Monday, December 28, 2020

More on Steve

Steve, as noted, seems to be on a good path these days. As a recovering addict, of course, he is and will always be one short step from disaster. He has a bit of money these days, and could certainly go buy a couple bottles of whiskey and end it all any given day. He is a grown-ass man, and nobody could stop him. I hope, of course, that he has not over the last week, and will continue not to for the remainder of his life.

Long time readers may recall that I took a picture of Steve near his nadir on the street, and wrote down his story, and then made a little blurb book that had some material on homelessness in general, wrapped around Steve's specific story. Steve has had two copies of the book, I have the third, and that's it. You could probably go find it on blurb, and read it (Steve doesn't mind) but ultimately it's not a book for you.

To my embarrassment, Steve credits my little book with a lot of the heavy lifting of his recovery. I don't believe it for a moment, although I will accept a single small sliver of credit, because I am at least that vain.

There were people directly involved, there were people who pumped his stomach, who saved him from fatal alcohol poisoning (at least twice), people who counseled him sternly that he was going to die if he didn't knock it off. There were people who sat with him in therapy, people who comforted him as he struggled through DTs, people who fed him and cleaned up after him when he was off his nut. I was none of those heroes, I just wrote a book and took a couple photos.

Still, my little book does seem to have been a little piece of it. It was, I imagine, a kind of talisman, proof that someone valued him enough to remember his name and a few details of his story.

This photo of Steve, from that time, is apparently now part of a before/after poster the homeless center downtown displays to prove that It Can Be Done (and by God, if Steve isn't proof that alcohol addiction can be beaten, or at least contained, nobody is).

Despite the slight impact this picture had on Steve's life, it is nevertheless the most important and impactful photograph I will ever take. Because nothing else I do is likely to have even so slender a consequence in the world.

What I think is worth noting here is that this shows us the breadth of ways to make a difference with a photo.

This wasn't published in The Times, this didn't appear in a book by MACK, this wasn't the cover a bestselling album. I wrapped it in, somehow, something like the right words, and I gave a copy to the subject of book, a busted-out homeless man with nothing.

And, somehow, it made a difference.

Steve can get sober, somehow, and you can make a photograph that makes a difference, somehow. You might not even know it, and it might take a surprising path, but it might just happen. Go take those pictures and tell those stories, write those verses, sing those songs, whatever it is you do, do it. It might just touch someone, somehow.

And that, surely, is the point of it all?

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Steve Update

My friend Steve, who appears from time to time on these pages, continues to be sober and is doing well. This photo is from April, I have not actually seen him since then.

I called Steve yesterday (technically I called the place he's living, left a message, and he called me back.) He'll be sober a year in January! He's graduated his one-year sobriety program and is moving on to the next, and also going to back to school (online, natch) in spring. No idea what he's going to study. This may simply be a re-learning how to do society exercise.

I continue to be very proud of Steve. He almost died of alcohol poisoning multiple times in the last year or so of his drinking, so this is kind of a big deal.

If he can do it, I feel confident in saying that there is no level of alcohol addiction that cannot be overcome, if only the right ingredients are in place.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 21, 2020

Blog Note

I have been using the email-based comment moderation system lately, and it turns out that the "silently delete this comment" link is right next to the "approve this comment" link. I am pretty sure I have accidently deleted at least one comment (sorry Matt!) and am trying to teach myself to not use this interface any more.

If you made a comment recently that didn't show up, please be assured I didn't moderate it unless you were selling photo retouching services, or, oddly, boxes. Or maybe it was in a script I cannot read?

My apologies if I zapped your no-doubt useful contributions! Please feel free to re-post if you feel you were a victim.

Friday, December 18, 2020


One of the things you do when you've got a new and promising theory, or way of looking at things, or definition, or whatever, is simply to run the old stuff through the new thing to see what comes out. If garbage comes out, then maybe your new thing is not so great. If you get the same, or better, results than you used to, well, great!

Let's think about the "Truth Claim of Photography" by way of my "photographs transport you to the scene" theory of looking at photos.

As, it seems, always, let us first take a step back. Consider yourself in the real world, not transported there mystically but just, you know, there in the ordinary way.

You are aware of stuff. You have, more often than not, a pretty good notion that you know what's going on. You do know a great deal about your environment, to be sure. Still, you may not be aware of the tiger in the bushes, although your dog certainly is (mine is pretty unaware of everything, but I assume yours is more On It.) You probably have a firm but somewhat inaccurate notion of what's going on in another person's head as you converse with them. You probably think you're reading them better than you actually are.

The world as rendered through smell and sound is a little unclear to us, because we're humans. We tend to discount things going on there, and focus on vision, sight, because that's what we're good at. We know there's a chair over there, a window behind us, there's our friend, and so on. We have situational awareness. But, as anyone who has ever been surprised knows, we're often overconfident. We can be surprised to find a piece of furniture in our way, and we can be surprised when our friend says "I'm not mad, where did you get that idea?" We tend to overstate to ourselves our awareness of the world around us, and only rarely do we understate it.

So let's think about photos now. Applying my new thing: when confronted with the photo, we are metaphorically transported to the scene, and we build, we imagine, a world to contain and surround what we see in the photograph. The world we build we imagine to be reality. We're speculatively filling in what we imagine to be the actual world that the picture was drawn from.

We do this, I maintain, whether the picture is real or not. Even if we know it's faked, or the result of painting, or AI, we still respond (to a degree) as if it were real, as if we were there. This reaction is biological, somatic, subconscious. Something like that. Something that operates to a degree outside our conscious control. Something below cultural and above chemical.

We know, of course, or think we know, certain facts that are visible in the photograph. There is a bicycle, there is a tree, there is a cat. We may in fact know these things are fake, if we know intellectually that someone painted the hyper-realistic cat. We respond nevertheless, somatically, with ideas about why the cat is there, how the bicycle came to be leaning against the tree, and so on.

This irresistible tendency to expand the mere visual facts of the frame — this tendency driven by the somatic response to the photo — conflicts with the limited truth actually present in the photo (or the complete lack of this kind of truth, in a photorealistic painting.) This is, precisely, where we get into trouble with truth in photography.

Anyone with a smidge of wit can delineate precisely where the boundaries of actual verifiable truth of a photograph lie, this is not the problem. The problem is that people who don't take care look at a photo and "just know" things that are not actually present, in exactly the same you "just know" that your friend is angry. We build and read an imaginary world, and make assumptions based not on the precise contents of the frame but on the imagined world which surrounds it, and which we in a sense inhabit.

We are, it should be clear, no better at "reading" this imagined world than we are at reading the real one. We can be wrong, we can be surprised. Also, we're surprisingly right surprisingly often — there is no a priori reason to suppose we'd ever be right about anything, here, but sometimes we manage it.

Just as we overreach in the real world, we overreach in this one. Adding to the overreach problem, we find that the boundary is vague between facts we can discern in the visible frame, and "facts" which are guesses and opinions.

The "Truth Claim" is valid, as far as it goes, but being the organisms we are, we are thoroughly unsuited to correctly bounding the limits of the claim, and thus we get in to trouble. We constantly, habitually, over-extend the claim.

Even, perhaps especially, if we style ourselves "experts."

Monday, December 14, 2020


There are probably infinitely many spectrums (spectra?) you could throw down to think about photography along, but the one I'm interested in today has photographers at one and and viewers at the other.

Photographers, naturally, are fond of any way of thinking that places them front and center (see also artists, authors, mechanics, and so on.) From an art-historical perspective, you probably need to keep the photographer in mind; if nothing else their birth and death dates bracket the dates on which the photos were made (usually.)

For things that are not photographs, frequently you can make a sturdy argument as to the importance of the author. No word of a novel appears by accident, the author stuck it in there on purpose. The painter applied each brushstroke. The photograph, though, at least often, contains much that the photographer could not control, or didn't notice, or didn't care about. Even in the studio, there is no guarantee that the photographer was as involved in the way the light fell on the vase as the painter must have been.

One can reasonably wonder if perhaps the author might, for some purposes, step back a bit when it comes to photographs.

My working hypothesis at the moment is, as longer term readers might be agonizingly aware at this point, is that meaning is mostly constructed by the viewer.

Current academic theory is very very author-forward. "Gaze" although originally defined independent of authorship, for all practical purposes, is now used largely as shorthand for the identity groups to which the photographer belongs. A photograph exhibits female/black/gay gaze if the photographer is female, black, or gay, and that is the end of it.

"Representation" is largely assumed to include the prefix "Politics of" and again refers to the photographer and the photographer's power to portray their subjects this way or that.

At the same time, of course, these same academic will protest loudly that authorship is largely irrelevant, "Barthes!" they shout, and then return to their author-centric thinking.

If "gaze" or "representation" means anything for photographs, they cannot meaningfully refer directly to the author. They must be the way that a viewer constructs an imagined author, based on what they, the viewer know (including, possibly, the identity of the author.)

A photograph of a naked woman can take on different meanings depending on whether you "know" the photographer was female, or male, or Terry Richardson, or Sally Mann. This is a construct of the viewer, at least as much as it is present in the frame. If I lie to you about the author, you will, most likely, follow along and construct an idea of "gaze" or "representation" or whatever that matches my lie. The locus of these ideas, therefore, is not in the picture itself, but in the information surrounding it.

Thus, it is not that the author vanishes, but that the viewer is brought forward and that the author is seen through the mind of the viewer. This is not the real author, but a constructed, imaginary, author.

To be fair, in some cases the imaginary author closely matches the real one. There is no law that says this can't happen.

At the same time, though, there is no guarantee that the assumed author does match the real one. There could be an immense gulf here, especially if the photograph has been misattributed, or if the photographer is unknown.

The biggest problem with a viewer-centric way of thinking, of course, is that it makes it a lot harder to scold photographers for taking wrong pictures. Since this appears to be mainly what the academy is currently interested in, I don't expect them to adopt my ideas any time soon.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Crit: Frédérick Carnet , "Meine Heimat ..."

M. Carnet recently sent me a note directing me to his completed project "Meine Heimat hat nur einen Namen: Frieden." Before you click, allow me a moment to urge you to give it time. It may come across as "oh, another one of these fucking things."

Which, you know, isn't entirely wrong? I think that if you give it a chance, though, you'll see that it's maybe not one of those fucking things at all, but rather an example of what all those fucking things aspire to be and fail. You have to scroll right at least a little ways.

I am torn between telling you to read the text, and suggesting that you skip it until you've looked at the photos. It works either way, but you only get one chance to decide, and the experience will be different. I will say that the text pretty much describes the thing. With the text in mind, the photos will (I think) fall in to place, the project is just what it says on the tin. Without it, the text may offer you a kind of surprise at the end.

I like the project very very much, probably more than you do. Not because you're flawed, but because I like it so much. I think it is both simple and extraordinary, and it is very very beautiful. Perhaps as a father of still fairly young children it touches me more deeply.

Anyways, let's look at it and have a bit of a think.

We begin with what appears to be the usual "I visited a concentration camp/museum and it was super upsetting" visuals. Photographs of documents. If we're generous, we unbend enough to notice that at least the documents are about the artist's actual family member who was actually in Buchenwald for almost a year at the end of WWII. So it's documents, a couple sad photos, whatever.

But then we get what is immediately recognizable to people like me (parents of the Western World) as an ultrasound image of (probably) a baby. More documents (is the ultrasound a document too? It kind of is) and another sad photo probably from the Concentration Camp, and then another ultrasound, and so on. It occurs to us, if we're paying any attention at all, that we're watching this kid mature in its mother's womb.

The "Nazis Bad" photos thin out and peter off as the baby documents get more frequent, and we begin to see a theme of garden photos emerging, growing denser and at the same time the garden itself comes to life. I don't have to spell it out for you, it's pretty clear what's going on, really. An interesting point here is that it's not clear where the concentration camp photos end and the garden photos begin. This is surely deliberate.

This is not like the first two segments of the larger project. "The Last First Day" was a creepy tour of an imagined place, abandoned, the site of something unknown. That felt like we were there for some other reason, escaping, exploring, going out for a loaf of bread or for cigarettes. The photos felt like what we saw and felt as we did something else. The second segment, "The promise of a better world?" felt like we're being led on a tour, not to buy cigarettes, but to be shown specific things and specific places.

This last feels like we're being handed a series of documents. We're seated, in a sense, being given a series of objects to examine.

The first two were mysterious, perhaps opaque (the first maybe because the circumstances themselves are opaque, the second as if the artist, the tour guide, is mute and struggling to express something that is perfectly clear but impossible to convey). There is no mystery in this last. It is clear.

Here is the past. Here is the future. The future is better.

There is, I think, a bit more to it maybe than even that, something more bound up with the underlying culture. Carnet alludes to the word "Heimat" which is a tricky one, with no direct English translation. It means, literally, "homeland" or sometimes "home" but in the sense of land, not a house or apartment. It can mean a region, a patch of earth, a village, a country. It is not explicitly political, but romantic, although it can be and is weaponized as political (but "Vaterland" is the explicitly political equivalent.)

"Heimat" is more "America the Beautiful" and less "The Land of the Free, The Home of the Brave."

It's possible that there's something in this project that hinges on Carnet's own difficulty with the word. I think French, like English, has no exact translation.

In any case, this piece is also explicitly an declaration of Carnet's "Heimat." It is not the AfD's "Heimat" it is this ground, this garden, this life, however small, right here. The text makes clear that this project is a rejection of jingoistic, nationalistic understandings of "Heimat." This little garden, this little family, this is M. Carnet's homeland. I think if you're familiar with the idea-cloud around "Heimat" in Germany here and now you might not need the text.

The title makes it clear as well: "My homeland has only one name: Peace."

This modest yet firm declaration of purpose brings, to my eye, the series of projects down to earth with a gesture of great beauty.

Also, the botanical photos are exquisite all by themselves. I love these kinds of pictures, and I love much more that Carnet has found a way to imbue them with such meaning.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Seeing Photographically

I spent a couple days out in the rural area up the Nooksack river from Bellingham, getting away from the kids. This is the Pacific Northwest (PNW), a region of the USA which is technically a rain forest, I believe. It's certainly wet and fecund, although quite a bit colder than what we normally think of as a rain forest. It occurred to me while I was out there to attempt an experiment of sorts.

We all too frequently run across people subtly bragging that they "just see photos" when they're out and about, and it is this that I think is what people usually means by "seeing photographically." The notion is that, with enough experience, you just see potential pictures, and can frame them and and shoot easily. Why this does not produce substantially more actual worthwhile photos is a bit of a mystery, of course.

I'm pretty sure this isn't even slightly special. The number of people I've seen over the years make this boast, and the fact that I can do it too, suggests to me that it's not a difficult skill to develop.

My experiment was to go out into the forest, and along the river, and see what I saw, making a special note of my sensations and thoughts as I did so.

The PNW rain forest is visually dense. You can stand anywhere and see half a dozen kinds of trees, a dozen kinds of undergrowth, fallen trees, cut logs, dead branches, berries, birds, standing water, running water, mossy stones and on and on and on. If you're in an inhabited portion, there will also be tumbled structures, abandoned equipment, sawn branches, and myriad other signs of man's hand.

Walking through it with a camera, it is an endless barrage of the texture, the fall of light, the interesting detail, the sudden vista, the charming fern, the beautiful rapids, and on and on and on. You can see a potential picture at literally every step, by zooming in to the details, out to the middle range, further out to the vista, and so on.

I had two problems. The first was that I had nothing to say beyond another futile attempt to somehow photograph the experience of being the PNW forest. I have never succeeded, and I have never seen a photograph or group of photos that did. The experience is dense, rich, distinctive. I've been knocking around these woods off and on for 40 years, and I can't describe it, but I know the sensation instantly as its own, unique, thing.

I've even tried myself, pretty hard. Vancouver. Looking over it now (mentally removing the urban scenes) it's not an unmitigated failure, but it's not very good. The urban bits are much better, somehow.

And this leads neatly to the second problem, which is that photographing this environment is no more than an endless parsing of reality into meaningless fragments. This fern, that hill, the texture with the light on it, none of these mean much of anything. While I suppose one might assemble them into something, the task strikes me — here and now — as hopeless. I've seen plenty of projects and portfolios full of this stuff, and despite the best efforts of exotic processes and over-processing (or not) it never adds up to much of anything.

The ability to communicate ones umwelt is arguably the central problem of photography. Sure, I can show endless documents of the existence of this thing or that thing, and there are certainly days when I think that might be all there is to photography.

Still, we know that people can and sometimes do experience something more from a photograph. We can at least fantasize credibly about communicating at least some slight, local, umwelt. We can imagine communicating, a little, this idea that we have here, now, about or related to these things which we give you documents of.

I see this in two steps. The first is that the photo(s) should induce some sort of larger world, some notion of a world surrounding the photos. Barthes's "blind field" here or "trame"

If I show you a fern, of course you're going to see a fern, and maybe imagine that it's growing somewhere. With a little material around the edges you'd imagine some sort of forest scene or whatever, but without some larger stimulus your reaction is likely to peter out right around there. "Nice fern" if I can get a good dappling of light across it. But you're not going to find yourself in a forest, you're not going to hear the birds, or the drip of water, or the rustling of leaves. You're not going to imagine the massive boles just out of frame, unless I do something else.

But the massive boles are just out of frame, and so is everything else. The fern likely doesn't get you to imagine much of anything past the fern.

The second step is to make whatever big huge forest thing you do imagine, assuming we can work out how to get even that far, to be something like the one I was in, that I felt. That is, my umwelt not some other thing you've invented for yourself.

This is very very hard.

I think some subjects are easier. An empty desert scene might be recreated fairly well with a couple shots of sensual dunes, the fall of harsh light, a detail of struggling vegetation. People are easier, and anything involving them. We understand people, we know people. We're social machines and we can bring all that social equipment to bear to make, at any rate, something out of a picture that's mostly about people.

Whether it's the something I felt there and then, well, that's still hard. But step 1 might be tractable.

This is another aspect of how far out to lunch the "gaze" theory people are. Not only are they claiming a fixed meaning for something inherently fluid, but they are also claiming that a photographer by default succeeds in communicating, nay, enforcing, his own umwelt on viewers of photographs.

Anyone who's ever taken any pictures knows perfectly well that even your own mom doesn't reliably grasp your world-view in a photograph. They see the flower in the corner and think you just screwed up the framing.

This is the central problem of photography: not to merely make your mom, and everyone else, see the object that you saw, but to see the world that you saw.

It's not enough to just see an interesting and dynamic arrangement of forms inside an imaginary rectangle. That's just the very very beginning, which is why everyone can do that, but almost nobody can actually take really powerful photos.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Fun: Techniques

Because there was what I choose to interpret as "interest" expressed in my previous post, but mainly because I love to talk about myself, I'm going to take a couple minutes to talk through my methods for my shitty school portraits.

It started when I realized that you could fake the "spot light on the backdrop" effect by using a very light backdrop and burning down around the edges. (Yes, the "halo" effect is cheesy, but it is part of the look, and it does serve a graphical purpose.) Also, I did a few "school pictures" for other kids with my 300mm lens, so I could be far away from them. This meant I could get away with a very small backdrop, not much bigger than the child's head. It is literally this thing:

The round things under it are a scrim made from a hula hoop and a sheet, and a barrel thing I have that serves as a seat.

Since I was using a much shorter lens for my kids, not having any 30 foot long straight shots inside my house, I set this shitty backdrop up to Just Barely frame the kid's head. Same barrel, same sawhorse/support for the backdrop. The backdrop is out of focus, some, but basically reads as white with smudges of blue and green watercolor paint. Because that's what it is.

So I also have a somewhat underexposed full frame shot of the same backdrop. Pop that in as a separate layer, adjust color temp/balance to turn the white to greenish/bluish per taste. Then mask and blend the backdrop barely framing the child's face into the other layer of Just Backdrop. Burn the edges down a bit, done and done.

I can't speak for anyone else's kids, but the key with mine is to get them in a good mood, and make the whole shoot last about a minute. So set up in advance, get focus close, then go fetch the kid. Fine tune focus and start shooting/directing, a few seconds later the kid gets to leave. Reward them with candy as necessary. It's basically the same as teaching a dog to sit, a subject about which I also know almost nothing (just ask my dog.)

Thursday, December 3, 2020


It's disturbingly fun to replicate the appalling tropes of "school photography" (there is probably something uniquely American in here.) These are per Grandma's request and, to be blunt, mine are a lot better than genuine "school photos" because I can extract a much better expression from my kids than the mill worker can. Of course.

It may look like I used a light on the backdrop, but I didn't. I also didn't bother with a light on the child, since I have windows.

Anyways, my beautiful children. Feel free to say something nice.

It's not even two different backdrops. It's the same shitty piece of cardboard with watercolor paints smeared clumsily around on it.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Something to Look At

Here's a photo from a series "Ghosts of Segregation" by Robert [sic] (actually, Richard) Frishman.

You could note that it's your Nighthawks reference of the day, that it's definitely an example of a somewhat overworked pseudo-vernacular style, and so on, and all that would be true. But I'm interested in one thing and one thing only, today. See the window on the right? What might one make of it?

Consider the personal reading which is, in my definition, the meaning one person makes of a photograph upon looking at it a bit. It is essentially an opinion, based on whatever that person brings to the picture, what they see in the picture, and what they see surrounding the picture. I am going to consider 3 possible personal readings.

The first reading more or less glosses over the window. "It's just a window, to let light in and sight out." This reading, it happens, is contradicted by the contents of the frame, specifically the fairly obvious service counter sticking out from the bottom of the window, and the light above the window. Still, if you don't notice those or decide they're not important or interpret that part of the photo differently you might stick to "it's just a window."

Another reading is that it's a drive-through window. It looks exactly like one, after all. There is nothing I see in the frame to contradict that reading, although you could probably argue that the height is wrong, or that it's awkwardly positioned for traffic flow or whatever. All that might suggest is that it's a badly designed drive-though window.

The third reading leans on the title of the series and identifies the window as a now-re-tasked "Coloreds" service window. Again, there is nothing in the frame which contradicts this. Arguably, it fits slightly better than the drive-through theory, but then we have the fact that "Coloreds" service windows have been re-tasked in some cases as drive-through windows.

None of these readings is, necessarily, the ground truth of the matter. We have no idea, looking at the picture or indeed the title of the series, whether or not that window was ever a racially segregated service window. This shot makes it clear, surely on purpose, that this is no longer a segregated service window. For all we know, it was put in in 2003 as part of a drive-through conversion. Or perhaps it was an ordinary window, which got a counter added last year to serve as an overflow service window. There are endless possible explanations that would produce this precise architectural, and visual, configuration.

What is the ground truth?

Research indicates that it was in fact quite likely a "Colored" service window. Edd's opened in 1953 as a Dairy Queen, bang in the heart of the Jim Crow south. The only reason it would lack a "Coloreds" window would be that it didn't serve non-whites at all. A little further research turns up a DQ in Ontario that features the same building design, and which did in fact have such a window. Examining the street maps and Street View around Edd's suggests that, if it ever served as a drive-through, the pavement around the building has changed radically since. Other windows on the building look nothing like this one.

Thus, what I term a forensic reading, a researched effort to discover the ground truth, supports the third personal reading indicated above. This does not mean that we should dismiss the alternate reads. None of them are, on their terms, wrong.

What a 19 year old white boy from Connecticut brings to the picture is different from what a 70 year old black man from Mississippi brings. One will likely see a drive-through window, the other a "Coloreds" window.

In the end, it is the personal readings that matter. The effect of a photograph on people, the meaning we make of the photo, is ultimately the source of the larger social meaning of a picture. The ground truth of the picture is not the social meaning of the picture, and in considering the picture as a picture there is no particular reason to privilege ground truth.

This is why people who are seriously interested in photographs ought to subscribe to what I have termed the critical reading, which takes up the entire sheaf of possible personal readings and, as far as is reasonable, marries them to a forensic reading to make up a more complete understanding of the possible breadth of meanings a photograph might have.

Neither obsessing over the ground truth of a photograph, nor insisting that personal reads different from ones own are "just wrong" is useful here.

The social meaning of a photograph derives from what it appears to be to people, not from what it actually depicts, nor from what you happen to think of it no matter how expert you are.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Photos Lie!

We see, fairly commonly, the assertion that the photograph lies, that it cannot reliably tell the truth, that it is not the Ground Truth.

Compare this with a similar remark about audio recordings: the CD cannot really replicate the experience of live music.

Both have, obviously, large elements of truth to them, but there is also a remarkable difference. Do you see it? The second refers to the experience of live music, the gritty, real, sweaty, human experience of being in the audience. The former refers, compares with, a largely unknowable, undefinable, abstraction of "truth."

These photos of the riot are not truth, they cannot convey the truth of the riot. You know what else cannot in any meaningful way convey the truth of the riot? Being there. Your human, sweaty, gritty experience of the riot, while its own thing, is also not the ground truth of the riot. Indeed, nothing can really capture and contain the ground truth of the riot. Depending on how you attack it, there may or may not even be a workable definition of what the "ground truth" is. Is it a description of the location and velocity of every subatomic particle within 1000 miles of the riot, for the duration of the event? Would that capture the emotional state of every person in the riot or not? We don't even know the answer to that.

The point theoreticians are generally reaching for is that the amount and nature of truth we think we see in a photo is deceptive. To be honest, I am not sure how true even this is, is supposes that "people" in general are sort of dumb. The theoretician, notably, Is Not Fooled, and furthermore doesn't know anyone who Is Fooled, but somehow there are unwashed masses that are fooled. Be that as it may, I don't think it much matters to my point here.

What is true, and rather more relevant, is that the photograph(s) of the riot also fail to fully capture the experience of being at the riot, in the riot.

At this point, though, we run into another divergence from the conversation about recorded music. Manifestly, everyone's experience of a riot (or a baseball game, or a wedding) will be unique. At least notionally we treat the "live music" experience as shared, as roughly the same for everyone. Of course, if you got trampled at a Van Halen concert, that concert experience is pretty personal. But absent that sort of case, you and the other 59,999 screaming fans are presumed to have had a more or less similar experience.

It is this shared experience which it is presumed the CD does not replicate.

Nevertheless, having stepped cautiously back from the stupid notion of Ground Truth, we find ourselves in a new place.

If we attend a riot, or a baseball game, we imagine in a sense that we "know about it" in some deep way. We experienced it ourselves, and that's worth something. At the same time, though, anyone who's watched a baseball game on television and has also attended a baseball game in person, knows that the two experiences are not really comparable. The TV version will invariably keep you far more in touch with the strategic and tactical elements of the game. You will know, watching the game on TV, a lot more about "what is going on" in the game, moment to moment, than if you're in the audience. I think this is nearly universally understood. You do not attend a game because you wish to more closely follow the game.

In the same way, attending a riot will bring home to the attentive just how fragmented and local your experience of the riot was. You will be surprised to learn, upon returning home, about the fire three blocks away, about the police car that was overturned, although you did observe the extensive spray painting of the post office (or whatever).

Your experience is very personal, very specific, and in those ways is very very deep, but it is not broad. Your sense of the baseballs game's strategic position, and your knowledge of events a couple blocks away, is sketchy. You can, however, still taste the peanuts and beer, and smell the tear gas.

The point here is that any notion of "ground truth" is unapproachable, you can't really get near it. It exists purely as an abstraction, and normal people are more or less aware of this. They may not be in a position to write a Master's thesis about it, but they certainly know that going to see a game live, and seeing a game on TV, are different experiences which yield overlapping and different bodies of knowledge about the game. The rest is a trivial consequence of this observation.

So a photographer goes to a riot. Here is a depiction of their experience of the event, a timeline. It's not ground truth, but it is a firsthand experience of the thing.

They take some pictures of the event, hoping to "capture" it in some meaningful sense. Lets add some dots to indicate when those pictures, the ones they took and chose to put out there for others to see, were taken:

All we see, experiencing the riot remotely, by reading the news article, the blog post, the flickr set, whatever, is this. The photos:

This is what theory is obsessed with. Look! There are just isolated dots!

But when we look at the pictures, we bring our own experience to bear, our own knowledge, our own guesses, and we also bring any captions, accompanying text, other news articles we might have read about the riot to bear, and we reconstruct to a degree the experience:

This thing isn't complete, and it isn't the photographer's experience. It's something different. It's a personal, quasi-experiential, idea of the riot. It's not the ground truth of the riot, either, but who cares? You can't get there no matter how you try.

It's related to the photographer's experience, although not the same. It's not a reconstruction of what our experience of the riot would have been, had we attended (in fact, if you like, you may imagine we did attend, and have our own experiential timeline, which is informing and modifying the quasi-experience we're rebuilding from the photos. The quasi-experience works out different, but the ideas in play here remain the same.)

Framed in these terms it's not clear to me what the big deal is. Yes, the quasi-experiential thing we make out of photos (whether one photo or a bunch of them) is not what we would have experienced had we Actually Been There. Nor is it The Photographer's Authentic Experience. Nor is it The Ground Truth.

But.. so what? It is an experience of the thing, whatever the thing was, or at least it's similar to an experience of the thing. It is not, when examined, inherently less or more truthful than any other experience. It's not clear that a quasi-experience, mediated through photographs, is inferior to any other way to experience a thing. Indeed, it can obviously be superior in many ways.

Just as watching a baseball game on television offers far more access to the strategic and tactical details of the game than any other way to experience the game, a well made photo essay can give us access to an event or circumstance that is in important ways vastly superior to that afforded by any personal experience.

Indeed, this is the core conceit of photojournalism, and it is obviously true.

What is also true is that any mediated experience can be manipulated. You could edit footage of a baseball game to give the impression that the other team lost, because footage can be edited. Media can be manipulated, subtly and unsubtly, in ways that a direct experience cannot.

This, while true, seems to be a little different from the oft-repeated implication that photos are all lies.

Again, I have to get around to "so what?" here. Everyone knows this stuff can be manipulated. The rubes in flyover country may not be down with every little subtle way a photo editor can bugger up a story, but they know perfectly well, in broad strokes, that media can be a pack of lies. It's not at all clear to me that anyone in the world is naive enough to be taken in my manipulated media.

What is true is that people tend to believe media that accords with their world view, and disagree with media that doesn't, but this is largely independent of any manipulations. People simply discard media that doesn't fit, and read media that can be made to fit in favorable ways. Left, right, or just completely nuts, it doesn't matter. People do this.

Try as I might I cannot really pin down what the problematic nature of photos actually is. Every time I get close, it seems to slip away, either being pure chimera, or being obviously an unimportant facet of a larger problem that in the end has very little to do with photos.

Honestly, it's a bit frustrating.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Crit: Photography's Neoliberal Realism by Jörg Colberg

Dr. Colberg has gifted us with an extended essay based loosely on a blog post he made a couple years ago. The result was published by MACK under their new DISCOURSE collection of books, and you can buy this object here.

It's a MACK product so you know without peeking the margins are going to be weird, and it's no surprise that the paragraph indents are too. Still, they selected a serif font for running text, they printed the text black rather than grey or pink, and there's a refreshing lack of colored paper in play. It's MACK, but only a little. As an object, a perfectly functional, legible, only slightly irritating, book.

Well, what about the content? The thesis, most clearly stated about halfway through, is this:

Taken together, these three prominent photographers [Leibovitz, Crewdson, Gursky] can be seen as the main proponents of a type of photography which has an implicit purpose of propping up global neoliberal capitalism [...]

Colberg proposes to support this thesis by simultaneously arguing that these photographers make propaganda in support of neoliberal capitalism, and that there are direct connections to the art of socialist realism. Not that the artists are influenced by socialist realism, but that their work "functions" in the same way.

In broad strokes he's probably right about the first part. These photographers, and boatloads of others, do make pictures which get used as a kind of marketing/propaganda supporting various ideas around capitalism, and the neoliberal variant of it. That there is an idea cloud, supported by media, which makes it difficult to even imagine alternatives to the present system is not seriously in doubt. This is an idea at least 100 years old, and for a fully worked example of it you can see, for instance, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and no doubt a lot of other sources.

He begins by suggesting that some notional "we" doesn't really believe in a capitalist cultural hegemony, an idea cloud of that sort. This suggests a sort of everyman "we" I guess? Colberg probably actually knows literally nobody who doesn't believe in such a thing. A little later, "we" mostly understand that photographs contain a large degree of fiction, which I guess is a different "we" altogether. This is typical of the sort of lumpiness we'll constantly be stumbling over for the next 9000 words or so.

The connection to socialist realism is, I think, more visual than functional. I think that he's seen in these photographers (mostly Leibovitz and Crewdson) the kind of weird real-not-real business that Stalin's socialist realism is made out of, and also the campiness that appears in it. Whether Stalin's artists meant it or not, there is a kind of overwrought silliness to socialist realism, and also in the photographs of Leibovitz and Crewdson. Colberg seems to be completely unaware of this, and most certainly does not refer to any camp or related ideas. To him this is all serious stuff.

Ultimately, the thing comes off as a mashup of "capitalism does propaganda" and "these photographers are really shitty" rather than an actual argument. It is rather a crowd pleaser, though. If you don't read it very carefully, and you're one of Colberg's colleagues, it affirms a bunch of stuff you approve of, and so it's necessary and important.

And let me be clear: He's not wrong. In broad strokes, he's got hold of a couple things. Capitalist propaganda is real. There is a hegemony of ideas and we can identify them. Leibovitz and Crewdson, and Gursky if you squint real hard, do have something of the same vibe as socialist realism.

Colberg's failure is that he doesn't connect any of it together worth a damn. It's just a feckless word pile with, to be fair, a couple of places where dots are connected. Not necessarily leading anywhere, but there are some short connections made. It's much better than the best of Feuerhelm, he said, damning with faint praise.

Let us examine this thing in more detail.

Firstly, he's mostly interested in Leibovitz. The Crewdson discussion is perhaps half the length of the Leibovitz discussion (and, to be fair, much more on point and lucid) and the Gursky is half that of Crewdson. The second and third photographers are add-ons, sort of thrust in there violently to make up the word count.

He begins, roughly, with a discussion of a magazine cover from which James Franco was removed after some scandal was revealed (about Franco). The magazine had not gone to press, and the cover was a composite, so they dropped him off it. The point Colberg appears to be reaching for is that this reveals why people land on covers — it is because we wish to show them as heroic exemplars of whatever, so no rapists allowed. He does not actually get around to saying that this episode specifically reveals the motives behind putting people on covers, but he leaves breadcrumbs, I guess.

The point, though, is that the Franco deletion reminded him of Stalin's deletions of Trotsky et al from photos, and thence the mental path leads to socialist realism, and at that point Colberg is lost because he can't let go of it.

This sets the trend. Colberg then goes on to talk about several other Leibovitz cover photos which created stirs of one sort of another, without really ever getting around to any kind of point. His audience loves it, because it's the usual "such photo, so problematic" blather they excel at, and getting to some point is, well, not usually the point. Here, though, I think he might have done well to approach this differently. Eventually he does mumble about how women are objectified, men are shown as powerful, and people of color are poorly represented. I guess? He is talking, exclusively, about Leibovitz covers that are exceptional in some way, so it's never clear if these are supposed to be examples of what he means, or exceptions, or what. One photo he specifically notes is an exception, so we're left a bit adrift.

There's a whole discussion of the Simone Biles covers that could simply have been removed without losing a bit of meaning. We never do learn if this is a success as propaganda, or a failure, or what. It's simply something Colberg wants to talk about, so he stuffed it in.

He then goes on, without examples, to suggest that the ordinary, unexceptional, photos from Leibovitz make heros of the successful, essentially, with a side of objectifying women and demonizing people of color.

We are supposed to be looking at these things through the lens of the ideas of one Boris Groys, who wrote a book about Stalinist art, that aforementioned socialist realism. This art is, evidently, heavily coded. Colberg, while apparently attempting to write an accessible discussion of these ideas, merely quotes Groys's opaque writing rather than providing a more lucid description. Eventually, though, we do learn that the bits Colberg cares about are entities depicted as heroes and as demons, and that's it.

Call me nuts, but I think there might be a little more to socialist realism than that. It's possible that if we read on in Groys we might even discover it, but whatever, here we are. It's just heroes and demons for our purposes.

While we're at it, my small exposure to Russians leads me to suspect that socialist realism was thoroughly unsuccessful propoganda. Sure, the Common Man read the codes: The weasel (capitalism) is being bludgeoned to death by the peasant (the proletariat) with his hammer (the Party) or whatever. But I doubt they believed in it for a second. The function of the propaganda was to let the people know what to pretend in order to avoid being murdered, not to actually support a real cultural hegemony. Be that as it may, let us proceed.

Having disposed of Leibovitz as depicting people as heroes (sure, correct), he moves on to demons, and gives us Crewdson.

His discussion of Crewdson is far more lucid. He tells us about typical photos, rather than exceptional ones (one might imagine that this is either because Colberg doesn't have such a hard-on for Crewdson, or possibly that Crewdson simply hasn't had any controversies) and more or less gives us a sensible read of Crewdson's photos as being about unsuccessful sad sacks. Colberg claims that this is the reverse of the Leibovitz hero, and is neoliberal capitalist propaganda illustrating what happens to the economically failed, the not-wealthy.

Colberg seems to be implying that this is the demonization aspect of socialist realism, but honestly I think that's a stretch. These people are, even if we accept Colberg's read, are not the demons of society, they are the victims. I have, to be fair, no idea what Groys is referring to, but it strikes me as unlikely that socialist realism spent a lot of time depicting mere losers. It strikes me that socialist realism probably had a few tropes around The Evil Anti-Revolutionary and maybe The Evil Capitalist, neither of which are loser sad sacks. But, sure, maybe there's a connection here. Stipulated.

Next up, a thoroughly cursory discussion of Gursky which boils down to "the pictures are so big and so busy that they can only be read as resistance is useless" which is, I think, a thoroughly idiosyncratic read. Gursky is normally read as a critique of consumerism, a critique of capitalism (although to be fair there is a very serious irony in Enormous Expensive Prints made by a very well off older white man being the mechanism of such critique.)

I could go on and on, but the fundamental problem Colberg finds himself in is this:

He wants to make a connection between the functioning of socialist realism and the photography of magazine covers and some photographers he doesn't like. There is, however, nothing special about the functioning of socialist realism at all. It functions like all the other propaganda in the world. What makes socialist realism socialist realism is the set of ideas it serves, not its mechanism of functioning.

Colberg even makes this point, when he remarks that Leibovitz magazine covers have a distinct odor of Leni Riefenstahl about them, and nobody claims Leni was doing socialist realism. The operative category is heroic realism, but then you can't work in Crewdson, can you? Not that Groys is actually a lot of help jamming Crewdson is, but at least you can give it a go.

Gursky flatly doesn't fit under Groys's description, or as fake socialist realism or anything. He is, at best, generic pro-neoliberal propaganda, and then only if you read it in exactly the opposite of what the overt meaning is. I have no clear idea what the hell Colberg thought he was doing, here.

It looks to me as if Colberg has noted a similarity in visual flavor, a real-not-real campiness, which speaks to a relationship between the visual character of socialist realism and Leibovitz, and seeks to extend that to a functional similarity. Since both are propaganda, he kind of succeeds, but so what? All propaganda is just as similar. He could have written exactly the same essay connecting Leibovitz to Nazi art, except he would have had to pull a different expert out of the library to replace Groys.

There is a secondary problem, which is that like it or not, Leibovitz is not a particularly good exemplar of the hegemony of magazine covers. Yes, she's more heroic than most, and yes she has that weird flavor that reminds Colberg of socialist realism, but as a propagandist she's a bit of an outlier. Most magazine covers don't have Leibovitz's weird color grading, or weird poses. They're more accessible, less jarring, less interesting, and therefore more insidious.

Leibovitz's function, within the cultural hegemony propping up neoliberalism, is as a credibility-adding wildcard. She does weird stuff, so magazines can say "look, we're not just sheep, we do critique! We break taboos, open up new vistas!" which is even a process Colberg mentions except in a different context. If you made a serious study of it, rather than this thing, you'd probably be able to make a good argument that it is the generic pictures of Scarlett Johansson and of Harry Styles and of Taylor Swift that do the heavy lifting for neoliberalism's cultural hegemony, with Leibovitz in a supporting role, and Crewdson and Gursky nowhere to be seen.

To this last: Colberg feints at but does nothing with the fact that there are different audiences in play. Normal humans do not give a shit about Crewdson or Gursky. Gursky, if he exists at all in popular culture, is "that weird guy who makes weirdly expensive photos" and Crewdson doesn't register. Their photographs only exist, culturally, for a few weirdos and the super-rich. The people who receive and "read" whatever is "coded" in these pictures are completely different from the people who "read the codes" in Leibovitz's magazine covers.

There's a whole thing you could probably write about this, but Colberg essentially ignores it, and indeed treats the audiences for these pictures are a singular blob that sees the pictures pretty much the way he does (and if they don't, it's because they're not educated in visual literacy — he makes this point explicit.) He does end with some blather about how different people read pictures differently, which seems to contradict the rest of his book, but they ruins it by suggesting that we ought to teach everyone to read pictures exactly the way he does.

Speaking of cultural hegemony...

Ultimately, this whole thing is a bunch of blather intended to delight his colleagues (who have been duly delighted,) and to baffle his students. A close-ish reading of it causes it to simply fall into a shambles.

If this were a Master's thesis, or the beginnings of one, I would not declare it unsalvageable by any means, but I would return it as rather a sea of red ink and suggestions for deleting more than half the words, and writing something better in their places.

There are some ideas in here which are worth exploring, probably. Most likely the socialist realism thread should be dumped entirely and replaced with a larger idea of propaganda/cultural hegemony, the examples should be clarified. It's not a terrible project to examine the workings of, say, magazine covers in the contemporary cultural hegemony.

As Betty Friedan has shown us, you truly can uncover the workings of a chunk of cultural hegemony, but it's rather a lot of work. You could probably spend a year in the library looking at back issues of "Vogue," "Vanity Fair," and so on, making notes on the cover photos and the cover text, and then spend another year interviewing cover editors and mucking with spreadsheets, and something interesting would probably pop out. This would be actual work, as opposed to sitting around typing words into a document, though.

In the end, probably the argument should be diagrammed or sketched out in bullet points and then turned into text, rather than simply throwing words down and sloshing them hopefully around which is pretty obviously what happened here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

There is no Algebra of Photographic Meaning

In the Victorian era, and later into the early 20th century, we pretty much thought we had the world nailed. Everything was a system, you could break it all down into comprehensible parts, and everything would be understood in short order. Science was king, the modernist impulse was the way forward. Freud broke the human consciousness into simple layers: id, ego, superego; a child could understand it! Marx worked out that human history ran on rails that led inevitably to a communist paradise, and so on.

This actually works for a lot of stuff. Building bridges, working out planetary motion, all that sort of thing. You imagine systems that describe reality, nice, coherent systems governed by some equations. Perhaps you have to refine the systems, tweak them, but ultimately you've got a nice set of notions that go from simple/abstract to more complex/concrete, and you're off to the races. Copernicus's revelation of the structure of the solar system was a triumph. Our universe, it seemed, was just a sort of large watch, and everyone knows how gears work. There's just a lot of gears, right?

There are places this fails spectacularly. The weather, for instance, really punishes you if you try to treat it as a simple system. The weather system wrapped around our planet is governed by laws, sure, but its implementation is such a complex mass of interacting bits and pieces that it defies comprehension. We can model it, with immense effort, and get useful results out, certainly. Knowing what temperature it will likely be tomorrow, and whether it will rain, is very very useful. It would also be useful to know these things about a month from now, but you cannot have that information.

Freud imposed a simplistic design on the human mind, and while it kind of works a little bit, it mostly doesn't work at all. The human mind is not designed. There are no layers of abstraction here, it's a non-hierarchical mass of billions of interacting thingies all of which affect one another. It defies being modeled as a system that is simpler than itself. The operation of cellular chemistry, ditto. It's a chaotic dynamical system (or close enough to one), a vast collection of interacting feedback loops that is best understood simply as itself.

As the 20th century unfolded, Marx's followers (who bleed, eventually, into Photographic Theorists) slowly began to notice this.

Gramsci, observing that Marx's railroad system for human culture doesn't seem to be working out, invented an add-on system: hegemony. The idea is that The Powers That Be set the intellectual agenda, they literally define the parameters of what is thinkable and what is not. This system interferes with Marx's railway, and that's why we haven't yet entered a communist paradise. Hegemony in this sense turns up as Newspeak and the associated apparatus in Orwell's 1984.

Gramsci thought that maybe if we added a few more gears to the system, it'd all start making sense. Spoiler warning: he was wrong.

After Gramsci we got Stuart Hall who warmed it all up again and made it a little less improbable sounding than Orwell did. Media, collectively, is the System by which the Powers That Be influence culture and, blah blah damn it still no communist future!!

We see a sort of proliferation and refinement of systems, of systematization, in an ongoing effort to reduce human culture to simple, digestible, bits that work together in comprehensible ways. They're trying to save Ptolemian astronomy by adding epicycles, and it's not going to work.

With such a system in hand, we could then see where the levers are, where to do what to produce the cultural result we want whether that is a brave communist future or whatever. Unfortunately, there is no Copernicus coming to re-orient the reference frame and save us all. Humanity is not, after all, a watch.

It's all bullshit. The effort is bankrupt. Human culture is not subject to systematization. It's a chaotic dynamical system. Just as there is no breakdown, no analysis, of weather that will allow us to do much more than make sketchy short-term predictions (and certainly control is right out), there is no breakdown, no model, of human culture that allows us to understand it or, really, control it in the large.

We can sell cars and ideologies on short timescale schedules, and with wildly variable success, and that's about it. We're getting (a little) better at these things as time goes on, but this might well be the limit of what is possible. There is, at any rate, no particular reason to suppose that much more is possible.

The latest efforts to systematize photography revolve around "representation" and "gaze" which attempt to fix certain aspects of the photograph's meaning based on who took it, in what way, and of whom or what.

Once we correctly understand these terms as attempts to fix meaning, we see immediately that the whole effort is bankrupt. The meaning of photographs is too fluid, too dependent on context and viewer to allow any such fixing of meaning to succeed. The meaning of a photograph is too human, too adrift in culture, to be fixed in place.

The attentive will note also that it's not just these terms, these attempts. It is all such attempts to fix meaning that will inevitably fail.

There is no algebra of photographic meaning. You cannot develop a fixed method into which you drop a photo and out of which pops the meaning of it, any more than you can predict whether the sun will be shining outside your door 30 days hence.

And yet, in 30 days, the sun either will or will not be shining, and photographs do have meaning. The global state of the weather in 30 days is lost intractably in computational infeasibility, and yet the weather here and now is perfectly lucid. You merely look out the window, and there it is. And so we can trivially extract the meaning of this photo, here and now, and for ourself merely by looking at it and thinking about it for a moment.

So far this brings us to, roughly, Barthes and Camera Lucida wherein he merely examined his own feelings and reported on them. This is phenomenology, and Barthes was surely a phenomenologist. The only small issue here is that Barthes was also remarkably weird, and so his personal examination of photographic meaning does not particularly translate. And herein we see, finally, the escape hatch from all of this intractability.

There is no algebra of photographic meaning. We do, however, have access to a useful test subject in ourselves. We also have the capacity of empathy, and can so a degree imagine ourselves in another's shoes and thence guess at what they might make of a photo's meaning. We have even a capacity for imagination, and can place the photograph into various notional contexts, and guess at the meanings that arise therein. We can combine the two, and theorize about the whole universe of possible meaning.

There is no algebra of the weather. But you can make a little model of the planet and her atmosphere, and see what it does, and make thereby guesses at whether the sun might shine a few days hence. We can use ourselves as little models of humanity, and make thereby guesses at what this photograph might mean here, or there, or to her, or to him.

There is no algebra of photographic meaning, we have to do the work and find the meaning ourselves. To understand broadly the meaning of a picture, or a group of them, or of any media, we ourselves have trudge the ridges and valleys of empathy and imagination and make a note of what we discover there.

Monday, November 16, 2020


Suppose you happened across what appeared to be a stereo amplifier. There's a CD player and two speakers plugged into the thing, 5 knobs on the front, and music is playing from the speakers. You might imagine the knobs control, respectively, volume, left/right balance in the speakers, treble, bass, and midrange tones. This would be pretty standard.

Upon fiddling with the knobs, though, you find that every knob seems to adjust several of the parameters at once. The music gets louder, but also the treble tones vanish with one knob. Another knob adjusts the sound toward the left speaker, but raises the bass tones. After some fiddling at semi-random, you are able to adjust the volume downwards while leaving the rest of the sound more or less the same, but you have to make several adjustments to each of the knobs. Worse, you learn that the behavior of each knob changes as the character of the output sound does. When the music is loud, what used to mostly adjust balance now seems to mostly adjust midrange tone.

It might occur to you that the widget in fact was not designed with ideas like volume, balance, tone at all. Indeed, perhaps it wasn't designed at all. The volume of the music is something we can measure, that we perceive, and which indeed the widget does alter, but the idea of volume does not appear to be a central part of the widget's logic. The idea of volume is something you impose upon the system, it's not something that the system is built around, that it is designed for.

As an aside this describes biology, except that you've got 1,000,000 knobs, most of which adjust one another as well as the system, and you're attempting to operate a frog rather than a stereo.

Hold this analogy for a moment.

I will assume that most of my readers have successfully prosecuted some sort of intimate relationship with someone at some point in their lives. The rest of you, do your best to follow along.

When you have some sort of romantic interest in someone you know socially (let us suppose it's an attractive woman since that's my life) there is a social dance that occurs. You get to know one another. You have some control over this, but by no means total control. At almost every moment saying something like "I would really like to kiss you" is going to produce a negative reaction, the attractive woman will reject you, perhaps vigorously. At certain specific moments, but only at those moments — and this applies even after you've been married for many years — making that same statement will result in a flush of positive response.

The point here is that no social action will invariably produce the same social reaction at all times. Indeed, the normal state of affairs is that almost any reaction to a specific social action is possible, depending on the rest of the social situation. You could get punched, laughed at, gently told to slow down, or abruptly kissed, depending on when and where you made your declaration.

Humans, happily, are pretty good at reading the signs. We know, to some extent, what the likely reaction is to whatever we choose to do or say. We're by no means 100% accurate, we get it wrong a lot, but given the fractal complexity in play here, we're surprisingly good at it. Which I guess is why we haven't died out yet.

Ok, so what the hell does any of this have to do with photography?

Welp. Media is how our culture talks to itself, right?

There's a really strong temptation to imagine that we can adjust our culture by adjusting our media, and this leads to blockheads thinking some dumb stuff.

In reality, and anyone who's actually done any marketing knows this, is that media is one of those knobs on the stereo we started with. Sure, you can turn the knob, and it might adjust something. But which way it adjusts whatever you're trying to fix is anyone's guess. How much it adjusts it, ditto. It probably adjusts some other stuff as well, while we're at it. And, this is important, just because the knob did one thing yesterday doesn't mean it'll do it today. Doing exactly the same thing today might well produce the opposite result.

People who adjust culture for a living, marketing professionals, know this. They are constantly taking the temperature of the culture, watching the results of their efforts, and adjusting. They are not blindly turning knobs.

They are like the notional you in the opening lines of these remarks, trying to make the music a little quieter by gingerly fiddling with all the knobs, feeling your way through the result you're looking for in the face of a system that is a maze of feedback loops, that is not designed at all, let alone around "volume," and so on. Society is not designed to buy cars or dishwashers or TV shows, but it can be persuaded to do so with careful adjustments.

Similarly, humanity is not designed to produce bigotry or fascism, although tends to fall along those lines. Humanity's culture does not appear to be designed at all, and if there is a design its parameters are beyond our understanding. We can grasp the results. Bigotry is a real thing, and it often results, in just the same way that the stereo we started with does indeed play music loudly under certain conditions.

There isn't a bigotry knob on humanity, nor a fascism knob, or a racism knob. Such knobs as exist adjust things beyond our ken.

To suppose that we can control and adjust our culture by blindly adjusting the words we use for things, or the photographs we publish, or the movies we watch, is a fool's game.

Nevertheless, we can and do control and adjust our culture through media: just ask BMW, just ask Betty Friedan.

The process of doing so is highly dynamic, and systemic. You cannot seize one knob, you have to turn them all. You have to pay attention to the moment, you cannot say "I want to kiss you now" just any old time. If you want to be kissed, you can make adjustments to the situation that seem right in the moment, and then you can wait until fate, serendipity, or other factors adjust the rest, and then maybe you take your shot, and sometimes it still doesn't work.

Humans are complicated.

Monday, November 9, 2020


A problem which infests a great deal of tha academy, but which is absolutely SOP in the photographic academy, is that of intellectual overreach. Let us examine a case!

Here we have a couple pictures:

The one on the left is a detail from the Normal Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges being escorted to school as part of a desegregation effort in New Orleans, in 1960. The painting itself was published in 1964. The picture on the right is US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, with her shadow digitally replaced (by graphic designer Bria Goeller) with a "shadow" derived, obviously, from the painting.

The model for the original painting was Lynda Gunn, who was a local girl handy for Rockwell's work (to say nothing of the fact that Bridges was a couple years older by the time he was painting.) The shadow is several steps removed from Ruby Bridges, but we should agree neverthless that it represents her.

You can see Bridges in this photo:

Ok, so let's think about this picture on the right there. There's a juxtaposition of an iconic image, broadly recognizable, of a notional "first" for black girls, black people with a photograph of a real person who is also in the throes of another "first" for black women, black people. Yes, it's true, we've never had a non-white, or a non-male, Vice President in my country.

The juxtaposition is probably inarguable. One might not recognize one or another of the figures, but once they're identified, the juxtaposition is clearly deliberate and the intention of equating them in at least some loose sense is difficult to escape. We should probably take "Kamala Harris is like Ruby Bridges" as read. As with any analogy, we can expect it to be imperfect, although we can likewise expect anyone with an axe to grind to jump on any imperfections in the analogy.

There was a Tweet Thread by Arrianna Marie Planey, PhD (who is a health services professional) which has been applauded by the usual blowhards. Summarized into what I feel are the salient parts, it goes like this:

Absolutely not.

I'll spell out what's wrong here:
  - Ruby Bridges is still alive, & she's writing her story
  - This ahistorical iconography freezes her in time as a child, & creates a false temporal (& moral) distance to call upon narratives of "progress"

Ruby Bridges is 66 years old, and she comes from the same town that my maternal family members were born in.
She is close in age to my mother. And she is only 10 years older than Kamala Harris.
And, again, she is writing her story

The middle bit, where Ruby Bridges is "frozen in time as a child" is exactly the kind of intellectual overreach that the academy so loves. It sounds so convincing, right? It's this big fruity sentence that sounds powerful and whatnot, but if you look too closely at it, you realize that it's just gibberish.

In no meaningful way has Ruby Bridges been frozen in time. This is a picture, it can't actually freeze people. Sure, I know that it's not about literally encasing people in ice, rather that it does something culturally to make us visualize Ruby Bridges eternally as a child. Ok, sure, that could be a thing. Insofar as it is a thing, though, it is Rockwell's painting that does it..

There is no way that making a connection between Bridges in 1960 with Harris in 2020 has the effect of, culturally, psychologically, literally, whatever, freezing Bridges into that 1960 role. If anything, the opposite. I suppose you could make that case that by dragging the child-figure forward in time to the present there's something? Nothing that I can really articulate, though, and it's a damned tenuous effect if it exists at all.

Normal human beings have come to terms with the fact that a picture of a little girl in 1960 probably doesn't look a lot like her now. People get that people in pictures live on after the picture, and sometimes have full and rich lives. People get that kids who appear in paintings grow up.

As for the "ahistorical iconography" I can't even. It's iconography sure, in that it's a friggin' picture, but there's nothing ahistorical about it. It's absolutely historical. The analogy between Bridges and Harris is not perfect, but it ain't bad. It's totally reasonable to place those two next to one another. These are two events that actually happened, and there are historically relevant similarities between them.

My take on this is that what Planey is interested in here is to read into the picture a narrative of "progress," and then to contest that narrative. You could certainly see it as "in 1960 we'd just managed to get into elementary schools, and in 2020 we're getting into the White House!" if you liked, as therefore a narrative of progress.

You could also see it as the far more neutral "this thing is like that thing" and leave it there. Both work fine. Planey, and the usual blatherers, are very much in love with the idea that there has been no progress, so they very much want to spike any narratives that they see as teaching that progress has occurred.

Well, OK, I guess.

Not everyone agrees with the "no progress" story, though to be completely fair, the "no progress" story is also pretty broadly repeated in one form or another. I contend that it's not completely insane to propose that elementary schools, followed by the Vice Presidency is in fact progress, of a sort. It's among the reasonable ideas in play.

Anyways, what we have here is an extension of a fairly straightforward picture into the realm of, ultimately, personal politics. What Dr. Planey thinks when she sees this picture is not, in the end, a definitive or even particularly insightful analysis of the picture. She sees a pretty innocuous picture with a pretty simple and innocuous meaning and chooses to read it through the lens of her politics, a lens so powerful that it largely obliterates the picture leaving only the politics behind.

Now, you're allowed to do that, obviously. You can make whatever meaning you like out of a picture. That Dr. Planey chooses this meaning is not something I care to contest, and she's welcome to it. It is the doltish acceptence of this singular, and fairly idiosyncratic, reading as the "correct" one that I object to.

This is the kind of overreach the blatherers so love. Everything is merely grist for their mill, everything is, essentially, a restatement of whatever their politics are. No reading, however outré, is out of bounds if it supports one's politics. Which, unfortunately, reduces "analysis" and "criticism" to simple recapitulations of personal political positions.

Which, once you know what their politics are, becomes a little repetitive.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

So Here's a Long Read

Here's a thing Lewis Bush wrote, "Invisible Chains: Photography's Ingrained Assumptions" which is probably worth your time to read, if you happen to be among the tiny elite who think my writing is worth reading. There's a few typos and the name-dropping gets a little tedious, and it doesn't really say anything that wasn't thoroughly worked out at least a couple decades ago.

It is nevertheless a cogent summary of a branch of contemporary thinking about Photography. It is also, in important ways, wrong.

I mean, it's not wildly wrong. There's a lot of stuff that's pretty much OK. He's really just pulling Sontag and Berger out again and buffing them up a bit, although curiously those are pretty much the only two names he does not drop. He also spares us Barthes, though, for which we owe a deep and abiding debt.

Anyways, his thesis seems to be that there are certain ingrained assumptions that inform the ways we make and make meaning of photographs. He invents new names to give us a few of them, presumably the ones he thinks are important: Sight, Effects, and Transparency. The first is that sight is the primary means by which we ought to understand the world around us, the second is that the function of photography (photojournalism?) is to (I guess) document effects rather than causes, and the third that photographs are truthful in some sense.

I have to say I'm not sure what the first one is on about. Ok, so, maybe Smell or Psychic Divination is a superior way to understand the world, but what has that to do with photography? Is Lewis's point that Photography Thinks It's All That because Sight? Maybe, I guess?

It's not clear how distinct this "axiom" is from simply modernity. Divine revelation is not exactly au courant as a means of understanding the world and the other senses are more or less objectively less well suited to modern ideas about how we ought to find out about stuff. He may be trying to contrast Sight to things like "testimonies from indigenous peoples themselves" or something, I guess, but it's not clear.

I'm not convinced that this isn't a bit muddled, but neither is it what I am actually interested in, so let us pass onwards.

His axiom of Effects is maybe on to something. It's a lot easier, certainly, to photograph the effects of things than the causes. Lewis and his cohort tend to focus on this, especially on how photojournalism allegedly concentrates on victims rather than perpetrators. I'm not convinced this is quite accurate, though. On the one hand, photographing the cause of an earthquake is kind of hard, and on the other hand we've seen lots of pictures of Epstein and OJ Simpson.

But sure, that's a thing. It's part of what distinguishes good photojournalism from bad, and that, to be blunt, is well established. To the extent that Lewis is on to something here, I'm not convinced that it's not already well known and completely settled. Which, I guess, doesn't mean we don't still see a lot of pictures of starving kids in Africa?

The last one, though, that's a good one.

This is the one where he marries his ideas that these axioms are all culturally constructed to his axiom of assumed truthiness in photos, and where he veers off into being wrong.

Regular readers will recall that I've concluded that part of our reaction to photos is somatic, visceral. Whether it's rooted in the liver, the spine, the amygdala, or the visual cortex I do not care. The point is that much of our reaction to photographs, specifically to their sense of reality, is not rooted in culture but something like instinct. Lewis almost notes this himself, when he points out that photographers "know" photographs are not real, and can radically misrepresent the world; and at the same time consume them as if they were real, and did accurately represent.

Lewis may not know why this happens, but you and I do!

This is not a conflict within culturally constructed ideas; but a conflict between conscious/cultural knowledge, and something else a lot closer to biology.

This is a fundamental difficulty with the modern academic effort to reshape photography and reshape our understanding of photography. The underlying assumption in the academy is that photographs are like any other media, and that they can be completely understood as cultural artifacts coded culturally in essentially the same way language can be.

This is not true. There is, of course, cultural meaning contained in photographs, and we always understand photographs in the context of and through our culture. To suggest otherwise would be absurd.

Unlike language, though, photographs are not purely culturally constructed signs. The word "elephant" is entirely a construct of culture. It is a sound, a series of marks, which are connected together and which embody a cultural construct called a "word" which is itself a signifier which points to a certain kind of large animal. A photograph of an elephant, however, while also merely marks on a flat surface, hits us in a different and non-cultural place. We, as animals, recognize another animal at a level that is well below any cultural overlay. This, in addition to the cultural meaning that we make of an elephant.

I think there is a serious effort in the photographic academy to understand photographs as if they were language, and this is essentially a doomed exercise, because it is fundamentally wrong.

This is roughly where the wheels fall off when modern theorists start talking about truth on photos. They imagine that the whole thing is a cultural construct, and subject therefore to the vagaries of that world. They imagine that a photograph is equivalent to 1000 words, that discussions of authorship and culture more or less translate.

They don't.

Photographs begin with a mechanical transcription of reality, to which we, independent of culture, react in specific ways. These reaction is modulated, expanded, contracted, and altered by culture.

It's like food. We have certain visceral reactions to fats, salt, sugar, carbs, etcetera. Your cultural background does not generate these root responses, but it does radically modulate them. I don't like sushi, and you might think Butterfinger candy bars are much too sweet. The general theme of "more fat and salt makes it taste better" is true for both of us, though, because we're both homo sapiens.

The analogy is not precise, of course. Don't be an idiot. The point is not that food is the right analogy and language is the wrong one.

The point is that photographs are a bit like one and also a bit like the other, and that it would pay us to attend to that.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Something to Look At

Photographer Fin Costello, Eddie Van Halen. Some venue. Any venue. It doesn't matter.

Van Halen played, hmm, let us say a notable role in my teenaged years. I pretty much stopped paying attention when Roth left the band, was mildly pleased when he returned but not enough to listen to the new music. When Eddie died, though, I felt that. It probably hit me almost exactly as if a high school friend I'd never heard from after graduation died.

I'm no expert on guitars or guitar playing. I'm no expert on later Van Halen, although I can probably sing virtually everything from the pre-Van Hagar days and can deffo jam the hell out of some air guitar to most of it.

That said, Eddie seems by all accounts to have been a very nice boy, albeit rather troubled, and his guitar chops were, again by all accounts, very very legit. I can't tell the difference between "very fast" and "actually good" so I take the advice of the experts here.

But let's think about this photo.

It's ridiculously structured, this pyramid shape, the single light, blah blah blah. It's got a lot of a painting in it.

But feel the energy. Despite that solid, grounded, pyramid, everything's wound up tight, in tension. Eddie's grimacing, he's got that one leg cocked way out, his sexy-ass boot cranked over at a ludicrous angle, the guitar's cocked up. You can damn near hear the wall of ridiculous coils of high-pitched notes and growls winding out of the thing. This picture returns me to the audience at any of the concerts I attended in my misspent youth: high, screaming, waving my lighter in the air like an idiot. My pulse quickens when I really look at this thing.

The reflection grounds the thing to the stage, so Eddie's not quite floating in space. Almost, though.

My parents would undoubtedly see it somewhat differently.

I speculate here, but I think they would see a meathead engaged in absurdly over the top drama to rile up a mass of slightly less well appointed meatheads armed with lighters (i.e. me.) I don't think they'd be wrong. Eddie probably was a meathead, in addition to being a very nice fellow, a talented guitar player, and a drunk. The stage performance of Van Halen and their peers was utterly camp, absurdly over the top, and yet at the same time I think keenly felt and genuine. There were no shackles, they could get drunk, stoned, whacked out on speed and let their energy and emotion flow freely. The result was campy as hell, and at the same time completely honest.

Human emotions are ridiculous when they're fully exposed. It's like sex. Get the clothes off, get completely open and honest, and the result is ridiculous. The key is to not look too closely, don't judge, just roll with it and feel it.

Van Halen, like many of their peers, was campy as hell but never cynical.

My parents definitely never did get their heads around the idea of talent or skill in rock guitar playing. No more sophisticated than I, musically, they were unwilling to take it on faith that these bizarre shrieks, pings, bongs, and snarls were in fact difficult to produce and control. What I felt as raw power, they felt as incoherent noise. Noise it is, but coherent, ever so coherent. Coherent, alas, in ways beyond my ability to explain.

I think it's all there in the photo. The energy, the sex, the camp. I feel like the photographer was completely dialed in to Eddie's crazy energy, and found the right way to frame it.

Anyways, Eddie was just 65 and I suppose he gave himself cancer by smoking for 50+ years. He looked like a dad. Short grey hair, neatly trimmed greay beard, but still thin, still fit, and still with a smile that could break your heart.

We should all have a moment like this one, at least once. Completely free, completely involved in our favorite thing in the whole world, completely oblivious to everything except the passion of that. Eddie did it over and over for hours at a time, night after night, for 45 years. Not bad.