Thursday, January 31, 2019

Truth and Stories

One of my readers (if it's not you, it's the other one) pointed me to this article on the Fstoppers web site, which is essentially about the truth claim of photography, and which gives a not-bad discussion. It's a bit absolutist for my taste, but the world is large and has much room for differences.

As long time readers know, I am mildly obsessed with photography's truth claim, and spend lots of time thinking about it. I want to revisit it, thinking it through via my model of "5 stories."

To review the 5 stories about a photograph are: 1. the ground truth of what was in front of the lens, 2. the photographer's intent; then we add in a viewer and stories 3 and 4 are just the viewer's guesses/understanding of stories 1 and 2 (what you think the ground truth is, and what you think the photographer intended); story 5 is the viewer's all-up reaction to the photograph which subsumes stories 3 and 4, but also other stuff the viewer brings.

Keep in mind that stories 1 and 2 belong to the photographer, they are the photographer's beliefs. Whatever the photographer believes about 1 and 2 is true about them, because they are those beliefs, the model is set up that way. This is why 1/2 are separated from 3/4/5. Stories 3, 4, and 5 are in just the same way the viewer's beliefs.

You can argue about where the lines land between the stories or whatever, but this is just a rough framework, so let's just let that lie.

When someone like Steve McCurry photoshops a bunch of pictures and sells them, and then gets called out on it, the implied accusation is that stories 1 and 2 have too much daylight between them, they are too far apart. Obviously, "too much" is contextual. If an artist is making collages, there is supposed to be a lot of space between these two, but that's OK, and so on.

Of course this accusation, implicit though it is, isn't quite right. What's actually going on is that it's stories 3 and 4 that are too far apart for our personal taste, and our end-reaction, story 5, is excessively colored by our perception of "too much" space between the stories.

If the artist's intention is clear, and it is not to tell the ground truth, we don't mind a bit. Fashion photography has a ground truth of surly models and light stands, but the artist's intentions are completely different. We translate that, and all is well. We don't care that the gap between the ground truth and the fantasy (1 to 2, or 3 to 4, it doesn't matter) is large, because the intention is clear.

No, we run in to trouble most often when the artist believes that the gap is smaller than we believe it is. The artist might say "I photoshopped out the lamppost because it is an anachronism which distracted from the underlying truth of the scene" expressing a basic alignment between stories 1 and 2. While the photographer would agree that the ground truth is not literally present in the photograph, the photograph nonetheless represents in a meaningful way what was truly present. It is, as it were, the lamppost that was wrong, not the photographer. I think this is essentially McCurry's contention.

In this case, stories 1 and 2 are quite close, but 3 and 4 are far apart. Something happens in the translation.

What seems to piss us off is this: we feel (as I do about McCurry) that while the photographer claims that his stories (1 and 2) are the same in all the important ways, the photographer is lying about that, possibly to themselves, but definitely to us.

This, in turn, is because we are ascribing a great deal of weight to our interpretations. We construct our stories, 3 and 4, in such a way as to observe a wrong gap between them. We then conflate our stories with the photographer's stories, confusing 3 with 1 and 4 with 2, and thereby "deduce" that the photographer must have, or should have, observed the same wrong gap.

This is perfectly natural. As humans, we always assume that we understand the mind of other humans more or less perfectly. We handwave a little pretended humbleness, but at the end of the day we think we know what you really meant, you disingenuous bastard. Still, it's not true. We are remarkably, unreasonably, good guessers at this, but we ain't perfect.

This doesn't mean that there are no photographers out there who are kidding themselves, there surely are. It is a big world. And perhaps we're good enough guessers that, most of the time that we see a gap between truth and intent on our side of the divide, there was just such a gap on the artist's side. But surely not all the time, and just as surely, we don't reliably know when we've got it right and when we don't. Even wringing a confession out of the hapless artist often proves nothing, as students of the criminal justice system are all too aware.

We ought, therefore, to approach these situations with an open mind, as with all things Art. We should strive to understand the artist's point of view, to see which one of us has it right, or if indeed perhaps we both do in our own ways.

Having thought it through with some care, and spent some time with the photographs, my disagreement with McCurry (for example) has nothing to do with this bit of cloning, or that erasure. My disagreement is with McCurry's vision of Asia. His photographs are altered from ground truth, but do also reflect McCurry's notions of a larger truth. While I cannot quote him particularly, I think McCurry's position is implicit but clear, that his photographs reflect a true vision of Asia. McCurry sees his stories as pretty close together.

Because I do not believe in McCurry's vision of Asia, my stories are farther apart. There is a problem in translation here, and it is that I think McCurry has fallen in love with McCurry's Asia and therefore cannot see the ground truth in front of him. He sees a world of saturated color and glum people, and I believe that that world is untrue.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Chatting The Pictures

Longer-time readers may recall that from time to time I have lit in to a web site called Reading The Pictures which has long been some schmuck named Michael Shaw writing little essays based on pictures from the news, which essays boil down to remarkably stupid signaling of his academically-approved simplistic left-wing politics.

They've updated their format. Now Michael is making videos, in which he chats with one Cara Finnegan, an apparently equally dunderheaded academic, about a picture from the news. They spend many minutes to signal an even more dull-witted precis of his politics. The essays were always just Michael looking at a picture and writing down whatever random associations popped into his head, and then sort of pretending that these would be, I guess, universals? The videos, as we shall see, are much the same.

Pro-tip: Don't host videos on youtube if you're pretending to be, but actually are not, a widely read web thing. YouTube maintains view counts and shows them to the public. Fun fact: My post here will substantially goose Shaw's view count, because my blog is more widely read than his. Which is fucking astonishing because my blog is extremely unpopular among the very very very small set of people who are aware of its existence. For obvious reasons.

As a side note here, we have a whole category of these little web sites, all promoting one another as Necessary, Important, Must-Read, but whenever we get a peek at the actual numbers we see that the actual engagement is so low that they're not even reading one another's Must-Read material. Colberg plugs RtP, but doesn't read it, and vice-versa. Sometimes they give one another little awards, but still, nobody is reading this material, nobody is watching the videos. You'd think they were just a weird little clique of basement dwellers, but as far as I can tell these people are in fact the "Legitimate Academy" here. Michael Shaw has written (deeply stupid material) for Columbia Journalism Review which as far as I know is a real academic journal that some people take quite seriously. These people, astonishingly, have jobs based on this "work" they produce.

Deep, calming breath. Anyways.

You may examine his latest video either on his web site, in this article, or directly on YouTube. I will insert the picture they're talking about here:

Set aside the video's insanely poor production values and the absolute lack of presence by the principals -- this stuff is actually quite hard. I could not do any better without a great deal of effort and probably some expense. Let us listen instead to what they actually say.

They make, essentially, two substantive remarks in this almost 7 minute video. One is "look, black people" which, to their credit, they do unpack is a reasonable way. The second is "this is a shutdown image!" referring to the recent government shutdown here in the good old USA.

Toward the end the wander off into a discussion of how that's a portrait of Lincoln in the background, something-something negotiation, and look how Lincoln is turning away from the proceedings, to which I can only say what the fuck are you blockheads on about? They, of course, have no point, they just want to compare Lincoln (who successfully negotiated his way into a Civil War) with Trump (who hasn't, yet).

But backing up, they make exactly no case that this is a "shutdown image" merely stating that the episode in which Donald Trump bought fast food for a championship college football team would never have happened except for the shutdown. RtP has made its nut, however tiny, in the last couple of years beating on the "Trump, so Crazy!" drum, so I'm not sure they have a lot of wiggle room here. Honestly, any goddamned thing at all can happen in the white house at any time, these days.

And finally we get to the point that's actually not utterly blockheaded.

The reality is that Washington D.C. the capital district of the USA, is a majority black city. Just barely, now, it used to be 70%, but now it's just over 50%. Regardless, the long-term residents, the people who are born, live, work, have children, and die in DC are mostly black. An hour in the city will reveal to anyone paying attention that it is a city in which less affluent people, African-Americans, tend to the needs of more affluent people, mostly white, who are there as either tourists or government/political workers. The poor, black, residents tend to the needs of visitors both long and short term.

Because Shaw and Finnegan have already characterized this picture as a "shutdown image" they wander off and talk about the the government shutdown (which is over, basically, immigration policy) and racial issues (it is), and some tenuous connection they imagine to the picture. Race, and also race, so, something-something. Right? There's nothing overtly wrong here, except the connection they make from the picture they're talking about. There is no connection, except that these people want to talk about the government shutdown, and to signal how woke they are about race.

Because Finnegan and Shaw see a picture with black people and food in it, they randomly come up with "food desert" and bleat about that pointlessly for a while. Fun Fact: Washington D.C. despite its many flaws rates pretty well on the food desert situation. It's just not that big, and it's pretty dense, so generally people find themselves within a mile of a grocery store. Of course it would be unreasonable to expect the RtP crew to research this, they are clearly shooting this hot mess live and off the cuff, just spouting whatever ignorant remarks pop out of their food holes.

That said, Washington D.C. is a startling fact in the USA. While it does (since 1961) vote for the office of President in that peculiar American way (cf. Electoral College) it has no representation in Congress, while it is simultaneously under the control of Congress. There is a functioning local government, but at least technically, that government must defer to Congress. Their license plates look like this:

This is not a community that is particularly happy with its lot. This is a city of poor people, exploited by the political and national systems that have thrust themselves into the community. You would imagine that at any rate the capital of a place like the USA would be a glittering jewel, a monument to the values we supposedly espouse, but it turns out not so much.

Washington D.C. is a microcosm of the USA's race and class situation. If Michael Shaw and Cara Finnegan had any actual knowledge, they might have cited this picture, by Dorothea Lange, 1936:

which is maybe the most famous photograph illustrating this particular dynamic. Then Shaw and Finnegan might have made the point about what has, and has not, changed in the intervening 83 years. In 1936 in Mississippi, the Democratic Primary election (a party function, not a government function, but the function that selected the candidates) was whites-only. Since the Democratic Party was, for all practical purposes, the only political party in the South of the USA at that time, the black men in this photograph were, in all meaningful ways, completely without franchise. A lot like the citizens of Washington D.C. today.

The clothes are better. The standard of life is almost certainly better. But African-Americans still work for white people a hell of a lot more than the other way around, and at least in the White House, they still can't vote.

Another cultural touchpoint they might have referenced, while we're poking around, is that McDonald's spent something like a decade of TV commercials marketing aggressively to African-Americans. It is possible, even likely, that Donald Trump (a known watcher of much television) actively believes that McDonald's hamburgers are in fact the favorite food of African-Americans. It's possible, even likely, that he conceived his terrible fast-food feast as a special treat for the young athletes he was hosting.

There's a whole pile of stuff that could have been unpacked there, about television, about mass-media, about race, and so on. You could probably even have worked in something about "food deserts." It's purely speculative, of course, but at least it would have been a fun road to run down a little ways.

But, no, Michael Shaw and Cara Finnegan are explicitly doing a show in which they look at a picture, and simply blather about whatever comes to mind first. Since they are dopes, steeped in contemporary academic culture, all that ever comes out of their noise-making apparatus is noises about race and how bad Donald Trump is. These are interesting and, dare I say it, Important, topics but simply mentioning them with a sadly shaking head does not constitute critical analysis.

In fact, Finnegan and Shaw are exhibiting here exactly no critical apparatus at all. It is, I suppose, possible that one or both of them is capable of doing this, of actually looking at a picture, and talking about its context and thence its likely meaning(s), but they are certainly showing no signs of it here and appear to have adopted a format that is peculiarly ill suited to doing so.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Progressive Design

There is an oft-repeated claim that Art should Stand Alone, a claim hinted at in some recent comments here but not stated outright (I think).

It's worth unpacking this a little, to try to figure out what it actually means. On the face of it, the idea is both very modern and absurd. Modern, because until recent times no Art even attempted to stand alone, it was always shown (if at all) in context. It hung in the home, it stood in the palace. Even today, paintings from before the modern era invariably sport absurdly ornate frames, sculptures stand on pedestals, and so on. Only the most modern of art, in the most modern of museums, is shown without being first encrusted with decorations.

Even the most austere white cube filled with the most austere modernist black and white photographs admits frames, glass, mats, and lighting.

The standard monograph, that sarcophagus for photos, with one picture per page, white paper, large margins, has a cover, the paper has weight and texture. To suppose that the photographs of The Americans or American Photographs stand alone in any literal sense is absurd. More important even than the heavy, luxurious paper, the massy weight of the volume, the thudding weight of The Essay, the photographs sit with other pictures.

In these two books, the ur-monographs, the sequences are linear, unsubtle. Anyone can see them.

In contrast to this, in these modern and degenerate times, we see the so-called design forward book. This is usually a rotten collection of rotten photographs, lumped into a book with pointless gatefold pages and equally pointless die-cut bits and pieces, sometimes with an outré binding to further distract from the weakness of the work.

What I think we really mean by "the art should stand alone" is that we want surrounding design elements to avoid distracting us. We want the Art, whatever it is, to take center stage.

When we read through The Americans we see the photographs first and foremost. The other elements of the tomb are nearly invisible. They rise to the level of conscious note only to people like me, to book nerds. This does not mean that they're not perceived. A book with thick, heavy, toothy paper is going to feel quite different from a book with thin, glossy paper like a magazine. To someone who does not even note the paper, the first book will feel expensive, luxurious, compared with the second one.

We can expand this slightly, and assert that in a book design the elements should function in a hierarchy. You should notice things in a specific order, the photographs first, then the captions, then the delicate horizontal rule that separates the two, and then the thick but glossy paper, and lastly (if ever) the tastefully positioned page numbers.

Indeed, you could remark that it doesn't matter what you do - the design elements will find themselves in a heirarchy. That is, people will notice them, in order, until they've either spotted them all or run out of interest. If you as the book designer are not in control of that order-of-perception then you're going to have trouble. If you stupidly chose a huge flashy font and red ink for the page numbers, well, the photos are likely to get short shrift, right?

In some cases, of course, you want at all costs to avoid the photographs getting long shrift, which is where all the gatefolds and whatnot come in.

Conversely, if your page numbers are important (perhaps the index is a common access point to the book) and they are damn near invisible (I own a cookbook like this) then you're created a book that doesn't work. It's broken.

All of this is just ancillary food for thought, though. The point is that there are and always will be design elements in a publication, and while they may pass unnoticed, they are nevertheless part of the work, and will tend -- though unnoticed -- to influence the way people use and react to the publication.

Mostly what people use is something I am going to dub static design. That is, elements of the pages are the same from one page to the next. Page numbers are always in the same spot. First pages of chapters all look the same. Body text always looks the same. Graphical elements are repeated on every page, the same way.

The idea, here, is obviously to provide a sort of anchor, a constant presence that will make the work feel both finished and unified.

A good design sets the tone of a book. It makes it feel playful, serious, elegant, punk, luxurious, or whatever. You set your design down, and then you adhere to it, and the overall tone of the book flows throughout the book. It does not merely feel playful, it feels consistently, purposefully, playful. It is a playful book, from page 1 all the way through to the end, to page 217.

Finally, now, we work around to the point of this piece.

Nothing else in a publication holds still in the way that design does. The words move forward from one sentence to the next in all but the silliest of publications. The pictures are different from this page to the next, ditto. The content progresses, but somehow we oppose the notion that the design should, except in the most unsubtle of ways.

One might switch from heavy paper to light paper, or from one background color to another, to signal a change in content, a new chapter. I see this sort of thing from time to time.

What I do not see except in my own books is subtle progression, or continuous progression. While design should, ideally, be unobtrusive, and while it is certainly a useful tool to make the book hang together, there is no particular reason the design cannot subtly alter from page to page.

A piano concerto does not contain a single mood. It may change from playful to serious, and it does not do so in a single sudden stroke. A serious theme is introduced, at first seeming only a variation of the playful theme. It grows, becomes more serious, and, after a time comes to dominate the music for a period of time. At the same time, the underlying harmony moves, the key signature modulates. The change to minor key may well go unnoticed by all the non-musicians, but they will certainly feel the gathering storm.

What this means in practice is that the elegant horizontal rule that separates the photograph from the caption might, for example, become lighter from one page to the next, and then fade out entirely at the point that the captions change from Times to Comic Sans and the pictures move from black and white landscapes through muted color before landing on candy-colored saturation and a circus theme.

By holding some elements steady and letting others flow, you can adjust the sense of unity in relation to the sense of flow and progress.

Only a few people, like say me, might notice the changes, but many will (I believe) feel the change in tone, the change in idea. Or, depending on how heavy-handed you are, they will explicitly notice the design changes as well!

Here is my best so-far-realized example, a book available for purchase on Blurb: Bellingham Summer. I would of course, not object if you bought a copy but that is not my point here. Click the Preview button and examine the preview. You can see the whole book there. Enbiggen it to full-screen if you can.

Notice the way the background changes. The flock of little pictures "grows" out across the pages, and then the content begins, the little pictures fade into the background. When there's no picture in front of them they re-assert themselves a little. Then they begin to vanish from the bottom up, imperceptibly, or nearly so. Finally, the last couple blink out and are replaced by a swirl of leaves that blows off the book.

Now, these are not traditional design elements (horizontal and vertical rules, ornaments, chapter heads, that kind of thing.) I've invented background material that looks distinctly un-booklike, because I had in mind something else. I suppose you could argue that these are just more content, but they're certainly a different category of thing. I have another sample in the works which uses a progressive approach to more traditional design elements in order to support the book's natural progression.

Anyways. Most tools for book design encourage static design approaches. The model is built around page templates, which hold all the material which is the same page-to-page, and content which is different page-to-page.

I think there is maybe room for some middle ground here. There is room for supporting material, for background material, which changes and flows to support the change and flow of the book itself. I'm doing my best to explore that!

Friday, January 25, 2019

Manifesto: Update/Notes

This refers to the previous remarks and the marvelously rich and interesting comments that follow it.

I think there is a slight misunderstanding going on here. These are not rules or edicts or a defining document. What they are is a strident personal statement and an invitation.

If my kind of crazy seems close enough to your kind of crazy to maybe make something interesting happen, hit me up. Send me an email, mail me a book, demand my phone number, come to Bellingham with a case of beer. We aren't going to agree on everything, and this isn't an entrance exam. If my strident position overlaps enough with yours -- and you get to decide what "enough" means -- then you are invited to collaborate with, criticize, be criticized by, and to argue with, me about it.

A maelstrom of disagreement, with occasional cries of "YES! THAT!" is the desired ideal state.


I write Manifestos a lot, it turns out. This is one an attempt to launch something like a school, though. So this essay, this manifesto, is also an invitation. To you!

If, after reading this, you think that's completely wrong or if you think that has nothing to do with me then I bid you adieu with a warm heart.

If you think, on the other hand, something in region between spot on mate! and damn his eyes, he has gotten this vital point utterly wrong, I wish to correct him and am prepared to fight then the invitation extends to you. You are invited to contact me (amolitor at gmail) with angry screeds of response, and/or artistic output which exemplifies what you think this all ought to be about.

I want to make things, and I want you to make things, and I want you and I to make things together.

This is, explicitly, an opening bid for a philosophical underpinning of something. A school of photography, if you will. It is not the closing bid.

I lean toward fiery language, but you may freely substitute "things I find most interesting are..." into statements that sound like statements of fact, or inflexible demands. It's a manifesto, it's supposed to be strident and uncompromising.

1. The purpose of art in general, and photography in particular, is broadly speaking political. Not merely in the sense of supporting or decrying, say, socialism, but in the sense of exposing wrongs and arguing for rights, in the sense of the-opposite-of-wrongs, and also rights in the sense of moral entitlements.

2. I believe in straight photography. A photograph which can be fairly accused of falsehood has no place in an argument for justice. Therefore, a photograph should look like a photograph and not, say, a painting. It should appear true. Further, photographs should accurately represent what was there in front of the lens. Manipulations of any sort are perfectly acceptable, but only to clarify the essential point of what was actually there, and never to alter the ground truth of the image. That is, a photograph should also be true.

3. I believe in the sequence. One photograph alone is almost without exception unclear, ambiguous, incapable of carrying much meaning. The sequence, by enabling repetition, by enabling the reference of one photograph to another, is infinitely more powerful and is therefore the preferred mode of photographic expression. The purpose being to make arguments which are both strong and coherent, a strong form rather than a weak form must be used. The single image, the collection of greatest hits, these are to be avoided.

4. I believe that the photographic work is best conceived as a kind of sonata, with one or more movements, each composed of multiple themes blending and moving in relation to one another. Themes composed of photographs, but also of words, of drawings, of design elements. I believe that this kind of work has barely begun to develop, and that much can be done to create works with far stronger and more persuasive arguments, far stronger and more persuasive Art, then we currently see in the world.

5. I believe in access. Art which is expensive, hard to obtain, hidden away, cannot well serve its purpose of arguing for a better world. Art must make its argument publicly. This suggests that the proper form for photographic art is not merely the sequence, but also the mass-produced (or mass-producible), and affordable, publication.


Also, send me stuff. Get pissed off, get excited, get motivated, get off your ass.


ETA: If you send me something, I'll both remark on whatever you sent me, and send you something. At least until I run out of somethings to send you.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

On "Schools"

Let me preface my remarks thus: I don't really know a lot here, I have snippets, bits and pieces, and some guesses. But the discussion on the previous notes demands some sort of response (thanks folks!) and so I will record a random assortment of snippets which may or may not add up to something.

John Berger tells us that between Michelangelo and the French Revolution, western painters may be viewed as, metaphorically, painting theater, that they were painting set pieces intended not to reflect nature but to improve upon it. This is indeed a philosophical fragment, which you can see in the paintings (at any rate I recognize the idiom, and assume Berger has gotten the dates right for me). Was this hammered out in tea shops over cigarettes and through shouted arguments? Probably not. Perhaps it arose simply out of painters copying one another's ideas.

Dada, on the other hand, was absolutely hammered out in cafes, with both cigarettes and shouting, as well as written screeds. Many 19th and 20th century Art Movements are supported by lengthy essays detailing the underpinnings, some occasionally written by the practitioners themselves.

"Schools" of Art are, as near as I can tell, some blend of in-the-moment philosophy together with after-the-fact critical analysis. The "theater" model for the aforementioned period of western painting might in fact have been invisible to the painters themselves, as water is invisible to the fish. To us, in the here and now, it is painfully obvious. The blend of these two ingredients varies from school to school, it appears.

The common thread, as I see it, is that there is some underlying philosophy, some set of ideas, that is in play; and at the same time there is a collection of practitioners working from, very approximately, the same set of ideas and playing a game of "Top This!" We see this played out in the most explicit possible way when, in 1832, JMW Turner adds a red bouy to his painting -- after it has been hung -- so that it competes favorably with John Constable's painting hung nearby. How aware the practitioners are of these ideas, how many screeds they write or do not write on the topic, seems to be beside the point.

When this happens, this game, you can spur better and better executions of these underlying ideas. The underlying ideas are clarified, they change, they are altered this way and that, but the general thrust toward better and better work (in some sense) is driven forward sometimes at a furious pace. Competition and collaboration produce growth, clarity, and a whole pile of related works. The pile of works then enables later critical analysis, understanding, of what was going on. One impressionist painting is just a fuzzy picture. 100 of them is interesting, and makes clear what these guys were up to. See also Cubism, although I will grant that 100 cubist paintings, or a million, might not suffice to make clear what the hell they were up to.

I suppose it makes a certain sense that in this modern era in which Art is essentially all conceptual, that competition would naturally turn to having better concepts, rather than superior executions of an underlying concept. A comment on the previous remarks states unequivocally that "a cult of individuality" is the "core directive" to students in at least one institution. If "concept" gets conflated with "process" then the competition degenerates into one of inventing the most absurdly Rube Golbergian process for making a piece of art, which certainly seems to accurately characterize a depressing amount of what we see.

Even if concept doesn't degenerate in this way, you still get work from one artist that is incomparable with the work of other artists. The concept is, as far as I can tell, kind of the base layer, the foundation. Art doesn't go down any further. Without any common foundation, without a common basis, it becomes impossible to compare one artist's output with another. The game of "Top This" falls apart. Constable and Turner had enough shared basis to be able to tell -- instantly -- that they had either won or lost a particular round. Jessica Eaton, on the other hand, has no way to even judge whether "Cfaal 403" is better or worse than, say, Gursky's "99 cent" or Molitor's "Cement Cutter." The comparison would be meaningless. The only metric available is that "Cement Cutter" would sell for $0, "Cfaal 403" for rather more, and "99 cent" for (ironically) $2,480,000.

Cement Cutter

Perhaps it's not so much post-modernism to blame here, perhaps it is after all an inevitable product of the dominance of Conceptual Art.

Another commenter remarks that there may well be schools, but they are global and diffuse. I agree, to some extent. I see in photography "collectives" at work, invariably doing street photography. They seem to have no particular shared philosophy, other than "well, we both have a lot of followers on instagram and we both think Leicas are cool" but I am perhaps being cynical here. Photography groups seem to be built around either a genre, or around a piece of gear. I have not run across any groups built around ideas of the same general shape as Dada, Cubism, or Impressionism, ideas about what Art ought to do and how best to go about doing that.

The photographic community in particular talks great deal about how best to go about doing it, but very little about what "it" might be.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Art sans Philosophy

Recently profiled on Luminous Landscape we find the artist Jessica Eaton, yet another Canadian doing fairly safe and not very interesting photography. No surprise there. While I am not here today to bust Eaton's chops, let us anyways begin with a discussion of her methods which, I assure you, will be relevant to what I am going to say later.

Eaton has done a bunch of different things, all cut more or less from the same cloth, but her most recent series of work is a bunch of color photographs made in the same way. She has a large collection of boxes, all painted neutral grey, which can be nested in to one another. She loads a sheet of color film into her camera, and starts in making many many exposures on the same sheet of film. First she might expose a big box through a blue filter. Next she might place a smaller box inside the big box, and expose the pair through a green filter. The outer box is now colored from both the blue and the green exposure, while the inner one is merely green. Repeat for, well, quite a long time. She gets a composite picture of a bunch of nested squares, all different colors.

The results, which you can look up by googling Cfaal, all pretty much look the same. A bunch of colored, nested, squares. Classic abstract art, produced by willfully difficult and capricious means.

If you poke around to see what has been written about Eaton and her art, it is mostly the same. Breathless discussion of her methods, and the money quote from Eaton which is Sol LeWitt's idea: "you find the most beautiful unobtrusive object that can be used over and over again until it disappears, and the idea becomes the subject" which seems to be the totality of her philosophy of art. It begs the question, what idea is is that's becoming the subject? Is it the idea of the idea becoming the subject? Because that's stupid.

Eaton, apparently, has no ideas, she is merely making attractive, marketable, objects and blathering around the edges to create the impression of something deep. In this, to be sure, Eaton is not alone. This is SOP in her industry, and I will say that her objects are really very attractive.

Putting on my proper critic's hat I more or less immediately observe that Eaton is engaged in a process known as "photomontage" which has a rich history dating back to the early 20th century. A reasonable critical approach might be to note that, and then to sketch out some of the prior Art as it were. Early photomontage was often very political, there was a lot of work on representing, say, the plight (or the nobility) of workers, that sort of thing. There were a lot of pretty robust ideas in play here, which may be why nobody drags out this line for Eaton -- her complete dearth of ideas becomes hideously apparent in this comparison.

But again, this is not particularly Eaton's fault. The vast majority of Art made today is done without any ideas. There do not appear to be any philosophical schools of Art any more. There are no Cubists, Impressionists, Precisionists. There is no analog of Classical or Renaissance art today. It may be simply that the art historians haven't got around to categorizing things, but I suspect this isn't it at all. We appear to be in a period of free-for-all, where artists simply pick and choose whatever they like, defending all with a shrill cry of "well it's all just subjective, innit!!!11!!"

It is naturally in the area of photography where I am perhaps least unqualified to speak. In the Victorian era we had strong philosophical bases, drawn from painting initially and then Emerson trundles up with his basket of ideas (lifted, at least in part from still more painters - the Impressionists). A little later on we see Sadakichi Hartmann leading (?) a charge for straight photography which meets up with Modernism and spins off a bunch of different things each with fairly firm ideas about what is good and what is not. You get Clarence White's school, you get Stieglitz suddenly having a love affair with Paul Strand, you get the f/64 people out west. You see the Europeans doing all kinds of crazy stuff (highly political photomontage, in particular).

I think it is not really a coincidence that the wheels fall off this train right around the time post-modernism rears its profoundly ugly head.

While there are I think more subgenres of postmodernism and related ideas than there ever were practitioners, and the whole mess is infernally complicated and subtle, what seems to have gotten taken away as practical advice is a set of useless bullshit like: there's no such thing as truth or beauty, everything is relative, historical context is irrelevant, the only thing that matters is the text, everything is subjective.

As a basis for a philosophy of art, this sort of thing just turns into an excuse for self-indulgent idiocy.

Even if two people did get together and say "wow, you and I have some of the same ideas about Art, maybe we should work together" it would get torn down, I suspect, by others. Two people sharing an idea sounds a bit absolutist, doesn't it? Sounds a bit like you're trying to shove your dogma down our throats, eh? One person with an idea is just getting in touch with his feelings, two people is a school. Schools are dangerous, bad, and not at all in line with getting in touch with your feelings.

Your average bloke with a camera, of course, doesn't cite postmodernism. Still, he tends to become very grumpy if you say "look, what you're doing is Pictorialism, and there's a whole body of thought on that you might want to check in to before racing off too far down that road." No, he's finding his own damn way, thank you very much, and he doesn't need your help to produce his hopelessly naive and derivative pictures. He is justified not by his own research into postmodernism, but by the whole environment that is informed by postmodernism (I think).

Perhaps this bloke reads the profile of Jessica Eaton. It may not occur to him that she hasn't got any ideas, or any underlying philosophy, but he certainly isn't going to learn anything like serious artists work from an underlying philosophy from a profile of Eaton, or really of most other serious artists working today. So, he will see no need to have such a thing, and attempts to supply him with one will seem pointless and kind of egg-headed to him. Also, of course, a baseline philosophy of do whatever the hell you want, it doesn't matter is pretty much always going to sell well.

However, it turns out that one of the distinctions between second-raters and first-raters, even today, is a doggedly persistent attachment to an idea, or ideas. Whether you love or hate Sally Mann, Andreas Gursky, Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson, if you have anything more than a very slight familiarity with them you would have no trouble articulating a few lines on what underlying ideas seem to be informing their work.

It is this essential feature that, to me, seems to illustrate the difference between the bush-league artist, the second-rater, and the first-rater.

I have spent quite a lot of time in museums filled with second rate art, and quite a lot of time in museums with the other sort. There's a difference. The former is usually incoherent and, when something like an idea peeks through, it is generally whiny, derivative, and un-nuanced. One-note might also apply. The latter feels quite different, whether or not you can articulate the ideas on the spot you feel them, and if you're interested enough and take the time you can later articulate them pretty clearly.

Having ideas is of course no guarantee of success. Even dogged and singular attachment to one or more ideas doesn't seem to be much of a guarantee. The converse, however, is true. The top tier artists tend to have ideas, and to stick to them. Even in the cruel light of postmodernism, they are distinctly different, distinctly better, and people want their art more.

What we lack in this era is the kind of schools that used to turn up. Around a Cindy Sherman in 1920, we'd see a crew of enthusiasts who share her ideas on "male gaze" or whatever, more or less, and they'd rent a house together and start bashing out photographs at a mad pace, photographing one another and writing angry screeds and getting drunk and fighting. Out of this maelstrom you'd get a handful of very strong artists, and a larger handful of hangers-on making shabby (but at least still idea-rich) copies of the better ones. Sherman's work would have come out quite different, because it would have been informed by late night conversations with peers who were willing not only to drink with her, but punch her, and who were in the end just as good at this as she is.

Somehow this doesn't happen any more. Is there some cult of individuality in Art Schools? I think there is at least a frantic desire not to be seen as doing the same thing as someone else, which can be a gigantic handicap, and really prevents the kind of wine-fueled collaboration and cross-fertilization that from time to time has happened in the past. Can I somehow construct a labored indictment of postmodernism out of this, as well?

Not so far! But I do kind of want to launch a school of photography, except I don't know how.

I like drinking, and I could probably manage a little fighting, so I'm set.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The "Artist Driven" Book Deal Scam

"Artist driven" books are the ones in which artists pay a bunch of money up front to get their book published, but everyone pretends very hard that it's not a Vanity Press operation.

I used to think that "well, if the publisher is well run and competent, it's just that they can do more with less cash" but then I got into a discussion, and it happened that I thought about it a bit more. The answer is "no, it is always a scam, it always bad for artists" with a couple of exceptional cases I will talk about at the end.

Let's throw some numbers up there. The actual numbers don't matter so we'll keep it simple. Suppose we have a typical mainstream publisher, Wiley or someone, who doesn't ask authors for money up front. Some books sells, others don't. The winners pay for the losers. Suppose this year they are doing two (2) books. Each book edition costs $100 to do, all-up. The publisher fronts $200 and gets the books out there, one sells the other does not. One book produces $500 in total revenue, the other $0.

The publisher pays back their cash reserve $200, and then divides the remaining $300 up between themselves and the successful author.

The unsuccessful author gets nothing, but is at least not in negative territory.

Consider now a smaller publisher, less well capitalized. They only want to spend $100 to get the two books done, so they ask for $50 from each artist. They're just as good at this as Wiley, so they sell $500 of one book and $0 of the other, same as in the previous scenario.

The publisher pays themselves back the $100, and (presumably) pays the successful artist back $50. Look, there's an extra $50 in play! There's $350 now to divide between publisher and the successful author. Even in this, which is nearly the best case scenario, the transition from traditional to artist-driven constitutes a transfer of $50 from the losing author to the publisher and the winning author. If the publisher is dopey and prints a lot of books that don't sell, the situation gets worse all around.

This is not underwriting in any meaningful sense, although publishers often use that word. This is, technically, parimutuel betting, quite a different thing, and arguably the opposite of what underwriters traditionally do.

It is the fact that rather than using their own capital, and spreading the risk across it, but are instead forcing the risk out onto the artists one book at a time, that produces the extra $50 in the publisher's pocket. They divide the necessary risk capital up into little tranches, and only pay back the winning tranches. Notably, the incentive here is to get as many losing tranches as possible, which isn't quite what we'd like to see. Every losing artist is another $50 we get to divide up between ourselves and Martin Parr. I am being, to a degree, facetious here. The benefit or loss of a whole pack of losers depends on a lot of fiddly details and could go either way.

As a side note, this is basically the standard playbook of capitalism: push risk out onto someone else, someone who is less qualified to evaluate it, and less able to assume it; keep profits for yourself. Uber, for instance, is essentially a taxi company with risks, ongoing costs, and capital investments pushed out on to people utterly unqualified to quantify and manage these costs; but with the profits nicely preserved inside the company, thankyouverymuch.

I see two ways around this.

The first is to make all books successful, which isn't as silly as it sounds. The artist-driven turns into helping the artist pre-sell enough books to cover their contribution. Run a kickstarter or whatever. Now, this turns your artist into an unpaid marketing consultant and shipping clerk, but that is a minor peccadillo compared to taking $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 off them which you may or may not get back to them.

At least some publishers are doing this to at least some degree. There may be publishers for whom this is in fact formal policy, but I don't know. It seems unlikely that there are many who would turn down someone's check just because it didn't come from pre-sales. Once the formalism exists to accept money from the artist, it seems to be difficult to turn down money just because it's not based on already-sold books?

The second is to treat artist contributions as a common pool, and pay them back in a common way. Rather than asking the artist to front $15,000 for their book, you ask for $15,000 for the overall production fund, and pay all contributors back at the close of the relevant fiscal year based on overall sales. This more or less amounts to creating a publishing co-op, which may be a thing that exists for all I know.

Friday, January 18, 2019

I Am A Snob

I'm a snob, and while I am not especially proud of that, I have come to terms with my snobbishness.

Allow me to elaborate. Or don't, I shall elaborate regardless!


I've been mashing shutter buttons off and on for something like 40 years. I've been making a stab at Serious Photography for something like 30 years. I did my time as a wannabee Ansel Adams, and read the Trinity and spent a lot of time dorking around in darkrooms. I've read history, and I have aspired to be Stieglitz, and Steichen, and all those blokes. Along the way I have taken a fair number of pictures, and learned a fair number of things about taking pictures. I haven't taken as many as a lot of you probably have, but I've taken a pretty goodly number.

Along the way I figured out enough about Ansel Adams style landscape photography to know that I could probably, by applying myself diligently for a year or two, get good enough to churn out black and white landscapes of a certain caliber more or less at will. Perhaps not Adams, but anyways Picker and a whole lot of other acolytes. Pick up a copy of LENSWORK and you'll see a lot of this stuff. This is not because I am special, it is because I am a normally competent human being. Almost anyone can learn this. There are 1000s, maybe 10s of 1000s of people out there banging out this material on a regular basis.


Basically, though, I am lazy. I don't want to do all that hiking, and I don't want to arrange my life such that I would be able to do all that hiking. It takes more than normal abilities with the camera, it takes a commitment and a lifestyle that I found unappealing.

The same story can be applied to, say, photographs of models. Again, I learned enough along the way to see that if I applied myself for a year or two I could get Quite Good at it and then I could churn out Fashion Styled photographs, or Figure Studies, or whatever. Again, the skills necessary to grind out the pictures are a minor part of it, it's the business of rearranging my life to make room for a lot of hired models and lights and enormous octoboxes that I found uninteresting.

Ditto macro photography. I never did make a serious attempt at wildlife photography, but by now I see the pattern. I could buy the gear, devote some time to learning some skills, and then I could rearrange my life, and lo, I could churn out endless Birds In Flight or whatever.


The question arises naturally: if I am so damned serious about photography, why am I so unwilling to rearrange my life a bit in order to do it better, to produce better photographs?

It is, essentially, because I perceive the kinds of pictures I could have made down any of those paths as not worth the trouble. They would have been fine pictures, but they would have been just like a lot of other pictures put out there by a lot of other normally competent people who applied themselves rather more diligently that I am willing to apply myself.


It's a bit like making a good quiche. Lots of people never make a quiche at all. Quite a few people make lousy quiche. Some people make excellent quiche. To make good quiche there's a bunch of skills you need to have: you should be able to handle a pie crust, you need to have a rough grasp not only of how to reliably crack eggs without getting shell bits everywhere but also some grasp of how eggs cook, etcetera. The point is that the ability to make a good quiche is perfectly teachable. A few people may have some mental block which renders them incapable of learning these skills, but almost anyone could learn to do it. Most people don't.

It happens that I have learned it, and that furthermore I am perfectly happy to bang out a good quiche more or less on demand, despite the fact that there isn't anything particularly special about a good quiche. I am not a quiche snob, at least not in the sense that I refuse to do it because it's something that anyone could do. I am perfectly happy to be an everyman who happens to have and to exercise the relevant quiche making skills.


Where photography is concerned, however, I am a snob.

The fact that my quiche exists does not mean that the restaurant French Laundry does not exist, and the existence of French Laundry does not make my quiche non-existent, or even bad.


Neither could I pretend that a dinner I prepared of my quiche and a salad is equivalent to dinner at French Laundry. These are not the same thing, at all. Almost anyone could, by applying themselves with a little diligence, produce the former. The latter is rather more involved and, in very real ways, a superior thing. My quiche dinner would be excellent, I assure you, but it would not be in any way equivalent.

If the French Laundry dinner included quiche, the quiche would not be much better than mine. That, however, is not the point. French Laundry is doing something other than sticking a slice of good quiche on a plate.


Where photography is concerned, rather than quiches, I am much more interested in the French Laundry version of the thing than the homemade quiche version. The analogy could be stretched a bit more to note that it is not the quiche which makes the dinner ordinary or great, it is the way the quiche is contextualized. But that is maybe a bridge too far.

Do I do the French Laundry version? No, of course not. But it's what I am interested in. It's what I want to do. It is the object of my study, it is my aspiration, it's what I write about and think about.

I am a snob. Your quiche photographs, and my quiche photographs as well, are perfectly nice, but I am not very much interested in them.





Please observe the new "How (Not To) Read My Blog" page in the navigation on the right (in a real web browser, someplace else on your phone).

For your amusement, read it now, if you like. It is not mandatory, just advisory.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Burn Story

Emma Bull, who is a writer of real ability, has offered this advice to writers: burn story. By this she means that, if you have some good idea, some clever plot device, whatever, use it and use it now. "Story" in this sense is not be be preserved, to be spread thinly over your 80,000 word novel, it should be applied in large chunks as fast as possible. The concern naturally arises "but I will run out of story, then" and this is, it turns out, not so. Burning story generates more story, and in the end you get 80,000 words of densely packed story rather than 80,000 words of bread with 5,000 words worth of butter scraped across it.

Note: I am informed that this term is used in Hollywood, and may have originated there!

I had an epiphany today along these same lines.

As mentioned previously, they are doing a sewer line replacement job a few houses up the alley from me, a process I wished to photograph, and to thereby tell the story of. It is not a complicated process. Cut the pavement over the old sewer line. Dig a hole. Replace some pipes. Fill the hole. Pour cement over the hole.

So, I shot a bunch of pictures. Edited it down to, I don't know, 6 or 7 that I thought "told the story" pretty well, and in which each picture had at least a touch of lyricism in it. And now I was thinking "ok, I could trim another one or two but how to fit this great little story into this book I am working on?"

And this is where the epiphany hit me: it's not about cramming as many pictures as you logically can in there, it's about telling the story you want to tell in as few pictures as possible. If one picture will suffice, it's probably a really good picture, and you should stick to that. If you need two, well, again. Simply trying to cram in more photos because you're got some more pretty good ones is the wrong direction.

Now, this is not new advice. I have probably received this advice half a dozen times in one form or another, maybe a lot more. But having discovered it for myself, I hold out hope that it will stick a little better this time.

Just as a for-instance, let's revisit Pixy Liao's widely lauded (?) book, Experimental Relationship, here leafed though by Jörg Colberg. Ignore the typo in the video title, I have tried several times to bring this to Jörg's attention.

Anyways, regardless of what you think of the work, regardless of what you like Pixy is trying to say here (if anything) there is no doubt that she is doing the photographic equivalent of droning on and on about it. We could argue about whether there is a single note in this book, or whether there are two, or three, or perhaps if you stretched you might get up to five. But there's no getting around it, the ratio of butter to bread is very very low indeed.

Imagine, if you will, that she had compressed Experimental Relationship down to, say, the three pictures that really nail it. At this point my advice has in one sense ruined her book, it is now a very short pamphlet, and that's not going to get shortlisted for any prizes. However, what there is of her book is a hell of a lot better and, if she's attentive to the muse, she will be rewarded with more story to burn. By being timid, and spreading her 3 pictures worth of story thinly over 160(!!!) pages of book, she wound up with a not-very-good book, and her muse did not grant her any more story.

Burn story. If you can tell the entire story in one, do it.

There will be more story, later. It's ok.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Crisis Point

I am reading some essays from John Berger. The very first one in this book of selected essays which I have is about Drawing.

Berger characterizes drawing, in the sense of the artist sketching for themselves, as a process of discovery. The artist, in the act of drawing, explores and learns which the subject is, what it actually looks like, in detail. This little space there, the alignment of this line or plane with that. The relationship of this bit to the other bit.

This, of course, makes perfect sense, but it's not something I had quite thought of in quite that way.

But then, Berger says, there is in every drawing a moment of crisis. There is a point in the process at which the act of drawing becomes more about the drawing than about the subject. The subject begins to serve more as a reference to confirm what the artist already wants to put into the drawing. The drawing takes on a life of its own and, in a meaningful sense, the process of discovery ceases.

Photography is nothing like drawing. In the act of photographing, one may be almost entirely unaware of the subject. More usually, you have some grasp of the larger forms, the bigger and more obvious graphical qualities, perhaps some emotional or human handle on the thing, a few other details. At best a sort of narrow and probably kind of trivial gloss on the whole thing.

However, when you come to the computer, or the enlarger, and begin to work on the damned thing, if this is something you do, then something a bit like drawing happens. You notice little bits of pieces, small details, larger forms you missed, and so on. In the decisions about what to bring out, and how, and what to suppress, and how, you examine the photograph minutely. You discover it and you discover what was photographed.

As with the process of drawing, there can come a crisis point. There comes a point, if you're deep into the thing, where the work you are doing ceases to be about what was in front of the camera, and begins to be about the photograph itself. This might come almost immediately, if you're some compositing hero for whom photographs are merely raw material, or a collage artist, or whatever. It might come very late if you're a Serious Street Tog showing the gritty side of life on the street. It might never come.

But when that moment arrives, it behooves you to notice it. It's not so much that you ought not proceed past that point, it is that once you do proceed you are in a different territory.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


The opposite of serendipity, that is.

We have a detached office structure, which is really the garage at the rear of our lot, backing onto the alley behind the house. This building has been remodeled into a fairly decent office space, and a separate storage space. When I worked, I had my computer and whatnot out there, and spent my days in there. Now that I do not work but my wife does, she spends her day out there. Occasionally, when she is out of the office, I take the space over to use her large and beautiful Apple computer.

Recently, I was in there, working away laying out my cursed Alley book which has been in progress for the better part of a year now, I guess. I pretty much have it conceptually wrapped up, sequenced, written, etc. I am working out cover design.

One of the minor pieces of this is some discussion of the sewer line that runs down the center of the alley, 7 feet down. The sewer lines from our houses to that central line are, originally, ceramic tile pipes which are gradually aging out and failing. When the line fails within the last 6 feet or so, someone's got to cut the pavement in the alley, dig down, and replace it. The creates a characteristic cutout in the alley pavement.

This is the only visual trace of the sewer system, so of course there's a photo of my neighbor's cutout.

So, you may visualize me working away on the cover, and then I perk up, hearing a larger-than-average truck backing down the alley. I pop out, curious, to see what is happening, and lo, they are replacing the sewer line for another neighbor. They are literally making one of the characteristic cutouts right now. God damn it. Now I have to take yet more pictures, and fiddle with my stupid book some more, because this too is part of the story.

Bush Leage II

I have thought about this some more, and what I am trying to say is coming out clumsily. Which is an indication that I am unsure of what, exactly, I am trying to say.

I think it comes down to this, though: there are good, serious, struggling artists all over the place. Some of them I would surely judge as "crap" and a few I would judge as "good" but that is beside the point.

When those artists are spread out thin, as in Duluth, Bellingham, or Toronto, they don't really know one another socially. If you reach out into a pool of friends, even if you are yourself creative, and know a bunch of creatives, you're unlikely to stumble across one of these people.

I hypothesize, but do not know for sure of course, that in that very small number of cities to which creative types move/flee in their 20s, the density of genuinely good, talented, creatives is high enough that simply asking around has some reasonable chance at turning up someone worth talking to, worth showing.

I am biased, of course, because I don't use the "asking around' method, instead I wade through mountains of stuff I find on the internet and in various and sundry printed materials, following leads, following my nose, and occasionally I stumble across someone I like. This is radically different from reaching out into my social network, asking "hey, do you know any good photographers?" I happen to be certain that the latter method would produce endless birds-in-flight, colorful landscapes, and other insanely boring derivative, albeit well-executed, photographs.

Perhaps it is a foolish pipe dream, that If Only I lived in NYC and was young, and beautiful, I would know people who knew the really good rising artists. I am not in NYC, I am neither young, nor beautiful, so I don't actually know for sure.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Bush-League

So Josh Reichmann, the new boss at Luminous Landscape, continues to interview and profile photographers that he has some personal connection to.

Don't get me wrong, I really like Canada. I have lived there many pleasant years of my life, and I visit often. It is a good place to be.

But. Canada is not a large country, nor is it a country which punches above its weight class artistically. The National Film Board of Canada has long been subsidizing the film industry, and encouraging a hilariously awful style. You can recognize an NFB film almost instantly, and that's not a good thing. I do not know if broader ham-fisted government intervention has likewise damaged the other arts, but I do know that Canada has produced a large number of 3rd rate authors to go with their 3rd rate filmmakers. I dare say there's a large supply of 3rd rate painters and photographers to go with them.

It is not so much that everyone in Canada is awful.

The trouble is that if you're talented and ambitious, Canada in general, and Toronto specifically, is someplace that you leave. There isn't a critical mass of support and audience there, so even if you are a great painter, and you can find a gallerist who "gets" your work, they're still not going to show it because there isn't an audience. There's too much milquetoast government sponsored, safe, avant-garde-in-1963 art lying around, or something.

There's probably something to be said here about what constitutes a critical mass for the creation of Really Good Art. Whatever the number is, it seems to be enormous. It seems to need enough room in several senses to enable a lot of really awful work, as well.

Now, it's not universal. There have been a handful of truly great writers in Canada, who remained in Canada. Occasionally an artist will depart Canada for more fertile lands, but then return home having made their nut in New York or wherever. And so on.

Still, if you're going to poke around among your artistic friends to see if anyone knows someone who's any good, what you're going to find is bush-league yahoos, even if you're in Toronto. It's going to be a bit like performing this same exercise in Duluth, or in El Paso, or in Bellingham, WA.

Friday, January 11, 2019

What I Like

I've been thinking lately about what kinds of photographs I actually like. For a guy who spends so much time complaining that other people don't seem to like photographs, I myself seem to like precious little. Which isn't quite true, I like a lot of photographs. I just don't like most photographs.

At some point in the last 100 years or so it was brought home to critics of all stripes that there was never going to be devised a particularly firm basis on which to criticize things. Aesthetics was supposed to be a firm and objective basis, handed down by God or the very structure of the universe, but then it turned out not so much. As a mathematician, I am pretty familiar with this. A contemporaneous program to place mathematics at last on to firm ground, with a certain and unshakable foundation, was blown up spectacularly by Kurt Gödel. It is now clear that things like Truth and Beauty and The Sublime are all mere constructs of whatever system they arise in, be it a system of logic or a system of culture.

The post-modernists (post-strucuralists? somewhere in that mess of post-whatevers) seem to have stumbled across this at roughly the same time. It is not hard to discover, all you need is a 5 year old who responds to every ever-more-detailed explanation with "but, why?" and in a few minutes you will see the futility of it all.

Mathematicians dealt with this by saying "well, I guess we should agree on a system to live in. Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory everyone? Very good. Moving on..." and the post-whatevers seem to have dealt with is in a somewhat less organized way which allowed the writing of an infinite number of papers that don't say anything.

That doesn't mean that there are no ideas that aren't stupid in play here. Yes, it's true that the merits, of any, of a photograph are relative to the culture that produced it, and the culture in which it finds itself. This does not mean that the enterprise of judging a picture is hopeless. It does not mean that author intent ought to be ignored. It does not mean that everything is subjective and that therefore you can say anything as legitimately as anything else.

What I like is, therefore, not based on any firm logical ground. It is based on a vaguely systemized set of ideas which feel right to me, and as such it doesn't land on any specific critical ideology.

I think Art is, at its best, an attempt to communicate something, to share something, to show me something. As such, the authorial intent does matter. In some sense it is my job, as the consumer of Art, to work out my best guess at what the author means. I described this as "story #4" within the last few days, I guess.

I also think that Art exists in the gestalt of society, and that it is useful to make an attempt to guess what others are likely to see in a piece of work, so see as the post-modernists might say, what is "coded" in the piece. A writer might use the phrase "strange fruit" and mean only a particularly lumpy orange, but that is also a reference, in contemporary America, to lynchings.

As a consumer of Art, I also bring myself to the table, and I am a more or less functional thinking creature with my own history, memories, ideas, tics. As such, Art is going to hit me in, to some degree or other, a unique kind of way.

I try pretty hard to bring all of these things together into my own personal understanding of what a piece means. I bring all these together into my judgement of whether something is good or whether it is bad.

I like Art in which I can discern the author's voice, that perhaps indefinable thing the artist is trying to communicate. If the artist seems to me to be saying nothing, or nothing coherent, I am likely to judge the work Bad.

If my guess as to the reaction of a more or less normal person in my cultural milieu is that the reaction is likely to be superficial, or empty, I am likely to judge the work Bad. This particular case covers an enormous amount of ground, by the by. Most photography which is broadly identified as good is in fact just pleasing. The reaction of a normal person is positive, agreeable, but shallow.

Finally, while I try to be charitable about this and use a lot of first person phrases, if it doesn't hit me personally in a good way, in a complex, enlarging way, I am likely to think the work isn't very good. In part, I like everyone else am prone to generalize my reaction to everyone else.

My insistence that Art should provoke some kind of complex reaction leads to a lot of acrimony when I trot it out in public, which isn't very often.

There's a tremendous amount of appealing photography out there. Most people who style themselves photographers appear to be satisfied with their own work, and the work of others, if it is graphically pleasing, has nice colors, or a beautiful girl, or a cute kid in it, or any of a handful of other things. These people get kind of grumpy when I wave my hands dismissively and say "tut tut, but it's all shallow, innit?" which I do.

I find these pictures appealing as well, I like them in the same sense that everyone else does.

As a guy who spends an unhealthy amount of time looking at pictures, especially pictures made by bottom-tier Serious Photographers, I also know that these things are common as grass. I sense a difference between these common, appealing, pictures, and the pictures that appear to me to be saying something, that appear to be making a strong play to enlarge me.

As such, I feel these two categories ought to be distinguished, and there is no way I know of to distinguish them without appearing to be saying nasty things about the common, appealing, shallow pictures. One can temporize and say Of course they're appealing and pleasant and you're welcome to love them but... and all anyone ever sees if the material after the word but, and they interpret the whole thing as a personal attack.

And so, I stopped caring much about what people think I mean. I dub the common, appealing, material as "shit" and the stuff I like as "good" and I am done with it.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Aig so much traffic

I assume my blog is being hammered by bots, since I am being flooded with traffic, but not with idiotic comments, but my god what a surprising lot of traffic.

If you are people and not robots, please go away. Actually, go away if you're robots too.


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Judging of a Photo

Not very often, but occasionally, once runs across someone analyzing a photo in great detail. They talk about how this bit represents one thing, and that bit another, and so on. In a public context, this is often greeting by eye-rolling or loud groans. Partly, of course, because photographers hate analysis and desperately want to return all conversations to the relative sharpnesses of various lenses, and how does depth of field work, anyways? There is a little more to it, I think.

When a fellow paints a picture, and they stick a cherub up in the corner, the cherub is not an accident. Nor is its position in the frame. The painter went to a fair bit of trouble to stick the cherub up there, after all.

Now, it could certainly be that the painting merely needed a light bit up there, and there was room for another cherub (what painting, after all, would not be improved with a few more cherubs, eh?)

It's also possible that the artist intended some complex religious allegory, and for some eras of painting I suspect that it's practically certain the artist so intended.

Photographs don't quite work this way. Well, they certainly can work this way, especially with constructed tableaux, and indeed in the early days we have many composites made in precisely this fashion. Most famously, we have "The Two Ways of Life" by Rejlander, in 1857, but this was very much a thing for a while. A thing which was, eventually, consigned to the darkest pits of history mainly because it's just painting, using scissors, photographs, and paste rather than actually being what was coming to be understood to be photography.

We live in degenerate, retrograde, times so there is a certain amount of this sort of thing going on now. Perhaps, more than ever, but at least as a percentage of all photography being done it's respectably small.

No, most photography embraces a certain degree of serendipity. While the small background detail may be powerfully meaningful to you, the viewer (oh god, did I just say punctum and name-drop Barthes on the sly?) it is as often as not an accident. Perhaps a lucky accident. Perhaps an accident which caused this frame rather than the one previous one or the next one to be selected at the contact sheet, and so in that sense deliberate.

Setting aside composites and still lifes, which is a bit of a cheat to be sure, every photograph contains a myriad of elements, some of which are accidental. Looking at the picture, we don't know offhand which ones are accidental, although we might guess. Ascribing some detailed allegorical message to some specific, potentially accidental, element of the frame is therefore fraught.

In the terms that I have been developing lately, we might well ascribe meaning in our "5th story" the one we, as viewers, construct for ourselves. Sure, the flower in the background represents her virginity or whatever. That ascription, in our own story, is quite different from presuming that the artist intended the flower to stand in for her virginity ("2nd story"). As such, our interpretation is more or less personal. We might successfully sell others on the idea, to be sure. There might be other features, accidental or deliberate, which support that interpretation.

My approach to looking at art, and to looking at photography specifically, is very artist-forward. I want to base my grasp of the work on what the artist intends, not on what I put in there myself. It's a hopeless endeavor, of course, but I do my best.

I tend, therefore (and obviously therefore you should too, no?) to dismiss the "the flower is a metaphor for her virginity" readings as excessively specific. Unless there is, to my eye, some reasonable argument that the artist intended that reading, I am loathe to adopt it.

Thus, in the end, I read photographs in a more abstract and emotional way than I might read a painting (to be honest, I don't know the relevant tropes and idioms of painting well enough to do it myself, but when the catalog tells me what the cherub in the corner means I am inclined to believe it.)

This is, I find, an amusing paradox -- I read the picture grounded in actual reality far more vaguely and emotionally than I do the picture which is a product of the painter's imagination.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Phoning it In

I haven't really been reading Ming Thein since he partnered up with Robin Wong, but I chanced to stop by and came across a recent photo essay he's put up: Forest in the City.

It struck me, looking through the pictures, that I am feeling a trend. Many of the photos Thein shares with us have that strong graphical quality and sensation of great sharpness upon which is reputation is built. But scroll down. It falls apart in to "here, have some random piles of leaves" shots. I'm sure he'd have some song and dance about how if I could just see the megapixels it would be an immersive experience or whatever, but the fact remains that he just shoved the camera out there and mashed the shutter. It's a random pile of leaves.

Next up, KAGE Collective which is some very self-serious bunch of Street Photographers. It's not all random snaps, by any means. But there's a lot of material on that web site that seems to be just "I waved the camera around and pressed the button a few times" shots.

This is different from photographs I don't like. There are plenty of mannered, carefully made, pictures that I hate. There are quite a few random snaps that I like. The point is that these photographers are putting out there as Their Work pictures which appear to have been made without the slightest thought or effort at all, by someone who's simply stopped caring.

I spend little time in the "critique" section of forums, but it has been, I think, more than a year since I have seen anyone trying to offer a truly critical response. It's all "I like #5 the best" and "nice shot" with the occasional "overexposed" and "doesn't work for me."

In the same areas, we see a little bit of those careless random snaps creeping in, especially from established forum members. If they're established enough, they can get a flurry of "nice shot" from, as near as I can tell, literally anything they throw up there.

It feels to me as if, a few years ago, we had a lot of relative newcomers to photography charging around trying to figure it out and being enthused (this part is not in doubt). Interest is absolutely flagging across the board (again, not in doubt), indicated by falling camera sales and falling web site traffic. The result, and this is where it starts being my theory, is that we have a pretty large collection of people who hanging around, having never really figured it out, and who have all unknowing ceased to care all that much.

At this point there's a large group of people who haven't put their DSLR down yet, and are just going through the motions of picture taking, of talking about pictures, of consuming media related to photography. But they don't really care much any more, and they're not even looking at the pictures of reading the media any more. They're glancing, skimming, and typing in the same responses they've been typing in for years.

You can put almost literally any shitty photos on the front page of Luminous Landscape, or Ming Thein's web site, or Kage Collective, or any number of other sites where Photographers We Officially Respect have long hung their work, and there will be a contingent who will assume they're good, and who will defend them without really having examined these things critically or even visually.

It has always been so, to be sure. There have always been camera owners who simply don't look at pictures. This era seems to have more of them, there seems to be a trend toward phoning it in, because you can get pretty much the same ego strokes as when you worked at it.

It's kind of gumming up the works at the moment.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

LuLa Update Update

Welp, I'm not ready to call it a dead horse yet, but the signs are not looking good.

So far Josh Reichmann has shown himself a prolific writer on the subject of his buddies. The latest, Adam Krawesky, is a photographer and a dancer! But wait, according to linkin, he's also a web developer. Yep, a web developer who shoots street in his spare time. We've never seen one of those before. The pictures are exactly the sort of thing that appeals to a guy who has spent very little time critically looking at photographs. Reichmann compares the pictures (well, his partner, Irene, does, and Josh agrees) to Kurosawa which is frankly absurd, besides being beside the point even if it weren't ludicrous.

The photos shown in the article, Adam Krawesky, date from 2011 or earlier, and I can turn up no evidence that Adam has taken a photograph of any kind in the last 3 years and change. Note that the article links to the the artist's web site, which appears to date from approximately 1995, and contains a thankfully fairly small collection of, well, something. Look for yourself, I guess. inconduit.

Now it turns out that Adam was a very minor celebrity about 10 years ago. You might not remember it, but there was an episode in 2006 where some guy in a car and some young woman on a bicycle got into an altercation on the street. See, for instance, here. Adam photographed part of the episode, which looked bad and going sideways very fast. Anyways, the pictures kind of went viral.

I suspect strongly that this was the basis of his brief flirtation with being a Serious Artist. Anyways, that's been over for years, and Adam is just some regular guy now.

Josh is two articles in to actual web site content, and he's down to this guy. No offense to Adam, but he is not a top-tier photographer. Or even a mid-tier photographer. It's not clear he's a photographer at all, and he was certainly never more than a hipster "street tog" tech guy who managed, briefly, to get some bush-league gallery to rep his work.

Krawesky was repped by Patrick Mikhail Gallery out of Ottawa for a while, but no longer appears in their list of artists.

I predict that LuLa is going to go the way of The Phoblographer. Ads all over the place. Eventually also a high density of ads disguised as "content." And lots of profiles and interviews of whatever no-name derivative junk photographers agree to let Josh use their pictures and name. It's a thing, sure, and I guess it generates a little cash flow.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Taint and The Fifth Story

Still trying to get my arms around what, if anything, are the differences between 3 visually indistinguishably pieces of (say) smut, made by three different artists for three different reasons.

To that end, I am continuing to use the word story in the very broad, vague, sense of something like context and something like meaning but which includes ideas like narrative.

I see, essentially, five different stories that are in play with a photograph, which is two more than there is with a painting.

The first two are: (1) what really happened in and around the moment the picture was taken (the "true" story), (2) and the artist's intended meaning. With my picture of the car, the "true" story is of a Toyota Corolla parked under a street lamp, and a cold photographer crouched in the middle of the street far too early in the morning. The intended meaning is one of malevolence, of menace, which is absurd -- the Corolla is the Labrador puppy of cars, for God's sake.

The next two stories simply translate those across the barrier to a viewer: (3) what someone looking at the pictures guesses or deduces about that "true" story, and (4) what that same viewer guesses or deduces about the artist's intended meaning.

Note that these two stories may or may not be informed by supporting material. In a book with vast swathes of text and accompanying photos, you're going to get one result. A print picked up off the street, quite another. So be it.

The story that matters, though, is the 5th story.

This is what the picture means to the viewer. It will also include much of the viewer. If someone in the picture resembles the viewer's grandmother, well, that's a thing; if the picture reminds the viewer of someplace, another. And so forth. The 5th story is also informed, strongly, by the 3rd and 4th stories, the guesses made by the viewer as to the "true" story, and the artist intent.

Suppose that, perchance, we had three identical (or nearly identical) photographs taken by, respectively: Nobuyoshi Araki, Bob Shell, and Traci Matlock. The photograph, we may assume, is of a female model, naked and tied up in a highly sexualized manner. The first artist is a "fine artist" who professes great love for his models, the second is a jailed pornographer, and the third is a female artist who embraces the BDSM lifestyle, and photographs herself.

If we saw these three photos lying on the ground in an alley, free of context, we would be forced to develop more or less the same version of the "5th story" for each of them. They are, after all, identical. Or, sufficiently similar to induce the same "5th story", by fiat -- this is, after all, the point of this thought experiment.

Suppose, however, that we are a junior academic, attempting to claw our way upwards, and suppose further that we are fully aware of which artist did which one, and who these artists are.

If the three pictures were in fact pixel-identical, there might be a little bit of a problem. More on that in a moment. Let's suppose that there are superficial differences between the pictures. Not enough to induce different stories in the "lost in an alley" case, but enough to notice.

In this case we can reliably assume that the junior academic will decide that Traci Matlock's picture shows unmistakeable traces of female gaze, and is amazing, brave, Art with a capital A. Araki's work on the other hand is Highly Problematic Because. Shell's version of the picture is just abusive smut, pure male gaze, not worth discussing.

If the pictures were in fact pixel-identical, we would be testing the junior academic's mettle indeed. They would be forced to dismiss out of hand the visible reality, and claim instead that the very same picture when made by one person is completely different from when made by another. Any good identity-politics kiddo should be able to master this trick, but that in no way alters the fact that it is completely insane. Postmodernism's rejection of the very idea of truth comes in quite handy here.

Ok, so now let us suppose that we have these same three pictures, and that we know more or less who the artists are, and that we are not a junior academic, but are instead a functioning and more or less rational human being. Like you, or like me.

They way I see it, we have to hold several incompatible realities in our minds at once. But don't worry, you can do it, I have faith in you.

On the one hand, Bob Shell was a dick who took advantage of low-rent models (drug addicts) and eventually killed one of them, to produce smut which he intended to package and sell as smut back in the days when porn was a viable business (I think the CIA accidentally destroyed the porn industry by giving it away free in order to collect salacious information about the porn viewing habits of the powerful). On the other hand, he has (hypothetically) made the same picture as a sex-positive BDSM advocate who photographed herself.

All three pictures are, in a way, simultaneously prurient smut, Fine Art, and a fierce advocate for the legitimacy and beauty of the BDSM life.

Here's where the taint mentioned in the title finally makes its appearance.

There is a strong tendency in the human to find fault with the works for people we don't like, and to praise the works of people we do like. The translates into the Art world as a desire to declare "bad" the work of people we disagree with, and "good" the work of people we like. This doesn't work very well for paintings and the like. Indeed, there seem to be huge swathes of Art History in which it appears that a prerequisite for the ability to paint like an angel is to be a raging asshole.

In photography, though, the 1st story, that true story, flows through all the stories and taints the 5th one. It is a beautiful and convenient out. Critics find it difficult to connect Picasso's misogyny to his art (they do their best, to be sure, but it doesn't seem to have any effect.) On the other hand, it is easy to connect Araki's attitudes toward women to his art, because the connection is right there. He actually caused those women to be bound. Bob Shell's abusive behavior has a direct and factual connection to his photographs. Matlock's BDSM lifestyle likewise connects in a very immediate way to her photographs.

All that is necessary is to claim that you can see, literally see, the goodness or evil of the photographer in the pictures. To be sure, sometimes you can. But sometimes you can't.

That taint of truth shines through in any decent photograph, that's the whole point of a photograph after all. If there is no taint of truth shining through, then when you have is an illustration of some sort that happens to have been made, in part, with a camera.

The trouble is that the taint of truth does not always carry the photographer's flaws or merits with it. You cannot tell that Walker Evans was kind of a dick by looking at his photographs, any more than you can tell the same about Picasso from his paintings.

We can know the artist by other means, but a photograph seems to possess no special magic to reveal that particular truth. It might reveal it, to be sure. A photograph can reveal many truths.

But we cannot rely on it to reveal the artist.