Wednesday, October 30, 2019


I am basically agnostic, but for complicated and boring reasons I am reading the Pauline Epistles (certain books of the New Testament which are presented to as as letters written by the Apostle Paul to various early Christian churches around the Med.) It's been interesting.

Paul has a reputation for being kind of a rule-bound prick. I have certainly been known to blame most of what is bad about the Catholic Church on Paul (not the pedophilia, he's pretty down on that kind of thing.) Turns out I was pretty much wrong.

There are a number of themes running through the letters, and yes, there are certainly outbursts of slightly weird and detailed rules, but a major theme is this: Do whatever you want, but do it for the right reasons. If the intention and meaning of what you do is good, then what you do is good.

This strikes me, in general, as a pretty good way to run your life. I am, as usual, intending to stretch and distort this thing to cover photography.

Paul is interested in meaning, internal and external. He wants his followers to act motivated by godly things, and he cautions them to be aware of what their actions look like. Do this, but not if someone seeing you will be led astray. Paul assumes a certain empathy on the part of his followers, an ability to fairly reliably guess what other, different, people will think and do.

This is, of course, not a particularly strange notion. For most of history, in most facets of life, people have simply assumed that we can pretty reliably guess what's going on in one another's heads: because we can. In the modern era there has been a little trend, especially in Art, toward what we might term individualism. The artist is responsible only for their own navel. In some cases we're not supposed to know what they're thinking, and in others we're not allowed to.

Anyways, Paul has no truck with that. He demands that his guys be tuned in to what the hell is going on around them.

Another theme one notes in Paul's writing is the idea that good motivations will lead, by some alchemy, to good results. Paul was a big expounder of that Christian notion that it is not by works but by faith that one achieves salvation. Which, any wag will instantly note, boxes you into a corner in which, apparently, you can do whatever you like.

It is a box, and Paul doesn't give us any answers, except to rail angrily against what might be termed not-good works. Well, Paul, if works don't matter, why u mad? Paul does not say, but he's definitely mad.

And thus with art and communication, in a way. Having the right intent, the right motivation, should produce Art that is worthwhile, somehow, by some alchemy that is difficult or impossible to explain.

No, no, it doesn't matter if you expose correctly, as long as you feeeeeeeel it, except no, you fucked that up, maybe you should expose better and feel less?

The way out of this rhetorical corner, as I see it, is to treat Good Art (and Good Works) not as the ostensible goal, but as diagnostic of the proper mind.

One does not purchase Christian salvation by giving money to the church. One gives money to the church as a natural consequence of faith. It it not the path to salvation, it is an indicator that you are on the path.

In the same way, one does not set out to make Good Art, one sets out to do something else. To make ones own Art, perhaps. Or to express something deeply felt. The Good Art arises when you're doing a good job at this, it is an indicator that you're on to something.

Good Art is, essentially, a side effect of being a Good Artist.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

A Bizarre Coda

In a bizarre coda to this piece I wrote some time back, about Buck Ellison's photo of "The Prince Children," I would like to report that, somehow, Daniel Blight seems to be promoting, or at least not denying, the bizarre idea that the children in the picture are Betsy DeVos's actual children. To be precise, another artist who I will not embarrass by naming, stated this as a fact, and Daniel made a followup comment on the statement which appeared to confirm it (without quite actually doing so, Daniel's remark appears to be carefully calibrated.)

Someone told this artist this "fact" and one imagines that it might have been Daniel? I don't know.

The children in the photo apparently comprise three girls and one boy. Betsy's children are two boys, two girls, all much older than the children in the photo. Betsy is 61 years old, her children are grown. There is simply no question that the children in the photo are not the DeVos children. They are models, on a built set. That is Buck Ellison's method. It it what he does.

This theory is therefore insane and wrong. It does fall in with Daniel's curious unwillingness to mention that the Buck's photos are staged. Now, Daniel has used this picture and others in the same series in a book he edited, The Image of Whiteness, about something something whiteness, so he has an interest in a particular reading for these pictures. I have not read the book, and am not much interested in it, so I cannot tell you what reading he's vested in. But he is surely vested in some reading.

Is Daniel simply mistaken? Did Ellison make some joking remark that Daniel has taken as factual, and not bothered to check up on? Or is Daniel knowingly propogating a falsehood here?

I find it especially odd, because it clearly doesn't matter. Ellison's mission with this picture, and the others in "Tender Option," are more or less aligned with Daniel's ideas. Whether the people in the picture are actual DeVoses or models surely cannot matter much? It almost, but not quite, makes me want to read Daniel's tome to try to discern what could possibly matter about this here.

The remarks I make here should serve, I suppose, as a sort of pro forma marker of objective reality here. I don't feel like I can just let this sort of thing lie, entirely. I could dig around more and kick up a bigger fuss, but that seems to be tending toward just trying to make trouble for Daniel. He may be a dolt, he may be disingenuous, but I am not that unkind, I guess.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Social Documentary Photography

Imagine that you're standing at a street corner, waiting for the light, and it begins to rain. This is an event that simply is, there is no refutation, there is no discussion about the facts of the event. The evidence of your senses is clear. It began to rain.

Imagine now, on a different street corner, on a different day, your walking companion says to you "Chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream!" This is quite a different thing. One can argue about it, one can disagree, this statement is a matter of opinion.

A photograph does a little bit from column A, and a little bit from column B, here. Parts of a photograph, aspects as it were, are simple facts. There was the dog, in the yard. The sun was setting. The car was turning. There is nothing here really to refute, to argue (setting aside issues of whether Photoshop may have been involved). Other aspects, the opinion apparently presented, can be argued.

Consider the photograph of the Migrant Mother, Florence Thompson. On the one hand, there is a woman. There are children. The woman appears worn, tired. She appears to have labored, and also to have suffered. She projects a kind of nobility and grace. It is not clear where the line lies, between merely witnessed facts and an opinion expressed.

In order to be persuasive a photograph's opinions need to be palatable to many. Simply whipping up a photograph that says, in effect, that Donald Trump is a crook, is not going to persuade anyone of anything. The facts of the photo, that here is an old man with improbable hair, are not enough to carry an opinion of criminality to the pro-Trump partisan. The effect of this photograph is, largely, to delight those on one side, and anger those on the other. Nobody's position is altered. If anything, quite the opposite.

This is in contrast to the photograph of Florence Thompson. The opinion, if any, is merely that this woman has some value, some essential decency of character, some nobility of spirit. At a stretch, one might imagine that this extends to other people who might look a bit like Florence, who might find themselves in a similar position. Of course, a few will read something else into the picture. The point is that many of us, many people with differing ideas, can read Florence's character in the same way.

The picture effects a small change, maybe, across a spectrum of opinion. The staunch conservative will find it a trifle harder to blame the problems of the poor on the poor. Words like they are just lazy or they are of low moral character will be a little harder to speak. This man will still vote against the program that seeks to succor the poor, but will find himself a little softer toward them. A fence-sitting liberal might, shifted a hair toward the generous, vote in favor of succor where formerly their vote was in question. A bleeding heart will merely bleed a trifle more copiously. The spectrum of people's ideas move, infinitesimally, in a unified direction.

People's minds are not changed all at once. Even a sudden epiphany is really the culmination of a series of tiny steps. Producing a really radical and angry poster about Boris Johnson isn't going to effect an immense change in anyone's mind, no matter how angry the artist is.

Which leads us around to contemporary social documentary photography.

Much of it is banal trash. It is, in this era, rather chic to photograph locations where bad things happened, or to reproduce some sort of document. While these pictures certainly witness some facts on the ground, they are not facts with the capacity to move. Some cop shot some kid on this street corner, which looks like any other street corner. Ok. So what? Nobody gives a shit about a street corner. Here is a sad letter the kid's sister wrote. Again, so what? It's a piece of paper with writing on it, not a human face. Where is the sister, the mother? Where is the cop?

This is not to deny the tragedy. It is not I that denies the tragedy of the case, but all too often the artist. The artist insists that everything about the tragedy is banal, uninteresting, ordinary. This is, of course, often something of the point, but it is not a point with the capacity to move.

This, ultimately, is why the only pictures in Asselin's Monsanto that are worth a shit are the ones of the people damaged by Agent Orange.

These pictures are accessible, factual, irrefutable. It would no more occur to someone, no matter how pro-corporate, to try to deny the bare facts these pictures witness than it would to try to deny the rain on the street corner. The photographs witness the fact of the girl, of the man. There they are. Ecce homo. The opinions expressed are open ended, although of a kind. You can see the humanity, and all but a psychopath would feel sympathy for their plight. Whether this extends to indicting Monsanto or not is up to you, the viewer.

The pro-corporate viewer is free to merely soften his stance a trifle, remaining pro-Monsanto. The radical hippie is confirmed in his vigorous anti-corporate stance. A fence sitter might finally pick a side. The human sympathy does not easily allow a hardening of a pro-Monsanto, pro-corporate, opinion. Across the spectrum, the human sympathy tends a little away from Monsanto, away from the corporate interest.

One more example. Boris Johnson is known to muss up his hair before every public appearance. His unkempt appearance is, it is perfectly well established, a sham. It works beautifully, because the only possible visual of Boris Johnson is as a clown. It is impossible to make a picture of Johnson in which he does not look ridiculous. It is therefore impossible to make a subtle, non-polarizing, picture of him. Every picture enrages his detractors and delights his supporters, and drives them slightly farther apart.

I have no magic bullet for how to make these things, I really don't know. I do know that making the witnessed facts strong, and the opinion, the representation, mild seems to matter here. I do know that putting a human face on it seems to be important. I do know that making a strong connection to the argument at hand matters. Show us faces, not street corners. Don't be strident.

Let the viewer find their own way to you.

Thursday, October 24, 2019


My older daughter is taking an after-school activity thing on cake decorating. Mainly they are piping icing/frosting on to various objects using different tips and learning different techniques. They're 10 year olds, plus or minus a year or two.

Since most art is less ephemeral than an edible object, I decided to indulge myself and showed up at school with a camera, tripod, and a ghetto "mini-studio" made out of a cardboard box and some drawing paper.

The cakes looks pretty good, if I say so myself. I got to eat part of my daughter's. Not a part with frosting.

There were more cakes, but how many tiny cake piles can one stand, really? My daughter's is the first one.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The State of the Industry!

Oh boy, oh boy, these are fun posts to write. Less fun, I expect, to read, but it's not always about you, ok?

Ming Thein is still half-heartedly grinding out a blog about photography, but you can tell his heart really isn't in it. He's a watch guy, now. Anyways, he recently shared one of the Pundit Standard posts that guys like him have been writing for a few years, apparently a column for Medium Format magazine. In it he writes about how terrible the camera industry is at everything and how they need to innovate and (implied) that if they just let him run things they could revitalize the whole sector, because he has insights.

Thom Hogan apparently makes a living writing this piece over and over. Michael Reichmann was known to bang this piece out from time to time.

All of them are wrong, and staggeringly so. Which is weird, because the one common thread here is claims to great business acumen.

First some sales numbers.

Camera sales, "serious cameras," bumped along at a few million a year for a decades. Polaroids and other convenient form factors bumped along at somewhat higher numbers, with counts gradually trending upwards. In about 2000 digital cameras show up in a couple form factors, and general upward trends continue. A couple years later a few things happen. Flickr and its friends arrive and get some traction, digital cameras get better and better while prices remain flat, and suddenly a GIANT FUCKING BUBBLE SHOWS UP. There is a huge surge in camera sales, peaking around 2010, and dropping thence into what might accurately be called free-fall.

We have a couple obvious factors in play here.

There are people who Just Want Pictures. A few of them bought Nikon film cameras and whatnot, but a lot more bought Polaroids and Kodak disposables and the like. This is most people who take pictures. There are the anoraks, they actually just like cameras. They bought Nikons and Hasselblads and Mamiyas and stuff. Some of them also like pictures, but that is secondary to this market discussion.

From maybe 2004 to 2015ish, we also have what can be described as a fad. The internet and the sharing of photos was a shiny new thing. You could get in to it for under a $1000 or so! Maybe you could... make money? Share with friends? Become cool? Nobody really knew, but it was the It Hobby among a certain set for a while.

That is over. The fad has died, nobody gives a shit any more. We're back to people who Just Want Pictures and people who Like Cameras. The former use smartphones, because they serve that need beautifully well. The latter constitute a market of a few million units a year. That Thein does not see this is incredible to me, because he's literally a child of the fad portion of this. His interest in photography precisely waxed and waned with the fad portion of the market. I guess the guy with the giant collection of pet rocks isn't willing to admit that pet rocks are over, even when his own interest fades?

The bubble inflated a few companies to immense size. The anoraks want the bubble to go on forever, because they are emotionally invested in the importance of Cameras, I guess, so you can continue to sell idiotic articles like Thein's.

Canon and Nikon are not engaged in an effort to revitalize this market. This market is a sinking ship. Nobody knows when it's going to break up and vanish into the inky depths, and everyone wants to keep it afloat as long as possible, because what they are doing is a salvage operation.

The goal is to get as much cargo off the ship before it goes under as possible.

Nobody is going to make an announcement to the effect that the industry is fast-returing to 1970s levels, because that's how you burn a billion dollars in future revenue. Also, everyone is sort of hoping that everyone else is wasting a lot of effort trying to revitalize the industry. Indeed, there are probably people inside the majors who are keeping an ear to the ground, looking out for an unpredicted new trend to ride.

The bulk of the effort is split between extracting revenue from the remains of the current market, and positioning the company for dominance in the new, much smaller, future market. Unwinding a massive house of cards is hard but it's got to be done.

Thein is exactly wrong. Growing a set of balls and taking some big design risk is not going to save this market, and anyone with a hint of, you know, actual experience in business knows this. Right-sizing the company, paying down technical debt, and generally positioning for a leaner future, is the right approach. Nikon has been doing this for a long time, they still have their files from the 1970s and before, I assume.

Also, it's OK to be an anorak. It's kind of cool that we've shed all those fadsters, all they want to talk about is their new gear, anyways.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Check out this Dumpster Fire

Here's a binding that's new to me, the “staplebound reversed gatefold," and god damn is this thing a hot mess.

Here is the only instance I am aware of of this thing: American Origami. What you do is you make a pretty wide landscape format book, and bind it on the right edge (the wrong edge), and then fold the whole damned thing in half, left side over right.

Page layout is actually four pages per "spread" with the outer two forming one spread and the inner two forming a second "secret" spread.

It looks kinda like a proper portrait format book, but only the front half is accessible in the normal codex fashion. As you open each spread codex-style, you have the option to heave the recto side up, to reveal the folded-under secret spread that is tucked into the back half of the book. This thing makes clay tablets look handy. Jörg Colberg, in his review, admits that he could not bear to look at the whole thing. The hidden spreads simply defeated him.

Colberg probably should have unfolded the damned thing, and read it as-printed, as a big landscape book with four "pages" to the spread. It's what I would do, if I have to review the thing. Set some bricks or the collected works of Edward Tufte on it to help flatten out that stupid giant fold.

I admire the boldness of printing across the gutter in this thing, the gutter not even being bound but just a sort of floppy open gap.

It strikes me that the artist, Andres Gonzalez, was at least twice betrayed here. First he's been betrayed by a system that assured him that this sort of bland photography, unlovable photographs of nothing, is a good idea for serious projects like mass shootings. Second he was betrayed by a design team that clearly wanted to try something out. Yeah, I'm sure there's some sort of metaphor here, the Byzantine binding symbolizes something or other, but it also renders the book inaccessible.

When your reviewers say "I could not actually read the goddamned thing" you've got a problem and, to be blunt, the problem should have been obvious from the first dummy.

It might work for a zine, something thin, I think. Maybe. Why it's better than just regular gatefolds I cannot imagine, though.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Gallery System

I read this article about how galleries actually find new talent to represent, over in Artsy's online magazine (which is surprisingly good).

The takeaway here, is this, which is possibly the smartest (or maybe just the most glib) thing I've ever said: An Art Gallery is a curatorial vision with a lease. If they compromise their curatorial vision, or don't have one, it's just a lease. You probably don't want anything to do with them.

Respect that fact. Don't just roll in with a portfolio, get engaged. Understand the vision, be a part of it. Show up to openings and be socially engaged. Say semi-intelligent things.

I don't do this. I hate people, and I don't want representation.

But I'm going to start, because even the artists in this remote region deserve some support, some recognition, some love. I'm gonna try to give 'em a little.

In other news I seem to have no fewer than three long-form projects in progress, one which has nothing to do with photography, one about photography, and one of photography. So, I am a little less prolific here, I guess? I'm not dead, nor going away, though, as far as I can tell.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Clarence White and Making Pizza

I make pizza. Pretty good pizza, it happens. I've ruined my kids, they basically hate delivery pizza because they like mine.

As it happens, from time to time, someone idly requests my recipe, and in that moment I think to myself yeah, I could just send write down or send them... and then the wheels fall off.

It turns out that the way I make pizza, while based on a small handful of very very simple recipes, is infernally complex. The crust is simple, I can tell you the ingredients in a moment, and sketch out the handling of it in a few minutes. None of this would get you a good crust, or at least not crust the way I make it. I have a lifetime of off-and-on breadmaking in me, and a herd of minuscule details inform the way I mix, knead, and stretch out the crust of my pizza.

The sauce is also simple, again I could tell you the ingredients in a moment, the procedure in a minute. But... I put the tomatoes in at just this time, neither before nor later, and again, a lot of details here and there.

Which details are important? I don't even know. I have my ways, and it produces this thing.

I could probably teach you the rudiments, in half an hour, which would allow you to make something which might well be quite unlike mine, and might not be very good. I could teach you in a couple of days, maybe, how to make it my way, to make pizza that's very much like mine.

Better, though, would be to spend a few months teaching you to make bread, and another few months on the general making of sauces and other bits and pieces, and then to tell you about how I make pizza. At this point you'd be equipped to develop your own processes for making, and this is important, your own pizza, which pizza is also excellent.

The genius of Clarence H. White was that he could, apparently, teach people how to make excellent photographs which in almost no important way resembled his own. Ansel Adams was an excellent teacher, by all accounts, and stamped out an almost infinite collection of copycats. Some of those have gone on to develop something of a personal vision, but I have never seen one that, even to this day, does not bear the firm stamp of the teacher in their work. Clarence White's students, um, did not make pictures like he did. The only "tell" such as it is, is that their frames were invariably well designed, which while consistent does not particularly point the finger at White.

This is, of course, the natural way to teach, to explain in detail how one does the thing. The student then apes that, with increasing facility, until they can produce reasonable copies of the teacher's work. At this point, one hopes, the student can fly free. In mathematics, science, engineering, this is maybe a good way to teach. The teacher's way, after all, is demonstrably "right" in some sense, and everything else is likely to be "wrong" (although occasional exceptions arise, they are very rare, and invariably have to struggle mightily to be known.)

In the arts, though, I am less sure. The best teachers here, White among them, seem to fanatically urge students to look anywhere but at the teacher's work. There is a reason budding painters have long been sent to museums to copy what they see there. If you want to write, they say, read, and read widely.

Teach someone how to make breads, and sauces. They can figure pizza out on their own from there.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

On Meaning

This is a slightly convoluted tale.

I spend too much time reading awful atheists, and thereby ran across a video in which some fellow was debunking Sam Harris. Now, I don't know who Sam Harris is, but I think he's some dolt who makes a nice living bloviating, which irritates me because I am also a dolt who bloviates, but nobody seems to be offering me a nice living for it.

Anyways, the point is that Sam made some remark that something or other is 80% determined by genetics and our heroic debunker launched in to his fell work by declaring that Sam must be referring to the scientific concept of heritability and that, see, Sam is wrong because that's not how heritability works. Sam, obviously, was talking about no such thing.

The hero's claim, more carefully unpicked, is that Sam was either making a meaningless noise, or was talking about heritability. Our hero is quite wrong, here, because he doesn't know what meaning is.

Consider this statement: compact topological spaces are continuous. Take my word for it, it is meaningless. It is meaningless for very precise reasons: if you attempt to translate the apparently mathematical statement into the formal language of mathematics you will find that you cannot in fact form a syntactically correct statement in that language. Meaningful statements of mathematics are precisely those which can be so expressed. The reason here is solid: if you can express your idea in that language, then there are more or less mechanical logical operations that can be applied, the machinery of deductive logic, to determine things about your statement.

The point is that the relevant system of cognition, the formal logic of math, does not contain a translation of my sentence.

It is worth pointing out at this point that meaning in this sense has nothing whatever to do with truth. Truth is a completely independent concept. One can say perfectly meaningful things that are wrong all cats are lizards certainly means something, but isn't true.

Consider this statement: Loving him was Red. This is, it happens a Taylor Swift lyric. I have daughters, shut up. It is obviously a poetic statement. It cannot be interpreted literally, and it does not translate into a system of cognition in which deductive reasoning works. This is emotional, poetic.

Swift's little bundle of words lands in our poetic mind and evokes some sort of response. A mishmash of emotions, ideas, memories. It might start some sort of loose chain of thought, ping-ponging from one thing to another.

One more little point: when you translate a meaningful mathematical statement to the formal language of math, you always get the same statement out. It doesn't matter if I do it, if you do it, if someone from Spain translates it. Similarly, the Swift lyric probably translates into loosely similar idea clouds for you, for me, and for other more or less Western-influenced people.

This is in contrast to nonsense. Red cat house bicycle might land in your poetic mind and generate an idea cloud, but it's not likely to be that similar to the way it operates on my mind. One need be careful here, some nonsense verse is very well made and seems to "mean" much the same thing to each of us (for example, Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky")

Anyways, the point is that the meaning of something seems to boil down to something like the way it translates into some sort of system of thought, and something can be considered to be meaningful if it translates to pretty similar things no matter who's doing it. It's something like communication although there need not be an author, there need not be someone trying to communicate something.

What does this have to do with photography?

Well, there are two ideas that pop up, which are somewhat intermingled.

The first one is that, naturally, a photograph or a grouping of photographs has meaning in much the same way. The pictures land in your mind and generate clouds of ideas, emotions, memories, which may or may not cascade into others. That initial cloud of material, ideally, looks pretty similar between this viewer and that one. That's literally how photographs work, when they are working.

The second idea is that our preconceptions and desires can profoundly limit the ways this process works.

If we are convinced that Sam Harris must be destroyed, and have a nerdy science-y bent, we're liking to decide that his remark means that something has a heritability index of 0.80 even though this is pretty obviously not what Harris means. If we have a conspiracy theory that Taylor Swift is the kept love-slave of Donald Trump, we might decide that loving him was red means something fairly bizarre.

We see this pretty often in the Photography Academy. They will frequently perceive meaning where there is only nonsense, because they are in fact translating some sort of preconception or personal relationship with the artist into something or other. The idea cloud that pops into their head has nothing to do with the book or the portfolio, and everything to do with themselves, their knowledge of the artist, and so on. The pictures are a nearly irrelevant trigger.

Similarly, they will see the wrong meaning. Again, the idea cloud produced by the Art, whatever it is, has little to do with the Art itself.

Now, Art is always embedded within a culture. When I read "Jabberwocky," I get an collection of indistinct visuals out, because of the ways the words sound and so on. You and I likely get similar things, not because of the poem in and of itself, but because of the way it fits into the language which we share. The point here, though, is that we generally share that which is necessary to make sense of "Jabberwocky."

When some academic perceives some meaning in a book of photos, as often as not they are reading it based on material that we do not share. Their understanding is personal, private, based on secret knowledge.

And there lies the road to better understanding. We're all probably a bit wak-a-doodle about some stuff, hew to a few crazy ideas and theories, that's OK. They key to understanding Taylor Swift is to recognize that our Donald Trump sex-slave theory is not actually that broadly held. Using our power empathy, therefore, we imagine what someone with a more normal understanding of Taylor Swift's place in the world is, and are thus able to make better sense of her lyric.

Similarly, we recognize that Sam Harris is not using the language of a genetic scientist, and he is speaking to people who will not use such language to interpret his remarks. Therefore we ought seek a different meaning to his remark, one based on the understanding of the commoner, not the of geneticist.

And lastly, we set aside our personal, private, knowledge of the artist, and imagine what a normally educated person might get out of a piece of Art.

It's a bit of a messy game, because we are surely not entirely aware of where our kookier ideas end, and where the gestalt knowledge of our local culture truly begins, and indeed the line it not a sharp one. But, the general shape of the strategy is clear.

In judging work, we place ourselves as best we can in the shoes of the commoner, the ordinary viewer of this work (whoever it might be) and examine the work from that position of empathy.

Of course we may also consider authorial intent (the author might be a kook too) and we're perfectly allowed to mention our own kooky theories, but we should mark them as kooky theories and not as the one true interpretation of the whatever-it-is.

If you want to be of any use whatever to the commoner, here, you have to put on the shoes of the commoner and walk a while in them.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Crit: Kleinstadt by the Mahlers

Thanks to the great generosity of one of our long time friends on this blog, I have in my hands a copy of Kleinstadt by Ute and Werner Mahler (Thank You!)

I have talked obliquely about this book before, here and here, all sparked by a review of the book from Colberg, which you may peruse here.

The book is extremely atmospheric. To a nearly absurd degree. The photographs are closely linked in both in content and in the deployed tropes, and they are all on a mission. First of all, the overall impression is given by the handling of tonality. Every picture looks like it was taken on an overcast day, even the ones that were not. They all look like these pictures of Bellingham, which I have bashed into an approximation of the look the Mahlers are using here. I will return to these pictures shortly.

The content is endless banal architecture, mixed in with fairly peculiar pictures of young people, which portraits I will return to shortly as they seem to me to constitute the core idea here.

The major visual trope is reflections, things seen through fences or over walls, and a few other ways to double the picture. There are a couple places in which there is large picture on fabric in the scene (you know, the big poster of what the development will look like, hung on the fence surrounding the construction site). There's a painfully clear theme of one surface with one picture, one imagining of the world, and another surface or imagining with a contrasting picture.

One form or another of this duality appears in, by my count, 33 of 65 photos, and certainly the majority of the non-people pictures. Not all, however.

The people shown are young, and invariably wearing a neutral expression which sometimes seems to veer into grim. There is only one person, a small figure in a large group, that might be wearing a slight smile. The group pictures generally look slightly forced, as if poorly directed, which lends a further sense of gloom. The poses are so awkward that what appears at first glance to be a group of friends dissolves into an ambiguous situation. One might even go so far as to ask do these people even like each other?

But the book opens and closes with pictures of couples, the first ambiguous but leaning toward probable affection, and the last one, the closing picture, perhaps the only unambiguous photo in the book. He loves this girl.

What does this all add up to?

It is possible that what we are looking at is a bunch of shit. It may simply be that the Mahlers are terrible at direction although possessing a reasonable eye for form, and wind up with ghastly photos of people. Perhaps they mixed these, essentially failures, up with a bunch of glum-looking, lazy, architectural shots, making sure to throw in a lot of reflections because that's what hacks often do. This is, I regret to report, entirely consistent with the content of the book. It is an uncharitable view, and it is a view which leads to nothing, no insight. Therefore, let us set it aside.

So, what else might this add up to?

Well, first of all, the book an obvious construct, a slice of meaning slivered off of the whole. I suppose any book about a theme is going to be a slice in much the same way, but this slice appears particularly narrow. The sensation of ennui is thoroughly pervasive, there is really just a single emotional note throughout the thing. Everything from the greyness of the tonality to the expressions in the faces of the subjects points in the same direction. There is an almost maniacal singularity of purpose.

My pictures above are a piece of a little project I am half-heartedly pursuing to show Bellingham, the same town, in three completely different ways. This way is a sort of gloomy, overcast, depressing way. A couple of posts back I threw up some geometrical photos, showing Bellingham as, well, as nothing in particular except a maze of line and form, a sort of modernist photography-forward look without much reference to the actual city. There is also a vibrant, life-filled, joyful version, which utterly contradicts the "Kleinstadt" version here.

Three completely different slices of the same city, each in its way "true," none of them complete, and only one of them in any meaningful way representing my authentic emotional response to the city.

I will note in passing here that the banal photograph of architecture is incredibly easy. If you're looking for those dual pictures so loved here by the Mahlers, you have to look a little harder, but fundamentally you can bash these things out all day without much effort. The Mahlers do exhibit an eye for form, but honestly, that's just not that hard. The pictures without people in them strike me as profoundly lazy, irrespective of how deliberately and carefully (or not) the book itself was made.

Discussions on the previous remarks I have made on this, cited in the first few lines above, suggest that there is an essentially German version of despair, of gloom, of joylessness, which is being depicted here.

This joylessness is represented more or less symbolically by the architectural photographs. Buildings are not sad or happy, it is the pictures of them, and the repeated trope of the second picture, the reflection, the tree behind the wall, that which is maybe beyond reach. So this is deliberate symbolism, deployed over and over. Possibly the repeated little satellite dishes are also something here, or maybe they're just so ubiquitous it's hopeless to get them out of frame.

The joylessness turns up again in the photos of people, but is at the same time belied by those same photographs. The groups are of young people clearly depicted as "Hanging Out" frequently in or around cars (although bus stops turn up quite a lot as well). Maybe German teens "Hang Out" and drive around with their friends looking hangdog all day, but I doubt it. The scene shown to us is one of maybe aimlessness, but not joylessness. One has no trouble imagining that when the photographer folds up her tripod the kids will have a bit of a laugh about the whole thing, even though they're looking studious and glum for the lens.

Perhaps I am merely unwilling to grasp the depths of German Existential Despair, but I have a hard time imagining that a group of teenagers, having driven off someplace in a couple cars and now sitting around in, on and near those same cars outside having a smoke and a chat, are actually glum. At some point someone's gonna tell a joke, and also the beers are going to appear and to be opened. Surely?

This picture:

(which unlike the earlier photos does appear in Kleinstadt, where it looks even greyer and flatter than here) strikes me as the most ungenerous photo in the book. I didn't like it earlier, and while I have softened toward it, I still find it to be ungenerous.

You can see here the awkwardness typical of these photos. They have clearly been asked to "move in closer" or similar, and are thus in this odd semi-embrace, and have probably also been somehow directed to not smile, but to look serious, or bland (possibly by the photographer simply taking a very long time, or shooting many frames, which is also a form of direction.) They appear, though, to be "Going Out" possibly to "Hang Out" and most likely don't look glum and awkward all the time.

I find it interesting that they are posed as if the photographer is struggling to get them both in-frame, and yet the frame has gobs of space around them. It's actually this family snapshot, which we recognize instantly as of a type, I think

... tucked into a much bigger frame. Having performed this cropping exercise, I have to admit that I am mildly shocked by the result.

The text on the back of the book reads, in part,

Wir sehen Hoffnung. In den Augen der Jungen: Die ganzen welt. Enge und Nähe. Das Leben eben.

which is translated for us as:

We see hope. In the eyes of the young ones: the whole world. Tightness and closeness. Like life.

which seems to be a pretty fair translation, but deserves clarification. I think that the "hope" is intended in the obvious, positive way, and that "Tightness and closeness" is clumsy and perhaps means something more like "community" or similar. I suspect that "Enge und Nähe" is not something that translates well into English. Both words translate literally into something about nearness, but there are obviously different clouds of connotation around each.

With a few exceptions, the only thing visible in the eyes of the young ones photographed here is are you done yet? You can see this, I think, pretty clearly in the photo of the two girls. Apart from the framing, they look for all the world as if Mom is insisting that they stand still for just one more photo. The photos are all 5:4 shaped and grainless, which is consistent with a fairly boring session for the subjects. That said, other people have been photographed with a 4x5 without appearing so dour.

So here we have a peculiarity. The photographs are clearly set pieces intended to produce a specific emotional flavor, which flavor appears to be opposed to both the stated authorial intent, as well as to the likely reality in play.

I don't know what to make of this. The book is unrelentingly gloomy, and it appears to have be made deliberately and single-mindedly to so appear. The authors seem to have gone to a great deal of trouble to make a single-minded expression of gloom and joylessness, an artifice to be sure, but a perfectly clear and direct artifice. Yet, they claim on the cover to have seen (and felt?) hope, somehow.

This does come back around to the theory expressed earlier. Perhaps the Mahlers saw and felt hope, but were unable to commit that to film, and wound up with, well, this. Perhaps this isn't a deliberate single-minded expression of one idea, but rather a swing and a miss, at another idea.

Perhaps you have to be German to see hope here, I don't know.

Do I like the thing? I kind of do. As a single-minded expression of an idea it absolutely works. It strikes me as a little unkind, a little ungenerous, to the people photographed, but the photo of the two girls is the worst of that, and it's really not too bad.

Would I recommend it? Eh. I think it's a good example of the form, but it is a cheerless, vaguely depressing, thing, and the flavor is artificial. It is a very well made cake, if you will, flavored and colored with good quality pure artificial color: Glum and equally distilled artificial flavor: Dour. I like cake, but I don't much like this cake. It could use a little chocolate, and a little natural butter.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Photography and Machine Learning

Nifty article in The Guardian here.

The short form is that there's a large cache of burned scrolls that were cooked when Vesuvius erupted. The ink used on them by The Ancients was carbon based, that is, it consists of smears of a material on to the substrate that is more or less identical to the current state of the substrate. Everything is very brittle, nothing can be unrolled, and the signs left by the writing process are very very subtle anyways. The ink markings remain as, maybe, changes in texture in the charred material.

Ok, so they're gonna image these things with something kind of like a CAT scanner, in their rolled up state, and try to discern these subtle textural changes, and try to work out the writing on the scrolls, without unrolling anything. Bold move. I favor it.

They're going to apply machine learning, at which point things get dicey, and become an illustration of the kinds of problems we're going to see more and more of.

First lets imagine a worst case scenario. They train their computer program on a bunch of burned papyrus of whatever with Greek written it, and accidentally train their system to turn goddamn near anything into convincing looking Greek text. This isn't going to happen, because in the first place we may assume that these scientists are not idiots, and in the second place the output would just wind up being a kind of word salad version of their training text.

Four score and by the grace of God, King of England, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the Archbishop of Canturbury... etcetera

This sort of blockheaded error is going to jump out at you, and anyways, it does not seem likely to me that they're going to try to teach it to recognize text anyways. They might well try to teach it to recognize strokes of ink, instead. In this case, they're going to get out a sort of cloud of lines, ink that might be on this surface, or on a surface nearby. I would bet you a dollar that at some point they get out pictures that look a bit like several layers of text laid atop one another, with some ink strokes simply missing, some incorrect, and some real, with no real way of knowing which is which.

This mess gets analyzed by hand, and probably also with machine learning tools, because by god once you've got a hammer, you're going to bash some bloody screws in with it.

While we are not generating Greek Salad here, we are at real risk of generating a salad of ink strokes, and imagining that we see text in them. Or, probably and, training a computer to imagine text in the cloud of ink strokes.

I dare say that they're going to produce at least two separate systems, so they can cross-check results, because — and this is terribly important — there seems to be no way to check the damned thing's work. You guess that there's ink here, here, and here, and that it might say "one dozen eggs" but there's no way to tell if it really says that or if the computer is just generating suspiciously meaningful noise. If you could physically check it, then you could just go ahead and read the thing in the first place.

If you get two systems, and you're really really careful not to accidentally cross-pollinate, then you have a couple scenarios. The first case is that both systems are pretty sure that it says "one dozen eggs" in Greek. The notional ink strokes are pretty similar, and pretty clear (pro-tip: you probably cross-pollinated the two systems, and they're both getting it wrong the same way). Another scenario is that you're getting two completely different sets of ink strokes out, and one reads "one dozen eggs" in Greek, the other says "Titus, god what a shit" in Latin.

The most likely scenario, in my cynical opinion, is that you get two sets of ink strokes out that look vaguely similar, and if you stick to the strokes they agree on there's no text that you can make out, while each system taken alone produces some runs of sensible text, but not the same text.

But it's worse than that.

Suppose we make out what appears to be a letter of Cicero based on a couple of words here or there. If we had an actual written, albeit damaged, text in front of us, we could reason thus: Look, it's text, and it's signed by Cicero. We can reasonably extrapolate a collection of random words with indecipherable chunks between as being correct Latin sentences, in the style of Cicero. We cannot reasonably make the same extrapolations in this case, because we're not looking at a piece of paper with writing on it. We are looking at the output of a computer program which did, well, something we can't quite be sure what the hell it did.

For all we know it pulled out the Cicero because we trained it on some of his writing, or because it accidentally worked out how Latin names go together, or some damn thing.

This is not going to stop people performing the above extrapolation.

The best case scenario here is that we are about to acquire a whole bunch of classical texts which live in a brand new category of reliability. The worst case is that we're going to expand the canon of classical writing with a bunch of completely made-up bullshit. How to tell which world we live in seems to be, at best, difficult. Not only does the technology make it very hard to tell what's real and what's Memorex, there is the ugly reality that nobody every got a PhD for 7 years of work that results in we were unable to establish any significant results.

Computational photography has, across the board, the same problems.

The pictures you get out will, in general, look pretty convincing. Non-convincing pictures simply get tossed as "glitches" so the only "genuine" output will be, by definition, convincing. The pictures are, in general, based on reality but are not an index of reality in any meaningful way.

As long as there is an objective reality that can be checked, things are not so bad, but in those cases in which we cannot check against reality, we run into a problem of trust. We get something out, to be sure, which might be the right thing. How can we know, though? How much trust can we place in this output? Given that the output looks convincing, people with agendas are going to strive pretty hard to get us to accept this or that result. People will stare into the depth of the pixels, and discern what they want to see, and they will lean hard on the rest of us to see the same way.

It is only a matter of time, perhaps weeks, perhaps a decade, before someone mounts a substantive challenge to some photographic evidence on the grounds that computational photography can and does produce convincing-looking artifacts.

The evidentiary and scientific value of photographs is about to take a nose dive. I remember back when you couldn't use JPEG for medical images (maybe you still can't) because JPEG artifacts could be misread. This makes that issue look like nothing whatever.

An interesting side remark here is that contemporary medical imaging often is computational photography in a fairly strictly defined sense ("CAT" means Computerized Axial Tomography) in that a bunch of not-very image-like data is combined by data processing into one or more pictures. What it does not use is Machine Learning. There is no AI bullshit, it's straight up deterministic computation, with a well-defined (and small) envelope of potential artifact generation.

It remains unclear to me how, or if, this will effect vernacular or art photography. My current guess: not very much. Which leads to an interesting bifurcation in how photographs are treated.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Notes on Typography & Publishing

I happened the other day to be working on a book. Not a visual one, its contents do not matter to us here. It happened that I was designing a title page, something simple and foresquare. A bit like this one:

and I thought well that's very nice, quite the look I was going for of course. But then I spent some time with a book on design, and decided to try making the more important words larger. So the next iteration looks like this:

which is better, I think. At this point we're enforcing a kind of cadence to the way we say it. It's the CAT who is wearing a HAT. Not, for instance, a cat who IS WEARING a hat. Be that as it may, let us stick to this. It looks a bit cramped though, don't you think? Let's open it up a trifle.

That's quite nice. Vertical spacing is a bit ragged, though, don't you think? What we really want, I think, is some sort of fixed spacing.

Ah, that's what we're looking for.

Okay, you're probably thinking holy cow, what a dweeb, who cares about this sort of thing?

Well, the thing is, somebody's got to decide this stuff. Sometimes when I look at an object, like an automobile, it hits me that every little bit on there was thought up by someone, specified to the ten-thousandth inch. Someone drew a picture of that fiddly little bit of trim that doesn't do a thing but dress up the handle, someone selected a material to make it out of, and wrote up a procedure for installing it, and so on. Hours of work, dozens of choices, for a bit that does not consciously register but which when well done absolutely affects the way you perceive the car. Each little bit partakes of and contributes to the car's design language.

Books likewise.

When you do a book, someone is going to select a font for the title, they're going to select a weight, a size, and they're going to place it on the page. You can do these things badly, or you can do them well. You can, at least, think about them a little bit. There are five elements on this extremely simple title page. Three text items, and two horizontal rules. I thought about all of them. I placed and sized them with at least a little care. I'd probably tinker with the vertical spacing of elements on the page if I kept at it, but I was focused on getting the title right.

This, fundamentally, is why you need to do your own books. You have to take some time to decide these things, to think about how each trivial detail is going to interact with the whole, to create an overall impression.

With what cadence do you read your title? Which words should be bigger, and which smaller?

If you don't have at least some rough grasp of at least some of this material, when Steidl, or MACK, or Phaidon come around with a contract, you're going to end up not doing a book at all. Someone else is going to do the book, using your pictures.

Further, if you are aware of these details, you can go examine the house styles with a more skilled eye. MACK, for instance, favors a very specific set of design tropes, which extend to text. Very skinny outer margins with enormous gutters. Frontmatter as often as not is just a single word or two per page, often printed very light, often placed near an outer margin. There's a very specific look going on here, and it if doesn't suit your vision, your pictures, you don't want to get a deal from MACK.

It's likely that MACK also doesn't want to do a deal with you, but if you do somehow get together and you don't like the house style (or it doesn't suit the project) you're going to end up sad, or compromised.

Self publishing a book, and doing the design yourself, is going to force you through all these choices. It's all on you. It doesn't matter if the results are shit, the point is that you have done it. You know, albeit slightly, what the issues are, what choices need to be made. You will, if you're paying attention, have developed some ideas and opinions on all this ancillary stuff.

You are now smarter and wiser. Whether publishers will like you better or not at this point, I cannot speculate. I suspect strongly that a publisher that doesn't want anything to do with you is maybe a publisher you don't want to deal with anyways, though. If, as someone with some well-formed ideas on these points, you get pushback it's possible that you're an asshole, but it's also possible that the publisher doesn't want to help you do a book.

It may be that the publisher would like instead to do their own book, using your pictures. Are you OK with that?

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Bellingham Photographers

I keep running in to photographers online who hail from Bellingham, WA, where I live. Obviously there is some bias here, in that I tend to notice them. Still, I don't think I am seeing that many photographers online that I ought to be able to name, easily, 4 from here and maybe a couple more from the area that I ran in to mention of first online. Statistically something like 1 in 2000 US photographers ought to be from here, and I am pretty sure I'm not that busy.

I think there might just be a crapload of photographers around here.

There is no doubt that I find the idea of talking to photographers in real life an alarming prospect. They will probably want to compare cameras or some goddamned thing. Also, I almost certainly hate their pictures, and would have to think of something nice to say.

Still, I suppose I should read out the hand of brotherhood anyways. Accordingly:

If you fancy yourself something of a photographer, and think you can throttle your urge to talk about gear, you should feel welcome to reach out to me by, say, email. Perhaps we could get together and talk about something other than gear, or possibly just silently drink beer. I'd be down. will reach me.

Maybe we could form a collective. Maybe we could call it I Hate Your Fucking Pictures, But You're OK which doesn't have quite the same ring as group f.64 or Linked Ring or Photo-Secession but would be at any rate honest.