Monday, December 10, 2018


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.


  1. This post reminds me of that Jay Maisel line: to be a more interesting photographer, be a more interesting person. It’s hard to be a more interesting person when your whole world and all your experiences are one thing that you share with other people like you who are also in that world exclusively. This is a common scenario for people whose whole adult existence is spent mostly in a little academic bubble (or rathole). It’s especially hard when “conform or be cast out” is the name of the game, which it usually is in most academic bubbles/ratholes.

    Lots of people go down the rathole at first because that’s the only way to be successful. The question is why do people stay in the rathole? Some of them probably get comfortable there – it’s a nice hole, the other rats are OK, the money and status are nice. Others get trapped in the rathole because they can’t do anything else (perhaps because they have no other experiences that make them interesting).

    Art is a tough gig. It’s probably easiest if you like being in the rathole and have no ambition to get out. It must be brutal to have to crawl into the hole and stay there even if you hate it because you understand that it’s the only way to survive.

    Some people do get out. My hunch is that two things define them: (1) longevity in the game – they’ve lasted long enough to be able to ignore the rules, or even make their own ratholes (the Queen Rat phenomenon); and (2) what you’re arguing in this post, in other words, lots of interesting experiences they can use to create new things that can’t be ignored so easily.

  2. Maybe those flower pictures would have been better if you took them with a D850 and a Zeiss lens and used more lights ;^)

    Now seriously: While I'm not a very social person, I do miss some like-minded people with whom I could exchange and discuss work and thoughts and possibly collaborate. This should be a group in real life - I don't think that it could work on the internet. Of course there are photo clubs in my hometown, but 1. I believe that the focus on photography is too narrow, and 2. I'm not keen on guys like the one who recently contributed anonymously to your comment section (you know whom I mean, the expert on creative writing - his contributions were long, incomprehensible rants full of expletives and name-calling).

    Best, Thomas

    1. I live in vague terror of local photographers talking to me. When anyone asks I just say "eh, I just have a camera, you know?" to try to fend off conversations about photography.

      Frankly, I am much better at monologuing about photography than I am conversing about it. As is probably exquisitely obvious to anyone who's spent more than a few seconds with my blog.

  3. It's clearly an exploration of the relationship between something and something.

    1. There may even be some sort of playing with a dialectic in here.

  4. The second photo works well, doesn't it? As a side remark, good thing is, it does not have to resonate with you, it is perfectly enough if it resonates with us, and thanks for sharing. And, seriously, has anyone made a career out of point-set topology in the last 75 years, is there any way out of this particular narrow box? As for why borrowing is much more open in mathematics than in art, the reason is that on a rare occasion we can borrow something, we know that, maybe, just maybe, it will be at least of interest to the lender, so finally we may get a non-empty audience. Artists probably assume they will get an audience regardless so bragging to the lender is quite unnecessary.