so naive as to suppose that the NYT has it "wrong" and that I have it "right," the distinction is that I prefer one framing of the story, one way to "crop," and they prefer another. They prefer, surprise, the way that is most advantageous to them, and I prefer one that advantages me.

This is not some post-modern "there's no such thing as truth anyways" bullshit. There jolly well is truth. It's just big, unwieldy, and largely incomprehensible. It's the cutting it down to comprehensible size that's such a bugger.