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.


  1. Her Romanian stuff, on the other hand, which she obviously would have a closer connection to, is maybe less formulaic, but it still seems a little hesitant.

    But "'I use film, but not like those lomography lamers' even if they're not using film. " - ouch (surreptitiously hides stack of film under the couch)

    1. I know all about your nasty little film habits ;)

      There's nothing wrong with film, it's the coy way they hint at it as a way to pump up their snapshots of nothing. Sort of like throwing in a reference to Hamlet for no discernible reason.

  2. This is the central problem for 'serious' photography; how to get away from the randomness of it, without it coming across as laboured, righteous, twee, chi-chi or just plain silly. I think the 'photo essay' format is absolutely the wrong path to go down, unless you treat it as a primarily journalistic endeavour and make every picture in it count for something.

    1. I disagree, and as a case in point I present to you Katrin Koenning's work (which I reference in the next piece, but here's a direct link):

      and there's also Frédérick Carnet:

      Both of them are doing some strange flavor of abstract art with sequences, and to my eye they are successful (god knows what kinds of deals they have made with the devil for these skills, but I like the results).

      That said, the "central problem" you identify is correct. You can recast it as "what is the difference between taking a billion random snaps, and picking out a few, from actual 'skill' whatever that even might be?" I think.

    2. OK, I don't call either of those examples (Koenning and Carnet) photo essays.

      There's nothing wrong with assembling a group of photos for some kind of aesthetic statement (as is the case with these, and I don't think either entirely works as such), but when it tries to also work as a story, it doesn't, because there is a fundamental conflict between the two modes.

      As far as 'a billion random snaps', for which you have contrived a deep, personal enmity, that is the procedure most of us have to go through to acquire any skill. Practise makes perfect, eh?

    3. Oh, I see.

      Yes, I guess there is a thing these kids are doing these days. They say "my practice centers around documentary photography" but then they put up something which appears to be some sort of aesthetic statement (if washed out pseudo-Porta photos of nothing is an aesthetic?) but which pretends also to be documentary (except that it always documents the same thing: a random bunch of vaguely gloomy people standing around)?

      For extra points, photograph someone's passport or some other vaguely relevant document.


      That is a thing that does not work ;)

      I imagine there is some rationalization like "look, just photographing the important elements of the thing, in the order they happen, has been done, let's try to do something else. I know, we'll photograph the absence of something!" or some similarly nonsensical idea.

    4. Also, Carnet at least is awesome, and I DO spend my days in a fortress of solitude hissing at the billions of snapshots whirling outside.

    5. I thought through why I feel the Koenning and Carnet presentations don't's the presentation itself, the side-scrolling of often unrelated images cheek-by-jowl.

      This approach can work (or work better) when the sequence is presented one at a time, like a click-through slide show.

      Koenning's jarring clashes of scale and tone heighten the impression of randomness and indiscipline, so the end result is chaotic sprawl, rather than a clear and convincing visual statement. Despite some of the individual images being very good indeed, the whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts, and it add up to no statement at all.