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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.


  1. First off, I think you're not well Andrew. You just used the word "image" to say "photograph" or "picture"... That's not a good sign.

    Slightly more seriously, at the end you conclude "I can tell the difference between a 'good image' and a 'poor image' -- I just don't care, and I don't think the differences are that important." Your preference for photo essays, and other kinds of "properly structured" groups of photos, is clear. Are you actually arguing here that a "properly structured" group of shitty photos can be a "good" photo essay?

    I'm on board with the idea that a poorly structured collection of "excellent" photos does not a good photo essay make. But I'm struggling to imagine a compelling photo essay comprised of "properly structured" but bad pictures. Maybe in photojournalism, where perhaps the story is so compelling or amazing that the quality of the photos doesn't matter. But that seems a really low bar.

    1. Oh god, I did say "image!" Tomorrow, I shall flagellate myself at 4am, and don the hair shirt for the rest of the day. I must be rattled, indeed!

      I do indeed think that the right collection of shitty pictures, given to your rightly, might well turn into something good. I offer to Twentysix Gasoline Stations and this guy:


      as evidence of same. You may disagree without elicting a word of protest from me, however.

    2. I'm trying to avoid using emoticons because, well, dorky, but I think you got the spirit of the jest regardless even though I had to rely on old school punctuation marks. FYI, you can get a great deal on hair shirts on Amazon; sometimes they come with a free flail.

      Your post really did send me down a bit of a rabbit hole. Here's a serious response to some serious questions. Bear with me. I had to spread this response over two posts because of the character limit.

      We can all think of photographs that only matter because of the content. If I produce a verifiable photo essay of a day in the life of a sasquatch family, nobody is going to care about the "excellence" of any of the pictures. The subject provides 100% of the value proposition. In fact, if the composition was stunning and the lighting ethereal and the.... blah blah, it still wouldn't matter. Real Live Sasquatch Family dominates everything else.

      Now one could argue that there's nothing new here, that photography has always had this split personality: on one side we have capital A Art, and on the other we have documentary, vernacular, etc. On the Art side the conventional wisdom is that "excellence" matters, and that individual photos matter. On the other side, Real Live Sasquatch Family (or picture of Grandma at her last birthday, or Significant Political Event, or...) matters more than the "excellence" of the photo.
      But if I understand your argument, then you're also saying that over on the Art side, "photographic excellence" is neither necessary nor sufficient. It doesn't particular matter one way or the other.

      There are a lot of bad boring photos on the Art side (individually, and in groups), so you're obviously not wrong in a general sort of way. But I can't help but think that accepting or even embracing this undermines the entire photographic enterprise. I'm trying to imagine applying this "whole is larger than the sum of the parts" argument to other art forms.
      - A new album where individually each track is painfully bad, but somehow the album is important.
      - A collection of short stories, each badly writtren, but collectively a tour de force.
      - A wall full of amateurish, gloppy paintings that together form a powerful statement.

      I could see these three bad art examples working if the art itself didn't matter relative to some larger backstory. So maybe the album is significant because it's the last work of a faded genius who committed suicide at 27; the short stories are all written by children who survived a terrorist attack; and the paintings are the work of people forced into a mental asylum against their will. In each of these three cases, the value proposition has little or nothing to do with the actual work (the thing that was created). It comes almost entirely from the story behind the thing. Importantly, nobody would listen to the bad album, read the badly written stories, or go to see the amateurish paintings if not for the backstory. As a rule, we listen to music, read stories, and look at paintings we think are "good" (relative to our tastes of course...).

    3. Why is it different for photographs? Sure, in exceptional cases, the photos can be bad and we'll still devour them (Real Live Sasquatch Family again). But if I understand your argument correctly, you seem to be saying that what I view as the exception should be the rule. That takes us to a place where (a) the photograph only matters to the extent that it carries a story or idea that matters; and (b) the impact of the story or idea doesn't need the photograph to be any good.

      I already agree with (a) a lot of the time, but in an expansive way. I can value a photograph entirely for the impact it has on me, even if I can't see the idea the photographer is trying to express, or see a different one, or she wasn't even trying to express any idea. In the same way, I can like a story or a piece of music for my own reasons. I think this is entirely consistent with what you were arguing in your previous posts. So that's fine. But it's (b) that is troubling me in the context of Art (not photojournalism, etc.). If the idea or story doesn't need the photo to be any good, then why make any effort at all to think about what "good" is in photography? You might as well give it as much thought as the quality of your typing. For me, the (b) argument takes us to po-mo hell. Hit the rock with a hammer: you're a sculptor. Throw some paint on the easel: you're a painter. Press the shutter button: you're a photographer. As long as the "painting" represents the enui of the young, the "sculpture" is a commentary on capitalism, and the "photograph" is a critique of suburban sprawl, then it's Art and it doesn't matter if it sucks as a thing. I can't accept that for sculpture, and I don't think we should accept it for photographs.

    4. I have to say that the "important album of wilfully terrible tracks" actually has some precedent! "Metal Machine Music" is the example that leaps to mind, and I think there are others.

      Photographs are (maybe uniquely?) suited to the whole-greater-than-the-sum enterprise because photos can be extremely light. I don't need to sit through 64 minutes of guitar feedback to experience a photographic sequence, nor do I need to read badly written text. I can literally glance, and glance again.

      A photograph can be more like a single note in a song, a single keystroke in a short story, a single hammer blow. Does it matter if the sculptor was clumsy, that each chisel mark is pitted and grotesque, if the whole sculpture is sublime?

  2. Photographers are easily seduced by the perceived (by them) 'power of the sequence', perhaps because it feels (to them) like a scaffold/outline/storyboard for a bigger, more significant statement that viewers ought to be able to grasp and appreciate because ... well, just because.

    It could be one or more of those things but almost invariably, outside the context of journalism (where it may be augmented by a text), it's not.

    Instead, it's several (or even many) photographs that collectively are meaningless, except to the author who projects his/her meaning on them, perhaps from memory of why/where they were taken, or through sheer egotism, much as parents are proud of their kids because they exist. Look what I made!

    But let's look at a medium where sequences of images really matter -- moving pictures (cinema). The best cinema tells a compelling story, with compelling images plus sound, dialog, acting, editing and whatnot -- all those things photographic sequences must lack. There's nothing random or idiosyncratic about them, because there's a clear intention at work.

    Good cinema requires good cinematographers, full stop. Every shot is considered, and the dross is left on the cutting room floor.

    Let's be very clear: still photography is not cinema. Not in a book, not in a slide show. The quality of the individual shot is paramount in conveying photographic meaning.

    There is tremendous scope in defining quality in photography, it isn't immutable, it shifts and changes with technology and the mentality and knowledge of both photographers and audience -- that's the good news.

    1. Well, that's a pretty iconoclastic view.

      There are some pretty large differences between a photographic sequence and a movie, although I suppose it's fair to suggest that the sequence does land *somewhere* between the single photograph and the moving picture.