Friday, January 25, 2019


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.


  1. "The purpose of art in general, and photography in particular, is broadly speaking political."

    Well, first of all, this the trap that Jorg Colberg has fallen into, and it's done him no favors. Well maybe it has, career-wise.

    So there's that.

    Secondly, is this your intention going forward? Because I've not noticed any political overtones, or for that matter undertones, in any of the few photographs you have seen fit to post here, insofar as I have been reading your blog for the past year or so.

    Perhaps you need to give an example of exactly what you mean by "political" photography.

    I have my own, fixed idea what that means, and I don't believe for a second that all photography is, or ought to be, "political". But maybe you meant something different from my preconception.

    1. I mean political *muuuuch* more broadly than Colberg does. I don't give a god damn about identity politics, but I do care about the world.

      The most overtly political thing I have done to date has appeared in bits and pieces on my blog over the last year or two:

      which are assembled in to book form here:

    2. As for my intentions going forward, my blog isn't my photographic work, although the two overlap a little now and then. I don't forsee any changes in my blogging philosophy, but then, I never do!

    3. Thanks for clarifying and providing examples, and having seen the preview of your book, I have a better understanding of what you'e proposing.

      Identity politics (I've inferred) are considered by some an antidote to 'white, cis-gendered men' running the show, who (I think you'll agree) bear substantial responsibility for having FUBAR'd the entire fucking world. That to me is an at least plausible reason to get behind identity politics.

      Is there a valid use case for "photobooks" [sic] as an expression of identity (or any) politics?

      Nah, don't think so, their reach is too limited.

      The most compellingly political photo book I've ever seen is "Journey To Nowhere" by (former) Sacramento Bee journalists Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson (out of print, available on Amazon at an absurdly inflated price point).

      Published in 1985, and things have only gotten worse. Just saying.

    4. Identity politics tends to be too devoted to simple, repetitive, dogma to really get anywhere. They've locked themselves into a solution-free corner, and it is now primarily a tool for grappling with one another over who ought to get tenure.

      I probably err too far in the other direction, because my political axe can usefully be summarized as "well... it's more complicated than that"

      But I am open to much! You don't get anywhere interesting without disagreement and conflicting viewpoints.

  2. Where are you going to fight this fight? In the reply threads of this blog? I don’t think so. A fight needs a forum.

    1. No, email me. Or come visit. I have drinks. No smoking in the house, though. In the rare event that I am somewhere else and expect to have some time, I'll let it be known.

    2. In fact, I will promise this: If this turns in to more than pretty much just me shouting at clouds again, I will find some sort of digital space to support the ongoing argument/engagement.

  3. Balderdash! Many of the greatest art photos stand alone quite well, thank you very much. Some of them might have been useful in their political aims to have more of a series around them, but that doesn't change their status as single photos.

    I don't really have much dog in this fight, I just wanted to be able to say I had used "Balderdash!" once in my life.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. OK I'm going to contribute one more comment, and then let others step up or not.

    I completely agree with your manifesto points 2 and 5.

    3 and 4 are problematic for me -- another trap JC fell into (along with the whole "photobook" [sic] crowd), so congratulations, he's mostly on board with your manifesto. Interesting.

    There are very few photographers who are capable of 'self-curating' anything like a valid, meaningful sequence of images out of n shots they intentionally or accidentally shot and threw in a project bin. Amateur Hour.

    That's a job for a photo editor, and this is why the whole "photobook" [sic] concept is set up to fail (IMO), because instead of going through a photo editor, who is in all likelihood going to tell you up front your project idea is rubbish, photographers now want the 'agency' to 'selfie-curate' their rubbish projects, thank you very much.

  6. Colberg, for reference, believes fully that your book should be fondled by as many people as possible. He believes in editors and designers and publishers all collaborating with you to make the best book possible.

    The trouble is twofold: first that all the books he reviews are done by the same incestuous crew of idiots, swapping hats around; and second more importantly that no amount of resequencing self-indulgent bullshit will make it not be self-indulgent bullshit.

    Anyways. Part of the point of having a "school" is so you get your stuff torn apart and made better. Not through some dumb "critique" session, or through some almost as dumb "I will photo-edit your raw material for you, stand back" but through a collaborative process involving, ideally, shouting, booze, and throwing things.

  7. As a retired newspaper guy -- with about half my working years as a photographer -- your manifesto sounds a lot like how I spent my career. Although in newspaper our photos almost always had to stand on their own as single photos. I'll be interested to see where this goes.

    (Ordered your book, BTW)

  8. As to your first point, I disagree with you completely: What's wrong with using art -- and photography -- to provide a respite from politics instead of as tools to foment yet more arguments about politics?

    Art created for the purpose of furthering a political agenda is properly called propaganda and I have very little interest in that, whether I agree with the agenda or not.

    For me, photography -- both doing my own and appreciating that done by others -- is one of the few ways I temporarily escape the strife that is politics today.

    As such, I have no desire to use it -- or to see it used by others -- to stoke the fires of politics so they can burn even hotter!

    1. So is that a "the whole thing is dumb" or a "interesting, there are things here I can use, but the politics is bullshit and also dumb"


    2. I'm still pondering about the rest of it, actually. For the moment, though, I am leaning more toward the latter than former.

      I do have doubts about whether it's possible to concoct a school from thin air, though, as my limited knowledge of art history suggests the more successful (and today, well known) ones arose organically, not intentionally.

      As such, I'm skeptical that one man holding a megaphone in one hand and a drink in the other, hanging out in a virtual bar, will be able to achieve the critical mass necessary to pull it off.

      No offense intended, of course, and I'm pulling for you to succeed! 8^)

  9. I feel like I'm in a little over my hear here, but when has that ever stopped me from expressing an opinion.

    I think you're making the rules a little too tight. Nothing you’ve said is wrong but there are other goals in this hobby of ours than to create art by documenting the exact location of every power line and piece of discarded trash at any given location.

    I’ve taken some nice vacations and I chose to remember the locations as a little brighter and uncluttered than they really were. I want the colors to be a little brighter and the details to be a little sharper than they actually were. I’m not trying to talk you into going to any particular place and would be disappointed if you came back from Naxos Island in Greece and complained there were a power line in your field of view that you hadn’t expected.

    In a similar way, my wife complains about the dopey lyrics in the country songs I like so well and I tell her it’s only a story, in fact it’s not even a story but just a feeling. I wouldn’t expect you like either country music or my vacation picture books, but they are an art form just as valid as yours.

    1. The world of photography has many roads, this one is mine ;) You are welcome to join me, or not! Or, you know, if yours crosses mine sometimes, we could have a drink. See the remarks I put in an update:

  10. So I no longer qualify for a Bellingham beer! Damn yr eyes, sirrah!

    1. Social beer is always available. Artsy beer is restricted. But they taste eerily similar.

  11. I'd like to sign up for your school. A school involving free drinks on the first visit must be great ;-)
    Seriously, I agree with all your points except No. 1, the political thing.
    Just to clarify: Please explain to me how our project "Armed with rubber chickens" fits into this school. Or doesn't it? What do you think?
    Btw. I'm still proud of this book we did together.
    P.S. I hate that I'm too far away to just walk in for a beer...

    1. I am also immensely proud of that book! I think it is excellent. Also, my wife swears she wants to take our daughters to Paris some day (more than 1 year, less than 10 years, from now) so I have my eye on Europe. I realize that Germany is not exactly in Paris, but it is a lot closer to Paris than it is to Bellingham.

      As for the book. Hmm.

      It's straight photography, for sure. It wound up being sufficiently political, and I think actually strikes a pretty good note there. There's just a hint of anti-authoritarianism in it, without being strident. It's just a "hey, here's a few things, make of it what you will" which is nearly perfect, I think, for what it is.

      The sequencing is something I am proud of, but the character of the work is such that the sequence is going to be more or less accidental references rather than a coherent "story" even if you construe story very very broadly. Given that is essentially IS an unfocused group of photos artificially brought in to a kind of focus, I think it's pretty good, though.

      Design I find extremely naive. It's not bad as such, but I feel like if I were doing it now I'd develop something (I don't know what) that was much stronger.

      It certainly is in a rough sonata form, which is nice! I definitely designed and sequenced it to be a series of short movements, each with at least one graphical theme running through it.

      As a starting point for where I am now, I think that it stands up very well indeed! I am have moved along, so it is not a particularly good measure of where I stand today.

      I still am brought almost to tears by sheer joy when I recall the project, though. It was, and remains, a really marvelous and formative experience for me.

  12. As there seem to be a few folks based in Europe here, I cordially invite all and sundry to do the same at ours in Hamburg, Germany. If there's enough interest we could set a date to meet in a nearby pub (it's ours). Otherwise robinsonnigelj at gmail dot com.

  13. I don't have a fight in me right now but I will comment. As a socialist (I'm the treasurer for Twin Ports DSA here in Duluth) I do like political photography when it's good and on my side. I don't want fascist photography. As a photographer I appreciate less obviously political and more "honest narrative" work. Of course, in an unjust world, being honest is a political argument to change things, so there you go. It's controversial and confrontational.

    Then there's the "nicely thrown pot" type of photograph. I have a couple on my wall. They don't need anything more than a decent frame. The might be political, but they might be mostly about color and light and lines and gesture.

    As for series vs. individual shots, sure, but as a lazy amateur I'll be happy with a good individual shot once in a while. Kind of the same way I'm happy with learning a little something on my guitar without mastering a set list. Things pile up. There's always a possibility to pull a series from the pile later, I know, or not.

    But relating art-making to activism, it's good to organize. And seeing things through is satisfying.

  14. Making Art IS activism. Sequencing your own work is self-expression, which I am pretty sure is the point of Art. All the rest - politics, value, meaning - come from the viewer, and how they interact with the Art. If the reaction aligns with your intent, then a gold star for you! Or a beer.

  15. Check, check, check, check, check. Yup, I disagree with all of them. But then I only make [not take] pictures to please myself.
    Photography, like painting, drawing, print-making, etc. is a >visual art<, and words just obfuscate understanding.


  16. This manifesto made me think about my own photography, and that’s a good thing. And I tend to agree with a lot of things, and to disagree on some points.

    In my opinion ‘policital’ is not the right word to describe the purpose of photograhpy, mostly because of all the associations that go with it. The sentence that explains what political means (“exposing wrongs and arguing for rights, in the sense of the-opposite-of-wrongs, and also rights in the sense of moral entitlements”) is a much better direction and starting point. Elaborate on this could eventually come up with a better term than political.

    Point 3 (sequence) and 4 (sonata) seem inconsistent to me. I agree that sequences are much more important that a single hero image. My conclusion would be: forget about single hero images, they are most of the time pointless. However, a single image combined with sonata aspects (like text, combined with design elements) can be very strong to convey an argument as good as a sequence. So sequence or single is in a sense a pointless distinction, provided that the sonata aspects of an image are executed well.

    1. I must admit that I fall in to Keith Smith's terminology without explanation sometimes.

      He uses "series" to mean a linear set of pictures, one after the other, with references flowing more or less strictly from one to the next.

      He uses "sequence" specifically to mean more complex networks of reference, and explicitly excludes "series" in his sense from the meaning. Which is super idiocyncratic, I know.

      When I say "sequence" I actually mean (more or less) everything from a linear row of photos up to and including a full on "sonata" of reference, themes, and meaning. Which I should absolutely explain, because it's not at all obvious. Sorry about that.

  17. Find a few bodies of work and analyze them in the context of your manifesto? Examples, counterexamples? Where do the usual suspects like Sally Mann and Vivian Maier stand?

    1. Vivian Maier exists in two separate forms, the first being the unedited mass of material she left behind, and the second being essentially, greatest hits collections of various sorts. The former is interesting, but a) unavailable and b) too big to really be managed. The latter are invariably naive unsubtle efforts to hearken back to the glory days of the The Americans.

      Sally Mann has much stronger pictures, of course, and tends to organize them into individual chapters very well. It is still very much Theme A followed by Theme B and then Theme C, and in general it's photographs alone.

      The closest thing to what I want to do is Gene Smith's book Minamata, but you can look at LIFE magazine's photo essays as a starting point.

      Honestly, I do think that they modern "photobook" is on to something, and I am attracted to it. It's just so poorly done that I despair. The pictures are weak, they don't "burn story" and they have generally stupid ideas about design and concept. Most of these things have one theme, and that one too weak with far too many pictures. If they do have more than 1 theme, they tend to proceed through the first, and then to the second, and so on, Chapter-like just as Sally Mann does.

      Even Gene Smith's work doesn't seem to take on real sonata form, with themes layering over one another simultaneously, although I think he comes close from time to time more or less by accident.

      I am certainly not claiming to have any real ability with this form. It strikes me as monumentally difficult. But, I poke at it, and get one bit right in this project, and another bit right in that one, and so on.

      I'd like to make work in this form, but even more I'd like to *see* work in this form.

  18. I think this proves you are communist and a capitalist. I'm in. All in.