Monday, April 29, 2019

Public Photos/Private Photos

I am reading essays by John Berger. I wouldn't say he was always right, but he was always interesting!

In today's installment, he distinguishes between public and private, or personal, photos. By the latter he means things like family snapshots. Photographs which come burdened with a fairly complete context. The photograph of grandma refers to grandma, and grandma is woven into the story of our lives by an infinitude of infinitesimal strands. The photograph has a complex, complete, and fairly fixed meaning for us in the family.

The other sort of photo is precisely the photo which lacks these connections, this interweaving. An advertising photo, a news photo, anything. That photo, let us prise it apart from any surrounding material it currently lies within, does not come encumbered. We do not know these people, that place, those objects. That photo is nothing more than an instant torn out of time and place, and printed out flat.

As such, that photo, the public photo, becomes something of a potential explosive. It can be made in to anything. It can be married to any story you like. It can be re-contextualized falsely, or truly, or anywhere in between, insofar as those categories are even meaningful. The material from which we, maybe, a moment ago pried this photo loose did provide context, did weave that photo in to something, maybe. But, what was that something? It could have been anything. Nearly any photograph can be bent to nearly any end.

Consider this picture:

There's a good chance that you'll recognize it as a pearl. Real or fake? Saltwater or fresh? I don't know if there are ways to distinguish in this photo, and there's a reasonable chance that you don't either. You can't even tell how big it is.

I could use this for an advert. I could illustrate a fake news article about oyster abuse in pearl farming operations. You could use it however you like (and, indeed, this photo appears in REACT so if you want an actual legal license to do pretty much anything you want with it, you can acquire one fairly simply.)

Berger suggests that photographs like this should be given a context, they should be embedded in more stuff in order that they might acquire meaning. He makes the obvious, in hindsight anways, claim that you should make that context multidimensional. To give this pearl meaning, I should tell you, somehow, how it is woven into the fabric of my life. I could tell you this with more pictures, with words, with drawings, with interpretive dance. It doesn't matter.

I could tell you, perhaps, that it is my wife's earring, that these earrings were (as I recall, anyways) purchased to match a pearl pendant she owns, one of several pendants she has to hang on the single gold chain she owns. I could tell you about how my children, two daughters, are fascinated (as children are) with my wife's jewelry, and how we have come to expect a gradual erosion of that collection under the clumsy ministration of small, beloved, hands.

I could research, and then tell you, a true story about pearl farming. I don't know anything about it, but I could find out, and then tell you.

I could tell you about the basement where I made this photograph, the light, the funnel I made out of a scrap of metal I used to repair a duct after I cut it open to retrieve a toy, lost down the duct by small, beloved, hands. That story, I already told you, though.

This article on Petapixel, written by Missy MWAC (who is a perhaps mid-functioning moron) seems relevant. What she, and the commenters, are not grasping is the way that personal photos become gradually shorn of their context, and thus of their meaning, and thus at last of their value.

Everyone wants the photos of themselves, and maybe of their siblings, parents. Aunts and uncles? Less so, Great grandparents? Not at all. The reason is that as these people, these events, the objects, recede in time they disentangle themselves from the fabric of our lives. The loom weaves on. The infinitude of infinitesimal threads binding great-grandfather to the fabric are way, way, over there. There are many many yards of cloth from there to where we begin to recognize anything. The reason we save photos from fires is because those are contemporary photographs. The reason we do not want recently-deceased Grandmother's photo albums is because they are not.

We know nothing of these people, after a time, they have no connection to us. They become, effectively, shorn of context and become isolated fragments of time, isolated instants from a time far distant, meaning nothing. Flip it over and there are maybe names and dates, but so what? We know, maybe, intellectually, where the pretty young woman fits into the big chart Great Aunt Lucy made of the family tree, but so what? The tree ends at our parents, and we never met, not do we know anyone who ever met, anyone more than a couple of inches away from their names.

More precisely, the value of family photos lies exactly in how strong our personal connections are. If our family is large but close-knit, with strong bonds and a rich story-telling tradition, we will love photographs from a more distant past. If your family is more like mine, a small nuclear family and a cloud of strangers, well, less so. No matter what, though, eventually all these things will recede far enough into the distance to mean nothing.

These photos then become like my pearl. They will become something else. Most likely, they will become refuse. Possibly they will fall victim to some MFA student's found photography book, and will be shoved in next to some pictures of Nazis or turnips in a desperate attempt to mean something. Perhaps they'll get sold to a greeting card company, which will sell copies of them adorned with captions, humorous up here, poignant down there to the left.

Obviously, I agree with Berger, at least in broad strokes.

Photographs, any photographs, should be placed together with other materials to give them meaning.

Post-modernists discovered that fragments shorn from their context meant nothing, and conversely that cleaved to their context they had only a constructed meaning, and then, inexplicably, concluded that meaning itself was a sham.

This is wrong.

Meaning is a construct. Fragments, properly assembled, become more than the sum of their parts, they become a fabric and well-made fabric has meaning. A thread will not cover my nakedness, and 10,000 loose threads will do a marginally better, but still very bad, job. Weave them into fabric, cut and sew that fabric into a shirt, and it will adequately conceal my pale, gelatinous, form from the horrified eyes of the public.

More often than not what we make with our pictures resembles a tangle mess of threads that perform no function, but every now and then, maybe we can make a shirt, and cover up our bellies.

Friday, April 26, 2019


One of the endlessly repeating threads of Internet Discussion about Photography is the question of archiving. Photographers, especially the old guard ("back in my day we had to get it right in the camera, ahem") who dominate these discussions are obsessed with archiving, and will ramble on tediously about RAID arrays, and how many terabytes of RAW files they have lying around. You can practically see them stroking their beards, fussing with their pipes, and resting their large, moist, hands on their prodigious bellies as their audience gets some much-needed rest.

I'm going to break it down for you in practical terms, and then offer up an alternative posture that you can think about.

Are just practicing? Do you go shoot a bunch of birds, or models, or whatever, and then put a selected subset up on instagram or flickr or some forum to get feedback, and that's about it?

You can delete everything immediately. Upload it, throw it away, and move on. Admit it, you're never going to do anything with any of your pictures, nobody is ever going to want them, you are never going to look at them again. Upload, delete, and watch the likes roll in.

Do you occasionally finish things? Great. Hang on to your pictures until you've finished the thing. Then throw everything away. Or, if you want, archive the "finals" for the project. You did cull out almost everything you shot, and keep only a small percentage for the finished thing, whatever it was, right? Throw everything else away. Yes, yes, some day maybe you'll... no you won't. Admit it. You're never going to go back through the rejects looking for missed gold. You're too busy taking new pictures (or you're bored with photography.)

Do you have actual clients? HOLY SHIT! A REAL UNICORN! Ok, unicorn, steady now. In the first place you probably know what the hell you're doing already. But I will offer my opinion anyways. Keep the stuff that you have a contractual obligation to keep, and maybe keep the things that a client might reasonably ask for in future. It's the nice thing to do. But be honest, don't keep bullshit that you are not legally obligated to keep, and which nobody will ever want to look at. Throw it out.

Also, try to avoid contracts that obligate you to keep things. That feels like a liability you don't need to carry.

These schmucks with five copies of every RAW file they've ever shot, one on a rotating series of hard disks shipped for security to a vault in Norway? Those guys? They're just throwing their pictures away in a very complex and expensive fashion. You really think they're gonna be able to find that one out of focus shot of a pileated woodpecker they took on their camping trip in Wisconsin, some time in the fall of either 2015 or 2016? Of course they can't. Even if they could, they're not going to spend the hour digging around through 8 possible different hard drives that sit on a shelf. These people aren't even camera enthusiasts, they're storage enthusiasts, and they suck at storage.

When you post something on Facebook or Instagram, it is for all intents and purposes gone in a couple of days. Sure, your audience could laboriously click back in time to it, but they're not going to. Every now and then Facebook will dredge up some of this jetsam under the banner of "8 years ago today" at which point it's visible, but meaningless.

By creating a system of hard disks and RAID arrays and secure offsite storage you are merely recreating this phenomenon at your own expense, and with great effort. The fact that the relevant bits are somewhere, in 5 copies, does not mean they're not gone. D.B. Cooper's mortal remains are somewhere too. Perhaps your pileated woodpecker is somewhere nearby?

Here is the alternative attitude to adopt: this is all ephemera, except for a few select things that I fix into my world in one way or another. There are a few dozen, perhaps a few hundred, photographs that I choose to live with, to have actively present in my life. Prints, books, electronic frames, coffee cups, whatever. Every now and then a small handful of the pictures I take makes it into that select group.

Everything else is trash, or if you prefer, is mayflies. Throw it all away.

You don't have to adopt this attitude, but it might pay you to roll it around your mouth and experiment with the taste, see if there's something there you can use.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

So You Want to Make a Zine?

Well, you probably don't want to make a zine, but let's pretend, because I made one and have some pictures.

For our purposes here, the zine in question is going to be a stapled-on-the-spine object, about 20ish pages long, mostly black and white unless you really want to start spending some money. I designed such a thing.

I had a handful of photos that I'd made, that I liked ok and considered to be tentatively freighted with meaning. Meaning which, alas, I could not myself discover. And so, I made up a little magazine with the pictures recto and an inviting space verso and some preamble text inviting the holder of this printed object to write in it, draw in it, carve it up, or otherwise seek some meaning. Inscribed also is a generous license, the substance of which is: if you have a PDF, you are allowed to print it; if you have a printed copy which you have modified in any way, you may obtain digital copies of the pictures from me and use them any way you like.

The thing is called REACT because I hope that the reader will.

The pictures I did in the way I always do, in GIMP, but you may use whatever your normal photographic tools are, if any. Let us consider the pictures themselves a solved problem.

I did the design and layout in Google's Docs tool, which is terrible, but there you have it. It does not understand left/right pages, all pages are equal to Docs. Usually I use OpenOffice or Blurb's toolchain. InDesign, I dare say, would be quite a bit better than either of those, and stratospherically better than Google's atrocity.

If you make left and right margins equal, this defines the inner margins. Then you can physically trim your book to define the outer margins. Alternatively, you may be able to use Docs with two columns on a landscape page, and thereby "lay out" a spread at a time, rather than a page at a time.

Let us assume, though, that you are using a fairly normal editing tool, and struggling through the limitations of same. Don't forget to insert a page or two of front matter (a half-title page, a dedication, a colophon, a masthead, whatever suits your fancy, but do put something in). Try to give the pages a little structure. Don't use many fonts, and keep them simple.

At some point here you will have a PDF file, I dare say, filled with pictures, some design elements, and perhaps some text. At least a little.

The problem you will now encounter is how to get this PDF into "booklet order" printed two-up (two pages to the page). I assume here that you do not wish to print quarto fashion, or any of the more exotic folded forms. We're printing folio fashion here, each printed sheet intended to be folded once. Your first sheet of paper will need to have the first and last pages printed two-up on one side, and then the second page and second-to-last page two-up on the other side. Folded in half, this will make the outermost layer of your zine. And so on.

Here is the first content sheet of REACT. The title page is the first page, and the colophon page (on the other side of the sheet) is second. The blank page you see first is actually the last page of the book, and the picture of the toy cowboy is second to last. Visualize folding this thing, and then inserting other folded pages into it, as if you were a filing clerk.

I know of 4 solutions here.

The first is to lay your book out in the right order in the first place, which is crazy, and fairly hard.

The second is to calculate the right ordering for the pages, and put these page numbers into the Print dialog of a suitably capable printer interface. My Windows laptop flips out if I try to print pages out of order, but your equipment may differ. For a 20 pages zine you put in something like: 20,1,2,19,18,3,4,17,16,5,6,15,14,7,8,13,12,9,10,11 and request that the printer print this out double-sided, flip-on-short-side, two-up. This will produce 5 sheets of paper.

The third and easiest, I think, is a tool called BookletCreator which consumes a PDF file, and produces a re-ordered PDF file. It can also handle multiple quires, and I think it can handle quarto style and so on. This stuff is not rocket science, but nobody seems to have bothered to simply write a good tool that just does it, other than this one.

Fourth, the Adobe tools know how to do this too, in the print/output dialogs you select Booklet and, um, follow along I guess. I have not used this.

I use BookletCreator, and because I use the somewhat limited free version, I jump through extra hoops, but it works fine.

So now you have a PDF file with a bunch of stuff that can simply be printed two-sided, flip-on-short-side, and hopefully the pages will simply fold and nest into a zine.

Print them out. Print one copy out on cheap paper, and assemble it, before you go ahead and print out 100 copies on expensive paper. After you have assembled it, write PROOF on it somewhere obvious, so it does not create confusion later. Keep it around for reference.

Now you have 1 or more copies of this thing printed out. Perhaps you printed covers separately (maybe the cover is color, on different paper, or whatever). Maybe you have some color sheets, and some black and white sheets.

If you plan any hand work, now is a good time to do it. My zine, being a Rogue Photo product, has a red spine which I simply drew on to the cover pages with a Red Micron #05 pen.

Sort them out and stack them up, unfolded. Check to make sure that all is in-order and that the pages will lie correctly once the thing is folded and stapled. Check that all pages are right side up.

Now you're going to need either a saddle stapler or an extension stapler. Either way, figure out where the spine (the fold) will occur. If you're saddle-stapling, fold first then staple. With an extension stapler, you staple first, then fold. I have an extension stapler, because my wife loves me very much indeed.

Staple at the spine, making sure to keep the zine's pages absolutely square to the stapler (a saddle stapler makes this easier - if your fold is square to the pages, the staples will go in square to the pages). Do the middle staple first. Don't bang on the stapler, press firmly. With authority, but not gusto. Staple as well as you can, but don't go crazy. If something isn't placed just so or perfectly square, it's gonna work out OK anyways.

Now fold, I press a crease in with my thumb at each staple, to set the line of the spine's crease, and then run my thumb along to press an initial crease in.

Once stapled and initially folded, a bone folder can be used to sharpen up the spine. I use a scrap of waste paper to protect the zine, because a bone folder tends to polish the paper.

At this point if you happen to own a book press, or a binder's hammer, you might want to deploy it. A sheet of paper, even sleek, modern, paper benefits from pressure and time to find itself against a new sheet of paper. I stack things up, and place a weight atop the stack. Usually a couple of good heavy books. Then I leave this stack overnight. This will make the crease of the spine even more definite, and will help the pages find one another and lie together more pleasantly.

Last, trim. Most likely the three edges of the zine which are not the spine are a little ragged. One pages is a trifle higher than the next, and the pages in the middle stick out a bit at the front relative to the cover. Plus, there might be a little damage around the edges, and maybe your design didn't quite make it out to the edges of the page in the first place. Printers are very unwilling to put ink at the very edge of the page, after all.

For all these reasons, you want to trim top, bottom, and front of the zine. I use a steel ruler, an xacto knife, and a cutting mat. You might choose a good quality guillotine or other cutter capable of cleanly shearing 20-30 sheets of paper at once.

I did the printing at my local Kinko's because it's just a short walk away. They have a 32 pound paper that's very white, targeted at high quality color printing (not photographs, just charts and things, but it also renders photos rather well). They'll sell it for 20 cents a sheet (yikes!) or $16 for 500 sheets, so I did the latter, and used 120 sheets for this project. They have some very good quality Canon machines out front where you can do your own thing at your own pace, which I did.

REACT is 20 pages content, which comes out to 5 sheets of paper printed double-sided, and then a cover printed single-sided. That's 6 sheets of paper (call it 4c a sheet and pay for the staples out of the excess) and 11 sides of black and white printing at 14c a side, for a total of $USD 1.78 a copy. That is somewhat cheaper, I think, than I can get from blurb which would want something in the area of $USD 3.00 for this category of product.

Throw in color and my cost climbs. A lot. Blurb wins hands down for color, because their price remains much the same.

And there you have it. Now I am going to drop these things in random coffee shops around town, because that's what I do.

For information on the content, see this companion post on the Rogue Photo publishing blog!

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Difficulty with Straight Photography

When someone paints Aphrodite, they probably get themselves a model and have her strip down, and then the paint a picture of her, and then they lard the painting up with all sorts of clues, a bunch of symbolic objects so that the educated will know that the girl in the picture is Aphrodite. The point here is that the picture is a picture of Aphrodite. The model was just a reference to be sure the painter didn't have to keep muttering "face, boobs, navel, THEN knees" to himself over and over.

Photography trying the same game has trouble because there's the model right there in the picture. It's harder to get around her to Aphrodite. Pictorialists had a bunch of ideas (a bunch of different ideas, notably, it's not just "make it all blurry") to help out with this, but in the end the Art Establishment decreed that none of these ideas really worked, and that photography really had to get back to admitting that the model is, after all, the model, and there she is.

And so we have straight photography which is, like it or not, the dominant form of photography today. Certainly there are people painting all over their photos and making collages and whatnot, but they're constantly being glared at by everyone else. If you want to be recognized, unambiguously, as a photographer without any caveats or asterisks you pretty much need to be shooting fairly straight. And that really just means that the picture is first and foremost about what was in front of the lens.

The model is present.

Virtually all photography done today just stops there. Large swathes of serious photographers have no ambition beyond rendering a pleasing account of what is in front of the lens. Billions of phone owners just snap their friends, their cars, their lunches for no reason but to show these items to other people, the purest form of representation maybe.

I am on the record as a snob, as a seeker of something more. Not to denigrate the straight representations of things, I like those too. But I believe that more is possible, and that more is what interests me.

So, what is the more? I will use, rather loosely, the word allegory. In a painting of Aphrodite, we see a kind of an allegory for the goddess of myth. The painting isn't her, but the idea of her is mashed into it someplace. When Weston rattles on about "seeing plus" what he means is that his green pepper is somehow more than a green pepper. When Cartier-Bresson goes on about the "decisive moment" he means that moment when the scene in front of him is not merely a bunch of kids playing in the street, but becomes something more.

Straight photography, being as it were "subject forward" is a bit strapped when it comes to what this notional allegory is an allegory of. Now comes perhaps the dumbest-sounding thing I have ever said, in a lifetime of saying dumb shit:

The photographer's job, therefore, is to find the moment, the point of view, in which the stuff in front of the lens manifests itself as, in some sense, an allegory of itself.

Straight photography doesn't really permit allegories of anything else because if you do that you're basically just a dirty pictorialist. At the same time Art demands an allegory, so there you are kind of boxed into a corner. You're stuck with the thing as an allegory of itself.

I think this is really what all the theorist-photographers of the 20th century were banging on about. There's a bunch of ways to say it, to approach it, and a bunch of different results. Is it allegory for my emotional response to the mountain, or is it an allegory for my Impression of the mountain? Maybe it's an allegory for the mountain-ness of the mountain! Maybe it's an allegory for the valley/pass/river/forest implied by the mountain.

Anyways, poncy as it sounds, I think it's a useful handle (for me, anyways) to grab hold of when I'm trying to make something out of something.

You can use it too!

Tulip as an allegory for Tulip.
Also, apparently I cannot stop taking
this fucking picture.

The allegory of the lineman

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The History of the Digital Transition

Mike over on ToP recently wrote what amounts to a kind of request for a History of the Digital Transition by which he means, roughly, a history of the last 20 years of photography during which photography changed over from analog film to digital sensors, more or less abruptly and completely.

I do not intend to write that history, here or anywhere else. I do intend to discuss some of the problems inherent in such a project.

Histories of Photography tend to be built around two intertwined strands. The first is technical: the tools, chemistry, and methods of photography and the evolution of them. The second thread is a variation on the Great Man approach to historiography, in which central figures are identified, biographied, and their influences traced.

The Great Man approach to history generally casts the Great Men as exceptional, and causal. The conceit is that without Napoleon, the relevant portions of European Political History would have been radically different. The opposing viewpoints assert that without Napoleon, more or less the same things would have occurred under the leadership of another man, or other men, because of social and political reasons. While one might argue about Napoleon, the situation in photography is far clearer.

Fixing the image cast in the camera obscura was a project western Europe was embarked on in the early 1800s. Without Talbot or Daguerre, almost no change. Someone else would have invented similar methods. Perhaps there would only have been one, using sheepskin, rather than two, one using paper and the other silver-plated metal sheets. Without Robinson, someone else would have risen up to thunder Ruskin's philosophies at the burgeoning photographic world. Without Emerson, someone else would have fired back from the redoubts of Impressionism. Without Stieglitz, well, ok, Stieglitz. Probably someone or several someone's would have arisen, likely in New York, to champion American Photography. And so on.

It is exquisitely clear that the technical evolution of photography was more or less inevitable, and that Great Men would crop up out of the social context to perform the specific roles that they performed.

This is not to suggest that Talbot and Daguerre and Emerson and Steichen were not influential. They assuredly were. What they were not is particularly causal. These roles had to be played, would inevitably have been played, and history quite properly records those roles, the relations between those roles, and the ways the roles influenced the progression, the history, of photography. And, while we're in there, we might as well assign the names. But make no mistake, Robinson's influence was the influence not really of Robinson, but of whomever it was that was assigned the job of translating Ruskin for photographers.

Fast forward to perhaps the 1970s, if you will. Ansel Adams is still rattling around the USA writing books, and working out his assigned role of promote straight photography, U.S.A. division and making quite a bit of money in the process. It is somewhere in here that the wheels begin to fall off the intertwined technique/great man approach to history. Technique rolls onwards, a few minor twiddles followed by the digital camera, but there are no Great Men nor even pretty ok people to carry your narrative.

Who, in the last 50 years, has really been leading the charge, telling us how we ought to photograph, what we ought to photograph, and why? Nobody? Or is it that there are too many?

Since the beginning, most photographers have been in some sense self-taught. One might learn a technique here, gather an idea there. A few went to schools, but many schools simply provided opportunities for students to teach themselves more efficiently. Few schools seem to have made any serious effort to transmit a philosophy or an aesthetic, to transmit anything of the sort art historians are in the business of documenting.

Replacing the kind of hands-on osmotic teaching that we find in schools of painting or the piano, we find instead authoritative voices thundering away in periodicals and books. Emerson's influence was not by way of teaching students, but by way of publishing opinions and ideas more or less widely read. Adams wrote any number of books on How and Why To Take Photos, which have been woefully influential, and remain so to a degree even today.

What seems to have happened in the end is a sort of fragmenting of these voices. Today we have literally thousands of people styling themselves as experts, each with some sort of following, each promoting some mixture of useful information (technical and/or aesthetic) and absolute nonsense (ditto.)

Coupled to this fragmentation of authority, we have a curious effect of technology.

In the olden days, each technology, each basket of materials and methods, produced specific looks and had specific working properties. As often as not we find Great Men expounding some particular selection of materials and methods as best suited to whatever they were selling. Adams promotes glossy silvery based paper, and a suite of chemistry, because it best suits his Precisionist tastes. Emerson promotes platinum paper and some methods, because they best suit his Impressionist theories.

In the digital era, all of these things are pressed into post-processing, and are available simultaneously through the application of suitable sliders or, worse, "presets" which you can purchase in bundles of 6,000 or 27,000 or 800 for a few dollars. The photographer, rather than selecting a collection of materials and techniques to laborious purchase and master, to accomplish one suite of looks, one kind of photography, now has access to all of them at once.

You can, as it were, switch in an instant from gum bichromate Pictorialism to glossy silver Precisionism to Cibachrome Egglestonism in the blink of an eye. There is no need to commit, you don't have to pick someone to follow. It's a mere click or two away to some other Youtube channel with 10 Fast Tricks for whatever it is that you glommed on to this morning.

We have always, really, had these ideas more or less floating around society in the minds of the masses, bashing in to one another and evolving. Ruskin's ideas about painting were there, they were going to be deployed into this new discipline of photography. From the historian's point of view, though, Robinson conveniently arose to personify, to embody, this abstraction. He can be biographied, he helpfully provided a selection of handy quotations and pictures that you can decorate that portion of the history book with, and so on.

In these modern times, and especially in the last 20 years, we have no such embodiment. The ideas are still out there, after a fashion, but they have no convenient personification.

Currently, for instance, we have a fad in portraiture for heavily processed skin, and oversharpened eyes. Many techniques exist for "skin work" one of which is "frequency separation" which has a particularly ugly look. It brings up the texture of the skin, but deletes imperfections, leaving an endless sea of glowing perfectly rendered pores, each the size of a bus. Add to this the creepy punched up eyes, and you have an archetypal look which has been quite popular of late.

Would you put this thing into your history of photography, 2016-2019? I don't know. Maybe. But if you did, how would you record it? It was not originated by any one person, it is a collection of techniques, some of which probably originated in the bowels of Adobe, some of which are probably misunderstandings of someone else's technique for doing something else. Is it commercially important? Not really. Is it a historically important style? I don't know, maybe? Certainly millions of words have been written about it, and hours of video tutorials exist on this basket of methods. It is surely more thoroughly documented than Emerson's Impressionistic methods of photography.

How do you write the contemporary history of color science? There are dozens of books, dozens of real authorities and thousands of false ones. There are, again, millions of words of misinformation and millions more words of information. There are theories and ideas. But I cannot detect any organizing principle which can be used to chop this mess down to size. You could simply review the facts of color science, I suppose, but that hardly seems a history.

In some ways I feel that we may be witnessing an end of history here, not in Fukuyama's sense but simply in the sense that the whole thing has gotten so shattered that no organizing structure is possible.

The death of the Great Man is probably a good thing, that was always bollocks, but I don't see anything else popping up to take his place.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

This Too Shall Pass

So, as most of us know, Notre-Dame de Paris had a fire which gutted the building pretty thoroughly. Actually, quite a lot of stuff was not burned up (apparently both organs are basically OK, and so on). Apparently you can drop a couple hundred tons of burning wood and lead onto that delicate vaulted ceiling and it doesn't collapse, mad props to the masons.

Predictably, there is global hand-wringing, and everyone suddenly remembers that the cathedral is the most important building in the world, and it is so sad. Humanity lionizes the recently departed, for some reason. I dare say a lot of the loudest moaners would have nodded sagely last week if you had shown them a photo of the cathedral captioned The Louvre.

We also, in these modern times, seem to be obsessed with preservation, especially of anything which smacks of Art. Buildings in the USA that are 100 years old are, to the amusement of everywhere else, added to Historic Registers and woe betide the owner, because now you can't change anything about the damned thing. You have to leave the single-glazed windows alone, and, yes, continue to heat it with increasingly difficult to obtain whale oil. Ansel Adams spawned a couple generations of photographers who obsessively wash their prints and negatives so as to ensure they will be in perfect condition when their heirs throw them into the inevitable dumpster.

The Wall Street Journal magazine recently had a fairly interesting article on the efforts the Vatican expends to maintain the Sistine Chapel in "like-new" condition. It is a constant, expensive, effort. They preserve where possible, and remake when necessary. Eventually, if this keeps up, the whole thing will have been remanufactured, brand-new as it were, but identical with the original.

Why did Ansel wash his prints so carefully? Why do we preserve these monuments in amber? Part of it is simply money. Adams wanted people to pay him large sums of money for those prints, and therefore built into his pitch that the damned thing was anyways long-lasting. Nobody wants to visit the New Sistine Chapel, they want to see the original. They want to visit the same Sistine Chapel that Doris-next-door was going on and on about.

Notre-Dame de Paris was, evidently, begun in 1160, which according to the popular press makes it 859 years old. This despite the fact that it was, maybe, a hole in the ground at the time. It was nominally completed in 1260, making it more like 759 years old (which is still very impressive). Since then it has undergone regular cycles of decrepitude due to neglect and war, followed by revitalization, all overlaid on a constant drumbeat of maintenance and modification. The most recent revitalization, spearheaded by Victor Hugo, seems to have launched the building squarely into the modern blob of amber, wherein it has resided more or less unchanged until April 15, 2019.

This place is not the Heart of France, it is not The Soul of the Earth, it is a building. It is a very well made pile of very carefully shaped rocks. Some day, it will be entirely gone. Some day, it will be forgotten. The three people injured in the fire? I begrudge Fate her bite at that apple, damn her eyes. The building? Not so much, this is simply the start of a new cycle of renewal, a new imagining of the building.

Art and indeed all the works of man are not eternal. They are made, they may have one or many lives, they pass on. If they did not, the earth would rapidly fill up with Art, so, in the end this is a good idea. Your photos do not have to last forever. Is a mayfly less wondrous and beautiful for lasting one day, rather like a photograph posted to instagram? I don't think so. If you made one picture which gave one person a single moment of sheer delight, would that not be more worthwhile than any pile of rocks in the middle of Paris? Notre-Dame's value, if any, was surely in the delight it gave to this person, or that person. Had it collapsed into rubble, well, there are other delights. We could say, perhaps, that the cathedral had done her work, yoeman's work in giving to the people joy, delight, a window into the sublime, and now she can, at last, rest.

It appears, though, that our lady of Paris will not go on to whatever peace it is that buildings find, she will be revived again, to serve another round of, well, of something. Probably it will involve many tourists and very few Parisians.

I hope they do something interesting with it. Would a glass spire be a bit too much? The gothic stonework already looks surprisingly like brutalist architecture, if you squint a bit. Maybe a bit of brushed aluminium and glass is just the thing. Of course, all Paris will hate it for a generation, but they never went to Notre Dame anyways.

We do not suffer by proxy as something wonderful is ruined. We are instead privileged to be present at the rebirth of something wonderful into something new. At any rate, we may hope for the Phoenix.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Global Art Market

Artists don't get paid. That is, generally speaking, artists don't get paid. Everyone else might make a buck, but not the artist. The gallery owner, the gallery director, the receptionist, the guy who paints the walls, the intern who hangs the stuff, the framer, the glazier, and so on. They all get paid. Maybe not the intern. The artist gets paid last, if at all.

This seems wildly unfair, and it surely is, but maybe not in the most obvious of ways. There's an annual report on the Art Market put out by Art Basel and UBS, and I spent some time with it. Interestingly, it breaks things down in ways that make detailed analysis of who's getting paid what pretty much impossible, although they clearly have the data. It's a report about trends and percentages and whatnot, mainly of interest to the people who already know who's getting paid (them) and who isn't (as few other people as possible). But, you can make some guesses.

The global art market is about $68 billion a year, which sounds like a great deal of money, right?

Well, it is, and it isn't. As nearly as I can tell roughly half of that money goes back to collectors who are selling pieces of art, at auction or in the secondary market through art dealers of various stripes. The other half goes to "the art industry" broadly construed, and includes commissions to auction houses, dealers, galleries, and it includes money paid to artists for their work. Call it $30 billion dollars, plus or minus $10 billion.

$30 billion also sounds like a lot, but it is and it isn't. You can afford 1,000,000 people an annual expense of $30,000 which includes their pay packets, benefits if any, the cost of keeping the lights on in the buildings, the cost of shipping art all over tarnation, the wine and cheese at the openings, at the art fairs, and all that stuff. Figure in the expenses, and imagine that you're paying people a living wage instead of whatever is left over of $30,000 after expenses, and you're employing maybe half a million people.

Which seems like a lot, right? But there's a hell of a lot of galleries out there. The Art Market report contains an estimate of 2.7 million people employed in the gallery and dealer industry, in almost 300,000 businesses. This means that there is something like $10,000 per employee on the table. If we're generous, maybe $15,000, pessimistic, maybe $5000.

Now, a certain amount of the money gets laundered through the system in a couple of passes. Someone might take home a little pay from one gallery, and pass that money on to pay a fee at another gallery, who in turn pays that money onwards to the receptionist. Economically, that dollar might count as 3-4 dollars, but would only show up as $1 in the Art Basel report (since I am considering only money coming in from the outside, not money moving around inside).

Another feature of the Art Basel report makes it clear that the money coming in is wildly tilted. The top ten percent of everything (galleries, auction houses, artists) take a lot more than 10 percent of the money. Now, again, we should wave our hands at the idea that money flows around inside the system -- a major artist taking in millions, in general, will spend a lot of those millions "inside" the industry. The artist probably has a factory with a bunch of assistants, each of whom are likely to be aspiring artists themselves, and so on.

No matter how you slice it, though, there simply isn't a lot of money on the table for an industry of this size.

At the end of the day, the receptionist is not going to answer the phone if he is unpaid, but the painter will paint whether you pay her or not. The stick has a very prominent short end, and it's obvious who's going to get it. And they do.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

On Observation

... an artist's observation is not just a question of of his using his eyes, it is the result of his honesty, of his fighting with himself to understand what he sees.

-- John Berger, 1964.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Black Hole Photo

As we all know, Scientists Have Photographed a Big Black Hole. With an array of radio telescopes and some software, apparently.

Lewis Bush and I had a short discussion about how one ought to think about this "photo" and then I thought about it some quietly by myself. As always in these things, you should assume that anything intelligent in what follows originated with Lewis, and anything stupid, with me.

A JPEG file is a collection of data, and a print made from it is a visualization of that data. It is in some ways no different from a chart of recorded temperatures over time, except that the data it is helping you visualize is the pattern of light cast by a certain lens on a certain surface, not a temperature. Analog film does not materially change this. It too collects readings of light-pattern data, and allows the visualization of that data on paper in much the same way a piece of litmus paper enables you to visualize the acidity of a solution.

Still, there is, it feels obvious, something critically different between a print from a JPEG and a paper strip recording temperature over time. Both are "mechanical" reproductions of data, and thus trustworthy in a certain sense. But the picture feels quite different.

The difference, I think, is that the picture allows us to apprehend the data in a way that mimics the original experience of seeing the whatever-it-was. Imagine that instead of a paper strip with temperatures, we had a device that "played back" the temperatures, perhaps by heating or cooling our fingertip. Now, rather than simply seeing "it got hotter at 10am" we can re-experience that heat to a degree.

The critical difference is that the print of the JPEG offers us the idea that it looked like that in a limited way, in the same way that the temperature gadget offers us a more direct line to it felt like that.

Scientific imaging is frequently presented in a way that is both data visualization, and it looked like that but only sometimes is the second part true.

Electron microscopy of a bug's nose is, arguably, a proper photograph. Sure, we would have to be very very small, but that is what the bug's nose would look like. Reconstructed color imagery of Saturn? Again, if we were hanging in space in the right spot, and maybe had somewhat more sensitive eyes that are nonetheless much like the eyes we have, sure, Saturn would actually look like that.

Those pictures of individual atoms that pop up from time to time? We begin to stray into strange territory. We might imagine ourselves very very small indeed, but with what are we "seeing" these atoms? Photons are the size of basketballs. There is really no way to imagine that atoms look like that in any meaningful way. These things are data visualizations that, while I think useful, stray out of the bounds of a proper photograph.

In the same way, we might imagine ourselves very large and in space near the center of galaxy M87, looking at this supermassive black hole.

Firstly, this thing is, like a JPEG print, a data visualization. Secondly, it is apparently extrapolated quite a bit by software (apparently the process of emulating an Earth-sized radio telescope with a lot of human-scale radio-telescopes scattered around the surface of an Earth-sized object like, say, Earth, leaves some gaps that have to get filled in, in some sense.) So, it resembles computational photography, or perhaps Adobe's content-aware fill. It's a visualization of an intelligent and reasonable guess at a much larger, notional, data set.

Would it look like that if we were in the right place? What if our eyes were sensitive to radio waves? How much different from our human selves would we have to be to directly perceive something that looks like the Black Hole Photo, and is it even physically imaginable that we could?

This is an interesting question, and I do not know the answer.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Adams-Newhall Axis

I just finished a book. Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography by Mary Street Alinder, biographer and assistant to Ansel Adams.

This is a heavily footnoted, which is almost but not quite the same as well-researched, book about the famous f.64 group in California, and tells the tale of their glorious battle with the Pictorialists, especially William Mortensen, their eventual victory, and their ascent to their rightful places in the pantheon of great photographers.


Actually, it's just another salvo (in 2014, for god's sake), in the increasingly discredited tradition of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall's hagiographic take on Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. In this version of history, Europe does not exist, and photography consists, mainly, of Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston, with Beaumont Newhall playing the role of James Boswell. Photography's history consists of discovery, an unfortunate side-trip in to Pictorialism, and ultimately glorious re-emergence into truth and beauty, led by the heros Adams and Weston, who rescue Stieglitz from flirtation with evil. Drinks all around.

I cannot for the life of my figure out what this thing is doing being published in 2014.

Anyways, that is the narrative Alinder is promoting, but she does actually provide a large number of facts, many of them probably correct, which allow us to sort out better what actually happened.

First of all, the central claim of the book, that f.64 swept away Pictorialism in a great wave of wisdom is absurd on the face of it. f.64 was not in the van, they barely made it to the rear-guard at the very tail end of Pictorialism in, more or less, the last place Pictorialism was still kind of a thing, in the American West. f.64 was formed in 1932. Hartmann wrote his plea for Straight Photography in 1904. "Camera Work" had dumped Pictorialism in favor of Paul Strand in 1917.

By 1932, straight photography was the dominant form of serious photography. There was still amateur interest in various processes associated with Pictorialism as commercially available silver papers had not quite obliterated the rest of the market, and there were a few practicing Pictorialists (in some sense) still rattling around, but serious photography was straight photography. Modernism has been dominating photography for a good decade or two at this point, along with its Precisionist subset. Weston and Adams are (in 1932) Precisionists and, to be blunt, they are rather late to the party.

As usual with these goobers, Alinder can't even sort of what Pictorialism is. She likes Adams "fuzzy wuzzy" description, but has to admit that Mortensen's pictures were sharp. But they were manipulated! So, bad! Alinder suggests that "Pictorialism" derives from the title of P.H. Emerson's book, which is wrong. Pictorialism is, as usual, just a sort of generic boogeyman that means "not Ansel Adams, and so, bad."

f.64 appeared at the wrong time to have swept Pictorialism away and was too small, too bush-league, and too short-lived to sweep anything away. The only reason we know anything about these guys is because it contained two photographers who would eventually be elevated to the pantheon, and a couple of very good ones besides, and people like Alinder won't stop trying to pitch the group as hugely influential. They had, Alinder makes clear, a small number of mostly very minor exhibitions, some meetings, a few notices in the photographic press, and that was about it. Alinder does appear to be tacitly aligned, a little, with the theory that the whole thing was an attempt to get Stieglitz' attention (and, after a fashion, it worked).

We do learn a lot of Edward Weston, who Alinder seems to greatly admire. Weston was, evidently, one of those useless shitheads who couldn't do anything for himself. He didn't drive, or cook. I think it follows that he also did not do laundry, or clean. Weston preferred to live an ascetic life of great simplicity accompanied by a pretty girl who would do everything for him and also have sex. I mean, that sounds kind of good to me too.

Weston's only two skills appear to have been photography and talking women in to bed, and honestly he doesn't take enough shit for this. Alinder seems to admire him for it.

Edward Weston was clearly a useless dickhead, albeit a very charming one.

At one point, pushing the narrative that Charis Wilson (the last woman Weston could talk into bed with him before he got too old, sick, and crotchety to do it again) was the true love of his life, Alinder shows us two nudes. One is the previous girlfriend, Sonya Noskowiak and the other is Charis Wilson. Alinder goes on about how "light loved Charis" and whatnot, whereas Sonya not so much. She's trying to justify Charis as the true muse, and Sonya as, well, someone legitimately ditched.

And she's right, Charis is all smoothly rounded and beautiful, Sonya a bit angular and stiff. What Alinder leaves unstated is that Charis is 19 years old, and Sonya is 34.

With all due respect, which is to say none: "Fuck you, Mary Street Alinder."

We learn, hilariously, that Adams tried this out as well. He hired himself a pretty young assistant, duly fell in love with her, and asked his wife Virginia for a divorce. Virginia said "no" and that was that. I don't know what's more tragicomic, that Adams wanted to try this libertine shit out, or that he was too much of a pussy to carry it out.

Not all the "facts" are that great. Alinder repeats the absurd story that Weston's Pepper #30 was made with an exposure some hours long, which is evidently a meme that one of the Weston descendants is trotting around, but it is contradicted by Weston's Daybooks and also by common sense. Alinder states, with a footnote, that Brett Weston was the 5th most collected American Photographer at the time of his death, but the footnote refers to some unpublished bio. So, essentially, "I saw this on a piece of paper someplace." (Alinder wants to paint Brett Weston as important, which he was not.)

So, that's the general form of the book. A lot of facts, many of which I dare say are right, and a narrative which is seemingly unconnected to the facts. It reads fairly easily, and has an astronomical number of footnotes, some of which rise above "I saw this on a piece of paper someplace." It is hagiography disguised as scholarship.

It has no place in this era, its narrative is false and known to be false.

It is a frankly bizarre volume.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Philosophies of Photography

I've been, as my readers my have observed, been mulling over whatever it is that photographers use as a philosophical basis for what they do. Whatever justification or goal they aim for.

Weston seems to have wanted to show the true essence of the thing. Adams wanted to reveal his true emotional reaction to the thing. Doc McCullin (currently on display at the Tate, raising the hackles of the photographic intelligentsia all across England) seems to have had something about showing the true human dignity of subjects in dire straits. Emerson wanted to reveal his true Impression of the scene.

There's usually something about Truth rattling around in there, because after all that's what photographs do best. You could take some other tack, but I haven't run across any such thing.

This probably isn't quite what separates the good from the bad, but boy it might be the factor that correlates least badly.

It does seem to align nicely with this distinction, which I like to carp on: the difference between perfectly good, pleasing, well-made pictures; and pictures with real weight.

Over on Leicaphilia, the intrepid writer shared some ideas on Joel Meyerowitz who strikes me very much as a philosophy-free fellow who just rambles around taking perfectly nice pictures that don't mean anything. I bought his Tuscany book at Goodwill for $3. It's very nice. Some day I am going to cut it to bits and make something better out of it. Michael Reichmann was another such, loads of perfectly nice pictures signifying nothing much. In 50 years, nobody will remember either of these photographers.

Now, to be fair, I also have one of these philosophy things, and nobody is going to remember me in 50 years either. It's not guarantee of success, but longevity and weight seem to, maybe, require it or at any rate bias heavily toward those who have one. Or a couple.

It's not a big thing. It doesn't have to be a PhD thesis. It doesn't have to be very precise, you don't even need to follow it all the time. But some kind of general slogan that drives your work seems to be a really good idea. For one thing, it makes the pictures better.

What the general shape of thing ought to be is this: you ought to be able to ask of any picture you take "does it do that thing?" and it should not be terribly specific, and certainly not photographically/technically specific. This lets you, obviously, make work that is bound together, that is all alike in some fairly vague and non-technical sense, in some sense therefore that might be a little more important than "has good shadow detail" or "is very sharp indeed."

Mike over on ToP has posed the question recently Has Photography Gotten Too Easy which is basically just pointing us to a sloppy and pseudo-erudite essay by Maria Popova which is essentially the standard whinge about instagram dressed up with citations and a bizarre reference to Herschel proposing a coating of sodium thiosulfate to Talbot as a method of fixing silver prints (which is insane, he cannot possibly have suggested a "coating.")

ETA: Maria Popova's blog appears to be, essentially, "My, what a lot of books Maria has read" adorned occasionally with "but she reads a leeetle too much Wikipedia" and mercifully short on whatever might pass for original thoughts from her.

Technically, yes, photography has become very easy. Duh. And now it is very easy to churn out more or less endless Good Pictures signifying nothing. Popova refers to "message" but doesn't mean it, she just means subjects.

The degree of difficulty required to bring to satisfying conclusion any kind of philosophical basis for taking pictures remains about the same, and now we know that all the technical horsing around wasn't very important after all. Which, you know, even Precisionists like Adams knew, and said, all along. Nobody was listening.

Nobody's listening now, either.

Friday, April 5, 2019


I'm reading a book which I'll probably talk about eventually, which includes a fair lot of chatter about Edward Weston. There's some chitchat about Pepper #30, and the book repeats that it was shot by first placing it in a large funnel.

I thought I'd make myself a funnel out of some galvanized sheet metal I have left over from a heating duct repair (long story short, my kid dropped her brand new toy down the vent in her bedroom, and was sad and desperately hopeful that dad could get it back, which dad could... by hacking open the heating duct, which he did.) I rolled it into an approximate funnel shape and started putting little things in it.

I have no idea what to make of these pictures, but I do have an idea for making that not be my problem, about which more anon, I hope. In the meantime:

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Some Quotations

P.H. Emerson

... the photographer must so use his technique as to render a true impression of the scene.

Say as much as you can, with as little material as you can.

The impression must be true throughout, and if all the preceding components are true the impression will be true.

H.P. Robinson

The aim and end of the artist is not truth exactly, much less fact, it is effect. I know this sounds shocking to the purist's ear, but it is quite true. There is no doubt he gets his best effect by way of the truth, but he uses it as he would a servant, not as a master.

Ansel Adams

I employ numerous photographic controls to create an image that represents "the equivalent of what I saw and felt" [paraphrasing Steiglitz]

Edward Weston

I have on occasion used the expression, 'to make a pepper more than a pepper' ... I did not mean 'different' from a pepper, but a pepper plus -- an intensification of its own important form and texture, -- a revelation. Photography as a creative expression ... must be seeing plus

Now, all this has something of the character of vague bullshit, and someone a hair cleverer than I would probably be able to parse these statements into Expressionist versus Impressionist ideas, or something like that. Each of these sets of ideas, though, represents some sort of useful target that the speaker could aim at. Each of these men assembled a little collection of acolytes, who did their best to interpret these and other collections of words, and produced, generally, second rate copies of their teacher's photographs.

If you say to yourself "I want to take sharp pictures of birds in flight" and if you apply yourself, and are normally competent, you will by god begin to produce more or less endless sharp photographs of birds flying from one place to another.

If you say to yourself nothing at all beyond "I want to take pictures" then you will take pictures of, god knows what, probably everything. If you desire that they be in focus, and if you apply yourself, you will probably hit your target. To what end, nobody will be able to explain.

These fellows above were saying something else, and it shows in their pictures.

Critics can say the same sorts of things, criticism being merely the observe face of creativity. Did Weston distill the essence of the nautilus shell, seeing it plus? For that matter, did Robinson distill anything, and see plus? Did Emerson give us the aspirational equivalents of Adams and Steiglitz, or did he manage to produce true impressions of the Norfolk Broads?

I don't really care what drives an artist, and I don't really care if the map they choose actually describes a real territory or only a fantasy. All I can be sure of is that without a map one tends to wander more or less aimlessly, and to no purpose.

Evidence points, in fact, to a certain wisdom in not following someone else's star, unless the secret map you're actually following is intended to lead to second-rate copies.

The critic's job, as I see it, is to try to discern what map the artist is using, and to judge based at least in part on how well the artist has hewed to the course laid out on it. There is more, there is room for my map, as well as simply my personal reactions, and little things like whether I like it or not. But, really, one ought to start by trying to get a handle on the artist's map.

All too often, it is clear that the artist has no map at all, and is simply wandering about trying to project an air of not being lost.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

By What Criteria?

I have ranted about this in myriad forms over the years, and again, indirectly perhaps, quite recently.

There is, today, an almost complete lack of even the idea of meaningful criteria by which one might judge a photograph. What is fascinating about this is that, despite the lack of criteria, there is still plenty of judgement going on. Everyone, it seems, from the rankest newbie to the stodgy critic, seems willing to rule on whether a picture or a collection of them is good or bad. For, it turns out, no reasons whatsoever.

Newbies point to a failure to apply a rule of thirds. The slightly more sophisticated will natter about something "pulling their eye" or "my eye jumps all over the place" as if these were somehow criteria by which one might measure goodness. Who cares if your eye is all twitchy, idiot? Paradoxically, these sort of technical/prescriptive criteria are usually denigrated in the same breath, because even a tyro knows that they're not really very good criteria.

As you rise through the ranks, as it were, even these reasons fall away. Work becomes good because it is good, without explanation, and likewise bad because it is bad.

An unholy convergence of the camera-lover's desire for technical measures of excellence and postmodernism has conspired to eliminate anything meaningful from the evaluation of a photograph.

This is not to suggest that there ought to be a single universal standard of artistic excellence that we should standardize on. That would be absurd.

The history of photography, from the moment that someone realized that there might be something of Art in this process, until a few decades ago, is a history of well-known photographers thundering at one another in the pages of this publication or that. While they certain ranted on about technique and materials, also throughout the roiling argument was always threaded the needling question of what a photograph ought to do.

To what artistic goal should the artist aspire? Do we reveal the truth about the thing in front of the camera, or the ever-so vitally different truth about our emotional response to the thing in front of the camera? Ought the camera to moralize, or stand back from moralizing? Ought the camera reveal character, or conceal flaws and exalt the subject?

This sort of thing is simply gone from the debate, at all levels. From the lowliest forum, to the Review sections of the major newspapers, nobody seems to be interested in these details any more. We judge photographs, now, either on their apparent sharpness, or on the degree to which the artist agrees with out politics, and that seems to be about it.

This is not only depressing, but it leaves the aspiring artist somewhat in the lurch.

We are left to find our own way, without even the hint (unless we read a lot of history) that there might even be a territory for which the map has been lost. Obviously, success at the highest levels seems to require a pretty specific political position, but that is obviously not enough.

Of course, many aspiring photographers, upon hearing about this particular territory, reject it out of hand. They prefer the other territory, the one of technical excellence, and would like to learn a little more about color management, and perhaps to acquire another Sigma ART Lens or something. All this business about emotional impact, and how a photograph might interact with a viewer is a little alarming and probably just a bunch of bullshit anyways. Just go try to start a conversation about artistic merit, and the ways one might assess is in an internet forum on photography. Go ahead. I dare you. I double-dog dare you.

Out in the real world, despite the more or less nihilistic approach to criticism currently in vogue, it is clear that actual criteria are still being applied, albeit silently, and not reliably. There is quite a lot of emotionally powerful work being pushed out there at the "highest levels," whatever that might mean. There is rather more emotionally powerful work in play than I would expect if the system were truly just nepotism and politics.

In contrast to all the other critics, I (of course) do much better. I do judge. I will tell you if it is good or bad but by god I will do my damndest to tell you why I think it's good or it's bad. I will attempt to lay out my criteria for judgement.

I make no particular claim to being consistent. I suppose I use these criteria here, and quite a different set of them over there. So, perhaps I am merely rationalizing what is after all a purely irrational like/dislike. That does not matter, it turns out, at least not much.

The point is that by explaining myself, on my better days I reveal the very idea that there might be criteria by which one might judge these things. I don't, in the end, care if you agree with my judgement, or my criteria. That's a fine and beautiful thing, because now, in this moment, you believe for a moment in criteria of your own -- namely, the opposite of mine, or anyways ideas that oppose mine. You have, in this moment, some notion of a judgement that is based on something rather than simply pulled out of the ether.

If we have no way to tell what course we are on, and no notion of what our destination might be, it is rather hard to get there. I hope that, from time to time, I can help someone to settle their compass, to give someone a vague shape of a destination.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Personal Books

Every now and then I am able to badger someone in to sending me something.

The fact that someone has gone to to the trouble of assembling not one photograph but a collection of them, possibly with some supporting material, has printed them out in some form, and assembled them in to some sort of volume, says something. The fact that they are subsequently willing then to send a copy of this thing on to me also says something. It speaks to commitment, it says I think there is something here that is worthwhile. If you are willing to go as far as to actually physically send me something, this affects me, I have to confess, deeply.

When someone commits that hard, I will look at their objects with generous eyes. I will strive, with all my heart, to see what they see in it, to see what they're trying to say. Work that is wildly opposed on one axis or another to things I believe, I will look at, struggle with, and try to find in it that which they find good. And, generally, I think I will. They and I are not that much different, after all.

The personal book, the saddle-stapled book in an edition of 10, the blurb book, the hand-bound thing is completely different from the commercially published book. If you got a deal with MACK or Dewi Lewis, well, more power to you. You probably ponied up a shitload of money, but you probably did it because dreams of exposure, of a career launched, were dancing in your head (you asked for references, right? No? Oh...) When you saddle staple up 10 copies of something, no such dreams dance in your head. You know that this is not the step that launches you into the seat currently held by Alec Soth. God knows why you're doing it, but dreams of Sothness cannot reasonably figure. Probably, love, faith, belief in the material do figure.

Henry Beckmeyer recently sent me three things. Two saddle-stapled, one appears to be a print-on-demand product. I love them.

I in no way intend to damn these things, or Beckmeyer, with faint praise, although I will speak honestly about them. Let this stand: I love these things, they delight me. I would save them in a fire, after the family and the dog, naturally, but before much else.

I am surprised by my delight in these books, because in many ways they represent the opposite of what I aspire to. Every picture in these objects is a good picture -- not good in the sense that it reaches my soul and makes me a better man, though. They are graphically strong, appealing, slices of humanity, that most interesting of subjects. I do not particularly grow or expand as a human being, reading these books. I smile, and flip from page to page with pleasure, with delight.

Beckmeyer has selected these photos, I think, from his archive. This, again, is something that is simply beyond me. I cannot abide sifting my archive. Unlike, I think, most photographers I simply don't care about pictures I took last year, unless they're part of some project I am (probably desperately, after a year) trying to wrap up. Beckmeyer has sequenced them appealingly, creating spread after spread of wittily related photographs.

What really gets me here is that, had I been asked, I would surely have counseled against doing these books. "Lightweight, fluffy, anyone can do that" I might have said. And I might have been right. But still, the world would be worse off for not having these things, I am glad that nobody asked me, that nobody listened to me, and that now I possess these wonderful things.

What is it that makes these books great? It's not that they're particularly unique or special in this great big world of ours. They're much nicer than a lot of things, but certainly many photographers could make similar things, and I am sure that some of them do.

What makes them special, to me, is that a fellow who I (now) know slightly made them. Henry Beckmeyer is not some rando making a nice book of appealing pictures, he's this guy that sent them to me. He shot these pictures, he sifted through his files and made selections, made matches, built spreads, did a simple but elegant design, and made some books. And then he sent them to me. If I had no personal connection to Henry, if he didn't read my blog, never sent me email, and had sent these books to someone else, they would mean nothing to me. I would not be delighted by them.

I'm not sure what this means.

Sally Mann reaches across that vast, that infinite, divide, that separates two people who do not know one another even slightly, to touch me. That is one thing. Henry reaches across the much smaller divide that separates two people who know one another slightly, and touches me. That is another thing.

Beyond that is one thing and that is another thing I cannot expand further. But I'm going to think about it.

Monday, April 1, 2019


Jörg is at it again over here, in his most recent, Merit and Exclusion.

He wrings his hands about meritocracy comma lack of, and wishes out loud that artistic merit should be more front and center in critical reviews.

Yes, yes it should be, Jörg.

He asks but how do you evaluate whether someone is a good photographer? To which I respond: this is literally your job, Jörg, and the fact that you, with 100% consistency, are unable to provide even a glimmer of insight into your methods is, well, it's interesting, isn't it?

You, Jörg, simply write week after week what amounts to a blurb for some terrible book or another, without a hint of why we, you, or anyone else might evaluate it. You simply declare things good or, occasionally, bad. The only criterion you will admit to, Jörg, is the membership of the author in some marginalized group or another. Which would, for reference, not be "meritocracy."

He then goes on to declare, in classic unsupported fashion, that three photographers he names are good, and that one is bad.

I don't have a magical solution either, but I feel like it could not hurt for guys like Jörg to actually start doing their job.

Define some sort of yardstick by which you evaluate work beyond I get lost in the book and then apply it.

I'm not gonna say that it's easy to whip up a yardstick. There are many yardsticks, in fact. The history of photography is a history of photographers thundering at one another about what is the proper set of criteria by which to judge a photograph. The history is full of this, the present day is not. The present is full of Colbergs who refuse to back their judgements up, and artists who refuse to talk about their photographs or their methods in any meaningful way.

The very idea of a yardstick, or of many yardsticks, by which we might judge a photograph or a book of them appears to be dead. Now it is, if we are honest with ourselves, entirely about whether the artist is "in" or "out", the same names keep popping up, showing us work that is usually uninteresting, and often indistinguishable from lots of other work we see. Work that is distinguishable from the rest is, as often as not, distinguishable only because the artist has become a parody of themselves.

An artist being "in" appears to be some sort of emergent property. It's not that Herr So-And-So anoints Mme. Whotsit, who them takes her place in the pantheon. It is that Mme. Whotsit hangs about a while, helps some people out and becomes well liked, talks a good political game, and raises enough money to publish a book or two on a definitely-not a vanity press. She curates shows, calibrating her sycophancy well, and at some point she is simply declared "good" and a maker of "necessary" art.

Usually, the consequence for Mme. Whotist isn't much more than further opportunities to fundraise to pay for books or shows, so accusations of sour grapes on my part might be misplaced. I might aspire to be Alex Soth, but I do not want to be Laia Abril. My desire to starve gracefully while busting my ass is fairly low.

I cannot understand how people like Colberg, or the monkeys writing at ASX, or 1000 words, or any of these other places get along. How on earth are they justifying the offering of judgement without any philosophical basis? When you say something is "good" but are unable (or unwilling) to explain what that might even mean, does the word "good" even mean anything?

Are they even aware of how thoroughly they have been co-opted by the social aspects of their community?