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Thursday, February 28, 2019

Industry Musings

So, I wrote this thing a couple days ago, and sent it off to PetaPixel, who published it (presumably gleefully) and lo, there are many comments.

Of course there's a handful of simpletons, and a handful of people who agree, huzzah. Whatever, it's all about the fur flying, really, innit? (no I don't get paid, don't be stupid.)

But there are a few people who seem to think that I am simply wrong and that, in fact, more angry blog posts about theft of photos will actually solve the problem.

Let us review a little history.

When technologies for digital media matured with the internet, two major industries felt the clammy hand of death almost immediately: the music industry, and the film industry. Piracy was a big big thing. Also, any jackass could suddenly record and distribute music, or video, easily and simply. The tools and the distribution are just there. What did the big players do?

First they passed a bunch of draconian laws. The DMCA here in the USA was supposed to stem the tide by making it easy to bring miscreants to justice, and punish them horribly.

None of this did shit, of course. The bleeding did not slacken off even slightly although they did hand out a few gruesome punishments to timid grandmothers, which was terrible PR so they stopped.

Somewhere in this mess Vevo got launched. It will serve us as the template. The CEO of UMG (I think) at some point asked a grandchild, sort of desperately, "how the hell are people listening to music?" and the grandchild said "YouTube" and the CEO said "the hell. YouTube ain't paying us. But they're GONNA." and then Vevo got started to represent music videos, basically to YouTube. The upshot is that when you listen to music on youtube, the music industry gets paid. Ad revenue gets shared out.

Let's break this down a little: laws and regulations didn't do anything. Once media is digital, it's simply too easy to move around and copy. You cannot put everyone in jail, and the FBI cannot put even a single person in Australian in jail. What worked was providing a way to listen to music that was even easier than piracy and in which the industry got paid.

We see this all over now. What's easier than stealing a movie? Watching it on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu. What's easier than stealing music? Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, etc. Digital streaming media is now available, absolutely frictionlessly, over a myriad of channels that pay the industry.

The DMCA is now 99% irrelevant, and exists mainly as a tool for bloggers to harass one another with spurious takedown requests. The industries that paid for it today give very very close to 0 shits about the DMCA, they have pivoted to new models that get them paid just fine, thx.

What about all the kiddies that can use digital technologies to make their own music, their own movies? The industry has simply turned that whole thing into a sort of minor league farm system from which they recruit the next generation of talent. Since their revenues are protected, they can afford to pay, and they do, and that's that. YouTube is now, among other things, a system in which randos compete to become the next pop stars, the next TV hosts, and so on. Launch a channel, record some material, and if you amass a few million followers, someone is gonna offer you a mainstream deal. It turns out to have streamlined that whole process.

The industry isn't gambling on unknowns any more at all, they're acquiring pre-verified, already popular, talent. It has worked out beautifully for the music and video industries.

The photography industry has yet to find its Spotify, its Vevo.

Photographs are not used in anything like the same way that music and movies are, photographs are not streamed. In fact, nobody really just sits and looks at photographs. They're background.

Now, the still photography industry hasn't got anything like enough money to change any laws, and they actually have the DMCA already anyways. Naturally, the DMCA isn't doing a goddamned thing for them.

It doesn't look to me like any kind of pivot to an ad-supported model is going anyplace, because a lot of photo usage is in ads. We may yet see ads embedded inside of ads to pay for the content used by the outermost ad (and maybe ads in ads in ads, I suppose) but that honestly seems insane. Given that the only business model we've seen that seems to work in the digital realm -- and that dubiously at best -- is ads, we may be looking at the end of the line for photos as a business.

To be fair, subscription models also seem to work for streaming media, and we're seeing those in the stock photography industry (over the wails of would-be-pro photographers). There's not a hell of a lot of money in play here, though, and certainly not enough to enrich all the people who would like to become rich shooting stock photos. In fact, there's not nearly enough money to pay the models that are employed in the shooting of the stock photos that fill the coffers of the subscription-based agencies. The agencies are making money, the photographers are not. There are just too damn many of the latter.

On the other hand, obviously, there may be some pivot I'm just not seeing, here.

The key points are clear, though. If you want to solve the theft problem, as well as the various rights-grab businesses, you need to invent a system that makes getting pictures easier than these methods, and which gets the photographer paid. It's a lot easier to steal pictures than it ever was to pirate even music, though. Right-click-save (i.e. piracy) is pretty damned frictionless, making it even easier to acquire pictures for pay is going to... hard.

As for the problem of now any doofus can be a creative the industry is doing fine. They're finding instagrammers with large followings to do their product photos, artists are being forced to "crowdfund" everything in sight. The photographers on the other hand are not doing so hot, generally. Increasingly, the artistic side is mastering the crowdfunding/influencer dynamic to their own ends, I guess.

There's just a hell of a lot less money on the table, as compared to the music and video based industries, and a hell of a lot more players. You don't even have to be able to sing. If you have $300 and can press a button, you too can be a photographer. This isn't a good recipe.

Again, there may be some pivot I am not seeing, but I am not optimistic.

Which brings us back around to this: It can't really be just about the pictures. You've got to bring something else to the table. Even if that's just a solid reputation for showing up on time and working fast.

Photobook Reviews are All Positive

Well, it's not quite right to say that all photobook reviews are positive. Almost all of them are, though. Colberg reviewed Mosse's Incoming somewhat negatively, I think. To what extent he was simply reacting to the success of Mosse's project is unclear.

What does seem to be true is that little photobooks, the bread and butter of the occasionally rapacious small-publishing-house industry, are almost invariably well received by the people who review them. Possibly because the only people who review these things are on the inside of that incestuous little universe, but that's just speculation.

Let's take a look at HORIZONT reviewed on the always-hilarious American Suburb X, which review you can read here.

I won't bother with the whole review, except to note that the reviewer seems to like this singularly unlikeable book, and to poke at a few of the more absurd lines.

This sort of space doesn’t respond readily to the camera’s propensity for order, and Ashkin’s photographs play on its strange, disorienting quality, looking up past the tops of buildings, peering out from behind knots of vegetation, gazing dully at the ground.

As far as I can discern, none of the cameras I own have any propensity for order. Perhaps the author means that photographers and photography do, with using the word "camera" metonymically? In that case I suggest that she needs to get out more. Frankly, there is a great deal of Serious Art as well as vernacular photography that looks a lot like this hot mess.

There’s a kind of deadpan anarchy about places like these, patchworked together out of remnants and interstices that capitalist development can’t easily assimilate.

While I have to admire the author's touching naivete about what capitalism can or cannot easily assimilate, this whole sentence is nonsense. It's just ugly cement buildings and generalized urban stuff. Eastern Europe has a lot of ugly cement, I am informed. There's a fair bit of this in the USA, actually. Some of those buildings remind by of UMass, Amherst.

And so on, on and on. I should at this point direct you to some remarks and some work I find myself coming back to from time to time: Vernacular Enigma. These pictures are much the same sort of thing, but are all shot in the USA, so much for the specialness of East Berlin.

To be honest, on roughly alternate days I am convinced that American Suburb X (ASX) is actually a joke, a sort of extended performance art piece. Sadly, on all the other days I realize that this sort of gibberish is all too prevalent, and that ASX is just another manifestation of the same stuff masquerading as serious writing.

Actually, I have just remembered another negative photobook review, also from ASX: SHIT but to be honest this seems to be mostly rage at the book's author, and the largest complaint from the reviewer is about someone else's analysis of the book as having something to do with homosexuality.

Ok so maybe not all photobook reviews are positive. It just seems like I keep running a lot of lazy little positive plugs.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Quit Bellyachin'!

Everywhere you turn in the photographic press you see the same kinds of articles over and over.

Such-and-such a competition or service is just a rights-grab! You have to give up your rights to your images! Total party foul!

Everyone steals everyone else's pictures which is totally illegal! Lame!

Losers with weak cameras are undercutting professionals left and right! I have a sad!

Phone cameras are terrible but everyone keeps using them! #dslrs4lyfe, yo!

Sure, fair enough. These things are all all sad, and some of them are illegal. So what? You're standing around in rising waters already hip-deep, whining that someone oughta fix the levees. Stop it. This is the situation on the ground, and another angry blog post about how unfair it all is is not going to change that. Stop complaining and start building a raft.

How are you, as a photographer, going to accomplish whatever it is you have a yen to in this world?

Do you want to make money taking pictures? Well, too bad. Photos are too easy to take, too commodified. Sell your clients something they can't get from their phone, or some rando from craigslist. Sell them an experience, with photos. Sell them a book, with photos. Sell them a "personal branding campaign," with photos. If you have to, sell them a coupon to a local restaurant, with photos. Figure it out.

Do you want to play the photo competition game? Well, competitions are going to take your rights. Put your grownup pants on, and make some photos for competition that you're willing to kiss goodbye. Make other photos for your portfolio. They can be real similar, it turns out.

You don't want people stealing your pictures? Don't put the ones you want to keep online. If you need an online presence, put some other ones up. Photos you're willing to kiss goodbye.

And so on, on and on. This is the world, people. Pull your socks up, quit bellyaching, and start figuring out how to live in this world.

Stop complaining about the levees and start building a raft.

Or, you can put your camera down and take up needlepoint. I hear that's a thing too.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Another Thing

This is another Rogue Photo imprint product. It is not in the numbered sequence of official "issues" but is rather a side project, using some of the same aesthetic.

It is overtly political. Marked up by one penny, because I like round numbers. You shouldn't buy it, though, because it's a very Bellingham specific political tract. Even here it probably won't be particularly on-point in a year or two. We hope.

Bellingham Zoning Zine

This is a 5" x 8", black and white, economy paper, trade book, the cheapest product blurb sells. I'm not sure the cover will even come out in color.

As usual, the point here is that you can preview it. The book was put together very very fast, it's not supposed to be polished. The pictures were all shot one weekend in Seattle. This is deliberately propagandist. While as far as I know there are no outright untruths in it, certainly there is no nuance. It's intended to be sound-bitey, punchy, and "essentially" truthful, even if a detail here or there is mislaid of misstated.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Show Me Something

The title is my favorite line from the not-very-good movie "Red 2." Helen Mirren's character (a professional assassin) is under fire, has been picked up by a hit man driving some sporty little car, and they are fleeing a bunch of very angry dudes with a lot of guns. She requests, laconically, very British-ly, that the hit man 'show her something,' so he throws the car into a spin and she fires enormous pistols out both windows and makes a lot of black Land Rovers explode. It is a wonderful, glorious, deeply stupid, set piece. You can find it on YouTube.

The point of this, though, is that when I hand you a book with photographs in it there is an implicit contract. I am stating that I want to show you something. This applies to a portfolio, a slideshow, a web site of pictures, anything. It is part of the cultural baseline surrounding photographs.

You can look at three books, Not Safe For Work (particularly Showcaller): Pixy Liao's Experimental Relationship shown in its entirety here in a video made by Colberg; Talia Chetrit's Showcaller in preview here; and Michael Ashkin's HORIZONT again as a preview here.

I hate all of these books. They all strike me as profoundly stupid, bad, books. But.. why? I don't hate clumsy vernacular pictures. I certainly don't hate picture of girls with very little clothing, or no clothing at all. I quite like a lot of the kinds of things that appear in these books.

I have to admit that I do kind of hate the prevalent design tropes of placing pictures randomly in spreads for no particular reason, sometimes big, sometimes small, sometimes jammed in a corner. Hey let's bleed this off the bottom for no goddamned reason at all. But that's not the fault of the pictures, it's the lazy designers who simply copy bad ideas from one another.

Now, by way of Daniel Milnor, yet another artist to look at: Siân Davey. Siân does a lot of that twee shit I hate: she shoots film, she shoots medium format film with a Mamiya 7. Her pictures have a vernacular look, there's an almost forced sense of vérité. Hipster bullshit.

The difference is that I like this work.

It occurs to me that Davey is making an honest effort to show me something and the other three are not. Liao and Chetrit are doing performance for the camera, which performance is wilfully opaque. I am not supposed to understand this material. I am, in a way, not permitted to understand these performances. Ok, so this is partly a response to "male gaze." There is a strong element of here is a woman, she is nude, or nearly so, and she is not available which I guess makes a certain sort of sense. Kinda. But at the end of the day, Ms. Chetrit, I can still see your genitals, and they still give me ideas in the way that exposed genitals do.

Ashkin's book, if you read the blurbs and what passes for "reviews" in these degenerate times, is a book about process rather than photography. His photographs push back against photography itself, defying its standards and processes. Apparently they do this because he shot horizontals, and then cropped them to verticals. Also the pictures are all just random bullshit from some depressing neighborhood in Berlin. If anyone thinks this is some sort of defiant stand against convention, they simply haven't been paying attention.

Anyways, HORIZONT is another collection of material which is not intended to be understood. I, the viewer, am almost explicitly excluded from any understanding of what the hell is going on. Michael Ashkin's response to the implied show me something is a flat no.

Liao, Chetrit, and Ashkin are not creating windows. They appear, in fact, to be explicitly creating a wall instead; they are engaged in a kind of anti-communication. One cannot help but wonder if the point of the wall is to suggest the presence of a treasure inside. One then wonders if the treasure is real, or whether there is only a wall. It hardly matters, though, because all we on the outside have is the wall. If you and I wish to converse, it doesn't matter whether you don't speak English, or if you won't. Since I don't speak Latvian, no conversation is going to occur either way.

Siân Davey in contrast is showing me something. There are people, things, places, that she has some feeling toward, some connection with. She seeks to share with me something of that. She invites me in to her space with her pictures, rather than walling me out. Her pictures are a window.

Ok, so maybe it's me that's wrong. Maybe the point of photographs in particular and art in general need not be to show me something. Maybe there is room for a defiant NO! You could argue that I am simply an unsophisticated viewer, if you liked.

I'm gonna disagree with you on all points, though. Art in general, and photography specifically, has to be about communication. The whole point of the photograph, all of its special properties, are pointed at the idea of showing me something. If you want to not show me something, you can anti-communicate as well with a blotch of ink on a page as with a peevish, opaque, photo. At least with the blotch we would all know where we stand, rather than mucking about with this bait-and-switch business.

A large percentage of contemporary photobooks appear to be playing this game. They offer up a set of photographs, with their built-in implied let me show you something and then they snatch it away, leaving only opacity.

I don't much like it, and I am not fooled. There is no treasure, there is only the wall.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Rogue Photo: Call for Proposals

I've done a few publications on Blurb over the last year, working my way toward a sort of an aesthetic, under the vague moniker of "Rogue Photo" which hits more or less the right note of rebellious but not entirely serious. Here are the first three covers:

The progression is very much toward a black and white duotone cover with red notes. I have added a red spine, more or less on impulse, and I like how that's working out.

So, that's the aesthetic of this notional imprint thing I call Rogue Photo.

I'm thinking of it as a series, numbered and dated, and occasional out-of-sequence "production of" one-off items as well. Pictured above are issues 1 and 2, and the Zoning Zine is an off-sequence one-off.

Content-wise I lean toward what I wrote out in this Manifesto a few weeks ago.

I could make these things all day more or less forever, I think, but part of what I want to do is collaborate. Hence, this Call for Proposals.

The Manifesto is not submission guidelines, it's just where I am at. I am as likely to be interested in ideas that violently oppose mine as I am ideas that align with them. I do prefer black and white photos, and I am almost certain to want some combination of text and pictures by the time we're done.

It's best if you have an idea, some sort of fairly clear concept, and some pictures, but also that you are stuck. If you're not stuck, get outta here and finish your own thing, there's no need for me here. If you need encouragement, I am happy to yell at you to finish it from time to time.

I am not a promoter, I bring no audience. If you have an audience and a desire to make something to sell to them, great. I've for some ideas on how that might be done. Whether some final product would sell 0 copies or 10,000 copies is not of great interest to me, but I am open to pretty much any possibilities there.

What I do bring is a collaborator with ideas (me) and you can judge for yourself whether I have good ideas or bad ideas. I also write, and can provide words. Or pictures. Or both. Again, I am idiosyncratic here, it is up to you to decide whether you want to try it out or not. I also design, and I think I generally can muddle my way through to something that is at the very least interesting and sometimes quite good.

Got an idea? Got a concept? Got some pictures? Write me an email at amolitor@gmail.com and let's do something. I have a couple things people sent me earlier, and I am open to pursuing those with those people.

You will always retain all rights to your work, and can back out at any time. If, by some weird confluence of events, money gets involved, we'll sort that out when the time comes.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Crit: Thicket

A few weeks ago one of our regular commenters, David Smith, posted a link to a PDF book he's made, Thicket. I downloaded same, and have looked at it from time to time since, and now I shall presume to review it. After a fashion.

I do not know offhand if this book is intended as a magnum opus or a joke, or something in between. If I squint I can imagine practically anything as an authorial intent. I am going to treat it as an object made with serious intent, as a work-in-progress, this being my best guess at David's intentions. At any rate, the book certainly makes sense seen that way.

The first thing that struck me about the book was, to be honest, confusion. The book completely lacks any nod toward the standard front matter that books have (title page, half-title, colophon, etcetera, etcetera.) Now, to my mind, most modern books have way too much of this crap, I quite dislike leafing through apparently endless repetitive rot before I get to the body of the book. On the other hand, though, a page or two of material allows a sort of soft landing on the content itself. We expect to turn a page or two, to reminded of what it is we're looking at (title) and get a more or less blank page or two to catch our breath and settle in. To be confronted with content the instant we open the cover is a bit unexpected.

Having sorted out that this is content, and that content is recto, with blank verso pages, we can then page through it. It is very very short, 12 pages, 6 pictures in all, plus one for the covers.

The next thing that struck me was a sort of resemblance to John Gossage's book The Pond (which I think Mike C. might have brought to my attention only a year or two ago.) In fact, I went looking for a source of pictures of that book to see if this was a direct homage (I do not own a copy of The Pond) and as far as I can tell it is not, particularly. Thicket uses full bleed pictures recto, The Pond is more mixed up design-wise, and so on.

Still, the resemblance is there. Both use a collection of pictures, each picture being more or less just some stuff, not very interesting, to evoke a kind of sense of place. Gossage and Smith both give is a large hint in the title, and we obligingly imagine a Pond or a Thicket, respectively.

The same picture appears on both the front and back covers, and I am unsure what to make of that. I'm not sure that's a choice I would have made, and the fact that it is clearly a conscious choice begs the question "why?" to which I have no answer.

Does Thicket work? Yeah, I think it works fine.

I don't particularly love it, but that is purely a reflection of my personal taste, not anything fundamental that I can point out (viewing it as a work-in-progress, as noted).

Thursday, February 21, 2019


Suppose I were to show you a photograph of an egg and a golf ball. The "subject" as such might not be clear. Suppose, then, I were to show you two more pictures: a egg and a mouse, an egg and a teacup. At this point you would likely work out that I am interested in the egg. The egg is the subject. The subjectness of the egg is an emergent property of the collection of photos, it is something that is clear in the triptych, but which is literally not even present in any of the individual photos.

Perform this experiment with any number of photographers, from the rankest amateurs to (I think) many who teach photography, and you will learn that all three photos are bad photographs specifically because they fail to make the subject clear. The very definition of a good photograph is broadly seen to include "it should stand alone" and from there it is a very short step to denial of emergent properties of sequences. While it does not follow strictly logically, it is a very natural progression to the notion that a pile of good photographs is nothing more than a pile of good photographs.

Most books of photos made by people who fancy themselves photographers bear this out, being simply a collection of whatever they think are the best photos in whatever theme is relevant.

Photographers, in general, seek to make single photographs that stand alone. They want to make those hero pictures, suitable for framing and hanging, which could in theory but rarely in practice, be sold as single objects. The model is the painting. These assumptions are deeply embedded in the culture of photography.

Switching tacks, consider media's ability to shape thought, shape society. This too is a largely emergent property. We do not learn that BMW is the ultimate driving machine from a single ad spot, we learn it by endless repetition across print, television, radio, billboards. This functioning derives from the way our minds work. There is endless research in to how we remember things, and how to modify our behavior, and all of it includes a large degree of repetition.

Ideas are repeated in the media both to drill it into our brains, but also to ensure that both the first thing we heard, and the most recent thing we heard, are repetitions of the same idea. Repetition causes us to lose sight of the supporting evidence (or lack thereof) and so on.

Photography's prejudice against the very notion of emergent properties, in favor of the Single Heroic Picture, makes it near impossible for photographic people to make any sense of media and the way it influences society. This tendency is aided and abetted by our apparently natural human desire for simple causes with simple explanations.

On the one hand, when seeking the causes of some social effect in photos, photographers and critics tend to overvalue certain pictures. Note the endless boring analysis of this iconic picture or that which "turned the tide of public opinion about Vietnam" and let us not forget Colberg's histrionics regarding the picture of the Andamanese people and the white man. These are both cases of assigning too much power, too much force, to a single picture. This is the equivalent of declaring the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand as the cause of WWI.

On the other hand, photographers and critics undervalue other pictures. Suppose, although it never happened that I can determine, Peter Magubane had made a definitive portrait of Nelson Mandela. This would be the poster child of black South African photographers photographing the (black) towering heroic figure of South Africa. Surely there is no "white gaze" here? Surely this is wonderful and good and awesome?

Seen as a single picture, yes, it surely is. In the context of Media as a whole, who can judge? It's not anything as dunderheaded as some white jerk writing a shitty caption, it's the whole endless repetitive flow of Media. This portrait of Mandela would have been viewed in the context of all the other reportage coming to us around South Africa. Its effect on you, on me, on us collectively, on South African whites, on the various South African black communities, who is to know?

Now, the portrait is a constructed example, intended to nail down a kind of extreme. Still, you might go look at the pictures of Malick Sidibé which are real pictures of Africans taken by an African. Imagine various ways these pictures could be seen by various people who have experienced one view of the world or another. These pictures could be read any number of ways. An unrepentant bigot would see savages crudely aping the ways of the white man on the one hand, and plenty of extremely woke white people have seen a special, exalting, "black gaze" in the photos which they are unable to articulate any more clearly.

The point here is that the ability to shape society while simultaneously pandering to it is an emergent property of media. It does not reside in the individual pictures, adverts, billboards, voiceovers. You cannot find it in the components any more than you can find the essence of an engine in a camshaft. You cannot understand media's power by examining this picture or that picture. It is not really a case of good pictures and bad pictures (whether those labels refer to the politics or the composition).

Given that photographers and critics of photography are, apparently, locked in to the single picture model, these people seem almost uniquely badly suited to analysis or even understanding of media as a whole.

Perhaps more importantly, they are thus uniquely unqualified to either combat or create propaganda.

In the corners of the internet where I lurk, I see a lot of deconstructions of photographs, a lot of explanations of why the optics are terrible or whatever. The bold deconstructer then, as it were, stands back and awaits victory, which does not arrive. They over-weight the importance of this picture of Donald Trump or Angela Merkel or Theresa May doing something stupid, not realizing that whatever political attitude they despise or support does not live or die on single elements, or even a handful of them. These things are emergent.

It does not particularly help that these would-be critics cannot actually visualize how people other than themselves might read a photograph.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

"White Gaze"

I am going to take a quick peek at a couple essays, one from Colberg and one from Blight, because they cover related ground. Colberg's essay is a review of a book Photography in India and Blight's essay is, after a fashion, a review of a book entitled White Gaze.

Both reviews boil down to a standard round of the Colonialism was Very Bad and things are Still Very Bad dance, but they're built on some assumptions and ideas that I wish to examine in more detail.

First, though, a little brush clearing. Of course the era of European colonialism was bad, duh. It's more complicated, though, than simply reducing the whole era to "white people exploiting brown people because white people suck." I don't want to get in to any kind of defense of colonialism, but it is worth noting that it was more complicated, and that there are in with the wide bands of exploitation and greed also many strands of kindness, wisdom, and both misguided and well-guided attempts to do good.

This complexity is perhaps revealed in echo if we examine for a moment what people like Colberg and Blight actually think. They will tell you, at length, that colonialism was bad because it imposed western ideas on non-western people, in the service of oppressing and exploiting the latter. Which, sure, is true. However, if you ask them about, say, the Saudi habit of chopping people's heads off, about African traditions of female genital mutilation, of the Indian habit of from time to time immolating living wives along with dead husbands, they will decry such cultural practices as terrible and generally suggest that Someone Ought To Do Something about it.

Of course they will justify their rejection of these habits on some sort of higher moral ground, they will insist that their position derives not from a colonialist impulse but from something higher. The higher moral ground they claim is, however, utterly western. There is no firm unassailable basis for these ethical or moral choices, these things are cultural artifacts and nothing more. Colberg, Blight, and their ilk, simply wish to impose their (western) morality on the Saudis, the Africans, the Indians, because in these cases they really super duper disagree with the culture on the ground. And, for the record, I do too. But I don't sit around bitching about colonialism. I recognize my impulse as what it is: a colonialist impulse, an imposition of my western values on other people.

I'm comfortable with that, within limits.

You could argue that these academics are at least not making these claims for the purposes of exploitation, and it's certainly true that Colberg owns no stock in the East India Company. Still, to assert that these moral judgements out of the Academy are not being deployed as part of the eternal effort of the west to bring these lesser nations to heel is to state an absurdity. Of course these practices are brought up by the west to justify actions against the non-west, in order to better exploit the non-west. Don't be silly.

The Academy is running the same old colonialist program as always. They want The Orient to be identical to The West, except with quaint costumes and maybe some cool dances thrown in which we will TOTALLY NOT MAKE HALLOWEEN COSTUMES FROM.

So, having identified Colberg and Blight as neocolonialists, let's set that aside. Their hypocrisy is not directly relevant, but it does set the stage.

Both of the book reviews, or essays, are essentially saying the same things. The claim is that because white people have a certain relationship with the world (true) they see things in a certain way (ok, fair enough) and that these ways of seeing things are reflected in photographs made by white people (I suppose so..) and that therefore the photograph is both highly revelatory of, well, of something, and that the photograph itself in some way takes part in whatever crimes we're ascribing today.

This is a rather long chain of connection, and the last few links are very shaky indeed. If we could pin down precisely what these fellows think the photograph is doing, we could maybe critique it in more specific terms, but they persist in vaguely mumbling about "problematic" rather than actually committing to some sort of coherent position. Still, the general shape of where they stand is clear.

Both authors refer, absurdly, to violent seeing, which is apparently a chic phrase that makes no sense. The purpose of it is to associate, by a sort of sympathetic magic, through repetition, the idea that the photograph itself is a tool of the crime, that it partakes of the crime.

On the observe side of this, we arrive at the desired conclusion, that if only the oppressed people were to take the photographs, the photographs would be somehow different and would be freed of the taint of the crime of colonialism (or whatever -ism is in play).

The desire on the part of both authors, and of the Photographic Academy in general (but also most photographers) is to ascribe to the photograph a power that it simply does not have. As a photographer, or an academic studying photography, of course you want your subject to appear as powerful and important as possible. The endless discussion of which photograph "turned the tide of public opinion" against the Vietnam War is another facet of the same bankrupt discussion.

The conceit is that the photograph of a terrible thing is itself terrible. The photograph is violent, it embodies a violent gaze, it should be shunned? Colberg talks about this picture, for instance:

Colberg says that the picture "took his breath away (not in a good way)" that the picture is "very violent" and that "It’s such a ghastly picture, though, that it might take the viewer a while to be able to read the text" all of which are silly remarks. Was Jörg raised in a glass bottle that this kind of picture can strike him down so? As an aside, we again see his western hegemonic attitudes on full display: he imagines this picture to be objectively terrible, but in fact it is only terrible in the context of his own cultural milieu.

Since I share his milieu, I agree that it is a picture of something odious, although the picture certainly isn't violent in any meaningful way, and it certainly did not strike me to the ground unconscious as it, apparently, did to Jörg.

Blight offers a surprisingly similar picture with much the same observations, although he uses his usual mangled pseudo-academic mess to do it:

Hilariously, Blight doesn't seem to know that this is Mary Leakey and those guys are working for her sifting the ground looking for the (African) origins of man. While it's still clearly the boss and a group of not-the-boss people, knowing the ground truth here takes away much of the overseer/slaves vibe and makes it feel a lot more likely that the scientist is telling her assistants that lunch will be ready in five minutes.

Blight also gets the poem wrong. The text in the book he's reviewing comes from the original National Geographic magazines, by a process of eliminating most of the words on the page in essentially the same manner at A Humument does. The whole book is, in fact, essentially made by the same means as the various editions of A Humument, photos and text are both cropped to suggest something new. Something a lot less witty, but, whatever.

The conceit is that the thing being photographed is odious, and that therefore the photograph itself is odious or at any rate somehow partakes of the odiousness.

If the notion is that the photograph somehow absorbs the wickedness inherent in the subject, then you'd got a bit of a problem if Leaky is just telling the guys that lunch is ready. There isn't much wickedness to absorb, here.

While both Blight and Colberg appear to be more or less set on this notion, one could as readily take the tack that the ground truth doesn't really matter here. It might well be Mary Leaky inviting her assistants to lunch, but it doesn't look like that. The first picture could be Andamanese Family posing with Strong White Man they have just purchased. The pictures read as a colonialist, white, "gaze." These are photographs which support the idea of white superiority to the brown-skinned majority, regardless of the ground truth.

If you take that point of view, well, fair enough. We know that media works just fine to influence thought. It does make the critique of specific pictures as violent or whatever fairly completely absurd. It's not this picture or that picture that does it. It's the whole mass of them, the whole social mess working, kind of mostly, in the same direction that does it.

This photograph or that photograph is not the problem any more than this drop or water of that one cuts the canyon. It is the river which cuts the canyon.

The single photo is weak, like a drop of water, precisely because when we examine it we realize at some level that we do not know the ground truth. We don't know if this what it appears to be. It is only by repetition, by the blows of a million, a billion, drops of water against our consciousness that our ideas are eroded and re=shaped.

Colberg, Blight, and all the rest of them insist on, as it were, recoiling in horror before the power of this drop of water or that one, and in the process, they miss the river and, more importantly, the emergent properties that a river has which drops of water do not.

This photo or that photo, while it may or may not be of something odious, which it may or may not read in an odious way, is not particularly interesting. It does not have the power to strike anyone down, or change anyone's mind, or have any substantive social impact. It is the apparatus of media, and the emergent power that the whole has, that does those things. This apparatus has powers which the individual photographs (and other fragments) do not have.

Clutching your pearls while waving faintly at this photograph or that photograph not only makes you look silly, it is to miss the entire point.

It is in the leap from this photograph or that photograph, to the whole apparatus of media in which the power lies, and in which the interesting things occur.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Photographing the Novel

I recently read (skimmed) an article on how taking a photograph of something seems to impair your ability to remember that something. This dovetails with, but is different from, the notion that possessing photographs of something (or someone) makes it more difficult to recall the subject of the photograph (one tends to recall not the subject, but the photograph.)

While the article was interesting (thanks, E!), the part which struck me was that it's about people photographing subjects they have not seen before. The implication is that when you go on holiday to experience new things, you will remember the things better if you don't photograph them. I almost never do this. I don't photograph things which are new to me, as a general rule.

This is not something I have made a conscious choice about, as far as I recall. It has simply happened that, for the most part, I photograph things which are intensely familiar to me. Usually over and over.

This is the exact opposite of Workshop Photography, which is explicitly about going somewhere new to see novel things, and to photograph them. I have long railed against this practice, insisting that you cannot actually make any visual sense out of anything if you just showed up yesterday.

I am not sure how this relates, exactly, to the research cited at the very beginning. Certainly (?), though, it is consistent with the idea that, when confronted with something novel and new while we are holding a camera with intent to photograph, we do not really see the thing in the same way, or in as much depth. At any rate, our memory of the thing is apparently weaker, which is nearly the same thing (does it matter if we "see" it deeply in the moment, when we can't recall it particularly?)

Photographs and photography tend, I believe, to reduce our perception of things to the visual. We are less aware of the wind, of the smell, of the temperature, of how we feel when we are hunched over the camera, trying to frame the thing just so. If, arguably, we don't even see it as well in the end, then in a very real way all we are left with are some photographs taken of something we never really experienced in the first place.

Ok, fair enough, that's a bit hyperbolic, but the point is that we're experiencing these things less deeply, we're feeling less deeply, than we would be if we'd left the camera behind. That seems to be incontrovertible. To what degree it is true probably varies a lot, and perhaps much of the time it's a minor effect.

Nevertheless, if we have the time and the interest to experience a thing without the camera, we will (evidently), develop a deeper experience, a more profound feeling, a more thorough and nuanced understanding of the thing. If we then go back with the camera, perhaps we can find something distinctive, something personal.

When someone "goes somewhere" to shoot "those things" they seem to invariably come back with the same photos everyone else does. This appears, in fact, to be the purpose of these expeditions. It's sort of like big game hunting, albeit less odious. The point is simply to acquire something, to have done something, for the pride of doing it. While there is nothing particularly wrong with this (the photographic version) it does not strike me particularly as having much to do with photography. You could go there and bring back a pebble, or a nail, or a postcard, with much the same effect.

I like my way better. Plus it involves a lot less travel (I hate travelling.)

Monday, February 18, 2019


Two page spread from the latest issue of the WSJ's monthly magazine:

I love this picture for a bunch of reasons.

First, I love to imagine what the average denizens of an Internet Forum would say. They would suggest cropping off the chainlink fencing gateposts through which we view the scene. They would complain about the various places that are Too Dark in the frame, and they would have a great deal to say about the lighting. "Flat" and "raccoon eyes" and "unflattering." I dare say our old friend mrca, Lighting Hero, would have a lot to say on the subject, for instance, and even the rawest newbie would suggest "a speedlight for a little fill."

All of which would be, of course, to completely miss the point, which is about the content of the frame.

We have the matriarch on the steps, in the velour dress. Terrifying. Those savage shoulder pads. That face. On the opposite side of the frame, the daughter. She is wearing much the same dress, but in pinstripes, and quite a different fabric. She does not get to wear earrings, but mom has some big ones. You can't see it, but these two women are wearing the same shoes, in white and black respectively, and the toes of these shoes are violently pointed (see below.)

In the background, we see various minions. Second daughters? Mothers-in-law? Bodyguards? Who knows, they are important only to show that the two important women command people.

While it probably was "lit" it is not supposed to appear lit. This crew is, for reasons unknown to us, at this house. The conceit is that we're just seeing them, standing outside on an overcast day, looking, well, looking like that.

There are probably many ways to see this picture, but it reads like "Mafia wives/mothers, and their staff" to me. Mafia moms live in modest houses in New Jersey, or Connecticut, or Long Island. Usually better kept houses than this one, but otherwise a lot like that. What's going on here? Whose house is that? Why has the matriarch and her entourage rolled in here?

Regardless, the message is clear: the woman on the steps in velour is Not To Be Fucked With. The younger woman in pinstripes defers to her but to no other entity on earth or in heaven. Everyone else defers to those two. They are yin and yang in the frame, each leaning slightly inwards, with clothing tones inverted: light for dark and vice versa. Neither one is anyone you want to argue with. The matriarch radiates ferocity and power, her opposite number radiates the same ferocity, held inward and waiting for the matriarch to die. Everyone else is mostly trying to avoid becoming collateral damage.

Notice the slightly imperfectly straight part in pinstripe's hair. That's not an accident. Nothing in this frame is an accident, of course.

It may amuse you to know that the velour power dress worn by the matriarch was shown on the runway in a delicious blue and an even more delicious hot pink. They chose black and white for this advert on purpose. Mom wouldn't look nearly as scary in pink. But she is wearing The Runway Outfit, here (even the earrings appear on Blue, below:)

(the pinstriped dress was also on the runway, with the white version of the shoes, but is worn much better in this picture than in the runway stills I have seen, where it is frankly a bit sack-like.)

This, I think, adds a facinating dimension to the ad's picture. The pinstripes certainly suggest "Mafia" as this is the trope from movies. To visualize this brightly colored velour number as a severe albeit fantastically expensive dress, suitable for the wife of the capo dei capi requires a certain genius. To pose this gang here, like some kind of demented couture-meets-The-Sopranos scene fulfills the promise of that demented genius.

I love this thing, with a great love.

Friday, February 15, 2019


Take a look at this picture. It's probably familiar to you:

What do you see? A fat man. Balding. He appears to be irritated. You see a waistcoat (or a vest?), a watch chain, a bow tie. These, the paneled background, as well as the texture and style of the photograph speak to you of the social class of the man (high). There's not much else here. There are some white objects on the right side of the frame that look like pocket silks and so on, but it's not at all clear what they are. Does the body extend that far over?

It is, of course, Winston Churchill, and you will almost certainly have recognized him. He is, famously, irritated because the photographer, Karsh, has just taken his cigar.

Because it is Churchill, we read his glower as power and/or arrogance barely contained.

It is chic these days to declare Churchill a villain, a racist, any number of things. In previous decades it was chic to declare him a hero. At this historical moment he has a sort of double life, as either one or the other depending on the speaker, depending on the moment. Churchill, without a doubt, presided over and made important decisions during, events that were awful and events that were heroic.

Depending on where you land politically, therefore, you are almost certain to look at this picture and think either bully or hero.

Neither, of course, is really true. We judge our political leaders, our celebrities, and people we see in photographs, by absurdly simple standards. Our sensorium is a marvelous system for reducing the infinitely complex world around us to a few manageable approximations which we can use to find food, shelter, and conduct a sort of crude society. Similarly, we reduce people, notably people we see in pictures to a few simple tropes.

Are you describable in a single word? Are you merely a bully or a good fellow or smart or silly? You are not.

The girl on the playa is also not merely slutty or a princess, she is a fully formed human being. The picture conspires with the viewer to reduce her to a pair of breasts in a small costume.

The point is that we reduce pictures, especially pictures of people, absurdly. The complex gestalt that is a human being, represented in vastly simplified (but still complex) form on a piece of paper, on a screen, we reduce further to a single word or phrase. Or, in these degenerate times, the glyph +1.

I view this as a sort of collapsing of state. We take in the picture, with its myriad details which speak to us, which suggest, this or that, and we combine that with our own experience, our own prejudices and opinions, and we collapse the the whole thing to a short pithy reaction: Bully.

Of course we can choose to spend more time with a picture and get more out of it, but mostly people do not. If you're striving to connect, using a picture, you've kind of got one shot at it.

It is tempting to, and people do it all the time, to suggest that everyone will collapse a picture to a different pithy reaction, because "it's all subjective." This is wrong. For starters, there simply are not that many pithy reactions available, we have to share. Secondly, many fewer reactions will get widely deployed than even that because people are pretty similar to one another.

The picture of Nancy Pelosi clapping at Donald Trump will tend to collapse to one of a short list of reactions, depending on whether you recognize the players and if you do where you sit on the political spectrum. Similarly the Burning Man Girl photograph will collapse in a handful of different ways, depending on your sexual preferences and a handful of other details about you.

It is this collapsing, this reduction, that we need to understand if we wish to reach people. We need, I think, to understand far more nuance and detail of our pictures (or anyone's pictures.) If we understand the details, if we see the cues and hints clearly, we can more reliably speculate about how this person or that person will tend to collapse the picture to a glib reaction.

The common refrain, when people fail to react in the right way, is simply that these viewers are "uneducated." The usual discussion goes something like this:

A photographer shows off some weird portrait which anyone can see that a normal viewer will "collapse" in a particular way. The photographer may or may not complain that people don't like the picture. Other photographers will coo about the hair light or some goddamned thing, and will explain that the viewers are just uneducated, and do not see the awesomeness of the hair light.

The photographers are collapsing the picture to a glib description: lighting is great!

Non-photographers are collapsing the picture to a different glib description: subject looks like he's farting.

As photographers, we need to do better than that. We need to see the bow tie, the waistcoat, the girl's rings, the hair light, and the expression on the subject's face, all at once. We need to understand the significance of each of these details, and make a decent guess at how this viewer or that will read them. From that follows how this viewer or that will collapse the picture to a simple understanding. I could probably go on about semiotics at length here, if I knew anything about semiotics.

This is completely different from what internet forums do, from what Reading The Pictures does, and from what the vast majority of self-styled commentators do. These people all choose to give us their collapsed take on the picture, and maybe unpick a little where that take came from.

They've got snake by the wrong end entirely. I don't care what Michael Shaw's hot take on some political picture is, because I already know what it is. I can predict, with depressing ease, how he is going to collapse any picture he sees. What I am interested in is what the details are in the picture that carry various meanings are, and how they might collapse this way, or that way, how various people will see the photo.

What details do you see in there, and what kinds of meaning do you think they carry? How would that affect the way a viewer might read the picture?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Burning Man

This is a little exercise in trying to sort out how other people might look at a picture. A little exercise in stepping into the shoes of others to imagine how they might read a photograph. Also, a little fun with Burning Man.

We all know about Burning Man, right? Big Art Thing in the Nevada desert, they build a big wooden sculpture of a man and burn it down at the end and everyone goes home.

There's a lot going on out there, I guess. There are 70,000 stories at Burning Man, these days. What we see out here in the real world, though, is a decidedly partial view. It is a highly visual take on the thing, which is itself increasingly a visual thing. While there may be whole subcultures for whom radical self-expression is singing opera, that's not photograph-able particularly, so we don't see it. Also, I doubt that it exists as a significant feature.

Over the last decade, Burning Man has become more and more visual, it's been more and more about the pictures, the pictures one can perform for, the pictures one can take. In the last few years, reliable internet and cellular data has become a feature, and to nobody's surprise a massive influx on social media influencers have shown up. Product placement is apparently A Thing at the supposedly de-commodified Burning Man event, and so on. Naturally, the organizers are fighting back in a variety of ways, definitely not including killing off internet access.

Ok, so what. The dominant visual coming out of Burning Man is the hot young woman dancing or doing yoga in the desert. In second place, enormous shitty art that looks pretty much the same year to year, which appears to be essentially jungle gyms suitable for hot young women to drape themselves over.

A little digging around reveals that this is not an entirely accurate description of Burning Man's actual visuals. Turns out there are chubby people, there are men, and there are a few non-white people lurking around the place. Not, I guess, a lot, but some. If you inspect the backgrounds of the pictures of hot young women, you can see some of these people riding bicycles in the distance, sometimes.

The beautiful young woman at Burning Man is an archetype. Let us consider the girl first, and then the photograph of her (the photograph is also an archetype, and is arguably The Brand of Burning Man).

The girl wears effectively a uniform. There are likely to be wings, there is likely to be glitter, there is likely to be some sort of headdress. There will be very little fabric. She will wear shoes, but often very little else. Sunglasses or chic goggles. It is a combination of minimum practical covering, and set of faintly outré accessories, all of which look much the same from this girl to that girl. She is extremely fit, she probably does a good deal of yoga (and in the picture she is often in a yoga pose) or dances.

In her real life, she probably finds herself passed over for better jobs, she probably finds it difficult to get people to listen to her in meetings, and so on. This is not her fault, it is simply the way it is for most women today, and especially for young attractive women. Professionally, she gets the short end of the stick more often than is strictly fair.

On the playa, in her uniform, she joins a privileged class. Everyone looks at her (at any rate, everyone photographs her, and very little else) and attends to her presence. In the gifting economy of Burning Man, she likely receives rather more gifts than do plump middle aged men. She gets to ride in the cool art cars, she gets to swing in the cool swing, and so on. Here, she is a sort of princess. If she is even slightly aware, she knows that she is the embodiment of Burning Man's image, she is what people expect when they attend the event.

Looking at her picture, we can know only a few things about her. She is pulled out of her usual context, she dressed and in all other ways placed into the role of an archetype, and therefore we can only know of her what we know or can guess about the archetype. She is young, she is fit, she is a little bit vain, she is in that moment a kind of princess, a sort of ruling peacock in a temporary city of 70,000. Her pose reveals that she has practiced posing.

We know also, and this distinguishes her from fashion models, porn stars, pretty girls taking selfies at home, and all the other pictures of beautiful young women: she will be at Burning Man next year, and if not actually her, a pack of indistinguishable substitutes. We know when and where to find her. For a few thousand dollars, we can be there too.

This, to me, seems to give her an almost unique kind of availability.

But what about the picture of her? Any one of the 100s of 1000s of such pictures will do.

Looking at the picture, men for the most part will, how to put this delicately, want to fuck her. They may transmute this desire in the interest of practicality, or because they are priests, or for any number of reasons, in to something else. I want to look at her, or I want to talk to her, or She is a harlot and shall burn, or any number of other things. The girl and the picture conspire to present her has a sexual object, and as after a fashion available. You could at any rate go and look at her, or a suitable substitute of her, and maybe if you hit the gym hard for the next year...

What do women think of the picture? Well, for the most part they know what men think of the picture, and this will surely color their understanding.

We could do worse at this point that to go watch John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" Episode 2, starting about 14 minutes in when a somewhat rambling conversation occurs among a group of women regarding the painted nude. They talk about the idea of availability, and of the ways women judge themselves and other women.

Most people, I think, but perhaps women more than men, will recognize her as an essentially sexual object, and will recognize that, on the playa, she is using her sexual power to seize a position, a role, within a privileged class. I imagine that men will see this less clearly, because their vision is perhaps a little hazed. At any rate, it took me a while to recognize that the girl in the picture is in a sense a princess, a ruling-class peacock, and I have my suspicion that this will be intuitively obvious to many women.

Some women will aspire to be that girl, perhaps most will in some way (who does not want to rule, after all?) Some women, a few thousand of them, are that girl. Others, I suppose, will envy her, despise her, judge her. Some will admire her without aspiring to be her.

The basis, though, for their judgement and reaction will be their recognition of this girl as, however briefly, a member of the playa's ruling class. Their reaction will depend, at least to a good extent, on how they feel about the act of using sexuality to seize power in this way.

Men, from whom the power is seized, will generally be in favor. If they were not, they wouldn't be ceding their power and the whole gambit, which manifestly works very well, would not work. Women, watching the action, will have a variety of reactions.

(all this, of course, in extremely broad strokes, individual mileage may and without doubt will vary, etcetera and so forth)

ETA: It occurs to me that I find myself curiously neutral on all this. I do not intend to "slut shame" these young women, I do not intend to denigrate them for using their sexuality to obtain power. I can find nothing either particularly good or bad about this, and as far as I can tell everyone is enjoying themselves. Certainly the portly middle-aged men do not get to ride in the cool swing, but that has nothing to do with the scantily clad young women, it has to do with the (hypothetical) douchey young men who control access to the (hypothetical) swing.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Through the Eyes of Others

Camera Lucida is, essentially, one man's investigation into how he, personally, reacts to photographs. I've been noodling on how people seem to mainly be interested in offering their own, personal, hot takes on pictures. We see it in forums "well to me this picture..." and we see it in Serious Academic places like Reading The Pictures where Michael Shaw offers essentially the same thing. We see it on twitter, where people share photographs with the assumption that You (all of you) will react in precisely the same way the tweeter did.

As a self-styled critic and would-be propagandist, I spend a lot of time speculating, contrariwise, about what other people might see in a picture.

Consider this one, that made the rounds recently.

This is Nancy Pelosi, who is politically the leader of the Democratic Party, clapping for Donald Trump's speech. I have no way of knowing Pelosi's heart, or even if she has one, but she certainly appears to be essentially sneering at him in this photograph.

This has been widely re-tweeted and so on, with a side-helping of "hurr, hurr, lookit Nancy dunking on Donald! yay!" by leftist twitter, and by Reading The Pictures, and every other leftie member of the would-be Academy.

I imagine there are a few other possible reactions. Certainly the MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporter will see "pinched-faced bitch" and offer up some choice suggestions.

What I see is a pair of wealthy oligarchs who have confused sneering at one another in the halls of government with actual governance.

The Donor Class, who certainly want to be seen as Very Woke because it distracts from the question of "where'd you get all that money" see this as a marvelous bit of theater. Their side is dunking on the bad guys, and twitter loves it! And maybe they love it too!

The question, of course, is what voters see in it. My guess is that the average middle of the road voter who's working 3 jobs and barely making it is going to lean more toward the "two oligarchs who probably both ought to be loaded into a tumbril" reading, although they might be too busy to think much about it.

Here's another visual from the same event:

This was another, more explicit, bit of political theater. A large cadre of the female Democrats in congress dressed in white and sat together to listen to Trump's speech, the white referring to the suffragette movement that led to women's voting rights. There is, of course, the same left/right divide in reactions.

What I see, and what I speculate the average voter sees, is a visually powerful reminder that our elected officials are the kind of people who can go out and drop $1000 on a suit of clothes they intend to wear for 2 hours. It is not a secret that we are led, primarily, by the wealthy, and this particular visual does many things other than forcefully remind us of this. I think the suffragettes were great, and that women's voting rights are great. I approve of a nod to same, especially as a kind of rebuke to Trump.

And yet, I look at the sea of white and I am forcefully reminded that these people are not like me. And they are even less like the people in America who are further down the economic ladder than I -- which is to say, most of them.

This is, I think, an essential problem with The Left as construed in the modern west. They tend to view things through a very personal lens, they conflate their own reactions with universal reactions. This is, I think, an intellectual consequence of post-modernism, of structuralism, of these generally pervasive ideas that infest the Academy. Identity Politics in its current form is also a consequence or perhaps merely a relative, as it elevates the personal "lived experience" over all, and in doing so denies the possibility of empathy.

I cannot, and do not presume to, draw a straight line from Derrida to the habit in internet forums of, in the first place offering up only personal reactions, and in the second place slamming people who attempt to offer up more with a loud cry of "Art is all subjective!" There may be no straight line. I rather think there is at any rate a long and crooked one, however. Both belong to the cult of subjectivity, of the dominance of the personal, of the denial of empathy, of the denial of the possibility of understanding across a divide.

From Barthes to the internet forum, we are reduced to the notion that each of us is the ultimate and only authority on ourselves, and completely ignorant outside of that. Smuggled in there is the idea that I am actually a universal authority but that you know only about yourself (for, weirdly, all possible values of I and of you.)

There is in all these ideas a denial of external, objective, truth. The author has no authority, nobody has any authority. We are reduced to cogito, ergo sum and at some point we have managed to drop the first word even of that. If all investigation, research, search for meaning is to be performed by essentially isolated egos, things get pretty damned weird.

Idiots like Michael Shaw, Roland Barthes, Daniel Blight, seem to think that they can only really talk about themselves. They believe in themselves, not only as the only subject they are qualified to talk about, but also themselves as an authoritative model for all right-thinking humans. Their explanation for people who disagree with them is that those people are brainwashed or stupid or, something.

This makes, to be blunt, communication of any meaningful sort impossible. You cannot communicate (and especially you cannot make propaganda) that works if you deny empathy, if you refuse to even attempt to see how others might see a picture, or read an essay, or hear a song lyric. Without empathy, you can communicate only with people who are pretty much like you, and then only by repeating signs which stand in for shared concepts.

From the point of view of the Donor Class and the Political Consultant this is great. Your job becomes simply one of mouthing these signs and either writing or cashing checks, depending on which side you're on. There's plenty of money in a political echo chamber (presumably because the echo chambers without any money captured in them simply fade away) but there's very little good government.

It is worth noting, perhaps, that the Right seems to be less informed by the Academy and their silly po-mo ideas. The Right is also a lot better at propaganda. Weirdly enough, it appears that The Right has not jettisoned empathy at all, but rather embraced it. They're quite good at predicting how people will read a visual, or a slogan, or a song lyric.

Without empathy, there is no communication. Without communication there is no society. By ceding the very ability to communicate to The Right, we define the future of our society.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

What about Punctum, Then?

I occasionally rail against the philosopher and critic Roland Barthes, who wrote an oft cited but curiously uninfluential book called Camera Lucida. As noted wisely over on Leicaphilia, this is a book which everyone mentions, but nobody has actually read. It's not an easy book to read, being repetitive and boring, and yet somehow also dense. I had to look up at least a dozen words in my recent reading of it, which is a practically unprecedented amount of dictionary work. Further, he uses terms of art that are rather harder to pin down - I suspect that "field" means something to Barthes which I am unable to completely sort out.

Anyways, it's not the worst philosophical blather, but it's not a walk in the park either.

In it, Barthes introduces the ideas of studium and punctum as, somehow, properties of photographs. These are the concepts everyone wants to cite, although they never have much idea what they mean and generally get it wrong. This is, by the way, how you know they have not read the book. Wikipedia has the more or less standard, wrong, definition up right now. If they say something about "wounding detail" you know they've not really read the book.

So, let's see what punctum actually is. Studium by the way, is just the normal stuff in a photograph. In fact, we will learn that it's everything in a photograph. Shhh, don't tell.

To get anywhere, it turns out, you have to understand the "blind field" idea discussed in Chapter 23, because this is used in the only thing I can detect as a useful, operational, definition of punctum. Barthes lifts this idea from cinema, (he says as much) and it is essentially the idea of "trame" which I have written about. It means the life or existence of things in the picture outside of the frame of the picture, before and after the photograph was taken. It is the extension of the photographed into the world outside the photograph, broadly.

Barthes says in Chapter 23 that the punctum creates the blind field. A photograph without punctum has no blind field, with it, it does. Now, Barthes is not an idiot. He knows intellectually that the sitter lived before and after the portrait. He is speaking here through his framework of phenomenolgy and furthermore his personal experience of photographs. What he means, as nearly as I can determine, is that he feels this reality of life and existence in a different and more potent way. He is able to believe in it, in a more-than-intellectual way. He refers to it as a "doubling of vision." Without punctum he sees only the things in the picture, and can only grasp their reality intellectually. In the presence of punctum, he grasps, ectatically, emotionally, that reality, that fully realized existence.

So, that is the effect of punctum, an essentially ecstatic reaction, which makes real the things in the photograph. Note that Barthes divides his reactions to pictures into two very distinct kinds, apparently instantly recognizable. The first is the "normal" reaction, of seeing the photo, recognizing the things in it, and intellectually deducing things, thinking about them, and so on (cf. studium.) The second reaction is pure, and apparently powerful, emotion and ecstasy, a completely non-intellectual spasm incapable of being rendered in to words (cf. punctum.)

Ok, so what is punctum, beyond "whatever produces this effect?" The answer is, actually, not much. Or conversely, a lot of things. It is not a little cute surprise tucked into the corner of the frame (Chapter 14). It is not intentional (or at least Barthes feels that it probably cannot be intentional), it is something that the photographer could not avoid rather than something the photographer actively intended to place in the picture (Chapter 20). The punctum is not "coded" (Chapter 22), you cannot name it. It is not "the pathos of her blouse" although it may be located in her blouse. "Very often the punctum is a detail" (Chapter 19) -- which implies that it is not always a detail. When it is a detail, Barthes sometimes finds that it moves to some other detail, and he also gives us examples in which he cannot locate the punctum he feels. (Remember that shit about "the wounding detail"- um, nope, but thank you for playing.)

Punctum may or may not reside in some detail, but it is not some detail you stick into a picture. You probably can't "stick it in" to a picture at all. It is not something the photographer adds, it is not nameable. It has, sometimes, a locus, but it is not really that locus. It is simply a property of the picture.

Put this together. Whatever punctum is, it is that which makes the picture real for Barthes. It might be a detail, it might be an overall effect. It is elusive, although apparently the effect is not. The fact that it is, in Barthes eyes, unintentional, something the photographer could not avoid, is useful here. Because it was something unavoidable, it speaks to the reality of the photograph. Wherever punctum resides, it is distinctly not artifice, nor within artifice. It functions to reify the picture, by its own reality, by its lack of artifice. Barthes has, by the way, a somewhat touching naivete about what is and is not artifice.

Having established as best we can what punctum means, and what it is, let's revisit the way Barthes reacts to photographs.

Barthes presents this as a personal investigation. He's starting from himself, and developing a theory of Photography based on what he finds inside his own mind (this is explicit in the first chapters of the book.) What he finds is two radically different reactions, in himself. While everyone talks about studium and punctum they never seem to admit that their reactions fall into these two distinct categories. Nobody ever seems to say "ah, yes, I react ecstatically to the doubling of vision" they either just mumble the words before moving on, or if you're lucky, they point to something that definitely isn't punctum ("the excitement on the cyclist's face, placed carefully by the photographer at the edge of the frame, is the punctum, for me" or similar).

I conclude that this bifurcation of reactions is exclusive to Barthes. In fact, it is clear from the text that Barthes is working himself up into a somewhat fraught emotional state. His mother has just died, and he's trying to figure out something. Jedi-like, he reaches out with his feelings, he digs deep into his phenomenological heart seeking his own intense experience, looking for something that will explain photography. Like a child brooding on some trivial injustice, he eventually reaches a state of hysteria and finds his intense reaction.

This reaction, alas, is entirely manufactured.

The brutal reality is that there is no such thing as punctum, it is a figment of Barthes investigation into his own, supremely weird, interior consciousness, coupled to mourning his recently deceased mother (and he is maybe the ultimate expression of a Mama's boy), and his own need to explain photography to himself (and, tediously, to the rest of us).

This is not to say that there is no emotional reaction to photographs. Of course there is. Much of what Barthes has to say is not wrong. It is the notion that there are two radically distinct possible ways to react that is simply silly, and it is in this radical distinction that the definition of punctum lies. No radical distinction, no punctum.

This, furthermore, explains why the theory of studium and punctum have led to nowhere. Well, there are at least two reasons. The first one, though, is that nobody can be bothered to work out what punctum actually is, and when they do, it makes no sense. You cannot extend or build upon an idea that you cannot first make some kind of sense of.

The second reason is political. Barthes says at one point (Chapter 36) "the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation" which means, from Barthes' viewpoint, the power of the photograph to reify, to show us what was really there is more important than the power of the photograph to communicate about what was there. This is anathema to the very people who like to cite Barthes. The only thing they want a photograph to do is to communicate, to reveal the flaws of the photographer, the plight of the subject, and so on. The only thing a photograph does is represent.

The only part of the photograph that matters, to the modern theorist, is the studium, that cluster of nameable, mentionable, reducible, discussable things. The idea that there is anything in a photograph that is ecstatic, unnameable, is anathema. The idea that the simple testimony of that-has-been which a photograph brings - which Barthes argues successfully is the only thing a photograph brings, is anathema. From our position here in 2019, we can readily view Barthes' book as a polemic against the very idea that "the politics of representation" is an important idea for understanding photography.

Here I find myself surprised to be aligned with Barthes. While his punctum is a stupid fantasy, the idea of the photograph as primarily, most importantly, an index which may "create the blind field" is pretty much exactly my position.

Given that literally the entire point of Camera Lucida is a set of ideas that are absolute anathema to the Academy, to the likes of Jörg Colberg, to Daniel Blight, to the editors of 1000words.com, and all their little friends in various art schools, it becomes something of a mystery as to why they're constantly citing the book.

Well, not really much of a mystery, they have no idea what the book says.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

New Thing

My absurd Alley project has reached what I hope is its final form. I am pretty happy with it, although of course it is not perfect. As usual, you can bash the Preview and get a pretty good look at what's inside. I think I have finally shrunk my fonts enough for print, but that does make them rather small online.

Note the use of "progressive design" which indicates, well, you get to decide what it means.

Alley: Rogue Photo 2

This is blurb's magazine, the cheap glossy paper, and good lord it looks stunning. You can't really write on it, so it's badly suited for handwork. In fact, a darkly inked section will tend to act a bit like carbon paper, transferring ink to a facing page if you write on the back. I am keeping track of whether it ever dries/cures out of this state, or if it's permanent.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Importance of Visuals

It is received wisdom, well understood, that the astronaut, shot into space and seeing the earth whole for the first time, will be moved to speak heroic words of unity and beauty.

"It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small."
-- Neil Armstrong

"The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me -- a small disk, 240,000 miles away. . . . Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don't show from that distance."
-- Frank Borman

and so on.

The conceit is that seeing the earth, whole, as it were, generates this epiphany. Photographs from space are brought back, paired with these quotes, intending to elicit the same response from those of us unlucky enough, or lucky enough, not to have been shot into space.

Blue Marble, 1972, Apollo 17.

Earthrise, 1968, William Anders. Apollo 8.

Galen Rowell called Earthrise, if wikipedia is to be believed, "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken," and author Robert Poole claims it as the spiritual nascence of the environmental movement, saying “it is possible to see that Earthrise marked the tipping point, the moment when the sense of the space age flipped from what it meant for space to what it means for Earth.” The first claim is absurd, Silent Spring was published 4 years earlier, but hold on to the quotation.

Moving onwards, here are a couple other quotations:

"Up here, you wonder why we're so different, when the land is the same. You think: we're all children of the same mother planet, who says we're different?"

"I have seen the earth ... turning below me like a fantastic ball, the seas like blue glass in the sun or lashed into grey storm-peaks ... and the land green with life ... and the cities of the world sparkling ... and the people."
-- Reverdy McMillen

Perhaps you are wondering, slightly, who the hell Reverdy McMillen is, and you would be, it turns out, quite justified. Rev McMillen is a fictional character, the first man to orbit the earth, in a short story called "The Cave of Night." I am going to, shortly, spoil that story, so if you're interested you should go find a copy now and read it. We're well past any reasonable expectations, though, the story was published in 1955. Two years before humanity would launch anything at all in to orbit, six before a human would orbit even once.

So, for starters, we see that the idea of the heroic epiphany predates, by quite a lot, the actual heroic epiphany. Alan Shepherd, Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, William Anders, perhaps none of them read James Gunn's story, but they sure as hell knew and worked with people who had. Gunn may not have (probably didn't?) even originate the idea, these things just sort of turn up after all.

The point is, the idea had been in play since at least 1955 that seeing the earth all-at-once from space was supposed to produce these visions of unity, and the fragility of life, of the special nature of the planet. These guys being shot into space cannot possibly have escaped these ideas. We have no real way of knowing how much scripting of these quotes occurred, but certainly the answer is "more than none."

Scripted or no these guys knew beforehand what emotional response was expected to happen when they saw the planet whole.

Here comes the spoiler. It gets better, it turns out.

Even inside James Gunn's story these quotes are not spontaneous, they are scripted. A recording, in fact. There is no man in space, there wasn't enough money. The whole thing is a setup to pry loose money for a real manned mission to rescue the supposedly stranded lone astronaut. The implication is that the dramatic failure to rescue the fellow does indeed lead to unity, to all manner of good things (not least: tons of money for manned space exploration).

So, not only so we have the idea of that this visual should produce an epiphany appearing in 1955, but we have the idea that also, quoting these epiphanies is great marketing. If this did not become NASA's playbook, I cannot imagine why not. In fact, it clearly was NASA's playbook, we just don't know whether they came up with it themselves, or whether James Gunn invented it.

Ok, so what about the visuals? I promised something about the importance of visuals, after all.

Well, here we see played out one more time this theme: visuals, it turns out, follow the idea at least as often as they lead it. The notion that it was the visuals that turned the tide of public opinion leading to the end of the US involvement in Vietnam turns out to be not quite true, and we see the same sort of result here.

The visuals were no doubt emotion-producing, but the epiphany and the basic nature of the heroic quotations was worked out well in advance.

The Earthrise and Blue Marble photo certainly support the sentiments that we ascribe to them, but to suppose that they in any way are the origin of them is false. The sentiment arises first, and the visual is found to support it.

Is it propaganda? Marketing? Or simply the way people work?

I suppose it's all three, isn't it?

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Seeing Order in Chaos

Small children do not know the difference between a scribble and a letter. Later, they learn this, but they still struggle with the difference between a word and a random collection of letters. And so on, the difference between random words and sentence is learned. At this point, even in literate society, people start to drop off. Most people can distinguish, consciously, between a coherent paragraph and a random collection of sentences, although fewer can write one.

The difference between a random jumble of paragraphs, and a coherent essay or argument is something that eludes even some academics. Daniel C. Blight, who has graced this pages from time to time, might serve as an example here.

Always, I think, more people can distinguish these things consciously than can write them, and more people distinguish at some unconscious level than do consciously. But at around the level of an essay, say 1000 words upwards, people often more or less stop reading and start skimming, peeling out keywords and phrases, guessing at the ideas, and reacting to those. Overall structure ceases to matter as much, in our modern social media times.

I dare say it goes on from there, at least notionally. While I think the human mind generally taps out around here, it is possible that there are higher-order structures which a greater intelligence than ours might consider obvious, shaking their heads sadly at poor, limited, homo sapiens who generally cannot tell the difference between a properly constructed grozbloo and just a random collection of books.

Anyways. I was reading something, never mind what, the other day and thinking the basic problem here is that the author cannot tell the difference between an essay and a collection of vaguely related paragraphs.

And then a shiver ran down my spine. What if I am the guy who can't tell the difference between a random jumble of shitty photographs and a properly structured photo essay?

Of course, in a panic, I immediately set about proving to myself that I could, and do, and am also handsome and charming to boot.

But I'm still a little panicked. But anyways let's think about this a little.

I feel confident about my writing. Not everything I actually write is particularly coherent, but in the first place I do ok, and in the second place I can at any rate tell the difference between random jumbles of noise, and coherent blocks of writing. Why? Whence this confidence?

The first place it comes from is simply that I differentiate. I judge this block of 2000 words to be gibberish, and that one to be a sound argument. Obviously I am perceiving something or other, although we might suspect that maybe I'm not seeing what I think I am seeing.

The second wellspring of my confidence is that, from time to time, people tell me that something I have written is coherent and well written. That's always nice. But then again, so few people actually read anything, maybe they're just skimming it and signaling agreement with my politics.

The third source is maybe my education. I do have a couple of degrees in, basically, constructing sound arguments. From, I admit, rather a long time ago, and anyways isn't that just an appeal to authority?

But there it is, anyways. There is my perhaps tenuous justification -- to myself -- for believing that I can fairly reliably distinguish written gibberish from a well written essay.

Does this translate to photographs? God knows my tastes are catholic, I am willing to judge some pretty random assemblages of shit to be Good Work. There's also the problem that I really have trouble declaring any individual picture Bad, it's always "well, maybe in the right context?" All that is consistent with Molitor just can't tell the difference between scribbles and letters, the idiot.

Tentatively, I have concluded that I do know what the hell I am about, though (surprised? of course I would arrive at this conclusion, no?).

I do judge, though I am pretty open minded. There is shit out there, and I can at any rate dredge up some words to tell you what is shitty about it. There is also excellence, and ditto. I do judge individual photos, as well. I can tell the difference between a "good image [sic]" and a "poor image [sic]" -- I just don't care, and I don't think the differences are that important.

There's my moment of doubt for the week!

Thank goodness I was mostly able to talk myself out of it.