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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.


  1. you now have a few posts in a row saying more or less the same thing about a hypothetical photograph, can you tell mme how this line of thought goes with regard to a body of work - can we tell more about the artist, their intent, their worth, etc by moving beyond the single image to consider a career's worth?

    1. Good question!

      I am convinced that a body of work allows us to do a better job at guessing the artist intent, as well as the true story. We can begin to rule out accident and luck, to some degree, and repetitions allow us to discern, maybe, what the artist it really interested in.

      Presumably, I guess, it would also dilute the coincidences that make this picture or that one resonate. If the old lady in one looks the grandma, perhaps the old lady in the next one will not, and so on.

      The *hope* would be that the 5th story, the way we actually respond ourselves to the pictures, would line up more with the artist's intent, but I don't think that's always the case.

      Our reaction will certainly gain depth, if we let it, but I'm not sure we can predict in what way exactly it will do that.

      Food for thought, though, thanks!