Wednesday, March 27, 2019

On "gaze": A coda

If you want to get at, easily and simply, what my point is in the previous essay, look at these two things:

Scarlett Coten

(any of it, I think, but Photographs -> Mectoub is a good starting point). Compare with the cited book from the previous:

Showcaller (Not Safe For Work Even Slightly)

The former is a, to my eye, an essentially positive force, and is the clearest expression of anything I recognize as a "female gaze" as I have seen. Not all women will find pleasure, comfort, delight in endless pictures of good looking and yet somehow gentled men, but it's obviously going to appeal to a lot of women. Maybe, as a man, I am getting it all wrong, I suppose, but I don't think so. This work appeals to me, in a way, but it's not ultimately for me. It might be about me.

This is work that I feel is shaped for the female viewer.

The latter is, again to my eye, an essentially negative force. Chetrit strikes me as railing against something, trying to goad the viewer, and at the same time trying for positive reviews from heterosexual white men. Chetrit strikes me as wanting to fight me, demanding that I look at her, and simultaneously angry that I do. The work is definitely aimed at me, but not in a particularly healthy way.

I don't think Showcaller is particularly shaped for women's pleasure, enjoyment, comfort.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

On "gaze"

As long time readers know, I am somewhat fascinated by the idea of "female gaze" and what it might possibly mean, other than "anything except that nasty male gaze" and so I thought about it a bit and decided I needed to read the original "male gaze" essay. This is Laura Mulvey's paper "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." I read these things so you don't have to. This one is not horribly dense, it's short and fairly readable. She does use the word like as a noun a lot, which I had to sort out in a couple of sentences.

This paper is a mess, and it is no accident that contemporary discussions of male gaze tend to elide vast amounts of the material in the paper. It's a mashup of Freudian theory and second-wave radical feminism, and is exactly the kind of garbage you would expect from that combination. Penises are jumping out to scare you on every page, everyone is motivated solely by their penis, their lack of penis, or their fear of losing their penis. The word castration appears on virtually every page -- not an exaggeration.

A short sample:

the function of woman in forming the patriarchal unconscious is two-fold: she first symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis and second thereby raises her child into the symbolic.

Freud is ludicrous and more or less entirely discredited. Second wave feminism's attitudes towards sex are, while nothing I particularly object to, no longer a particularly dominant set of ideas and for pretty good reasons.

I am not going to go full-on fruit of a poisoned tree here, but the tree from which this particular fruit falls is pretty spectacularly shitty. That said, it's not all wrong. What is going on in this paper is that Mulvey has observed a real thing in cinema (sensible), and wants to explain it in terms of penises (idiotic).

The thing that Mulvey has observed, and which she is interested in, is the male-centric/patriachal aspects of ways these things interact: the movie-watcher looking at the things, people, events in the movie; the people in the movie looking at those same things; the narrative and narrative structure of the film; and finally the way the film is shot, how it looks.

She brings out Hitchcock as as important source of examples, which feels a bit like arguing All men are basically cannibals, let us examine Jeffrey Dahmer... but still, I don't think she's wrong. Hitchcock is just a bit egregious.

What Mulvey sees in movies and their functioning is, once we have cleared away all the penises, this: we watch the movie, and identify (to some degree or another) with the male protagonist. The protagonist admires the girl, and so do we (the cinematographer makes a point of lingering on her legs, her eyes, and so on). At the same time, the protagonist's actions (per the script) drive the narrative forward until the conclusion, when the protagonist gets the girl; by proxy we drive the action, solve the problem, and get the girl.

Ok, so that's a simplistic prototype, and most movies will mess with one or more elements of that structure, but in large strokes it ain't wrong.

Translating this into the land of photographs is obviously going to be a bit of a problem, since there may or may not be a protagonist, a girl, or a narrative. At best, there will be fragments that resemble this bit or that bit. Perhaps we will see a notional protagonist admiring a girl, and admire her by proxy. Perhaps it's just a girl, and we admire her ourselves and/or imagine a protagonist to admire her also. And so on.

Mulvey notes explicitly that this material only works for film, so we know we have some spadework to do if we're to make a go of it in still photographs.

I don't see a clean way forwards into still photos unless we simply drop the protagonist out entirely, along with our identification with the protagonist and that whole proxy relationship. In the general case, it's just us, looking at the picture, at the things in the picture. Maybe we identify with the photographer? I don't see it as a generally useful model, so I am going to stick with a model of just us, looking at the picture. No protagonist, no narrative. We get to keep the part about how it looks, the cinematography, intact, though.

So what is a "gaze" in some sort of general sense?

In the modern usages that I have observed, "gaze" is associated with authorship, but Mulvey has no part of that. For her, there are conventions in mainstream cinema, all slanted toward a male viewer's comfort and pleasure, and anyone making a mainstream movie whether male, female, or amphibian, would obey those conventions and produce more or less the same sort of thing.

There are real problems with the idea that authorship in some way unconsciously shines through in a photograph, namely, it doesn't.

Therefore let us explicitly separate authorship off.

To get further it seems to me that we should step back slightly, and think about how a movie, or a photograph, works.

As the post-modernists would happily tell you, everything in these forms of media is "coded" for our viewing pleasure. We recognize a bride and a groom, deduce the social ritual of a wedding, and then by the expression on her face we learn (we think) how the wedding is going. I confess that I would likely not recognize a Chinese bride, or an Armenian one, and the photograph, or film footage, would lose much of its meaning for me. Which is how we know these things are coded -- when you don't have the keys, you can't understand it.

You might say, perhaps, that landscapes are not coded? Well, suppose you were a Martian, a desert landscape and a rain forest landscape would be either incomprehensible to you, or have quite different meanings, so there. Landscapes are also coded, just in rather more broadly understood codes.

With this simplification I think we can reasonably take a "gaze" as a subset of the codes in play, those codes associated with the pleasures, the preferences, the comforts of some specific category of viewers.

Now we are getting somewhere!

Male gaze in a still photograph is whatever elements are coded in the thing which give pleasure or comfort to a male viewer. This could be a beautiful woman posed in an available way, or if we allow the radical notion that a man is more than a walking penis, perhaps something to do with cars, power, money, strength, dominance, or any of the other stereotypes. Does a picture of my five year old daughter smiling constitute an example of dad gaze or is it just more male gaze because my pleasure is basically just pride in my virile ability to produce and support heirs?

Female gaze then becomes whatever would make women happy, fill in, I suppose, the stereotypes of your choice. Black gaze becomes rather dicey if you're just jamming stereotypes into the frame.

Setting aside the whole (tongue in cheek) issue of stereotypes, we might discover that multiple gazes could in theory be present in a photograph. Suppose a photograph produced pleasure and comfort for both men and women who happened across it? By casting the idea of "gaze" in terms of comfort and pleasure, we deny the idea that "female gaze" is somehow the opposite of "male gaze" (which, as I have observed in the past, is not a concept that readily admits an opposite.)

In this formulation, one "gaze" does not rule out another. No "gaze" is unconditionally the opposite of another. Conflict may occur, where one category of viewer finds pleasure and comfort in something another category finds unpleasant, or discomforting, but there's nothing in the idea of "gaze" itself, here, which insists on conflict.

We find also, under this understanding of "gaze" that much of what gets promoted as "female gaze" is anything but. It is not at all clear that photographs of the female artist, naked but unavailable, and visibly peeved, produce all that much pleasure and comfort to the female viewer. I am not convinced that anyone at all would find any kind of comfort or pleasure in Talia Chetrit's Showcaller. In my formulation here, Showcaller lacks "gaze" entirely. This is not a criticism of the book, note, but merely a consequence of this definition of "gaze."

We can see, now, that opposing "male gaze" (which Showcaller arguably does) does not produce a "female gaze." You can probably make the case that Showcaller (and innumerable similar pieces) are a critique or an attack on "male gaze."

Like Humpty Dumpty, you are free to use words as you choose, of course. If you choose to mean by "female gaze" nothing more than an attack on "male gaze" well, so be it. That does seem to be the common usage.

It is not, however, a particularly useful usage, nor is it particularly aligned with the meaning of "male gaze." I like mine better.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Alec Soth,
   I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating

Alec Soth has a new body of work out, published by MACK, and some exhibitions of what I assume is the same work. You can examine a preview of the book here.

Soth made his nut with a different project, "Sleeping by the Mississippi" (SbtM) also realized as a book. His method involves an 8x10 film camera shooting color film, at any rate for the two cited projects.

SbtM was built around pictures of people, apparently of mid-to-low economic status, with some environmental shots salted in, all shot along the length of the Mississippi River. The overall sensation is glum, a little despairing. The people look uncomfortable, bored, alienated. While I have no particular insight into Soth's methods, I will note that this is precisely the natural pose a person assumes when being photographed with the clumsy and slow apparatus that is an 8x10 camera. One can achieve different results, but it requires almost supernatural interpersonal/directorial skills.

These portraits are, at best, un-generous. On odd-numbered days I might go so far as to characterize them as cruel. One might imagine, though, that these are the result of the stripping away of a facade, that the very discomfort and alienation that is visible might be an inkling of some underlying truth. We will revisit this idea shortly.

This first work was well received by the Art Establishment. It requires no imagination whatever to suppose that The Establishment very much approved of what appears very much to be an "othering" of the people of the midwestern USA. The work supports the standard narrative of the affluent coastal liberal, that these people are essentially lesser. In modern parlance, we might refer to Soth's early subjects as "likely Trump voters" and be done with them.

There isn't much daylight here between SbtM and some Victorian era photographer coming back from Africa with a bunch of photos of Pygmies.

So now we come to the more recent work. "I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating." We can briskly observe the stupid name, Soth appears to be channeling Fiona Apple here. A quick glance at the MACK web site shows us that Alec Soth and Michael Mack apparently went back to 1937 with a few reams of colored paper. The book is a standard sarcophagus, suitable for inhuming a bunch of photographs in the least interesting possible way, verso blank, recto photo with white borders, no text until the end. Wha?! What! Sorry, sorry, dropped off for a bit there.

Onwards to the pictures, where things do get, in a way, fairly interesting.

Soth is applying the same methods as SbtM, except that he applies them to what appears to be precisely the class of people the Art Establishment belongs to.

Let us first revisit, as promised, the idea that Soth's methods are revelatory.

The new work draws aside the veil from SbtM. If Soth photographs a whore in his un-generous fashion, and thus she looks uncomfortable, we might imagine that we have learned something about whores. When he photographs a king in precisely the same cruel way, we realize that the photographs have nothing to do with whores or kings, but only to do with being photographed by Alec Soth. The artifice of SbtM is revealed fully, we see that it says nothing about the people of the Mississippi River Valley. Had we been paying attention, we would have known this all along, of course, because it is painfully obvious.

But now, it seems practically inescapable.

The second thing to note, or more precisely to wonder at, is what motivates these people to allow Soth to do this to them? These are not poor blokes, these are as often as not affluent people, steeped in their own culture. Surely some aspect is simply a famous photographer wishes to photograph me. Still, I cannot stop seeing the scene in Titanic in which Kate Winslet asks Leonardo DiCaprio to "draw me like one of your french girls." There is an element of slumming here, I feel. Surely some of his subjects, at some level, wanted Soth to work his unkind magic on them.

Regardless, the result is just what it appears. The affluent, the artistically connected, can also appear bored, awkward, alienated, under the gaze of Mr. Soth. He can "other" then just as effectively. Personally, I find this slightly less un-appealing than SbtM, since I identify with the people in the latter, but find little to no common ground with Soth's more recent victims.

But is the work any good?

Certainly this body of work is precisely the sort of thing the Art Establishment wants from its anointed children: More of the same, recognizably Soth, but also recognizably new and different. Produced at a fast enough pace to guarantee supply, but not so fast as to destroy scarcity.

Personally, I demand from my Art that it should reveal to me some new horizon, emotional or intellectual, however minor. I should be in some way enlarged. Soth's work doesn't do that, it reveals only that it's generally miserable and boring to be photographed by some guy with an 8x10 film camera, a fact of which I was already aware. In that sense, it does not strike me as good.

As a Minnesota boy myself, I harbor the suspicion, perhaps the hope, that Soth is being more subversive than he appears.

He made his nut, by, essentially, taking a shit on people despised by the Art Establishment.

Today, Soth is no longer working in the distant foreign lands of the Mississippi, he is right outside the window, shitting in the roses. Whether the Art Establishment will notice, I cannot say. Soth is anointed, and he's producing cash flow, most likely the Art Establishment doesn't care to notice where or how frequently he shits as long as the money keeps coming.

As for Soth, I suspect that he believes his own press releases, because people tend to do that. But maybe, somewhere deep down, he's laughing.

I hope so.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Copyright and Fair Use


I am done moderating through comments on what a dumb decision this judge made and so on. If you have something to add go for it, but if you plan to simply state a yes or no opinion on the case, I will dump your comment. Also, some pro tips: the odds are excellent that you have no idea what Fair Use is, and you also have not read my piece below which is about the ideas behind fair use and copyright and has almost nothing to do with the case mentioned on PetaPixel.

Please note, again: I don't care if you agree or disagree with the judge. Add something besides your opinion, or your comment will be deleted.

I will delete your comment extra hard if you make it clear that either a) you have no idea what Fair Use means and/or b) have not read my remarks below more or less in their entirety.

Begone, louts.

Here's an article on PetaPixel, about a court ruling. The comments are a saddening microcosm of internet opinions.

People who hold copyrights on things tend to imagine that a copyright constitutes more or less infinite control and rights, because, essentially, it's mine! They imagine that the copyright on a photograph, or a novel, is essentially the same thing as ownership of a hammer. Often they're a little looser about copyrights held by other people.

Copyrights aren't like owning a hammer, and they should not be.

The ability (not the right, the ability) to use a hammer, to rent it out, to sell it, to destroy it, these are all inextricable from the physical object. If I am driving a nail with your hammer, you cannot also drive a nail with it. If I possess it, I can with some effort destroy it. If I take your hammer from you, then you don't have a hammer any more, and you cannot drive nails, rent it out, destroy it. If I take a copy of your novel, you've still got your novel. If I am reading your novel, you can still read it yourself, or give it away. Copyright is about right to copy, because it deals with things that can be taken without taking them away. It's not the same as ownership of a hammer, or a cow, or a tract of land. It's going to look a bit different.

The point of copyright is, at least in theory, to maximize social good. The reason you have a copyright on a photo, or a poem, is not because you are awesome and deserve to sell your poem for tons of money. No, you have a copyright because we have as a society decided that we'd like to encourage you to make more poems, so we give you a bundle of rights that allow you to make money and otherwise benefit from making poems. This is quite a new idea, whereas the idea of owning a tool or a cow is many thousands of years old, at least.

You get these rights to your poem, or your photo, as a part of a quid pro quo. Since the point is social good, that means that we, as society, get to benefit from your poem. We get to read it, and, this is important, there is a doctrine of Fair Use that gives us out here in the world access to further benefits. We can, in particular, use your poem to make new things from. We can build our ideas on top of your ideas.

This is extremely important to intellectual and cultural progress. If we cannot build on one another's ideas in a fairly liberal way, society stagnates. See Nina Paley's video, cited below.

Things which can be copyrighted differ from hammers. A hammer has a certain utility, but its utility is nothing like that of an idea. Your poem can serve as the basis for a tower of ideas, infinitely tall and wide. Your poem can spark almost anything. If I copy your poem, the possibilities are rather broader than if I simply take your hammer. Your poem probably sucks, and will go nowhere, but that's not the point. What if it could lead somewhere?

Powerful entities which hold copyrights (i.e not you) work more or less continuously to weaken the quid pro quo and to turn copyright into, essentially, the same set of rights as hammer ownership. This is a terrible idea. Worse, the entities which do this work are never the original artist, and they are never seeking to benefit the original artist.

Much as I hate TED and all its campfollowers, I am going to point you to Nina Paley arguing at a TEDx very cogently about the flaws of copyright: Copyright is Brain Damage.

Fair Use is, by design, pretty vague. It's codified in law as a set of things to be considered, not as anything that even resembles a set of rules for what is and isn't Fair Use. Case law provides more guidance here, and Fair Use tends to differ wildly by type of medium.

In particular, the RNC's use is probably Fair Use. I'm not a lawyer, but I've looked at some cases, and this looks reasonable.

Fair Use is a really good idea. You should support it and, perhaps, try to have some notion of what it actually is.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Background Information

Colberg remarked in a recent piece that "Photography is very good at describing form, but very bad at containing background information" which on the one hand is sort of a "well, duh" statement, but on the other hand it got me to thinking, especially given the rest of his piece.

He's dead right, obviously. The entire point of any visual art is to split off the visuals of a thing, a situation, a person, from the rest of them in the same way that a stripping a bond separates the interest from the principal.

What tends to happen with a piece of visual art is that people will supply their own background, based on what they see, which leads to a choice for you, the visual artist. You can choose to lead them in the right direction, or in the wrong direction. There's a process of guessing how people will fill in background, of course, but being human we have a fair shot at that. We can make a picture which, essentially, looks like what it is. We can also make a picture that does not.

In the former case, we are, arguably, attempting to the lead the viewer to something like an accurate guess at background. In the latter case, we're trying to misdirect them.

That said, I find a couple of things interesting about Colberg's piece. In the first place, he declines to provide any background information for Vele which I find, well, to be an interesting choice. In the second place, having cast his remarks in these terms, he fails to recognize Vele as a work of the latter kind, instead treating it as a "this is what it looks like" exercise.

Second complaint first: Vele is shot at night. 'nuff said?

Colberg wants to complain about brutalist architecture, and about how terrible contemporary photography is, not really to tell us anything about Vele the book, or Vele the place. I found the background somewhat interesting, though, so I will give a little of it here. I suspect that the book is awful, being as Colberg says, essentially some film stills. The film the stills come from is a surrealist "urban explorer" exercise in boredom, although the stairwells in the Vele structure it's shot in are fascinating. While I suppose it might be possible to construct a good book from a stupid film, it seems unlikely.

Colberg links to the film, which you can watch here.

Vele is the Italian word for Sails. These housing projects were conceived in the 1960s as resembling sails, which they kinda do, if you squint very very hard indeed. The wikipedia article suggests that at the height of occupancy there were 40,000 to 70,000 people living in these things, and there may be up to 40,000 living in the remaining 4 structures. Based on various materials lying around, the large structures might contain as many as 500 apartments of about 1000 square feet each (100 square meters), probably a bit fewer. Careful measuring on google maps and matching against apartment floor plans, I came up with 200-300 units, but let us be generous.

The population numbers are obviously wrong. These buildings simply are not that big. At 10,000 people per structure, with the very generous estimates of sizes of these things, this is 50 square feet per person, which suggests something a hell of a lot more like an anthill than the essentially abandoned squats that one sees in pictures, videos, on google street view, and so on.

As built, the thing was 7 buildings strong, and my high estimate of 500 units per building places the total unit count at 3500 units, making it a very large housing development indeed by the standards of these things, and the peak population number of 40,000 becomes vaguely credible, although still extremely crowded.

My guess is that population numbers for the entire suburb of Scampia have, over the years, been conflated with population counts for the 7 building core development of the suburb.

Large housing projects of this sort always seem to be a problem. It is well known that tall, large, buildings create a sense of isolation. More than 2-3 stories up, and people start to feel disconnected from the ground. It is no longer our park or our street it is simply a park or street that is out in the world, albeit closer than other ones. For people who enjoy a social existence outside of their home, the neighborhood, this sense of isolation can translate into a feeling of security. For people whose social life would normally be built in terms of localness to their homes, these large dwellings foster a sense of alienation instead. It has very little to do with the details of the architecture, although I suppose the brutalism so common in the 60s did not help.

The upshot, though, is that rich people like being in giant buildings (secure) and poor people don't (alienated).

The Vele buildings were colored, and to this day retain some of that color. God knows how they got it. Did they dye the concrete itself? After 40 years of zero maintenance, surely anything else would have peeled off? This, by the way, is one of the tells that Zielony’s film and book are not really trying to get at these buildings as they literally are: at night, you cannot see the color, and are left with an impression of bare, grey, concrete, throughout. Which isn't quite the case. These things are not a riot of color, but they're less horrific than the film suggests. They never look great, and they do lend themselves to a dystopian, prison-like, visual. But they are more than that, and it appears that you have to position yourself with a little care to get the full dystopian look.

Zielony so-positions himself, with real gusto. He also waits for rain, so that he can get a properly Bladerunner-esque wet look to the surfaces, assuming he didn't just bring a hose.

Interestingly, the architect's vision for these things was subtly different, yielding vastly more livable spaces. As conceived the larger structures are split down the middle into two extremely narrow planes, joined by a complex outdoor stairwell structure. The narrow planes appear to be a single unit wide, allowing light to enter from both the notional exterior of the building, as well as from the stairwell/courtyard space between the planes. This is "light from two sides" which is a very important element of a livable space.

Does your residence have some rooms with windows/access to light along just one wall, and other rooms with such light on 2 or more walls? Which rooms do you spend more time in?

The builders increased the mass of the stairwells, and brought the two planes closer together, thereby largely blocking the stairwell/courtyard light source. The as-built courtyard/stairwell space is a dank and cluttered abyss, not a well of light. The large and possibly very nice park at the center of the complex is largely negated by the isolation created by the mass of the building. You don't send the kids to the park to play, it's "too far" away for that. It very much the distant park which we, perhaps, visit as a family now and then, not the anything like a proxy front yard.

Had the buildings been built as designed, the buildings themselves would still have been thoroughly ugly and isolating, but the dwelling units themselves might well have been lovely to live in. As it is, well, not so much.

Anyways. There seem to have been a host of problems with the development, including lack of access to shopping and transportation. That, together with the botched execution of the buildings themselves seems to have led to a rapid decline in occupancy. When, in 1980, an earthquake cost many people in and around Naples their homes, the Vele buildings became the target of large numbers of squatters. Faced with few options, the government seems to have turned a blind eye, and the situation continues today.

The buildings are, allegedly, condemned. Several have been demolished, but the remaining 4 are in a sort of regulatory limbo. Nobody wants to clear the squatters out, and take the inevitable blame when someone gets killed during demolition. There are half-assed plans to renovate one or more of the buildings into government facilities, and I dare say law enforcement rather likes having someplace into which crime can be chivvied, away from the civilians and into a known location. Everyone who needs it can get their heroin, and whenever the cops need to get tough on crime they can simply go arrest a batch of guys there. There's no down side!

By all accounts, the area is sketchy, but not an outright war zone. One can simply go and take pictures (the author of Vele for example did just that, wandering around these structures at night with a fairly expensive DSLR snapping 1000s of pictures, and did not die.) The people shown in the film seem perfectly cheerful, or neutral.

The structures of the stairwells are fascinating.

It strikes me that the guiding principle of Brutalist architecture is that reinforced concrete is great in compression. Sure, it's not bad in tension, shear, torsion, etc, but it's really really strong in compression. So, you end up with the interesting truss-like structures which, while not quite airy, are nontheless surprisingly in-flight as it were. But, being a truss, most of the load is compressive.

You could probably have built the Vele structures with dry stone, if you could have maneuvered everything in to place, like an insane flying buttress.

It has a sort of loopy beauty to it, although the closeness of the "courtyard" is almost immediately oppressive -- a feeling conveyed in the same way by every photograph. Oh, for the missing few meters of space in there. I will say, though, that there is no force on earth that could persuade me to use the staircases as-drawn in this concept drawing:

Monday, March 18, 2019

Category Error

There are lots of ways one might get value from a piece of Art one acquires.

At the high end, part of the value of a million dollar piece of Art is in being able to brag that you spent a million dollars on a piece of Art. Sometimes it's just decor, masses of color, tone, and line that appeal to you and which match the couch. Sometimes Art makes you think, or amuses you, or delights you in some way. Perhaps a piece of Art reminds you of something, or someone, it sparks a poignant memory. If you made the Art yourself, or if you personally know the artist, there are myriad personal connections which might have value of one sort of another.

Good Art makes you think, enlarges you, creates an "art-like experience" and is rare. There is a thing, which is not common, and which has this uncommon effect on us, and we have decided to call that rare thing Art. This is, ostensibly, what the million dollar piece does, and which it sometimes does (in part, because of the price tag.)

Setting aside the matter of personal connections, if we assume that we're looking at some Art made by a stranger, we're mostly likely to value a thing in roughly the same ways. There may be outliers; for you, since the girl in the picture reminds you of your first wife, the picture takes you much differently. But for the other 10 of us over here, we kind of look at it much the same way.

There is a thing photographers do. I suspect all artists do it, but since there are so damn many photographers, and because I attend far more to photography than to painting I notice it more among photographers: they overvalue their work.

There are roughly a billion web sites out there with some photographer, styling himself (rarely, herself) a Fine Art Photographer, and offering fairly expensive photographic prints.

Usually these things are landscapes, less often they are "street", almost never are they anything else.

What kind of value does one get from one of these things, if one buys them?

For the most part, they are decor, I think. Landscapes don't have much choice here, basically they can be pretty, or they can be sublime, and sublime is really hard. Street photography that sells (or at least which is popular) is graphical and cute. It's decor. It goes with the couch, it's appealing, it might be slightly amusing.

So why is it offered in canvas wrap for $700 or whatever? You might as well buy a poster. It will cost you far less, but yield the same (or better) value.

This is a variation on the "you get no credit for working hard" theme that gets talked about a fair bit. It turns out, most photographers do want credit for their hard work, or their not so hard work, or their m4d skillz.

This brings us around to what got me started on this. Over of ToP, Mike did a recent print sale of Ctein's work. Mike discusses the photos that were up for sale in this post.

The one that really got me was the Christmas Lights picture.

I am sure it looks fantastic in print. I am sure it was very difficult to make. Far be it from me to judge if Ctein wants to spend his time making that print, and far be it from to judge if people want to purchase that print.

But it's friggin' christmas lights, dude. It's decor, and kind of weird decor at that. Whether it's worth $169 or not is entirely up to you, that's a genuinely pretty low price as these things go.

Mike, being in love with printing and the solutions to difficult printing problems, seems to me to be overvaluing these prints.

We are being asked, here, as we are on the web sites of endless Fine Art Photographers, to imagine that these essentially decorative masses of color and form are, in some un-articulated way, more than they actually are. There is a Category Error in play here. I suspect that all these photographers are hoping that their work has more weight than it does, they want to to carry whatever it is that Serious Art has, and thereby to be valuable.

They are, generally, wrong. These are frequently lovely pictures, and in many cases were very difficult to make, but they do not carry any of the je ne sais quois (except I jolly well do know what) of Important Art.

They have many appealing properties, but they do not have that.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Climate Change Revolution: Bellingham

I learned something recently. In the city of Memphis, in the late 1960s, at least, the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was on the wrong side of history. Memphis is where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and in that city (and across much of the USA) the FBI was engaged in trying to subvert the civil rights movement. The reasons vary, depending on who you ask, but nobody thinks it was a particularly shining moment in the history of the FBI.

Anyways. At that time there were any number of groups working in any number of ways to Advance the rights of Colored People, not just the NAACP. The NAACP in fact was run by wealthy and successful black people who felt that the proper approach was evolutionary, legislative, through litigation and not through direct action, and so on. This is not at all surprising, of course, nor it is to say that the NAACP was a bad bunch of people. But they were wrong. They had been, effectively, captured by the status quo, and were effectively, committed to maintaining it.

King and various more radical groups were not, and they did bring direct action, and they did win victories which would have been longer coming (perhaps we would still be waiting) if the slow and evolutionary path of the NAACP and the establishment had won the day.

That much is history.

Which brings us around to today, March 15, 2019. Today, students too young to vote walked out of schools around the world to protest climate change, and to demand action. Bellingham, of course, got into the act. Several hundred people, many of them middle and high school students, gathered at City Hall at 11am to have a short rally to protest climate change and to demand action. I went and took some pictures.

Somewhere along the way from 1968 to the present, we have developed the idea that change is wrought, or at any can be wrought, by loosely organized groups of people with heartfelt opinions and rhythmic chants. Bellingham loves these things, we have a couple of protest rallies a year, at least, here. This one was pretty typical.

The complete lack of cops was interesting. They were probably around, though.

The attendees were varied. It seemed to be a pretty complete set of nerds, weirdos, normals, popular kids, and so on. I asked, and was informed that the organizers leaned a bit toward the popular in-crowd kids but that a) it wasn't all in-crowd clique shitheads doing it, and b) even the in-crowd kids were getting some respect here. So, while the speakers appeared to be, and indeed were, mainly the cool, rich, popular, kids, they were either doing it for the right reasons, or faking it very well. Sincerity all around. So, that's good.

Now, I don't mean to indict these kids. I think it's really great that they're getting out there and doing this (they did a similar thing last year opposing gun violence, another nation-wide thing that some of you may recall, taking place on the heels of some damned school shooting or another).

But. Change does not occur when loosely organized groups of enthusiastic and committed people have rallies and chant, no matter how sincere they are. These things are a mechanism by which enthusiastic people who desperately desire change are induced to expend their energy. Change looks a lot like this from the outside, to be sure, but on the inside the organizations that generate change by these methods are organized with maniacal detail. Everything is planned. There is an overall strategy of a completely military nature. Indeed, it's probably a hell of a lot more coherent, detailed, and sensible than anything a modern army throws together.

Gandhi and MLK were the leaders of incredibly large and disciplined organizations. It looked like they just did a bunch of hastily thrown together marches and shit, and that was no accident -- it was supposed to look like a bunch of more or less spontaneous, hastily thrown together, rallies, protests, and marches. But it was not.

These young people, however enthusiastic they are, are not part of any such organization. This is Jaden Stevenson. Articulate, passionate, and checking her phone while other people are making sounds with their food holes. Not all the time, but for a while, and very publicly. Ooops. It doesn't mean anything specific, but it does suggest that there's a lack of discipline.

And then there's this guy, another speaker.

I don't recall his name or which of the myriad local environmental advocacy non-profits he works for. It doesn't matter, those details are irrelevant. He is instantly recognizable as a type. He is a professional non-profit bureaucrat. He's slick, he speaks well, he's very good at having meetings, and he genuinely thinks that having meetings is working for change.

This is a local politician, April Barker, ditto.

April lurked around the edges smiling and shaking hands and then sloped off at about the half hour mark.

Here are a handful of pictures that don't directly connect to anything, but they are emblematic.

Our corporate masters are always present.

Ok, so what?

Like the NAACP, April and whats-his-name above are philosophically on the right side. They oppose climate change, they oppose oil pipelines and coal terminals and all that stuff. They will tend to favor incremental approaches, through careful legislation, which is functionally the same thing as not opposing anything at all. Assuming there is anyone left to write the history, they will find themselves on the wrong side of it.

Here is hoping that the enthusiastic young people can get off their phones, and stop buying Hollister-branded clothing for long enough to study up on how this shit actually works.

You do not create change by having enthused rallies with rhyming chants. You do not create change by carefully crafting legislation in partnership with our corporate friends. Both of these things may be part of it, but they are not the core strategic elements.

The creation of change is a fascinating chess game. The object of the game is to force the existing power structures into a position where they have only two choices: 1) to actually effect change, or 2) to publicly behave in ways that are manifestly, violently, blatantly, opposed to their own stated ideals.

Incremental approaches only allow the existing power structures to continue to behave badly, but in ways that are not obvious.

You have to, non-violently, force a crisis. Doing it violently isn't a very good idea, for reasons that are outside the scope of the current remarks.

It is a complex and intricate game, it requires enormous reserves of strategic intelligence, it requires great organization, discipline, and patience. And, not to put too fine of a point on it, probably some good people are gonna get killed. That's part of the crisis.

I don't want any of these decent, enthusiastic, hopeful, scared, kids to get killed or beaten up.

But if they do develop a strategy with some actual teeth, it's gonna happen. So, in a way, I guess I hope they do.

Which is sort of terrible. But then, this whole fucking thing is fairly terrible.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Attention to Detail

Perform the following experiment, possibly only in your mind for now, but it's not a bad idea to do it in real life as well.

The experiment boils down to walking somewhere, and noting ornamental details. You might walk down an urban street, and notice the decorative casting at the base of the lamp post, the way the door handle is machined into a radius of appealing curve, a few tiles set into the cement sidewalk, the brickwork at the curb, the plantings in the strip of earth between sidewalk and curb, and so on.

You might walk through a forest, noting the curve of a branch, the way a leaf dangles, the tiny flower that peeks out from behind a stone.

A hallway, note the trim around the windows, the pattern on the floor, the ornate script telling you what's inside this office or that.

All those myriad details generate a kind of background noise of beauty, or at least attempts at beauty. In the general run of life, we do not notice these things as such. When they are missing, though, we feel their absence. When they are overdone, we feel the rococo flavor of an overbuilt room. Am I the only one who notices when a window has no trim, but is simply the wall brought out to a box, into which is set a window? Surely people feel the lack of trim, even if they don't note it specifically.

By all these things we know that in some way we are aware of those myriad details. We note the little pattern of tile in the sidewalk by its absence in front of the cheaply built government buildings. We feel the sterility of a building in which everything is functional, and there is nothing of ornament. We are depressed by it, generally.

Consider now the photograph. Or rather, all the photographs.

There is, I think, an analogy here.

When we skim through social media, through Facebook or Instagram, barely looking at this photo or that, I wonder if it is not something similar. Certainly text-only social media is a different thing, and I think one could argue cogently that "sterile" is an applicable word here. Even if we don't really look at the photos, we register something of them. Perhaps we note a fact "Suzie was camping" or an impression "Bill looks stressed out" or something even lighter than those.

We read a book with pictures, or a magazine, the same way. We notice some pictures, and almost-don't-see others. Occasionally we alight like a magpie on some photo, and inspect it. Perhaps, at some point, we make a pass through the thing specifically to look at pictures. It doesn't matter. If printed matter has more than one picture, and especially if it has text, we will pay rather more or less attention to this photo or that. We will not attend to each one equally, drinking in its glory.

All those photos which "we" collectively are not giving due attention to, are creating a sort of background noise of visual information. A stab at beauty here, a datum there, a socially notable impression there.

One can certainly argue that we spend too goddamned much time on our phones, on our tablets, on our computers. Still, that time is I think substantively enriched by those photos we are ostensibly ignoring. Not every photo needs to be printed out large and examined with a loupe.

Not every lamp post's base needs to be a Rodin. Indeed, probably Rodin is a bit of overkill for lamp posts. This does not mean that every lamp post, incapable of greatness, should therefore be an austere model of pure function without a trace of ornament.

In the same way, I think, not every photograph needs to be great. Perhaps most of them ought not to be great. And, this is important, the fact that a photograph falls short of greatness need not consign it to the dustbin.

We see this odd notion, though, in photography. Everything is either tip-top, or junk. Sometimes we keep the junk around as a reference, to learn from, or whatever, but the name of the game is always making some sort of notional "ideal" photograph, some sort of perfect expression of whatever. Mike over on ToP is going on about this. His remarks aren't stupid, indeed they are as usual pretty sharp.

The system he's proposing, though, is entirely about sorting your photographs -- one by one -- in such a way as the "really good ones" (whatever that might even mean) rise to the top. One by one. Mike's attitude toward photography is very much informed by the ideas he was taught. Photographs should be printed, ideally on fiber-based paper, and archivally processed. The goal of the photographer is to produce single photographs, each with as much greatness as can possibly be shoveled into it. Most photographs should have a full range of tones.

It is, essentially, chapter and verse from the Ansel Adams trilogy, leaving out only the parts that matter. This attitude, or if you prefer cloud of similar attitudes, is an aberration that is carried around by photographers. They might not be able to teach one another how to see, but they can bloody well share terrible attitudes and ideas, and pass them on to the next generation too.

This is not the world's attitude toward photographs. No, the common person, as it were, sees photographs far more as the ornamentation on the lamp post, and a lot less as a Rodin.

Photographs are not paintings, not in the way they are made, nor in the way they are used. Except by fetishists.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Leica Q2

I was peripherally aware of the predecessor model, the Leica Q, but never paid it much mind. But now this thing comes out and I happened across some pictures, and holy cow. So here we go.

We can summarize this creeping horror in two pictures:

The front view recalls the classic Leica rangefinder. The top-deck steps down on the photographer's right to hold a couple of dials and stuff. The body is rounded at the ends, and covered with textured leather from the bottom plate to the top metal assembly thingy, whatever it's called. Ok, so this model is maybe the stubbiest, not to say stoutest, in a long line of gradually porkier Leicas. Maybe the front surface is featureless to the point of blandness. Maybe the lens looks absurdly out of proportion. I will stipulate all those things.

One can at least see the design notes being nodded at here, the maybe-respect for heritage. The retro notes, let us say, but updated to modern times, albeit by removing anything with a sniff of character, by botching the proportions, and replacing the traditional "natural" leather texture with something that looks like a chain link fence.

Let's flip this thing around.

No, no. Flip the Leica around, not whatever the hell that object is. What? That IS the Leica? The same Leica? This is the back of that? What insanity is this?

I showed this picture to my wife and asked for her impression. She thought a bit and said "basic" and then laughed out lout when I told her it was a $5000 camera.

It looks like someone took the sketch of where the buttons were supposed to go and built it. It's as if their AutoCAD licenses expired, so they had to design it in Microsoft Word's drawing tool. This is ridiculous. The buttons look like they came off a $40 VCR from the last days of VHS tape.

This is the same kind of Bauhuh? anti-design we see from Phase One, but in this case it's being thrown in our faces by a company whose actual entire reason for existence is to design things that hearken back to an older time. They may design some electronics and lenses and stuff, but they certainly don't have to, anyone can do that. No. Leica's entire raison d'être is to be a design company that successfully translates design notes from previous iconic Leica cameras into new cameras.

And then they insult us with this monstrosity.

Sure, sure, I get it. They're going for austere. They missed, and hit "basic." Austere means a few beautifully designed buttons, not a few rectangular blotches adorned with a hyper-modern Eurotrash font. They phoned the entire back side of this camera in, because they don't give a shit. They don't give a shit about making the front and back look like they're parts of the same object, they don't give a shit about making the back look good. They just don't care, because they know that the red dot on the front is the only thing that matters.

Don't even get me started on why the jammed a 28mm lens on the thing.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Lewis Bush Workshop

Lewis is an interesting guy. Something of a tendency still toward arty bollocks, if he's writing for an arty bollocks kind of thing, but he's grown increasingly sensible in the last few years.

He's starting to do workshops in his own studio space somewhere in south London. Having never taken a class from Lewis, I cannot actually vouch for him here, but I have seen a book of his which I liked pretty well, so there's that. Anyways, I am willing to stuff a link in here, so you can decide. I shall not be attending, south London being very far away indeed. He wants £100.00 for a one day deal. I assume he's providing the tea and the coffee.

Workshop – Photographic Storytelling, April 27th 2019

This strikes me as the kind of workshop that is worthwhile. You come out not with a bunch of shitty pictures, nor even a finished thing, but rather with a richer understanding of the problems and possible solutions. I think I might sign up for it if it was in Seattle.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Our Fleeting Attention

Among the many tropes of the "social media is ruining everything" think pieces is the one about how nobody really looks at photographs any more. I've certainly observed the appalling way that instagram is actually used: glance, swipe, glance, like, swimp, glance, swipe. I've probably written about it. God knows what dumb shit I said. God, and anyone willing to spend a minute or two searching, I guess.

It's certainly true that social media encourages a very very lightweight engagement with, well, everything on social media. People won't read an entire tweet, or Facebook post. They glance at photos. Videos play more or less unwatched.

But back to photography. There is a planted axiom in these think pieces on photography, which is that in the past people used to look closely at photographs. Usually there is some drivel about The Print, and how detailed it is, how a well made print "just glows" and so on. Half the time, at least, the piece is being written by someone too young and too hip to actually have ever held a decent print in their hand, although I dare say they've held a small number of shoddy ones.

There were no glory days when loads of people really looked at photographs.

What we have today is a billion times more engagement with photographs than ever before. All those people doing the glance-swipe thing on instagram? 20 years ago, 10 years ago, I can promise you that they were not sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat with incense burning, making love with their eyes to a single glorious print. They were watching TV, playing some 2D video game, skateboarding, awkwardly trying to talk to girls, maybe fixing a car. They were doing anything except looking at photos. I was there. Nobody looked at photos, except a few weirdos.

It's a lot like today. Only a few weirdos really look at photographs. Perhaps a few more than 20 years ago.

Even in the glory days of the mightiest of the mass media photographers, Ansel Adams, when everyone who wanted to look a bit clever, a bit artsy, bought a poster of some Adams picture, I don't think the posters got all that much attention. Sure, you hung it up, and people glanced at it. It was recognized by people. Many people could probably even name the giant stone in the frame (probably "Half Dome" which is fairly easy to remember, since it looks like half of a dome.) But that poster in your dorm room didn't get a lick more attention than the picture of a waterfall you stick on your instagram.

One of the consequences of the modern era, in which everyone is a photographer is that now everyone has a mild interest in photography.

Rather than being a niche activity that a few people take very seriously, it is now a not-quite universal activity that almost everyone takes mostly unseriously.

This, of course, gets under the skin of those of us who still take it seriously.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The DMCA Counter-Notice

Suppose someone uses one of your photos someplace. You wail to your friends about the unfairness of it all, and someone suggests that you issue a DMCA takedown against the evil someone. So, you do that, jumping on the relevant web site, finding their DMCA takedown page, and clicking rapidly past all the legal boilerplate. You mash SUBMIT and grin wildly. Victory, surely, is yours! Your photograph is taken down.

A little later, the evil someone files some mysterious and no doubt illegal "counter notice" and the photograph re-appears! The web site becomes thoroughly unhelpful, having clearly been subverted by the evil someone, and now apparently you have to either go to court, or give up. This is the terrible! You have a sad! Your friends are baffled, especially the idiot who told you to file a DMCA notice! It is a conspiracy against you, and all photographers.

Except, actually, no it is not.

The DMCA takedown is step one of a legal process, about which you would know quite a bit if you hadn't clicked past the legal boilerplate in a hurry to get to the SUBMIT button. The thumbnail sketch of how it actually works is like this:

You file a notice with a web site. The web site arranges for the content to be taken down, and notifies the alleged infringer.

If the alleged infringer folds, you're done. This is the usual outcome.

If not, the alleged infringer files a counter notice, possibly because they are a large corporation with deep pockets, or possibly because they know more about copyright law than you do, and they're actually in the clear in their use of your photograph. At this point the web site you filed the takedown with will generally reinstate the content. This is when your photo reappears.

Fun fact: I had a guy tell me "it can't be fair use, because you stole it!" which is some kind of galactic-level nonsensical sentence.

It is not twitter's job, nor google's, nor Facebook's, to work out who really owns the photograph. These entities are just serving notices and acting in accordance with the law. The actual resolution of whether someone has or has not infringed your copyright is a matter for the court system, if you and the alleged infringer don't work it out yourselves.

Once the counter notice is filed, you have two options: you can fold, or you can go to court. If do you decide to go to court, there may be a fairly short clock running, you may have to decide to retain a lawyer within a couple of days. Don't try this without a lawyer, by the way. Really. Maybe try representing yourself on a murder charge, but don't give it a shot in a copyright case.

Filing a counter notice does commit the filer (the alleged infringer) to the next step, which is court. If the original filer of the DMCA takedown does not fold, costs begin right about here. So why would anyone file a counter notice? Who really knows, but among the possible motivations: there is no infringement involved (e.g. fair use), or the infringer is prepared to take a risk of losing probably after estimating that you're bluffing.

Almost everyone who files a DMCA notice is bluffing, whether they know it or not. The process leads, pretty directly, to court. If you're not prepared to go to court to not only prove infringement but also to prove your ownership of the copyright, you are bluffing. Both of these things are probably a lot more complicated than you imagine, and there are a lot of pitfalls. I am not a lawyer, and cannot advise beyond "ouch, complicated and risky."

Is it safe to bluff? Well, yeah, in practice pretty much. You can just fold if a counter notice comes back. There may be some ways you can get hammered here, but the normally if you filed a DMCA takedown, you will just fold at this point, and the alleged infringer wins.

Technically, though, you probably shouldn't be submitting the notice in the first place if you're not prepared to back it up in court. The DMCA is not a toy, it is not a tool for harassing people you're angry with, and it is not a hammer of automatic victory for copyright holders.

It's just step one in a legal process that leads in a short number of well-defined steps to the courtroom.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Changin' Times (ToP)

Mike over on The Online Photographer put up a piece a little while ago, Changin' Times. One the one hand, it is simply a lament for times gone by which, while not perfect, were, at least better defined than today I guess.

The remarks and the following comments on books are interesting and tinged with tragedy. Those 3,000 book editions are gone. If you think that you, as an artist, might get a book deal and reach the world through that book, you are mistaken. I just spent a few minutes on the web sites of Steidl and Taschen. Almost entirely retrospectives. Probably a few Kim Kardashians and celebrity chefs if you dig a bit. The lesser publishers who can't access the catalogs of the Great Names of Yore are publishing small editions of MFA-driven bullshit.

You can still "break in" here if you spend a bunch of money on an MFA, and then raise another $10,000 to $30,000 or whatever to fund this great book deal you got, and maybe you'll sell a couple hundred copies. Your MFA program will have ruined your photography, though, so most likely a lot of the books will sit in a warehouse until the publisher goes bust and then they'll be pulped.

Nope. Small is the future.

There are small publishers doing small runs of books with decent pictures, I gather. And there's the print-on-demand thing, so pooh-poohed on ToP (which is of course where my hackles went up).

The people selling 1000+ photography books are, more often than not, doing it on print-on-demand platforms. There isn't any fundamental difference between printing at some bush-league Art Publisher and printing at Blurb, at the end of the day you get a bunch of pages with ink smeared on them, and it's more or less your job to persuade someone to buy them, if that's your jam.

Anyone who actually knows how to sell things into the general book market knows your book won't sell, so it's back to the well for another Kertész retrospective, which will sell. You and your photos do not figure, in this scenario.

The idea of some sort of global reach is dead, dead, dead, unless you happen to already be dead (or very old). Success in this sense is entirely about carving out a niche, finding and building an audience for your work.

Having cleared that away, I have some ideas. These are sketches, not final details; ideas, not a plan as such.

There isn't any reason you can't run an imprint with blurb as your backend printing platform, and their integration makes them pretty attractive for this.

I have this notional imprint, Rogue Photo. It consists of: an idea, and one part-time staffer (me). I have no budget. I have no audience. I have no equipment. I have access to exactly zero experts. I have no distribution channel. And so on, if you can think of it, I haven't got it.

So let's suppose you Publish With Rogue Photo. On the strength of my non-audience, maybe we could sell 4 books. That sounds awful, but consider that a minor publisher can sell maybe 100 books on the strength of their name, and a major one can sell maybe 1000 books. The gap between 4 and 100 isn't actually that enormous. We're only talking 96 books here. That's like one box.

So, how would it work? Well, if anything actually got sold or even given away (which is an entirely optional, Rogue Photo isn't really about getting books into people's hands, it's about making books), it would have to be on the strength of your name. Which seems a bit unfair, what the hell is Rogue Photo actually bringing?

At this point? Basically nothing except a single part-time staffer (me) who has a proven track record of getting shit done, which is maybe just what you need.

If, perchance, some things moved out into the hands of some people on the strength of your name, well, that would certainly burnish the good name of Rogue, wouldn't it? The next artist along might sell 8 books on the strength of the Rogue Photo name! And so on.

If money started to happen, even in very modest amounts, my tendency would be to plow it back in to artists. I mean, I might buy myself a cookie or two as well, it's not my intention to run a charity here, but I don't really need money. Suppose, in a year or two, RP had managed to sell 500 books total, for a total markup of, I dunno, $1000 or something. I am just picking numbers out of my ass.

Whoever made the books would get a piece of that, obviously. Per previous remarks, before we even got there we'd all know where we stood and with any amount of luck everyone would be happy. Rogue (me) might pocket $500 of that, let's say. After my cookie, there's $495.50 left over. Some of that might could go to giving an advance to an emerging artist. At some point, in this merry fantasy, I suppose someone's got to write some bloody contracts, which sounds awful.

Before someone complains that there's no accountability, what guarantee do we have that the $495.50 is going back to artists let me answer that: you don't. By agreement, it would already be my money, you have only your knowledge of my sunny personality to support the idea that I might plow it back into paying artists.

Still, if we're going to usher in a brave new world of indie publishing, some blood's going to spill, I guess.

An outfit like Taschen brings a bunch of stuff to the table: designers, printers, paper choices, distribution channels, a rolodex full of Important People, and the Taschen Name.

Print on demand makes a lot of that stuff irrelevant. All the details of getting books built go away. Distribution and connections is still real, and most real of all is the name recognition. These things, however, can be built. Taschen's reputation is borrowed from the artists and writers that have published there. They can access Doisneau's catalog because they are Taschen -- and they are Taschen because they access it.

The point here is that when you publish with someone, that imprint gets to borrow your audience, however large it is. If you have 100 followers on instagram, and you tell them you just did a book with Rogue Photo, Roque's audience just jumped up. If the book is good, and by some miracle 30 people outside your instagram lay hands on a copy, ditto. Your name, and the name Rogue Photo, just got a bit of a polish.

It's probably never going to be global. I don't want to be global, so in the event of some fantastical sequence of events I would probably ruin it kind of slightly maybe on purpose but mostly on accident.

So, that's what it looks like. I am not exactly getting snowed under with proposals. In the sense that I have received zero. I myself have a thing in the pipeline, so the presses will be kept busy, though, so never worry!

Conscientious Photography

I gotta say, this piece from Colberg was a slightly surreal read so close on the heels of my remarks on Sentiment.

Saturday, March 2, 2019


No, not tuberculosis! Not this time, anyways.

Indulge me as I relate a series of thoughts I had, which led me, well, somewhere. You'll see. I read an anecdote about a workshop, a photography workshop in a far off land. In that day's region, there was A Shot which everyone takes, and the workshop organizer performed yeoman's work getting everyone an excellent spot to take the sunrise shot. Well done, workshop organizer. My reaction was why in God's name would everyone want to take the same shot, which is the canonical shot that everyone takes when they're in that area?

Tending, on my better days, to lean toward intellectual honesty, I asked myself if there was any analogous thing that I did. I came up with one. When my family was in Memphis, TN, some years ago, we acquired and ate fried chicken, because that is a thing you do in Memphis. Then we went to Graceland, ditto. Poking around, I came up with more things I have done, would like to do, and that other people do, and the category into which all of these fall became clear.

They were all consumption of one sort or another. Consuming an experience, food, ideas, and so on.

This reveals, I think, something interesting about those Standard Shots that the serious amateur photographer seems to be infatuated with. Taking them is less an act of creation, and more an act of consumption. It is, I think, rather strange to view this act -- the taking of a photo -- which is widely construed to be a creative one, and to see it as instead an act of consumption. In a sense, the photographer is having an experience, they are playing the part of a photographer. Ansel Adams shoots Half Dome, and generations of followers place their tripod feet in his tripod's holes, and for a moment they are Ansel Adams. This is the experience they seek, that they consume. In the end, they have a memento, a photograph, proof and a memory trigger for that experience they had.

Now, I cannot in good conscience condemn this. I consume much in my life. For 20-odd years I did just the same thing with the camera, although I did not recognize it as consumption until today. I thought of it as creation. I read books, I eat food, I watch movies, and so on. I consume a great deal more that I create.

Of course, one does not divide photography into two strictly separated kinds. It's always a little from column A and a little from column B. Column A, in this case, is about bringing things from the world in to oneself, that essential character of consumption. Column B is, naturally, the opposite, it's about taking things from inside ourselves, and pushing them out into the world.

We try, of course, with our Ansel Adams copies, and our Gary Winogrand copies, to push them out. We print them and frame them and hang them on the wall. We put them in books and try to sell those. We go to Art Fairs with our hopeful boxes of mounted prints. Maybe we sell some, maybe we don't. But, whether people take them, whether the world will accept our offerings and carry them away, there is often little to nothing of ourselves in these pictures. They're mementos of an experience, of a moment of playacting, that happen to have a certain visual appeal (or not).

The distinction I draw here, then, is not about whether we can sell these things, whether we can persuade people to take them away, or even whether people like them or not. It is about the impulse that produces these objects. Is the impulse one of drawing out something from inside ourselves, or is it one of pushing things in to ourselves?

It strikes me that the vast majority of photographs made by the Serious Amateur are of the latter kind. They are rooted in an impulse to, say, photograph the moon, or any number of related impulses that boil down to I want to make a picture like that! These all have essentially the character of consumption, these are all about the photographer's desire to experience something, to do a certain thing, and there is nothing, really, of a desire to communicate, to put something out there. The workshop industry, being almost entirely about wandering around a set path taking a series of more or less set photographs is of course entirely this. Workshops might as well be carnival rides.

When people do concern themselves with the fact that all these bloody pictures look the same, they usually seem to salve themselves with the notion that they are practicing, that they are developing necessary skills to be used in some sort of nebulous future. The trouble here is that the skills they're actually practicing are trivial, and the skills they need appear no place on the menu. Dicking around with lights is easy, at least when compared with the labor of revealing some emotional depth, the labor of clawing something from the depths of ourselves and, somehow, rendering it in a picture.

Interestingly, I suspect that the vernacular photograph partakes far less of this. While in Paris, the snapshooter does not want a shot of the Eiffel Tower. The snapshooter wants a selfie with the Eiffel Tower in the background which is a completely different thing. It is, surely, a memento of an experience, but the experience is not that of being a photographer. The experience is, of course, of being in Paris.

The driving impulse is not: I want to photograph the Eiffel Tower (consumption)

it is: I want to show everyone I am in Paris! (communication)

What I want to do, of course, is to take as much from Column B as possible. I want to take things from inside of myself and push them out there. I don't give much of a damn about the experience of Being a Photographer and in fact I don't much enjoy it.

I think one could make a strong argument that much of the Photography Industry is in the business of facilitating consumption, in this sense, while simultaneously selling itself as facilitating creation. What the industry actually sells is Column A, but it pitches its product as Column B.

Which might be the single neatest way I have of summarizing my distaste for the Workshop Industry and its poor relations.

Friday, March 1, 2019

A Motif


The Pictorialists got a lot of grief, and still do, for being sentimental. They compounded their problem by being preachy and mawkish to boot, and if you look closely you might decide that the problem actually isn't the sentimentality, but rather the preachy mawkishness.

I've shared various work by M. Frédérick Carnet here, and I continue to think that he is excellent. Some time, not too long ago, he sent me a link to some more recent work. To my shame, I did not (and still have not) replied to him about it. Basically, I recognized the new work as Distinctly Carnet, but somehow I didn't like it as much as I have liked his previous things. I could not put my finger on why, but I think I have worked it out.

Here is the new work he directed me to: Les faces cachées, and here, for reference, is some of the earlier work from him that I like rather better: The last first day.

Both are distinctly surrealist, there are certain visual tools he is using that are shared between the two, and so on. Neither is particularly warm or hope-filled.

Here is the distinction which I think is critical to me. "The last first day," with its overtones of loss and maybe disaster, implies a warmth and a hope, a sentimentality, which is lost. Or perhaps has moved. One feels the absence. There is a space left on the page of the right shape. On the other hand "Les faces cachées" does not seem to me to contain any particular warmth or hope, nor does it particularly imply these things as absences. These are pictures that strike me as being without sentiment, particularly. There isn't any warmth, nor is there a space left by absent warmth. There is no handle, as it were, for me to access any kind of meaning in them, as there is with "The last first day."

It is this lack of sentiment which, I think, I feel so often in contemporary photography. The work simply feels cold, calculating, cynical. There is some sort of core of nihilisim in it, or perhaps merely of pure commerce. I see female artists removing their clothes, but failing to reveal themselves. They appear to me to be exposing their breasts and genitals in order to provoke a critical reaction from older male critics, and that's about it. I see artists taking willfully emotionless photographs of cities, buildings, fields, roads.

Here we have a bit of hagiography in that bastion of great journalism, the New York Times, about Alec Soth: "A Year of fuck it I can't bear to type it out". The line that lept out to me is this one: He was, as the New York Times critic Hilarie M. Sheets once noted, especially adept at “finding chemistry with strangers,” particularly “loners and dreamers” he met in his travels.

This is a remarkable statement, that could only be made by someone who hasn't actually looked at any of Alec Soth's photographs. His signature is, quite literally, people looking uncomfortable, out of place, off-kilter. Shot, naturally, on a large format film. Soth's work is profoundly unsentimental, profoundly nihilist, and anyone who says he's finding chemistry with strangers is simply an idiot, blind, or both.

I have no particular evidence of it, but it seems probable to me that sentiment is simply out of fashion. I imagine contemporary artists and critics looking at sentimental pictures and dismissing them as "too easy" and turning back to their chilly bullshit.

In a sense, there is something true about this. It is easy to bang out overtly sentimental pictures, and it can be done very lazily. Much of contemporary critique of photojournalism centers around this: the shot of the weeping/starving/injured child in the midst of disaster. It's an easy shot, it's a common shot, it's the shot that wins the prizes (because, while lazy, it is effective.)

What is left out of the analysis is this: while it is indeed easy to bang out sentimental (mawkish) pictures, this does not imply that all sentimental pictures are easy. I point again to Carnet's "The last first day" which is by no means easy, lazy, or simple. It has real depth, and also sentiment. Also, see every single picture Sally Mann has ever taken (the attentive reader probably knew that was coming, no?)

All this sets aside that nihilistic pictures are even easier to make than mawkish ones. One simply points the camera at mud, or at a peevish and uncomfortable model, and presses the button.

When I was working on my Alley project, I had a lot of pictures and ideas sloshing around in my head. There was a lot of technical detail that seemed important, there was a rather large basket of record shots of this and that. There were pictures of people, of cats, of plants, of stones, of water. There were details of things that expressed my personal affection for the space.

Early incarnations of the thing tended toward the factual. I found myself gradually integrating more factual material, drawing cross-sections of the alley construction and eventually downloading the city's specifications for alley construction.

At some point in here I specifically thought: this needs more sentimentality. Which, in hindsight, seems kind of obvious. If you're integrating construction diagrams into your work, it probably need some damned sentiment.

The whole point of this project is that I have certain feelings about this alley on which I live. I have a relationship which is essentially emotional to that space that runs up and down behind my house. The technical details are also interesting, and certainly are a piece of the puzzle, but the basis upon which the project was built is essentially emotional.

And so I made a folder entitled "Love" and I started putting pictures into it. In the end, it is a few of those pictures which appear at the end of the magazine I made. The magazine begins with a lot of historical and technical text and drawings, record shots of details, and so on, and gradually disintegrates into what I fondly imagine to be a poetic, a lyrical, meditation on my alley and how I feel about it. Because that is the point.

At the end of the day, the Artist specifically, and the Photographer generally, is surely seeking to communicate. If the goal is to communicate technical, factual, detail, then the photograph specifically, and Art generally, is perhaps not the right medium (although a technical communication may incorporate photography, or Art).

No, the communication of photography, of Art, has to be essentially emotional. There must be a bedrock of sentiment upon which the thing stands, otherwise there isn't any point. There is nothing to communicate, no shared experience, nothing of note or worth.

The modern nihilism in Art is a failure, which leads nowhere.