Thursday, September 19, 2019

Alfred Stieglitz

I am reading up on Clarence H. White, a photographer and teacher of some note from 100 years ago or so. White was rattling around New York City about the same time Stieglitz was holding court there, and they overlapped and interacted a fair bit. They ran with the same gangs.

The attentive reader of history will, eventually, notice that the main thing Stieglitz seems to have done was fall out with people. He also ran a couple iterations of a small but evidently influential gallery, and he published an influential magazine.

Now, I get that if people say a fellow is influential, well, then he is, because influence is entirely about perception. Still, Stieglitz doesn't seem to have done much except sit around writing and judging (the irony does not escape me, here).

White ran a school which churned out a number of truly stellar photographers, and a few handfuls of B-listers (known, but not, you know, well known) and White's influence is felt literally to this day in advertising photography. But White practically does not exist in our historical understanding. Beaumont Newhall, shamefully, almost entirely omits him from what is the standard American history.

Edward Steichen was a curator of real note, held the post of Director of Photography at the MOMA for about 15 years, curated The Family of Man, and a bunch of other stuff. Newhall, at least, and I think our collective grasp of history, consigns him to the role of a kind of Stieglitz protege.

Stieglitz, on the other hand, seems to have been born a grumpy old man with too much money. His usual reason for falling out with someone was that the someone was too mercenary, not committed enough to photography as a pure art, but rather decided to make something commercial of it. The effect of this is that he had no patience for photographers without money.

It is long past time to correct the record, I think. Not by minimizing Stieglitz' role. His role was real, photographers did go to him to pay court, and his imprimatur was valuable. Rather by enlarging our understanding of other roles. To whom, for instance, would you go with your Letters of Marque from Stieglitz (who had, himself, nothing by those Letters to give)?

White, Steichen, and (ugh) even Newhall, among surely many others, were the people who could actually redeem Stieglitz' grudging approval with concrete gifts. Exhibitions or, gasp, jobs.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The New Yorker

Have you ever noticed that if you open a copy of The New Yorker to pretty much anywhere, allow your eye to land at random on the page, and start reading... it's OK?

You might wonder who is this Samuelson person? You might care enough to scan backwards and find out where Samuelson appears, and learn that he's a grad student in the lab researching the link between whatever and the other thing.

But mostly, you can just start reading anywhere. The content of The New Yorker is a sort of woozy flow of words, little stitched together anecdotes and dropped quotations that speak mainly to the writer's erudition and command of the language. There is no slowly built up argument, there is no narrative, there is no forward thrust. It's just a kind of quilt that, ideally I guess, builds up into a sort of composite picture of whatever the piece is about.

I find this to be the second most most irritating thing about The New Yorker. The most irritating thing is that every article has am unwritten subtitle which is "I am very smart and read a lot." See also that monument to stupidity masquerading as erudition, Brain Pickings.

Anyways, the thing which occurred to me in a moment of wakefulness in the night is that a photo book often has this same property.

Because we have no special training to start at the beginning, and indeed a 100 years of coffee table books have taught us the opposite, we open visual books at random and flip pages.

If it's not hook-y, we put the book down and walk away.

Actually, let us back up. Milnor points out that the cover is the first do-or-die moment. The cover has to grab the attention. Next, the randomly opened page has to keep that attention enough to induce a page-flip, and then maybe another. The grip on the viewer is extremely tenuous here, and you've got to have enough interest at any point to hold them.

This argues for a fairly high density of punchy, interesting pictures. A typical MFA-driven product of MACK books or any of their compatriots fails this completely. Nobody is ever, ever, going to pick up i walk toward the sun which is always going down, flip a few pages, and be drawn in. The cover has the "curb appeal" of a turd, and the contents are, as far as the MACK web site reveals, no better.

The only way you read this book is if a friend urges you to, probably repeatedly. This doesn't mean it's terrible, at all. It might be excellent. But it is not accessible. It requires commitment to even get started. It might even require a certain suspension of disbelief, as it were.

The attentive reader will have noticed that I dislike The New Yorker's "start anywhere" feature, and yet appear to be advocating for it, for visual books. You are correct, attentive reader. This is, I think, a feature that the visual book kind of needs, but it is also one that makes me unhappy.

A really really good visual book operates like this, I think:

The cover grabs your attention, you pick it up. You open at random and flip a few pages, and your interest spikes upward. The pictures are arresting, the words seem to be both accessible and interesting. Something compels you to flip to the beginning, and you start reading from there.

The last bit is where the book stops being The New Yorker, which generally evokes no such compulsion.

Now, this is not to say that the randomly accessible pastiche is not OK, it is. I don't like it in The New Yorker in part because words are not supposed to work this way, in my mind. If you're going to give me 5000 words on something, I'd like to see some structure, not just a random selection of stuff. Pictures, on the other hand, I am socialized to accept in a more random scattershot fashion.

At the end it is the composite picture, the totality of the gestalt, that matters anyways.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Robert Frank, RIP, and So On

Let me start in by saying that I think The Americans is pretty great. I've seen a lot of weird commentary about it over the last few days, "now everyone shoots like that, but then, wow it was something" being among the weirder statements. I have also seen a little of "Ah, but I like The Lines of my Hand better" which strikes me as pure insider doofus chatter, the cry of someone who wants to be seen as having more refined taste than YOU.

There is also the inevitable discussion of his films, which everyone seems to agree are iconoclastic and fascinating and so on, but nobody seems willing to step up and say that they're good. Reading commentary on them, it becomes quickly clear that they are in fact pretty weird and inaccessible.

Frank suffers from the same problem Harper Lee does. He was an artist who had one thing in him. One very very good thing. That's it. He did a lot of things before and after, kept busy, presumably kept food on the table and whatnot. I'm certainly not saying that I am a better filmmaker. But these things Frank made are more or less the ordinary product of an ordinary worker.

Harper Lee stands as a giant of American literature, and there are those who would argue that she is indeed the giant. Her almost posthumous second book dims that bright light some, but cannot really obliterate it.

In the same way, this somewhat mad desire to make out Frank as not merely a genius, but a prolific genius, likewise ends up dimming his light.

The Americans is a monumental achievement. An artist needs no more to be mighty. Let it stand.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Something to Look At

Here's a picture.

As always, take your time.

There is a cheap, half-funny, read. Don't fall for it. Take a moment. Do you find it in any way oddly compelling?

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Shoot RAW!

A photograph, arguable, has about three jobs to do all at once.

The first thing is does, which it does all by itself pretty well if you just leave it alone, is to witness. It testifies that something was.

The second thing it does I am somewhat sloppily calling representation. It expresses an opinion about that which was. This is a little harder to do, you, the photographer, probably need to take an active and thoughtful role here. If nothing else, you should have pretty clear what your opinion of the subject is.

The third thing is does is to be aesthetic. Usually pleasing but not necessarily. Again, the photographer is probably involved here.

All of these things interact. If the photograph is aesthetically pleasing (or not) that is going to influence the opinion the photograph appears to express. If you tinker with a photograph to excess in order to improve the aesthetics, you lose the power and right to witness. By choosing what to witness, you influence the opinion your picture expresses, if nothing else about what it worth witnessing.

These things need to be in balance, whatever the right balance is for the job at hand.

It is probably fair to say that any photograph is going to do all three of these things no matter what. The question, as Humpty Dumpty observed, is who is to be master? Are you, the photographer, going to be in charge, or is luck, happenstance, and perhaps your unconscious mind going to be in charge?

Fine Art photographs invariably chuck everything except aesthetic appeal out the window. They appear to care about literally nothing else. This is not surprising, since modern photographer culture is 90% monkeying around with gadgets and 10% trying to figure out how to "make a good photograph" in an aesthetic sense. Note that witnessing and representation appear, um let me see, nowhere.

The Art photographers, especially those in the Documentary area, tend to worry exclusively about representation. They want desperately to convey their opinion, which is that fascism is bad, and that's about it. There's a little dash of witnessing (but most of the time they can't be buggered to find anything worthwhile to witness, so they photograph microfilm readers instead) and they certainly don't care about aesthetics.

Representation is important because, good god, if you don't care to communicate what on earth are you doing? Just format your cards at the end of every day.

Aesthetics matter because they influence the mood and receptiveness of the viewer. A graphically strong picture attracts attention (not, I note, "the eye" like some rule of thirds bullshit). A beautiful picture might well warm the viewer up, an ugly picture rile them up. I don't know, there is no formula. You just lay them out and see what it looks like. But aesthetics matter.

Witnessing, last of all, is what photographs do, as long as you let them. It is the well from which the power of the photograph is drawn. Without it, you have a badly made drawing. With it, you have the power of truth in your hand, to support your meaning.

Representation, Aesthetics, and Witnessing.

RAW. Shoot RAW, everyone. It's just better.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Landslop Followup

I made a thing. It's rough. I shot it, edited it, wrote it, and laid it out, today.

It's over on my Rogue Photo blog because I might make it into a magazine.

Landslop Photography <strangled noise>

So I accidentally fell into a conversation on twitter with this guy Philip Leyland Hyde, which turned out to be an error. Nice enough fellow, won't stop banging on about how important and influential his father Philip Hyde (who studied with Ansel Adams, dontcha know) was in photography and photo books. You can look Philip Hyde up, he's just barely important enough. I had never heard of him, and in a year, I will be back to blessedly not having ever heard of him. You can see some of his photographs here, for instance. It may occur to you that they look contemporary.

From there, for reasons I cannot fathom except apparently I need to suffer, I stumbled across Photo Cascadia, a collective of mainly Oregon photographers who produce interchangeable eye-searing landscapes in, actually, pretty much the same style as Philip Hyde. They identify with group f.64, though, and have probably never heard of Philip Hyde either.

Of course there's endless hordes of these people, some doing pretty well, some just banging out photos and prints on their own dime and trying to persuade their shrinking circle of increasingly haunted friends and relatives to take them and hang them up.

I stamped around my house ranting incoherently like schizophrenic for a while until the dog, out of concern for the children, called the police.

Having calmed down, something occurred to me.

What all these people are doing is driving off into the wilderness with a bunch of camera gear, going to particularly fortuitous vantage points at particularly fortuitous times of day, and waiting patiently for a particularly fortuitous combination of light, cloud, and fog to appear. They pride themselves on the difficulty of hobby, and the rareness of their photographs.

Now, the hobby is not difficult, merely expensive and labor-intensive, and the photographs are not rare. Witness, um, the internet. Or any small town in the Pacific Northwest, which will contain at least one "art gallery" infested with candy-colored pictures of mountains and trees "in the great tradition of Ansel Adams."

Still, these photos do take a bit of work. You don't just step into the woods and see these sights. Go out camping for a week in a good area, and there will be one or two mornings when, for 20 minutes, the fog and the light will drift through the trees just so. There will be an evening when the clouds over the mountains will look very nice, and also be pinklit by the setting sun for half an hour. You'll see this stuff, and you could certainly photograph it. Most days, these sights won't be quite perfect examples. It takes several days, some planning, and some hiking to grind out even one or two things of the sort Photo Cascadia prides itself on.

My realization is that if you spend 24 hours in a particularly good place, you're gonna get maybe 30 minutes of these sorts of thing. More with luck and planning, less without. Maybe it just rains all day.

It turns out that the wilderness, in the other 23 and one half hours, does not turn in to a mall parking lot. It's still pretty sublime. It is still filled with wonders. It is still painfully beautiful.

Even taking away the absurd distortions of wide lenses, candy colors, long exposure flowing water (ugh), and all the other ugly tropes of the genre, the wilderness simply does not look that way most of the time.

It is certainly true that the pinklit clouds and drifting fog through the awe inspiring vista do indeed take the breath away. On that one morning, wow, that was something. But these photographers are trading away every other moment for that one.

Sure, the wow moments sell prints. Well, some prints. Not as many as the photographers pretend, naturally, but enough to keep an apparently endless string of small town gallery shops open, at least as a part of the business.

They are not photographing the forests and valleys that I know. They are not re-creating my experience of these things, in any meaningful way.

My experience, to be honest, is more wondrous by far.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Witnessing vs. Representation

A more or less interesting conversation going on over at Leicaphilia in the comments. I made some powerful and erudite contribution which at this exact moment awaits moderation. By the time you read this, though, it is likely that it will be moderated through, no doubt sparking a witty and insightful conversation. Or, you know, maybe not.

Anyways, the thrust of my insightful comment was this:

The photograph testifies, more than anything else, that something was. This is the only intelligent observation in Barthes' Camera Lucida and while it sounds a bit blockheaded, it is nonetheless a critical point that deserves repetition. This is a truth, albeit a simple one. It is important, worthwhile, and often lost-track-of, specifically because this exists in contrast to, perhaps even in constant struggle with, another truth:

Photographs represent what was there. Here, the idea of representation is a term of art, roughly aligned with this dictionary definition:

The description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way or as being of a certain nature.

You might consider representation to be commenting on what was rather than merely testifying to its existence. Indeed, a representation need not testify to the reality of something at all. A painting might comment on the nature of a thing, or a category of things, without in fact showing us a real one of the things. A painting might represent a monarch as, I don't know, let us say evil, without being a picture of an actual monarch.

These two realities of what a photo is happen also to line up with two competing philosophies, neither of which would likely be delighted with this characterization. While Barthes more or less denies the power of a photograph to represent, most of his acolytes ignore the possibility that a photograph can do anything else. When pressed, they would likely admit that the photograph can witness, can testify, but they would deny that this is important.

I think coherent argument can be made that the early Art photographers, through the Pictorialists, were struggling to push their photographs to represent, to do more than to merely bear witness. This is, after all, the standard argument against photographs as Serious Art — they can only witness. Later, many of the Modernists used other technical means to attempt the same goals. Get in close, abstract the shapes, drill in to details, select unusual vantage points, and so on, all to try to force a "straight" photograph to reveal something more than merely a copy of what was in front of the lens. Forcing a straight photograph to represent coherently and clearly is, frankly, a struggle. It "wants" merely to witness.

At the same time, photojournalists and early documentarians were doing precisely the opposite, striving to simply record and witness as distinctly as possible. Recording architectural and cultural wonders for the all-consuming eye, and all that business. This group generally believed that their work only witnessed, it did not represent.

At some point there was a shift. Duchamp's "Fountain" is many things, including a stick to the eye of Fine Art, but also a statement: witnessing can be Art. There's nothing there, it's just a urinal, it simply sits there, be-ing. And yet, it is Art.

And thus is dismissed entirely the question of how a photograph, which some say merely witnesses, can be Art. It can be Art, whether it witnesses, whether it represents, or both. But not just any shitty photograph, it turns out, however much it witnesses whatever-the-hell.

To a degree this is the world we have arrived at. Much of photographic Serious Art styles itself precisely this way, as documentary photography (witnessing) with a message, an opinion, with politics (representation). Done well, this can be truly fantastic stuff.

The trouble, as I see it, with much of Serious Documentary Art, is that because theory states that all photographs represent the photographers don't even try. They just snap a photo of whatever, and figure that since theory says so, it probably represents something. There is a failure to acknowledge that a straight photograph does not particularly "want" to represent, the default setting as it were is to witness. Because the artist feels so strongly, surely the photograph must represent? All too often, it's just a snap of a microfilm can, witnessing only that the photographer knows where a library can be found.

On the other side of things, the Serious Decor people, seem to think that merely witnessing is the point. They take some loving, overwrought, picture of a landscape or a flower or a water droplet and they process it into oblivion, and they figure that since they put all this technical work into it, it's probably Art by now. They have no philosophy, no notion of representation at all. Their photographs, no matter how many layers they put into their Photoshop file, never do anything more than witness that there was a rock, a flower, a bug. These people too are trapped by the default witness-only character of the photograph, but unlike their MFA-holding compadres, they think this is a good thing.

Now, to be fair, Duchamp can get away with just chucking a urinal out there, and lo, it is Art. You, as a maker of overwrought pictures of bugs, probably can't.

Art is embedded in culture both as result and substrate. Duchamp's stature, and his ideas, allowed him to shove his damned urinal in there. You are, most likely, nobody, so you'd jolly well better have some ideas and, to be honest, your ideas probably ought to be visible. If not in the pictures, at least in the artist's statement. You don't get to be substrate upon which culture stands by cranking the sliders in Lightroom over to 11. At least, not unless you're Duchamp.

Nor, it turns out, do you get to be substrate upon which culture is built if your pictures are bullshit pictures of nothing, witnessing nothing much, but (according to you) representing the shit out of... something nobody can quite put their finger on.

This witnesses the existence of, the life and work of, one Dr. Ceriani. It also comments on that existence. It is not a bullshit picture of nothing. It is not an overwrought picture of nothing. It strikes a balance.

Country Doctor: Gene Smith

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Opposing Commentator

I promised you, a little while ago, some discussion of a commentator who took the opposite tack. Colin Pantall is writing a series of essays on ethics in photography in which he considers photographs almost completely in terms of the politics of their making, and almost not at all on their own merits, on the contents of the frame.

Colin is some sort of a British academic, but I find my own ideas and conceits echoed in his writing fairly often. You may deduce from this that he is intelligent, erudite, and devilishly handsome. The essay series I'm talking about here is a year-long project, started in January, for World Press Photo's Witness thing, which I guess is something like an electronic magazine. He's got 7 essays up now, plus an intro, which works out to about 1 a month, so I dare say we'll see a few more.

You can start with the intro here, and move on. There is a somewhat haphazard and often incomplete collection of links to later essays at the end of each one. With a bit of poking around you should be able to get to all of them, in sequence.

They're pretty good. As I started in on them, it fairly quickly occurred to me that he never seemed to be approaching any kind of conclusion, there's no big reveal, and so far there's no attempt at some masterful synthesis of all we have learned. Not too long after that I decided that what he was up to (so far) is not intended as a big think piece, but as a survey. A survey taken from a specific point of view, namely the methods and motivations various documentary photographic projects.

In each essay, Colin tells us about some things, usually photographic things, and he sketches the politics that drove the making of those things. Gently, he issues judgments of those methods. It feels sometimes as though he's going to go all woke and irritating on us, but happily he sticks to bigger issues like "racism is bad" which, you know, a pretty broad spectrum of us can get behind, right? His judgments tend to fall along the lines of how closely the politics of the project hew to his own (and to mine), but what he is striving for with fair success is to judge based on how full, how rounded, how humanist the methods and motivations are.

Allow me to step back and re-cast some things I've been writing about more carefully and succinctly.

When you look at a photo, you bring a bunch of baggage with you, including politics. No photo has its politics, its meaning, written in its pixels, it's just a bunch of dots. But sometimes you bring enough material to the table to read the politics of a photo easily (or at least to imagine that you do.) The things depicted in the frame may, or may not, provide markers you can use to connect the contents of the frame to your knowledge. Some frames are ciphers to all but the innest of the in-crowd, those with special knowledge. Others reveal some clues to the ordinarily knowledgeable. Some frames contain no markers whatsoever, you simply have to be told.

You don't need to know much to read some of Eddie Adams' photo of Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Nguyen Van Lem. A few of the basic facts of the US war in Vietnam will do. You likely recognize the military garb frame-left, and recognize that this takes place in war. It is not a gangland murder. A specialist might identify which war. But, no degree of examination of the frame will reveal the names of the people in it, their ranks, or the details of the killing. These things you have to be told.

Walker Evans' photos of the Tengle family are more opaque unless you happen to be familiar with the contents of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The photos acquire new depth when, for example, you learn that James Agee disliked the Tengles. That the photographer, Evans, likes them is evident to anyone who knows a little about photography, merely by examining the frame. You might still guess poverty, rural, and maybe America based on the contents of the frame. Who the Tengles are, and how they came to be photographed, these are facts which matter, and also facts which you cannot find inside the frame.

Sally Mann's photographs of battlefields mean nothing whatsoever unless you have some notion of the US Civil War, there is literally nothing to see except a field. Even this, you need to know what a field is, what grass is, what trees are. No clues in the frame will lead one to Antietam or Cold Harbor, no matter what depth of Civil War knowledge you possess. Once that connection is made for you, though, a much unfolds with great force and speed.


Colin is interested in the background information. He wants to understand the politics of the photograph, in terms of its intended meaning whether that be writ in the frame, or only known outside the frame. He wants to know how and why photos were made, and by whom, and for what purpose. He wants, above all, to know the connections between the intended meanings and the ways in which the photos were made.

He judges the work based, at least for the purposes of his essays, on those exact grounds. I asked, and he was explicit: you can't see it in the pictures. Or at any rate, not always.

Of course, he is interested here in the ethics of making and using pictures, this is the entire point of his series. But still, he is willing to pass judgement in this limited but not particularly narrow domain, based entirely on the politics which surround the picture rather than the contents of the frame. The results are worth our consideration. This material is real, it is important, and we should not ignore it.

While it is not (always) visible in the pictures themselves, it surrounds the work. In order to understand the work, and to assign it meaning, we should understand something of the way the picture was made.

As with Mike Johnston's approach, I think this approach is incomplete, inadequate. It suffices for Colin's purpose here, but as complete critical apparatus, it is not enough. Probably Colin would agree, he is after all intelligent, erudite, and devilishly handsome.

One of the projects that stuck out to me, in Colin's series, is a collection of photographs stitched together from Google's freely available satellite imagery, of cattle feedlots in the USA. One need bring only common knowledge to the table to read this to a reasonable extent. Cattle are packed together in mind-bogglingly large operations. Vast lakes of.. something, one can reasonably assume cow shit, are adjacent. The whole thing looks apocalyptic to even an ordinary person, with ordinary knowledge.

Learning that these creatures are cows, and deducing that we eat the results, is uncomfortable. Whether one could work that out by examining the frame, using only common understanding, I am unsure. It's on the edge. Some people will, some won't. Perhaps you have to have some slight understanding of feedlots to work that out.

Further investigation would reveal that, bizarrely, the USA has laws prohibiting photography of such operations. It follows trivially that the artist, Mishka Henner, is working around those laws to show us what those laws conceal — a distinctly political act. At that moment the politics of the situation, again, unfold with great speed and force.

This next photograph could be a Nike Ad for all we know. It contains no markers whatever of its politics.

If not an advert, this could easily be what I termed Serious Decor, an appealing and ultimately purely formal exercise in visual construction.

It happens that it is not that at all. It is a densely coded photograph, made by Hoda Afshar, of a man, Emad, who was at that time (and may still be) residing in a refugee camp. It is as densely coded as a prince's portrait. The elements all mean something, but the meanings need to be told. You cannot deduce them from the frame.

Absent the decoder ring, it's a perfectly nice picture, even an excellent and powerful one. But it is like many others. It could be an advertisement. With the decoder ring, much unfolds, with great force and speed.

The point here, if there is one, is something like this: Art is not merely the thing itself. It is the thing and its interconnections to the world in which it finds itself. Art is a cultural construct, and as such, gathers much of its meaning from the culture in which it exists. Art, also, is a part of the culture. As such, it carries its own meaning to the culture in which it exists.

To pretend that Art exists only as itself, merely as the contents of the frame, the thing on the pedestal, the sequence of notes, is absurd.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Failure of Straight Photography

I'm using the phrase "straight photography" fairly loosely here. What I mean is pictures that look like photographs. They might be heavily manipulated or not, but if so the manipulations are more or less convincing.

There is a lot of this stuff out there.

Much of it is extremely aesthetically pleasing. We have schlubs on 500px that nobody has ever heard of who can assemble a balanced and attractive frame. We have people who who sell large canvas wraps of beautiful flowers. We have Alain Briot and a whole category of people who operate modest galleries filled with this kind of work. We have the Caponigros and similar artists who are taken very seriously indeed, shooting this kind of thing.

There is indeed a whole branch of photography that concerns itself with this work, and considers this work to be the true work of photography (I contrast this, mostly, with the MFA Fine Art crowd who are doing, um, something different; but we should not forget the snapshootists and so on.) This is a branch of photography that considers its work to be exclusively putting subject matter into a frame in an aethetically pleasing way. They do not philosophize, they eschew any notion that they have anything to say as such. Often, they consider the idea of saying something to be effete and undesirable.

This is, I think, the legacy of, mostly, Ansel Adams. The man was a serious educator, and led the charge on any number of fetishes: archival processing, full range of tones, extreme sharpness. I suppose he didn't invent these things, but he was a very successful teacher of these ideas.

Ansel Adams, of course, was hanging around with a bunch of Modernists. As I bang on about a lot, he and his friends had strong philosophical ideas about what a picture ought to do. Weston tries to show us the essence of the pepper, Adams reveals to us his Experience Of The Rock, and so on.

The trouble is, with straight photography, this stuff doesn't really read. Yeah, I see the soul of the pepper in there, sort of, but is it only because I know what Weston was trying to do?

God help me, Barthes was right about one thing. What photographs are best at is simply witnessing: There was a pepper.

Straight photography explicitly throws away all the crutches and devices that make it easy, or perhaps possible, to say more than there was a pepper. The acolytes of Adams, which is most of us, have simply given up on anything else.

So now we have an entire genre of what is allegedly Art, which says nothing, which means nothing. It simply witnesses that a pepper, a rock, a flower, a model, was there. It is aesthetically pleasing, and that's about it. We have commentators spanning a spectrum from idiot to erudite who tell us that's pretty much all there is, and any attempt to imbue a photograph with more than that ought to be rejected. What baffles me is that roughly the same commentators bemoan that photography is not taken serious as Art.

Of course your preferred photography, sir, is not taken seriously as Art. It says nothing, it means nothing, and furthermore you insist that it continue to say nothing, and mean nothing. What on earth are we to make of this? You want me to expand my collection of this work because it is... pretty? Is this intended as some sort of jest?

What separates Weston's pepper, and I do consider it to be separated, is that we do in fact know what Weston was attempting. This knowledge affects how we (or at least I) see the picture, and I see it as more, perhaps, than it is. My point here is not that photography as a genre is limited only to witnessing that the pepper was. My point is that if you limit yourself to the frame, photography is so shackled. If you, as a photographer, consider yourself limited to putting things in to the frame, than you are also shackled. Your chosen tool has a profoundly limited range of expression.

Curiously, we continue to have a heirarchy.

500px schlub is less than Guy Tal, who is less than Paul Caponigro, who is less than Ansel Adams.

But at the end of the day, all their pictures look pretty much the same. Sure, there might be a style note that reveals that this one if Briot, and that one isn't. But both pictures are about equally appealing, about equally pretty. Both witness the same there it was fact. Neither has any meaning beyond that witnessing.

Rather to my own delight, I have dubbed this as Serious Decor. It's decor, but we are socialized to take it seriously, for some reason. Oh, it's a picture of a dandelion, yawn. Oh, wait, it's a Caponigro! Well, well, then. It's an amazing and important photograph for, um, reasons you would not understand.

Just trust me.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Art Considered Aesthetically

Mike, over on ToP, has a couple pieces in a row that are worth a looksee (the linked piece, and the one that precedes it).

In it, he laments that Art is now considered largely in terms of the politics which surround the piece. Who was the artist, which marginalized groups, if any, does the artist belong to, which unsavory billionaire funded the work, and so on. Now, he's not wrong here, this is a limited way of looking at Art, and it's fairly modern, and it often kind of ignores the actual, you know, Art. Which is all very irritating.

Let us, as usual, back up.

Art, in the Olden Dayes, often straight up told stories. There are entire genres of Art that depict a series of scenes, that literally relate some sequence of events. The painting, etching, or photograph (Rejlander's "Two Ways of Life" for example), was a literal narrative, a telling of a story. Embedded in that, as often as not, is politics. These stories are rarely about Bobby's trip to the bakery; they're founding myths, moral tales, religious tracts. They take a position, and expound it.

Later, other Art may not have taken the form of literal narratives, but it was heavily coded. The prince's sword represented one thing, his hat another, and the ring a third thing. Not everyone could read the coding, but the people who couldn't were irrelevant. The intended audience could absolutely read the painting just fine.

Maybe not all art was like this, but at any rate it was perfectly normal for a piece of art to be like this.

Mid-nineteenth century is still trundling along to a good degree as photography gets started. We see these same notions getting pulled out of the closet to be re-used in the Victorian era. See also Pictorialism.

Even as photography branched out from there, we still see a lot of what we might broadly consider politics popping up. People's dress, manner, and background continued to reveal and to comment. Lewis Hine's pictures of child labor were pretty political. Should we consider them, judge them, without consideration of the political surroundings? We could, but if we conceive of them stripped of that context, they become something quite different and something quite lesser.

Now, I don't know what Mike would have to say to those photos. Possibly he would say that the politics is encoded inside the artwork itself, and that makes it OK. He does seem to be hewing to the "Art should stand on its own" school of thought. However he would stand, the truth is that the politics are not entirely containing in the pictures. The marks are there in the frame, but they refer to the world that surrounded the making of the picture. A painting that tells the story of Genesis is meaningless if you don't know the bible. Lewis Hine's photos are meaningless if you don't know that child labor was a thing. Minamata, without its text, is a bunch of snapshots of Japanese people and one truly sublime picture of someone getting a bath.

The politics of a piece of Art do not go away simply because you know them by heart.

I suspect Mike of wanting to treat art purely from an aesthetic perspective. He doesn't want to know about the politics, and he thinks they ought not matter.

I've learned not to care too much if the painting was made to become a tipped-in plate in a children's book or a paeon to the glory of the Medicis or if its creator was in such agonies that he cut off his ear.

Mike's claim to actually approach Art this way is absurd on the face of it. He knows perfectly well who Lorenzo de'Medici was, and what Lewis Hine was about. He cannot set these things aside. The fact that he can and does approach, say, the Caponigros' photos, which appear to be more or less bereft of politics, does not mean that he can set the history of child labor aside for Hine. He cannot. There is a reason Mike cites Medici instead of some nameless schlub from the same era who also had enough scratch to pay a painter.

This purely aesthetic approach to Art strikes me as very modern, and it is especially appealing to camera enthusiasts.

It is, I think, right about the time the Modernists arose that photography as a discipline, or at any rate a major branch of it, simply jettisoned meaning. There's a lot of stuff going on. We have Hartmann's plea for straight photography, which is orthogonal to politics and meaning, but does kind of crap on the Pictorialist parade of technique. Pictorialism's methods were all bound up with meaning, so there was I think a tendency toward dumping baby, bathwater, and everything else all at once. Along with fuzzy pictures and clumsily posed models, we can observe a reaction against allegory and symbolism.

Social commentary pops up, which can be shot straight but eschews allegory in favor of a gritty reality (Paul Strand, Lewis Hine), which is inherently political as noted. In parallel a new kind of Fine Art arose, drawing on some sort of mishmash of ideas like Impressionism, Expressionism, and Realism. Weston is trying to find the soul of some root or vegetable. Adams is trying to express his feelings about a mountain. A lot of lesser people are struggling just to make attractive pictures.

Modernists are, essentially, privileged. They can afford to just wander around taking pictures of diftwood and green peppers, because they live in an affluent society, and their hobby is relatively cheap and easy. They don't need to flatter people with their Art, they can take time from the portraiture storefront for "personal work" and so on. And so there is no need to shovel a bunch of politics into everything. They can afford to make things that are purely pretty.

In this modern era we have a more or less endless parade of people who are traveling great distances and going to a great deal of trouble mainly so they can test the image quality of their current setup. These are the natural heirs of the Modernists, what after all is more Modernist than the idea that more pixels and more dynamic range is somehow the ultimate expression of Art?

My biggest problem with Mike's position is not that he's personally dismissive of externalities surrounding pieces of Art, but that he's taking pretty clearly the stance that nobody else should consider these things either. We ought, all of us, evaluate a photograph purely on what's inside the frame. This strikes me as profoundly limiting.

Of course we should consider what is inside the frame. Perhaps we ought even to start there. But from there, why stop? If you like the thing, if it interests you, why should you limit your understanding of the thing to the contents of the frame?

More particularly, what on earth is a critic (or, really, anyone who wishes to play critic for even so limited an audience as themselves, which really amounts to taking a real interest in a piece) to do, if the edges of the frame stand as impenetrable walls? How tedious!

The most ironic point here is that while photographers tend to be very fond of the "Art should stand on its own!" school, most photographers are in fact terrible at examining the frame carefully. They glance at it, form a brief opinion, inspect a couple of details, and move on with their lives. Mike, while better than many, does not really get a pass here.

Coming up shortly, I will talk about another commentator who takes almost the opposite tack.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Luminous Endowment is Closed

When LuLa spun up the legally separate but functionally closely related entity, The Luminous Endowment, I spent a little time sniffing it over quite carefully. I was unable to find any scent of anything sketchy about it, in the end, despite looking quite carefully.

In the end, I came around to being quite in favor of it. The Endowment gave grants to genuinely interesting artists, and generally seemed to be without the usual conflicts of interest, profit motives, or artwashing games that characterize so many grants and prizes out there. The grants, while not immense, were more than mere tokens.

As of the final Form 990, 2017 (which may or may not predate the final round of grants) the endowment had total assets around $320,000. This seems like a lot, but it really is not. The endowment could not afford to pay anyone, really, and given the size of the grants offered, there really was not a lot of runway.

If I had to guess, I would say that the downturn in the camera industry, and in general the slowly declining interest in what we might call "serious amateur photography" made it hard to continue to raise funds. The endowment was in an awkward position. Not enough cash on hand to really fund a full court press to raise more money, and certainly not enough cash to support their ambitious grant program on investment proceeds alone. Add to that a total reliance on a dedicated cadre of volunteers, both to administer the organization, and to judge applications, and you have a pretty tenuous situation.

According to the announcement on LuLa's front page, the Endowment has closed up shop, donating its cash to photolucida to endow a somewhat less ambitious grant program ($3000 a year, it looks like?) which probably can be funded from investment proceeds. Since photolucida has an existing business and staff on hand, they can probably administer this program under the aegis of what they already do, rather than relying on volunteers.

It seems that the Luminous Endowment also had a backlog of Michael's retrospective book, and have sold those to LuLa. The cash from that sale, I assume, goes to photolucida's program with the rest of the assets, and Josh Reichmann has committed to selling these books and donating those proceeds to the same place.

While regrettable, and I am personally sorry to see this closure, this does seem to be a decent course forward. What was not really sustainable has been converted into something that is, and in a perfectly reasonable way.

A 501(c)(3), a normal charitable organization in the USA, always has some clause in its founding paperwork describing what is to happen to assets upon windup, and normally this is something like "find another charity with a mission more or less aligned with ours, and give all our stuff to them" and this appears to be exactly what transpired.

Sayonara, Luminous Endowment, you were good while you lasted.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Storytelling into Memory

Some time ago Lewis Bush was going on about storytelling in the visual book, and complaining that photographers don't study cinema enough, and whatnot. It occurred to me, as I was rooting, piglike, among this cloud of ideas that perhaps I was less interested in literally telling stories, and more interested in leaving roughly the same bootprints in the viewer's mind as telling a story does.

That is, it occurred to me that perhaps emulating the novel (or movie) might not be the only approach. One might do, well, something else. Something unclear. But something else which produces the same effect on the reader as a novel (or a movie). Something that leaves the same traces on the mind as a novel. It is, after all, the traces left behind which matter.

First a little background. For our purposes here I will use the more or less standard definition of story which we may take as essentially the ground truth of some sequence of events. If the story be fictional, well, struggle with that a little. What is the ground truth of "The Snow Queen?" Two children, certain happenings, a reindeer, a queen, and so on. For a true story, a piece of reportage, this is clear, surely? The word narrative refers to a telling of the story. Events may be left out, told out of order for effect, certain events made more important, and so on.

Let us consider memory now, that malleable surface upon which traces are writ, which traces are at this moment of interest.

Your memory may work differently from mine, I suppose. But, this is mine.

When I think of some memory-worthy thing, let us say a job, it manifests as a singular thing, I don't visualize it particularly, but we might imagine it as a box. A box labeled, notionally, as "My Job at X." If I touch the box, shards arise. A person, an event, a project, an office building. Each of these shards is atemporal. I do not perceive them as a passage of time, but again as a singular object, a box if you will. Touching any one of them causes another cloud of shards of memory to arise. Nothing in here resembles, even slightly, a film strip.

What strikes me here is the atemporal nature of these things. It's not that I have a lighting fast brain, and perceive some work project in an instant, it is that there is no instant. The shard of memory corresponding to a project, or an office building, simply is. It has no nature of the passage of time.

To construct, or re-construct, the passage of time I need to string together shards of memory by an act of will. This happened, and then that happened, and then... In effect, I construct a narrative by choosing some path through a continuously arising cloud of atemporal memory shards.

When one memorizes a poem, one commits individual shards of memory to mind, one by one. The first line, and then the second line, and then the third one. Each line is, I think, a timeless shard of memory. It simply is. Touch the first line, speak it, and the shard of memory that is the second arises. Speak that, and the third appears, and so on. This creates a notable problem for musicians, and professional reciters of poetry: if you get lost in the middle the game is up. There are specific memorization techniques which build anchors mid-piece which allow you to recover the chain easily, but it is certainly a chain for most people. Mozart may have been different.

So here is the really interesting observation which I, um, observed:

Of all the physical objects in the real world, the one which most closely resembles a shard of memory is the photograph.

It is atemporal, it simply exists. One apprehends it in a moment. It is, like so much of memory, visual.

Now, to be fair, upon close inspection my visual memories do not in fact resemble photographs literally. I cannot drill into the visual by peering closer, to examine so and so's nose. But still, they feel a lot like a photograph. They feel detailed, complete, and above all, static. I can construct the movie, the moving picture, but only as an effort of will and the result is not very satisfactory as a movie although it is perfectly good as a pure narrative, tethered not to any medium.

Let us revisit the traditionally told story for a moment. The novel, or the movie, or whatever, relates a narrative which reveals, to some degree or another, the story. Both are left, in fragments, in our mind. I can recall bits and piece of Conrad's Nostromo although I have to struggle to recall the name of the main character which is curious because it's the title. My recollection is all muddled up with my probably half-assed understanding of South American politics.

A quick skim of wikipedia refreshes my mind on the story which in turn brings back to mind the critical messages of the narrative (although I am certain most of the clever technical elements of the narrative are completely gone). Conrad's usual themes are in full play here, rendered hot, sunny, and more or less tropical.

This is, I think, typical. What I am left with from a novel, a news story, or a movie, is the bones of the story and the general tone, the message, that the narrative was seeking to carry. These things happened, and that guy was villainous.

So this provides a sort of template we could look to, if wish to emulate storytelling with our visual book. Provide some notion of the ground truth of the thing, and also an impression of the message you wish to carry.

We can think of visuals, especially photographs, as carrying two distinct roles here. The first is simply to reveal the story in some sense, to provide an illustration of the ground truth. Whether the reader recalls the specific photograph or not is irrelevant, the point is that the reader recalls that the thing depicted was. The second role is as a literal memory shard, a photograph might sit in the memory as one of those irreducible atoms of memory, to be conjured up when the book (or story) is recalled.

To return to my favorite visual book, Minamata, I recall a handful of photographs. Tomoko, Shimada and Kawamoto negotiating, and what seems to be a composite memory-shard made up out of several photos of patients (victims) dancing and moving. There are a handful of other profoundly strong photos in here, but they do not pop out at me until I open the book. The story I can conjure up fairly easily. I can re-string the shards of my memory into a rough narrative, although it tends to wander off into DDT and Three Mile Island and so on.

I am struck by how few of the photographs play the second role, here. The many pictures are not worthless, of course, but most of them serve to document the story, to shape the narrative. They do not sit in my memory as themselves.

Smith's book is not a strictly linear narrative, and it does not particularly resemble a novel. It is a loosely related series of essays, each illustrated by photographs. Some of the material is chronological, but not all. Some is background, some is historical, only the core of the book is really a series of newsworthy events related in order. I think one can go further, one can be more fragmented, more almost hallucinatory.

I see now that my magazine, Alley (available on blurb, $8, a tremendous bargain, buy one for all your friends), heads in this direction. The story is nothing much, just that there is an alley behind my house, and that it has certain features, and that alleys have a certain history. It isn't even a series of events. But it is impressionistic, and the narrative flow, such as it is, simply disintegrates by the end. That is on purpose. The message of the narrative is not complex, only that I love this place, this long and narrow plaza behind my house.

There may even be a couple of pictures in here that stick in the memory, but many of them merely serve to reify the place, to prove that it is, that it was, that it has in it these things.

I think I'm on the right track, but I'm not sure where to go from here. Stick around, maybe I'll figure something out!

Monday, August 19, 2019

Writing on

I am writing for Kevin Raber's new venture,, which is something like a reboot of The Luminous Landscape after that changed hands. My pieces are a hopefully on-going series of historical vignettes, with a trifle of critical analysis. Less swearing and more history than here. My nefarious plan is to cover photographers and photographers with brown skin, although paradoxically I think I am going to wind up writing something about a guy named White pretty soon.

NiƩpce, Daguerre, and Talbot
Archer and Cameron

I like Kevin and I hope he succeeds. His new thing is, apart from me, pretty much the same stuff as LuLa used to be -- high-end camera enthusiasm. He's got Mark Segal writing reviews of papers and going on about gamut volumes and whatnot. Phase One is an advertiser, and the forums have a certain amount of 'I used my Phase One XF78237b12 v1.17 back with the 900mm Super Exactalon lens to photograph this duck' so, it should be pretty familiar to you if you spent any time on LuLa.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Review: Women at Work by Betty Medsger

I snapped this 1975 volume up at the used book store the other day, because I am a father of daughters. I felt that it was the kind of book I'd like to have, you know, just lying around the place as my children grow. This won't be criticism as such, I don't think. I'm just going to tell you about it.

It's very fun, both as a document of its time, and as a bunch of photographs and stories.

Betty Medsger is a journalist of some note, and apparently also takes pictures. In the early 1970s she decided to do a photojournalistic project documenting the state of women in the workplace in the good old U.S.A. and accordingly set out around the country to do that. She interviewed and photographed a whole bunch of women, and gives us 170-odd different professions in this book.

The reproductions are not great, and it's possible the underlying negatives are also not great. Lots of blocked up whites. Lousy detail. The old "Soot & Chalk" pejorative comes to mind. Better than a newspaper, but not really a lot better. All black and white, natch. Most women and their job get one photo, but a few get two or three photos. Some subset, maybe on third, get a little paragraph of quotes and context.

The book opens with a fairly lengthy essay on the project, some of the women, and a general statement of the overall status of women in the workplace. We get a few statistics, and a handful of telling personal stories of the kinds of difficulties that women face getting certain kinds of work, and being the workplace both generally and specifically.

As opening essays go, it's quite readable. The bar here is very low, though, this thing isn't exactly a thriller. I can recommend actually reading it, though.

A fascinating detail that Medsger hits several times both in the opening essay, and in the main content of the book, is this: It is common to find people who say women ought not to do that kind of job who, when confronted with the fact that Sue does it, and does it well, respond oh, well, Sue. She's fine, it's ok for Sue. This kind of thing illustrates, I think, how attitudes change over time. It is not that people cease abruptly to hate black people, to look down on women, to fear some other group. They continue to do so, while also coming to agree that specific cases are different. I hate fags. Well, not Bill, Bill's my friend and he's fine is a normal intermediate stage.

Onwards to the pictures.

There's pictures all over the place. She shows us playboy bunnies, waitresses, cleaning ladies; she also shows us corporate executives, marine corps officers, company owners, and lobsterers. It's the full gamut of work, from "traditional women's work" to everything else.

In spite of the poor reproduction, the photos are, generally, somewhere between pretty good and fantastic. Medsger had a real eye for movement, and the women photographed look like dancers as often as not. Really fun to look at, without feeling posed, awkward, or false. There's a strong sense of that mid-century photo-essay truthiness here, to go with the often (but not always) elegantly shot frame. I suspect she did a lot of radical cropping.

The book feels a little "salon style" with pictures all over the place on the page. Some are surrounded by white borders on all sides, but others bleed off one edge. Tall frames might bleed off the top, bordered on the other three sides. Occasionally, a picture will bleed off two sides of a corner. I am still trying to work out the uses for this approach to bleeds. Anyways, the result is somehow a very 1970s feel to the book.

The picture placement creates rectangles of white space that can appear anywhere on the page, so the paragraphs of descriptive text and quotations fill in here and there, without much rhyme of reason, but generally pleasingly.

The women profiled are awesome. There's some really crazy stuff in here, and some really mundane ordinary stuff, but it's all engaging, fun, encouraging. Medsger makes us like her subjects, root for them, applaud them.

This is pretty much exactly the book I'd hoped for, for my daughters. It's a bit old school, pretty historical, but encouraging as well as realistic and still very much relevant today.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Something to Look At Redux

I find myself baffled by some of the responses to the previous.

Call the reading "Trump is just a sociopath" #1, and the "Ray of Hope" reading #2.

I am not asking anyone to believe either one. You can read it either way, or in some other way, that's a personal matter.

All I am asking is that you accept that some people -- people who are not you -- might read it the other way. If you land on #1, accept that someone else might land on #2. And vice versa.

You might well say, as a good leftie, that #2 is a ludicrous reading. Fine. That is just another way to select reading #1, but with vigor and commitment. Laudable, but irrelevant. So what if it's ludicrous? Lots of people believe ludicrous things. You probably have a couple of your own, although at present you don't think they're ludicrous.

The undercurrent I think I detect among Good Lefties is this: Everyone actually thinks #1, but Trump supporters are lying and pretend to think #2 which is, well, it's wrong.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Something to Look At

Here's a picture that's been making the rounds:

The back story is this: Racially motivated mass shooting in El Paso, among the victims are two parents of a very young child. The parents die protecting the child, the child survives with minor injuries. The President, Donald Trump, visits El Paso in the aftermath, and there are photo opportunities. In this photo, the President's wife, Melania Trump, is seen holding the injured child.

The left reads this as Donald and Melania Trump being sociopaths with the collective empathy of a stick, and perhaps a dopey grin reflex when confronted with a camera. They find the grins and thumbs up gesture in the midst of tragedy to be repellent, vile, and tone-deaf. This is the narrative promoted by leftists of all stripes. Notably it is promoted by leftists who consider "reading" photographs to be an important part of their job. As usual, the establishment photographic theorists treat this politically charged picture as having only one possible reading, their own.

The right reads this picture as Donald and Melania Trump celebrating a ray of light, a triumph of life over death. The gunman intended the baby to die, and was thwarted. Among all the tragedy, one victory for the good guys, as it were. Hooray for the good guys.

Ones reaction to the photograph and its back story depends entirely on where one stands politically. Nobody except, possibly, Donald and Melania know what was in their minds in this moment. You and I certainly don't. We are looking at a pattern of pixels and reading meaning in to them based entirely on the suite of ideas and biases we bring with us.

Humans are good at reading faces, I will tentatively allow that almost everyone regardless of political persuasion will read this as the Trumps projecting a facade of good cheer and optimism. They are performing, as Presidents and First Ladies always do. An expert could probably point to specific features of the facial musculature as evidence of a performance rather than a natural emotional response. That this is performance is in no way surprising, nor really a judgement. This is a photo-op.

The meaning we read diverges when we try to imagine why this particular facade, why this performance?

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Ugh Redux

As occasionally happens, a previous post has generated some confusion in the comments. Allow me to clarify.

My recent vacation photography adventure was not an experiment in spraying and praying. I didn't just go out and shoot 1400 frames of bullshit.

The experiment was one of thorough reportage of an intense two weeks. There were 14 days, 3 airplanes, 12 people, 3 dogs, 7 locations (at least, to get down to 7 some are fairly broadly construed), 2 bodies of water, 2 fairs, and 1 amusement park. Naturally, shooting kids on amusement park rides produces some dross, but that's easy to discard.

My daily counts are, roughly:


Can you tell which days we were doing amusement park rides? Ordinary lazy days are 50-70 exposures. More intense days are 100+, and amusement park rides push it around 200+.

As of this writing I am down to 100 frames, and to go further the next step is to select from the photogenic and memorable episodes those which can be dropped entirely. Well, I could probably drop another 5-10 by trimming down particularly charming episodes where I kept up to half a dozen photos. Getting down to 50 final pictures requires dropping episodes entirely.

The problem was not of how to find the few keepers among a giant pile of shit. There were lots of decent frames in there, and a few pretty good ones. There's just a hell of a lot of story.

I am used to making my projects in bits and pieces. I shoot a few things, I pick out one or two frames. I shoot more. The keepers accrete gradually, and then get re-edited down. At the end I've shot a lot of material (100s to 1000s of frames), and whittled it down to a handful. It's the having to do it all at once that was daunting.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Crit: Monsanto by Mathieu Asselin

The author of this book, Mathieu Asselin, recently made the book available as a free PDF download. Since the book was much lauded in certain circles, I took advantage of the opportunity to download it and give it a looksee.

You too can download it and check my work. It's not a particularly arduous read. Click here to get your own copy: Monsanto.

The executive summary is that this book desperately wants to be Minamata and it isn't. It is, in fact, terrible. Reading it was a profoundly depressing experience, because these are important topics badly handled, and because I thought perhaps that something that's won or contended credibly for major prizes might be a cut above the gruesome mess that is MFA-student photobook making. The laudits are entirely based on the progressive/anti-Monsanto stance of the book, which is very contemporary and chic, not the actual content, which is garbage.

So what is this thing? It comprises four sections, each covering an extended episode in Monsanto's storied history. The production of PCBs in Anniston, Alabama; Agent Orange and its long term effects; Monsanto's company town in Illinois; Roundup-Ready products and the controversies around same.

The first three sections are historical summaries, written with a pro-consumer anti-corporate slant. It's slightly more detailed than wikipedia material, but to be honest, not much more, and it does a rotten job of combing out the actual history. In the first section, we learn that Anniston was the site of PCB manufacturing with all manner of gruesome followup effects, and later we find that the main site of PCB manufacturing was in Monsanto's company town in Illinois. This is only one of many minor inconsistencies which deserve to be clarified but are not.

None of the inconsistencies I noted are outright contradictions, but they are points of historical fact which, as presented, are confusing.

More of the same sort of thing: Asselin presents the company town, now called Sauget Village, as a "borderless wasteland" with, essentially, a handful of survivors wandering the zombie-filled landscape. It's pretty clear from a few minutes of research that Sauget Village is now an industrial park in East St. Louis that happens to be incorporated as its own municipality. Which, sure, makes it a terrible place to live. I don't wanna live in an industrial park either.

In the section on Roundup-Ready crops, Asselin persists in (sometimes) calling Roundup a pesticide, which it is not. While you can kill pests with Roundup, you've really got to work at it. It's an herbicide, it kills plants. Given that Asselin uses both terms, it's possible that he doesn't actually know the difference, which is really a problem since he's pretending to present some sort of serious analysis of Roundup and associated products. In this section, Asselin simply repeats the standard progressive anti-Monsanto position about Roundup, which lands scientifically somewhere in the range of questionable to simply wrong.

There's plenty to criticize on the topic of Roundup-Ready products, but the standard progressive narrative gets the situation, and the problems, almost completely wrong. Asselin makes no attempt whatsoever to sort it out. He simply repeats the standard material uncritically.

The writing is stilted, and contains at least one howler, which is pretty good for a guy for whom English is at least a second language. Still, an editor might have been usefully employed here. There simply are not that many words here, a good editor would have cleaned the language up greatly, and could possibly also have worked out some of the inconsistencies between sections. Overall, the text is about what I would expect (perhaps naively) from a competent high school student. I certainly could have written this in 10th grade, but I am informed that standards have fallen.

The French edition might well be better, although the content is presumably still the 10th-grade-research-paper material (spot checks seem to confirm.)

The photography and other graphical material is utter shit, worthy of the worst kind of MFA student. He literally photographs the box containing the microfilm with the newspaper that contains the account of a train accident from decades before, then shows us the microfilm reader with the newspaper page displayed, and then shows us reproductions of the pages from the newspaper. Each of these consumes a full page, or more, of the book. Later, he photographs the train tracks where the accident took place (spoiler: it looks like a fucking train track.) This is both wildly boring and completely insane. Worse, it's an insult to the reader.

There are some pictures of people, all with that vaguely washed out/odd color look that people think is a "film look", mostly of glum, anonymous, people staring at the camera. Captions tell us that this is Bob from Anniston and his sister died of dioxins, or whatever. There is a collection of photos of Agent Orange victims, with deformities and so on. Some of them are actually pretty decent. It is here that Asselin most closely approaches Minamata mainly because he is unable to effectively drain the life from people who have lived with these kinds of problems. Several of these pictures possess a kind of vitality that Serious Artists are seemingly at pains to remove from their work.

There's a lot of reproductions of Monsanto advertisements (possibly the author spent a lot of time in Google Books.) There are a few reproductions of Monsanto internal documents, which serve usefully to backstop the text about what Monsanto knew and when. These last are probably the only non-textual material that serves any kind of purpose here, the rest being nothing much more than some sort of evidence of the author's presence and labor.

Ok, all that is chaff. Sure, it's a dumb amateurish book with the visual and literary appeal of a dead badger. That's not the real problem.

The real problem is that this book wants to be Minamata and it isn't. There are two basic problems here. Well, three if you count Asselin's complete failure to acknowledge his inspiration.

The first is that it's not Minamata. The latter is a lyrical, poetic, and powerful piece of reportage, which combines a consistent and coherent historical narrative with in-the-moment photography of critical events and, to some degree, reporting of the end of the affair. Monsanto is an ugly, clumsy, mess which is entirely historical. The photos are boring not only because Asselin is a Serious Artist taking shit photos, but also because there's nothing to photograph. These events took place years ago. There isn't anything to photograph except train tracks, microfilm reels, and old men holding photographs of relatives who died of cancer years ago.

The second problem is that we already have Minamata. Monsanto engaged over roughly the same timeframe in essentially the same kinds of malfeasance as Chisso. The story here is not that Monsanto did more or less the same things, but that there seems to be a pattern here.

The story is not that this company or that did some bad things, the story is that they all did this sort of thing. The story, in the here and now, is about what behaviors are they engaged in now, that replaces the old behaviors? The reality is that these companies have changed. They don't just dump chemical wastes into rivers by the ton any more, at least not as a matter of policy. They do not, despite desperate efforts to prove otherwise, continue to discover and then conceal Horrible Toxic Effects in their products, at least not as a matter of policy.

They have updated their behaviors into new, equivalent, obnoxious behaviors.

There is no investigation into why corporations, or more precisely the people who staff corporations, consistently behave in the way they did. Asselin simply waves vaguely in the direction of greed and calls it a day. Smith, by contrast, went to some effort to humanize the people in the corporation, and at least nodded briefly at the conflicts that the people in the company face in these situations. While Smith never did a full-scale analysis, he does seem to be aware that these things happen for reasons that are complex and nuanced.

The following appears in Minamata, nothing even remotely like it, nothing with one 100th part of the power of this scene appears in Monsanto. Asselin is hampered by the passage of time, of course, but not only by that.

To set the scene, Kawamoto is a man poisoned by Chisso's actions, and is negotiating on behalf of many of the other victims. Shimada is the CEO is Chisso. He is refusing to pay the victims (the "patients" referred to here) because Chisso doesn't have enough money to do so. They are in a crowded and antagonistic meeting room, Kawamoto is seated cross-legged on the table less than a foot from Shimada, there are photos included with the text. Here is the text:

Kawamoto (quietly): President, do you have a religion?

Shimada (transparently, to Kawamoto alone): Yes. I am a Zen Buddhist.

   Sarcastic snickers come from supporters in the background, but it seemed that neither have heard.

Kawamoto: Ah. And your wife too?

Shimada: My wife is Christian....

Kawamoto: Ah, yes. Do you pray?

Shimada: Yes. I have a small room with just a shrine in it. I have the patients' names writen there, and I pray....


Pro-tip: It's not greed. It is vastly more complicated than that.

There is no pushing past Minamata here, to give us new ideas, new insights. There is not even an update of Minamata, this is simply a shoddy photocopy.


The Guardian reviewed this thing in 2018, you can read the review here. Hilariously, or tragically, depending on how you look at it, they didn't review it very carefully. They refer to a creek which now runs red as a result of contamination. They share a photo from the book of Choccolocco.

What they missed out on, because they just flipped lazily through the book, is that Asselin uses red blotches photoshopped on to some of his photos to indicate "contaminated areas" within the picture. The creek isn't red.

This sort of shit just makes me want to tear my eyes out and scream. Well, I guess that would make me scream, but you get the idea.

Thursday, August 8, 2019


We just returned from a two week holiday visiting family out east. I decided to experiment and just shoot, shoot, shoot. Burn them 1s and 0s.

So now I have 1400 photographs, very few of which are outright trash (and, I dare say, only a couple are truly excellent) and I am attempting to smash this down to, I don't know, maybe 50 plus of minus. This is horrible. How do people do this? People shoot weddings and come back, allegedly, with 1000s of exposures. They shoot a huge pile of corporate headshots, cranking them out like some demented machine, and go home with 1000 exposures, and then they bash this down to size.

How on earth does one bear it?

I mean, I'll get through it, but good god this is drudgery.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Cool Photo, Bro

It happens constantly to anyone who pays attention and has developed the habit. A cool photo will reveal itself, or at least the potential for one will. You pause and think that would make a cool photo. If you're a certain type of person, you stop and fuss around and attempt to extract the cool photo, and sometimes you succeed.

You have a cool photo, at this point, and that's great. Cool photos, well, they're pretty cool.

Here's the rub: the range of responses you can expect to your photo are limited to the range of meh? to cool photo!

Sure, you might luck out and accidentally make a more profound photograph. You might find a home for your cool photo that lends it more profundity, perhaps. Maybe.

The coolness of your photo, if it's really cool, will tend to get in the way. If you truly succeeded, people will mainly notice the neat juxtaposition you discovered, or the brilliant colors, or the amusing sign, or whatever it was, which is going to make it harder to see the profundity.

Which circles back around to the endlessly expounded theme here, that you really need to feel something first, and shoot second, if you want to make something more than a cool photo.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A Phenomenon

I have noted, over the years, an essentially social phenomenon which occurs in photography circles, one radically accelerated by social media.

A fellow tries a thing out, and it is well received. So he pushes it a little harder next time, and his audience again responds well. Over time, he trains the audience to like his schtick more or less no matter how far he pushes it. Over time, his audience trains him to push it harder. It is a feedback loop that leads to madness.

I have found a beautiful example. Dan is a popular photographer on our favorite little photography forum. He turned up years and years ago, and was savaged by the regulars because he had his own ideas. Fairly quickly he fell into line, though, and started dutifully taking pictures that looked like the 1980s, and eventually built up enough credit to start, again, having his own ideas. He does a kind of "skin work" that, while wildly unreal, is very very popular.

More recently, he's been doing more and more radical color grading. He started with a hint of warmth, moved on to a kind of golden glow, and (pursuant to the feedback cycle noted above) he had arrived at, well, here:

Portrait of a Photographer

Now, there's plenty to like here. The light is appealingly shaped, the model attractive, the picture is sharp. While not a brilliant insight into the model's soul, there seems to be a bit of engagement here.

Dan is a bit of a proponent of available light, so he gets in a little trouble here with two different light colors.

The main problem, though, is that the guy looks like a banana. This is territory normally occupied by lemons, sunflowers, and Donald Trump.

If you poke around, the same photographer appears to have an array of recent jaundice victim portraits to look at. I think an appropriate search would probably reveal the progression from "warm" to "liver failure" along with the critique that powered the progression.

This is the kind of corner "critique" can back you in to. You're taking advice from dolts who are easily led, and who are not even seriously looking at the pictures. This is why, really, you're on your own. At the end of the day, it's down to you. You're the only one who cares enough to look at the whole picture, the whole project, the whole piece.

Nobody else loves you, nobody else gets it. It's all on you, so get used to it.

PSA: Reading a publicly accessible web site isn't stalking, so don't even go there you tiresome simpletons. No, I do not have an account, stealth or otherwise. You don't need one to read the publicly accessible forums. Same as all the other forums in the world.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Photo Pedagogy for Kids

Inspired/motivated by some things A.D. Coleman wrote on his blog, I decided that I ought to take a whack at teaching my kids some visual literacy stuff. I have a 9 year old, and a 6 year old.

I am starting with the older one.

First thing I showed her was this bad boy:

Which blew her mind, and then we talked about how a photograph is just a piece of the world, stuff gets left out, and sometimes that stuff matters.

Next up (the next day) I took a couple more or less identical photos with the focus point set on different objects. In one this thing is in focus, and that is blurry. In the other, this thing is blurry, and that is sharp. Then we talked about what you're "supposed to look at" in these two pictures. Again, she got it easily, and I think she learned a little something about how the photographer can manipulate your attention.

This led into a discussion that kind of stretched my mind out a bit. It occurred to me that it's probably not obvious to a kid that there's a plane (more or less) at a certain distance from the camera that's in focus. Why not a sphere? Why not a a blob that's all sharp? Well, you and I know the answer is something something optics shut up kid but anyways I laid that out for her. She did not ask, to be clear, but I realized that this was a point worth making explicit.

The next lesson was manually focusing a lens on my camera, using the built-in rangefinder thingy (it's just arrows that say "turn it this way" and "turn it the other way" with a little "nailed it" indicator), and the ability to move the point where it's focusing ON around.

So now, I think, she has a rough grasp of what focus is, and what focus can do.

Next up, a very short sketch of depth of field, and I'll have her take some pictures.

I had a discussion with my sister-in-law who spent many years teaching photography and media literacy to kids, and she feels that hands-on is very important. So, we're going to experiment with that.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Invisible People

Most homeless people in the USA are not the panhandlers, begging for change, trying to raise enough money to get a can of beer, a smoke of crack.

Most of them just had one too many spots of bad luck to many to remain in a home, and many of them will, perhaps with a little help, struggle back up into the ranks of the barely housed. Until then they live in shelters, clapped out RVs, minivans, tents, or when they can, with a friend.

They are largely invisible, unless you notice them stepping through the doorway of one of the many organizations that try to offer them the help they need to make that desperate lunge back up the socio-economic ladder, into the ranks of the not-homeless.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Richard Prince is Right

I don't mean Prince is right about every little detail, but in broad strokes, he's right. Let me clarify that: Prince was right about everything. Every. Single. Thing. Richard Prince, on the other hand, might not be right about this detail or that detail, here or there, although he is in broad strokes right.

First of all, let's clear away some underbrush, and then I'll get in to exactly what I mean.

The standard photographer position on intellectual property is, roughly, that photographers should be allowed to practice their craft pretty darn broadly. Photographing anyone, anywhere, any time, perhaps within some reasonable and not very stringent limits ought to be permitted. This results in pictures, which belong in every conceivable sense to the photographer and only the photographer, regardless of the nature of the pictures. Turning this around a little and rephrasing, photographers seem to think that intellectual property rights fall in to two categories: Mine and Irrelevant.

Ok, maybe there's a hint of cynicism there. But that is kinda what it feels like. Your face? Your building? Your car? Your house? It's mine. My photos? Also mine.

Ideas like Copyright showed up in an era when it was possible but not easy to copy things. Things like books, and plays, and engravings, and paintings. Later, the idea was extended to photographs, recordings, movies. Each of these objects also took a certain amount of effort to copy.

The idea of Intellectual Property was conceived to provide incentives to creatives, it grants creatives an enforceable basket of rights, rights which they could use to generate money, or simply hold on to. The idea was to encourage creatives to continue to create. If a writing a useful or popular book resulted in no positive result for he author, the author might reasonably take up another trade, and some did before the idea of Copyright arose and was passed in to law.

These ideas slammed into the digital age at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, producing a great deal of heat and light, but nothing much good has resulted.

First of all, the enforcabilty has simply evaporated. There is essentially no hope of enforcing copyright. Anything anyone actually wants is available. Someone has already copied it, and made it available. Some industries have shrugged this off: music, movies. Their model is to sell it to you streaming, which is actually easier than stealing it at a price point that is close enough to zero that most people will simply pay.

Other industries, like photography, are flailing, in part because it cannot invent a way to sell product that is easier than stealing it, mainly because stealing a photo is absurdly easy.

Secondly, the ability to turn your work in to money seems to be largely separate from copyright in this day and age. There are photographers making a living, and the abject failure of copyright enforcement doesn't seem to be an issue for them. The market collapse of photography is related to the fact that the cost of entry is nearly zero, not due to the collapse of copyright.

Which leads us around to the last point which is, in our modern and relatively affluent society, motivating people to create by offering them a livelihood seems to have fallen by the wayside. Authors seem to lose money at least as often as they make it, and yet books continue to be written. There certainly seem to be a lot of photographs made. Very few painters make any money at all, and yet there is a lot of painting going on, and so on. The road to music success is to record songs in your bedroom and stick them on YouTube, and if you are very very very lucky you will make money eventually doing live performances (rarely on selling recorded music.)

So, on many axes, in many dimensions, the century old concepts of and rationales behind copyright and intellectual property have collapsed.

Copyright at this point is largely used (successfully) by large corporations to prevent smaller players from re-using material held by the large coroporation, which may or may not have had anything to do with the creation of the material. Try obtaining the rights to use a poem, a quotation, or a photograph in your book. Try using a song in your movie. It rapidly turns into a nightmare, and is hit-or-miss at best.

So, copyright does not seem to be doing much to stimulate creativity, but it is stifling it.

You could probably jump in here and tell me about your cousin's friend's sister who something something whatever and so, but that's not the point. The point is that an argument, a good argument, can be made that in broad strokes copyright specifically, and intellectual property in general, is doing more harm than good these days. It is stifling creativity rather more than it is stimulating it.

For reference, I didn't invent this argument, it is an argument other (better) creatives than I have been making.

Intellectual Property (don't get me started on patents) is upside down and backwards. Intellectual Property is a concept that is overdue for a good thorough rethink.

Which brings us back around to Richard Prince.

Whatever else his art is about, it is at least a kind of performance art based around litigation (not unlike Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "wrapping things" projects.) The performances are often aimed at criticizing contemporary ideas of Intellectual Property, and of exploring the limits, legally and morally. He appears to be contesting our ideas, here.

Someone needs to take a good hard go at punching contemporary ideas about Intellectual Property in the nose, since they're not working for anyone. Prince, whether you agree with this project or that, is definitely standing up there and trying to bloody that nose, that nose that needs to be bloodied good and thoroughly, so we can get to work on something that might actually work.