Friday, January 31, 2020


A common thread in the processes of Serious Photographers is a thing they call Research. This consists, I think, of a bunch of different things, but a big one is to go somewhere and photograph some stuff. Which, you know, makes sense. Photographing stuff is what photographers do.

Research, n., the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

Research, the verb, thus means to gather knowledge up in one of a bunch of ways, and synthesize from that knowledge new knowledge. You might sit quietly with a pencil and a pad of paper doing mathematics for a few thousand hours. You might read books, and then sit quietly, to see if any new insights arrive. You might mix up smelly chemicals, record the results, and then attempt to interpret what you saw in the test tubes or on the displays of your instruments.

Research can also be a little less dramatic, it may simply be to discover for yourself things already known. One might read the encyclopedia entry on Myanmar and thereby come to know things you did not know before.

My first reaction to Photographer Research is, naturally, this is a bunch of bullshit (this is how I react to everything,) but I am not convinced that I'm right. I suspect some of it is bullshit, but I'm not certain all of it is.

On the one hand going to some remote place and photographing something perfectly ordinary is not exactly the same thing as developing a vaccine for polio. One might even be tempted to assert that "research" implies the development of "knowledge" and therefore what you just did isn't. This isn't quite right. Visual knowledge is a thing, after all.

Possibly the picture is, I don't know, the facade of a building where something happened. Or, after Mathieu Asselin, a photograph of a perfectly banal train crossing or a can of microfilm. These things are perfectly ordinary, we know what buildings, train tracks, and microfilm cans look like. We know, intellectually, that these things must exist. We know that someone was murdered in an apartment, and we know without being shown that there was a building involved. Newspapers are often recorded on microfilm, therefore it is reasonable at least that a newspaper article from 1952 might be found in a can just like that one.

What is the value in these kinds of pictures?

I think for the most part the MFA doesn't have a clear notion, they're simply aping the moves of everyone around them.

Which doesn't mean it's wrong.

Suppose the story is of a murder, a murder shocking because of the bland ordinariness of the lives and circumstances involved. An apparently happy couple, living in a bland apartment in a bland apartment building with perfectly bland friends. One of the couple savagely murdered the other for no reason anyone can discern. A bland photograph of the facade of the apartment building could well be a piece of visual knowledge that backs up, supports, the story being told. Look, I told you how bland and ordinary it all was, and here is the building, see it with your own eyes.

So, we cannot just dismiss these photographs on the grounds that they are bland, or not-bland, or any other criteria.

If blandness, or other properties one might glean from the building photo do not figure as part of the point, though, what exactly is the photo contributing? If the story is about, let us imagine, un-diagnosed mental illness, then perhaps the building photo contributes nothing beyond proof that the photographer went there.

The result of research in whatever way we understand it, is something resembling an argument. It is a thesis perhaps, or perhaps several, backed up by materials unearthed in the process of researching. Even if there is no specific conclusion or thesis, the result ought to be a coherent body of material, tied together toward a common goal.

Perhaps the result is a summary understanding of Myanmar, the end product of reading and digesting an encylopedia article. Perhaps it is a scientific paper and a procedure for manufacturing a vaccine. Perhaps it is a critical analysis of Jonathan Swift's Tale of a Tub.

Thus, it seems to me that one can reasonably judge photographs within one of these "researched" contemporary art projects on the basis of whether the picture seems to support some thesis, whether it fits in to a coherent set of knowledge.

Some pictures (e.g. Asselin's microfilm can) do not strike me as doing so, they appear to be something like filler, and something like proof-of-labor. This is not a research product. It doesn't mean you shouldn't take the photo, much of the labor of serious research results in dead-end material that ought to be discarded.

In the end it's not much different from storytelling, or book-making, or sequencing, or whatever else you choose to call what is in the end essentially the same process.

One gathers up all the things, and sifts through them, and throws most of them away, and attempts as best one can to assemble the remainder into a coherent, interlocking, set of things which pull together to make some coherent statement or another.

Sometimes, often, when you get finished with the throwing-away part, there isn't enough left to make anything. This happens to many a poorly advised graduate student. One can attempt to assemble something from the debris field, but it's better if you simply go back and do more work, and make something good.

There is no particular shame in ending up with a debris field that contains nothing worthy. This is normal. It might be very inconvenient in, say, the 7th year of your Master's program, but there's nothing shameful in it.

Perhaps your adviser could use a bit of a talking-to, though.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

PSA: Reichmann's 20 Year Retrospective

This book is no longer for sale, so I simply asked Josh (the son) if there were plans for the remainder. His reply indicated that there are not, but that the books need to find homes.. really very soon.

Do you have a gallery, club, school, whatever, that could use one of more for a library? Do you know of a competition that needs a few prizes?

I think Josh is ready to deal, if the cause be just.

The Ethics of Position

If we have learned nothing else from historiography, we have learned this: in order to relate anything whatever about the world, in order to make anything about the world coherent and comprehensible, one needs to take up a point of view, and one needs to simplify.

This is an ugly reality. The act of recording or relating history is inextricable from the act of taking a point of view, and simplifying.

Photography is in many ways precisely the same as history, here. You cannot take a photograph without literally taking up a position in space. Further, one's moral and philosophical "position" influence where you will stand and how you will aim. Then, the photograph invariably simplifies the world it depicts. If nothing else, it leaves most of the world out.

Contemporary critical thinkers on photography spend a great deal of time concerned with this position-taken and associated simplification. We see a more or less endless stream of minor think pieces about how refugees, women, people of color, and so on, are portrayed and how badly the job is done. The implication is that if only we had better positioning, or more colorful photographers taking these pictures, then all would be solved.

This is a ludicrous implication.

There are certainly better and worse positions one can take, better and worse simplifications one can make. Historians and the methods of history evolve, slowly. Some ways of framing history are fashionable this decade, others are decidedly unfashionable. Some are recognized as just a bad job and are, we hope, discarded forever. The current debate around the 1619 project really revolves around whether the methods of the project are merely unfashionable or in fact bad.

But no serious historian believes that there is a singular ideal way to frame history. There are many ways, inevitably, to frame history, to tell those stories. Each and every method of historiography comes with a built in set of problems, biases, assumptions, which will in turn tend to obscure or falsify certain things while, hopefully, illuminating others. This is simply how it is.

In the same way, recruiting Africans to photograph Africa is not some magical panacea which will somehow render The True Africa in photographs. The result will, maybe, be a substantively different point of view, and a different set of simplifications. Ideally it might be deeply illuminating and wonderful. But, the result will certainly have its own set of problems. It will be false in its own ways, it will lie by omission in its own, new, ways.

At worst, of course, it will simply result in the invention of and repeated rolling out of some faux African Photography tropes to delight the self-styled critics of, you guessed it, Europe and America. We are already enduring this in Women's Photography, with endless projects filled with either nude selfies or sad-brown-women-staring.

I am very much in favor of more colorful photographers doing projects that delight them. I do not think this will make all the problems go away. Many different framings, all flawed, is better than one flawed framing, but is not Truth.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Where is Vivian Maier now?

I've written a fair bit about Vivian Maier over the years.

  The Curator of the Estate
  Vivian Maier Again
  Whence Greatness
  Vivian Maier

and probably a few more pieces.

The general thrust here is that Vivian Maier The Important Photographer is a construct.

The public interest seems to be dropping off, thankfully. The most recent (?) book, of color photographs, was not a phenomenon, although I suppose its sales are respectable. The corresponding spike in google search is much much smaller than for previous books, and the number of reviews on amazon is much smaller. It's picked up a few remarks, but not the 100s that previous books did. The VM Phenomenon as a public enterprise seems to have largely run its course.

While I find Maier's work largely uninteresting, and Maloof's (her posthumous editor) behavior to be outright objectionable, I find the phenomenon itself to be very interesting. The construction of a Photographic Artist out of, as it were, thin air, is a very informative exercise worth examining.

The basis, of course, is some pretty OK photographs. You have to have something to sell, and Maier's competent eye combined with Maloof's apparently indefatigable searching provided that. There's something like 100 really good pictures in play here. There's no coherent artistic vision, nor a signature style, but that turns out not to matter. That is, to my mind, a bit of a shocker, but here we are.

Next up, there's a good story. The facts, when you examine them, are not particularly interesting, but they're well presented. Maier is Mysterious and Tragic despite being, in truth, neither of those things — she is thoroughly known, and lived a perfectly ordinary life, if a trifle on the taciturn and reclusive side. This is not unusual, pick any artist. You will find, more often than not, a fairly ordinary life buried in a narrative shaped to make it feel extraordinary.

Most people live pretty ordinary lives, after all, why should artists be different? The point is that the story is shaped to appear interesting, because this is an essential part of the construction.

A truly critical step is the recruitment of gatekeepers. Allan Sekula, for unknown reasons, jumped in more or less first and granted Maloof a ticket to the big show by declaring Maier's work to be special. Sekula certainly should have known better. After that, it simply snowballed. Big Names follow trends as much as Little Names, maybe moreso, and so the entire community followed Sekula's lead and blathered about the ineffable qualities that imbue the work and make it special. As Berger might have said: "mystification."

At this point Maloof was able to take his 100-odd good pictures, and another 100 or so decent filler pictures, and go on a great world tour. He sold a lot of books, got a lot of gallery time, and so on. I'm sure the books are still selling tolerably well, considering, and he's still getting gallery shows albeit in Calgary rather than New York. It looks as if he's trying to turn her perfectly ordinary travel snaps in to something now, but given the relatively dull response to the color photography, this may wind up nowhere.

I have to wonder if some of the museums that signed up a couple years ago to show Maier now are regretting that choice.

There's still some juice left in the orange, and I dare say that if Maloof has managed his money responsibly he won't have to work very hard for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless what we have here is a case study in the construction of something, a case study of particular note because the interior is largely empty. We can see how the house is built, because there's nothing inside to clutter up our view.

The work itself doesn't matter much. There needs to be something to talk around, but it doesn't have to be much. If the work has been designated as Important, the critical community will turn backflips to find Importance in it. Then you need a good story, which again is more in the shaping than in the facts. Finally you need to recruit gatekeepers. These latter are, obviously, the key to the whole business. The point is that the gatekeepers aren't going to bite if you haven't got some adequate work and a good story. I dare say that to some extent you can trade off depth of work and interesting story? If the work is a bit thin, the story has to be pretty well-told, and vice versa.

It will be interesting to see if, over the next few years, interest remains in Maier inside the photographic community. Outside it, the show is over, but that is to be expected for any artist, whether real or constructed. The test is whether Maier continues to occupy a special place in the pantheon, or whether everyone will quietly let it go and, in the end, pretend that they were never much interested.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

James Cockroft

Here's a guy who is wildly underrated, in my opinion. He does different things, but the one I am most interested in is his review of photobooks. He buys a lot of them, does unboxing videos — in which you get to watch as he leafs through the book, which is often very nice — and writes straightforward reviews. His reviews are far less pretentious than mine, and thus arguably a lot better.

Indeed, James is a man almost entirely without pretensions, as near as I can tell. His lack of pretension makes it easy to dismiss him as unserious, or un-useful, but both of those things are wrong. I don't attend to his work enough, and I hope to fix that.

Here's a link to James' Photobook Reviews which is a deep archive of very useful reviews and videos. Recommended.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

A Whacky Idea

I just had a thought.

Photographers are often rather fond of "critique" (especially of giving it, but there is also massive social pressure to seek it out and accept it with groveling thanks.) They love to get together and go through other people's portfolios and talk about whatever shit they learned about yesterday, whether that be white balance, or artistic intent.

I, uh, I don't seek out feedback in this way. I find it largely useless. I can see the white balance just fine, thanks, and I know the thing is out of focus. I have been doing this for a while. In general, some mook offering suggestions is going to have zero impact on me, I kinda know where I am going and to the extent that I don't, I'm going to have to find my own way.

What is useful is trying to explain a project to someone. By trying to articulate what I am attemping, I force myself to organize and clarify my thoughts.

This would be true whether I was attempting to explain it to Martin Parr or a passed out drunk. In fact, this very blog is as much about explaining my work as it is about anything else, and I don't know on any given day if anyone is reading it, or who. It doesn't matter. My thoughts organize or not the same whether you read 'em or not.

Which leads me to the whacky idea.

If you're struggling with something, why not explain it, out loud, to an empty room? Why not simply imagine an audience, and articulate, with your actual voice, what you're trying to do? It's essentially what I am doing with this stupid blog, but perhaps more convenient, and by speaking out loud potentially more effective? Or effective in different ways, at any rate.

Thursday, January 23, 2020


I have a little project I've been idly plotting.

In the Bellingham schools they try to integrate kids who have a variety of challenges into the schools as far as possible. Kids with autism, kids with various disorders of various kinds. Some of the kids in these "Life Skills" classes are really really sensitive to some kinds of stimuli. In particular, some of them SCREAM AND RUN FOR IT when a flash goes off.

This makes the standard school photo routine kind of impractical. In the USA there is one dominant vendor for school photos, Lifetouch, and as near as I can tell they offer no service that does not include flash. I made calls and various inquiries and got a lot of non-responses, and one "no we definitely don't" response.

So I have been half trying to locate an alternate vendor who might have advanced into this century, and half pondering setting up to just do it myself with LED lighting. I was gonna go buy some moderately expensive Godox things that Kirk Tuck recommends, but they I remembered I had a thing with an E26 base and a cord, a thing that can be clamped onto a light stand etc. That just means a thing where you can screw in a standard light bulb. So off I went to buy one (1) inexpensive light stand, one (1) silver lined brolly, and one (1) 120W equivalent PAR38 daylight balanced bulb.

That bulb is basically just a standard "spotlight" style bulb you might use in an exterior security light fixture thing. Nothing major.

Then I plopped the kid down next to a wall for a reflector, put my ghetto-ass light up, and shot this.

Ok, so the CRIs-things of my lightbulb are garbage, which means I think that the color of the light is not guaranteed? Or wrong? Or something? Plus the "reflector" wall is blue. So the color is probably all fucked up and terrible? But, I dunno. I twitched the white balance thing around a little, and that's pretty much what she looks like.

I feel like I can at least hang with the horrible work Lifetouch does. I am still debating how hard I want to try to actually sign myself up for this, like, job. But I feel like someone oughta and I can't find anyone else to step up.

Art History III(a)

The question I posed in the previous remark comes, I think, maybe in two parts.

There is an era of jazz, specifically the era when Art Tatum burst upon the scene, in which the history has a remarkable number of stories like this: so and so was an up and coming jazz pianist, with real grit and talent, until he heard Art play, and then he went on to become one of the great jazz ... clarinetists, saxophonists, anything-but-pianists.

In something of the same way, in the mid-1800s there are any number of leading photographers who had been painters. Sometimes not very good painters. Seeing photography, one assumes they recognized it as an alternative road to the very thing they had been trying to do. These were some of the great boosters and performers of the medium in the day, without them it's not clear what path history would have taken.

I rather think that an artist working in his traditional form in, I don't know, let's say India, would see a photograph and recognize it certainly as a thing, and an interesting thing at that, but not the very thing he's been trying to do. To take up photography would be rather more a job of switching horses, than it would be for the dodgy painter in Europe.

Secondly, there is the issue of visual culture, which takes something of the same path. The non-artist in India would again recognize the photograph as something, but something not quite as familiar as the European might. The photo, while recognizable and possessed of some interesting properties, might be less immediately appealing to such a viewer.

But perhaps here I overstate it? How familiar would the average bloke in London be with the tropes and tics of Renaissance Painting, after all? Can we call the engravings that appeared in the newspaper close enough, or are those generally so lousy that the man on the street in both Paris and Bombay would have had much the same experience of the photograph?

In any case, it appears to me that the impetus behind photography got some little boosts in Europe and the Americas, which it lacked in other parts of the world with different traditions of visual art.

Perhaps the answer is "yes, and the uptake of photography was therefore correspondingly slower and more shallow in those areas." Perhaps alternatively the answer is "sure, but the appeal of that true first-person perspective is so immediate, so powerful, that the standing visual traditions were irrelevant." Or, really, any number of other possibilities.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Art History III

This is a question I would very much like to know the answer to:

Why did some cultures with no particular tradition of perspective drawing embrace the camera?

For Europe and the white colonies, the embrace is obvious. The camera allows us to easily make "a proper picture." I am not convinced that this same argument applies in, say, India, China, or Japan.

Monday, January 20, 2020


JHC, I dunno if Colberg started it or if he was just following along, but in the wake of his idiotic "beyond social media" post apparently everyone in "photoland" is starting a newsletter. All ten of them.

I have to admit that I am deeply, deeply, allergic to anything that shoves content at me. I go to where the content is, on my schedule, it does not come to me. As far as I can, I adhere to the rule that if you're not interesting enough for me to go to the trouble to come to you, then you're not worth my time. No offense.

Anyways, there are many bits that are fun here. The first is that the overall conceit is that they're reverting to the Olden Dayes of the web, at precisely the moment that there are like a half-dozen venture-funded shithead firms building platforms for newsletters. It must be a coincidence.

Next up, newsletters are all about freeing ourselves from The Algorithm. This is a way of saying I'm not getting enough attention on my instagram or blog or whatever, and I think it's someone's fault. The great thing is that they're all using one of the venture-funded platforms, which will track their subscribers to within an inch of their lives, and attempt to monetize this a bunch of ways. It may not be The Algorithm, but it's jolly well Another Algorithm.

These platforms will track, at least: your subscription itself, when you open a newsletter, when you click a link in the newsletter, and where you are located, roughly, for every one of those events. This will all be squirrelled away, with context. They will know what your interests are, and how interested you are in them. Do you like Roland Barthes, or nudes? How much? All this will be associated with your email address and at some point in the future (when google buys them, or hackers steal their database, or some shit) that profile of you will be attached, by way of your email address, to some larger profile of you.

The fact that you're interested in Roland Barthes at work during the day, but mysteriously become interested in nude photos when on holiday, or after 2am, will eventually become known by someone you'd prefer not know that.

Perhaps when you unsubscribe all these data will be deleted. Or, perhaps not. Guess! Ha ha! Of course it will never, ever, be deleted. That data is money.

All this is doubly hilarious because every email application ever made has had some ability to send email to some sort of list of email addresses. You don't need to sign up with substack or buttondown, you can just figure out how aliases work in gmail. Then you.. just send email. And it goes out to everyone on the list. This probably stops working at a couple hundred addresses, but let's get real here.

Finally, nobody involved has an actual plan. Are they going to ditch the blog to focus on the newletter, or are they going to half-ass both of them, going forward? Is the blog going to drive traffic to the newsletter? Is the instagram going to drive traffic to the blog, and then to the newsletter? Where, exactly, do I go to find your fucking jewels of wisdom? Why are they all over the goddamned place? Oh look, here's your blog. DING! I have mail! Look, a newsletter. With a link to your instagram! You're like a damned one man Facebook, sucking my time and my life force! Well, you would be except you're boring and I stop pretty fast, unlike Facebook which uses a battalion of dudes with PhDs in holding my interest to, you know, hold my interest.

This is basic social media marketing: all your social media effort, whatever it is, pushes people to one (1) place, and that is where you put the good stuff. It doesn't matter if you're selling jet airplanes, yoga lessons, or just your own ego. A newsletter is either 1. The actual thing you do, 2. A device for directing people to the actual thing you do, or 3. A distraction. Usually, it is a distraction.

I predict that Jörg and a few others who are seen as influential will get a little wad of subscribers who will read the first couple. Then the newsletter writers will watch sadly as the beautifully rendered graph of "opens" in their Dashboard page on droops lower and lower. Nobody will unsub, because they hope Jörg is going to get them a book deal which will cost them $20,000 and gain them nothing. The non-influential people will get a dozen subscribers who will also not read the newsletters.

Generally speaking, of course. There might be a couple of these folks who really start pulling something together. They'll dump their blog, if they have one, and use instagram and TikTok or whateverthefuck to direct people to their newsletters, and if they have really interesting and compelling content they will gain a loyal band of readers. That'll be cool. It'll be like a blog, except with much more thorough tracking of the readers, less convenient to read, and thrust upon the readers periodically rather than waiting patiently for them to come back.

I might subscribe to a couple. I have a couple burner emails lying around.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Art History and Photography II

This is a followup to this little essay here.

As a commenter noted, there were efforts to escape the trap of pseudo-painting that Photography found itself in at the beginning of the 20th century. Mainly the Europeans did a bunch of stuff with abstraction, multiple exposures, forced perspective, mirrors, light painting, long exposures, collage, and on and on. They were doing more than simply trying to ditch perspective, but whatever they were doing, they sought to break the barriers imposed by the camera.

It all seems to have fizzled out around WWII. Some of that crowd continued to make work into the 1970s or so, but the movement as a whole thing didn't really go anywhere that I can see.

To be fair, there does continue to be some of the same techniques deployed even today, but the aim seems to be kind of random, or non-existent. People use these methods and more because they results look cool, and that seems to be about it. There's just a "cool!" reaction followed by "what if I do the same thing, but twice as hard?" and then after a few days, or weeks, or months, the photographer moves on and buys a drone.

In the USA in that same period everyone was too concerned with replacing excessively painterly Pictorialism with slightly less painterly Straight Photography and missed the whole show in the process. We are now in a world, globally, where we have what are essentially neo-Modernists arguing with neo-Pictorialists over just how much Photoshop is acceptable. Which, honestly, is pretty much to completely miss the point. Over in the corner we have some MFAs doing God Alone knows what, but it's a mess.

I like me some Hannah Hoch as much as the next guy, but none of the "tricks" of the early 20th century really float my boat. There's a bunch of in-camera stuff you can do, there's a bunch of post-process stuff you can do, and it all strikes me as betraying the essentials of photography.

What I want is to escape the box while remaining in the box.

As I see it, the essential characteristic of a photograph is that it witnesses truly: this is what it actually looked like, in this instant, from this viewpoint.

Man Ray, Hannah Hoch, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and a bunch of others tended to discard one or more of these important traits of the photograph in pursuit of what we might as a kind of shorthand think of as showing us not what it looks like, but rather what is is. Now, I'm all in favor of showing what something is but not necessarily at the expense of ditching what it looks like.

To show what a thing, or event, or person, is, is to traverse time and space. Space-time exists, things and events occur in it. It is a rare subject indeed that can be fully revealed in a direct and naive way from one view in one instant. One needs to show or to imply a continuum of points of view, and a continuum of time. This seems to be in direct contradiction to the photograph, which specifically and in its very nature, does the opposite.

The obvious solution, my pat answer to pretty much everything, is the sequence of photographs. Multiple points of view, multiple points in time, surely we're done here?

Less obviously, though, I think the single frame has the power to imply time, to imply multiple points of view, especially when helped along by a little text.

I have no magic recipe for doing it, but I believe it can be done, and that doing so is worthwhile.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The National Archives Photoshop Disaster

The National Archives of the USA is putting on a show. "Rightfully Hers: American Women and The Vote." Out front of the show there is a large visual display that includes an iconic photograph of the Jan 21, 2017 Women's March on DC with some blurred out elements. Specifically blurred out is some language on the protest signs, language the Archive staff judged to be political or NSFW. You can read more about it in this piece: National Archives Edited Photo to Remove Anti-Trump Messages

This has created a little tempest. Scholarly readings from Jörg Colberg, from John Edwin Mason, from, and so on have traversed twitter with cries of Stalinist erasure and so on. "The is how democracy dies" has been repeated more than once.

Let us back up a little ways. Consider this picture, based on the same iconic photograph:

This is an imaginary poster I made, by blurring the relevant picture and putting some writing on it to advertise an imaginary show. This is clearly a promotional item, not a piece of an Archive. This is not a formal record of the event. While people might certainly complain about my graphic design skills, almost nobody would complain that I was inappropriately altering a photograph. This is relevant, because the National Archives is claiming their version of the photo as a promotional item, essentially the equivalent of my sketchy poster job here.

Here is another picture, also made by me. Imagine it, if you will, hanging in the exhibit itself, presented as a actual artifact, a object from the National Archives:

In this case, the picture is obviously a bad idea. It could be, would be, and most certainly should be vigorously attacked. The modifications alter the apparent facts (in, yes, ludicrous ways) and the picture is, we imagine, presented to us as factual.

Two pictures. One "ok" and one definitely "not ok." The National Archives claims their altered photo falls in the "ok" region for the same reason that my fake poster does. The commentators seem to largely claim that it instead falls in the "not ok" region, without much supporting argument.

Between the extremes illustrated above there is a vast area, which includes a lot of things that are "ok" as promotional material, and a lot of things that are "not ok" as artifacts from the archive. Also, there is a good sized grey area in which things are not so clear.

The actual altered photo is presented as a large display outside the exhibit hall, in a position where we expect to see some sort of poster, some sort of promotional material. Often but not always, though, such promotional materials include truthful, accurate, reproductions of what we can expect to see inside the exhibit. One could be forgiven for assuming that the altered photo used as a promotion is just such an accurate reproduction.

I believe the National Archives did err, here. The error, though, is not in altering an archived artifact.

They have fallen, probably by accident, into the grey area. The made a promotional picture, essentially a poster, but made two errors which compound one another. First, the alterations do not make it clear that the photograph has been altered. At first glance, it appears to be a factual and accurate photo, a "truthful" photo. Secondly, by displaying the photo in a position where it is not unusual to find unaltered photographs, they have muddled the perception.

Had they made a dramatic alteration, blurring the whole thing out as I did, the public would generally recognize it as an alteration, and hence classify it correctly as a graphic, a promotional poster. Failing that, they should have left it unaltered to avoid confusion.

The National Archives, as the supposed guardians of some sort of objective truth, of factual, concrete, things, have no business in any grey areas. They owe the public clarity. They have a duty to distinguish clearly between promotional posters and factual archival material, and they have failed, here, in that obligation.

Art History and Photography

I've been reading snippets of stuff about Art History for a long time now, and as a result probably know enough to get myself seriously hurt without actually knowing enough to say anything sensible, but what the hell. I'm gonna go for it anyways.

The most recent book under my eyes (and still in progress) is Arnheim's dust-dry tome Art and Visual Perception which has underlined a number of things I kind of already knew. Berger helpfully reminded us in his supremely weird 1970s BBC TV show that perspective drawing is a relatively recent, local, thing. In the grand sweep of Human Art it's pretty much a blip. It happens to be a blip invented by a bunch of people who took over the world while the blip was going on, so perspective drawing, and perspective painting, have developed a kind of hegemony. We're taught that this is "correct" which is, when you laboriously disassemble it as Arnheim helpfully does, hilariously wrong.

Anyways, you can draw a pretty straight line from the realistic/perspective-drawn European Renaissance painting to photography. Most of the optical ideas worked out and placed into service for that tradition of painting long before the chemistry was worked out. The chemistry was worked out specifically because that kind of painting is pretty hard, and there were plenty of slobs who wanted to do it more easily. And, here we are.

Contemporary visual understanding, across much of the globe, is that perspective drawing and photography are "accurate" representations of the world, they are "right" and everything else is "wrong" or are least weird and incomprehensible.

If we rewind a bit, and consider visual art made outside the European Renaissance, we see all kinds of shit. There are genres of painting that work like comic strips, with various things in the painting occurring as a sequence of time to relate a story. Both Cubism and Egyptian wall painting (apparently) integrate multiple angles of view into a single subject to show us more of whatever it is than a single perspective can reveal. An engraving of two animals in conversation, illustrating one of Aesop's fables renders a small bird the same size as a fox, because to do otherwise would be ridiculous — they're conversing, the two characters are narratively equals.

Photography, culturally, is simply the endpoint of Renaissance painting. Many other cultures and traditions of Art would never have invented photography not because they were dumb or limited, but because they wouldn't have seen the point. They might have said well sure that's what it looks like, but that's not what is is or something of the sort, why would you even want a picture like that?

More importantly, from my point of view, we come to see perhaps just how limited photography is. The single point of view, the perspective drawing, has really only one trick up its sleeve, which is this visual realism. All the other tools of visual communication get jettisoned, and with a photograph you don't even get to cheat (the painters cheated a lot).

I think that this is a way to understand certain thought among painters around the end of the Victorian era: thank God, photography has finally put and end to this stupid relentless perspective shit, we can abandon it to those guys and get out of this rut and then we get all manner of stuff, some of which is quite familiar if you just look far enough back/away.

Anyways, my slowly accreting thesis here is this: among the many tasks of the photographer, a large one is to claw back, somehow, some of the power of visual communication held by the wildly varying schools of drawing and painting over human history.

Even today in the west we have comics, we have graphic design, and probably other things I cannot think of at this exact moment. These are tools of visual communication which are completely separate from perspective drawing. While I do not think photography ought to directly emulate these forms, perhaps something can be learned from them. Perhaps some of the same effects can be, in essentially photographic ways, worked into the medium.

I have no specific technical/procedural recommendations, or even ideas, here. All I see is an enormous lacuna of which I was not previously aware, and I have a desire to fill it up.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Photography MFA Programs

Lucy Soutter, a commentator about whom I have no opinion, has written a piece which you can find on her Writing page, entitled "Should I do a Photography MA?" It has a bunch of discussion and some advice, with which I find no quibbles. I know almost nothing about the topic, and she is, obviously, well versed in it, so I shall hold my peace.

What I found interesting about the piece is the world she sketches. Set aside her use of the phrase "the photography world" to refer, obviously, to a vanishingly small slice of photography, and focus on what the nature of that world is. This is the world into which the Photography MFA is supposed to grant you entrance.

The photography world is a network, a set of interlocking institutions with their own specialist language, attitudes and activities. Most MA degrees are structured to support students in developing original, project-based work that relates to a context of established works.

This is maybe the clearest expression in the piece, but the theme is constant. The world you are, as an MFA candidate, seeking to enter is a hermetically sealed environment of self-referential work. Its functioning is as much social as it is work-based, and there is a specific envelope of artistic output that's going to be acceptable. You can't just show up making wildly original work which does not particularly relate to established works. You have to know the language, you have to understand the attitudes, you have to take part in the activities.

This is no surprise, and in fact it is not unprecedented. One could describe the world of research mathematics in much the same way. It too is hermetically sealed by its own secret language, incomprehensible to outsiders. Mathematics by its very nature is building continuously on the works of others. There certainly are social conventions which it is profitable to observe, and so on.

Still, one could be forgiven for imagining, naively, that an MFA in photography might focus mainly on helping you to do photography better, in a larger sense. According to Soutter, this is not the goal at all. The best it might be said to do is to help you do a very very specific kind of photography better.

Now, pure mathematics as noted is also pretty hermetically sealed. We do not pretend to make better basketball players, or even better physicists or even better applied mathematicians. Much of pure mathematics is simply blundering around in a private world doing private things. Still, there is a narrow channel outbound. Every now and then some applied mathematician will find some bit of pure mathematics that can be exfiltrated to a more real-world situation. In general, pure mathematicians encourage this, and find it pleasing. Not always, but frequently.

Pure mathematicians are generally forced to spend some time teaching more or less applied mathematics courses. Not in the applied math department, but as a topologist (oh so pure) I did need to understand and to teach differential equations (pretty damned applied, it's practically engineering.) While my research work will, most likely, never really impinge upon the real world, my knowledge and duties most certainly did.

Pure mathematics views itself as a sort of balance between purely mucking about in abstractions for the sheer joy of it, and serving as a source of new ideas and tools for applied mathematicians and other real-world practitioners (physicists and the like).

In a similar way an MFA program in writing, while potentially a bit abstruse, sees itself generally as serving the needs of the writing and reading communities at large. An MFA program allegedly will give you the tools to finally finish that novel (the reality is a little different). MFAs in general, at least in the USA, are seen more as a Teaching credential and less as a Doing credential, but someone with an MFA in Theater is going to try to teach people how to do, you know, actual theater that normal people will attend. Someone with an MFA in photography seems to be, largely, in the business of teaching people how to be an MFA in photography because this is all they know.

So, the graduate degree, and more generally the academic research program, usually provides some sort of abstruse and theoretical basis for real work. Making nuclear bombs that will flatten real cities, or airplanes that real people will ride in, writing books and poems that normal people will read, putting on actual plays that normal people will attend. The distance between grounded reality and the ivory tower may be large or small but there is in general a connection between the two.

I have this vague notion that literary criticism may have led the way here toward a new, brave, future. Academic Photography, as nearly as I can tell, is actively engaged in crawling up its own ass. Collectively, there is no interest in photography outside of what the insiders call, invariably, "photoland" or what Soutter refers to as "the photography world." Their interest appears to be entirely about various European Photo Festivals in which they attempt, with some success, to bilk wealthy patrons into buying their work.

There is no channel to the rest of photography. Nothing these people do will ever inform commercial photography, or vernacular photography, or any of the photography that either sells or is done for pleasure except perhaps by accident. They often don't even seem to be much interested in photography, in much the same way that modern literary critics don't seem to much like literature.

As long as this is the way these MFA programs operate, they will continue to dominate the Museum/Collector circuit, because those people do adore a credential. A board of trustees, which consists of billionaire businessmen and wealthy socialites, wants to hire people with degrees because they have no other tools for evaluating a candidate.

This does not mean that MFA photography is universally bad. Sometimes pretty good stuff shows up!

Sadly, I have to point out, they can't even manage to be that obscure. My adventures in reading the output of these dweebs suggests that their work is not all that inaccessible. They try very hard to mystify, but they're simply not very good at it. You can usually boil their "texts" down to fairly simple language, although many of the sentences actually disappear because they carry no meaning whatever.

I am pretty sure that I have observed in the past that when you attempt to translate technical language into plain language, one of two things happens. In one case, the word count rises, because the concepts are actually complicated and you need to insert material to explain them. In the other case, the word count shrinks because the concepts are simple and the technical language exists not to compactly explain, but to mystify.

The actual photographic output of MFAs is, when not meaningless gibberish, usually pretty straightforward. The technical language is mostly mystification, not compact explanation.

Their last stand, as it were, is to claim that the gibberish photos are actually very profound, but that it's impossible to explain why they're so great and you wouldn't understand, because you haven't got an MFA in photography. This is a flat out lie.

Give me an hour and a six-pack of beer, and I can explain, at least in a metaphorical way, pretty much anything regardless of how abstruse from the mathematics I know. If you can't at least talk around why someone's boring-ass pictures of nothing are great, but only say over and over that they are, "of course," very good, then I call bullshit.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Wealthy Elite

It is something of a hobby with the Art Press lately to out some wealthy donor as a bad person, with the intention of causing institutions to sever ties and generally create a fuss. The Sacklers, and now some guy, Warren Kanders, who runs a tear gas company, and there's probably a lot more.

The whole charade is puzzling to me. Eventually you're going to run out of billionaires, surely? I mean, it's not like there's good billionaires and bad billionaires, and if you could just root out the handful of bad ones, you know?

Billionaires are all assholes, but I mean that in a particular way.

I am not a billionaire, and I don't consider myself wealthy. Still, I have more than most of the people who live on this earth. There are some savings, there's a house, a minivan, a dog. I live and consume well beyond the average human, I'm pretty sure.

I think of myself as a pretty moral person, but would I give up any of this? No. I am loathe to give or to share with strangers to any extent which would materially affect my life or what I perceive to be my socio-economic position. I'm simply not going to donate 50% of my money to save starving children in Africa. I can rationalize it by saying it would all go to pay fat-cat administrators, but that's a rationalization.

The Sacklers, I am confident, did not set out to murder everyone with Appalachia with opioids. Their business simply moved in that direction because that's where the money is, and they went along for the ride, rationalizing at every step. This is precisely the same process as my rationalization of my life. I wrote software that helped the US military and large corporations, and I did not quit my job in a huff. I mostly ignored the issue and rationalized my role.

We are all of us Sacklers, none of us will willingly move down the ladder even by one rung even as we demand that people higher up the ladder do just that. The only variable is the number of zeros, and the corresponding impact we have on the world. We all sort of imagine that there's a cut-off, above which one ought to be willing to step down a rung, and that the cut off is a little bit above wherever we are.

The point here is not to excuse the Sacklers or to condemn myself, but to argue that in this sense all billionaires are the same. While they may be very nice in person, love dogs, donate to charities, and so on, they are going to protect and enhance their socio-economic position in exactly the same way I do, in the same way the Sacklers do. There will be lots of zeros when they do, and correspondingly large real-world impacts. That's simply how it works.

If the Art world wishes to operate on "clean" money, or even "less dirty" money, they're going to have to scrub a bunch of zeros off their budgets.

This, in turn, means that many of the millions of people employed in the Art Industry are going to have to find real jobs (and in that I wish them the best of luck, in these trying times), and that many of the hangers-on (journalists, MFA programs, and so on) will have to do likewise.

To support, even on meager wages, these several million people, requires billions of dollars per year. Money at that scale is never anything but very very dirty money.

The Art Industry has, obviously, no intention of doing anything of the sort. Even the lowliest of interns would prefer that the music continue to play.

The periodic ejection of a Bad Billionaire is, to my eye, part of the rationalization process. While I doubt the existence of a shadowy cabal which periodically selects a wealthy patron for ejection, there does seem to be an emergent behavior here. The message here is the system isn't perfect, but we're working on it, we're making progress toward a beautiful future which is of course wrong.

The Art Industry will strive to grow, to increase its budgets, which implies inexorably that it will seek, collectively, to increase and intensify its entanglements with billionaires. The journalists who wring their hands will continue to drink the free champagne at openings, and to fly to other continents to cover Important Shows, and so on. Nobody wants the music to stop, they just want to feel good about themselves while dancing.

Billionaire Ejection is, as the kids say these days, performative.

I have no particular solution, except maybe to stop playing the game. I am, surely, rationalizing the non-existence of my own Art Career here, but I will note that I have hardly any entanglement with billionaires in my artistic endeavors. I guess there's a few billion in net worth on blurb's board of directors.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Opposite of Punctum

Here's a couple of quick video walkthroughs of some recent books, both well reviewed by the obvious people. Both books have text, and I am willing to stipulate that the books might achieve excellence through some synergy of text and pictures. Today, I am just interested in the pictures.

Michael Ashkin Were it not for (click on the Look Inside link)
Alan Huck I walk toward the sun which is always going down

These books are, from the point of view of the pictures, utterly interchangeable. There is no kind way to say it, these are lazy, stupid, trivial pictures. Anyone with a vague eye for form can bang these out at a rate of about 1 a minute, more or less until they keel over from starvation.

I am sure that Huck, at least, slaved over an enormous pile of similar shitty, lazy, stupid pictures until reaching a hallucinatory state and seeing some kind of meaning in his essentially random sequence. Ashkin, on the other hand, has much experience in the art world, and with the critical success of his previous book, HORIZONT, I consider it possible that he's realized that he can stamp this shit out like donuts.

The point, though, is that these pictures are in my terms "dead."

It's kind of the opposite of punctum if you will. Where punctum is a largely imaginary ecstatic/emotional perception of the essential reality of not only the picture, but of the world implied by the picture, the world from which the picture is drawn, the photos of Ashkin and Huck do the exact opposite.

They are so banal and free of interest that we (well, I, anyways) simply shut down emotionally. I know, intellectually, that these pictures were drawn from some world, but I care so little about that world these might as well be cardboard models, or daubs of camel shit applied to burlap sacks. I don't care, these things do not move me. They anger me, slightly, because I know how essentially lazy they are.

When I can set aside my craftsman's hat, though, my attention simply slides off these pictures without effect. There's nothing there, or rather, what is there is so instantly recognizable as uninteresting as to be less appealing to my attention than nothing. These pictures repel my attention, my interest, in the way that a void would not.

These was a time, I am sure, when there was a sort of Duchamp move in play here. A sort of "what the fuck is this guy up to?" response to the first one or two of these things, which is pretty always productive. If you're asking that question, then you're gonna develop an answer, and then we're off to the races. It's all good, pretty much no matter what is being given to us.

At this point, though, it's pretty much all urinals all the time, and no thinking human being has that "what the fuck is this guy up to?" response any more, they have a "oh, another urinal" response, which is less productive of Art-like experiences.

I'm pretty generous with Modern Art conceits, and I don't insist that photographs be technically excellent, or "properly exposed," or any of that shit. Trash photos can be fine, and I do in fact consider it possible that they work in these books. But let us not pretend that these are masterful photographs, insightfully shot and gleaned, with the sophisticated eye of a true artist. They're just trash snaps. Bang 'em out all day every day.

See also Vernacular Enigma (although I swear the photos there are 100x as interesting as anything in the two books cited above) and of course my latest bit of genius on blurb, Deutscher Gefälschterstiermist (where, though my own horn I do toot, I do not think I accomplished the same level of sheer dreary laziness that Huck and Ashkin did, though god knows I tried.)

What makes this particularly saddening is that a guy like Huck has been through an MFA program (Colberg's natch) where he worked on this thing, and then published it presumably with a lot more work, and has all the time been surrounded by people who are pretty sure it's great stuff, and keep telling him this. Huck has been profoundly cheated, here. He has, one imagines, spent many many hours sifting through a morass of interchangeable trash pictures. No doubt he spent a lot of time with pompous dorks closely examining his sequences, saying "hmm" a lot, and then switching two pictures essentially at random. There, that's better, don't you think?

Uh huh. Sure. Way better.

Or you could just throw them all out and go take some pictures that have a bit of life to 'em.

Sunday, January 12, 2020


There's an interview on a recent photobook here: Brad Feuerhelm Blah Blah Blah which is a glorious exemplar of the form. Brad is (one of?) the main writers at American Suburb X, which is an archive of appropriated material which is often pretty good, together with new content which is shit, all on a thoroughly broken web site.

He's literally just blathering gibberish half the time. Sometimes you fight your way through the thicket of adjective and you feel like the sentence is going to mean something, but then it flies off the rails into nonsense.

Talking about why he doesn't have people in his pictures (psst, it's because you're a pussy, Brad):

I feel that with the cacophony of voices pleading for ideological representation through personal, identity and political means ...

Ok, there's a lot of voices that want to be heard, sure. That's a thing. Got it. So...

... that the best way to adjust from my own disambiguation was to remove the markers of the citizenry and their representations.

Wait, adjust from your own disambiguation? What the fuck does that even mean? Nothing! It means nothing!

All he's said is There's a lot of voices <gibberish> so I left pictures of people out as his explanation for why he left pictures of people out. Is it some language barrier? He seems to be a native english speaker, as near as I can tell, although he's spent a lot of time Abroad? I've seen other native English speakers fall into this sort of cant, so apparently it's just a thing Serious Academic Photographers (artists?) do.

The whole thing is like this. It would be maddening if it wasn't so funny. How this mook got to be an even nominally respected voice I have no idea.

Friday, January 10, 2020

PSA: Reichmann 20 Year Retrospective book

It occurred to me that if I was cunning, I could estimate (probably) about how many copies of this book are available, and lo, my poking around produced an answer I have moderate confidence in.

I'm pretty sure there are >260 signed copies and >840 unsigned copies left, for somewhere in the vicinity of 5 tons of books. This is pure speculation, but I bet that if you wanted a couple copies (or 1100 copies) for a good cause, and if you asked Josh Reichmann nicely, he might give them to you for the cost of shipping at this point.

Are you running a photo contest for disabled children? Josh might could hook you up with some prizes. Just sayin'.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Crit: Tokyo Panic Stories by Dan Ryan

This is a self-published book, and I think a first book. Set your expectations accordingly. (Dan seems to have taken the attitude that he's just "giving up" but I am going to insist that he's self-published it, with electronic distribution). The short review is that the book has a lot of problems, but the material is good and I like it. It's quite long, and you have to invest some time.

You can get the book here, Tokyo Panic Stories, in the form of a PDF (well, 2 PDFs in a ZIP file, one of them is the cover).

I have, in a 1000 unreliable snippets from 1000 unreliable sources, come to understand that Westerners have trouble making sense of Japan. There is a psychic and cultural wall which is difficult to penetrate. Maybe impossible to fully penetrate. I am given to understand that this wall is not an accident, that the Japanese people are not much interested in helping Westerners to understand their culture, their society. Also, Japan seems to have a lot of supremely weird stuff. This book isn't about the weird, but it is as much about the wall as it is about anything.

Dan Ryan spent a moderate amount of time in Tokyo, photographing largely in a couple of districts where there is a lot of homelessness and other, um, street character. He seems to have had 4 distinct visits, and spent a total of several months there, so he's been soaking in it for a while.

I'm going to talk about what I think the book is about, why it's good, why it's less good, and then wrap up with specific recommendations meant mainly for Dan but also to see what kinds of lessons I can draw for myself and, maybe, for my little cadre of readers.

Firstly, there's a hell of a lot of pictures of homeless guys. Many of the subjects (mostly men) seem OK with being photographed, but some are passed out or otherwise unable to consent, and a few are distinctly opposed to being shot. This would cause many of the prissier critics to declare the whole thing Extremely Problematic, but I am not one of those. Indeed, I applaud Dan for being willing to photograph that range of emotion and reaction, and I think he did an adequate job of honoring his subjects.

There is, I think, a fair bit of affection and empathy in these pictures. Dan does not belittle these people, nor does he merely mawkishly decry their plight. He is, in fact, struggling to grasp what he sees, struggling to understand his subjects as individuals across that barrier of culture, and across the barrier of language.

Sprinkling throughout is poetry, with a strong Beat vibe to it, in which Dan provides a voice for his subjects. It's imaginary, of course, he has no way of knowing what is going on inside the heads of his subjects, but he tries. He gives them a story, often a pretty great story, a story that honors them while recognizing their damage. These are not stories that would fit a western homeless man, at all, although they have some of the flavor. Nor, I dare say, do they represent anything other than a western imagining of a Japanese story. Still, the point is that Dan is trying, one by one, to make sense of his subjects. They are not merely placeholders, he sees them one by one, as individuals. Not knowing their stories, not being capable of knowing their stories, he makes stories for them.

I suppose one could say that Dan is simply using these people, or their images, as mere puppets in a fantasy of his own creation. I don't see it that way, because I think I perceive a struggle to understand. Dan is not, I think, merely spinning absurd fables about Inscrutable Easterners, he is in a peculiar way reaching out across the barrier that separates him from his subjects. It is more of a wish than anything else, but I believe the wish to be sincere, and that makes all the difference.

To my eye, this book is the photographer trying to penetrate the wall that separates him from his subjects. The wall of culture, of language, of socio-economic status. In some cases it's not even clear where the other fellow lands — is he homeless or just drunk? Rich? Poor? It's not always obvious. What is obvious is that the photographer and subject are at opposite poles, separated by an uncrossable gulf. A gulf which, despite its patent absoluteness, Dan nonetheless strives to bridge.

There is a property of photographs, and of collections of photographs, which I think of as life. It's not the same as good, or pretty, or even I-like-it, it is its own thing. The Düsseldorf school (the Bechers and all that) maybe epitomizes the opposite of life, but also everything Alec Soth or Gregory Crewdson make. Life isn't merely smiling people, or vibrant color, or action, although those things tend in the direction of this kind of life, this kind of vibrancy. It's a kind of emotional crackle.

Dan Ryan's photographs have a lot of life, and also, I like them.

The structure of the book is heavy on the two page spreads, and it will pay you to view it so. The first page stands alone (page 1) and then it's 2-3, 4-5, and so on. View them as spreads. Every spread is considered, and Dan makes superb use of pairs of photos taken moments apart. It is partly, but not entirely, this device which makes the book vibrant. Many spreads are like a little two or three frame animation. Sometimes the motion is subtle, other times it's abrupt, but there's always a little movement. Apart from this, though, somehow even the most passed-out dude in Tokyo looks somehow vibrant.

If you invest time in the book, you'll be rewarded. The only trouble really is that the payoff might not be proportional to your investment, which leads me to the first and most serious problem with the book: it's damn big.

Now, putting together a 241 page book at all is an astonishing feat of endurance, especially at this level of quality. The text is pretty good, I didn't notice any typos at all in my reading, which speaks to either a lot of proofreading or supernatural typing skill. The pictures are well laid out, the spreads are good. There's just too damn many of them, the book feels "loose" and it should be "tight."

If it were mine, I'd try hard to chop it down to half its present size. Drop all but the very best writing and pictures. None of the material is outright poor, but there is definitely better stuff and worse stuff, and there's no reason to keep anything but the best. There's plenty of excellent material to tell the story, here, and to fill out a very solid book.

I might do something about page 51 versus page 93, in which we see essentially the same still life, except someone's crushed the cigarette pack and moved the fish skeleton, which makes one wonder.

The typography, honestly, is a shitshow. I don't like the font, I don't like the margins, I don't like the text design.

I would select two fonts, one for poetry and one for running text, or at least italicize the poetry (see page 47, for instance.) I would ditch the indentation on the running text, which looks like hell. I would justify the running text, and leave poetry ragged, use wider margins, and almost certainly smaller font sizes (unless the intended trim size is quite small, that text is going to look enormous and chubby on the printed page.) There's got to be something done with headings, you can't just run in "Introduction" and "Afterword" in the same text size and font.

The fact that text is sometimes the full width of a page, under or over a horizontal, and sometimes a narrow column, beside a vertical, I find awkward. Nice fat margins on those full-width pages to compress the text to a narrower column might be helpful, but there are probably other solutions.

Personally, I'd use a serif font, but I am a known anti-sans bigot.

I am not in love with the way pictures on the same page are run run up against one another. Full bleed to the edges, sure, but run a little space between them on the page, please. It's visually confusing, as often as not.

The Afterword should probably be rolled into the front-matter, I think it provides important scene-setting information.

The front-matter needs work, there should probably be a blank page or two in there, and the book desperately needs a title page, or even a title page spread. There are a few places in the interior where a blank page would not be amiss, to separate one theme from the next. The spreads are so strong that when you run across two facing pages that have no connection, it's jarring.

Download it, people! Enjoy it! It's not perfect, but it's good!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Silos of Photography

Our friend Jörg has published a little think piece over on his blog: After Social Media. There's some sighing about the good old days, and some grumbling about how awful social media is, which is all true if a bit shopworn at this point.

Then he gets into the meat of the thing, an actual proposal, which I find fascinating. He talks about having a relationship with his readers, and mentions mailing lists which sounds very interesting. A mailing list in this context can mean one of two things, at least. The first one is a synthetic email address which, when sent to forwards whatever got sent out to a list of real email addresses. This is, essentially, a discussion group implemented over email, and as such predates practically everything electronic.

One receives an email with some remarks, and by hitting reply and typing, one sends ones own remarks out to the same list of people, and so on. These were A Thing back in the day, and they work very very well indeed up to a point. Notably, they create relationships.

It sounds, in context, like this is where he's headed. Alas, he isn't. What he means is the second meaning of mailing list which a list of email addresses that Jörg sends a newsletter to. It is not a forum, but a pulpit.

There's a whole newsletter thing going on in that social scene. Every Serious Academic Photographer has to have a newsletter now. I subscribe to none of them, but I know exactly what's in them: lists of blog posts and news items the recipients of the newsletter have already read. The fantasy is that people outside of the relevant social scene will subscribe, but this is mostly a pipe dream. We are hammered, daily, with popups asking if we'd like to subscribe to some newsletter, and most of us have learned to find the "No" button without conscious thought.

The people who subscribe to Jörg's newsletter will be the same people who follow him on twitter: his friends, and various sycophants who don't read a word he writes but hope that if they pretend to he'll help them get a book deal.

How this is supposed to create "the one-to-one relationship I used to have with readers in the past" is a bit of a mystery. It is worth noting that Jörg does not allow comments on his blog, which is certainly the simplest way to create this one-to-one relationship. I'm sure he'd tell you it's because trolls, and I am sure he believes it. People would definitely post comments that disagree with him.

It happens that in photography there are many silos of interest and personality. Each silo contains a bunch of people, and to a large extent each such community is almost completely unaware of the others. To the extent that they are aware of the others, they think the other ones are stupid and pointless.

You can name these silos by any prominent member. Let's say Kevin Raber, who is a fine fellow. He is a leading figure in a sort of well-heeled amateur community that does a lot of landscape photography, who think that more resolution and "better color science" is pretty much always good, and pretty much the only thing you need. These folks think that instagram sucks, and any photograph in the MOMA that's less than 50 years old sucks. They have no patience for the Colbergs of the world.

Colberg might as well represent the Serious Academic Art crew, which contains a few dozen people, and they think instagram sucks, but they probably lump Kevin Raber's community in with instagram. They think any photograph in the MOMA that's more than 50 years old sucks, and is Extremely Problematic too.

Daniel Milnor maybe represents another completely separate group. They know about Jörg and his little clique of predatory publishers, but they're not fans. These people are the actual working artists, neither celebrities not MFA weirdos. Maybe think of them as blue-collar artists.

And on and on. instagram, although I spend no time on it, almost certainly contains 100s of communities, each convinced that they Are Instagram, filled with people who will tell you about what instagram is all about. Almost none of them have even heard of anyone above. Internet forums ditto. Each forum thinks it is the representative Voice of Photographers (DSLRs are not dying, why, I bought one just six months ago!) My very very small exposure to real-life camera clubs suggests that they are just forums with cookies, coffee, and very very old people.

The common thread is that no silo has the slightest interest in any of the other silos, because all the other silos are filled with wrong-headed idiots.

My speculation is that what Jörg wants to accomplish with his newsletter, and all his friends newsletters, is some kind of outreach. He wants to add people to his social/poltical scene, ideally in the role of acolytes. I suspect that he has no interest in actually hearing other voices from other silos, he and his friends already have all the answers. The problem he seeks to solve is that almost nobody listens to their genius.

To be honest, I'd like to reshape the world (ideally without expending much effort) to be basically me and a bunch of acolytes too, but I am (barely) capable of grasping that maybe I'm not actually right about everything, and that maybe there is room in this big world for other ideas.

If Jörg actually wanted to make things better, he make an honest effort to reach across silos. Maybe he could start creating some sort of content to explain MFA/Academic photography to the denizens of dpreview. Perhaps a hopeless task, but at the very least he'd gain a better understanding of his own silo, and his own silo's work.

I spend a lot of time wandering across silos, and I should remind myself to be less dismissive of whatever is going on in each one, however fun it is to throw shade on everything.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Bellingham Photosequence Group

As far as I know exactly one Bham photographer reads this, and I already sent him email. But if you are another one, here's the scoop.

If you're interested in photo sequences (books, magazines, slideshows, or just photos in a row) we kinda have a.. thing. Where we get together and BS, and maybe show off some work, or work in progress.

Sunday, January 26th, Nelson's Market, at 2pm. They sell beer, wine, and food.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Crit: American Origami by Andres Gonzales

I've briefly mentioned this thing in passing before, passing judgement on the, uh, remarkable book structure itself. I described it as a dumpster fire. I may have softened a little toward it, but I remain, at best, ambivalent about this physical structure. I have a horrifying vision of Lots More Of Them coming down the pipe.

It happens that I have borrowed a copy of this object, and have spent some time with it, and then more time organizing my thoughts on it, and I am still doing so as I type this. The book itself isn't a dumpster fire. It's pretty good.

Let me make one remark which I will then mostly set aside: if this book was a movie, it would be properly characterized as Oscar-bait. This doesn't make it a bad book, but one can pretty clearly see that somewhere along the line someone or someones realized they had an useful device for attracting awards. The design, while remarkably on-point, is still absurd and twee. The topic is Extremely Weighty And Important. The photographs hit pretty much every contemporary Serious Photography Trope. The book is overstuffed. The only thing it lacks is some "texts" from some suitably pompous establishment dolts. And for that last we ought all to be most grateful.

Contrary to what many reviews suggest, the book isn't about school shootings, as such. It is about the archives of material left over from these events, specifically the archives of material evidence of a kind of grieving which occurs. The book also contains leftover material (and discussions with the author, if you look around) that suggest the book began as an investigation of school shootings in a broader sense, but in the end is it about the archives of grief. The leftover material, while often powerful on its own, renders the book's final position kind of ambiguous and uncomfortable.

Onwards, then.

When a celebrity dies, or when some tragedy like a school shooting, a ferry sinking, a mountaineering disaster, occurs with loss of life, there is a kind of performative grieving that people who are unaffected do. I don't pretend to understand it fully, but there is surely a mixture thank God it wasn't me or mine blended with a genuine I am terribly sorry for your loss. I think it is also in part a ritual to purge the terror of random death, death which could visit us at any instant. For some reason this does not occur when ordinary strangers die in the ordinary way. Particularly with school shootings, people from all over the world send things. Notes, letters, cards, stuffed animals, and so on. Sometimes enormous quantities of this Stuff arrives, and it can turn in to a logistical nightmare. Some of it ends up in archives.

This book is fundamentally about these archives, and by way of those archives, a kind of discussion, analysis, or evocation of that performative grief. I make this claim despite there being a lot of bits and pieces, a lot of ways, in which the book fails to be the book I think it wants to be. It is possible that I've got hold of the thing by the wrong end, but I don't think so.

I should note in passing that when I describe this grief, felt mostly by people who were not affected, as performative I do not mean to belittle it. It is a real and human thing, and in some sense I guess it's a good thing. This does not mean that it's not performative, because it is. These are profoundly public acts, actions intended to be seen by others. This seems to be an essential part of the ritual.

What Gonzales has wound up with is, essentially, two books which are embodied in the bizarre book structure. The book structure itself creates an outer, obvious, book, and a second "secret" book tucked in literally behind and inside the first book. The two books are physically intertwined, inextricably woven together. Gonzales places the material of grief into the secret book, for the most part.

The outer, obvious, book, is a collection of the by-now standard bland photographs of locations. These locations are competently photographed. They're boring as hell, but there is a pleasing balance to most frames, they're carefully shot rather than the usual MFA "just jam the camera out there and embrace serendipity" bullshit we're so used to. Also contained in the outer book is the only human material, a series of interviews and pictures, essentially mug shots, of the interviewees. Presidential speeches also appear, in a sans font, which I like to think means something.

The conceit is obvious, and, I think, inescapable. It is surely deliberate: the outer book represents a banal layer of suburban normality and calm, a false veil drawn over the secret darkness revealed in the second book of photographs of archived grief. The interviews also appear out here, which fact conflicts with the book's conceit as this human material, whatever it is, is not part of the facade, the veil.

The first and very much the largest problem with the book is this: the performative grief here is anything but secret. It is, after all, performative. We've never seen it revealed in this way, extracted from archives and photographed like a bottle of shampoo, but we've seen it piled against the fences and heaped around makeshift memorials dozens if not hundreds of times. This is thoroughly public material. The book's design wants to be about the dark forces, the mysterious and incomprehensible forces, that cause these shootings, but Gonzales offers no insight into them. The dark forces remain incomprehensible, and so the book must settle for hiding this ultimately not-very-secret pathos inside its secret passages.

There is a brief feint at these darker forces in the first section, on Columbine, where documents which are surely Evidence appear. Notably a poem written by one of the shooters, inexplicably given to us as a raw dump of a Microsoft Word file. Even this feint is marred by the fact that Gonzales can't decide whether the Evidence goes into the inner book or the outer one. Bits appear in both places. This is where Gonzales attempts to "get at" the underlying event by way of the archives, and fails. Happily, be moves on from this effort quickly. After the Columbine chapter, though, things which are Evidence largely vanish.

There is also a single brief nod toward cause, in one of the interviews (in the outer book — see?) we hear third-hand or so a reference to bullying. This thread never re-appears, which is telling. You cannot seriously investigate cause here without talking about bullying.

The second problem here is that the outer layer, the suburban normalcy, is more or less pointless. If the blandness of the suburbs had something truly dark and secret to contrast with, they might sit here better, but they do not. The vaguely glum, superficial, blandness of the suburb rests instead against a profound sadness that isn't all that much less superficial. Again, I do not mean to denigrate the grief of those faraway people boxing up the stuffed animals and mailing them to Newtown, that grief is real, but the ritual of sending the teddy bear is designed to, and generally does, wash away that grief. I have done my bit thinks the person, and then they get on with life, because at the end of the day the tragedy did not touch them all that much.

Something I found interesting was that Gonzales always photographed the suburbs around the school. At Sandy Hook and at Columbine, these houses represent if not the actual dwellings then at least the kind of homes lived in by the victims, the shooters, the people directly touched. At Virginia Tech, and Northern Illinois, this isn't true. These are schools at which most of the students are from out of town. Their families do not live in those homes. They have somewhere between little and no connection to this urban/suburban environment. These photos are merely a generic placeholder for the idea of homes where the victims might have lived, a step removed.

The fact that there is a third body of material, the interviews, further mucks things up. Gonzales places these in the outer book, although they arguably belong with the inner material. This may have been a smart choice in terms of making the book interesting, since these interviews are certainly one of the few "hooks" the book has, so perhaps best to place them where they can be found easily. The interviews themselves, while powerful, often detract from the book itself. Some of them are with victims, and thus make some vague attempt at understanding the underlying event, without really making any progress. Some of them are concerned with the grieving process, and are therefore more on-point.

The presidential speeches are of course all about grieving and healing, with a side of "we must do something, and we shall!" which, of course, we ought to smirk bitterly at. Still, they do hit the theme of grieving, and they are a part of the whole thing. The suggest, but do not pursue, something about the frustration around nothing ever actually getting done. This is another thread which is simply dropped.

A man named Ryan, a survivor of being shot at Red Lake, offers first-hand testimony in the form of an interview (outer book) and then again in the form of a hand-written essay of some sort written nearer to the event itself (inner book). His testimony, while harrowing, offers no real insight. It is riveting, exciting, because it is harrowing, because it is true, because it is first-hand, but it offers nothing beyond that. The testimony allows us to, in a way, recapitulate our own reactions to mass shootings, our interest and our fear, but it in no real way peels back the covers. We are not enlarged by this experience.

The fact that Ryan's testimony is present twice, once in an interview and again as photographed hand-written documents tells us something about the way the book was made. The team that made the book was more interested in this material than in making a tightly edited book. This strikes me as award-bait.

It is only in the last few chapters that the book seems to find its feet. The inner and outer books are clarified, and on point. There is at last a clear flow to and a lear role for the inner book, and it ends really quite strong.

I quite like the book. It does work, after a fashion. The contrast between inner and outer, between public and secret, is not terribly vibrant, not fully credible, but it's not bad, and it ends well. It's strong enough to work. We do grasp something about that performative grief, we feel something of what those distant ritualistic grievers feel. We are reminded of, and we do feel, the contrast between the normalcy of the suburbs and what we suppose to be the horror of a shooting.

The book would be much better, to my eye, if Gonzales was willing to cut quite a bit of material. The inner book should be clear from the outset, and it should drop any pretense of grasping the shootings themselves. You can't get there from the archival material, not with photographs anyways. The inner book, to my eye, should be about the archives and the performative grief contained therein. You could argue that the book maps the evolution of Gonzales' research and thinking, that it is in fact a book about how he came to make the book. That would explain the shift away from investigating the shootings themselves to investigating the archives of grief, and the grief they archive. That probably is to some degree true, even, but that's a miserable and lazy way to make a book.

I cannot help but think that some of the clumsily inserted material that tries to get at the actual shootings, remained in the book purely to maintain its position as a Book About School Shootings, rather than being obvious a Book About Grieving, which is less likely to garner awards and shortlistings. Like a proper Oscar bait film, the book is a bit overstuffed and doesn't always make sense. Trimmed to 2/3 of its size, it would be a much better book, but it wouldn't have appeared in many of the Best Photobooks of 2019 listicles.

As it panned out, though, it certainly worked. This thing is on damn near every Best Photobooks of 2019 list out there, and I gotta say, despite its flaws it probably belongs there. Arguably as much because the bar is very low as because it's a good book, but it's still pretty good. Cut down and re-edited to be tight instead of overstuffed, it would with a certainty have belonged on the lists — but it would not have appeared.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

"Working with Archives"

Happy New Year, you scurvy lot!

In recent years it has become quite the thing for photographers to go off and work with archives by which they mean, root around in archives and photograph some of the objects and documents in the archive.

This is perfectly OK, photograph whatever you like. As a way to tell us about something it's, though, it has... certain limitations.

If you photograph your grandfather's dog tags, medals, and unit insignia, you are not photographing World War II. You are photographing your grandfather's junk drawer. This is not a cute, oblique, artistic side channel in to WWII that reveals new insights. It's just grandpa's stuff. As such it may have something to say about grandpa, and it may have a lot to say about grandpa's junk drawer.

The point about an archive is that is is, in general, a large mass of Stuff that's associated with something that someone thought was worth preserving. An event, a place, a person, an era. An archive is a whole. If you pull 2 or 3 or 50 objects out of it, those things are not what the archive is about. They do not, and cannot, represent the archive's subject. If they could, the archivist wouldn't have bothered with the other 1000 or 10,0000 or 100,000 objects in the archive.

The traditional, and arguably correct, way to deal with an archive is to sift through the whole thing, or at least most of it. You then form thoughts and opinions about the subject of the archive, that place, person, event. After noodling on those thoughts for a decent interval, you then record them. Using words, because that's the tool we have for thoughts. A few photos might not be amiss here, but the majority of the output is thoughts and ideas, which we represent with the medium of language.

By photographing objects and documents in the archive and stopping there, the photographer sidesteps the entire subject of the archive. The result is, at best, about the archive itself. At worst, it's merely evidence that the photographer went there and rooted around, evidence of labor. You don't get a degree in chemistry merely by stirring a great deal, and I don't give a damn how many archives you visited.

The most telling detail here is this: the present tic is always to photograph documents. You can see the wrinkles, the texture of the paper, the slight shadow it casts. The resulting visual is therefore one of a piece of paper with markings on it, the content of the markings is secondary. If the artist were interested in the content, the appropriate mode would be to reproduce the document, or even to transcribe it. But no, the chic thing is the photograph of it.

Photographs of documents reify the document, not the content of the document.

I am convinced that most of the photographers taking these photos have no real notion of this, they are simply following contemporary trends. They are "doing a project" on some topic, and so they find a heap of material on that topic and photograph a handful of documents and objects that struck their fancy, and they declare victory. I have worked with that archive! Next? By photographing instead of writing, you avoid that whole pesky business of essay structure comma adhering to, you can simply pick out the best pictures, whichever those are, and chuck them in to your inevitable book dummy.

This method can be great if you want to tell me about the archive itself, or about the archivist, and that can be very interesting. One can represent Paris, or at any rate a particular take on Paris, with a handful of photos of that city; but one cannot meaningfully attack French History so. In the same way, you can reveal something of W.H. Auden's papers with pictures of them, but you cannot tell me much about Auden himself.