Thursday, May 30, 2019

Two Mysteries

I've been discussing the nature of creativity elsewhere. As happens so often it devolved pretty quickly in to "no, no, that's not really creativity, creativity is... " in response to pretty much anything I said. Humans, at least some of us, have a peculiar desire to defend the borders of the unknown which surround creativity.

Creativity is indeed a mystery, and competing with the aforementioned reflex, we have the Enlightenment, or if you prefer Modernist, notion that for all things we can figure it out, if we only apply our big, fat, brains. And, to some degree we have sorted out creativity. We understand, in sort of broad strokes, the neurology. Not, you know, really, but we know which bits of the brain light up when someone's creative juices are flowing. And, more importantly, we have teachable strategies for encouraging those moments, for making ourselves as it were, open to the muse.

So in a way, creativity is still a mystery, an unknown wrapped in the known. The idea that we might some day understand the brain enough to truly understand it at its root, in an essential and complete way, is kind of depressing. But I am delighted to know some ways to welcome the muse. She's nice, and I like her.

That is one mystery.

The creative production of Art is a fascinating process, in many ways I suppose. The way it's fascinating me today is this: the creative impulse is profoundly internal. These sections of your brain light up, ideas churn, silently, invisibly, and entirely inside your own head, the answer emerges. In that instant, only you and maybe God know the answer.

But Art, successful Art, is a cultural construct. If your creative impulse has indeed produced a good answer, that answer is culturally specific. It's specific to here, and to now, and yet it was produced by, one supposes, the underlying biology of your brain which, one supposes, is basically a lot like the brain of a Russian from 1914, or a Vietnamese brain from 257BC.

This is the second mystery.

We live in our society, swimming in the cultural constructs of it. Presumably, we consume these things. We see a Monet, we see a gas station, we rub our dog's tummy, all these things are here, now, in this place and time. Our mind, I guess, takes these things into itself and does we know not entirely what with them.

The creative impusle occurs, if we are lucky, and if we have the skill we execute it, and make something. Something of the constant mystery of our humanness, but also something of the culture in which we live and eat and breathe. If we are lucky, others see our work, touch it, taste it, however that is, and it becomes something to them as well.

I find this continuous interplay between the underlying more-or-less constant human object, you, or me, and the malleable, temporal, tentative, fluctuating, culture in which it resides to be a wonderous and fascinating thing. Imagine, if you will, that you'd been adopted by a nice Chinese couple, or a Mexican family. You would still be you, in many essential ways, but the art you make, the songs you write, the dances you dance, they might all be completely different and yet still, somehow, you.

How amazeballs is that?

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A Matter of Media

Update: 7/31/2020 If you are coming to these remarks cold, I will remark that the book DOES contain an essay which DOES address these pictures specifically, albeit not in a way that makes the situation totally clear. The essay certainly adds to the situation. The essay was not mentioned, one might almost say was suppressed, by the twitter heros so intent on their mission. This is intellectual dishonesty of the first water, of course. I have written a review of the book which addresses some of this material, which review you may or may not have seen:

There's a minor tempest going on in the usual British Academic Photographers circle, around a 2017 reissue of a book by Gian Butturini, London. In the book there is a spread which features a woman in a booth collecting fares(?) opposite a photograph of a gorilla in a cage. The woman appears to be of African descent. This is horribly racist and everyone involved should be killed, and, more importantly, should grovel at the feet of the riled-up twitter heros. When Ben Chesterton rolls up, you know things are gonna get stupid.

Ok, so they're not wrong. In this day and age, one does not publish that sort of thing. Partly to avoid the wrath of twitter heros, to be sure, but also because, well, it's Just Not Done, right? I wouldn't. More on this later.

One could, I think, argue that the point of the spread might have been something like good god, they treat blacks like ANIMALS in this fucking town (or substitute "poor people" if you prefer) but it doesn't matter. One would not make that point in this way, today. Or in 2017 when the book was published. More on this later as well, first there is underbrush to clear.

The trouble is that this this is a re-issue of a book from 1969.

I was told this:

If the pairing of the two images was in the original publication, then at that time (think civil rights movement) it would have been considered deeply offensive and overtly #racist.

Full disclosure, whenever anyone offers as supporting evidence the phrase think X for some X or another, my hackles go up. Personal thing. Now, I have to say, I was 3 years old in 1969, so I was not meaningfully there, but to suppose that the spread would have been read the same way 50 years ago as it is today is simply absurd. Let us consider some history of the idea about representations in media.

The Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan) is published in 1963, and is at any rate one of the earlier notable works that touches upon the harm media depictions can cause. It is talking about the harm "women's magazines" do to the lives of white middle-class women in terms of the standards they set.

Stuart Hall is publishing in the early 1970s and comes up with the Politics of Representation, a formal statement and model for the ideas that media representations of people influence society, influence culture. In potentially harmful ways.

Laura Mulvey published "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in 1975, in which she introduces the idea of Male Gaze in cinema, another watershed moment in the idea that media portrayals, media representation, can be harmful.

1969 in bang in the middle of these. Six years after Friedan's book, six years before Mulvey's essay, and there's other material in play in that same interval. This is a set of ideas that is being birthed, refined, and mainstreamed in exactly this interval.

So, that's a few samples to get a flavor, which I think roughly bracket the interval and give a reasonable flavor of the intellectual environment.

What is some graphic designer (Butturini) in 1969 going to think about the power of a photographic juxtaposition to harm? Well, probably not a lot. The academic community is definitely starting to get a feel for it, but it's not really mainstream thinking yet, by any stretch of the imagination. It is at least credible that some random person on the street would not yet have run into any of these ideas (although, of course, it is also credible that they have.)

What are racial justice advocates likely to think about it in 1969? Like Butturini, they're living in an interval where these ideas are coming forward, but not fully mainstream. What any given activist thinks about these things is unknown, of course, but we can situate this next to some American history: Emmett Till's murder 14 years earlier, desegregation of city buses in Montgomery, Alabama in the same interval, lunch counter sit-ins in the same interval, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and on and on.

In the UK things were perhaps somewhat less dire, perhaps the Till episode would not have happened in London, but in roughly the same interval a little research shows that, for example, black Caribbeans had a lot of trouble simply renting a place to live. In the 1960s and onwards issues like Can I Live Somewhere, Can I Get Paid, and Can I Not Be Beaten Up seem to loom fairly large for people of color in the UK.

What an Italian creative photographing in London thought is anybody's guess, honestly.

In short, we're sort of on the tail end of a historical period in which the overwhelmingly dominant issues surrounding racial justice are things like: Not Getting Murdered or Beaten, and Being Allowed to Vote, and we're still working on a lot of stuff like Getting Paid More Like White People and so on. We're also on the cusp of a new generation of issues, which concerns things like media portrayals, in which one might reasonably have a little space between being beaten up to worry about a spread in a photobook, edition of 1000. Again, 1969 lands right in the middle of these things.

While it's certainly reasonable to suppose that some activists would have found the two-page spread problematic, it's also reasonable to suppose that many activists would look at the same spread and characterize it as not important enough to worry about. To issue a blanket statement it would have been considered deeply offensive and overtly racist is flatly ahistorical.

What we are seeing on twitter is a group of people who are seeing this object in contemporary terms, and insisting on applying their understanding to 1969. Indeed, at least some of them are insisting not only that we should judge the work by modern standards, but that the standards in 1969 were substantially the same as they are today which is simply absurd.

But what about the spread, anyways? Let's actually look at it.

It seems to have been deliberate, both figures are in small boxes, rendered about the same size, and so on. It is credible, at any rate, that we are supposed to compare and contrast the two figures.

But what are we meant to take away from this? More precisely, what would we have been presumed to, in 1969, take away from this spread?

What I see is a sympathetic recognition of similarity. These two figures are, as I see it, similarly trapped, constrained. Both appear to be resigned to an unhappy lot. I don't feel any denigration from the photographer here, only sympathy. Certainly there is suggested an equivalency of the black woman to the gorilla, but is the intention to cast the human down to the level of the animal, to raise the animal up to the level of the human, or is such an analysis entirely beside the point?

Given the sympathy that seems to come through so clearly, I am unable to accept that the photographer intended to cast the human down to the level of the animal. You may read it otherwise.

But that is 1969, right? The relevant intellectual stew makes it credible either that Butturini would have seen that making this equivalence was an act of racism, or that he would not have seen it that way. It depends on just what he had and had not been exposed to. The ideas were there, but not universal. The sympathy I see makes it difficult to imagine that Butturini willfully intended an act of racism here, but if you don't see the same sympathy I do, you may find that jump easier to make.

It is worth noting that contemporary understanding of the harm done by representation in media is never about a single picture, never about a single bite of media. It is invariably about the continuity of all media, the constant flow of the same idea repeated over and over. Only on twitter do we see single images characterized as, by themselves, doing harm.

Seeing this today, we are, whether we like it or not, steeped in modern theories of representation in ways that Butturini was not. At best he might have been aware of these ideas, but they were simply not part of the water he swam in, in the way that they are today.

In today's terms, the spread is unabashedly racist.

Not because it in and of itself does any harm, but because the way one eliminates the continuity of harmful media is one bit of media at a time. One picture is harmless, maybe, but 100,000 are not, but you eliminate the 100,000 by consciously not printing one picture 100,000 times over.

How should this spread have been handled in the re-issue?

I am always loathe to suggest Bowdlerizing, so, I reject the idea that the spread should have been eliminated to broken up.

I have seen suggested on twitter that a suitable essay could have been written to accompany the book, specifically addressing this spread. Having just written such an essay (see above) that sounds like an excellent plan. But then, I always think the right answer is "some sort of essay."

Leave it alone and just publish it as-is? That was the choice made by the publisher, and it stood for 2 years before someone freaked out. The book was reviewed in some of the usual places without fuss. Perhaps this whole tempest is a big nothingburger, in the end.

I will say that watching a bunch of white academics competing on twitter to see who best understands the downtrodden black woman is both hilarious and nauseating.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Outside of Time

I am continuing to labor through a bunch of John Berger's collected essays, but I am very close to the end so you probably won't be inflicted with much more of this. I like him, because he seems to find the same central problems in Art as I do. What is "good" art? What is the difference between a "good" artist and a "bad" one? What is "genius" anyways?

In That Which is Held Berger notes that in the 19th century european culture developed the scientific fact of entropy, and with it an idea of Time as a process moving linearly forward, inevitably dissolving everything, eventually. Gone are earlier ideas of cyclical time, gone is the hope of even a steady state let alone some notion of, ultimately, growth and order. Entropy is all, the end of all things is nothingness. This is scientifically proven, in whatever sense that ought to be taken.

And yet, Art, we hope, speaks to things eternal.

The essay is, well, it might make concrete and literal sense to someone else, but as near as I can approach it it's somewhat mystical, metaphorical. I spent some time with it, and this is the result of my ruminations.

Supposing that I drop my pencil on the floor. The pencil, the floor, and I, will all end. There will, in the fullness of time, be no trace left of the event. Yet, the fact of that event exists outside of time. The truth that, once, my pencil landed on the floor with a sound like tic is eternal. Not, I think, very interesting, but anyways it does not require the passage of time for its existence.

Berger has a lot to say at this point about love and sex. One gets the sense that he was a bit of a randy old goat. What I took away from his remarks, though, is that love is one of those self-same facts which exist outside of time, which have no particular attachment to the onward flow of time toward the ultimate heat death of the universe. Love, my love for my children and my wife, is much the same sort of fact as the sound my pencil made, but it is much more interesting. At any rate, it is interesting to me.

Setting aside Berger now, let us suppose that there are these kinds of things that exist outside of time. These ideas, these facts, these notions. You could get all philosophical and argue that without an existing brain to hold them they do not exist, but the door is over there and you may let yourself out, I'll be over here with all the hash and the hot girls. Some of these facts and notions are more interesting, others are less so. Some are more universal, in the sense that they are of interest to many people, in particular more than to me.

It seems to me that Art, Good Art, is about these things. In times past, art spent a lot of effort groping at religious themes, the relationship of God to Man and so on. In those days, our understanding of time did not include entropy. Most religions included (and still include, if you want to be picky) some strong notion of cyclical time, some notion of resurrection, of rebirth, of reincarnation, so their notion of things outside of time was stronger. But still, the art spoke to those things which are in this sense timeless. Not timeless in the usual sense of I think people in the future might understand this but in the more literal sense of unconnected to time.

Nowadays, when most art is secular, we no longer attach things to the essentially timeless constructs of God, Heaven, Hell, Resurrection. But still, we grope for those things that, like the love I have for my wife, here and now in this moment, exist outside of time. My fondness for my little town of Bellingham in all its aspects is my constant theme. It's not exactly God creating Adam in the Sistine chapel, but it is in the same way outside of time, and it is of some little interest to me and some other people.

I am not certain that Berger is right that only love turns up here, but it does seem to arise a fair bit.

This is, I think, a way to understand why I dislike so much contemporary photography. There is no love. There is no timelessness, no tinge of the eternal. It's all exercises in form, exercises in local politics, scantily clad women, or some combination of those.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

How History is Made

There is, it turns out, a little cottage industry in trying to discredit the FSA photographers. Some of it they earned, and other attempts are utter nonsense. I've gone over the "scholarly" work incorrectly accusing Walker Evans of planting an alarm clock in a sharecropper cabin. On the other hand, Arthur Rothstein surely did move a cow skull.

Well, it turns out that there is another scribble of history being gently pushed by minor players out there, this one more vague.

In the 1930s is was not uncommon for the mentally disabled to be housed in facilities for housing them, and also for them to be sterilized. There is a deep and ugly story here, and from our modern viewpoint there is nothing good about this programs. No argument from me, here. Such a program was evidently pursued with gusto in Virgina.

A filmmaker named Richard Robinson at some point set out to make a film about Arthur Rothstein's First Assignment, and that is the title of his film. I have not seen it, but I have read a moderate amount of followon material that resulted from it. In the film, Robinson wants to talk about Rothstein's First Assignment, and mistakenly gets the idea that it is a trip to the Shenandoah Mountains to document people being displaced from their homes in order to make way for the Shenandoah National Park that's being put in.

A couple minor quibbles. In the trailer, the narrator (Robinson?) cannot even pronounce Rothstein right, pronouncing it "steen." In the second place, he's taking the notion that this is the First Assignment from an interview where Rothstein appears to be mis-remembering. The FSA archive contains photographs by Rothstein from some months prior to this trip. Rothstein appears to have simply muddled up the timeline. Neither of these things are a big deal, but they speak to a degree of sloppiness.

ETA: It's possible that Rothstein's name was in fact pronounced "steen" although I am unable to locate a recording of the man himself pronouncing his own name.

This is not a carefully made film. This is not a researcher who visited the Library of Congress to check primary sources, this is a guy who wants to make a movie and thinks he's stumbled on to something.

Now, it happens that on this trip Rothstein took some photos (arguably "a few") of some people, some of whom (arguably "two") were mentally disabled. When the community was "resettled" the mentally disabled ones were stuffed into the facilties, and sterilized. Ugh. That's awful.

Where Robinson, and other people (notably Elizabeth Catte, an author and historian), run in to trouble is in trying to paint Rothstein with this eugenics brush.

Was Rothstein just some government schlub taking photos per the directions of his boss, Roy Stryker, to justify plans to resettle (i.e. evict) these people? Yep. He was working for, after all, the Resettlement Administration, which only later would be renamed the Farm Services Administration. The archive is clear, he's out there hanging out in one small area of the region, photographing everything around him. Photographing the whole thing is too much, so he picks out a good picturesque sample, with decoratively poor people who look like they need some government assisstance, and he photographs them, their stuff, their houses, their land, and so on.

That is verifiable ground truth. You can search the FSA Archive for "shenandoah rothstein" and look for yourself. Compare with the text of this article in TIME, by Robinson about his film.

There was also a very disturbing narrative that seemed to guide Rothstein in his work.

I dunno about you, but I ain't seeing a disturbing eugenics narrative in those pictures. It's 280ish pictures of random, albeit picturesque, shit.

What the modern day historians would like to do is to insinuate that somehow Rothstein was complicit in a program of eugenics. How consciously he was involved they are vague on, what exactly he might have done they are vague on. They refer to captions Rothstein provided in which he refers to a boy as a "half-wit" (missing the second caption in which he refers to a young woman of 16 as having "the mentality of a child of seven.") There are another couple captions about how many children women have had. This is, apparently "editorializing" and "focussing on" according to Catte. The other 250-odd photos Rothstein took are ignored.

What makes this particularly fascinating is that the year is 1935, and Rothstein is a Jew from New York. This is not to suggest that he could not possibly be a eugenicist, but it certainly makes the territory a bit fraught. Robinson, Catte, and I dare say others, simply wade into the without a second thought.

This is also not to suggest that Rothstein was most assuredly not involved or complicit. We do not know his heart, we can only guess based on the facts we can verify.

The most likely scenario was that he was just a 20-21 year old New York Jew, over-educated, sent out to do what he and all the other photographers for the FSA did: justify the government program he worked for (resettlement) and document America if he had some spare time. They all did it, over and over. Anyone with any experience in the FSA archive will instantly recognize the Shenandoah Valley photos as completely typical.

I find the whole process sort of nauseating. I can see Rothstein being painted as a scumbag, bit by bit, before my eyes. Errol Morris and James Curtis reported in detail, in Official Scholarly Books, on how Rothstein moved a cow skull, and how his pictures were misused by the press. Now Robinson and Catte are reporting that his pictures were, again, used in the press, apparently to justify institutionalization and sterilization, and are insinuating that Rothstein had something to do with it.

I have no particular love for Rothstein, and he is dead and buried by now, but he seems to have been a basically harmless drone, at any rate as harmless as any government man with a camera can be. I don't think he deserves this, and, more to the point, we as a culture deserve better history.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Provenance of Meaning

I should start out by noting that I am using the word provenance loosely at best, incorrectly at worst, here. I confess that I first came across the word watching Lovejoy, where the word means "evidence of the chain of ownership, usually forged."

Colin Pantall, one of a small crew of British photo-academics I attend to now and then, has written a review of a book about Belgian photobooks, by Tamara Berghmans. Most of the review is of no particular concern to me, it appears to be a workmanlike job of reviewing, but survey books about photobooks are not something that interest me.

He does spend a little time dissecting one section of the book, regarding photobooks covering the Belgian Congo colonial era. In this section it is not clear to me where Colin begins, and where the book being reviewed leaves off, but they generally seem to be in accord, so I trust you will allow me to lump them together.

Let me first set the stage a little.

The contemporary narrative of colonialism is of vicious white exploiters looting faraway lands for no reason except to line their own pockets. While not wrong as such, and I certainly do not intend to put up a spirited defense of colonialsm here, it ignores the reality on the ground. The vast majority of the colonizers were simply bureacrats, whether state or church does not matter. Most of these people were not getting rich, and many of them at least in some sense chose to go to the colonies. They lived there, they died there.


This was an era in which, given any two cultures, it was felt that one could and should judge them. One of them was better, the other worse. The better one was, naturally, the one that most closely resembled White Euro Culture. The members of the White Euro Culture had a moral duty to go out and improve the worse culture. Was this a direct result of Enlightenment thinking, a sort of pre-Modernist philosophy? Sure. Was this a scam invented by Capital to motivate the bureaucrats? Sure, also true. This does not invalidate the motivations of the bureaucrats out there on the ground blundering around making horrendous messes, murdering people in droves, and occasionally making things better. Many of the bureaucrats on the ground were earnestly working, sacrificing, in order to raise up a culture they genuinely believed to be in need up raising up.

This idea that cultures that do not look like ours are inherently worse, and ought to be changed, is of course now seen as an awful idea. I agree that it's not a very good idea.

This idea isn't dead, of course. White Euros run around other countries telling them how they ought to be more White and more Euro (or more American, which is pretty much the same thing at this remove). They just do it through NGOs. Indigenous cultures are wonderful and should be respected, unless they're Saudis of course, and so on. There is a pretty large list of cultural practices that we in the west continue to find odious and work very hard to change, while making a good bit of pocket-change on the side. One finds, depressingly commonly, people working both sides: on the one hand decrying colonialism and on the other practicing it.

Looking back in to Colin's piece, we find what appears to be a quotation from the book concerning the bared breasts of the Congolese women. I assume these are Berghmans' words, but the reference is not crystal clear. Let me reproduce the quotation here.

"…pledges to the ‘veracity’ of these photographs, but also spoke to the tangible availability of these ‘lascivious’ bodies…"

Let us assume for the sake of argument that the bare breasts in that place at that time were perfectly normal, that those women in those contexts did not think it remotely unusual that their breasts would be uncovered, that they intended no meaning of lascivious availability.

So, somewhere in the chain of provenance between the women with their arms up, and the author of this book, someone has brought in lascivious availability. Let us think about this chain a little.

The women themselves. The photographer. The publisher (of the original photobook.) The intended audience for the photographs. Berghmans. Colin Pantall.

The lascivious availability is not present at the beginning, and by the time it reaches Colin it has been inserted.

Certainly the reading proposed is possible, it's reasonable, even likely, that the intended audience for the book read these pictures as a sort of soft-core smut, like a boy with a copy of National Geographic. Did the photographer or the publisher intend that meaning? Perhaps. One can imagine that they knew their audience, and if we stipulate that the audience would react that way, perhaps they were engaged in a little light porn-peddling to shift the books.

Did the photographer feel that way? I rather doubt it. To suppose that anyone in-country eyed these women with anything more than the usual feelings men have toward women is probably wrong-headed. The bouncer in the strip joint is pretty much over the naked bodies after a couple of days, it's just business as usual. I fail to see why a colonial bureaucrat serving in the Congo, with (one imagines) easy, daily, access to brown breasts to ogle would be much different. After a few days it's just background. At least, it's not insane to imagine that the breasts are just background.

The photographer, it is reasonable to imagine, is more or less the same sort of chap as the bureaucrats he's bunking with. He might be there to make a bunch of money, but it's equally likely that he's out there to try to do a spot of good while making a bit of money on the side. Rather like the contemporary NGO bureaucrats, and the photographers and filmmakers that work with them. Did he think golly, the people back home are gonna love these boobies! or was it merely something more to document, more of the background?

Did the publisher, then, get excited by the prospect of selling pictures of boobies to lustful Belgians? Indeed, one can ask if the lustful Belgians themselves cared? How much, really, can we equate the Belgian photobook buyer of the first half of the 20th century with 13 year old boys from the 1970s who have just discovered National Geographic?

I don't pretend to have the answers here. I do not know where the lascivious availability worked its way in. But work its way in it did.

Academic analysis of historical photographs is all too often performed as follows:

Begin with a caricature of the people of the time. Next, examine the photographs through your modern eyes, through your contemporary veil of prejudices and opinions. Finally, paste your modern understanding of the photographs onto the caricatures, with suitable rearrangements of pronouns and viewpoints to make the grammar work out ok.

This is the method of Edward Said's book, Orientalism, which builds its arguments largely as a sequence of quotations from colonialists, followed by Said "interpreting" the quotation, often with a remarkably free hand. He begins with a caricature of the colonialist (and like all good caricatures it contains elements of truth) and then fits quotations to these puppets he has made, and finally condemns the puppets with what he imagines to be their own words.

Said's opinions and prejudices somewhat resemble my own, and his caricature does contain elements of truth, and so his conclusions are in general shape the kinds of things I agree with. His method, though, leaves much to be desired.

This method is lazy and ahistorical, but it has the singular benefit of propping up ones own opinions and prejudices, since it is constructed entirely out of them.

The counter to this method, which is equally cheap and lazy, is to exclaim that the times were different then, and that everyone ought to be judged by the standards of their own time, not by ours. This gets to the essential flaw, but does not offer any meaningful solution. Every man, judged by his own standards, is innocent and pure as fresh fallen snow.

We should distinguish, at any rate, the difference between what a picture means to us and what we imagine it meant to them, the two are almost certainly different. Perhaps radically so. Further, we cannot really, credibly, grasp at what it meant to them without understanding them in some meaningful way. Dispense with the caricature.

Pictures of colonialism offend and appall us, rightly. We are who we are, and we find these things appalling.

One can also, but separately, imagine what these pictures meant to the colonialists, and we might choose to judge them based on that, though beyond our judgement they surely lie. But to so judge, we should make an effort to first understand the colonialists themselves. To cheaply paint them as caricatures and them to blindly paste our own reactions onto them is to do a grave disservice to everyone, perhaps most especially to ourselves.

Rather than simply transplanting our own understanding back in time, we should follow the thread of provenance backwards, unpicking each knot in the context of its time without losing sight of our own time, until finally we can make some sort of full sense of the thing.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Art in my little town

In my little town, of Bellingham, there is a lot of Art. Not great art, just pigments applied to surfaces, and photographs of pretty things, and chunks of metal welded to other chunks of metal, and so on. This is not to suggest that Bellingham is the end of line. No. If you fail in Bellingham, there are still places you can move to, to try again in a more forgiving market. But still, if you fail in New York, you don't move to Bellingham right away. First, maybe you fail in Birmingham or somewhere like that, and then Boise, and only then do you pull up stakes and come to Bellingham to see if there is a place for your art here.

There are, in my little town, Bellingham, any number of modest storefronts which represent someone's particular passion. Of course, there are bookstores, but what is unusual, really, about a passion for books? There is a museum of contraptions beautifully machined out of wood. There is a museum of electrical, things, mostly built around what might be the world's largest collection of dead shortwave radios. There is a train museum, where the wives of recently deceased old men donate their hundreds of pounds of model trains.

Also, there is a fish store. For live fish, fish for bowls, for tanks, for impossibly difficult to maintain aquatic environments. Tropical fish, goldfish, all manner of fish. Also, dog treats, dog toys, dog food, dog collars, bird seed, bird toys, and so on. But mostly, fish. It is the kind of store where, if you are not worthy, you may find yourself unable to purchase a fish for reasons you cannot quite grasp perhaps a nice goldfish says the young woman but I wanted the betta you say, bewildered. By way of explaining the breadth of the thing: they have a pufferfish, Miss Puff, not for sale please don't try to make me puff up it's bad for me. They maintain heroically large salt water environments in what seem to be intolerable circumstances.

Next door, in the former feed store adjoining the fish shop, is or more precisely was, a rather more ordinary pet store. Bunnies, parakeets, a few lizards, a snake, and aisle upon aisle of pet foods, pet toys, pet accessories, and, seasonally, setting out plants and seeds.

One night, the former feed store burned. Most of the animals were rescued, save only 10 birds and a snake. It is not clear if they are known to have perished, or if they are simply unaccounted for.

Allegations are being pursued to the effect that the fire was started by a homeless man who was trying to stay warm as temperatures dipped below freezing.

The fish store, with its lights and pumps and filters and heaters and coolers all maintaining the myriad delicate and complex environments was quarantined inaccessible to staff and without power for 18 hours.

All of the fish survived.

Monday, May 20, 2019

A Photo Book Project

I am plugging a project here, not mine. I don't know this person, even slightly. There are many many things about this project that are large red flags for me, but there's one thing I like. More on those in a moment. It's an indiegogo campaign (similar to kickstarter) to pre-sell enough books to justify going to press.

When We Lie Down, Grasses Grow From Us

Things I don't like.

This is one of those shitty-ass pay-to-play project where the artist is being forced into the role of fundraiser, a model I have talked about angrily in the past quite a bit. I hate this bullshit.

Jörg Colberg likes it, and it's a lot like what you're expect from that. The pictures are dreary, the book is over-desiged (by one of the Usual Crew in that social scene) and so on.

The campaign is set up as a "flexible goal" which means that even if she doesn't raise enough money to slake her publisher's thirst for lucre, she gets the cash, which is sketchy. I am absolutely certain that if this happens she will try with all her might to spend the cash on pushing the project forward anyways, and that she will fail and end up spending it on rent and groceries.

But I like one thing, basically. The artist has a clear concept. The dreary-ass nothing pictures so beloved of the MFA crowd actually seem to work for her concept.

I think I'm gonna back it to the tune of one (1) book, which I will then review (assuming it comes to fruition) and then pass on to someone else. Most likely.

You may elect otherwise, and to be honest, this kind of thing is very much an acquired taste. One I have not entirely acquired.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Valueless Art

There is a crew of the usual suspects going on and on about Art Institutions taking dirty money (and, no, Mr. Smith, it's not just a handful of irrelevancies) and scoring victories here and there. Nobody takes Sackler money any more because of OxyContin, and Photo London (whatever that is) cut ties with the Kingdom of Brunei because, whoa, it turns out they're terrible people, who knew?

Accusations are flying that this is mere window dressing, because if you dig down you find other tainted sources of money, and so on.

All this strikes me as terribly naive. Any pile of, say, a million dollars and up, is going to have quite a bit of blood on it. If you're running some institution, festival, contest, whatever, that requires more than about $10/year to operate, you're going to be running it on dirty money. The trouble isn't that these institutions are not adequately vetting their donors, the trouble is that money is generally pretty messy.

The usual woke suspects have not yet realized that you can dig anywhere, in any direction, and find something to complain about in any source of money. This is not to suggest that the complaints are not legitimate, of course they are. Billionaires are odious people.

Berger wrote in 1969 about the history of Revolutionary Art. It turns out that some of the Art designed to critique Capital and The Wealthy turned out to be rare and valuable. The Wealthy bought it up with gusto, because the point is to own valuable objects. The fact that the artifacts revile their owners is of literally no consequence. Indeed, it's probably a little delicious. If you made a limited edition of T-shirts with Swarovski crystals on the collar, the words EAT THE RICH on the front and a picture of a guillotine on the back, and sold them for $1200 a pop, wealthy socialites would wear the shit out of them.

Money is tainted. And. Money validates the artist. This reaches down to the lowest levels of Art. Suppose you get a book deal with someone fancy, you pony up your $10,000 or $20,000 and you get an edition of 400 sumptuous volumes made, priced attractively at 40 euros each. This validates the artist, because it is a real object, heavy, and while not particularly expensive, it is being offered for sale for real money. A cast of minions have worked on the thing, significant amounts of money have been pushed around. It's real. The artist has accomplished some sort of success, albeit limited. If you look closely, some of the money probably had someone's blood on it.

My solution, which dovetails perfectly with the two facts that (1) my art isn't very good, and that (2) I cannot bother to go try to drum up an audience for it, is to make art that has no cash value. Work that is infinitely, cheaply, reproducible manages to escape the clutches of Capital fairly thoroughly. The Wealthy don't want it, it's neither rare not expensive. Any peasant can bang out of a copy for himself, that's no good.

Photography, by its very nature, fits into this model beautifully. Indeed, it is quite painful to make photography into a Rare and Expensive object, and always ends up being a bit of a scam. Gursky may sell his enormous rare prints for a few million a pop, but paintings (which are actually rare, rather than pretend rare) sell for an order of magnitude more.

I propose going the other way. Make your pictures small and as close to free as possible. Give them away.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Theater of Indifference

Berger wrote an essay with the same title as this one, although of course he spelled Theater wrong. The subject of his essay is, more or less, the difference between the way we present ourselves, the way we interact, move, emote in the city versus our village. Not all of us have a village, and in particular I have been fairly itinerant all my life. I had to extrapolate and ponder a little to make any sense of what he was saying.

His point is, it appears to me, that in the urban environment we are as a rule acting or as the kids might say frontin' to one degree or another. In this environment, surrounded by people we do not know, we present ourselves as cooler, smarter, prettier. Or we present ourselves as more closed, less approachable, more aloof. Or we deploy any number of other facades.

In our village (or, as I think of it, my neighborhood) we present ourselves at least a little more directly, authentically. There is no point in presenting ourselves as smarter, or cooler, because everyone we meet knows us. While we might well conceal or exaggerate the thoughts, emotions, and reactions of the moment, our essential nature is well known and to try to cover it would be ridiculous.

You can probably cast it into your own terms. How do you feel, how do you walk, how do you imagine yourself: walking in a place where you do not know most people; walking in a place where you do know most people.

An anecdote by way of illustration. An attractive young woman walks. A young man notices her, and attends to her. She, noting his attention and finding it unobjectionable, throws a slight wiggle in her walk, and finds an excuse to turn around and take a second pass. He continues to notice her. All at once, they realize almost simultaneously that they know one another, and the charade collapses into something else entirely. Laughter all around.

The switch from strangers acting, to friends being friends, is the point, here.

This speaks, I think, to that entire genre of photography we know of as "street", both contemporary "street photography" and the so-called "street portrait."

This strikes me as specifically about photographing that theater that is this urban street. You are photographing not authentic people but rather the performances they put on in this environment. The lone figure in the distance, head down, a mere silhouette with the attractive shadow play, is closed to the world, fending off unwanted attention. They are not the warm, three-dimensional human they are at home, or in their local park, or even in the office.

The pretty girl crossing the street might be shouting with the set of her mouth and shoulders "don't talk to me!" or she might be whispering "look at me" or somewhere between the two or something else entirely. She is certainly not Marie who loves cats and has tried and tried but never mastered the macarena.

The street portrait, the closeup Bruce Gilden, these are likewise not real people. These are people acting out their fluid urban persona, suddenly confronted with a camera and donning what they hope is a good role for that moment.

Diana Arbus, as I have noted in the past, seems to have been acutely aware of this, and photographed neither the urban persona, nor the urban persona-for-the-camera, but rather the moment in between the two, for reasons I cannot really fathom.

This is not to say that street photography is bad, or flawed, but merely to recognize it for what it is.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Remarkable Sentence

In Jörg Colberg's latest in which he reviews a book that concerns me not in the slightest, he includes this startling sentence:

All of this prevents the viewer from ever getting to the “Oh, I get it” that’s marring so much archival work.

I do not know what to make of this sentence. Is there a typo somewhere I cannot mentally unwind? Does he mean that this applies only to picture books drawn specifically from archives? Is he referring only to a sudden sensation of "getting it?" Does he perhaps mean some sort of sense of "Oh, it's just that. That's stupid?" All these strike me as possible.

What is also possible is that this is a clue to a larger philosophy, namely that art should not be comprehensible. It suggests that if you arrive at a point of understanding, the work is marred.

This would certainly explain why Jörg seems to have a genuine fondness for books that appear to me to be incomprehensible trash. It would also explain his singular inability to articulate in any meaningful way why he likes one thing and dislikes another.

Regardless of what Jörg actually means here, this has caused me to put on my thinking cap. I have, for quite some time now, felt that the entire point of Art is that it is from time to time comprehensible. I judge everything from picture books to symphonies based on whether I can develop some kind of understanding, whether I "get it." When I don't, on good days, I am charitable and assume that perhaps it's just me, and on bad days I dismiss whatever it is as unmitigated trash.

It never occurred to me that there might be some other criteria upon which one might judge these things. I am by no means convinced that there is, it strikes me that absent meaning all that remains is the technical details, the formal details of the construction of the thing. I am certain Jörg does not mean this, here. Worrying about balance, or leading lines, is far too bougie for any proper academic, I suspect. It's certainly too bougie for me.

So.. what else might there be? If we postulate that when Jörg says something is good he does not mean that he gets it, or that it has elegant formal qualities, what on earth could be (or some notional other critic) mean?

Maybe there is something here. I don't have all the answers, that's for sure.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Photographing Chernobyl

The area around the Chernobyl reactor is a heavily photographed area. During my periodic checkin on Medium Format Magazine, which has struck me as hilarious since inception, I found this article, Photographing Chernobyl, on the free list, and skimmed it. I said to myself, self, these pictures sure look familiar.

So I went hunting around to see what's what. This is pretty interesting.

The reason all Chernobyl photos looks similar is because they are similar. There is fairly obviously A Tour that includes a startling small number of locations, through which photographers are briskly marched. I am going to ruthlessly lift photos from all over the place without regard for copyright because, in the first place, I am performing criticism, and in the second place it is not clear there is a copyrightable originality in any of these things, as I will demonstrate.

Exhibit A, the danger sign:

Google something like "Chernobyl danger sign barbed wire" and you will find dozens, possibly hundreds, of photos of this sign. Not this sign design, but this actual literal sign. The arrangement of barbed wire and the building in the background are distinctive. There may be 100s of these signs on miles of fencing for all I know, but this one is the sign that's On The Tour, so everyone photographs it.

The sign moves around a bit. Clearly it falls out of the fence, or falls askew, from time to time, and is put back. By the tour guides? Photographers? Who knows.

Exhibit B, the sea of gas masks with doll:

The story here is that there is a room somewhere in what looks like a school, where there are gas masks on the floor. People have brought in dolls and posed them in this room over the years. The dolls move around, are reposed, and in these modern times have largely disintegrated. They have great patina, eh? That's the grease of a million photographer fingers.

The one thing we know for sure is that this doll was not abandoned by a child on the day of the accident, and left reverently in place. It was probably brought from elsewhere in the area, or just as likely brought in by some photographer as a prop.

Now, this is where it gets fascinating. See the table with the shell of the TV in the foreground? Make a note of that.

Another canonical photo from Your Big Expensive Chernobyl Adventure is the school notebook.

Look at that. The notebook, abandoned one the very day of the accident, undisturbed for decades.

Nah, the notebooks move around constantly. And hey, remember the table with the busted TV on it? Same fuckin' table. Look closely.

There's A Room with the sea of gas masks, the dolls, the table, the notebooks, and clearly photographers go in there and reverentially photograph various closeups over the course of 2 or 3 minutes, creating the impression of many locations (except for the cheaters with the wide angle lenses who give the show away.) Sometimes stuff gets moved around to look better. There's a reason the gas mask is so elegantly draped behind the notebook.

It goes on and on. There are the bumper cars at the fairground, constantly moving around and getting more graffiti, there's the ferris wheel at the same location. The interior of the under-construction cooling tower and.. well, actually that's pretty close to it. There's a handful of other vaguely snapshotty things people pick up here and there, but that is basically the tour.

The standard tour includes something like 10 locations, each are visited pretty quickly. Everyone shoots the same things, sometimes after moving some shit around and then sprinkling dust over it all to look authentically abandoned. And then they go home.

I kind of get why one might do it as a tourist. Sure, these photos all exist, but these ones are my photos. You have, as it were, proof that you were there and that you did the thing. You have personalized memory-triggers of having done the thing.

What does not make sense is publishing this in a would-be serious magazine of Medium Format Photography, or more generally the once-every-couple-years articles in semi-serious photo news sources, The Abandoned World of Chernobyl!, or whatever, as if someone went and did some journalism rather than simply taking the tour.

I am reminded of Maria Lopez, who a few years ago did an Art Thing about the Cambodian Killing Fields, discussed in some remarks of mine over here. She went on The Tour, took The Snaps, and pretended it was a serious photo essay. Maria herself seems to have vanished from the web, or at any rate from the photography part. Presumably she gave up her dream of becoming a serious artist, and went back to her day job (middle management at NGOs, maybe? There were a flock of these people mobbing Souvid Datta a couple years ago, mostly professional NGO types.)

Friday, May 10, 2019

Storytelling II

I wish to set aside books with much in the way of text. If you're writing any sort of coherent "story" whether it be a literal laying out a sequence of events, or something else, the words will carry things along.

As usual, I want to construe "story" as generally as possible, to cover Cinderella through an impressionistic take on Monet's garden, and probably more besides.

And so, under consideration is a book of, essentially, just a bunch of pictures, most of them photographs, a book aimed at conveying something.

In my previous remarks I argued, with what I imagine to be a fair degree of success, that you're not going to get much traction if the goal is to convey a sequence of factual (or fact-like) events, such as the story of Cinderella or the Roman Empire. What you're going to be able to accomplish is something a lot more like Keith Smith's composite picture, a whole or a gestalt that in is psychologically similar to a photograph in that it contains a collection of visual facts and ideas and relationships, but is ultimately a singular object to which you, the reader, may react in some way.

A visual book does not, in general, relate a sequence of events, or a sequence of logical statements forming an argument. It does not convey names, dates, locations, and similar details. It is nothing more than a complex arrangement of visual details that may add up to... something.

The basic unit of the western codex is the two-page spread. You may elect to put one photo on there, or two, or more. The traditional approach places one photo per spread, and so the basic unit of that book is a single photo.

With a little work, some cueing, you might be able to persuade the reader that the unit is, say, 3 spreads in a row. Perhaps you alternate three color spreads with three black and white ones, or change the page color every three spreads. In this case the reader might be persuaded to flip randomly to a spot, and then find the beginning of the unit from there, more or less consistently.

The unit, therefore, is what I am considering to be the basic lump of material. I divide the book notionally into units, each unit being consumed together, as a whole, perhaps even in-order. Units, however, tend to be consumed more or less randomly. Earlier units will tend to be examined sooner than later ones, because we do tend to leaf through books roughly front-to-back, perhaps with some backing and filling.

You might envision the course through a visual book as, roughly, a series of units each consumed in-order, the units themselves consumed in a zig-zag path that tends front-to-back, but contains gaps and backtracking to one degree or another.

Probably a strict two-level hierarchy of "units" and "book of unit" is simplistic, but let us see if it offers any guidance.

All this suggests that, far from the complex structures we associate with the film and the novel, there is in fact very little wiggle room in the visual book.

Your choices seem to be one of these two: either have no particular progressive goal, but merely make your point through a pile of units; or make your point within the context of this somewhat labored path.

This chart suggests how I see these things.

We start our with a sequential reading (matching the dashed blue line) and then a short jump forward, and then back a little. One unit gets skipped, another gets looked at twice. A little later on a larger forward jump happens, more backtracking. At some point there is one dip backwards into previously skipped material, and then a large jump back forward. This is, of course, just an example, but illustrates the general shape of the thing.

So you have a few units at the beginning to set the stage, and then people start jumping around, in a more or less forward-moving fashion, with potentially larger and larger jumps.

After that, you can say things later and earlier, and people will notice that, although they may not encounter these statements in-order, they will tend to encounter them mostly in the right order, that is, later things after earlier things. Even if they backtrack and come across something near the end of their reading, they may well note that this is happening near the beginning of the book.

This suggests that your book should progress in fairly large strokes, with a lot of repetition. If you want someone to reliably notice something in the latter half of your book, you better give them several chances at it, because they're just jumping around at that point. The farther along in the book your material lies, the more repetition you'll need (or, the more you'll have to accept people simply missing it).

Opposing this notion, you don't want to simply make the last half of your book just a bunch of repeats of essentially the same point, so as to get through to people who are just casually flipping by that point. You'll put off the people who are reading more closely.

Some sort elaboration seems right. You will want some way to both communicate the bigger ideas in broad, repetitious strokes, while offering rewarding detail to the closer reader.

It will come as no surprise to long time readers to discover that I think this supports a music-like view of the visual books.

Sonata-like, you can state a couple of themes up front, in that first sequential read.

Following that, you can repeat and elaborate on those themes over longer stretches of material. The elaborations are enough to reward the closer readers, but the large themes are repeated over lengthier stretches of the book so that even people skimming will likely stumble across each of the important themes, in roughly the right order.

If your book is engaging, your readers will occasionally return to it, taking each time a similar but different path through it. They will, one hopes, discover the same large set of themes, the same overall structure, but with new details. Elaborations previously unnoticed may reveal themselves. Relationships between this picture and that, this unit and that, will pop up over time.

The composite image, formed at least hazily on the first read-through, ideally becomes clearer and at the same time evolves, upon each new reading.

It's not perfect, but maybe it's a model you can find something to use in.

Most people just go for a pile of pictures, anyways, and that's OK too.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Limits of Visual Storytelling

Lewis Bush has published the first of two pieces on visual storytelling, over here, which got me to thinking. My remarks here are in no meaningful way a response (although I may write one of those later, after the second part is published).

No, it just got me to thinking.

Consider for a moment motion pictures, film. The logic of film is that of time, of events unfolding one after the other. Yes, you can use framing devices and flashbacks and all those things, but the logic of a specific scene unfolding is, in general, that of time. The man steps forward, and then the dog shies away, as the girl lifts her hand to her cheek. Causal relationships, and stories are, at least at a micro level, simply revealed as the passage of events embedded in the inexorable stream of time.

Now consider the novel, and more generally the written word. Again, we have an inexorable forward drive, but it is not the forward thrust of time. Here it is almost cultural. Each sentence implies, demands, the previous sentence and the succeeding sentence. Here, the logic is not that of time but of thought. Just as thought, imagination, may recapitulate time in the same way a movie does, it may also proceed forward through an argument, or a set of related images. It may flit from one thing to another. Language being what we use to think with, the written word can be construed as a record of someone's thoughts.

Some progressions work, and others do not, according to rules I do not particularly understand.

Pictures, though, have no such logic. There is not, as near as I can tell, any compelling reason to always advance from one picture to the next. One photograph (or drawing, etching, whatever) does not imply its predecessor, or its successor.

Take a book of photographs, with no structure of text laid out from beginning to end, no particular external support for a particular approach to turning the pages. I submit that people will in general start at the beginning, because it's a book, turn a few pages in sequence to get the flavor of the thing, and after some period of time start flipping randomly. Only a specific urge to see the pictures will carry forward a sequential leafing. If I desperately want to see all the pictures, I will leaf forward 1 page at a time until the feeling wears off, or until I reach the end.

If do not have a fairly potent hunger to see them all, I will flip randomly, starting fairly soon. A mild desire to see all of them is not enough, I know I'll get there by flipping back and forth. I flip ahead to middle, and leaf through 4-5 pages. Then I flip back and leaf through 8 pages. And so on.

Essentially, within a book, or a section of a book, you have in a sense a budget of pictures to spend on order. You might get 4-5 pictures, or you might get 20 pictures, before the random flipping starts. But start it will.

It might not be absurd to hope that while your reader might start at a random spot, they will generally give you a small number of sequential page-flips before striking out at random again.

In part, this is because we have been trained that books of pictures have no meaningful sequence. If you simply jumbled all the pictures up at random in your average picture book, almost nothing would be lost. Some pleasing graphical coincidences might die, making the book less attractive, less pretty, but there was never any meaning in the sequence of pictures anyways.

Why do I care about sequential reading?

Most of the mechanics we associate with storytelling rely on ordering. Flashback, foreshadowing, framing devices, shifting viewpoints, rhythm, and I dare say 100s of other things don't make much sense if we're simply dipping into the thing at random.

Other mechanisms like allegory and relationships between things may survive a random walk through the material.

So what to do?

Well, for one thing you can build you book to not much care what order people flip through thing. Books (or sections of books) which are essentially just a box of pictures work this way. You can play games with spreads, but from one spread to the next you cannot rely on any particular ordering. Andy's book, reviewed in the previous, takes this approach. Each of his five sections has, on average, 25 pictures. It's pretty natural to leaf to the start of a section, and then leaf forward, 1, 2, 3, 4... 10, 7, 22. It doesn't matter, though, because each spread within a section or chapter works fine on its own.

It occurs to me that using the two-page spread to hold more than the traditional one or two pictures might be a good idea, although I just had this thought. If there truly is a sequence of three or five pictures which must be seen in order, then put them on a single spread. It's the only way to be sure.

You can add in a textual structure, to carry the reader from one page to the next in order. At this point people will mostly be reading, not looking, so there is a tradeoff.

If your pictures are wildly compelling in-sequence, perhaps you have essentially shot a movie rendered as a series of stills, well, that might work I dare say.

Fundamentally, though, I think that Lewis is going to have a lot of trouble convincing me that ideas from film and novels are likely to translate to picture books in any useful way. The forward, sequential, drive is simply not present. Further, pictures are semiotically large objects that cannot be sliced up and re-arranged in the way that, for instance, words, or frames of a movie can be. You're kind of stuck with 20 or 30 or 500 intractable lumps of meaning, rather than the 10s of 1000s, or millions, you have with novels and films.

Picture books comprised mainly of pictures, as far as I can tell, are best suited to allegorical and emotional communications. They work when designed to be accessed with a fair degree of randomness.

Keith A. Smith talks about the idea of a composite picture, a "total" picture built up out of the individual pictures in a visual book, and I think he's got it right, there.

Me? I do that. I also do things with lots of words, which are really books of words with a secondary counterpoint of pictures.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Crit: ATMTX Photo, On the Street: India

On Kirk Tuck's recommendation, I acquired a copy of this book.

If you like the preview, you'll like the book. It's pretty simple!

I like the book. It's not a book I would ever have made, but I am pleased to possess it. The author (not identified beyond the identifier ATMTX PHOTO in the book, but I believe named Andy) talks about his design inspirations on his blog, here, notably the use of full bleed, and double-truck pictures, and a ruthless willingness to rotate 90 degrees to print horizontals on a vertical page.

The system works just fine. It's hard to visualize how it's going to work on screen as you lay out a book like this, but it turns out that with a physical book one turns the thing 90 degrees as necessary, almost without thinking. It feels perfectly natural after a little while.

Blurb's trade books, especially on the uncoated paper, do not have great blacks. I do a thing with a curves adjustment to shovel a little contrast and depth into the blacks which I feel strengthens them a little visually, but it might just be voodoo. Andy either doesn't mind the weak blacks, or just decided to live with them. The pictures read as slightly flat, but that's just a quibble. Content is king. If Steidl can say "fahk zee midtones" we are allowed to print with weak darker tones.

The photos themselves are a blend of vernacular and more formal. Everything is recognizably street, nothing is posed, of course. Some pictures are more of a chaotic jumble, and some are more formally arranged masses of tone. I feel like a few of the pictures might have benefitted from some post-process color filtration. Sometimes a person's hand is almost lost in the chaotic mass of similar tones that are visually behind the hand, that sort of thing. Perhaps, though, this is intentional.

The pictures generally seem to work. Whether I would apply a "red filter" to this one, or crop that one differently, or punch up the shadows of yet a different one is immaterial. The book "reads" fine, it makes sense to me. It reveals something to me.

Full marks for design: simple, nice looking. There a couple pages of frontmatter, which so many people leave out. The typography is simple. The chapter/section beginnings burn a couple of pages attractively, usefully, rather than rudely dumping you into the next block of photos in an effort to save money. You get a lot of pictures for your money here, but it does not feel crammed full, or amateurish.

It's a bunch of photos, 123 according to the author, a few lines of text at the beginning of each section to set the stage. The organizational structure, while uncomplicated, works and was of interest to me.

So, onwards to the content.

Andy has built this thing as five sections, or chapters, more or less in chronological order of a short trip he took to India. What astonished me most about this book is the way Andy conveys his (his? an?) experience of India over such a miniscule visit, during which visit he was actually working at his job as well. Perhaps he has been many times, though? I am not sure. At any rate, I felt something authentic and fairly deep from the book.

Each section is more or less an unordered cloud of pictures from some segment of his trip. All are concerned with a view of the authentic "street" life of where Andy happened to be at that time. Each section can be taken separately, but it makes sense to look at the first section, then the second, and so on. There is a logic to this flow, albeit not a strict one. Within each chapter, each picture (or, really, each two-page spread) can be taken by itself, without concern for ordering, as far as I can tell.

The blend of what appears to my white eyes as "authentically Indian" with "western influence" was fascinating to me. Almost all the men wear jeans, but not quite. There is at least one instance of more traditional legwear, which appears to be a dhoti, worn by a fellow in a work crew consisting largely of jeans-wearers. Western brands show up in the backgrounds constantly, and so on. The balance feels, to this westerner, "right," it feels as if "yes, that is probably how it really is."

An element that appears regularly: a two page spread of a pair of photos taken a few seconds apart. I loved this. It imparts, I don't know, some sense of motion. Some sense of being present. It's a beautiful idea, and one I intend to steal.

In general, Andy is quite good with spreads. The temporal pairings are, I think, critical to the weight of the book. The others are merely pleasing graphical pairings of the usual sort, which make the book more visually appealing but are not important to meaning as such.

Much of the flavor is of functioning chaos. Not a society that struggles through chaos, nor yet a society that is chaotic, but simply a society that exists inextricably intermingled with a certain kind of chaos. It strikes me as maybe similar to the chaos of color and materialism that characterizes Las Vegas, or a standard-issue enclosed North American Mall. There is chaos, it exists, but we are used to it. It does not much impede our use of these places, it does not much register. We are not chaotic at the Mall, nor is our existence at the Mall choatic. The Mall is chaotic, we are not, we exist in the Mall, surrounded by chaos we barely register while we shop, eat, and pee.

I found a strong sense of presence in this book.

Well done, Andy!

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Missy MWAC Rescues A Photo

Missy MWAC got another piece published on Petapixel, in her apparently ongoing series of articles on how important old photographs on.

First of all, this one seems to contradict the previous one, in which she asserts that people love their old photos, and the Forbes article is wrong. How on earth, then, are there all these photos that need rescuing?

Set that aside. She has devised what is, in a way, a kind of fascinating way to, I don't know, create something from these pictures. She apparently has a plan to write stories for these old pictures she pulls out of old boxes and whatnot? Which is kind of cool, I think. I could see this as a thing.

Furthermore, her story is pretty OK. It ain't "The Gift of the Magi" by any means, but it's a workable little tale with a bit of wit, a good sketch of how sisters can really be, and so on.

There are two substantive complaints I have about the story itself, and then one further complaint.

Number one and most offensive, she paints the father as a drunk, or possibly a philanderer. By all means, the characters in your stories, whether long or short, can be whatever you like. They are fictions. This guy isn't a fiction. He was a real person. He's right there in the picture, and that is literally the point of this exercise. There's a fair chance some of the kids in the photo are still alive. To paint him in this light without a shred of evidence is libelous and mean. And it is unnecessary. The father's failings serve here only to illustrate and underline the youthful naivete of "Beatrice," a task which could be performed in myriad other ways.

Number two, "Beatrice" doesn't look irritated about her dress at all. Again, we're given a narrative idea based on nothing whatever. It's an inoffensive idea this time around, but if the purpose is to grant to the photo a sort of new life, there ought to surely be some connection. But perhaps I am reading the young girl's expression one way, others might see it another? Is there a peevishness to the eyes? I don't see it.

My third complaint, having nothing to do with the story, is that Missy MWAC is one of those people who spends a surprising amount of time yowling about the evils of Photo Theft, and appears to be doing just that here. There might be a fair use case here, but I am dubious. I do not think "illustrating my story" is one of the standard bits of case law (and I did poke around a bit.)

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Provenance is Tainted!

The Left in particular, which is where I live and a lot of artists also, has a broadly held theory that provenance matters. In particular, if the source is tainted the result must, somehow, inherit flaws and failings.

First, a digression about ethics. Ethics are a social construct. The religious might claim that they originate with God or Gods, and I won't dispute that, because it doesn't matter: God-given ethics are laundered through the machinery of society, and are in the end still a social construct. An ethical dispute is at its very basic level simply disagreement about essentially arbitrary positions. It isn't quite the same as disagreeing, you and I, about how much we like tacos, because a social construct has more weight in a bunch of dimensions than does my love of tacos.

Ethics, unlike my personal tastes, offers the hope of judging everyone the same way which I certainly do not offer on the taco question.

So ethics are not isomorphic to my personal love of tacos, but there is a similarity at a basic level. The two are not unrelated.

We can dig through some examples.

There are, it is widely believed, ethical problems with building scientific work on Nazi science on account of the Nazis being awful. There were human experiments performed in concentration camps, and the question "can we even look at this data?" was a real question back in the day. As I recall the conclusion was that the experimental setups were so shitty that the experimental results were useless anyways. Not so the rocket guys. It turns out that Werner von Braun and his crew of Nazis and slaves built fine rockets.

Lewis Bush is working on a book tracing the taint of that activity through the US Space Program, which got von Braun after the war. Whether or not ethical taint carries along the thread, the line from Peenemunde to the moon is pretty direct.

The cry of "taint!" is usually accompanied by "the work is shit anyways!" which probably was not true for the rockets.

Among the academic or semi-academic hordes that crowd for warmth against the gates of the high end Fine Art community, there are at least two threads which are relevant here, and these are of course my main point.

The first thread is that work made on the basis of questionable ethical choices is inherently bad.

There are photographs taken (or other Art made) in ways which do not suit the ethical stance of the critic. Souvid Datta and his pictures of underage prostitutes (and also his plagiarism) come to mind. The critic in these cases has never, ever, concluded his tirade with "but god damn, the pictures are excellent." The conclusion is invariably that the pictures, the work, is shit.

The second thread that pops up a lot is that of Dirty Money. The Sackler family spends a great deal of money on the arts, money which they obtained by selling drugs, at least so we are led to believe. One dollar being interchangeable with another freely, one can't be quite sure, of course. Anyways, Art Institutions are being given the opportunity to signal their virtue by rejected Sackler money. Notably, the Tate organization bravely turned down all the money the Sacklers have not yet offered them, although they're definitely keeping the money they've already gotten. As Mike C. has remarked, the Tate fortune isn't exactly squeaky clean.

Ok, so, anyways. What are the various logics in play here?

The first and simplest is "bad people do bad work" which isn't always wrong, nor is it always right. Josef Mengele was an awful creature, and did awful things. His alleged science seems to have mainly been just fancy forms of torture. His awfulness did in fact directly impact his scientific efforts, and converted them in to garbage. Werner von Braun, probably also not a terrific human being, seems to have been able to build a pretty damned good rocket, though. Whatever his character flaws, they did not translate into lousy engineering.

Souvid Datta's pictures certainly never struck me as particularly awful, they seemed to be just fine. Maybe not brilliant, but at least workmanlike.

Chuck Close, one of the darlings of Fine Art, was revealed to be pretty crass with female models from time to time. The response varied, and included the idea that his work shouldn't be displayed. Does the fact that Close is an asshole, or Satan, somehow change the nature of his work? Only, I think, if you are willing to literally include the character of the artist in your judgement of the work. God knows I am all about context, but this seems to me to be pushing it.

It is very attractive to believe that work done by people you don't approve is inherently flawed, but I don't see how that follows. Sometimes the character flaws show up in the work, and sometimes they don't.

The second logic is essentially Upton Sinclair's: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it. Again, this ain't wrong. It is possible, albeit unlikely, that the Tate organization could be seen to be promoting opioid use by taking Sackler money. It is possible, albeit unlikely, that they could be subtly coerced into some sort of excuse-making labors. I'm not sure how that would work. Could Sackler money somehow induce the Tate into actively contributing (more) to evil in the world?

The Tate seems to have rejected the Sackler money specifically to soothe the tender feelings of Nan Goldin, so they could show her work, which (as Mike C. noted) can be construed as among other things explicitly glamorizing drug use. Not sure how well their program of avoiding opiates is going here?

Institutions like the Tate are, to first order, organizations that more or less successfully strain the money out of the mixture of aspirations-&-money that are offered them by the wealthy. The Sacklers probably have no interest in promoting opioid use, or particularly in cleansing their names. Most likely, they have a trainload of shitty paintings by Junior, or Grandma, that they would love to sneak into the Tate's permanent collection, and it is the Tate's job to get the money, and decline the paintings.

That said, probably when a starving artist wins the Deutsche Börse prize that artist might feel a little odd about criticizing Deutsche Börse. Or, possibly (likely?) the opposite is true. The prize-granting Foundation's function is to launder the reputation of Deutsche Börse, and therefore it seems to award prizes to whichever of the usual suspects hits some perfect balance of anti-authoritarian and wunderkind. So these artists are maybe not directly propping up Deutsche Börse but are complicit in the reputation-laundering?

Upton Sinclair's notion strikes me as sometimes applicable, sometimes not. Depending on, um, factors. Of some sort.

Honestly, these things seem to be all over the place.

What does seem certain, though, is that blanket assertions about tainted provenance seem to be risky.

Not to sound like some dumb relativist, but at the end of the day all money is tainted, and no artist is a perfect human being. You're gonna have to take it case by case, and if you want to persuade me that someone's work is shit you're going to have to do better than point out what an asshole the artist is.