Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Failure of Straight Photography

I'm using the phrase "straight photography" fairly loosely here. What I mean is pictures that look like photographs. They might be heavily manipulated or not, but if so the manipulations are more or less convincing.

There is a lot of this stuff out there.

Much of it is extremely aesthetically pleasing. We have schlubs on 500px that nobody has ever heard of who can assemble a balanced and attractive frame. We have people who who sell large canvas wraps of beautiful flowers. We have Alain Briot and a whole category of people who operate modest galleries filled with this kind of work. We have the Caponigros and similar artists who are taken very seriously indeed, shooting this kind of thing.

There is indeed a whole branch of photography that concerns itself with this work, and considers this work to be the true work of photography (I contrast this, mostly, with the MFA Fine Art crowd who are doing, um, something different; but we should not forget the snapshootists and so on.) This is a branch of photography that considers its work to be exclusively putting subject matter into a frame in an aethetically pleasing way. They do not philosophize, they eschew any notion that they have anything to say as such. Often, they consider the idea of saying something to be effete and undesirable.

This is, I think, the legacy of, mostly, Ansel Adams. The man was a serious educator, and led the charge on any number of fetishes: archival processing, full range of tones, extreme sharpness. I suppose he didn't invent these things, but he was a very successful teacher of these ideas.

Ansel Adams, of course, was hanging around with a bunch of Modernists. As I bang on about a lot, he and his friends had strong philosophical ideas about what a picture ought to do. Weston tries to show us the essence of the pepper, Adams reveals to us his Experience Of The Rock, and so on.

The trouble is, with straight photography, this stuff doesn't really read. Yeah, I see the soul of the pepper in there, sort of, but is it only because I know what Weston was trying to do?

God help me, Barthes was right about one thing. What photographs are best at is simply witnessing: There was a pepper.

Straight photography explicitly throws away all the crutches and devices that make it easy, or perhaps possible, to say more than there was a pepper. The acolytes of Adams, which is most of us, have simply given up on anything else.

So now we have an entire genre of what is allegedly Art, which says nothing, which means nothing. It simply witnesses that a pepper, a rock, a flower, a model, was there. It is aesthetically pleasing, and that's about it. We have commentators spanning a spectrum from idiot to erudite who tell us that's pretty much all there is, and any attempt to imbue a photograph with more than that ought to be rejected. What baffles me is that roughly the same commentators bemoan that photography is not taken serious as Art.

Of course your preferred photography, sir, is not taken seriously as Art. It says nothing, it means nothing, and furthermore you insist that it continue to say nothing, and mean nothing. What on earth are we to make of this? You want me to expand my collection of this work because it is... pretty? Is this intended as some sort of jest?

What separates Weston's pepper, and I do consider it to be separated, is that we do in fact know what Weston was attempting. This knowledge affects how we (or at least I) see the picture, and I see it as more, perhaps, than it is. My point here is not that photography as a genre is limited only to witnessing that the pepper was. My point is that if you limit yourself to the frame, photography is so shackled. If you, as a photographer, consider yourself limited to putting things in to the frame, than you are also shackled. Your chosen tool has a profoundly limited range of expression.

Curiously, we continue to have a heirarchy.

500px schlub is less than Guy Tal, who is less than Paul Caponigro, who is less than Ansel Adams.

But at the end of the day, all their pictures look pretty much the same. Sure, there might be a style note that reveals that this one if Briot, and that one isn't. But both pictures are about equally appealing, about equally pretty. Both witness the same there it was fact. Neither has any meaning beyond that witnessing.

Rather to my own delight, I have dubbed this as Serious Decor. It's decor, but we are socialized to take it seriously, for some reason. Oh, it's a picture of a dandelion, yawn. Oh, wait, it's a Caponigro! Well, well, then. It's an amazing and important photograph for, um, reasons you would not understand.

Just trust me.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Art Considered Aesthetically

Mike, over on ToP, has a couple pieces in a row that are worth a looksee (the linked piece, and the one that precedes it).

In it, he laments that Art is now considered largely in terms of the politics which surround the piece. Who was the artist, which marginalized groups, if any, does the artist belong to, which unsavory billionaire funded the work, and so on. Now, he's not wrong here, this is a limited way of looking at Art, and it's fairly modern, and it often kind of ignores the actual, you know, Art. Which is all very irritating.

Let us, as usual, back up.

Art, in the Olden Dayes, often straight up told stories. There are entire genres of Art that depict a series of scenes, that literally relate some sequence of events. The painting, etching, or photograph (Rejlander's "Two Ways of Life" for example), was a literal narrative, a telling of a story. Embedded in that, as often as not, is politics. These stories are rarely about Bobby's trip to the bakery; they're founding myths, moral tales, religious tracts. They take a position, and expound it.

Later, other Art may not have taken the form of literal narratives, but it was heavily coded. The prince's sword represented one thing, his hat another, and the ring a third thing. Not everyone could read the coding, but the people who couldn't were irrelevant. The intended audience could absolutely read the painting just fine.

Maybe not all art was like this, but at any rate it was perfectly normal for a piece of art to be like this.

Mid-nineteenth century is still trundling along to a good degree as photography gets started. We see these same notions getting pulled out of the closet to be re-used in the Victorian era. See also Pictorialism.

Even as photography branched out from there, we still see a lot of what we might broadly consider politics popping up. People's dress, manner, and background continued to reveal and to comment. Lewis Hine's pictures of child labor were pretty political. Should we consider them, judge them, without consideration of the political surroundings? We could, but if we conceive of them stripped of that context, they become something quite different and something quite lesser.

Now, I don't know what Mike would have to say to those photos. Possibly he would say that the politics is encoded inside the artwork itself, and that makes it OK. He does seem to be hewing to the "Art should stand on its own" school of thought. However he would stand, the truth is that the politics are not entirely containing in the pictures. The marks are there in the frame, but they refer to the world that surrounded the making of the picture. A painting that tells the story of Genesis is meaningless if you don't know the bible. Lewis Hine's photos are meaningless if you don't know that child labor was a thing. Minamata, without its text, is a bunch of snapshots of Japanese people and one truly sublime picture of someone getting a bath.

The politics of a piece of Art do not go away simply because you know them by heart.

I suspect Mike of wanting to treat art purely from an aesthetic perspective. He doesn't want to know about the politics, and he thinks they ought not matter.

I've learned not to care too much if the painting was made to become a tipped-in plate in a children's book or a paeon to the glory of the Medicis or if its creator was in such agonies that he cut off his ear.

Mike's claim to actually approach Art this way is absurd on the face of it. He knows perfectly well who Lorenzo de'Medici was, and what Lewis Hine was about. He cannot set these things aside. The fact that he can and does approach, say, the Caponigros' photos, which appear to be more or less bereft of politics, does not mean that he can set the history of child labor aside for Hine. He cannot. There is a reason Mike cites Medici instead of some nameless schlub from the same era who also had enough scratch to pay a painter.

This purely aesthetic approach to Art strikes me as very modern, and it is especially appealing to camera enthusiasts.

It is, I think, right about the time the Modernists arose that photography as a discipline, or at any rate a major branch of it, simply jettisoned meaning. There's a lot of stuff going on. We have Hartmann's plea for straight photography, which is orthogonal to politics and meaning, but does kind of crap on the Pictorialist parade of technique. Pictorialism's methods were all bound up with meaning, so there was I think a tendency toward dumping baby, bathwater, and everything else all at once. Along with fuzzy pictures and clumsily posed models, we can observe a reaction against allegory and symbolism.

Social commentary pops up, which can be shot straight but eschews allegory in favor of a gritty reality (Paul Strand, Lewis Hine), which is inherently political as noted. In parallel a new kind of Fine Art arose, drawing on some sort of mishmash of ideas like Impressionism, Expressionism, and Realism. Weston is trying to find the soul of some root or vegetable. Adams is trying to express his feelings about a mountain. A lot of lesser people are struggling just to make attractive pictures.

Modernists are, essentially, privileged. They can afford to just wander around taking pictures of diftwood and green peppers, because they live in an affluent society, and their hobby is relatively cheap and easy. They don't need to flatter people with their Art, they can take time from the portraiture storefront for "personal work" and so on. And so there is no need to shovel a bunch of politics into everything. They can afford to make things that are purely pretty.

In this modern era we have a more or less endless parade of people who are traveling great distances and going to a great deal of trouble mainly so they can test the image quality of their current setup. These are the natural heirs of the Modernists, what after all is more Modernist than the idea that more pixels and more dynamic range is somehow the ultimate expression of Art?

My biggest problem with Mike's position is not that he's personally dismissive of externalities surrounding pieces of Art, but that he's taking pretty clearly the stance that nobody else should consider these things either. We ought, all of us, evaluate a photograph purely on what's inside the frame. This strikes me as profoundly limiting.

Of course we should consider what is inside the frame. Perhaps we ought even to start there. But from there, why stop? If you like the thing, if it interests you, why should you limit your understanding of the thing to the contents of the frame?

More particularly, what on earth is a critic (or, really, anyone who wishes to play critic for even so limited an audience as themselves, which really amounts to taking a real interest in a piece) to do, if the edges of the frame stand as impenetrable walls? How tedious!

The most ironic point here is that while photographers tend to be very fond of the "Art should stand on its own!" school, most photographers are in fact terrible at examining the frame carefully. They glance at it, form a brief opinion, inspect a couple of details, and move on with their lives. Mike, while better than many, does not really get a pass here.

Coming up shortly, I will talk about another commentator who takes almost the opposite tack.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Luminous Endowment is Closed

When LuLa spun up the legally separate but functionally closely related entity, The Luminous Endowment, I spent a little time sniffing it over quite carefully. I was unable to find any scent of anything sketchy about it, in the end, despite looking quite carefully.

In the end, I came around to being quite in favor of it. The Endowment gave grants to genuinely interesting artists, and generally seemed to be without the usual conflicts of interest, profit motives, or artwashing games that characterize so many grants and prizes out there. The grants, while not immense, were more than mere tokens.

As of the final Form 990, 2017 (which may or may not predate the final round of grants) the endowment had total assets around $320,000. This seems like a lot, but it really is not. The endowment could not afford to pay anyone, really, and given the size of the grants offered, there really was not a lot of runway.

If I had to guess, I would say that the downturn in the camera industry, and in general the slowly declining interest in what we might call "serious amateur photography" made it hard to continue to raise funds. The endowment was in an awkward position. Not enough cash on hand to really fund a full court press to raise more money, and certainly not enough cash to support their ambitious grant program on investment proceeds alone. Add to that a total reliance on a dedicated cadre of volunteers, both to administer the organization, and to judge applications, and you have a pretty tenuous situation.

According to the announcement on LuLa's front page, the Endowment has closed up shop, donating its cash to photolucida to endow a somewhat less ambitious grant program ($3000 a year, it looks like?) which probably can be funded from investment proceeds. Since photolucida has an existing business and staff on hand, they can probably administer this program under the aegis of what they already do, rather than relying on volunteers.

It seems that the Luminous Endowment also had a backlog of Michael's retrospective book, and have sold those to LuLa. The cash from that sale, I assume, goes to photolucida's program with the rest of the assets, and Josh Reichmann has committed to selling these books and donating those proceeds to the same place.

While regrettable, and I am personally sorry to see this closure, this does seem to be a decent course forward. What was not really sustainable has been converted into something that is, and in a perfectly reasonable way.

A 501(c)(3), a normal charitable organization in the USA, always has some clause in its founding paperwork describing what is to happen to assets upon windup, and normally this is something like "find another charity with a mission more or less aligned with ours, and give all our stuff to them" and this appears to be exactly what transpired.

Sayonara, Luminous Endowment, you were good while you lasted.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Storytelling into Memory

Some time ago Lewis Bush was going on about storytelling in the visual book, and complaining that photographers don't study cinema enough, and whatnot. It occurred to me, as I was rooting, piglike, among this cloud of ideas that perhaps I was less interested in literally telling stories, and more interested in leaving roughly the same bootprints in the viewer's mind as telling a story does.

That is, it occurred to me that perhaps emulating the novel (or movie) might not be the only approach. One might do, well, something else. Something unclear. But something else which produces the same effect on the reader as a novel (or a movie). Something that leaves the same traces on the mind as a novel. It is, after all, the traces left behind which matter.

First a little background. For our purposes here I will use the more or less standard definition of story which we may take as essentially the ground truth of some sequence of events. If the story be fictional, well, struggle with that a little. What is the ground truth of "The Snow Queen?" Two children, certain happenings, a reindeer, a queen, and so on. For a true story, a piece of reportage, this is clear, surely? The word narrative refers to a telling of the story. Events may be left out, told out of order for effect, certain events made more important, and so on.

Let us consider memory now, that malleable surface upon which traces are writ, which traces are at this moment of interest.

Your memory may work differently from mine, I suppose. But, this is mine.

When I think of some memory-worthy thing, let us say a job, it manifests as a singular thing, I don't visualize it particularly, but we might imagine it as a box. A box labeled, notionally, as "My Job at X." If I touch the box, shards arise. A person, an event, a project, an office building. Each of these shards is atemporal. I do not perceive them as a passage of time, but again as a singular object, a box if you will. Touching any one of them causes another cloud of shards of memory to arise. Nothing in here resembles, even slightly, a film strip.

What strikes me here is the atemporal nature of these things. It's not that I have a lighting fast brain, and perceive some work project in an instant, it is that there is no instant. The shard of memory corresponding to a project, or an office building, simply is. It has no nature of the passage of time.

To construct, or re-construct, the passage of time I need to string together shards of memory by an act of will. This happened, and then that happened, and then... In effect, I construct a narrative by choosing some path through a continuously arising cloud of atemporal memory shards.

When one memorizes a poem, one commits individual shards of memory to mind, one by one. The first line, and then the second line, and then the third one. Each line is, I think, a timeless shard of memory. It simply is. Touch the first line, speak it, and the shard of memory that is the second arises. Speak that, and the third appears, and so on. This creates a notable problem for musicians, and professional reciters of poetry: if you get lost in the middle the game is up. There are specific memorization techniques which build anchors mid-piece which allow you to recover the chain easily, but it is certainly a chain for most people. Mozart may have been different.

So here is the really interesting observation which I, um, observed:

Of all the physical objects in the real world, the one which most closely resembles a shard of memory is the photograph.

It is atemporal, it simply exists. One apprehends it in a moment. It is, like so much of memory, visual.

Now, to be fair, upon close inspection my visual memories do not in fact resemble photographs literally. I cannot drill into the visual by peering closer, to examine so and so's nose. But still, they feel a lot like a photograph. They feel detailed, complete, and above all, static. I can construct the movie, the moving picture, but only as an effort of will and the result is not very satisfactory as a movie although it is perfectly good as a pure narrative, tethered not to any medium.

Let us revisit the traditionally told story for a moment. The novel, or the movie, or whatever, relates a narrative which reveals, to some degree or another, the story. Both are left, in fragments, in our mind. I can recall bits and piece of Conrad's Nostromo although I have to struggle to recall the name of the main character which is curious because it's the title. My recollection is all muddled up with my probably half-assed understanding of South American politics.

A quick skim of wikipedia refreshes my mind on the story which in turn brings back to mind the critical messages of the narrative (although I am certain most of the clever technical elements of the narrative are completely gone). Conrad's usual themes are in full play here, rendered hot, sunny, and more or less tropical.

This is, I think, typical. What I am left with from a novel, a news story, or a movie, is the bones of the story and the general tone, the message, that the narrative was seeking to carry. These things happened, and that guy was villainous.

So this provides a sort of template we could look to, if wish to emulate storytelling with our visual book. Provide some notion of the ground truth of the thing, and also an impression of the message you wish to carry.

We can think of visuals, especially photographs, as carrying two distinct roles here. The first is simply to reveal the story in some sense, to provide an illustration of the ground truth. Whether the reader recalls the specific photograph or not is irrelevant, the point is that the reader recalls that the thing depicted was. The second role is as a literal memory shard, a photograph might sit in the memory as one of those irreducible atoms of memory, to be conjured up when the book (or story) is recalled.

To return to my favorite visual book, Minamata, I recall a handful of photographs. Tomoko, Shimada and Kawamoto negotiating, and what seems to be a composite memory-shard made up out of several photos of patients (victims) dancing and moving. There are a handful of other profoundly strong photos in here, but they do not pop out at me until I open the book. The story I can conjure up fairly easily. I can re-string the shards of my memory into a rough narrative, although it tends to wander off into DDT and Three Mile Island and so on.

I am struck by how few of the photographs play the second role, here. The many pictures are not worthless, of course, but most of them serve to document the story, to shape the narrative. They do not sit in my memory as themselves.

Smith's book is not a strictly linear narrative, and it does not particularly resemble a novel. It is a loosely related series of essays, each illustrated by photographs. Some of the material is chronological, but not all. Some is background, some is historical, only the core of the book is really a series of newsworthy events related in order. I think one can go further, one can be more fragmented, more almost hallucinatory.

I see now that my magazine, Alley (available on blurb, $8, a tremendous bargain, buy one for all your friends), heads in this direction. The story is nothing much, just that there is an alley behind my house, and that it has certain features, and that alleys have a certain history. It isn't even a series of events. But it is impressionistic, and the narrative flow, such as it is, simply disintegrates by the end. That is on purpose. The message of the narrative is not complex, only that I love this place, this long and narrow plaza behind my house.

There may even be a couple of pictures in here that stick in the memory, but many of them merely serve to reify the place, to prove that it is, that it was, that it has in it these things.

I think I'm on the right track, but I'm not sure where to go from here. Stick around, maybe I'll figure something out!

Monday, August 19, 2019

Writing on

I am writing for Kevin Raber's new venture,, which is something like a reboot of The Luminous Landscape after that changed hands. My pieces are a hopefully on-going series of historical vignettes, with a trifle of critical analysis. Less swearing and more history than here. My nefarious plan is to cover photographers and photographers with brown skin, although paradoxically I think I am going to wind up writing something about a guy named White pretty soon.

NiƩpce, Daguerre, and Talbot
Archer and Cameron

I like Kevin and I hope he succeeds. His new thing is, apart from me, pretty much the same stuff as LuLa used to be -- high-end camera enthusiasm. He's got Mark Segal writing reviews of papers and going on about gamut volumes and whatnot. Phase One is an advertiser, and the forums have a certain amount of 'I used my Phase One XF78237b12 v1.17 back with the 900mm Super Exactalon lens to photograph this duck' so, it should be pretty familiar to you if you spent any time on LuLa.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Review: Women at Work by Betty Medsger

I snapped this 1975 volume up at the used book store the other day, because I am a father of daughters. I felt that it was the kind of book I'd like to have, you know, just lying around the place as my children grow. This won't be criticism as such, I don't think. I'm just going to tell you about it.

It's very fun, both as a document of its time, and as a bunch of photographs and stories.

Betty Medsger is a journalist of some note, and apparently also takes pictures. In the early 1970s she decided to do a photojournalistic project documenting the state of women in the workplace in the good old U.S.A. and accordingly set out around the country to do that. She interviewed and photographed a whole bunch of women, and gives us 170-odd different professions in this book.

The reproductions are not great, and it's possible the underlying negatives are also not great. Lots of blocked up whites. Lousy detail. The old "Soot & Chalk" pejorative comes to mind. Better than a newspaper, but not really a lot better. All black and white, natch. Most women and their job get one photo, but a few get two or three photos. Some subset, maybe on third, get a little paragraph of quotes and context.

The book opens with a fairly lengthy essay on the project, some of the women, and a general statement of the overall status of women in the workplace. We get a few statistics, and a handful of telling personal stories of the kinds of difficulties that women face getting certain kinds of work, and being the workplace both generally and specifically.

As opening essays go, it's quite readable. The bar here is very low, though, this thing isn't exactly a thriller. I can recommend actually reading it, though.

A fascinating detail that Medsger hits several times both in the opening essay, and in the main content of the book, is this: It is common to find people who say women ought not to do that kind of job who, when confronted with the fact that Sue does it, and does it well, respond oh, well, Sue. She's fine, it's ok for Sue. This kind of thing illustrates, I think, how attitudes change over time. It is not that people cease abruptly to hate black people, to look down on women, to fear some other group. They continue to do so, while also coming to agree that specific cases are different. I hate fags. Well, not Bill, Bill's my friend and he's fine is a normal intermediate stage.

Onwards to the pictures.

There's pictures all over the place. She shows us playboy bunnies, waitresses, cleaning ladies; she also shows us corporate executives, marine corps officers, company owners, and lobsterers. It's the full gamut of work, from "traditional women's work" to everything else.

In spite of the poor reproduction, the photos are, generally, somewhere between pretty good and fantastic. Medsger had a real eye for movement, and the women photographed look like dancers as often as not. Really fun to look at, without feeling posed, awkward, or false. There's a strong sense of that mid-century photo-essay truthiness here, to go with the often (but not always) elegantly shot frame. I suspect she did a lot of radical cropping.

The book feels a little "salon style" with pictures all over the place on the page. Some are surrounded by white borders on all sides, but others bleed off one edge. Tall frames might bleed off the top, bordered on the other three sides. Occasionally, a picture will bleed off two sides of a corner. I am still trying to work out the uses for this approach to bleeds. Anyways, the result is somehow a very 1970s feel to the book.

The picture placement creates rectangles of white space that can appear anywhere on the page, so the paragraphs of descriptive text and quotations fill in here and there, without much rhyme of reason, but generally pleasingly.

The women profiled are awesome. There's some really crazy stuff in here, and some really mundane ordinary stuff, but it's all engaging, fun, encouraging. Medsger makes us like her subjects, root for them, applaud them.

This is pretty much exactly the book I'd hoped for, for my daughters. It's a bit old school, pretty historical, but encouraging as well as realistic and still very much relevant today.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Something to Look At Redux

I find myself baffled by some of the responses to the previous.

Call the reading "Trump is just a sociopath" #1, and the "Ray of Hope" reading #2.

I am not asking anyone to believe either one. You can read it either way, or in some other way, that's a personal matter.

All I am asking is that you accept that some people -- people who are not you -- might read it the other way. If you land on #1, accept that someone else might land on #2. And vice versa.

You might well say, as a good leftie, that #2 is a ludicrous reading. Fine. That is just another way to select reading #1, but with vigor and commitment. Laudable, but irrelevant. So what if it's ludicrous? Lots of people believe ludicrous things. You probably have a couple of your own, although at present you don't think they're ludicrous.

The undercurrent I think I detect among Good Lefties is this: Everyone actually thinks #1, but Trump supporters are lying and pretend to think #2 which is, well, it's wrong.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Something to Look At

Here's a picture that's been making the rounds:

The back story is this: Racially motivated mass shooting in El Paso, among the victims are two parents of a very young child. The parents die protecting the child, the child survives with minor injuries. The President, Donald Trump, visits El Paso in the aftermath, and there are photo opportunities. In this photo, the President's wife, Melania Trump, is seen holding the injured child.

The left reads this as Donald and Melania Trump being sociopaths with the collective empathy of a stick, and perhaps a dopey grin reflex when confronted with a camera. They find the grins and thumbs up gesture in the midst of tragedy to be repellent, vile, and tone-deaf. This is the narrative promoted by leftists of all stripes. Notably it is promoted by leftists who consider "reading" photographs to be an important part of their job. As usual, the establishment photographic theorists treat this politically charged picture as having only one possible reading, their own.

The right reads this picture as Donald and Melania Trump celebrating a ray of light, a triumph of life over death. The gunman intended the baby to die, and was thwarted. Among all the tragedy, one victory for the good guys, as it were. Hooray for the good guys.

Ones reaction to the photograph and its back story depends entirely on where one stands politically. Nobody except, possibly, Donald and Melania know what was in their minds in this moment. You and I certainly don't. We are looking at a pattern of pixels and reading meaning in to them based entirely on the suite of ideas and biases we bring with us.

Humans are good at reading faces, I will tentatively allow that almost everyone regardless of political persuasion will read this as the Trumps projecting a facade of good cheer and optimism. They are performing, as Presidents and First Ladies always do. An expert could probably point to specific features of the facial musculature as evidence of a performance rather than a natural emotional response. That this is performance is in no way surprising, nor really a judgement. This is a photo-op.

The meaning we read diverges when we try to imagine why this particular facade, why this performance?

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Ugh Redux

As occasionally happens, a previous post has generated some confusion in the comments. Allow me to clarify.

My recent vacation photography adventure was not an experiment in spraying and praying. I didn't just go out and shoot 1400 frames of bullshit.

The experiment was one of thorough reportage of an intense two weeks. There were 14 days, 3 airplanes, 12 people, 3 dogs, 7 locations (at least, to get down to 7 some are fairly broadly construed), 2 bodies of water, 2 fairs, and 1 amusement park. Naturally, shooting kids on amusement park rides produces some dross, but that's easy to discard.

My daily counts are, roughly:


Can you tell which days we were doing amusement park rides? Ordinary lazy days are 50-70 exposures. More intense days are 100+, and amusement park rides push it around 200+.

As of this writing I am down to 100 frames, and to go further the next step is to select from the photogenic and memorable episodes those which can be dropped entirely. Well, I could probably drop another 5-10 by trimming down particularly charming episodes where I kept up to half a dozen photos. Getting down to 50 final pictures requires dropping episodes entirely.

The problem was not of how to find the few keepers among a giant pile of shit. There were lots of decent frames in there, and a few pretty good ones. There's just a hell of a lot of story.

I am used to making my projects in bits and pieces. I shoot a few things, I pick out one or two frames. I shoot more. The keepers accrete gradually, and then get re-edited down. At the end I've shot a lot of material (100s to 1000s of frames), and whittled it down to a handful. It's the having to do it all at once that was daunting.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Crit: Monsanto by Mathieu Asselin

The author of this book, Mathieu Asselin, recently made the book available as a free PDF download. Since the book was much lauded in certain circles, I took advantage of the opportunity to download it and give it a looksee.

You too can download it and check my work. It's not a particularly arduous read. Click here to get your own copy: Monsanto.

The executive summary is that this book desperately wants to be Minamata and it isn't. It is, in fact, terrible. Reading it was a profoundly depressing experience, because these are important topics badly handled, and because I thought perhaps that something that's won or contended credibly for major prizes might be a cut above the gruesome mess that is MFA-student photobook making. The laudits are entirely based on the progressive/anti-Monsanto stance of the book, which is very contemporary and chic, not the actual content, which is garbage.

So what is this thing? It comprises four sections, each covering an extended episode in Monsanto's storied history. The production of PCBs in Anniston, Alabama; Agent Orange and its long term effects; Monsanto's company town in Illinois; Roundup-Ready products and the controversies around same.

The first three sections are historical summaries, written with a pro-consumer anti-corporate slant. It's slightly more detailed than wikipedia material, but to be honest, not much more, and it does a rotten job of combing out the actual history. In the first section, we learn that Anniston was the site of PCB manufacturing with all manner of gruesome followup effects, and later we find that the main site of PCB manufacturing was in Monsanto's company town in Illinois. This is only one of many minor inconsistencies which deserve to be clarified but are not.

None of the inconsistencies I noted are outright contradictions, but they are points of historical fact which, as presented, are confusing.

More of the same sort of thing: Asselin presents the company town, now called Sauget Village, as a "borderless wasteland" with, essentially, a handful of survivors wandering the zombie-filled landscape. It's pretty clear from a few minutes of research that Sauget Village is now an industrial park in East St. Louis that happens to be incorporated as its own municipality. Which, sure, makes it a terrible place to live. I don't wanna live in an industrial park either.

In the section on Roundup-Ready crops, Asselin persists in (sometimes) calling Roundup a pesticide, which it is not. While you can kill pests with Roundup, you've really got to work at it. It's an herbicide, it kills plants. Given that Asselin uses both terms, it's possible that he doesn't actually know the difference, which is really a problem since he's pretending to present some sort of serious analysis of Roundup and associated products. In this section, Asselin simply repeats the standard progressive anti-Monsanto position about Roundup, which lands scientifically somewhere in the range of questionable to simply wrong.

There's plenty to criticize on the topic of Roundup-Ready products, but the standard progressive narrative gets the situation, and the problems, almost completely wrong. Asselin makes no attempt whatsoever to sort it out. He simply repeats the standard material uncritically.

The writing is stilted, and contains at least one howler, which is pretty good for a guy for whom English is at least a second language. Still, an editor might have been usefully employed here. There simply are not that many words here, a good editor would have cleaned the language up greatly, and could possibly also have worked out some of the inconsistencies between sections. Overall, the text is about what I would expect (perhaps naively) from a competent high school student. I certainly could have written this in 10th grade, but I am informed that standards have fallen.

The French edition might well be better, although the content is presumably still the 10th-grade-research-paper material (spot checks seem to confirm.)

The photography and other graphical material is utter shit, worthy of the worst kind of MFA student. He literally photographs the box containing the microfilm with the newspaper that contains the account of a train accident from decades before, then shows us the microfilm reader with the newspaper page displayed, and then shows us reproductions of the pages from the newspaper. Each of these consumes a full page, or more, of the book. Later, he photographs the train tracks where the accident took place (spoiler: it looks like a fucking train track.) This is both wildly boring and completely insane. Worse, it's an insult to the reader.

There are some pictures of people, all with that vaguely washed out/odd color look that people think is a "film look", mostly of glum, anonymous, people staring at the camera. Captions tell us that this is Bob from Anniston and his sister died of dioxins, or whatever. There is a collection of photos of Agent Orange victims, with deformities and so on. Some of them are actually pretty decent. It is here that Asselin most closely approaches Minamata mainly because he is unable to effectively drain the life from people who have lived with these kinds of problems. Several of these pictures possess a kind of vitality that Serious Artists are seemingly at pains to remove from their work.

There's a lot of reproductions of Monsanto advertisements (possibly the author spent a lot of time in Google Books.) There are a few reproductions of Monsanto internal documents, which serve usefully to backstop the text about what Monsanto knew and when. These last are probably the only non-textual material that serves any kind of purpose here, the rest being nothing much more than some sort of evidence of the author's presence and labor.

Ok, all that is chaff. Sure, it's a dumb amateurish book with the visual and literary appeal of a dead badger. That's not the real problem.

The real problem is that this book wants to be Minamata and it isn't. There are two basic problems here. Well, three if you count Asselin's complete failure to acknowledge his inspiration.

The first is that it's not Minamata. The latter is a lyrical, poetic, and powerful piece of reportage, which combines a consistent and coherent historical narrative with in-the-moment photography of critical events and, to some degree, reporting of the end of the affair. Monsanto is an ugly, clumsy, mess which is entirely historical. The photos are boring not only because Asselin is a Serious Artist taking shit photos, but also because there's nothing to photograph. These events took place years ago. There isn't anything to photograph except train tracks, microfilm reels, and old men holding photographs of relatives who died of cancer years ago.

The second problem is that we already have Minamata. Monsanto engaged over roughly the same timeframe in essentially the same kinds of malfeasance as Chisso. The story here is not that Monsanto did more or less the same things, but that there seems to be a pattern here.

The story is not that this company or that did some bad things, the story is that they all did this sort of thing. The story, in the here and now, is about what behaviors are they engaged in now, that replaces the old behaviors? The reality is that these companies have changed. They don't just dump chemical wastes into rivers by the ton any more, at least not as a matter of policy. They do not, despite desperate efforts to prove otherwise, continue to discover and then conceal Horrible Toxic Effects in their products, at least not as a matter of policy.

They have updated their behaviors into new, equivalent, obnoxious behaviors.

There is no investigation into why corporations, or more precisely the people who staff corporations, consistently behave in the way they did. Asselin simply waves vaguely in the direction of greed and calls it a day. Smith, by contrast, went to some effort to humanize the people in the corporation, and at least nodded briefly at the conflicts that the people in the company face in these situations. While Smith never did a full-scale analysis, he does seem to be aware that these things happen for reasons that are complex and nuanced.

The following appears in Minamata, nothing even remotely like it, nothing with one 100th part of the power of this scene appears in Monsanto. Asselin is hampered by the passage of time, of course, but not only by that.

To set the scene, Kawamoto is a man poisoned by Chisso's actions, and is negotiating on behalf of many of the other victims. Shimada is the CEO is Chisso. He is refusing to pay the victims (the "patients" referred to here) because Chisso doesn't have enough money to do so. They are in a crowded and antagonistic meeting room, Kawamoto is seated cross-legged on the table less than a foot from Shimada, there are photos included with the text. Here is the text:

Kawamoto (quietly): President, do you have a religion?

Shimada (transparently, to Kawamoto alone): Yes. I am a Zen Buddhist.

   Sarcastic snickers come from supporters in the background, but it seemed that neither have heard.

Kawamoto: Ah. And your wife too?

Shimada: My wife is Christian....

Kawamoto: Ah, yes. Do you pray?

Shimada: Yes. I have a small room with just a shrine in it. I have the patients' names writen there, and I pray....


Pro-tip: It's not greed. It is vastly more complicated than that.

There is no pushing past Minamata here, to give us new ideas, new insights. There is not even an update of Minamata, this is simply a shoddy photocopy.


The Guardian reviewed this thing in 2018, you can read the review here. Hilariously, or tragically, depending on how you look at it, they didn't review it very carefully. They refer to a creek which now runs red as a result of contamination. They share a photo from the book of Choccolocco.

What they missed out on, because they just flipped lazily through the book, is that Asselin uses red blotches photoshopped on to some of his photos to indicate "contaminated areas" within the picture. The creek isn't red.

This sort of shit just makes me want to tear my eyes out and scream. Well, I guess that would make me scream, but you get the idea.

Thursday, August 8, 2019


We just returned from a two week holiday visiting family out east. I decided to experiment and just shoot, shoot, shoot. Burn them 1s and 0s.

So now I have 1400 photographs, very few of which are outright trash (and, I dare say, only a couple are truly excellent) and I am attempting to smash this down to, I don't know, maybe 50 plus of minus. This is horrible. How do people do this? People shoot weddings and come back, allegedly, with 1000s of exposures. They shoot a huge pile of corporate headshots, cranking them out like some demented machine, and go home with 1000 exposures, and then they bash this down to size.

How on earth does one bear it?

I mean, I'll get through it, but good god this is drudgery.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Cool Photo, Bro

It happens constantly to anyone who pays attention and has developed the habit. A cool photo will reveal itself, or at least the potential for one will. You pause and think that would make a cool photo. If you're a certain type of person, you stop and fuss around and attempt to extract the cool photo, and sometimes you succeed.

You have a cool photo, at this point, and that's great. Cool photos, well, they're pretty cool.

Here's the rub: the range of responses you can expect to your photo are limited to the range of meh? to cool photo!

Sure, you might luck out and accidentally make a more profound photograph. You might find a home for your cool photo that lends it more profundity, perhaps. Maybe.

The coolness of your photo, if it's really cool, will tend to get in the way. If you truly succeeded, people will mainly notice the neat juxtaposition you discovered, or the brilliant colors, or the amusing sign, or whatever it was, which is going to make it harder to see the profundity.

Which circles back around to the endlessly expounded theme here, that you really need to feel something first, and shoot second, if you want to make something more than a cool photo.