Saturday, December 29, 2018


Because I seem to have caused some confusion, let me elaborate.

This picture I took as a representation of the malevolent presence of the automobile in American culture:

It could as easily have been a drawing. It is a photograph because I do not draw well, and stylistically the book didn't call for drawings. The true "story" here is of a car parked on a street under a street lamp. That is not the story I was interested in, that is not the story I wished to tell. I imposed my own story, one of malevolence and import, on purpose and after the fact.

This picture, from the same project, absolutely must be a photograph:

The whole point is that this is a real person, speaking real words, about real ideas that the person has. The story, the true story of the picture, the story I want the picture to tell, is no shit, there I was, talking to Graham, who is a real person.

Any photoshop work I did on Graham's face or on the background would accomplish nothing but to detract from the truth of the story I wished to tell, it would do literally nothing except undermine my goal for this picture. Therefore, I did very little. The picture is, within the limits of the machine, and the demands of the book it lives in, my best effort to depict what was actually there.

You could say that this only is relevant to documentary or news, but, to be blunt, you would be wrong.

There is a reason that fashion print ads are, with almost no exceptions whatever, photographs of real people with the fashionable items. They are not drawings, or paintings, or digital renderings. They are not clothing on a hanger, clothing on a statue, clothing on a mannequin. They are photographs, of actual people wearing actual clothing (watches, jewelry, etc).

The only reason to bother with this is because there is value in that "story", usually with two levels. A "true" story of a model and a photographer, and no shit, there we were, posing and working and, often, a second, fictional, story of a socialite, a world traveler, a diver, a sailor, dressed in inexplicably fashionable clothing. The interplay between these two stories is often explicit, and there seems to be real delight there.

And so it goes through genre after genre. You might photograph a landscape because you cannot paint, but why would I purchase a photograph of a landscape rather than a painting? If you ask Alain Briot, he will tell you it is because no shit, there I was, just as the sun was setting.

This is what I mean by story here. It is not news (although it includes news) and it is not narrative (although it includes narrative). Perhaps it's trame?

Friday, December 28, 2018


In what follows, I mean story in the wideest reasonable sense. You can probably substitute context without any trouble. I am also going to ruthlessly use male pronouns, because in almost all cases the archetype I refer to with the pronoun is male.

Every photograph has a story. Well, it has several, and potentially has infinitely many different ones. The first story, though, is the one about how it was taken. This story is inextricably bound up with the story of what's in the frame, how the subject matter got there and where it's going. This story is that essential no shit, there I was, and then... story. This is the story that makes a photograph a photograph and not a painting.

Suppose that you've photoshopped a picture. You've removed a sign, deleted a logo from a hat, removed a power line. You've altered the facts of the picture in some way.

If challenged on this, you are quite likely to say assert that this is OK because all that matters is the final result. Process, you might cry, does not matter. And, sure, who am I to deny you?

At this point, though, you have given up rather more than you might think. You no longer own the philosophical high ground of the picture's first story, it's "true" story. The story of how you went there, and did this, and shot that picture is no longer truly yours to tell. The story of what is going on in the frame is no longer truly yours to tell. The story of what was actually there in front of the lens is no longer truly yours to tell.

You can still tell those stories, but if you're honest, you must also tell the story of how you used the clone tool to remove the logo on the hat, and at that point nobody cares, they wander off, and you've lost them. That's not a story about the picture, it's a story about you.

And so it is with all made art. A sculpture, a painting, a collage (even of photographic material, cf. Michael Chisholm and his spirit guide Hannah Höch) these are all the fruits of the artist's mind, not the (direct) fruits of the world. We expect of these things that the story be the artist's story, not the world's.

Indeed, there are fairly straight photos which are also, really, just the fruit of the artist's mind. This, for instance, is really just an illustration for an essay, although I made it with a camera and, while I plunged a certain amount of material into darkness, did not otherwise substantively alter:

People argue, at length if you let them, that "all pictures are processed!!! photoshop is no different!!!" and, while technically true, it is the refuge of a pedant who wishes desperately to continue to remove signs from his pictures.

There is a difference between on the one hand a reasonably good faith effort, limited by the capabilities of the machine, to represent what was truly there, and on the other hand a picture which specifically and deliberately differs from what was truly there. In the first case, the photographer can without prevarication, without disingenuously eliding a few details of photoshop, tell that first story, no shit, there I was, and then... In the second case, the photographer, if he is being honest, must bring himself into the story, and explain his concept, his idea of what it ought to have looked like, but did not.

The line between the two is not distinct, there is arguably a broad grey area. But, as I have noted in the past, the existence of a grey area between two things does not make those two things the same. The categories exist, whether the line between them be sharp or indistinct.

When you remove the logo from the boy's hat, in your photo, you change the character of the picture by changing the character of the story it lives with. Probably you don't care about the story, probably you care mainly about the graphic character of the picture. about what it looks like because you're a photographer, not a philosopher or a critic.

Still, by doing that work, you either abdicate entirely any right to the underlying story, or you insist on supplying your own, on supplying the story of the artist and not the world.

Now, this is perhaps a small thing. A photograph can always be thrown to the ground, story-less, to be discovered by a boy, a nun, or an MFA student. The finder will supply their own story, their own interpretation, their own guesses, whether you removed the logo from the hat or not. There are those infinite potential stories that the picture might live with, some day. Those are all still there.

But that first story, the one that makes it a photograph, that one's gone, because you photoshopped it out.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A Knotty Problem

I've been talking about "contextualization" of photographs lately, and I find the whole thing to be a genuinely intractable problem.

When you take a picture, you probably have something in mind.

The guy Nobuyoshi Araki ties girls up, often in painful looking postures, and photographs them. By all accounts he is overwhelmed with adoration for his models, overflowing with love. Which, you know, in a way shines through albeit obliquely. Take the pictures away from the artist and his feelings, and they read less appealingly. They're just girls tied up, often painfully.

Bob Shell made some similar photos, and went to jail for, well, a bunch of stuff which you might not want to look up, but mainly for helping a model overdose on morphine. He's still in jail according to wikipedia. Now, he may have loved his model very much, but he also killed her. But in the end, it's pictures of girls tied up, often painfully.

I have not stumbled across her, but I dare say that is somewhere out there a daring female artist who photographs herself tied up, naked, often painfully. She might promote her pictures as commentary on the patriarchy, or as a celebration of her chosen lifestyle, or any number of other things. But in the end, it's pictures of girls tied up, often painfully.

You do not have to look far, any internet forum or camera club will do, to find promoted the theory that the process does not matter. All that matters, we are told, is the end result. In these degenerate times this is generally used to promote the extensive use of photoshop on shitty landscapes, but the argument applies equally well here. Applied in the usual way, this argument produces the result that Araki's pictuers, Shell's pictures, and our unnamed female artist's pictures are in fact all the same and ought to be viewed identically.

On the flip side, your average MFA program professor would offer up a muddled up complication of these two ideas: Process does so matter, these three sets of photographs should be viewed totally differently; and also the only ones that are OK are the ones made by the woman, because, identity.

The truth is that both appear to me to be simultaneously true, and this is the Knotty Problem.

A word like bitch has almost no life on its own, it requires the context of a sentence to mean anything. A movie like Triumph of the Will has a complete and full life on its own, it requires nothing whatever to be, to mean. A photograph sits between the two.

On the one hand the story of a photograph is of real interest. Ask Alain Briot how to sell photos, and he'll tell you that it is all about the story of the picture, and the customer's story. If you have a picture of the Grand Canyon taken from the viewpoint where the customer proposed to his wife, and you tell him how you got there early, and the sun rose just so and it was so cold but you waited for the light to hit the frost, man, you've got a sale.

Anyone who has ever taken a snapshot, or been urged by a family member to do so, knows that the story is the thing. The picture is just an icon, a symbol that stands in for the story.

But. But. As photographers, it behooves us to remain aware that our pictures do have some little life of their own. Torn from the story, the bear some little measure of meaning simply lying there. Ambiguous, malleable, they beg to be placed into a new story, where they can gain new life.

If you photograph children, your own or others, someone will certainly remind you, eventually, that these pictures unless carefully protected, might wind up in the collection of a pedophile, who will look at them while thinking terrible thoughts. The photos of girls tied up, often painfully, could be torn from their books and frames, tossed on the street in a jumble, to be collected by a teenaged boy, by a nun, by an MFA student. Each will embed the pictures into a different story, a different context. Each will find something different in these pictures.

Photographs exist and derive meaning from the story they're placed in to, whether that story be the artist's or otherwise, whether it be true or otherwise. Photographs, perhaps, also have a little meaning just sitting there, shorn of story. Perhaps they mean only by virtue of the stories we test against them, that we imagine and cut and edit to fit to the picture at rest. I don't know. All these things about your photograph are real and true at the same time.

We cannot pretend that there is no story, that process is irrelevant, nor can we pretend that our story is the only story. Our photograph, once loosed on the world, can be bent to the whim of the viewer, the collector.

We cannot protect our photographs from wrongthink, nor should we seek to.

We cannot pretend that our photographs will always live in a world of rightthink, nor should we seek to.

LuLa Update

It appears that the family of Michael Reichmann in the form of his son Josh has stepped in and fired everyone. Err, invited them to pursue their lifelong dreams of doing something, anything, else, as is traditional.

In a quite separate area of my life, I am seeing a story unfold in which shares of a company are being handed out in one manner, and employment by the same company quite another. The conceit, as always, is that the employees are part of the family, but absent actual shares in the company that is a lie. If what you're getting is a paycheck, you are a minion, and you serve at the pleasure of the owners, period, full stop.

Now, this might be completely amicable. It's possible that nobody at LuLa has received a meaningful paycheck in years, and they're perfectly happy to be shed of an unprofitable burden. Or perhaps they were making bank, and are still delighted to see the family stepping up to take on a beloved monument, while they pursue other and equally rewarding careers.

That said, the timing is awful. It appears as if Josh rolled in and gave everyone pink slips for Christmas. The post announcing the new regime is, literally, dated Dec 26.

Sunday, December 23, 2018


Here's an article, which like the PDN piece, was cited by Colberg: The Twisted World of Cult Photographer Nobuyoshi Araki which I think argues that "smut cannot be simply recontextualized and turned in to not smut."

I think it's an interesting alternate take worth a read.

It's also a fascinating illustration of Colberg's, um, intellectual flexibility. It is also worth noting that Lone Wolf publishes a certain small amount of nude photography. Of women, by women, natch.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Re-appropriation: Words ain't Pictures

There is a thing, called re-appropriation, where one group of people takes back some sort of slur, and uses it themselves in non-slur ways. I will slide right by the obvious one, and move on to the word "bitch." The word "bitch" can be a slur in the mouth of one, but a compliment in the mouth of another. A woman seeking to re-appropriate the word, to rob it of its power, might use the word in positive ways.

Bitches are powerful, bitches are beautiful.

That's fine, that works, we get it. The speaker here had made a thing, has made a sentence using the word. The sentence provides context for the word, which alters its meaning.

Take the word out of that context:


Now it's just a noise. It has a definition, but it doesn't mean anything in the same way it does in a sentence. It's just hanging in space. I can take it, and make something new, I can surround it with new words:

You are a stupid bitch.

But this is a thing which I made, which hasn't got anything to do with the thing the woman made earlier. The wonderful thing about words is that they gain almost all of their meaning from context.

That cupcake was soooo bitch, I ate it in like two huge bites.

Imagine, now, a novel. A hateful novel. You cannot, successfully, re-appropriate a novel in the same way. You can put in a foreword, and afterword, and three appendices, but in the end the novel is still going to be there, a large and hateful bolus. A novel is a container for meaning in ways that a single word is not.

Now, one might remix a novel, edit it, cut it up and re-arrange it, and do something that looks like re-appropriation.

You cannot re-appropriate Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" with a couple of inserted title cards, it will remain an eerily convincing celebration of Nazi-ism. To re-appropriate it and make it instead an indictment, you would need to substantively alter the film. You might somehow find the perfect fulcrum and do it with a minimal edit, but you have to reach inside the container of meaning, and alter that meaning.

You cannot simply use a movie or novel in a new setting and alter its meaning sufficiently.

Consider how this works for photographs. Allow me to contextualize a photograph:

Because of the central myth in the USA of individual freedom, the individual's right and power to select his own destiny, the people of the USA tend to fetishize the gun as a tool of power, defense, of self-determination far beyond reason or sanity.

Now, as we did with the word, let us take the picture out of the context.

The photograph falls somewhere between a word and a novel, it is a container for meaning in ways that words are not, but it is generally not as complete as a novel. It's a bit of a tabula rasa, you can project on to it whatever you like, but it is still definitely a picture of a gun, styled in a certain dramatic kind of way. It is not a mere word, hanging in space, carrying only a definition but no real meaning.

Now let us reflect on the attempts by women to re-appropriate the nude. Not by photographing nude men, but by taking more pictures of good looking naked women, in pretty much the same way men have been doing for a long time now. Yes, yes, you can pretend that the photographs are inherently different, and sometimes you're right. Sometimes you're just wrong, though.

The impulse is the same as the impulse to re-appropriate the word bitch and to redefine it, by using it differently. Indeed, in the linked article, there is a quoted remark that suggests this is precisely the plan, the plan is to take pictures are use them or intend different things for them, and thereby alter the meaning. To be fair, the article also talks about taking different pictures, and taking them in different ways. But it does include a crotch shot of a young woman, wrapped in justifying text.

The trouble is that if you're naive about it, it doesn't work. The photograph is a container for meaning, and like "Triumph of the Will", you're going to have to really get in there and tinker with the meaning of the thing if you want to re-appropriate it. It's easy to take some generic photos of pretty girls with no clothes and write some bullshit about "girl gaze" around it, but you're sticking a title card with a Nazi fart joke in front of Riefenstahl's film. It doesn't work. It's still just a nude, and by ignoring the text, or simply deleting it, I can enjoy what is really just another prurient picture of a naked girl.

It happens that I quite like these pictures, so I am not actually complaining. But I am pointing out that it does not work.

The fact that such a high percentage of "female gaze" pictures seem to fall into this category is interesting and disturbing. It does not help that the text wrapped around the pictures to justify them is, depressingly often, just this was shot by a woman, and she claims the mantle of "female gaze" so this is totally not smut.

To be blunt, what is going in -- in part -- is that female artists have discovered that dressing up female nudes in the language of feminism enables the male gatekeepers, the critics, the gallerists, the curators, to enjoy the nudes they have always enjoyed without fear of backlash. If "female gaze" were truly about re-claiming the nude, re-appropriating these tropes and ideas, we'd see more men in these pictures. We do see men, from time to time, but far more often it's material like the crotch shot in the linked Photo District News article.

This is a scandal, and nobody's talking about it. Nobody is even admitting that it exists.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Apropos of the Previous:

Photo District News published this thing, No More Bad Nudes, which is tangentially related to the previously posted remarks just below this. The gist appears to be that if women take smutty pictures, it's OK. Reappropriation being a thing, there's an argument to be examined here. If a woman says "bitch" it is often genuinely different from when a man does. Is it genuinely different when she takes a crotch shot of a young woman in translucent panties?

The Dialects of Photography, Part II

On the one hand we have what we might call "organic" instances of some art. Let us imagine, perhaps, the traditional dances of a people. These arose in some kind of isolation and were refined and developed over long periods of time. They are at the same time a distinctive and interesting marker of the people, a product of that culture, and a thing those people own, a possession. We tend to value these things, because of their deep connection to a specific culture, a specific people. We value what we might refer to as these tribes and we value their artifacts.

Sometimes these organically arising arts are fantastically difficult for an outsider to master, other times they are quite easy. We seem to value them the same either way, I think.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have something else, let us call it constructed instances of some art. One imagines, say, landscape photography of a particularly purist stripe: No evidence of the hand of man, black and white only. This is also a cultural artifact, but not of a people or tribe that arose out of anything except the art in question. While there is certainly a group of people that do this, which identifies itself collectively, they have joined together specifically because of the art they share. They are not family, they do not share a religion. The art they share is not an artifact of their other, deeper, connections, it is their connection. At any rate, the initial point of connection, they may have later learned that they share the same politics or love of beer.

These things we don't particularly value. There is no larger cultural heritage which it marks, to which it hews. It's just a style, really.

And then, at least occasionally, we have a sort of hybrid object: a constructed art, designed and built to be a marker for a people. We have certainly seen, for instance, "African American" painting, which may or may not derive some ideas from something or other. While successful in museums, its not clear to me that it's made any kind of mark in the real world. I suppose I might recognize Basquiat? Is the rest of it just imitation?

There are, I think, a few "organic" bits and pieces in here, or at any rate I am willing in my state of relative ignorance to believe it.

Somewhere in here we have "urban" stylings, derived from spray-paint graffiti art, which is arguably something of an organic thing.

But what I really want to talk about is "female gaze" photography, which as nearly as I can tell is in the first place purely a construct, and in the second place being pitched as purely organic.

What I see is a bunch of tics, derived from nothing except, possibly, Cindy Sherman's oeuvre. The selfies in costumes and sets intended to evoke some vague indicators of feminine stereotyping, and the 1000 yard stare of women in.. thought? difficulty? pain?

Modern criticism of this sort of work would like to see it as an organically occurring, inherently female, style. It is intended, as I see it, to be placed beside Japanese sword making, inherently Japanese (female), deeply rooted in Japanese-ness (the feminine), and essentially impossible for the anyone outside of Japan (men) to master (these are all ideas about Japanese sword making which are "well understood" and completely false, by the way.)

But it's not. It's a construct. It did not exist 20 years ago, except as Cindy Sherman, and it's a relatively straightforward collection of tics and style notes. It is being sold as organic I believe because of the value we imbue these things with. If it were a mere construct it would not have much value, it would just be like the b&w landscape guys. No, it has to be sold as organic, even though it's not.

With the rise of identity based politics in the academy, I assume we're going to see more and more of these things getting rolled out. Can constructed genres of gay, asian, non-neurotypical photography be far behind? Are they already here?

As noted in my previous essay, there is essentially no way for an organic branch of photography to arise. The mechanisms, and sheer amount of time, necessary to create these things simply are not present. It follows then that any branch of photography, in particular as identity-group branded branch, is a construct, and that the only way it remains distinctive and unique to the identity-group will, in the end, be due simply to vigorous social pressure.

Organically arising art styles/forms are easy enough to borrow, the constructed kind are in general trivial to steal. Having been built once, the instructions for building a copy of it are pretty obvious, it can be constructed again. More importantly, the pieces of it can re-tasked, re-used, re-cycled into something new.

And they should be!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Dialects of Photography

Calculus was, more or less famously, invented twice. Both Newton and Leibniz invented something we can readily recognize as modern calculus, at more or less the same time. At the time, there was some discussion about whether someone had stolen the idea from someone else, but in hindsight it seems that this was simply an idea that was ready to be had. The relevant intellectual spadework had been done, appropriate questions were in play, and all that was needed was one or more people with the right sort of minds to have the right perceptions.

Calculus is, according to this interpretation, simply a natural product of the intellectual mixture that was going on in Europe at that time. It could not happen without a few hundred years of fairly specific spadework, but when that was done its discovery was more or less inevitable.

Painting, on the other hand, seems to require no such underlying spadework. What is necessary is something that is colorful and sticky. Drawing requires only something that will make a mark on something else. Dance and song require only a more or less functional body. Poetry requires a spoken language, but once you have that you'are pretty much off to the races. Sculpture is only slightly more complicated.

For this reason, all these artistic disciplines have arisen, over and over, for millennia. When a people is smashed down to the bare basics of survival, they may lose their art, perhaps completely, perhaps only in part. But, having migrated to a more congenial location, they re-invent it all over again, because the human urge to create remains, and goo which is both colorful and sticky is pretty easy to come up with.

This, together with the simple passage of those millennia, has led to endless iterations of regional art, of ethnic art, of religious art. Many peoples paint, or sculpt, or dance. All different, all distinctive.

Photography occupies a perhaps unique territory between calculus and painting.

One cannot simply invent photography out of nothing, or nearly nothing, the way one can re-invent painting. Photography cannot come into existence without a functioning chemical industry. One might be able to continue photography performing all the chemical synthesis in your basement, but one cannot invent it from scratch without access to a lot of different things to try out, which means that you've got to be able to order sodium thiosulfate in reasonably pure form by the bottle. Or at any rate some chemical precursors to it.

To create a functioning chemical industry, you need a lot of intellectual spade work, and a particular shape to your society. When all that is in place, like calculus, photography simply arises, and is invented several times by several people all, notably, in essentially the same area of the world. Talbot and Daguerre and all their friends existed in essentially the same social circles, in the same society, with access to the same materials and ideas, at least if you squint a bit. The world was ready, the questions were in play, and in due course suitably inspired and lucky minds were produced to do their thing.

As a consequence of this, photography as a process, and as a cultural phenomenon, grows from a single root. Unlike painting, unlike dance, unlike song, drawing, poetry, and so on.

While there is a lot of art that is distinctly Chinese, African, Indian, there is no ethnic Calculus. There is only Calculus. I suppose one might suggest that there is a Malian or Ethiopian Calculus, and in the woolly wilds of the academy, someone probably has. But, it's not true. There is calculus as performed by Malians, to be certain, and they may have introduced some notations or terminology that makes it more accessible, but it is still calculus. Calculus comes from a single root.

This is, by the way, not to suggest that Chinese (etcetera) culture is inferior, it simply wasn't the right mixture to produce Photography, or Calculus. I am given to understand that they produced a lot of things, presumably many things which were the inevitable results of the cultural, intellectual, scientific mixture that was in operation there, waiting only for the birth and education of one or more Chinese people with the right kinds of minds, people who were duly produced to do their thing.

A consequence of this is that there is no such thing as Sri Lankan photography, at least not in the sense that there is Sri Lankan dance, or poetry. There cannot reasonably be a Sri Lankan photography. Photographers in Sri Lanka learned their craft from, ultimately, someone outside of Sri Lanka, who learned from someone else, in an unbroken chain back to the single root from which springs photography less than 200 years ago.

All of us who photograph, have a more or less unbroken chain of reference, influence, knowledge, back to a small group of essentially interchangeble dudes living in the Anglo-French region in about 1840. We all spring from a single root, we are leaves of a single branching vine that is something like 180 years old.

Another consideration is the globalization of media, a phenomenon in which photography plays a major role. Indeed, the photograph, easily reproduced and distributed, was arguably in the van here. To a large extent, we all see the same photographs, we all have the same influences. Not, of course, entirely, but to a meaningful degree.

There are white grizzly bears (a species that is normally brown), which are not albino. There are some facts about genetics that can be rolled out, but you can look those up. What matters is that there are some isolated islands in which these bears are more or less common. By walling off a species into an isolated habitat, you bring out recessive genes. If memory serves, this has been suggested as a core mechanism behind speciation, the creation of new species of life: split the population, and prevent cross-fertilization for a long long time.

In the fine arts this same thing obviously occurs. It is not necessary, really, to re-create painting from scratch. It is only necessary that a tribe be divided, separated, and prevented from communicating for some period of time. If both sides paint, divergent and regionally distinctive painting styles will emerge.

Modern globalized media specifically prevents this from happening.

Not only is photography derived from a single root, but by its own nature and action it has helped bring into existence a culture in which regional, ethnic, religious influences can not, will not, generate distinctive dialects. There is simply too much cross-fertilization.

There will be for the forseeable future, no "natural" divergence, no "natural" arising of differing photographic languages. There is no Malaysian photography, and there never will be. The mechanisms are simply not present for such a thing to occur.

None of this means, of course, that there are no dialects. Far from it.

What it means is that dialect forming is voluntary. Rather than having our influences, our antecedents, limited by circumstance and fate, they are limited almost entirely by our own choices. We choose what pictures to look at, we choose which pundits and critics to attend to, we choose what to admire and what to spurn. Dialect-forming is now as much social as it it anything else. We make pictures that look like pictures made by people we agree with, that we hang out with, that we like.

We might select our photographic group, and thus our dialect, based on social preferences, professional preferences, or perhaps simply on some indefinable "I like those pictures" criterion. Surely our equipment and tendencies will dictate to a degree, if we lack either funds or a fondness for fiddling with mechanical bits, we're unlikely to align ourselves with the macro photography crowd -- unless our best friend is a member, or we really really like bugs.

Regardless of mechanism, it is manifest that affinity groups do arise, and they do produce collective bodies of work that look kind of similar. Because the associations are voluntary, usually more or less conscious, nobody is actually walled off from other dialects. Cross-fertilization will necessarily occur, and often will be fought against viciously, leading to schisms and so on. The usual social detritus of more or less voluntary social organizations occurs. It would not have occurred to an 18th century Central African sculptor to rail against the Chinese ideas, because those ideas simply were not in play. China's sculptors and the sculptors of Central Africa were more or less completely isolated from one another at that time. While the African might have railed against that young man down the road who was doing that weird thing with noses, both artists were working firmly within an established regional (involuntary) dialect of sculpture.

Therefore, in this modern age we do still have dialects of photography, but they are voluntary, not an inevitable product of circumstance. They are not based in region, ethnicity, or religion particularly. It is important, I think, to keep this in mind when discussing them.

A dialect of photography is fundamentally different from a dialect of, say, traditional dance, and should not be treated the same way.

What is not immediately clear to me is what the consequences of this, if any, are. What differences does it make, whether a "language" of art be derived from tradition, from the inevitable vagaries of circumstance, rather than a voluntarily constructed set of ideas, consciously designed to represent something?

I have, I think, more to say on this but have rambled on long enough here.

Thursday, December 13, 2018


My ideas about this book from the Mahlers are somewhat up in the air, see the comments on the previous thread for a lively, if not terribly conclusive, discussion!

It comes does to this. I cannot shake the impression that the young women in this photograph

Photo by Ute & Werner Mahler

have been made to look like provincial rubes, on purpose.

From that starting point I am now unsure where to go, and what to make of it. But that starting point remains, for me, unshakeable.

ETA: I continue to struggle to make sense of what I see, in the light of comments! Thank you all!

What I see is beautiful but awkward young women, painfully, self-consciously, aware of both. They're putting out quite a lot of effort to look, well, like something. The makeup and hair are thoroughly finished, as are the outfits, but the overall effect is cheap and ill-done. They look like they are trying to be fashionable, but are not. The clutch purses strike me, somehow, as a desperate and therefore pathetic attempt at sophistication. I don't know if everyone follows me this far, but I feel like it's not much of a stretch?

Is there something of "stupid small town girls" in here? Or is this really just the archetype of the 19 year old woman everywhere that western culture touches?

This is where I part ways, I think. I feel that a Berliner or a New Yorker or even a Chicago girl might miss the mark, but somehow differently. They might make more sophisticated clothing choices, but I feel like whatever they did they would wear it with more... bravado, maybe.

And then, of course, I feel like this difference -- which perhaps I am imagining entirely -- is the point of the picture, the deliberate slight offered to these two kids.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Consider The Nazi

Indeed, consider him. It's usually a him. No, not the efficient cog in the late 1930s horror machine based in Germany, I mean the essentially powerless portly fellow with the swastika tattoo and the bizarre opinions about Jews.

He holds some odious opinions. Opinions which, even in this post-God postmodern era without those firm nails of divine judgement and moral certainty upon which to hang my rhetoric, I could argue cogently are evil, wrong, opinions. Let us anyways stipulate that Nazi-ism is not merely stupid but objectively wrong.

Still, the Nazi is a human being and as such agrees with me on many points. Do we want a warm place to sleep tonight? Yes. Enough to eat? Assuredly. Do we want the same for our friends and loved ones? Of course. Do we like fried foods? Probably. Beer? Likely. And on and on. The Nazi is a fully three-dimensional human, and in the same way we share DNA with our hairy cousins the apes, he and I (and by implication, he and you) share an immense amount of stuff. Banal, human, stuff.

Being human, the Nazi has within him the capacity for change and could, at least hypothetically, alter his (again, thoroughly odious) opinion on Jews some day.

I do not intend to apologize for his odious beliefs, nor to rationalize them. They are odious. But he, he is human.

Let us now examine Jörg Colberg's most recent review. I don't have the book, I don't know what the book really says, I have no opinion. I have perused the publisher's advert, which you can as well. So, what I know, is Jörg's position on the book, and also the way the publisher is pitching the book.

Now, Colberg's discussion is something to behold. While there's a little more to it, he casts this book as a Lovecraftian story about Small Town Germany, referring more than once to a sort of hidden underlying horror and dread that characterizes, if not actual small towns, at any rate the Mahler's vision of small towns. Small towns which, according to the thumbnail bio Colberg offers us in this piece, he appears to have precisely no experience with.

Having lived in some small towns in America, I can report that I at any rate never actually was aware of any such lurking horrors. But perhaps Germany has a Cthulu or a Shub-Niggurath slumbering under every town with a population in the range of 5,000 to 20,000 souls. I confess myself doubtful.

The publisher's pitch provides us with an unrelentingly depressing series of pictures which, to my eye, do not support Colberg's hidden horrors, but do support the idea of the young people as a kind of freak show. I do not see how to read the picture of the two girls with their clutches as anything other than pathetic, as rubes out of place in their home, but equally doomed to be out of place anywhere their cute clutch purses would fit in.

Not that anyone who's in these pictures is likely to read Colberg's review, or to flip through the publisher's slide show. A few might see the book, which might itself support or not the ideas that appear on the web. It's possible that they would be distracted by the pictures of themselves enough to not notice, even if the book does indeed expound these self-same themes.

I do not see any way to understand Colberg's remarks, or the publisher's position of this book, in a way that is particularly flattering to the people in the book. There is, probably, some truth in the book. But it is not a full truth. There are almost no circumstances in which people do not, from time to time, laugh. Surely small town Germany has more hope and more joy in it than we are led to believe? Surely these small town rubes are fully three dimensional human beings, rather more like us than different from us?

Colberg's review of the book, and the publisher's pitch on the book, both characterize this book as one which fundamentally declines to offer up its subjects as fully human. I am inclined to suspect that the book does, in fact, offer us up caricatures, a litany of two-dimensional (or less) freaks and rubes. It's certainly the chic thing to do. If you want a book deal, you'd better pin all your pictures to the wall, and throw out all the ones with someone smiling.

While there is more to it than simply this, Colberg and the publisher (and maybe the Mahlers as well) are offering up the rural and small town people of Germany yet another tiny insult, another in an endless barrage of small cuts offered by the self-styled urban sophisticates to those who have not been able to "escape" from the "lurking horror" of not being a cool Berliner in cool Berliner clothing drinking cool Berliner cocktails in a cool Berlin club playing very loud, but cool, Berliner music.

Is it any wonder, really, that when the jovial fellow from Alternative für Deutschland turns up with his brochure full of horrendous ideas, there these people look at the brochure with some interest?

"The Jews, you say? What's exactly is a Jew, anyways?"

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Off Topic

Jen, who is a friend of ours, and an awesome cool theater nerd married to Brian who told me everything I know about the inner workings of art museums, had a stroke. Which sucks. There are expenses.

So, there's a gofundme campaign.

To be honest, I don't particularly expect any of my tiny band of readers to contribute anything, and that is perfectly OK. But maybe you know someone who has a Thing about strokes, or is wealthy and looking for an opportunity to place a few bucks in the hands of some decent people, or whatever. If you do, it would be lovely if you passed the link on.

That is all!

UPDATE: I am humbled. Thank you to all of you. If you put up with my writing, you have already earned my affection, but I was startled, delighted, and deeply touched that some of you also are willing to give money to some strangers in need. Thank you.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Synergy II

Normally I eschew discussion of technique because, honestly, I am not a brilliant technician. I muddle my way through things.

But, here's an example of some ideas colliding in my brain.

A common thing that happens on the Internet where n00bs appear is that a n00b shows up with a need to take some photographs of products. His girlfriend is making artisanal crack pipes or something, and he has foolishly agreed to do her web site. He's got some setup and he's not happy with the results.

At some point some lighting hero will point him to a book or two, to the strobist web site, and someone will explain that you can't do product photography with continuous lights, you need to use strobes, because you need power to freeze that stationary crack pipe apparently.

Another pretty common problem that arises for n00bs as well as not-so-n00bs is shooting glass or reflective objects because, well, the reflections. This is legit hard, because you have to manage the reflections and not get a picture of your camera and a bunch of lights. You end up encasing everything in black material, and then using strip lighting or whatever to try to get highlights that reveal shape, and then you have to play games so your strip lights or reflectors don't end up reflected obviously, and then there's your camera reflected there too, arrrg.

So, obviously, anyone who isn't an idiot knows you can shoot product with continuous lighting, in fact in damn near total darkness if you have a tripod. Products don't move. You just have to use very long exposures. At this point, it popped into my head that you could use light painting methods to make the problems of shooting glass a lot easier. When you move the light around, it's not going to turn up as a sharp reflection of a light, it's just going to be a highlight; and if the room is basically pitch black to start with there's a lot less stray bullshit getting reflected (like YOU and like YOUR CAMERA).

So I hung up some black horse blankets, wiped down a bud vase, and busted out a flashlight. After a couple minutes of experimenting, and watching what was happening, I bounced the flashlight obliquely off a large chunk of paper to create a vertical strip of light, pointing the flashlight up so the spill would come back down off the ceiling. Then I used a 6 second exposure so I could waggle the paper around, to conceal, in the reflection, the nature of my ghetto "strip light." With a little experimenting you can create pretty much whatever pattern of highlights you want, and there was enough spill to light up the rest of the glass.

While it was not pitch black in there, it was pretty damn dark.

I did end up with a very slight reflection of the camera (I think?) which I burned down when I cleaned up the glass a little. Start to finish, 30 minutes, including ironing the black fabric under the vase. In addition to minor cleanup cited, +1/3 EV in post, to render the support slightly visible.


I have opined once or twice here and there that "female gaze" theory may be tending to place female photographers into a fairly narrow box. While men are expected to do whatever the hell they want, women are to one degree or another find some "female angle" or to roll out some "female" tropes. This is eerily reminiscent of the early 20th century when women could certainly work as photographers, but were expected to take pictures of soap and so on. The revolution then was when women ditched these "female gaze" kinds of things and just shot what they wanted.

Anyways, this, and the rest of the narrow and weird little world of MFA Student Photography is not surprising at all. The academy moves, inexorably, from one fad to another. "What, you're a structuralist? We will have none of that, we only do post-structuralist things!"

Indeed, when I was a graduate student, I was cautioned that point-set topology was a discipline on the decline. Publishing was going to be hard, a career hard. I persisted anyways, and for a variety of reasons failed to make a career of it. As far as I know, nobody publishes papers in point-set topology any more, 25 years later.

But anyways, set that aside. One of the several basic ways to get fruitful results in mathematics is to take from other, sometimes moribund, disciplines. Sure, analytic number theory may be your bag, but sometimes what you need is a little graph theory. This is why mathematicians drink a lot together, and collaborate across disciplines quite a bit. Now, it's a little easier to hide your borrowed Impressionist ideas inside your Expressionist painting, so mathematicians tend to be pretty up-front about borrowings than I suspect artists are.

It is certainly true that simply randomly jamming two separate disciplines together only rarely produces a good result. Sometimes that's all you've got, so you smash them together and see what happens. Maybe you learn something, maybe not. Maybe you get an idea for something better to add into the mix. Sometimes you start with a clue about what another good ingredient might be, and you follow that up. No matter how you slice it, it's a bit his or miss.

I made a series of photographs of flowers, once, which I handled the way one might handle one of those "fine art nude" photos. These things have turned up on this blog now and then, and here's a couple more.

Are they successful? Well, nobody has offered to buy enormous prints of them, nor have I offered such for sale. I have won no awards, nor entered them in competition. Many of the pictures that resulted are very beautiful. This was the project that, in the end, convinced me that I would not find that which I sought in the studio. These pictures are pretty, maybe even witty, but they move me not in the least, they represent nothing I am interested in.

But it was a very interesting experience, and I think that applying these kinds of sensual tropes to flowers is a pretty good idea. I am simply not the man to make any sense of it. (Arguably Mapplethorpe was.) I think it's a good idea because our experience of flowers is essentially sensual, and in western society cut flowers are all caught up in our sexual politics.

Anyways, this has something to do with the Female Gaze tropes and MFA tropes I've been talking about.

These ideas are not terrible in and of themselves, although they are a bit limiting. It's not a terrible idea to go down a rathole for a while and explore the limits of said rathole. But, what is a good idea is to come back out after a while, and see if you can add something to the mix.

What did you learn down the rathole, and what might combine in interesting and fruitful ways with that? What ideas can you borrow or steal, to add to your sea of mopey women with 1000 yard stares, to make better art? Or at rate to make art that suits you better.

When your situation and career places you inside a narrow box, this is a way out.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

"Firecrackers" - the MFA Crowd

There's a group, a kind of collective, I guess. It's some kind of organization which supports female photographers through grants, by showcasing their work, and maybe some kind of collective work. Anyways, you can poke around the web site here: Firecracker and try to sort it out yourself if you like.

To be clear, I think this is a fantastic mission, and I support it wholeheartedly.

My job, though, as I see it, it to point out not only what is good, but what is a bit dicey, what is true as I see it, setting my personal support aside. I ran into this outfit through a book, entitled Firecrackers, which is an in-print collection of women photographers. Available at good bookstores everywhere, I suppose? It's been an interesting read, and interesting look.

If, as I do, you make a studious effort to read the front matter, there's a good chance you'll make it through this one without giving up. The remarks are fairly short and not too turgid. A remark that caught my eye was that the editors sought to expand their reach beyond Europe (where Firecracker is centered) and include a more international group of women, without simply "box-ticking" which is a really commendable goal. Later, if one recalls this, one wonders "why on earth do all there pictures look the same?"

Which isn't quite fair, because there is a lot of breadth here. But there is also much sameness.

If you attend to the little introductory remarks for each photographer, one soon realizes why. While it is true that these women are from all over the place they have, for the most part, gotten some sort of BFA, MFA, or other degree in Art Photography from some western school, or they have won some sort of recognition from Magnum, that self-licking ice cream cone of photographic influence. This last makes sense when you realize that the founder of Firecracker worked at Magnum for a while.

At the moment the first artist featured on their web site is Raphaela Rosella, with a photo essay about women in a small town in Australia, where she grew up (if I am reading the text right). This women are First Nations (which I guess we used to call Aborigines?) and they are having a tough time. Racism and poverty is No Fun and shit be awful. You might, naively, think that since the artist grew up there that she is part of this community and photographing, as it were, from the inside. But no, as near as I can tell she's a white girl who went to Art School (BA Photography, Queensland College of Art) and a social worker.

Now, this is not an indictment of the work, far from it. The point, though, is that this artist as far as I can tell literally has more in common with me than with her subjects. Ms. Rosella, whatever her virtues, and despite growing up in a small town in Australia, is not substantively adding to the diversity of voices represented by Firecracker.

This is, in the end, a small and insular group of photographers. They all know each other, or at least know people who know people. They all either went to Art School in the 2000s, or hang around with people who did, or at the very least have been thoroughly vetted by people who did. So of course there is much sameness here.

This doesn't mean that it's bad. It's quite variable, and there are a couple of pieces in the book that I found excellent. Which, as always, means that you, and you, and also you, will probably find a few of the pieces excellent as well, and not necessarily the ones I did.

There are basically two things I want to talk about here, the first is a set of stylistic tics that turn up (and which you can see for yourself on the web site), and the second is the actual work in the actual book. So, at some point in what follows, I will switch gears. Try to pay attention so you don't miss it!

I have argued in the past that perhaps there is no such thing as a "female gaze" but rather only the absence of a "male gaze", and here I am, in a way, proven wrong. In fact the Art Schools of the west have constructed a kind of female gaze, in the form of a couple of tics that women can use to indicate that they are Serious About Women Stuff. Men could roll these things out too, but it would take a certain amount of courage to engage in such poaching, and I dare say the establishment would punish you savagely.

The first tic is: women staring neutrally. They may, and often do, stare at the camera, but optionally they can stare into space. If you lard your portfolio up with a whole bunch of these, then you can say anything you like about women's issues, and it will "read." You can talk about oppression, repression, empowerment, whatever you like. Since the faces are blank, serious, and maybe a little mopey, you can project any and all of these onto them.

I guess you can't say "it's awesome being a woman!" and have it read against a sea of depressed stares, but this is not a grant-winning message anyways. MFA students only make depressing photo essays. Well, the world is a kind of depressing place, I guess.

The key here is that there women are not having a good time, no smiles are allowed. Of the 110-120 odd photographs that include a female figure, maybe a dozen evince some evidence of having a good time. You can intermix these things with pictures of whatever. Maybe local objects and scenes that are related, maybe pictures of nothing, random roads, buildings, hands, a chair.

The second tic is: dress yourself up in costumes and place yourself in contexts that can be read as some sort of comment on feminine stuff. One dresses up in hijab made out of candy, another paints herself in various brightly colored settings, another poses in a honeymoon suite. Again, these can be read as whatever you want to say, as long as you (the model) make sure to maintain a neutral expression and posture, and deploy a good 1000 yard stare.

Now, probably only about half of the book consists of this stuff. And, to be fair, these are just tics and sometimes they work just fine.

It is only a matter of time before some male photographer drags out the first of these tics under a female, or gender-neutral, name, wins some stuff, and then is outed to the horror of all. Many will quickly delete a lot of tweets and say they knew all along.

Onwards to the book itself. The bit I liked the best deploys tic #1 in spades, made by Endia Beal (MFA, Yale). This is a series of portraits of young black women who are finishing school and preparing to enter the workforce. Beal has them dress and present themselves as "professional" and the results are both fascinating and disheartening. While a few of the women genuinely look professional, more than half are wearing very tight clothing with skirts that hit above the knee. Every single one of them looks great and at least half of them have no idea what to wear at the office.

It's a powerful commentary that unpacks in a bunch of ways if you're attentive. On the one hand, I am a hell of a lot more like their likely hiring managers than they are, and I would substantially mark down a lot of these young women purely on their clothing choices. Am I right or wrong? Not only does this make me despair for young, educated, black women, it (on the other hand) makes me question myself. What, exactly, is wrong with tight dresses with hems above the knee, eh? So, that's all good! Good work, Ms. Beal!

Another piece, by Katrin Koenning, which I radically did not like in this book, but which I recognized as something I'd talked about before. This illustrates the problem with books like Firecrackers. Koenning's piece has exactly zero chance of working if you don't give us most of the pictures. Nine pictures selected from the project completely loses the flow of light to dark to light to dark, it loses the fucking point. It comes across like a handful of junky snapshots of nothing, which is exactly what it is. If you chop my arm off, it's just meat. I get their desire to include her, because BA, Photography, Queensland College of Art, which appears to be one of the nexii from which Firecracker draws its people.

There's a glorious profile of a Russian weatherman living alone at 69 degrees north, shot I think in summer but with the perfect flavor of the light of northern winters. Just beautiful, emotionally evocative, etc. And none of the "female gaze" tropes whatsoever to muddy things up, just a tender, light, touch, the kind of thing that is, while gender neutral, perhaps more likely to be shot by women. The artist even allows him to look happy. (surely she didn't go to Art School?!! But she DID, ICP, New York. How?!! What?) I will go so far as to suggest that you look up Evgenia Arbugaeva, as her work is at the very least beautiful to look at.

And then there's a handful of tic #2 (the Cindy Sherman trope) which mostly don't work, because Cindy can act and these woman can't do anything except stare vacantly, as they have been trained to do in Art School or by their Art Schooled peers. There's a few other things that look like a bunch of junky snaps of nothing which could, I suppose, but broken fragments of better work like Koenning's, but to be honest the book does not motivate me to go find out. Which is sort of sad.

The "For Birds' Sake" work appears, as noted previously, in this book. I'm honestly not sure if I like it or not, but it's pure gender neuutral MFA material. If you look at the copy online, over here and scroll down a bit, you will find a picture of a dirt road.

This is classic MFA "documentary" style. This road means nothing, it could be anywhere. It's stuffed in there to provide evidence of the Serious Documentary Nature of the work, and perhaps also to provide some sort of visual cue. It could have been shot in North Carolina. It is unexplained. It's supposed to suggest... well, a road (or a hole, or a chair, or whatever) can suggest anything, isolated like this.

What makes this photo interesting is that someone involved in making the book decided to put a copy of it up front, facing the opening essays.

Now, I am prepared to admit that I might be missing something. But from where I sit, my tentatively formed opinion, is that this shot is a bunch of bullshit signifying nothing, and that very mystery is why the editors(?) chose to lead with it.

Duchamp's "Fountain" appeared to be nothing, but was in fact making a bold and powerful statement. This seems, over the last century, to have been converted by the mysterious alchemy of human stupidity and postmodernism, into the notion that anything and everything which appears to be nothing just might be something, and if someone is standing behind it mugging wildly, it probably is something.

Sometimes a road is just a road.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The MFA Crowd

John Edwin Mason, who is a historian at UVA, cited some work, saying "It's terrific work" and so I went and looked. Mason is a guy who teaches the history of photography, knows a lot of stuff, tends to be a bit on the identity politics end of things. He's interested in many of the same things I am interested in (race, power, politics, and what photography has to say about that), and is a genuine scholar. I attend to what he says, but agree with it only part of the time.

What he cited was this: You Don't Look Native to Me which I am pretty sure John likes not so much for the pictures or ideas, but for the "OMG a marginalized people" content. You know, which is a real thing. It totally sucks to be marginalized, and lots of good work has been done about this kind of thing.

I have written several essays about work in this vein that could accurately be described as "glowing" or perhaps even "hagiographic" so if it has occurred to you that I just hate pictures of poor people, nope.

This is not particularly excellent work. It is the standard output of the MFA crowd, better than some, not quite as good as others. All the pictures are willfully vernacular, and some of them seem to have no point whatever. The bullet riddled stop sign means nothing other than "rural" and the vaguely New Topographics pictures of the small cheaply built homes are not particularly on-point. I suppose we are to assume that these people are low-income? We see pictures of the marginalized people, and we see a few bits and pieces of how they live. Which is to say, exactly like all the other rural teenagers in the USA, except they have more Indian Stuff on their walls.
The color palette looks kind of like Portra film, which is another standard MFA trope. It says "I use film, but not like those lomography lamers" even if they're not using film.

In part this is simply "holy shit, rural people, so weird and poor" porn, very chic. In part this is "holy shit, marginalized people, I feel sad, we should do something" porn. Again, très très chic.

So, having established this work's place, now let us look at more of Maria Sturm's work on the same web site, in particular: For Bird's Sake which is about another somewhat marginal population on the other side of the world. Again, it's not terrible, but not great.

But look at both of these things side-by-side. They are almost literally the same photo essay down the neck tattoo.

The second one, about birds, I met a few weeks ago in a book, attributed to Cemre Yesil rather than Maria Sturm. If you look closely in that book, and on the web site I linked to above, you will discover unobtrusively noted that this is a collaboration between the two.

But what is interesting here is that the two photo essays deploy precisely the same tropes on really quite different groups of people. Both are on the outskirts of society in one sense or another, but otherwise they are radically different people.

This suggests that Sturm is deploying what we might call "her style" as a way to tell every story, rather than sorting through the situation and crafting an approach that will be well-suited to the story that she wants to tell. It feels like a novelist who decides "fuck it, I'm telling everything in first person flashbacks, because I know how to write that" which might be good or bad, I dunno.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Pictorialism Meets Gearheads

Note to Anonymous commenters: Random name calling by an Anonymous commenter is likely to be attributed to mrca, who has been banned from commenting (with one exception noted below) so if you're just some other random dolt, that's where your comments are going. Sorry.

I made a little page just for you clowns hate-reading me from The Photo Forum. Fuck off, stop reading my blog, there's nothing here you idiots are going to find interesting. I will try to link to this page each time in future I refer to your forum, so you morons have some context when inevitably your little spies alert you to the Mean Blogger.

In my occasional wanderings through the seedier sides of the internet (no, no, not the MFA people god forbid, just the forums) I happened across this interesting thread, which you may peruse or not as you prefer.

In this thread (there is a history of these dolts harassing me with DMCA takedown requests, so I won't be posting the picture here) we start with a photograph of a man holding a Mamiya RB67 in the manner of Hamlet interrogating Yorick's skull. There's a HUGE pile of text that explains in laborious detail why the picture is so great, followed by a number of comments agreeing that it is extremely great. The point of the picture was to show how wonderfully sharp the Nikon D850 camera paired with Zeiss lenses is, an exercise in absurdity because you can crank out just as pointlessly crunchy a picture with practically any camera and lens today.

Be that as it may, the point of the picture is to show off technical chops, and by god it does that. Well done, whatever your name is.

Following down a little we find the spoiler. Some other poster remarks that with all those goddamned lights the result is kind of flat. To this I will add that the subject appears to be floating, or glowing, because there's so much light splashed around on him against the relatively dark background, and also I don't believe that you intended the specular highlights on the camera to look like that.

This is of course met with fury and vitriol, which is pure delight to read.

Anyways, the spoiler is perfectly correct. While this thing is a technical tour-de-force, it looks outright weird when you stop admiring the rim lighting and whatnot, and actually look at the picture. This is a picture photographers love, but nobody else does. To everyone else, it merely looks "sharp" or possibly "clear" and a bit... off.

Stepping back slightly further, we can examine the idea. Yes, yes, the lighting hero has some story about an analogy between Hamlet's contemplation of his own morality[sic] and the dominance of digital photography over film, but that's pretty forced and wrong-headed. He's just sticking a literary reference in there to be cute, and to borrow some of Shakespeare's mojo for his own. Obviously it worked, the picture is Award Winning, after all! But I am not buying it, and neither should you. It's just an arbitrary random reference signifying nothing, it has no more weight than name-dropping Roland Barthes in your essay about photography.

This is exactly the sort of thing the Pictorialists were rightly panned for. Rather than having any ideas at all, let alone photographic ones, they would simply stick in a literary or mythical reference, and hope for the best. Look, this isn't just some naked chick, it's Aphrodite! Indeed, I would be astonished if you could not relatively easily find some gum-bichromate mess from the late 1800s with pretty much exactly this scene in it, albeit with a skull. Possibly a teapot, if you stumbled across some would-be wit.

So, this particular photograph is fascinating because while it is essentially just some gearhead flaunting his gear and his lighting skills, it nonetheless is essentially a near-perfect example of the errors of Pictorialism. While it is vaguely painterly, no painter would ever have so grossly misunderstood how light falls, and indeed neither would any Victorian-era Pictorialist. It was left up to modern photographers, with their baskets of lights, to mess up the fall of light to thoroughly.

This all suggests to me that the errors of Pictorialism are basic just human errors. Most of us simply aren't clever enough to say anything particularly interesting, so we reach for the same gimmicks regardless of era. Photographers still ape painters, badly, and still borrow cheap references in lieu of anything interesting 100-140 years later.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Broad Field

One of the things that fascinates me about photography and photographers is how broad the population is. There are all these little (well, enormous, often) cliques and regions of the field. There's photojournalists, amateur snapshooters, fine artists, and so on.

Just sticking to the Fine Artists, we have:
  • modern fellows like Alain Briot and so on who sell brightly colored landscapes in shops they refer to as "galleries."
  • closely allied but not quite the same, the black and white Serious Photographs who appear in LENSWORK and that Mike Johnstone likes.
  • the even more serious artists, who get big gallery shows. Sally Mann, Thomas Ruff, Cindy Sherman, etc.
  • The random crew of people I dig up from time to time, which surely represents 1000s of artists, very serious, very good, but obscure.
  • the MFA crowd who take themselves terribly serious but mainly turn in derivative lightweight muck that's trying to be political. This is mainly where Colberg hangs out.
  • the digital artist crowd who are mostly in it for the social media likes and maybe do ads as well. Google up Antti Karpinen.

What is curious here is that even in this narrow world of Fine Art photography, within each we have very little acknowledgement of the other groups in it. Most of these groups don't talk about antecedents, heroes, sources of inspiration except in terms of one another. Mostly, each group behaves as if Photography consists of their kind of work, and a bunch of irrelevant snapshots nobody cares about. The most serious group is the best at acknowledging their antecedents, and as you get into crappier and crappier art you get less and less talk about antecedents.

I am working my way through a book of contemporary female photographers, Firecrackers, which truly has much to recommend it, and which I will have more to say later. It is entirely the MFA crowd, being a diverse and multinational group of artists who all went to the same very very short list of schools.

At least three of the artists are dressing up in costumes and photographing themselves in constructed scenes in order to comment on some aspect of the feminine in culture. Anyone who had not been under a rock will recognize this as Cindy Sherman's schtick. Sherman, of course, is cited exactly zero times. The editors manage to equip the Ethiopian one with one antecedent, Malick Sidibe, who worked in a completely different country, 60 years and 2000 miles away, and whose work I hardly need to say has exactly no resemblance to the artist's other than being pictures of African people. This is roughly like saying that Ansel Adams pictures shows clear signs of the influence of Julia Margaret Cameron, because they're both white and sometimes photographed people.

As an aside, I find this particular reference to be very dubious. It is as if the editors could only think of one other African photographer, and so decided it was fine to lump Ethiopia and Mali together in this way.

The MFA crowd in particular seems to be very distinct. They acknowledge nobody else, and nobody else seems to pay the slightest attention to them.

The lighter weight but still serious landscape people seem to intersect pretty much at Ansel Adams, more or less universally claiming him as an inspiration, but otherwise ignoring everything and everyone else. The lighter weight but still serious everything-else people usually acknowledge 2 or more from a standard short list: Cartier-Bresson, Kertész, Koudelka, less often Capa, almost never Smith, and that's about it.

The digital artists don't acknowledge anyone because they're free, man, to do whatever the want, man.

The actual major players can, in general, speak at some length to their antecedents and who they attend to, where they came from, and where they are going. Some of them aren't going anywhere interesting but they are at any rate thoughtful about it.

It may be a wrong-headed feeling I have, my I cannot shake the sense that the more an artist knows and cares about their own historical context, the better they're likely to be. It's not a road to awesomeness, but it does feel like a necessary pre-condition.