Saturday, November 30, 2019

Good Pictures

In 1904 Sadakichi Hartmann issued a plea for straight photography. His argument was, essentially, that the photograph naturally has certain properties as a result of the method of its creation, and that the artist is generally better off working with rather than against his tools.

In modern terms, he's saying that the power of the photograph to witness, its power of quotation, is what you should be relying on rather than your facility with mashing up the emulsion with your fists.

Whether Hartmann was merely the bellwether, or was the impulse that sparked the change, I do not know. History, though, marks his plea as the beginning of the end for emulsion-mashing. Mostly.

I have recently acquired and read Berger & Mohr's Another Way of Telling which read as eerily familiar. I recognize Berger's ideas about photographs as essentially my own, in tremendous detail. Berger wore it better, however. He's far more lucid than I, and gets a lot of fiddly bits more correct than I have done. I take this not as an indication that I am a genius, but rather that these ideas are obvious if only you devote yourself to thinking seriously about them a bit.

One facet of Berger's large essay in this book goes as follows: because of the way a photograph wrests a single instant from the passage of time, and because we are generally aware of this, we tend to lend to a photograph a past and a future. That is, we tend to imagine what came before and what came after in ways that we generally do not when confronted with a painting.

Berger, roughly, characterizes a good photograph as one for which people may be relied upon to mostly come up with similar imagined pasts and futures, and secondarily, a photograph which is highly evocative of imagined pasts and futures.

He is making essentially the same argument Hartmann is. Where Hartmann is arguing for the artist to use, rather than to deny, the indexical nature of the photo, Berger is arguing for the artist to use, rather than to deny, the temporal nature of the photograph.

What struck me about this particular notion is how applicable it was.

If you ask people to put up their best photos, you will in general get a mass of sharp pictures with bright colors, with well balanced mass and line, with pleasing forms, and so on. Almost none of the photos will evoke a past or a future in any substantial way.

They all look like paintings. They are all made, as Berger says of paintings, "in the present tense." These photos, in general, do a masterful job of evoking the moment at which they were made, but nothing much else. The sun sets, the castle looms, the cow grazes in the field, and the flower does whatever it is that flowers do. Even the ones with vigorous action seem to evoke mainly the present. The duck launches itself into the air in a welter of splashes and.. we don't really care what happens next. I dare say it flies off somewhere?

In this way these pictures defy the nature of the medium, and become more or less poorly made paintings all over again.

Consider how people are advised to "improve" their photos. It is invariably a crop, or clone out some irrelevant detail, or focus better, or do something with the colors. It is instantly clear that these efforts speak to the formal qualities of the photograph, they alter, if anything, only the way in which the photograph resembles the painting. Almost never do they alter, specifically, the way we "read" the picture and imagine for it a past and a future.

This is not to say there isn't a brisk market (both dollars and social-media-approval) for photographs that look like paintings. This is not even to say that there are not other metrics by which those photographs are not "good photographs."

This is only to say that there are fundamental properties of photographs, and that working with rather than against those properties produces pictures which are essentially photographic in nature, and that we can after a fashion measure "goodness" in those terms.

And I do.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving

I made pita bread yesterday. To all you oiks in other countries, I am sorry that you're foreign!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Prix Pictet

Pictet Group is some fashion of wealth management organization, about $USD500B under management which makes them moderately big fish even in that particular pond. They sponsor an annual prize for Art, something something sustainability. They get a certain amount of ineffectual blowback from artists because, well, because Pictet and Pictet's customers are a large part of the problem here. So, fair enough.

Someone I have never heard of until today, Lisa Stein, wrote a piece on it, and specifically requested feedback. Probably not from people like me, but whatever.

You can read her piece here and it's worth reading, so you ought to. I'll wait.

dum dee dum

Ok, what I got out of her piece is that the Prix Pictet operation is, essentially, a fairly bland and obvious marketing operation. They are packaging Political/Protest Art in a way that is broadly appealing. There are a lot of details, but it's the same playbook you use to sell luxury cars, or athletic shoes. What, exactly, they're selling is a bit mysterious to me. They are, obviously, Art-washing Pictet itself. They are also selling the Art itself and the Artists, though. The Art is selected and packaged to be inoffensive, broadly appealing, despite its often fairly serious political content.

So, the question is, is this good or bad?

On the one hand, the operation is clearly, willfully, de-fanging the Art. There are no angry mobs shouting "EAT THE RICH!" here. There isn't really a lot of anger at all. In contrast to the content itself, the mood is vaguely upbeat. Often it is borderline offensive in its upbeatness.

This is definitely gonna get the choir angered, and angered they duly are every year about this time. They write grouchy tweets and think pieces. And, you know, they're not wrong. Pictet is part of the problem. Wealth, in general, is trouble, and it's all over and interwined with Art, and that sucks.

Worse, Wealth seems to be inoculated against the effects of political art. Billionaires will cheerfully purchase Art which directly calls for their destruction, if that Art is valuable in some fashion. They just don't seem to care.

Still, Pictet may not be without value. I direct your attention to my immensely long and boring think piece on how minds are changed.

And argument could be made that the Prix Pictet, with its bland and inoffensive marketing, is delicately smuggling in ideas to where they might do some real good. While billionaires do seem to be largely immune to the effects of political Art, perhaps by trying a variety of different venues, approaches, methods, the world as a whole can incrementally push the thinking of billionaires in a positive direction.

It is at any rate not completely impossible that Prix Pictet is normalizing a set of ideas within the community of the Very Wealthy, ideas which are in general not normal within that group. If so, that would be a good of perhaps almost incalculable worth.

You're not going to change the minds of billionaires much with a mob of angry sign-waving proles, unless you're willing to accept simply switching it off with a guillotine as "changing their minds." It is possible that a deft marketing campaign of inoffensive packaging of modestly radical Art might contribute something positive here. I dunno. It feels like a long shot.

But again, the value of a success here could be very very high, so perhaps it's worth some long shots.

I'm certainly not saying that the Prix Pictet operation is some sort of deep-cover psy-ops campaign against the Super Rich, that would be silly. If it is doing anything positive, it is as much by accident as anything else. It seems to be, at worst, harmless, though. And it injects a little cash into the Art World, right? So, that's not a bad thing.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

But I Already Know The Answer

These remarks have been sitting in draft form for a while, but in the light of the most recent commentary on the little note Donald Trump was holding in the picture mentioned in the previous remarks, this seems like an opportune moment to drag this out.

There is a pretty large community out there that appears, at least superficially, to be widely read and at the same time to know almost nothing about anything. People who claim to be Rationalists, or Atheists, often appear here. They cite a broad range of sources to support their weirdly narrow and frankly blockheaded theses about, well, about almost everything. There is no topic which cannot be discussed stupidly by some Rationalist, at great length.

I have puzzled, in some sense or another, for years over how someone can read so much and yet have learned to little.

My working theory is that it comes from knowing all the answers beforehand.

Let us suppose, for instance, that you are an Atheist (not an atheist, an Atheist) and you know of a certainty that religion was a deliberate invention of a few power-mad individuals as a tool for controlling the masses. I can assure you that this is a belief held by people who exhibit no other symptoms of schizophrenia, as outlandish as that may seem.

Suppose now that you go ahead and read the bible. Well, let us be honest, you're a lazy shit, so you skim a few bits and pieces. You probably consult a few online guides and skip the genealogies, and dig right in to the juicy bits. Regardless of how you go about it, though, you're not really reading in any useful sense. You're looking for confirmation of your pre-existing biases. And, by golly, the bible has a lot of words in it, you're gonna find it. Especially if some like-minded simpletons have gone ahead of you and marked the good bits with large red Xes.

You can do this for anything. Was Jospeph Conrad a racist? Why you needn't read past the title of of The Nigger of the "Narcissus" to find confirmation, and of course everyone knows that "Heart of Darkness" is terribly racist, and if we are honest with ourselves he didn't write anything else. Is Obama a Muslim? Are black, whites, or arabs, actually an inferior species? Is David Foster Wallace overrated? Yes, yes and yes! Naturally!

For the purposes of this blog, this matters in the ways people approach photographs.

People with axes to grind approach photographs one way, and people without approach them completely differently.

The people with axes to grind are, in general, completely wrong. They find in the picture the answer they sought, virtually every time. Photographs allow a great deal of room for interpretation, for "reading," and if you are committed to any particular project, you can read the photograph that way.

If you wish to know more about a photograph than how you, an anorak, read it, then you cannot approach the photograph this way. If you pretend to the role of critic, it is quite literally your job to know more about the photograph than the way some doltish anorak (you) read it, and therefore your job requires you to approach the photograph differently.

Which is, of course, merely to bang on one of my two, or maybe three, little drums once again. You have to set aside your preconceptions, and flip on your Empathy switch, if you want to dig in to some sort of picture, to guess at any kind of ground truth, and to guess at what people might make of it.

I am rather fond of flippantly dismissing books I have not read. It is a character flaw, and I do try to mark those remarks carefully so you don't get fooled by them. This isn't as good as simply shutting up, but I have so much fun being flippant that I can't. So, pointing out what I am about is the best I've got.

Nobody's perfect, but we can make a bit of an effort, you know?

Friday, November 22, 2019

Something to Look At

I'm gonna ask a question after this picture. Just blurt out your impression, don't go digging around for clues. Do that too, if you want, but make a note of what your first impression was.

Here's the question: How big is that piece of paper?

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Leicaphilia Book Project

Most of my readers probably also read Leicaphilia as well, but perhaps not all. Tim has a book project he's pre-selling, and it looks pretty good to me. You might be interested as well.

This link is currently busted:His blog post on the sale is here: Help a Brother Out, Part Deux

This link works fine though:The link to the gofundme based pre-sale is here: Go Fund Me: Car Sick

WTF is going on in Europe?

No, I don't mean Brexit, or the rise of fascism, or global warming, or any of that.

I mean camera design.

We have Phase One making featureless boxes of sorrow, and now Leica seems to be jumping on the same bandwagon. I'm already had some harsh words for their Q2 camera, as well as for Phase One's system. Leica has with moderate fanfare now introduced the SL2:

The attentive observer will note that it borrows its design cues almost entirely from the Q2. This is clearly Leica's design language going forward, insofar as it constitutes a design language at all.

The only thing I can say in Leica's favor is that the weird fake leatherette pattern is at least drawn around to the back side, so the front and back do not appear to be two completely different cameras. No, they look like they're the same incredibly lazy sketch of a camera. It looks like someone just 3D printed something they found by googling "free camera clip art." In a sense, it's sort of a distilled Platonic essence of a camera, but that's not actually a good thing.

Both Leica and Phase One seem to be embracing some kind of minimalist aesthetic, and it's very disappointing. Both companies have picked out a sans-serif font that is so bland as to make Arial, that horrible uncle of fonts, look like an out of control techno dance party. The forms are more or less featureless black boxes with dim nods to historically relevant prior art, but with all the appeal laboriously machined off.

If we are honest, the Leica Rs were never lovely cameras, but at least they had some faint whiff of character. A radius here, a well-used texture there, fronts and backs looked like they came from the same design hand, and so on. The R3 may have been an unlovely brute, but at least it looked like someone designed it. If you boiled an R3 in acetone for 12 hours until all the character dissolved away, you'd have an SL2.

My impression from all these products is that they're being drawn by someone who wants to minimize the number of lines and surfaces that have to be separately drawn in whatever their CAD tool is. I suppose the conceit is that it looks "clean" but the actual result if that it looks "bland" and "underdone."

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Construction of Meaning

There was a recent minor incident on twitter in which, during some conversation about the "OK, Boomer" meme, someone posted a tweet reading die boomer and was summarily banned from twitter for 12 hours. The plot twist is that the twitter used was speaking German, so the phrase actually means "the boomer" or "the boomers."

Speculation suggests this credible story: someone flagged the tweet, the tweet was automatically routed to a human for review. The tweet was given to an english-speaking moderator without context or a language indication, and was the ban was handed out.

Colberg, noting this, wrings his hands and claims that this is a trivial problem to solve and twitter sucks for not solving it. He is wrong.

We construct the meaning of these things based on who we are (in this case an English speaker) and the apparent context (in this case an assumed ongoing thread of conversation also in English). Sure, you could apply some technical hacks, but they would be unreliable, and I dare say that if twitter started doing something like building "probable native language" profiles for twitter account, Colberg would complain about the horrible intrusiveness of twitter's algorithms.

What is going on here is that Jörg has glanced at the situation, viewed it through the lens of his personal experiences, and assigned a meaning. He assumes, as people are wont to do, that the meaning his brain assigned is universal and obvious to anyone, and also easy to write computer code to implement. This is a little surprising coming from someone in his profession, but whatever.

The problem is in fact intractable. We could add in endless context and metadata, but in the end there is no way to know whether the twitter user was or was not slipping in a sly dig at boomers here, assuming that it would pass muster being covered by the German language. Perhaps it was intended as a cute double meaning. Perhaps it was completely innocent. There is no way to know. If there was a nefarious intention, the twitter user in question has probably persuaded themselves that there was no such thing, by now. We tend to rationalize behavior and thinking along lines that make us look the best.


There is in the viral zeitgeist a video circulating, of a young black man in the SF Bay area being detained by a transit system cop, apparently for eeating a breakfast sandwich on the station platform.

Again, the ground truth of the situation, in the sense of everyone's motivations, is lost by now. All the players have surely convinced themselves that whatever narrative they're pushing is the true one. It is literally unknowable at this time whether the cop was motivated by racism or not, or whether the young man eating the sandwich was performing for his girlfriend's video or not.

There are allegations and facts available on all sides to support a variety of narratives here, the situation is remarkable in its ambiguity. I myself have no particular opinion, having fooled around with a variety of interpretations mentally and determined that the situation is unknowable.

This does not mean that most people are not forming firm opinions. In fact, most people appear to be forming opinions based on a few seconds of the apparently 14 minute video, and then to one degree or another dying on their chosen hill.

Again, we see a profoundly ambiguous bit of media leading people to: 1. leap briskly to a conclusion based on their own experiences and biases, and 2. to also leap to the conclusion that their take is obviously correct and universal.

Why do I care?

These are important things to have your arms around if you're trying to make pictures that communicate anything. People may (or may not) read your pictures very quickly, they may lock in on a reading almost immediately, in which case they are never, ever, going to change. People may well open your photobook at random, scan a couple of pictures, lock in on a reading almost immediately, and then never, ever, change. They will be convinced that they have, in a mere few seconds, read the entire contents of your soul.

This, on the one hand, is pretty frustrating. On the other hand, it teaches that you have to be really clear, that you have only a moment, really, to set the stage.

Well, in the worst case, anyways.

I also care, naturally, because as a self-styled critic it is absolutely necessary that I fight this same impulse in myself. While I am surely entitled to my own opinion, and any criticism I write will surely reflect that, it serves nobody to assume that my opinion is the same as universal truth. The critic simply has to maintain some ability to imagine other responses, to separate our personal extrapolations and interpolations from the actual facts of what we are looking at.

And, finally, if you, dear reader, want to partake of the elegant art of photography in a complete and nuanced way, you should to one degree or another cultivate the soul of the critic. Which means that you too should struggle against your impulse to permanently affix as meaning things which are in truth mere opinion.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Say What?

Our friend Jörg elected not to review anything on his blog but rather to give us a little personal essay, and I found it somewhat startling.

To review, Jörg is employed at the Photography MFA program at the Hartford Art School, as a professor. He helps MFA students do photobooks and, presumably, teaches some classes or seminars. He has published a book about How To Make a Photobook (and get it published, and so on).

Now, I am not one to say that only a working novelist can write literary criticism, that only a film director can legitimately write film reviews. Still, if one is going to teach writing, or teach film making, it seems as if you'd want a teacher who has at any rate hacked around with the form a little bit, surely?

When he says "I’m working on my first photobook right now" I don't know what he means. Does this mean that he has never made a serious attempt to sequence his own work into a coherent whole? Or does it mean that, while he has done that 1000s of times, he has never had a publishing contract before? I don't know. I find the statement a remarkable one, coming from a supposed expert in the field, though, no matter what it truly means.

Reading through the whole piece, he comes across to me like something of a tyro. Sure, he's moved on from trying to get things in focus, and from trying to "make a good picture" but he does not seem to have a concept for Tokyo, and to only vaguely be aware that having some concept, something to communicate, might be a good idea. Perhaps he's trying to illustrate the struggle that occurs in the very early stages of a project?

I rather hope he's not trying to make a visual book about Tokyo. A couple of visits isn't going to do it.

I am struggling to be generous here, and to find ways to read this piece that don't make Jörg out to be a complete impostor, because I don't think he is, entirely. But lawsy, he ain't making it easy.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Representation and Computer Vision

Another stuffy theory thing, sorry.

To review, representation is roughly the opinion of the subject posited by a photograph. This man is cruel. This flower is beautiful. Etcetera and so forth. The "politics of representation" is a topic of a certain amount of interest in the photographic academy: these are the issues surrounding who gets to decide what those opinions are.

The usual material in play here is the idea that white, privileged, photographers (or their functionaries) represent less privileged people in negative ways. We get things like primarily white, male, photojournalists going to Africa and coming back with endless pictures of Africans As Victims (of war, of famine, of Various Strife.) Now, this point of view ain't wrong. It is manifestly correct to some degree or another.

This set of ideas is generally harnessed to the the related idea that if only we had more women, more people of color, and so on, taking pictures, we would be getting different pictures with different representations out, and the world would be a better place. This is, well, again there is clearly some kind of truth to this, I think. Not that women and people of color necessarily take different pictures, because manifestly they do not — we have more or less infinite quantities of data which suggest that they take the same pictures, but there does anyways seem to be something there which we can't quite get hold of.

At least part of what's going on here is that this sort of auteur theory of photography is bankrupt, and obviously so. The communication of a photograph's representation is a string with two ends: the photographer, and the viewer. I do not wish to say anything so cheap as "if you see racism in the photo, then maybe it you that's the racist!!!!!" but there's something like that in there.

A photograph derives meaning from the cultural milieu in which it is viewed. Also, and not entirely unrelatedly, it is made with in a cultural milieu (sometimes the same one that it is viewed in, sometimes not). It is not enough to send a black guy to Africa to cover the war. If that's all you do you're likely to get much the same photos back, and you're likely to read them in the same way. If you want different pictures, with different representations, there is an entire surrounding culture that needs to change.

As a sort of interesting case study here, consider Computer Vision.

In this case, the seeing end of representation takes place in a completely different and alien world, the computer. The other end of the string isn't a person at all, but a computer program.

A friend of mine relates this tale: he was driving along, and got pulled over by some fairly tense cops. After a little while he learned that his car's license plates had been read by the cop's camera, been digitized and run through a database, and had popped up as "stolen car." This was very odd, because my friend had not stolen this car, it was his, and those plates had been on the car for some time. After a long and fairly tense interaction, the cops relaxed and came back in some emotional state between sheepish and grouchy. The license number did indeed correspond to a stolen car, but the state was wrong. In the USA two cars registered in two different states may indeed have the same license number, because the states issues their own license plates.

So what? Well, what we have here is a photograph, which depicts some license plate with a number on it: 123 ABC. The system the photograph was "seen" by posited a representation, an opinion of that photo, namely that it was the license plate of a stolen car.

The system's method of representation was, quite literally, wrong. Some moron forgot to code the state identifier into the database (at all? properly? who knows) so the representation of the otherwise perfectly valid photograph was wrong, potentially dangerously so for all involved. There's nothing wrong with the photo, it does not itself inherently code "stolen" and the photographer did not intend to insert the meaning "stolen" but the seeing of the photograph produced such a representation.

This is a kind of an edge case, in which the relevant meaning arises after the photograph was taken, it arises entirely in the "mind" of the viewer as it were. Obviously, a heavy-handed photographer can bash a meaning into a picture at the other end of the string by simply being extremely overt.

Normally, though, there is a kind of dance. The photographer tries something out, the viewer sees something, the two are related but not the same. Where the final meaning lands depends on both, and depends largely on the systems of meaning the making and viewing of the photo are embedded in.

Allow me to wrap up by reminding you of the work of Fabrice Monteiro, who I talked about in this essay. He's the fellow who photographs black models wearing horrendous instruments of slavery. Fabrice is trying something out, you're reading something, the meaning lands generally within a pretty narrow zone, but there's a fair bit of wiggle room even within that. Trying to guess what Fabrice is up to here is a bit fraught, and we're very likely to project our own ideas on to these pictures. Is he just messing with us? Is he trying to make a powerful statement about slavery? If so, is it simply "slavery bad" or is it more complicated? Is he talking about his own status as a guilty party, or as a victim by historical association? And what is his status, anyways? Is he descended from slavers, from slaves, neither, or both?

There is much we might read in these photo, and Fabrice strikes me as leaving the door pretty open.

Computer algorithms are perhaps special here in that they are far less likely to permit a nuanced reading. The car either pops as as stolen, or not, and consequences be damned. Still, they serve us handily in the role of illustrating that the string has two ends.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Crit: When we lie down, grasses grow from us

I pointed this book out a while ago, when the author was doing a fundraiser on indiegogo to pay the baksheeh to her publisher. I was dubious about the project for a number of reasons, but elected to back it anyway, for other reasons. When the funding goal failed, I assumed that the author was simply going to end up spending the money on rent, and to honest, I was OK with that. I am not an idiot, I know how these things go.

The author, Karolina Gembara, did not spend the funding she raised on rent. She went back to the publisher with the money she did raise, printed a smaller run of books, and delivered them. Holy cow, that was a nice surprise!

You can now buy the book and I can recommend it, if you like this sort of thing. Read on to see if it's the kind of thing you like.

The book comprises about 45 photographs, of which several are near-repeats. There is a running theme made up of 4 photographs that serves as a kind of anchor, and there are two photos that are again similar that serve as bookends, just inside the endpapers.

My first impression was simply that it was surprisingly beautiful. None of the photos are hero shots, none of them were hard to take. Many contain no people and are simply arrangements of furniture and objects, and the people pictures appear to be posed but not "lit" in the strobist sense. They're just people sitting or lying down someplace. The austerity of some of the frames might have been a bit of effort, clearing clutter from the frame can be surprisingly difficult.

The photos are not heavily "designed," they feel loose but deliberate throughout. This isn't from-the-hip street shooting, nor is it formal still-life, but somewhere in between, with a very notable attention to color about which more in a moment.

Note that the GOST web site does a terrible job of hinting at how beautiful the book is.

It is a little book, unassuming. There is no great ambition here to tell a sprawling tale, or even a universal tale. It feel simple and personal. The simplicity of the pictures speaks, here, but is not the only thing that suggests this.

This might be the most color-sensitive book I have ever seen. The palette is mostly delicate pastels, pinks and taupes, and blues. I can imagine that printing it may have been a nightmare, because color, and the delicacy of these colors, is so important to that sense of beauty that I encountered on opening it. The general feeling is sort of Mediterranean, perhaps in winter, or on a lightly overcast day. The light is bright, but not crushing, the colors are light, not brilliant.

It happens that these pictures were taken in India, and this is an entire palette of expression I have never encountered in photographs from India, which is usually given to us as brash, bright, noisy, crowded.

Flipping through it, my impression was of Evans-style sequencing, with each picture having some geometrical connection to the next, but after a little while I realized that the whole book is in fact a dense mesh of interconnection. Textures, colors, shapes, postures are repeated and repeated, it's very well made in that sense. Wildly disparate elements are made to feel related by one or more visual touches.

The important gestures: beds and bedding, always austere and appearing unlived-in, temporary or abandoned; the turned-away or hidden face; something or someone leaning on a wall.

One need not be a rocket scientist to read a sense of alienation, of social isolation, together with exhaustion, and a feeling of itinerancy. The flavor here is very much of someone where they do not feel they belong, a place where the social details of living are a constant struggle.

And yet there is no particular sense of negativity. The colors are warm, beautiful. The people with their faces turned are not violent, they do not reject, they do not despise, they simply don't notice. They are simply somewhere else, apart.

As an occasional photographer myself, I read into the turned faces an unwillingness on the part of the photographer to engage, that kind of shyness that afflicts most of us, here fully realized. It makes me imagine the artist as introverted, withdrawn. Her emotional distance from the place she finds herself in is, I imagine, rooted largely in her own unwillingness or inability to open up, to engage, to be social, to make for herself a place.

I don't see this as a weakness, necessarily, though it may seem so. It is simply that her character is such that she cannot make herself at home here.

Now, to be fair, this stuff is exactly what it says in the blurbs about the book, so it's possible that I am projected what I read onto it, but I don't think so. I think the book delivers exactly what it says on the tin, and does so with great skill and beauty. I would not call it a tour de force because it's such a little book. It's so personal and limited in what it wants to say that I cannot comfortably use any grand descriptors.

The ambitions are very small here, but they are fully met, with real grace.

This is a book that would do just as well as a bunch of pictures hung on a wall, but it is by no means just a mausoleum containing some gallery show. The mesh of interconnection and theme is too dense. Rather than the book being a show bound into book form, a show would be a book cut up and hung on the wall — but it would work, and work quite well.

There are maybe three pictures I personally would have cut. The opening and closing photos are handled in a weird way, printed across the gutter on to a trimmed-down page. This design note does not strike me as having much point, and I think the pictures themselves could usefully have been cut anyways:

(Nothing else is printed across the gutter.)

The poem the book's title comes from, which appears at the end of the book, suits the material very nicely, I find the pairing to be quite successful.

I quite like the book and am happy to own it. You might like it too!

Saturday, November 2, 2019

On Media

Spoiler: It's fucking long. Go make a pot of tea.

The Metaphor of The Pond

Consider a pond. Not a big pond, nor a particular symmetrical pond. It has tiny bays and peninsulas. There are rocks and mounds of mud poking through the surface. This part of the shore is grassy, that part is stony, and there’s a muddy bit over there.

For some reason, every now and then, a ladle of water is added to the pond. Sometimes a mere drop, at other times a cupful. Sometimes the water is poured in here, sometimes there. Sometimes it enters forcefully, other times it’s eased in gently. Each ladle generates ripples that jitter across the pond, bouncing off the shore, bending around obstacles, finding one another again in ever-changing patterns.

This is a metaphor, at the moment it is a metaphor for your mind. There are many things about ponds that we don’t care about here, what matters for our story is the ripples, and the ladle, the shoreline, the rocks and mud in the pond.

Each ladle filled with water is an idea, a sight, a sound, an experience, a photograph, a video, a sentence, a piece of media.

As the ripples move around the pond, like an idea sparking a new idea, a sequence, a network of concepts and notions spreading out through your mind, these ripples effect tiny changes. If they spend their force on the rocky parts of the shore, they might only erode a few molecules of stone. On the soft earth, they might make even a visible change, if they lap lap lap with enough force. Occasionally, rarely, the ripples might shift the last few grains of earth, and a little part of the shoreline might collapse into the pond sending its own vigorous ripples out into the water. Perhaps a boulder is loosed by the collapsing earth, and itself tumbles into the water! Cataclysm!

The ripples shape the pond, usually infinitesimally, sometimes in minor cataclysms.

At the same time, the ladle upon ladle of water gradually changes the level of water in the pond. Perhaps this little spoonful is the one that finally submerges the little muddy island, so long awash. Perhaps the island will re-emerge tomorrow in the hot light of the sun, perhaps not. Perhaps, though, the boulder tumbled in at last by the ripples, raising the level of the pond by a full inches in a moment will submerge it forever.

So it is with our minds, our opinions, our ideas. Nothing changes in a moment. No chain of carefully reasoned rhetoric changes the shape of the thing in a day, except as the last tiny step of a lengthy, steady, series of tiny steps. This is not to say that the sudden, spasmodic, epiphany of understanding, conversion of the faithless, or conversely the loss of faith does not occur. It does, they do. The point is that these things never occur as the result of a single violent incursion of a new idea from the outside. The boulder does occasionally fall into the pond, but not because a giant appeared and hurled it in.

The boulder falls as the result of million ripples, a thousand spoonfuls of water, working one by one to wear away the supporting earth and sand until, finally, one day, in an instant, there is a splash. It is easy to believe that the last ladle filled with water is the cause, but it is not, Not truly.

There are several ways that ladling a little quantity of water into the pond alters the pond.

First, the ripples, by mechanical action, shape the physical properties of the pond. They erode this part, they toss up a few grains of soil there. They subtly reshape the pond. The ripples themselves die out, but the tiny changes to the form of the pond remain.

Second, the added water slightly raises the level of the pond, covering up this, creeping infinitesimally up the edges of the pond, changing the shape of it again in subtle ways. The new, altered, level remains, as does the new shoreline.

In almost every case, the visible change wrought by a single ladle is nil, and yet, without the thousands that preceded it the final ladleful that tumbles the boulder into the pond would have been for naught.

This is how our minds are shaped by ideas and media. It is not the single picture, the single idea, the single sermon, that tips us over. It often seems like it is, but that one was only the last one, the one that triggered the event long in the making. Our politics, our religion, our attitudes about Love, or Art, or Music, change not because of a single brilliant speech, a single brilliant poster, a single brilliant song, but because we have seen, we have read, we have heard, much. The ground has been prepared infinitesimal change by infinitesimal change, without our much noticing.

And then one day we notice that we have become different, or sometimes one day we feel the cataclysmic change within, and in a single painful spasm we find ourselves becoming different and new, and then there we are, drenched in sweat and a little bit frightened.

We find that the still waters of our mind have, somehow, assumed a new and not entirely familiar shape.


Anything can drop into the pool of your mind and generate ripples. An idea, a movie, a text message from a friend.

Let us consider the photograph. Let us consider the character of the ripples it generates in the mind. That is, let us consider some of the character of the thoughts looking at a photograph can evoke. And let us also consider something of the character of the changes those thoughts might work in your mind.

The photograph has an essentially dual nature. First, it witnesses that-which-was. Second, it expresses an opinion about that-which-was. Each of these natures is fenced about with caveats, conditions, exceptions, about which any decent academic would be happy to bang on about endlessly. But generally this is the shape of the thing.

First, to witness, and second to opine, about that-which-was.

Sophisticated commentators and theoreticians, in this day and age, question the role of the photograph as witness, but if we have reason to trust a photograph we accept it as evidence of what was in front of the lens at the moment of exposure. In this era of machine learning and of pixel editing of pictures we are perhaps decreasingingly trustful of the contents of a photo, but still most of the time and for most purposes we accept that what we’re seeing is truthful enough.

The nature of this acceptance in important ways resembles that of a personal experience. If it begins to rain while you stand on a street corner, waiting for the light to change, you do not question the rain. It simply is. Only lunatics and philosophers ask whether it is truly raining. A photograph has a similar, albeit not identical, quality of irrefutability. We simply don’t bother to question the banal details of what is depicted, because they obviously just are. The photograph is qualitatively different, therefore, from a remark made by a friend, a magazine article, or a painting, and that quality is similar to the quality of a first-hand experience.

As for the second nature, the opinion expressed by the photograph, I dare say not every photograph does, but most do express such an opinion. The photographer selected a point of view, a framing, and a moment in time, and so on, and not usually by accident. Perhaps the photographer only wants to express as closely as possible the truth of the scene (as the photographer understands it,) or perhaps the photographer wishes to wildly misrepresent the truth of the matter. Either way, the photographer has some notion, even if it be nothing more than this flower is very pretty or this cup of coffee is worth looking at.

Indeed, it may not even matter what the photographer opined, what matters is what we see in the photograph.

If we see in the photograph that the man is cruel, it hardly matters if the photographer intended to portray the man thus. What matters is that we see with our own eyes that the man is cruel. The truth of the photograph, entangled with the opinion of the man, is evidence of his cruelty. Nobody need tell us, this is no unreliable witness but our own seeing which reveals his cruelty to us!

Of course, this is not entirely true. The photograph yields up to us, at best, the truth of an instant of time. Perhaps the man’s expression is fleeting, and that a moment before and a moment after he did not look at all cruel. Perhaps the photographer selected this frame from dozens shot, to express to us the misrepresentation of the man as cruel. In a very real sense, we are indeed merely under the influence of another unreliable narrator, testimony from a dubious witness.

And yet, we see it with our own eyes. The evidence, unreliable as it may in reality be, feels strong. It is not an accident that advertising uses the photograph. We have known for a century that the advertising photo is a lie, and yet its power continues to sell us detergent, cars, shirts, and apps for our phones.

The photo, when it lands in the waters of our mind, carries with it some of the weight of a real experience. It falls, maybe, somewhere between an event occuring at first hand, and an account at the second or further hand.

The ripples it makes are a little like the ripples of actual life lived, and the long term effects it leaves take on something of the nature of a true memory. Indeed, photographs seem to replace memories. Not infrequently, a person’s memory of a person or a personal event is in reality the memory of a photograph of same.

The ripples made by a photograph can be, in some sense, a little more insistent. A little more vigorous in sculpting the shape of our mind. They have a little more power, and a little more resonance. They vibrate with more strength, more firmness, and perhaps for a little longer sometimes, than something that is more fictional, or further removed from the world of experience.

A photograph adds maybe a little more water to our pond, and thus raises the level maybe a little more than an anecdote told by a friend, or a story read in a magazine.

The Working of an Argument

It may already have occurred to you, but I should state it now as obvious, that our minds are not still pools, occasionally disturbed by the entrance of an idea. That was a simplification to present the metaphor clearly. The true situation is that during our waking hours the mind is constantly a-jangle. New inputs arrive and fire off ripples of emotion and thought-chains that reverberate and evolve even as new material arrives. Much of the time, these things are disordered. The barista asks for your order and the sound of the fire truck’s siren dopplers past. A minute later you read a tweet, and then a facebook post, and then the headline of the newspaper.

Sometimes, you hear or read something with which you agree, perhaps profoundly. This idea, this emotion, this event, resonates in a way that the everyday welter of ideas and emotions does not. I visualize this as a kind of standing wave, a pattern of ripples on the surface of the pond that does not move, but reinforces itself in-place, only slowly fading away. This is in contrast to an idea, perhaps, with which we disagree: a helter-skelter of disorganized ripples, rushing back and forth and rapidly dying away. An idea we disagree with makes little sense to us, it seems disordered, or silly.

A persuasive argument is a series of ideas, images, emotions, which reshape the pool of your mind subtly, allowing that resonance of agreement at the end. Bit by bit, as the argument unfolds, a little mud is nibbled away here, a tiny rock is thrown up there. Perhaps, even, a cataclysmic event occurs, a boulder is toppled and your mind instantly assumes a new dimension, a radical new aspect to its form and character. Whether by tiny increment, or cataclysm brought about by tiny increments, or both, the new form of your mind accepts the conclusion: resonance, where there was none before. You are persuaded. Your mind has a new shape.

We tend to classify arguments as sound, as persuasive, almost entirely on the basis of whether we agree with the conclusion. A collection of blathering, ending with a statement with which we already agree, we tend to bless with the imprimatur of “a convincing argument” whereas a rigorously argued case which leads to a conclusion we disagree with is “obvious bollocks” or similar. We are judging the argument based largely on the resonant gong of agreement at the end, rather than on the argument's capacity to alter the shape of the pond.

An argument is persuasive if it actually has the power to change the shape of the mind. No argument can work great changes, except by the kind of cataclysm that is ultimately the result of long-term incremental change. A persuasive argument only works small changes. Ideally, it works small changes on most people. While the result may not be agreement, it might be a small change toward it. Where a wavering leftist might be persuaded to the new case, a radically conservative mind might only be slightly softened toward the idea, without actually agreeing. The entire spectrum of opinion moves slightly in one direction, with only a few people slipping over the edge from “disagrees” to “agrees.”

This is the state of affairs, this is the way in which a genuinely persuasive argument works. This is the best we can hope for. Over time, many such arguments can shift the spectrum of opinion farther, bit by bit. The shape of the mind of each person changes, tiny bit by tiny bit, gradually more and more people agree with the new idea, while others are simply less vigorously against it. It is thus that society evolves.

What does a persuasive argument look like?

A persuasive argument, in this sense, appeals to emotion, to things we already know to be true, to our personal mythology. Logic and deduction are, surprisingly, almost irrelevant here. We think inductively, for the most part. We think by analogy, we think emotionally. An argument which persuades, in some ways, may be imagined as taking place over days, weeks, or years. A simple idea and obvious idea is planted, repeated, and gradually expands and evolves. This is the nature of marketing, and its twin, propaganda. It is how people are persuaded, how the shapes of the minds of humans are re-shaped to suit someone’s needs or desires.

Consider the visual book, perhaps one with a bunch of photographs in it.

You leaf through this thing, perhaps front to back, perhaps not, and encounter one photograph, and then another, and another. In some books you might also encounter words and read them, or reproductions of documents, or drawings, maps, and so on.

In our overarching metaphor of the pond, each of these things generates a pattern of ripples, a set of thoughts and ideas bouncing around your mind. As you turn the pages, the pattern from the previous page has not quite died out while new ripples are being made.

If you stick with the book for 10 or 20 or 60 minutes, the pond vibrates continuously, with the intensity of activity rising and falling. Perhaps little parts of the pond erode and change subtly. If the book is well made, and if you are receptive to it, a larger pattern of resonance may emerge.

The effect of the book on your mind gradually changes from a plop… plop… plop… of individual photographs, individual bites of media, to a single long pour of a singular nature. Keith Smith refers to the composite image produced by a visual book, a sort of notional picture that is built up from the disparate elements of the book.

The whole thing might merely be something you already agree with, it might simply resonate within the current state of your mind. Most photobooks, to be honest, are made with this in mind. The intention is not, truly, to persuade, but rather to resonate with the like-minded, to be agreeable and pleasant to them. While not a bad thing in and of itself, it is not an argument.

It is not persuasion. Its nature is such that it cannot effect change in the world, regardless of its visible pretensions.

Our Cultural Milieux

We live each of us in a set of overlapping and interlocking cultural milieux. We have family, we have friends, we might attend a church. We live in a region, in a nation. We might identify with a specific ethnic group.

Our mind aligns, to one degree or another, with each of these cultural contexts. We might disagree with our family about politics, but on the subject of whether mashed potatoes should contain sour cream, we are adamantly aligned. Our religion might differ from the majority of our region, nation, or ethnicity, but it aligns pretty well with other members of our church.

Each of these things shapes the mind, it shapes the pond in which ideas land. The “pond” which is our mind is largely a product of these things. From birth, spoonfuls of water from every kind of source have been ladled in there, and the ripples and the sheer volume of water have produced this little pond, this person, this mind. It is no accident that the shape of our pond closely resembles, in this way or in that way, the shapes of the ponds of our family’s minds, our congregation’s minds, our political party’s minds. Each has been shaped by, to a degree, the same forces.

My mind is not shaped in the same way as my mother’s mind, but it shares certain aspects of the shape of hers, because she put many things into my mind as I grew up. In certain ways, at certain times, my mind will react much as hers might have. In other ways, at other moments, it will react quite differently.

The reaction of each of our ponds to a new spoonful of water will sometimes be much the same as that of someone else in one of our several mileux. Because in this way or that our mind is shaped much like that of our friends’ the ripples formed by this or by that will echo across the surface of our minds in much the same ways, and will work much the same infinitesimal reshaping. In other cases, of course, if a (let us say) a photograph happens to land in some part of our mind that differs radically from our friend’s, it might work on us quite differently. Perhaps, though, it works in the same way across our political compatriots, or across our church.

It is in this way that media of all sorts can be made to work for more than one person. Art is not subjective, it is intersubjective: a subjective experience that is nonetheless shared across a group of people. Our minds are shaped by our lives, by our communities. While each of us is unique, each of us also has much in common with the other people in the communities in which we live, in which we have grown up. Our minds, shaped by the same forces, assume something of the same form, and therefore tend to react along something of the same lines.

We all belong to the largest community, that of humanity on the planet, and therefore share some few things with every human. As media has homogenized, and as access to media has been universalized, we probably share more and more with our fellow humans. Of course media is not the only thing which shapes our mind; tradition, histories from family to national, stories, the very world we live in also contribute. Media, though, is by definition widely replicated. A broadcast news story, a movie, a printed novel, these are identical wherever they are consumed.

Media is what I am interested in here, and it is also an interesting case. It provides a repeatable input, we can in effect, ladle precisely the same water, in precisely the same way, into many many ponds similar and dissimilar, and observe the effects. This is exactly what media is, what it does. It is the purpose of media.

If you’ve been paying much attention to the world, you have quite likely noticed at least some instance or another of some controversial photograph, widely published, provoking intense reactions. Usually the reactions will divide into two loosely aligned camps. Each camp will be quite certain about what the photograph depicts, with small variations, and each camp will be convinced that the other camp is simply making up their reading for nefarious purposes, probably political. The general conceit displayed will be that everyone on earth sees the picture the same way, but some people are choosing to lie about what they see in the picture. Both sides will go to the mat on this point.

Part of what is going on here is simply signing on with an already-formed group. The photograph lands in your mind. Ripples form on your pond, echo across it, and you develop ideas about what you are seeing that depend as much on the shape and character of your pond, your mind, as they do on the content of the photograph. In some cases it seems that the content of the photograph is largely irrelevant, only one or two key features matter.

Shortly, you observe members of one of your affinity groups making strident statements about the photograph. These statements, loud and vigorous, echo around your mind, blending with the longer term effects left by the photograph. You tend to align your ideas with the ideas of people you already tend to agree with, and in opposition to people you already tend to disagree with. You pick a side, and the side you pick is generally the same one you always pick. Your ideas were already similar, because the form and character of your mind is similar, and now your ideas have quietly adjusted slightly to align perfectly. You may issue your own strident statements.

If you are unable or unwilling to comprehend that other minds have, in some ways, different forms, then you will imagine that any disagreement has the form of a lie. You might even reason that, because you share much with the minds aligned against you, that they must secretly agree with you on this point as well.

This is not true. The metaphorical ponds that make up each of our minds share many features, but not all. The ripples that form thus in response to that are indeed the same because we share that much; but the ripples which form so in response to this other are quite different, because we do not share that. The longer term effects, the subtle, infinitesimal, reshapings of the mind are likely also different, although they might by accident be similar. Two different patterns of ripples might, by happenstance, erode in similar patterns.

Marketing professionals refer to the concept of a target market, which is salient here. A market is a group of people who have the same needs, who have the same list of criteria upon which the base purchases, and who talk to one another. This is nothing more than another way to say that, with respect to buying some product or another, their minds have similar form and character. We can therefore, with a bit of care and tinkering, create media with land in the minds of each person in the market in the same way, and produce the same mental effects.

Marketing materials do two quite different things: they can generate a buy decision (hamburgers are half price today only!) or they can reshape the mind (BMW is the ultimate driving machine) with an eye to preparing the ground for later buy decisions. In the metaphor of the pond, the first generates ripples for the sake of the ripples themselves, and the second generates ripples with an eye to reshaping the pond itself. The first is one-shot, the second is one of a 1000 ladles.

Fomenting Social Change

Let us suppose that you wish to produce some social change. Perhaps you are selling cars and wish for your cars to be viewed by the general population in a positive light. Perhaps you are seeking to increase, or decrease, government funding for certain social services.

Consider a notional print ad. A narrow road winds through a beautiful landscape. A lone car, slightly blurred by speed, hits the apex of a tight curve. The copy read “BMW. The Ultimate Driving Machine.”

There are a couple of points to make here. First, the position taken by the advert is pretty neutral. Sure, there will be a few Ferrari nuts who will angrily object, but across a large spectrum of people, most will find the ad copy to be more or less neutral. Perhaps silly, perhaps a little overwrought, but not outlandish. The photograph backs up the copy, one can see with ones own eyes that the car is indeed delivering an agreeable experience.

A large group of people, spanning driving enthusiasts to mildly anti-car folks, will be moved. The ad will tend to resonate in that agreement kind of way, tending to produce a slight change pro-BMW. Or at least, toward the notion that if one desires a great driving experience, BMW is the car to buy. The ripples produced on the surface of the mind take the form of agreement, of that pleasing resonant quality that comes when we agree with something.

Consider another ad. A buffoonish picture of a world leader, with the text “The President is a Buffoon” written on it.

Here the evidence of the eyes is also present, but the statement made by the picture, the text, and the combination is more controversial. The text, not being essentially neutral, will set some readers on edge, irritate them. Others, it will excite and delight. This will tend to flow onto the picture. In spite of the evidence of their own eyes, supporters of the president will attempt to reject that evidence.

This advert does not land in a zone where broad agreement is possible. In fact, it is divisive. For some people, this ad lands in a zone of great agreement, resonance occurs, but very little change. For others, the ad sparks disagreement, no resonance, and the ripples jitter about for a moment and die away. No change occurs here, either.

Now consider the famous photograph by Dorothea Lange, of Florence Thompson.

Again, the evidence of our own eyes tells the story. The woman has suffered, she has worked hard, she has a certain nobility, she is of good character. The line is vague between the simple witnessing of that-which-was, and the labor of Lange as the photographer engaged in representation, in expressing an opinion. Regardless, this photograph lands, like the BMW ad, mostly in areas of the mental pond where we have similar shape and character. Many people, perhaps even most people, across a spectrum of opinion, will agree with what our eyes tell us, we will read in much the same collection of notions.

Thus, again, gentle pressure in a direction is exerted across a wide spectrum of opinion. While a bleeding heart liberal might merely bleed a little more, a moderate on the fence might elect to vote for greater funding to help distressed farm workers. A staunch conservative still would vote against that, but might find it more difficult to hew to the notion that the poor deserve their lot, being lazy and a low moral character. Of course, some few will find some radial disagreement anyways, and might see Florence differently, might find a way to blame her for her troubles. These, I submit, will be few.

Here we see a difficulty with much of contemporary social documentary photography. There is a trend toward photographing the banal. Here is the street corner at which a bad thing happened. On the one hand, the evidence of the eyes indeed reveals the street corner. The evidence of the eyes, however, reveals nothing of import, or political significance.

Everyone across any conceivably spectrum of opinion will agree that this is a street corner. The accompanying text will remind them of the event, and most people will believe that the event took place at the street corner. There is no reason to disbelieve, because there is nothing here to refute. The photograph by itself expresses no opinion on the event whatsoever, except possibly the oh-so-twee notion that such events are themselves banal.

The BMW pictured on the road expresses an opinion about the driving experience. The buffoonish president expresses an opinion about the nature of the president. The face of Florence Thompson expresses an opinion about the poor, about farm laborers. The street corner? It expresses nothing. It is dross, irrelevant to the argument at hand. To produce social change, the photograph has great potential power, being as it is the evidence of ones own eyes, and thus hardly subject to refutation. It simply is, the facts are plain.

But to be enabled, to be empowered, the photograph must simultaneously do two things:

First, it must express an opinion, it must represent.

Second, it must find a home in the minds of its audience that allows that resonance of agreement across a broad spectrum of humanity. It cannot land in a divisive corner, where one mind reacts this way and another in the opposite way. It must land in some common area where many of us will tend to read the picture in much the same way.

To meet this second criterion, the photograph cannot take too radical a position. At least, not too radical a representation. The photograph’s opinion as separate from the facts it witnesses, should not be too radical, too far removed from the witnessed facts. This opens the door to, this permits, acceptance of the photograph as a whole by a broad range of people with a broad range of ideas.


How, then, to do good, important, work? There is a mighty puzzle here, to make a series of pictures (or words, or drawings, etcetera) which are both agreeable to a broad range of people, but which are not so agreeable as to lack the capacity to incrementally shape the mind.

I visualize humanity as a little like the Wood Between the Worlds, from C.S. Lewis's book, The Magician's Nephew. In that book, there is a forest, filled with small ponds. The extent of the wood is not mentioned, but it is large, perhaps infinite. Each pond is a gateway to another world. The ponds all look similar, which leads to confusion and difficulties for the characters in the novel, but each pond is different from all its companions in the forest.

We each of us possess a remarkable capacity to understand other people's minds. In part because their minds are shaped like ours, but also in part because of our big fat brain's ability to imagine other minds, to read body language, facial expressions, and myriad other cues to estimate what it going on in another's head.

It is this faculty which allows us to make work the reaches beyond our own skull. It is unreliable, sketchy at best. If one keeps at it, from time to time, you'll hit something that works.

Much of the time you'll make things loved by you and people like you, work that bounces off everyone else without effect. Other times you'll make something that nobody loves.

You should nurture your capacity for empathy. You should stroll the Wood Between the Worlds, and learn the shapes of ponds other than your own. Embrace people who disagree with you, try to understand them. Walk in other moccasins, feel other people's trials, sympathize with the unsympathetic. Try on new ideas for fit and color, even if you're pretty sure you'll reject them.

None of us has much capacity to do more than wash back and forth with the tides, but what little impacts we can have, we ought to. Sometimes, one of us is selected more or less by chance to be some lynchpin, some vital voice or personality. By our tiny efforts, positioned in space and time by fate, we effect the last infinitesimal change that induces the cataclysmic change we need.

Go make some stuff.