Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A Phenomenon

I have noted, over the years, an essentially social phenomenon which occurs in photography circles, one radically accelerated by social media.

A fellow tries a thing out, and it is well received. So he pushes it a little harder next time, and his audience again responds well. Over time, he trains the audience to like his schtick more or less no matter how far he pushes it. Over time, his audience trains him to push it harder. It is a feedback loop that leads to madness.

I have found a beautiful example. Dan is a popular photographer on our favorite little photography forum. He turned up years and years ago, and was savaged by the regulars because he had his own ideas. Fairly quickly he fell into line, though, and started dutifully taking pictures that looked like the 1980s, and eventually built up enough credit to start, again, having his own ideas. He does a kind of "skin work" that, while wildly unreal, is very very popular.

More recently, he's been doing more and more radical color grading. He started with a hint of warmth, moved on to a kind of golden glow, and (pursuant to the feedback cycle noted above) he had arrived at, well, here:

Portrait of a Photographer

Now, there's plenty to like here. The light is appealingly shaped, the model attractive, the picture is sharp. While not a brilliant insight into the model's soul, there seems to be a bit of engagement here.

Dan is a bit of a proponent of available light, so he gets in a little trouble here with two different light colors.

The main problem, though, is that the guy looks like a banana. This is territory normally occupied by lemons, sunflowers, and Donald Trump.

If you poke around, the same photographer appears to have an array of recent jaundice victim portraits to look at. I think an appropriate search would probably reveal the progression from "warm" to "liver failure" along with the critique that powered the progression.

This is the kind of corner "critique" can back you in to. You're taking advice from dolts who are easily led, and who are not even seriously looking at the pictures. This is why, really, you're on your own. At the end of the day, it's down to you. You're the only one who cares enough to look at the whole picture, the whole project, the whole piece.

Nobody else loves you, nobody else gets it. It's all on you, so get used to it.

PSA: Reading a publicly accessible web site isn't stalking, so don't even go there you tiresome simpletons. No, I do not have an account, stealth or otherwise. You don't need one to read the publicly accessible forums. Same as all the other forums in the world.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Photo Pedagogy for Kids

Inspired/motivated by some things A.D. Coleman wrote on his blog, I decided that I ought to take a whack at teaching my kids some visual literacy stuff. I have a 9 year old, and a 6 year old.

I am starting with the older one.

First thing I showed her was this bad boy:

Which blew her mind, and then we talked about how a photograph is just a piece of the world, stuff gets left out, and sometimes that stuff matters.

Next up (the next day) I took a couple more or less identical photos with the focus point set on different objects. In one this thing is in focus, and that is blurry. In the other, this thing is blurry, and that is sharp. Then we talked about what you're "supposed to look at" in these two pictures. Again, she got it easily, and I think she learned a little something about how the photographer can manipulate your attention.

This led into a discussion that kind of stretched my mind out a bit. It occurred to me that it's probably not obvious to a kid that there's a plane (more or less) at a certain distance from the camera that's in focus. Why not a sphere? Why not a a blob that's all sharp? Well, you and I know the answer is something something optics shut up kid but anyways I laid that out for her. She did not ask, to be clear, but I realized that this was a point worth making explicit.

The next lesson was manually focusing a lens on my camera, using the built-in rangefinder thingy (it's just arrows that say "turn it this way" and "turn it the other way" with a little "nailed it" indicator), and the ability to move the point where it's focusing ON around.

So now, I think, she has a rough grasp of what focus is, and what focus can do.

Next up, a very short sketch of depth of field, and I'll have her take some pictures.

I had a discussion with my sister-in-law who spent many years teaching photography and media literacy to kids, and she feels that hands-on is very important. So, we're going to experiment with that.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Invisible People

Most homeless people in the USA are not the panhandlers, begging for change, trying to raise enough money to get a can of beer, a smoke of crack.

Most of them just had one too many spots of bad luck to many to remain in a home, and many of them will, perhaps with a little help, struggle back up into the ranks of the barely housed. Until then they live in shelters, clapped out RVs, minivans, tents, or when they can, with a friend.

They are largely invisible, unless you notice them stepping through the doorway of one of the many organizations that try to offer them the help they need to make that desperate lunge back up the socio-economic ladder, into the ranks of the not-homeless.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Richard Prince is Right

I don't mean Prince is right about every little detail, but in broad strokes, he's right. Let me clarify that: Prince was right about everything. Every. Single. Thing. Richard Prince, on the other hand, might not be right about this detail or that detail, here or there, although he is in broad strokes right.

First of all, let's clear away some underbrush, and then I'll get in to exactly what I mean.

The standard photographer position on intellectual property is, roughly, that photographers should be allowed to practice their craft pretty darn broadly. Photographing anyone, anywhere, any time, perhaps within some reasonable and not very stringent limits ought to be permitted. This results in pictures, which belong in every conceivable sense to the photographer and only the photographer, regardless of the nature of the pictures. Turning this around a little and rephrasing, photographers seem to think that intellectual property rights fall in to two categories: Mine and Irrelevant.

Ok, maybe there's a hint of cynicism there. But that is kinda what it feels like. Your face? Your building? Your car? Your house? It's mine. My photos? Also mine.

Ideas like Copyright showed up in an era when it was possible but not easy to copy things. Things like books, and plays, and engravings, and paintings. Later, the idea was extended to photographs, recordings, movies. Each of these objects also took a certain amount of effort to copy.

The idea of Intellectual Property was conceived to provide incentives to creatives, it grants creatives an enforceable basket of rights, rights which they could use to generate money, or simply hold on to. The idea was to encourage creatives to continue to create. If a writing a useful or popular book resulted in no positive result for he author, the author might reasonably take up another trade, and some did before the idea of Copyright arose and was passed in to law.

These ideas slammed into the digital age at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, producing a great deal of heat and light, but nothing much good has resulted.

First of all, the enforcabilty has simply evaporated. There is essentially no hope of enforcing copyright. Anything anyone actually wants is available. Someone has already copied it, and made it available. Some industries have shrugged this off: music, movies. Their model is to sell it to you streaming, which is actually easier than stealing it at a price point that is close enough to zero that most people will simply pay.

Other industries, like photography, are flailing, in part because it cannot invent a way to sell product that is easier than stealing it, mainly because stealing a photo is absurdly easy.

Secondly, the ability to turn your work in to money seems to be largely separate from copyright in this day and age. There are photographers making a living, and the abject failure of copyright enforcement doesn't seem to be an issue for them. The market collapse of photography is related to the fact that the cost of entry is nearly zero, not due to the collapse of copyright.

Which leads us around to the last point which is, in our modern and relatively affluent society, motivating people to create by offering them a livelihood seems to have fallen by the wayside. Authors seem to lose money at least as often as they make it, and yet books continue to be written. There certainly seem to be a lot of photographs made. Very few painters make any money at all, and yet there is a lot of painting going on, and so on. The road to music success is to record songs in your bedroom and stick them on YouTube, and if you are very very very lucky you will make money eventually doing live performances (rarely on selling recorded music.)

So, on many axes, in many dimensions, the century old concepts of and rationales behind copyright and intellectual property have collapsed.

Copyright at this point is largely used (successfully) by large corporations to prevent smaller players from re-using material held by the large coroporation, which may or may not have had anything to do with the creation of the material. Try obtaining the rights to use a poem, a quotation, or a photograph in your book. Try using a song in your movie. It rapidly turns into a nightmare, and is hit-or-miss at best.

So, copyright does not seem to be doing much to stimulate creativity, but it is stifling it.

You could probably jump in here and tell me about your cousin's friend's sister who something something whatever and so, but that's not the point. The point is that an argument, a good argument, can be made that in broad strokes copyright specifically, and intellectual property in general, is doing more harm than good these days. It is stifling creativity rather more than it is stimulating it.

For reference, I didn't invent this argument, it is an argument other (better) creatives than I have been making.

Intellectual Property (don't get me started on patents) is upside down and backwards. Intellectual Property is a concept that is overdue for a good thorough rethink.

Which brings us back around to Richard Prince.

Whatever else his art is about, it is at least a kind of performance art based around litigation (not unlike Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "wrapping things" projects.) The performances are often aimed at criticizing contemporary ideas of Intellectual Property, and of exploring the limits, legally and morally. He appears to be contesting our ideas, here.

Someone needs to take a good hard go at punching contemporary ideas about Intellectual Property in the nose, since they're not working for anyone. Prince, whether you agree with this project or that, is definitely standing up there and trying to bloody that nose, that nose that needs to be bloodied good and thoroughly, so we can get to work on something that might actually work.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Photo Critiques

Sometimes I torture myself by going in to Critique sections of internet forums. I recoil in horror, but I think this particular mess is not restricted to forums. I have this notion that camera clubs do it, and that it is somehow related to things that actually happen in photography school, which boggles my mind.

Someone posts a perfectly innocuous picture, like this one:

Critique begins to roll in. I would crop a little off the right, because blah blah blah:

I would crop left, which would something something whatever:

What about a square crop?

I would crop and then clone out he bright strand which kills the picture:

Did you try it in color?

And so on.

All of these and more are perfectly nice pictures, and they're all different. They will all feel subtly different.

None of these things are going to change the fact that it's a perfectly nice picture of a sweet pea, nothing more. Any of the pictures will do for decor, if that sort of decor suits you and the relevant wall.

There are a couple of underlying assumptions here. The first is that the name of the game is to create Single Great Photos. Which, sure, that can be a goal, I guess. Good luck to you. The second and more insidious is that by taking a decent picture you can hack away at it and make it, if not a Single Great Photo, at any rate maybe close to a Great Photo. And, somehow, by so doing, you learn something, maybe, about great photos?

It's not true. None of these crops is substantively better than the other, absent some specific purpose. As a standalone "pretty good picture" without any notion of a purpose, any crop will do, they're all much the same.

Compare this will Sally Mann shooting "The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude." By her own account she marched Emmett out to the river and shot photos of him over and over and over. This shot was from too high, that one from too low, this one is framed wrong, can you turn a little, try resting your hands on the water, and on and on and on.

Each of these pictures looks a bit like any of the others. It's a fair bit like the kinds of advice people give in Photo Critiques.

There are fundamentally two differences, but they are crucial.

First, Mann knows that somewhere in here is the picture she wants.

Second, she knows it when she sees it.

With my sweet pea, there is no picture in here that I want. I had nothing in mind but to shoot a technically competent and vaguely pleasing photo for no purpose except to write this blog post. Most people posting photos for "critique" shot their picture for even less reason than that, and they certainly have no notion that greatness is lurking somewhere nearby. Further, suppose I had shot this thing searching for some rightness, whether definable or not, whether articulable or not. Why on earth would anyone imagine that someone else is going to be able to help?

Even if I could find whatever it is, it's something of a gamble that you'd see it even then, and if I haven't found it yet what gives anyone the idea that you're going to be a useful guide?

I suppose if you've never cropped a picture, or cloned a thing out, or whatevered, these suggestions might not be useless? I dunno. The whole thing makes me sad, so I leave critique forums pretty fast.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Epistemology of Global Knowledge

A friend of mine recently completed a project, a documentary film about how the US faked the moon landings. Essentially, he and a friend (not me) went around recruiting people to be "interviewed" about their role in faking the moon landings, wound up with a lot of hours of awesome footage, and cut it together a documentary that is much better than the rot pulled together by the weirdos.

I believe that the USA's space program did drop some dudes on the moon, it happens.

It is tempting to say that I believe this because I am rational, and have thought through what would be required otherwise. Now, I have thought that through, and do understand what would be required to have faked the moon landings, and I find the idea ridiculous. But that's not why I believe we landed on the moon. My belief predates my rational analysis, by decades. I believe we put guys on the moon, because my dad told me we did.

I believe that anthropogenic global warming is real, too. I have conducted a similar rational exercise, but again, my belief came before my analysis. Essentially, I was raised to believe that burning fossil fuels is a rotten idea, and I was therefore primed when Al Gore said some stuff I still don't really understand about carbon dioxide.

If we rewind a few thousand years, and imagine that world, we can guess pretty reliably that in those days almost everything anybody knew was local knowledge. We knew about things our relatives did, experienced, and needed. We knew a local history. Probably also, we knew some mystical things, things about Gods and Demons, and whatnot.

There simply isn't any reason for a tailless plains ape to know a damned thing about the antics of similar apes 1000 miles away, and indeed as far as we can tell baboons continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance about distant baboons. There does not seem to be any obvious cognitive machinery in place for handling things like Moon Landings, Donald Trump, Brexit, and Climate Change. We are, it strikes me as likely, re-tasking some other mental systems when we imagine we're understanding this kind of thing.

Your experience is maybe different from mine, but I find as I examine myself that in every case my belief in some piece of "remote" knowledge of this sort precedes my rationalization. I'd like to imagine that I don't think vaccines cause autism for rational reasons, say. After all, I say to myself, I don't trust pharmaceutical companies one bit. Surely it was logic, pure reason, that changed my mind. But I was raised to believe that sacrificing oneself for the greater good is a virtue (one of the great virtues) and vaccines are, ultimately, about accepting a small risk in exchange for the greater good. I suspect that my belief in the virtue of vaccines simply outweighs my distrust of industry.

What, you are probably asking, has this to do with photography? What desperate thread will this idiot grasp, to connect these ideas to photographs?

Knowledge of faraway things is intimately tied to mass media. Prior to the newspaper, we learned about the happenings faraway literally by way of some guy walking to our town with a lute and then singing us a song about the faraway happenings. The newspaper allowed at least the ideas to come along in a more wholesale fashion, and when decorated with drawings gave us some visual anchor.

The photograph, and shortly after the methods for mass printing of same, gave us direct, visceral, access to faraway events, places, people. The invention of the photograph, it seems to me, more or less exactly aligns with the moment in history when humans began en masse to seriously grapple with believing in, and understanding, faraway events, people, places. I think it has been argued by wiser heads than mine that this is a causal relationship.

I am fond of rattling on about "the index" and the truth claims of photography, and how the photograph captures a kind of truth. But perhaps I have it all wrong. Maybe the point is that the photograph, whether faked or not, gives us visceral access to things we already want to believe, or to disbelieve.

Certainly there are photographs and video which, to the uninitiated, are just blurry messes which signify nothing but which, to the initiated, clearly show either a police officer using excessive force on a helpless victim, or a police officer justifiably defending himself from a violent attack, depending on which way your politics lean. The indexing properties of the photograph appear to be more or less irrelevant here.

People like me worry about the increasing ease with which photographs can be faked, but perhaps that's all beside the point. Arguably, we have always been able to identify fakes: they're the ones that conflict with our preconceptions, obviously. The ones the support our belief system are not faked. Ok, they might have been 'shopped a little, but essentially they're real. The ones that conflict, well they might be straight out of the camera, but the scene was probably staged, or carefully selected.

We finds ways to accept a fake, and to dismiss a non-fake, almost without effort.

The photograph serves, primarily, as one of many tools we use to justify our beliefs and ideas.

Smart players know this. That piece on the autism-vaccine link is vastly strengthened by adding a photograph of a kid, and a photograph of a hypodermic needly, dripping malevolently. The pictures are factually irrelevant. The child in the stock photo probably is not autistic, the hypodermic is filled with tap water. But the piece punches above its weight, because believers want to believe and the photos give them visceral access to the ideas they desire.

We find things to believe or to dismiss based on a handful of things, none of them rational, none of them are based in reasoning. After the fact, we seek to justify our findings with reason, but a depressingly large percentage of people literally do not know what reasoning looks like. They cannot tell the difference between a correct argument and a jumble of words. The process of rationalization seems to often reduce to checking the conclusion, to see if it is the proper one, and examining the authorship to see if it is one of our guys, or one of theirs. The words in the middle are, often as not, literally not even read (although the busy rationalizer would deny it, they will still fail a basic reading comprehension test on the material.)

There's a whole 'nother issue here, which is where these ideas actually arise from. Certainly from our parents and friends, but ideas do evolve and we do believe things that are different from the ideas of our family and friends. There is another entire stratum, which I think of as the everybody knows layer, consisting of stuff that we think of as common knowledge. It is one of the paths we take to diverge from our parents: Mom thought such and such, but it's 2019 now, and everybody knows...

Photography in particular and mass media in general play a substantial role here, in shaping that corpus of things that everybody knows and this is the basis of propaganda (marketing).

We are susceptible, maybe, to reasoned argument and logic when talking about local events, local people. We can, maybe, accept the argument of another baboon when we're talking about related baboons, and events down at the water hole. Why, Marge could never, you know she does her shopping Wednesday morning, so she couldn't have! might not fall on deaf ears.

For these kinds of remote, global, knowledge where, curiously, reason and logic would appear to be surely the first and most important tools, they are in fact almost worthless. To shift a global idea around the defenses of our preconceptions, the only obvious route is by way of everybody knows.

To persuade, to change, you have to access the everybody knows stratum. Photographs, maybe, should be calculated not to vigorously promote a viewpoint, but rather to gently lay groundwork. A vigorous photograph is simply rejected by those who disagree, and accepted by the choir (who already agree). A subtle photograph, a photograph which takes no particular position, lays groundwork. It's neutral, there is no reason to reject it. 1000 neutral photographs create a little world. 10,000 photographs create, maybe, a ground state that everybody knows.

I think you could probably photoshop the hell out of every single one and it wouldn't matter a bit.

Monday, July 1, 2019

"Looks Like" vs. "Is"

John Berger was at some pains to tell the world that the invention of perspective drawing was not some great breakthrough that suddenly allowed the painters of Western Europe to stop sucking and start making awesome art. It was simply a way of seeing. A way that privileged the eye, the single viewpoint.

At this point, in our western Europe derived culture, we are literally taught that a picture is "correct" if it drawn according to the rules of perspective. Anything else is either "wrong" or possibly "artistic" with a bit of side-eye to indicate, sotto voce, that what we mean here is "wrong."

Into this mix arrives the camera which automatically produces "correct" pictures, huzzah. No more shitty art!

But in the end, all this does is enshrine more firmly the notion that the proper and correct way to depict a thing, a person, a scene, an event, is to depict it as it appears to the eye, in a single moment. It enshrines and enforces this peculiarly modern, peculiarly Euro, way to seeing as the default and correct way. I could wander off into a discussion of colonialism here, but I won't. Not this time,

No, instead I want to talk about what artists generally hope to accomplish in their depiction of things, people, places, events. What we want, generally, is to show what the the thing is in some meaningful sense. We are, or were, present. We experienced something, something we feel is worth rendering as a work of art. A photo, a painting, a sculpture, a film. It mattered to us, enough to want to make something of it. What a thing is can be construed in, maybe, an infinitude of ways, but what it surely is not is merely what it looks like.

What we want to encapsulate in our work is, surely, more than the appearance of the thing. Surely we want to reveal something of the essence of the thing (or our experience, or whatever) something of what it is or at any rate was. We have been tricked by the tradition of perspective drawing and its sequels into thinking that if we can only render the appearance well enough, we can reveal this thing itself, and this is a great, tragic, lie.

Even the painters, drawing in perspective, did not believe this. Paintings, whether in perspective of one point, two points, or no points, are as often as not larded with with objects themselves laden with symbolism. The lordling is surrounding by hounds and expensive crap, and what's with that girl's earring? But somehow these tricks got lost as Pictorialism was jettisoned. The Modernists strove to show us what the thing is by, apparently, sheer strength of will. This in turn got translated into, somehow, maybe if I just make it really really sharp, and use a full range of tones, something good will come out of it all.

This is, if not the root, at least one of the roots of the great search for better equipment. Perhaps with the right camera, the right lens, the right lights, I could get more of the appearance of the thing into the digital file, and then, somehow, I could reveal the thing itself. By getting enough of what it looks like into the RAW file, I can capture what it is. Phrased this way, the falsehood is, I dare to suppose, instantly obvious.

At this point, though, trotting out theories like you want to show what it is not merely what it looks like in, say, an internet forum (or, I dare say, a camera club) is likely to draw a mixture of blank stares and savage attacks.

The cubists threw perspective away, and painted the thing from several sides at once, which isn't a bad idea. Dopes like me hope that by combining a sequence of pictures with, perhaps, some words I can overcome photography's obsessive looks like enough to get to the is at least a little. The portrait photographer hunts restlessly for the combination of light and expression that brings the is out into the looks like where the camera can access it.

The fundamental limitation of the camera is that all it can ever do is show you what a thing looks like, never what it is.

It's up to us to, somehow, badger the photograph into transcending its own nature, into, somehow, showing what the thing photographed is in spite of its appearance.

More precisely, we need to badger the photograph in to, despite revealing mere appearance, causing the viewer to perceive what the thing photographed is.

This is more than sharpness, more than technical detail, for those improve only the appearance of the thing. Somehow, the appearance needs to be bullied, supported, buried and dug back up, so that it can allow that perception of what is over what seems.