Friday, September 27, 2019

The Story

I am fond of repeating the notion that Art exists inside of and as part of a culture. It is inextricable from that culture, and derives much of its value from it.

There was a man named Han van Meergeren who famously made some fake Vermeer paintings. They were very good fakes, lots of experts considered them authentic. Let us suppose for the moment that these paintings were and are the aesthetic and technical equal of genuine Vermeers. These paintings were extremely valuable when they were thought to be authentic, but their value dropped precipitously when the forgery was revealed.

One way to consider this is that the story behind the paintings ("Vermeer made this") lent value to the painting. The story, revealed to be false, is pried off the painting. A new, less desirable story ("Some rando made this"), adheres now to the painting, and the value of the painting is accordingly less. The painting has not changed, only the story. The price tag, without a doubt, lost a zero or two.

I do not know, but it would not surprise me to learn that van Meergerens have been rising in value over the decades, as this new story acquires a patina of romance and interest. Certainly it would be perfectly reasonable.

This goes up and down the scale. Alain Briot, writing for Luminous Landscape a few years ago, told us that selling a photograph is best done through stories. Tell the story of how you took the picture, and if it overlaps or intersects with the customer's story, you've got a sale. His picture of the Grand Canyon isn't a picture of a hole with a river in it, it's a picture of this one guy's memory of how he proposed to his wife just a few yards to the left of where the photograph was taken, just at sunrise.

Photographs, even more than paintings, rely on these stories, because they are themselves like stories. They are little slices of truth. The true story surrounding a photo is intimately tied up with the true story of the photographed, it is a natural extension of the true story the picture comes from. Set aside for this discussion that a photograph can also be bound up with an explicitly fictional story (fashion, Crewdson, etc.)

Capa's pictures of D-Day, the story of D-Day itself, and Capa's stories about the pictures he made, were all the same story. It is a powerful story, a genuinely historical moment, a moment all of the good guys could be proud of, could look back on with pride and honor. These stories are intricately connected to the value we find in the pictures he made there.

The fact that it turns out that Capa's little slice of the story is a pack of lies damages that value.

Coleman's work on this has ruffled a lot of feathers, angered some. Many are prepared to dismiss Coleman out of hand, because they cannot bear the thought that he might be right. Others are angered that Capa sought by way of his false story to ride on the shoulders of the true story to lend value to his pictures. Stolen Valor.

Capa's fabulism, though, does not change the larger story. It only damages his little slice of it. The larger story is safe. The pictures remain the same. Capa himself is dead and past caring.

The only thing that changes, really, is that the social value we place on his handful of frames is lowered. Like van Meergeren's "Supper at Emmaus" their social value has taken a dive. We are left with several uncomfortable realizations:

   1. That we were fooled, and
   2. That the value of these things does after all depend on the story.

But these, in the end, are OK. Everyone was fooled, so what? And, the value of things changes over time, it is inevitable. The stories evolve, or are lost entirely, and we recall only, maybe, that the object itself was valuable once, and then that too fades away.

Thursday, September 26, 2019


Mike, over on ToP, took a few lines to express his irritation with A.D. Coleman's work to discredit the official story of Robert Capa's D-Day photos.

You know, the story were Capa was on the first amphib to land or at least in the first wave, ran around for hours shooting roll after roll of hard-hitting journalism before rushing back to England to hit the deadline, only to have almost all the negative ruined in a darkroom accident, leaving only a few artistically damaged negatives that were barely salvageable? That story is crap. Among other things it turns out that the people in charge of Operation Overlord wanted, for some incomprehensible reason, to focus on putting guys with guns onto the beach in the first few waves rather than guys with cameras.

Anyways, whatever, you can read up on it elsewhere if you like. Mike makes the point that, whatever the true story, Capa managed to make "one of the iconic images of the entire Second World War and one of the most famous war images in the history of photography," to be specific, this photo:

which, you know, ain't wrong. It is iconic, we all know it.

Here is another photo from the same day, shot by Robert Sargent:

which is, well, it's not iconic, is it? At least, I have no memory of ever having seen it today. It was one of the first pictures that popped up when I was looking for D-Day photo not taken by Robert Capa. You may well recall it, and it has apparently been widely reproduced, but it does not have the status of Capa's picture.

Sargent's picture is also a very strong image. It's quite different from Capa's picture. It is frankly far more photojournalistic, it carries far more "story" than Capa's picture, but much less emotional grunt as well. But it's graphical, it's strong, and it's a very minor photograph in the canon.


Well. One reason is that Capa had much better PR. He had a great story, and he was shooting for a major magazine. Sargent was just some jerk in the Coast Guard, shooting for the Coast Guard. Is there more to it than that? I dunno, but I kind of don't think so. A object becomes iconic through the slow and intricate workings of vast cultural machinery. Is the photo great because it's a Capa, or is Capa great because he made good photos? Yes. And also, yes.

I don't intend to argue A.D. Coleman's case here, that has been done to death in other venues, much more thoroughly than we would do it here.

But I do want to raise the ideas around how a picture becomes iconic. It's not just because it's a really good picture.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Crit: Hereafter by Federico Clavarino

I read a review of this book on Conscientious, a couple of months ago, and was inspired to buy a copy for myself. I confess, largely on the grounds that I suspected Jörg of writing a lightweight review.

So, here it is. It arrived some days ago, and I have accordingly spent time with it. It's not a small book, although contrary to reviews it is not too large but rather just as large as it needs to be. You can examine it briskly but completely in an hour.

I will be taking it apart in some detail, so read no further if you would prefer the pleasure of discovering it for yourself (which is no small pleasure). It touches heavily on the British Imperial project, in a nuanced and adult way, and takes an approach which is I will allow not entirely fashionable. The book is not, though, some sort of apologia. If it sounds like something you'd enjoy, stop reading now and go get a copy for yourself.

The material in Hereafter is various. Photographs made by the author. Family photographs. Official portraits. Newspaper clippings. Children's drawings and writings. Poems and letters. Also included are a series of what the kids call "texts" which are in this case, quotations. These form the core of the book, with all the visual material acting as supporting material, working in counterpoint with the quoted remarks. There are maybe a couple thousand words of this textual material, paired with many hundreds of visual elements.

It is instantly obvious that this is one of those books which is intended to create an impression by accretion of detail. Very few of the individual elements are particularly weighty. With few exceptions, you could drop this one, or that one, or even 10% of the total selected at random, without much changing the book.

Not to suggest that Clavarino is Dickens, but it is also true that any Dickens novel could be trimmed by 10% without anyone really noticing, and any one could be condensed to a taut 192 page novel, as well. Neither of these operations would ruin the book, but they would render it lesser and, more importantly, into a different book. Hereafter is not Dickens, but it has some of the same sprawling bigness, to much the same purpose.

The quotations mentioned earlier are attributed, a cast of characters emerges as you read. John, Mary, William, Susan, Elizabeth, and Robin. They are set as if in a play, but no quotation leads directly to the next. This is not, alas, a conversation, but a sequence of remarks, each loosely related to its neighbors, telling, elliptically, a story. We never learn the source of these quotations. There is some hint that John and Robin may have written some pieces of length, and that their remarks may be lifted from those. But perhaps all the quotes are transcribed interviews. It's unclear, and it doesn't matter.

The material surrounding each quoted remark appears to be related to the remark, at least loosely. And so we have an elliptical narrative given us loosely, rambling, by the remarks from the cast, and in parallel we have visual material filling in, fleshing out, reifying, the facts and feelings laid out in the words.

The work can be divided into pieces for our consideration in at least two ways.

The first is simply the chapters as given. The narrative concerns, largely, the service of John in the British Diplomatic Service in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when his children (the other characters) are unborn or quite young. The first chapter is really an introduction to John and Mary, something of how they met and so on, with some of John's family history. His ancestors, it turns out, served in the British military supporting the apparatus of the Empire. John's service as a diplomat is, therefore, something of a family legacy, this corps being essentially what remains of the Imperial apparatus.

The next three chapters cover three of John's postings. Oman, Jordan, and Sudan. We see in these chapters something of the mechanics of British influence in this era. We learn, if we are attentive, that John and Mary are perfectly well aware of the essentially ambiguous nature of these things. That the influence of the British is in many ways harmful, but in many ways beneficial. These people are, after all, the people on the ground. It is impossible to take seriously the notion that they knew less about the situation than, say, some professor ranting from a comfortable office in an ivy covered university building, somewhere west of Cyprus.

Mary chimes in with light details about diplomatic life, but occasionally also sidles up to ugly realities. Slavery. Female circumcision. Infanticide. John and Mary are working in and sometimes against cultures with some habits that they, and we today, find odious, deplorable. If in this modern age we were honest cultural relativists, we would not mind; but we are not, and we do. As they did then, and they strove against these things. British Colonialism was many things, many of them terrible, but it was also this striving against darkness.

I did promise you, though, that Hereafter is no apologia, and I shall redeem that promise. Patience.

John remarks, at one point, early on:

A period of colonialism, or imperialisn, or whatever you like to call the subordination of one country to another, can, despite the humiliation of being subordinate to foreigners, be an effective means of bringing an underdeveloped country more quickly into the 20th century. Just as Lenin said that war is the midwife of revolution, so imperialism can be an efficient midwife of progress.

This is a fairly clear-eyed man, he is not a mere ignorant tool of Empire, although assuredly he is a tool of British influence. One does not cite Lenin if one imagines the situation to be entirely champagne and canapes.

This is also roughly the sentiment expressed by the novelist Nicholas Monsarrat, who served in the diplomatic service a couple of decades before John. This provides a little parallax for me, and leads me believe that, perhaps fairly broadly, British diplomats were aware of the ambiguities inherent in their work.

The last chapter is a meditation by Robin on the nature of death, and of personal history. Arguably a kind of loopy essay, connecting life and memory to quantum mechanics in that way that feels like it might be illuminating and wise, or possibly just sheer nonsense. It makes a kind of oblique comment, here, on the nature of family history, of the collective memory that is family history. It is either the weakest or the strongest chapter, I think. It certainly does not land anywhere in the middle.

The second way to divide up the work for critical consideration is at right angles to the chapter-based dissection. There are categories of supporting material that flow throughout. That is, we see the same types of materials, as well as the same motifs, repeated throughout the book. Clavarino's photographs, aged family photographs, poems by John, and so on. It is not unfair to imagine that each type of material carries its own thread of meaning.

If the quotations, the words, provide some sort of basis, Clavarino's still lifes provide a secondary theme, his portraits another, his photographs of the land a third. The family photos, the poetry, and so on. Each connects forwards and backwards to its likes that precede and succeed it, and each connects vertically (if you will allow the musical metaphor) in harmony with the unlike material to which it is adjacent.

In any small handful of pages in sequence we might find Mary talking about the Sultan of Oman; modern photographs of Oman by Clavarino; a modern portrait of a resident of Oman, ditto; family photographs from John's time in Oman; a poem written by John about the diplomatic service.

Clavarino signals his meaning in two distinct ways. First, he selects archival material with care. I assume, because of the words from John and Mary that he's selected, that he wants us to be aware of the complexity of colonialism, the ambiguity of it. Second, he gives us his own photographs. He depicts the countries in question not in their best possible light. Clavarino favors a bit of ruin porn, albeit well done (Clavarino has a sound eye for graphical design and for color). He engages in his own project of Orientalism, depicting the people as noble, serious, and mysterious (the portraits are all taken from a fairly low angle, the subjects are invariably wearing an expression that is mostly neutral, slightly proud).

Clavarino intends us to see these countries, in the aftermath of John's labors for Great Britain, as genteel ruins populated by noble, distant, people.

A couple of Clavarino's still lifes deserve mention. One is a book, an older book. Looking closer, you see that it is Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, one of the most British of his books, rather than one of Kipling's collections of stories of colonialism. A second is an inscription on a book, something about the Nuba people of Sudan. Looking closer, one notices that it is inscribed by the author, Leni Riefenstahl, who spent decades in Africa photographing the people there and did not quite redeem herself in the eyes of the world. Kipling I might take as an accident. That two such characters arise in Clavarino's documentation of John and Mary's things seems well into the realm of the deliberate.

I believe that Clavarino wants us to understand that his personal view of John's work, and the work of the British Empire, is less positive than John's already ambiguous and uncertain position. And yet, he lets the words of John and Mary and the others stand.

This is not a one note book. This is not some simple screed, this is a nuanced and multi-faceted study.

The themes of Clavarino's photos of land and people are not always harmonious with the themes of John's words, Mary's words, the family photo albums.

The book is not really a family history. There is nothing of the time Susie sprained her ankle, or when William learned to swim. The family history which we learn, while rich, is entirely the history of family as it intersects with the geopolitics of the Middle East. On the flip side, the geopolitical history we learn is likewise slender, concerned almost entirely with the same intersection.

I spent some time reading up on Oman, and the situation there was vastly more complex, and in many ways far more awful, than Hereafter's sketch would suggest. This is not the history of Oman, it is the family's memory of that time in Oman as it overlapped with that dreadful unfolding of history. The Sultan was much much nastier than Mary's remarks might suggest, and the British were absolutely correct to back his removal.

Other reviewers have suggested that Clavarino should have ditched these pictures, or those, and tightened the whole book up.

Those reviewers are wrong. Each of the themes serves its role in filling out a more complete impression of this whole episode, of that intersection of family and geopolitics. Even as limited as the scope is, this subject is nevertheless extremely complex, ambiguous, and filled with conflicting details. The ground truth here is fractal, if you will, and is represented here by a kind of printed visual fugue.

The photos are often very appealing. Clavarino gifts us with many well designed spreads, with visual themes that repeat and repeat (watch for the serpentine line through the frame). It's a visual design treat, quite apart from its meaning. You can and should enjoy the book purely on those grounds, as a kind of coffee-table scrapbook thing about subjects you don't even care about.

It's also a nuanced and worthy piece of meaning, of Art. It does not resolve anything, the questions in play here have no answers, but it does remind us of the depth and complexity of reality.

In short, the book hits all the right notes. It is visually pleasing, almost arresting (my wife picked it up and enjoyed it as a visual treat with no trouble). It handles a complex subject with both nuance and depth. It does what Art ought to, and it does it much better than the vast majority of Serious Photobooks being made today.

+1 would read again!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

ToP: Topaz AI Sharpen Thing Whatever

Ctein appears to have returned to The Online Photographer, which is basically a good thing, I think. He's written a review of a piece of software, a machine-learning powered thing that sharpens photos for you.

The thing is clearly borderline magical in its results.

What it is doing, obviously, is re-painting a new, sharper, picture based on your picture. Whether it knows what a "stick" is or not is probably not even a meaningful question, but it can certainly replace a fuzzy stick with a sharp stick, and the sharp stick is credibly the same stick as if it had been photographed more sharply. It's not the same stick, but it's credible. It does this for every little detail of the frame.

You could do it too, if you were a competent painter, and had an incredible amount of time and patience.

Now, I could rattle on about "the index!" and how it's not a photograph any more, but a digitally rendered drawing based on a photograph and the potential cultural implications of that. Long time readers could probably write it for me at this point, so I shan't.

Instead I am going to talk about the vague sense of unease the whole thing gives me.

Ctein's photo is a good example. Why on earth is this thing something that needs to be saved? This is not a picture of a Yeti or an Alien. It's a vaguely dynamic but ultimately not very interesting picture of an eagle coming in for a landing (I think). These pictures exist already as technical exercises. The entire point of this exercise is that you nailed focus, because that's the hard part. Nobody gives a shit about the picture. Ctein fucked it up, and he lost the game. It's a stupid game, so who cares?

But going in afterwards to fix it, as if you had won the game, seems like a cheat. I know that he would argue that it's not about that at all, that this picture is Art and whatever means are necessary to restore the technical details that allow Ctein to oh god I can't go on, but it dribbles on for a few more lines without ever making the picture actually particularly good or noteworthy.

Even if it was a great picture, so what? Go shoot another one, and try not to screw the pooch this time. There are lots of great pictures out there. The problem is not that we don't have enough great pictures.

More generally, it is not at all clear to me that a software device which allows us to "salvage" more pictures is doing anything that needs to be done. We already have too damned many pictures. I consider a missed shot to be something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, maybe it would have been great. On the other hand, it's a hell of a lot easier to edit out, now.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Bellingham Climate Strike 9/20/19

If there's a reason to protest, Bellingham will come out to protest it. I took the kiddos down, to give them something to think about, and also brought the 300mm lens which really lets you reach out and touch somebody, by god.

I doubt the efficacy of protests for creating change, and I think there's a lot of silliness involved, but these people have their hearts in the right place. My mission here is to normalize for my children the idea of protest, of questioning, and of seeking change. Whether protests change anything or not, the idea that we ought to do what we can ought to be normal.

Here are some photos. I actually do take pictures from time to time, so y'all shut up.

Antifa. looking like the idiots they are. No offense, you're just kids, but, jesus. Grow up:

First Nations, represent! In Bellingham we are loudly self-conscious about the fact that all our land is stolen from Lummi Nation. We don't give it back or anything, but we spend a lot of time acknowledging that we stole it. How this helps anything is.. unclear:

Many many signs. Some witty. Some stale. Some both.

The speakers were mostly First Nations, or kids. Mostly kids:

These kids taught us how to chant "WHAT DO WE WANT?" "CLIMATE JUSTICE!" "WHEN DO WE WANT IT?" "NOW!" "OH GOD KILL ME NOW PLEASE."

There are always some real characters at a Bellingham protest:

Then we all marched around town for a while. My kids were done so we got bagels and went home instead.

The local press. Yes, they use phone photos.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Alfred Stieglitz

I am reading up on Clarence H. White, a photographer and teacher of some note from 100 years ago or so. White was rattling around New York City about the same time Stieglitz was holding court there, and they overlapped and interacted a fair bit. They ran with the same gangs.

The attentive reader of history will, eventually, notice that the main thing Stieglitz seems to have done was fall out with people. He also ran a couple iterations of a small but evidently influential gallery, and he published an influential magazine.

Now, I get that if people say a fellow is influential, well, then he is, because influence is entirely about perception. Still, Stieglitz doesn't seem to have done much except sit around writing and judging (the irony does not escape me, here).

White ran a school which churned out a number of truly stellar photographers, and a few handfuls of B-listers (known, but not, you know, well known) and White's influence is felt literally to this day in advertising photography. But White practically does not exist in our historical understanding. Beaumont Newhall, shamefully, almost entirely omits him from what is the standard American history.

Edward Steichen was a curator of real note, held the post of Director of Photography at the MOMA for about 15 years, curated The Family of Man, and a bunch of other stuff. Newhall, at least, and I think our collective grasp of history, consigns him to the role of a kind of Stieglitz protege.

Stieglitz, on the other hand, seems to have been born a grumpy old man with too much money. His usual reason for falling out with someone was that the someone was too mercenary, not committed enough to photography as a pure art, but rather decided to make something commercial of it. The effect of this is that he had no patience for photographers without money.

It is long past time to correct the record, I think. Not by minimizing Stieglitz' role. His role was real, photographers did go to him to pay court, and his imprimatur was valuable. Rather by enlarging our understanding of other roles. To whom, for instance, would you go with your Letters of Marque from Stieglitz (who had, himself, nothing by those Letters to give)?

White, Steichen, and (ugh) even Newhall, among surely many others, were the people who could actually redeem Stieglitz' grudging approval with concrete gifts. Exhibitions or, gasp, jobs.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The New Yorker

Have you ever noticed that if you open a copy of The New Yorker to pretty much anywhere, allow your eye to land at random on the page, and start reading... it's OK?

You might wonder who is this Samuelson person? You might care enough to scan backwards and find out where Samuelson appears, and learn that he's a grad student in the lab researching the link between whatever and the other thing.

But mostly, you can just start reading anywhere. The content of The New Yorker is a sort of woozy flow of words, little stitched together anecdotes and dropped quotations that speak mainly to the writer's erudition and command of the language. There is no slowly built up argument, there is no narrative, there is no forward thrust. It's just a kind of quilt that, ideally I guess, builds up into a sort of composite picture of whatever the piece is about.

I find this to be the second most most irritating thing about The New Yorker. The most irritating thing is that every article has am unwritten subtitle which is "I am very smart and read a lot." See also that monument to stupidity masquerading as erudition, Brain Pickings.

Anyways, the thing which occurred to me in a moment of wakefulness in the night is that a photo book often has this same property.

Because we have no special training to start at the beginning, and indeed a 100 years of coffee table books have taught us the opposite, we open visual books at random and flip pages.

If it's not hook-y, we put the book down and walk away.

Actually, let us back up. Milnor points out that the cover is the first do-or-die moment. The cover has to grab the attention. Next, the randomly opened page has to keep that attention enough to induce a page-flip, and then maybe another. The grip on the viewer is extremely tenuous here, and you've got to have enough interest at any point to hold them.

This argues for a fairly high density of punchy, interesting pictures. A typical MFA-driven product of MACK books or any of their compatriots fails this completely. Nobody is ever, ever, going to pick up i walk toward the sun which is always going down, flip a few pages, and be drawn in. The cover has the "curb appeal" of a turd, and the contents are, as far as the MACK web site reveals, no better.

The only way you read this book is if a friend urges you to, probably repeatedly. This doesn't mean it's terrible, at all. It might be excellent. But it is not accessible. It requires commitment to even get started. It might even require a certain suspension of disbelief, as it were.

The attentive reader will have noticed that I dislike The New Yorker's "start anywhere" feature, and yet appear to be advocating for it, for visual books. You are correct, attentive reader. This is, I think, a feature that the visual book kind of needs, but it is also one that makes me unhappy.

A really really good visual book operates like this, I think:

The cover grabs your attention, you pick it up. You open at random and flip a few pages, and your interest spikes upward. The pictures are arresting, the words seem to be both accessible and interesting. Something compels you to flip to the beginning, and you start reading from there.

The last bit is where the book stops being The New Yorker, which generally evokes no such compulsion.

Now, this is not to say that the randomly accessible pastiche is not OK, it is. I don't like it in The New Yorker in part because words are not supposed to work this way, in my mind. If you're going to give me 5000 words on something, I'd like to see some structure, not just a random selection of stuff. Pictures, on the other hand, I am socialized to accept in a more random scattershot fashion.

At the end it is the composite picture, the totality of the gestalt, that matters anyways.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Robert Frank, RIP, and So On

Let me start in by saying that I think The Americans is pretty great. I've seen a lot of weird commentary about it over the last few days, "now everyone shoots like that, but then, wow it was something" being among the weirder statements. I have also seen a little of "Ah, but I like The Lines of my Hand better" which strikes me as pure insider doofus chatter, the cry of someone who wants to be seen as having more refined taste than YOU.

There is also the inevitable discussion of his films, which everyone seems to agree are iconoclastic and fascinating and so on, but nobody seems willing to step up and say that they're good. Reading commentary on them, it becomes quickly clear that they are in fact pretty weird and inaccessible.

Frank suffers from the same problem Harper Lee does. He was an artist who had one thing in him. One very very good thing. That's it. He did a lot of things before and after, kept busy, presumably kept food on the table and whatnot. I'm certainly not saying that I am a better filmmaker. But these things Frank made are more or less the ordinary product of an ordinary worker.

Harper Lee stands as a giant of American literature, and there are those who would argue that she is indeed the giant. Her almost posthumous second book dims that bright light some, but cannot really obliterate it.

In the same way, this somewhat mad desire to make out Frank as not merely a genius, but a prolific genius, likewise ends up dimming his light.

The Americans is a monumental achievement. An artist needs no more to be mighty. Let it stand.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Something to Look At

Here's a picture.

As always, take your time.

There is a cheap, half-funny, read. Don't fall for it. Take a moment. Do you find it in any way oddly compelling?

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Shoot RAW!

A photograph, arguable, has about three jobs to do all at once.

The first thing is does, which it does all by itself pretty well if you just leave it alone, is to witness. It testifies that something was.

The second thing it does I am somewhat sloppily calling representation. It expresses an opinion about that which was. This is a little harder to do, you, the photographer, probably need to take an active and thoughtful role here. If nothing else, you should have pretty clear what your opinion of the subject is.

The third thing is does is to be aesthetic. Usually pleasing but not necessarily. Again, the photographer is probably involved here.

All of these things interact. If the photograph is aesthetically pleasing (or not) that is going to influence the opinion the photograph appears to express. If you tinker with a photograph to excess in order to improve the aesthetics, you lose the power and right to witness. By choosing what to witness, you influence the opinion your picture expresses, if nothing else about what it worth witnessing.

These things need to be in balance, whatever the right balance is for the job at hand.

It is probably fair to say that any photograph is going to do all three of these things no matter what. The question, as Humpty Dumpty observed, is who is to be master? Are you, the photographer, going to be in charge, or is luck, happenstance, and perhaps your unconscious mind going to be in charge?

Fine Art photographs invariably chuck everything except aesthetic appeal out the window. They appear to care about literally nothing else. This is not surprising, since modern photographer culture is 90% monkeying around with gadgets and 10% trying to figure out how to "make a good photograph" in an aesthetic sense. Note that witnessing and representation appear, um let me see, nowhere.

The Art photographers, especially those in the Documentary area, tend to worry exclusively about representation. They want desperately to convey their opinion, which is that fascism is bad, and that's about it. There's a little dash of witnessing (but most of the time they can't be buggered to find anything worthwhile to witness, so they photograph microfilm readers instead) and they certainly don't care about aesthetics.

Representation is important because, good god, if you don't care to communicate what on earth are you doing? Just format your cards at the end of every day.

Aesthetics matter because they influence the mood and receptiveness of the viewer. A graphically strong picture attracts attention (not, I note, "the eye" like some rule of thirds bullshit). A beautiful picture might well warm the viewer up, an ugly picture rile them up. I don't know, there is no formula. You just lay them out and see what it looks like. But aesthetics matter.

Witnessing, last of all, is what photographs do, as long as you let them. It is the well from which the power of the photograph is drawn. Without it, you have a badly made drawing. With it, you have the power of truth in your hand, to support your meaning.

Representation, Aesthetics, and Witnessing.

RAW. Shoot RAW, everyone. It's just better.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Landslop Followup

I made a thing. It's rough. I shot it, edited it, wrote it, and laid it out, today.

It's over on my Rogue Photo blog because I might make it into a magazine.

Landslop Photography <strangled noise>

So I accidentally fell into a conversation on twitter with this guy Philip Leyland Hyde, which turned out to be an error. Nice enough fellow, won't stop banging on about how important and influential his father Philip Hyde (who studied with Ansel Adams, dontcha know) was in photography and photo books. You can look Philip Hyde up, he's just barely important enough. I had never heard of him, and in a year, I will be back to blessedly not having ever heard of him. You can see some of his photographs here, for instance. It may occur to you that they look contemporary.

From there, for reasons I cannot fathom except apparently I need to suffer, I stumbled across Photo Cascadia, a collective of mainly Oregon photographers who produce interchangeable eye-searing landscapes in, actually, pretty much the same style as Philip Hyde. They identify with group f.64, though, and have probably never heard of Philip Hyde either.

Of course there's endless hordes of these people, some doing pretty well, some just banging out photos and prints on their own dime and trying to persuade their shrinking circle of increasingly haunted friends and relatives to take them and hang them up.

I stamped around my house ranting incoherently like schizophrenic for a while until the dog, out of concern for the children, called the police.

Having calmed down, something occurred to me.

What all these people are doing is driving off into the wilderness with a bunch of camera gear, going to particularly fortuitous vantage points at particularly fortuitous times of day, and waiting patiently for a particularly fortuitous combination of light, cloud, and fog to appear. They pride themselves on the difficulty of hobby, and the rareness of their photographs.

Now, the hobby is not difficult, merely expensive and labor-intensive, and the photographs are not rare. Witness, um, the internet. Or any small town in the Pacific Northwest, which will contain at least one "art gallery" infested with candy-colored pictures of mountains and trees "in the great tradition of Ansel Adams."

Still, these photos do take a bit of work. You don't just step into the woods and see these sights. Go out camping for a week in a good area, and there will be one or two mornings when, for 20 minutes, the fog and the light will drift through the trees just so. There will be an evening when the clouds over the mountains will look very nice, and also be pinklit by the setting sun for half an hour. You'll see this stuff, and you could certainly photograph it. Most days, these sights won't be quite perfect examples. It takes several days, some planning, and some hiking to grind out even one or two things of the sort Photo Cascadia prides itself on.

My realization is that if you spend 24 hours in a particularly good place, you're gonna get maybe 30 minutes of these sorts of thing. More with luck and planning, less without. Maybe it just rains all day.

It turns out that the wilderness, in the other 23 and one half hours, does not turn in to a mall parking lot. It's still pretty sublime. It is still filled with wonders. It is still painfully beautiful.

Even taking away the absurd distortions of wide lenses, candy colors, long exposure flowing water (ugh), and all the other ugly tropes of the genre, the wilderness simply does not look that way most of the time.

It is certainly true that the pinklit clouds and drifting fog through the awe inspiring vista do indeed take the breath away. On that one morning, wow, that was something. But these photographers are trading away every other moment for that one.

Sure, the wow moments sell prints. Well, some prints. Not as many as the photographers pretend, naturally, but enough to keep an apparently endless string of small town gallery shops open, at least as a part of the business.

They are not photographing the forests and valleys that I know. They are not re-creating my experience of these things, in any meaningful way.

My experience, to be honest, is more wondrous by far.

Thursday, September 5, 2019


The sketch of a story in one frame.

Not my dog, nor my boot.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Witnessing vs. Representation

A more or less interesting conversation going on over at Leicaphilia in the comments. I made some powerful and erudite contribution which at this exact moment awaits moderation. By the time you read this, though, it is likely that it will be moderated through, no doubt sparking a witty and insightful conversation. Or, you know, maybe not.

Anyways, the thrust of my insightful comment was this:

The photograph testifies, more than anything else, that something was. This is the only intelligent observation in Barthes' Camera Lucida and while it sounds a bit blockheaded, it is nonetheless a critical point that deserves repetition. This is a truth, albeit a simple one. It is important, worthwhile, and often lost-track-of, specifically because this exists in contrast to, perhaps even in constant struggle with, another truth:

Photographs represent what was there. Here, the idea of representation is a term of art, roughly aligned with this dictionary definition:

The description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way or as being of a certain nature.

You might consider representation to be commenting on what was rather than merely testifying to its existence. Indeed, a representation need not testify to the reality of something at all. A painting might comment on the nature of a thing, or a category of things, without in fact showing us a real one of the things. A painting might represent a monarch as, I don't know, let us say evil, without being a picture of an actual monarch.

These two realities of what a photo is happen also to line up with two competing philosophies, neither of which would likely be delighted with this characterization. While Barthes more or less denies the power of a photograph to represent, most of his acolytes ignore the possibility that a photograph can do anything else. When pressed, they would likely admit that the photograph can witness, can testify, but they would deny that this is important.

I think coherent argument can be made that the early Art photographers, through the Pictorialists, were struggling to push their photographs to represent, to do more than to merely bear witness. This is, after all, the standard argument against photographs as Serious Art — they can only witness. Later, many of the Modernists used other technical means to attempt the same goals. Get in close, abstract the shapes, drill in to details, select unusual vantage points, and so on, all to try to force a "straight" photograph to reveal something more than merely a copy of what was in front of the lens. Forcing a straight photograph to represent coherently and clearly is, frankly, a struggle. It "wants" merely to witness.

At the same time, photojournalists and early documentarians were doing precisely the opposite, striving to simply record and witness as distinctly as possible. Recording architectural and cultural wonders for the all-consuming eye, and all that business. This group generally believed that their work only witnessed, it did not represent.

At some point there was a shift. Duchamp's "Fountain" is many things, including a stick to the eye of Fine Art, but also a statement: witnessing can be Art. There's nothing there, it's just a urinal, it simply sits there, be-ing. And yet, it is Art.

And thus is dismissed entirely the question of how a photograph, which some say merely witnesses, can be Art. It can be Art, whether it witnesses, whether it represents, or both. But not just any shitty photograph, it turns out, however much it witnesses whatever-the-hell.

To a degree this is the world we have arrived at. Much of photographic Serious Art styles itself precisely this way, as documentary photography (witnessing) with a message, an opinion, with politics (representation). Done well, this can be truly fantastic stuff.

The trouble, as I see it, with much of Serious Documentary Art, is that because theory states that all photographs represent the photographers don't even try. They just snap a photo of whatever, and figure that since theory says so, it probably represents something. There is a failure to acknowledge that a straight photograph does not particularly "want" to represent, the default setting as it were is to witness. Because the artist feels so strongly, surely the photograph must represent? All too often, it's just a snap of a microfilm can, witnessing only that the photographer knows where a library can be found.

On the other side of things, the Serious Decor people, seem to think that merely witnessing is the point. They take some loving, overwrought, picture of a landscape or a flower or a water droplet and they process it into oblivion, and they figure that since they put all this technical work into it, it's probably Art by now. They have no philosophy, no notion of representation at all. Their photographs, no matter how many layers they put into their Photoshop file, never do anything more than witness that there was a rock, a flower, a bug. These people too are trapped by the default witness-only character of the photograph, but unlike their MFA-holding compadres, they think this is a good thing.

Now, to be fair, Duchamp can get away with just chucking a urinal out there, and lo, it is Art. You, as a maker of overwrought pictures of bugs, probably can't.

Art is embedded in culture both as result and substrate. Duchamp's stature, and his ideas, allowed him to shove his damned urinal in there. You are, most likely, nobody, so you'd jolly well better have some ideas and, to be honest, your ideas probably ought to be visible. If not in the pictures, at least in the artist's statement. You don't get to be substrate upon which culture stands by cranking the sliders in Lightroom over to 11. At least, not unless you're Duchamp.

Nor, it turns out, do you get to be substrate upon which culture is built if your pictures are bullshit pictures of nothing, witnessing nothing much, but (according to you) representing the shit out of... something nobody can quite put their finger on.

This witnesses the existence of, the life and work of, one Dr. Ceriani. It also comments on that existence. It is not a bullshit picture of nothing. It is not an overwrought picture of nothing. It strikes a balance.

Country Doctor: Gene Smith

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Opposing Commentator

I promised you, a little while ago, some discussion of a commentator who took the opposite tack. Colin Pantall is writing a series of essays on ethics in photography in which he considers photographs almost completely in terms of the politics of their making, and almost not at all on their own merits, on the contents of the frame.

Colin is some sort of a British academic, but I find my own ideas and conceits echoed in his writing fairly often. You may deduce from this that he is intelligent, erudite, and devilishly handsome. The essay series I'm talking about here is a year-long project, started in January, for World Press Photo's Witness thing, which I guess is something like an electronic magazine. He's got 7 essays up now, plus an intro, which works out to about 1 a month, so I dare say we'll see a few more.

You can start with the intro here, and move on. There is a somewhat haphazard and often incomplete collection of links to later essays at the end of each one. With a bit of poking around you should be able to get to all of them, in sequence.

They're pretty good. As I started in on them, it fairly quickly occurred to me that he never seemed to be approaching any kind of conclusion, there's no big reveal, and so far there's no attempt at some masterful synthesis of all we have learned. Not too long after that I decided that what he was up to (so far) is not intended as a big think piece, but as a survey. A survey taken from a specific point of view, namely the methods and motivations various documentary photographic projects.

In each essay, Colin tells us about some things, usually photographic things, and he sketches the politics that drove the making of those things. Gently, he issues judgments of those methods. It feels sometimes as though he's going to go all woke and irritating on us, but happily he sticks to bigger issues like "racism is bad" which, you know, a pretty broad spectrum of us can get behind, right? His judgments tend to fall along the lines of how closely the politics of the project hew to his own (and to mine), but what he is striving for with fair success is to judge based on how full, how rounded, how humanist the methods and motivations are.

Allow me to step back and re-cast some things I've been writing about more carefully and succinctly.

When you look at a photo, you bring a bunch of baggage with you, including politics. No photo has its politics, its meaning, written in its pixels, it's just a bunch of dots. But sometimes you bring enough material to the table to read the politics of a photo easily (or at least to imagine that you do.) The things depicted in the frame may, or may not, provide markers you can use to connect the contents of the frame to your knowledge. Some frames are ciphers to all but the innest of the in-crowd, those with special knowledge. Others reveal some clues to the ordinarily knowledgeable. Some frames contain no markers whatsoever, you simply have to be told.

You don't need to know much to read some of Eddie Adams' photo of Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Nguyen Van Lem. A few of the basic facts of the US war in Vietnam will do. You likely recognize the military garb frame-left, and recognize that this takes place in war. It is not a gangland murder. A specialist might identify which war. But, no degree of examination of the frame will reveal the names of the people in it, their ranks, or the details of the killing. These things you have to be told.

Walker Evans' photos of the Tengle family are more opaque unless you happen to be familiar with the contents of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The photos acquire new depth when, for example, you learn that James Agee disliked the Tengles. That the photographer, Evans, likes them is evident to anyone who knows a little about photography, merely by examining the frame. You might still guess poverty, rural, and maybe America based on the contents of the frame. Who the Tengles are, and how they came to be photographed, these are facts which matter, and also facts which you cannot find inside the frame.

Sally Mann's photographs of battlefields mean nothing whatsoever unless you have some notion of the US Civil War, there is literally nothing to see except a field. Even this, you need to know what a field is, what grass is, what trees are. No clues in the frame will lead one to Antietam or Cold Harbor, no matter what depth of Civil War knowledge you possess. Once that connection is made for you, though, a much unfolds with great force and speed.


Colin is interested in the background information. He wants to understand the politics of the photograph, in terms of its intended meaning whether that be writ in the frame, or only known outside the frame. He wants to know how and why photos were made, and by whom, and for what purpose. He wants, above all, to know the connections between the intended meanings and the ways in which the photos were made.

He judges the work based, at least for the purposes of his essays, on those exact grounds. I asked, and he was explicit: you can't see it in the pictures. Or at any rate, not always.

Of course, he is interested here in the ethics of making and using pictures, this is the entire point of his series. But still, he is willing to pass judgement in this limited but not particularly narrow domain, based entirely on the politics which surround the picture rather than the contents of the frame. The results are worth our consideration. This material is real, it is important, and we should not ignore it.

While it is not (always) visible in the pictures themselves, it surrounds the work. In order to understand the work, and to assign it meaning, we should understand something of the way the picture was made.

As with Mike Johnston's approach, I think this approach is incomplete, inadequate. It suffices for Colin's purpose here, but as complete critical apparatus, it is not enough. Probably Colin would agree, he is after all intelligent, erudite, and devilishly handsome.

One of the projects that stuck out to me, in Colin's series, is a collection of photographs stitched together from Google's freely available satellite imagery, of cattle feedlots in the USA. One need bring only common knowledge to the table to read this to a reasonable extent. Cattle are packed together in mind-bogglingly large operations. Vast lakes of.. something, one can reasonably assume cow shit, are adjacent. The whole thing looks apocalyptic to even an ordinary person, with ordinary knowledge.

Learning that these creatures are cows, and deducing that we eat the results, is uncomfortable. Whether one could work that out by examining the frame, using only common understanding, I am unsure. It's on the edge. Some people will, some won't. Perhaps you have to have some slight understanding of feedlots to work that out.

Further investigation would reveal that, bizarrely, the USA has laws prohibiting photography of such operations. It follows trivially that the artist, Mishka Henner, is working around those laws to show us what those laws conceal — a distinctly political act. At that moment the politics of the situation, again, unfold with great speed and force.

This next photograph could be a Nike Ad for all we know. It contains no markers whatever of its politics.

If not an advert, this could easily be what I termed Serious Decor, an appealing and ultimately purely formal exercise in visual construction.

It happens that it is not that at all. It is a densely coded photograph, made by Hoda Afshar, of a man, Emad, who was at that time (and may still be) residing in a refugee camp. It is as densely coded as a prince's portrait. The elements all mean something, but the meanings need to be told. You cannot deduce them from the frame.

Absent the decoder ring, it's a perfectly nice picture, even an excellent and powerful one. But it is like many others. It could be an advertisement. With the decoder ring, much unfolds, with great force and speed.

The point here, if there is one, is something like this: Art is not merely the thing itself. It is the thing and its interconnections to the world in which it finds itself. Art is a cultural construct, and as such, gathers much of its meaning from the culture in which it exists. Art, also, is a part of the culture. As such, it carries its own meaning to the culture in which it exists.

To pretend that Art exists only as itself, merely as the contents of the frame, the thing on the pedestal, the sequence of notes, is absurd.