Monday, March 30, 2020

Another Video from Jörg!

To be honest, he keeps making them, and I keep watching them. Kinda. Anyways. This one had a fascinating little moment in it early on which I thought I would share, because it says something interesting.

Here is the video: Michael Schmelling: Your Blues which you can watch or not as you choose, I'm only really interested in a few seconds of it.

At the 2:37 mark there's a picture of a piece of paper taped to a wall. Jörg proposes that it is good picture, and that any photographer that would take the picture is a "really good photographer." This is, well, it's a position, isn't it? It strikes me as the sort of thing a follower of Miksang might take, or a fellow testing his camera, or an art student who's trying too hard.

There are several possible interprestations of Jörg's remark, here.

The first one is that this is a desperate cry for help. What have I done with my life? cries the regret-filled Art Professor, please send strong liquor. This is my preferred reading, of course, because it's the funniest one.

The most likely reading, I think, is simply the face value. Jörg genuinely thinks this is an amazing picture, all by itself, and that the taking of it is a sign of a remarkable artist.

Well, ok. It still looks like Miksang to me, and googling that term will show you endless photos that feel about the same, and probably a few pictures of blank paper taped to colorful walls. It's certainly pleasing, an exercise in color and framing. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not exactly rife with meaning.

The point of the picture becomes clear on the next page of the book, at about time mark 3:01. The same wall, the same rectangular shape taped to the wall, but the rectangle is a picture of a man instead of a blank white page. This is not an accident. If instead we back up a page we see another rectangular shape, an abstract thing of some sort. If you flicked rapidly from the blank page to the picture of a man, it would appear that the man spontaneously appeared on the blank page.

So we have abstract rectangle thing, blank rectangle thing, a man appears in the blank rectangle, followed by a series of pictures of people.

I know just enough theory of musical harmony to make an ass of myself, let's see how big a mess I can make. There is concept in the theory of harmony of a preparing and then resolving a dissonance. You have some chord that basically sounds bad. It "honks" when you play it. So you set up for it, by playing a series of pleasing chords that aurally approach the dissonant one (prepare for it), and then you play the honker. Then in the next chord you fix it by, say, moving one note of the chord so that it is no longer dissonant (resolution) and now, harmonically, you're in a new place.

This book just did exactly the same thing. The blank page on the wall may not be actually dissonant, but it does raise a question. What is this picture doing here? or maybe I wonder what was on that paper? or Is there writing on that page? and so on. The dissonance is resolved in the next page, and brings us to a world not of things but of people.

Indeed, there is a subtle extra step here, because they first person we see is, as Jörg notes, a picture of a picture. The picture of the man is transitional, it is a picture of a print (a thing) as well as a picture of a person (the man in the photo).

It's a very neatly managed transition, and I do not think any of it is accidental.

You could probably make an analogy here with that film transition where the camera appears to enter a picture.

What is striking to me is that Jörg just sort of skips over that resolving page with some vague "picture of a picture" remark, which makes the third and final reading of his remarks a bit dubious:

It is possible that what Jörg means by "really good photographer" is a reference to the whole sequence. You have to be a really good musician to be able to successfully deploy a dissonance like that. Any fool can mash a random collection of keys on the piano to produce a ghastly honk. Successfully preparing and resolving that same ghastly honk demands skill, producing the honk in the first place requires none.

I continue to struggle with how little Jörg talks about structure, about picture-to-picture relationships. Is he not seeing it? Is he reserving this Special Knowledge for paying students? Or is it simply so obvious that it's not worth mentioning?

If you do happen to watch the whole video, it's worth noting that the 8 picture grids that dominate the middle of the book all use very strict color discipline, but Jörg does not appear to notice. In fact, be doesn't seem to notice any structure in the book at all, other than the overall pacing (which, to be fair, he talks about quite a bit and seems to get perfectly right).

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Punctum, punctum, punctum

Mike over at ToP ruined a perfectly good post by mentioning punctum in it, and then by citing contemporary usage of it! Horrors!

I have decided to throw in the towel on this one. Punctum means the eye-catching detail that makes me like the picture and I suppose then studiom must mean everything else?

This is contemporary usage, the word has come to mean this, and I will allow that it's a much more useful meaning that the one Barthes proposed, which I have (brilliantly, natch) argued is a meaning more or less unique to Roland Barthes.

What gets my goat here is that Barthes is going to continue to be credited with this.

It is as if a fellow suggested placing a slice of cheddar cheese on a graham cracker, and on top of that a freshly toasted marshmallow which slightly melts the cheese, producing an incomprehensibly disgusting snack. Because the fellow was fond of circumlocution, and thus near impossible to read, cheese was widely misunderstood as chocolate and now this idiot is, somehow, credited with inventing the s'more. Which he did not.

But there doesn't seem to be anything to be done about it.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Modern Portraits

There's a category of portraiture or more generally just pictures of people that I have in mind here. Alec Soth is maybe the most obvious example.

But first a digression, one maybe familiar to long time readers. We, humans, are mindreaders. The expression on a person's face, the set of their body, let us form a model of their mental state with startling accuracy. We're not 100% by any means, and we can be fooled (see: "acting"), but we're way better than random. Enormous parts of our big fat brain seem to be devoted to this activity.

Hence the portrait, specifically the photographic portrait. A photo captures enough detail, with enough veracity, to give that big fat brain of ours something to chew on.

A good portrait does that, ideally with some depth. It's more than she looks happy, maybe there are layers. She looks happy but also.. and so on. We get some sense, possibly imagined, of the personality of the person, etc etc.

Alec Soth has mastered a different kind of thing, he has mastered the picture of the person who is waiting for him to be done. There's not a lot going on in these faces, beyond impatience tempered by a combination of generosity and awe.

We see this same thing in the photos of Rania Mater, and also (thanks Eric!) Laura Pannack, and others. It has become a kind of a trope. You could argue, I think, that Diane Arbus falls, if not into this camp, a camp nearby.

The conceit, invariably, is that these are terribly revealing portraits. Presumably, you can tell that they are tremendously revealing because they look like all the other tremendously revealing portraits, I guess. What they reveal seems to be whatever the artist wants them to reveal.

Actually looking at the pictures tells a different story. Sometimes, to be fair, the subjects do show a frisson of whatever the artist is going for, but the expression and body language are usually dominated by this is so awkward are we done yet? I do not, to be honest, quite know how to achieve this. I think you need very compliant models. Mine simply quit or become vocal before they reach this stage of silent awkwardness.

Anyways, how on earth did we get here? There was certainly a time when we knew about portraits and how they worked. There is a long and well worked out tradition, here. The trouble, of course, is that it is worked out, which is no good to the up and coming Serious Artist. Also, sotto voce, it's pretty hard and requires soft skills which the artist may not even possess.

There is a strong thread in contemporary art of the death of the author (largely from people who have read the title of the Barthes essay but nothing further), the idea that artist intention is irrelevant, that meaning is conditional or irrelevant. Photographs are all lies, the idea that any kind of truth can be found in a photo is a naive illusion, and so on. Punctum this, studium that.

This is, of course, all balderdash. Or, at any rate, largely balderdash with a pinch of truth in it. A critic might say with one breath that artist intent doesn't matter, and in the next drone on at length about what is clearly his interpretation of artist intent. The nihilists themselves don't even believe this stuff. They can't because it makes no sense and, more importantly, if it were true they would have to fall silent.

Is this nihilism related to these ghastly un-portraits? I don't know, but I think it is at least credible that there's some relationship.

If meaning and intent are all illusions, then one photograph is just like another. One can read into it whatever you like (this also explains and so any sort of picture of a person is a deep and revealing plunge into the subject's psyche, if only I say it is.

To be fair, I don't think that it is this organized, this clear. These are not notably clear thinkers, after all. There is a sort of muddled nihilisim in play, though, and that lends itself to pretty open ended readings of work. If the work itself incapable of meaning or communication, then you have only the artist's statement to rely on. So, you're stuck either reciting that, or you can simply make up whatever you like.

It is fascinating to notice how much the Serious Critic resembles the newbie camera owner. Both assert that art is all subjective anyways, and both insist angrily that their opinons about this or that are, nevertheless, objectively true. The primary difference seems to be that the newbie cites Art History (about which he knows exactly nothing) and the Serious Critic doesn't cite anything at all beyond, perhaps, some vague reference to Barthes (about whom he knows exactly nothing.)

Meaning is real.
Communication is possible.
Photographs do tell the truth.

These things are all true, albeit a bit conditional, a bit squishy, a bit unsure. We cannot rely on them, but nevertheless they are the poor supports upon which we must base our work, not because of their particular strength, but because there isn't anything else.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Dat show-through doe

Mike over at ToP pointed us to this book: Entrance to our Valley which has some very nice things in it. I'm not super interested in the TIS editions, though. This was originally self published, and the video runthrough Mike cites is of that edition, and you can watch it here: Video of Entrance to our Valley.

The self pub edition was printed on a Risograph, on of all materials, newsprint.

Risograph is basically a mimeograph machine packaged in a photocopier-style box. The thing makes a stencil from your material, kind of like a photocopier. This stencil is then used over and over to make copies of your source material in a single color, whatever ink you select. You can do multiple colors by doing multiple passes with different inks, but the registration is iffy. It is this feature, ideally, which makes Riso cool.

Anyways, Risograph is super-hip and legitimately kind of cool, but whatever. The point is that the self-pub edition is on newsprint.

Watch the show-through as pages turn. You can see a fairly obvious shadowy outline of the previous page, verso, on every spread.

I don't know if it's on purpose, and I don't know if I am just seeing structure where none really exists, but I'd swear that, as often as not, that shadowy picture verso contains some graphical echo of the main picture recto. It strikes me as a very clever riff on Walker Evans style sequencing.

If so, it's just a gimmick, but it's a good one. An effective and unexpected use of materials, I'd say.

While I don't really want a copy of the TIS edition, I do rather covet a copy of the self-pub edition.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Rania Mater

When a fellow tells you that he hires assistants based on competence and skill, but seems always to wind up with a lissome blonde, one might justifiably speculate that the stated job description does not perfectly match the actual job description. We find this a lot in artist's statements, which frequently seem more aspirational than descriptive. Now, I don't mind an artist's statement that's a bit of a jumble. If you can say it all with words, you could have skipped the art portion entirely, so it's no surprise when the words are not up to the task.

Still, sometimes artist's statements just don't seem to match the work.

I invite you to examine Rania Mater's portfolio SHE: Femme-Fleur here.

These are very beautiful photographs, very well made to my eye. The subject matter is appealing, who after all does not like looking at young women?

The styling is frequently remarkable, with matching colors across the frame, and a really lush palette. This is very beautiful stuff, and even among these uniformly excellent frames there are some real standouts. So let me be clear: I quite like these pictures, and would be surprised if you didn't as well. Take some time with them, they are lovely and fun to look at.

But. Of course there's a but. You knew I was going to say "but" didn't you?

I have two points of difficulty with this project. The first is the artist's statement, which says, among other things:

I want to portray the raw beauty of their age, their individuality, their physicality, their mystery, and the organic relationship they create with their environment, being in the lush landscapes of rural Ohio, or the textured backdrops of Beirut. I want to photograph them, the way I, a woman and a mother, see them: beautiful, alive. I want to create a personal narrative with them. The process is about collaboration and empowerment, and the photo session always evolves organically as the women become active participants in the image-making process.

I am willing to buy the collaboration part. The notion that these pictures are taken in their environment, or that that portray their individuality is patently absurd. This is aspirational, not real. Mater has turned all these young women in to ciphers, and they are all to a large degree the same cipher. She has selected the environment, at least, to match the woman's colors and the woman's clothing's colors. These are set pieces designed by someone with a very strong sense of color. If they are in any meaningful way the subject's environment, except in the most superficial "fairly near where they live", it is purely accidental.

This is not to denigrate the work, there's definitely a thing going on. This is not even to reject the entire statement, there's a lot of raw beauty and also physicality on display here, for instance. But the conceit that this is somehow about the individual is just a conceit.

This leads naturally to me second difficulty, which is the way in which the women are rendered ciphers. At first glance, these look like well made fashion-styled photographs. Upon closer inspection, though, we see that the subjects are not emoting in the way that fashion models do.

Fashion models are more or less famous for being dead-eyed clothes racks, but that's not quite true. There is a certain blankness there, but there's a subtle flair of attitude more often than not. Fashion photography is fashion-forward, but it relies on the model to emote and help set a mood. Often we see a sort of sullen (not blank, sullen) body language, but Dolce and Gabbana tend to go for fun or arrogant. Balanciaga's models are anything but dead-eyed ciphers.

In contrast, Mater's subjects are all dead-eyed in the same way. Each woman seems slightly awkward, slightly out of place. One imagines that each woman is filled with emotion, but those emotions are fully suppressed. They seem almost on the verge of flight, sometimes. Silent, attentive, waiting for something. As an essay on what it's like to be a young, beautiful, woman, always subject to examination, subject to judgement, subject to not necessarily desired attention, always protectively closed and distant, this would certainly make a lot of sense.

Part of the problem here is, I diagnose, a particular identifiable trope of "female gaze" styled photography in which, presumably to impart an air of seriousness, the subjects are required to stare glumly, eyes focused on middle distance, in a vaguely serious looking posture. No fun allowed, nor rage, nor flirtatiousness.

I imagine there may even be a conscious notion in play here, a mission to avoid criticism. As we all know, a visibly angry woman is all-too-often seen as "losing it", a flirt is "a slut", a cheerful woman is perhaps "superficial." So the safest role is to assume a bland seriousness.

On the one hand, this is the reality. On the other, it sucks, and maybe should be pushed back against rather than submitted to, especially in work of this kind that seeks to promote a woman-forward image.

These pictures seem to be to reduce the woman to very beautiful, but ultimately bland, objects. The pictures are wonderous, the subjects uninteresting as people, which is perhaps the opposite of what's intended here.

The women in these pictures feel altogether too much like beautiful props, stuck in the frame by the artist, notionally to represent femininity, or womanhood, or womankind, or something. The result is lovely, and even meaningful, but it at the same time flies in the face of the artist's statement.

I don't know which one to believe, here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020


Monsieur Chisholm introduced us all recently to the term intertextuality which, of course, refers to things that go on between texts. I half-heartedly hoped I might pioneer the word intratextual but I am evidently 30 years late to the game. While I suspect that intratextual actually means something fancy and incomprehensible, let us pretend that it means the obvious and simple notion that bits of a thing can refer to and be connected to other bits of the same thing.

What's a story?

At its most basic, it's a collection of events, occurrences, details, that relate to one another to produce a larger, more or less singular, event.

Whatever the objects, the atoms if you will, of a story are, they connect to one another. The hero needs to learn this lesson before he can solve that problem. The heroine needs to speak to this sage before she can successfully slay the dragon, and the dragon must be slain before the prince is rescued. We, as the readers, need to grasp the relationship in space between the front door and the staircase before the scene with the pie makes sense.

The end result is a more or less singular thing. The hero had a journey, the evil was set back on its haunches for a spell, Little Nell didn't make it.

A story, traditionally, is conceived of a sequence of things strung through time. Things happen in order. Sometimes there are parallel paths of time, sometimes time flows differently for different paths, but the common thread tying it together is generally some (subjective?) time. How the story is revealed to the reader may not follow that thread of time. Flashbacks, flashforwards, framing devices, and so on, are all used for dramatic effect, but usually the underlying story travels through time from a beginning to an end.

A poem need not tell a story in this sense, although it may if you like. It, too, is a related series of elements, connected by both meaning and by structure. This line rhymes with that, the meter might create a constant pulse that binds the thing together, but also the theme is consistent to some degree or another. The loved one is, perhaps, tediously compared to a rose, a loaf of bread, and a rabbit, but the loved one remains constant.

In one of my favorites, the dog speaks throughout, from beyond the grave, expounding on the steady theme of how he never really liked his owner.

A visual book, a photography project, is none of these things. It can be a story, but it need not be. It can be a poem, but it need not be. What it does need, to my way of thinking, is that same property of interconnection. There should be a more or less singular whole that it builds out of component parts.

Why am I (again!) banging on and on here about this same theme?

A few days ago I was walking the dog, in the evening, in the park. The sky was a riot of dramatic cloud. The barely budding branches of the shrubs were adorned with droplets, glowing in the light of the setting sun, and so on. I felt that faint pull to photograph these things, that urge to make some attractive thing from these preternaturally beautiful things. They're not even truly preternatural, they are part and parcel of the world we live in, which teems with astonishing beauty if only you open your eyes to see it.

At the same time, I felt a faint revulsion. Why on earth would I photograph these things? I looked at these things, savored them. I felt perhaps that it was just the usual drone of how one ought not waste the beauty of the world on photos, but rather immerse oneself fully in the moment, blah blah blah. That felt, apart from trite, not quite right.

I did take a couple of record shots.

Could I really have made something beautiful? Maybe, maybe not. I could certainly have taken a swing at it. That's not the point, though.

To me, the beautiful object is like a particularly witty turn of phrase, or a particularly well-made rhyme. It's not a story, or a poem, it is at best a fragment I might use some day. To me, even the best job at one or another of these, or at something else, is essentially a well made couplet or a short imagined scene. It's not a complete thing. Absent some sketch of a complete whole into which a picture might fit, I have no desire whatever to mash the button.

Perhaps photography is nearly unique in that its couplets, remarks, and descriptive passages can be seen all by themselves as works of art.

Or, perhaps, we have it wrong and every Dickens novel could and should be also broken up into particularly brilliant passages to be read aloud, out of context.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Chisholm & Kipling: Puck's Song

I have recently acquired this excellent volume from blurb, during a 20% off sale. It arrived a week ago or so. This is a truly marvelous book.

You can use it as a placemat, to protect your furniture from spills:

It's also excellent for propping open windows:

Although do note that, as the book is square, you only get one "wide" setting as it were. Perhaps later editions will use a rectangular format to address this deficiency.

It also works admirably as a back splash, should your architect, like Kim Kardashian's, neglect such details.

As it is not raining, I cannot comment on the book's utility as a leak-stopper, but given its excellent performance to date I an confident that it will excel here as well!


I kid! I kid! While I will do almost anything for a tasteless joke, I will note that I was obsessively drying and cleaning my props to avoid marring the book, which survived all the abuse intact.

This is in fact a book I have coveted desperately since Mike published it. No, the PDF would not do. I have a soft spot for Kipling, who exemplifies that marvelously British notion that the British are simply better. It is clear that Rudyard felt that by every measurable metric the Indians were simply better than the British at absolutely everything, and yet, somehow, it was also fit and meet that they should be subservient. I think that Puck of Pook's Hill is perhaps his effort to explain to himself why, in the face of all evidence, the British are so great.

And, you know, they are pretty great. Maybe there is a greatness is little mill ponds and red oxen and a deep history made up, it seems, entirely of ancient people displaced, lost entirely, replaced by another slightly less ancient people, themselves replaced in due course and lost to time. Maybe the point is the England is somehow more than her people, who appear to be largely interchangeable, replaceable.

But we're not here to ramble on about Kipling, not really.

It's this book! I have, as noted, lusted shamelessly for it, and it's all I hoped. It's a blurb book, so if you're hoping for leather and the Bodleian smell, well, you won't get that. Perhaps if you have copy printed in the UK. But it is a beautiful thing.

Mike clearly has it bad for Mr. Puck, pulling out bits from Kipling, but also The Bard, and the words all fit together nicely. You can and should read it all out loud. The Kipling and the Auden both have that curious property that you're not sure if it's doggerel or greatness, but if you read them out loud in your very best tolling-bell voice, it will all seem worthwhile, I promise you. I have a hard time imagining a more fun book to read the lines out loud from.

And then the collages! This is what it's all about.

They're lovely! And they work well with the lines they pair with. Usually the connection is direct: red oxen, you say? Here are some red cows. You're welcome. What now? the day that Harald died? Let me see, here we are, HIC HAROLD REX INTERFECTUS EST. We're not looking for subtlety here. Kipling isn't subtle, he's charming. The collages are charming too. The designs are lush, rich with detail, and it will in fact pay you to break out your magnifying glass. There are niceties, which you should appreciate.

If you want to be fancy, I think I detected allusions from one page to another, here and there, and it's possible that Mike packed the thing full of them. I was just happy to notice a mill stone.

I don't wish to accuse the author of intertextuality though.

You should buy it! It's marvelous!

Monday, March 23, 2020

"Meaning" in Contemporary Photobooks

It occurred to me just now (so this might not make sense) after thinking for a moment about Colberg's recent video, and some other remarks I've read, that the maybe the point of the contemporary photobook is its references to other artists and other books. Maybe that's why they seem so devoid of meaning in and of themselves.

It puts me in mind of Jonathan Swift, the satirist most known for Gulliver's Travels. That book is dense with references to current events and people, readers at the time recognized the characters as this politician or that, recognized the controversies as thinly veiled contemporaneous debates about this and that. The book survives because it's a walloping fun read even if you don't get the references, though.

He also wrote a thing called Tale of a Tub which is also a rollicking tale packed with references, but which is almost completely incomprehensible if you don't get the references.

Tale of a Tub has survived largely as an exemplar of Swift's talent as a satirist. Nobody reads it for fun.

To be honest, while I didn't like Schmidt's 89/90 I thought there was a lot more going on there than Colberg let on. There's repeated references to walls and barriers (duh), there's a fair amount of formal relationship one frame to the next, and so on. What got me going, though, is how Colberg ignored all that in favor of citing what he felt were references to other work, either by Schmidt or by other photographers.

It is as if he's understanding Gulliver's Travels in terms of its satire, its referential nature, and ignoring the story itself. Which, you know, is an approach. It's not an accessible approach, and it ignores a fair bit of the work. Swift actually did both, you know, he wrote a story and made it a satire. You can get at it either way and, optionally, attempt to attack it as a whole, if you want to make sense of it.

The example of Tale of a Tub ought to stand as a warning here. If your work, whatever it is, leans too heavily on its connections to everything else that's going on right now, then it will inevitably fail the test of time. You cannot rely on the structure surrounding your work to remain intact, indeed the opposite is true. Most of your references will fall away in to obscurity, and if you don't want whatever you just made to descend with them, it had best have some bones enough to stand up by itself.

If indeed I have correctly characterized the world of MFA Art here, it appears that it is — by design — creating bodies of disposable art, which is more or less the opposite of its stated goal.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The "I Hate" Genre

Our friend Jörg Colberg has started doing live video presentations of photobooks, which I cannot for the life of me remember to tune in to. Luckily he's recorded one, and it's on youtube for our viewing pleasure:

Jörg on Schmidt

Did one of you idiots make some annoying comment on this video? He's gone and disabled comments on all his videos.

I didn't know what to expect. Would it be incoherent mumbling? Would it be an insightful, keen, analysis? Well, neither really. I think it's worth watching, as much for the insight in to Colberg as for the book. There's a lot of stuff he doesn't talk about, but he does do a lot of useful work giving context, I think. You learn, maybe, a little about how he thinks about photographs.

Anyways, it really brought home to me how much this is a genre. Schmidt's books all show an obvious relationship with Kleinstadt which I have talked about at some length. There really seems to be a distinct genre that boils down to I really hate Germany. Michael Ashkin's HORIZONT seems at a glance to fall into the same general theme.

Now, is that what Schmidt is really going for? I dunno. Maybe the dude just really really liked cement. The Mahlers seem, based on the blurb on the back of Kleinstadt to see some optimism in their pictures that I simply do not. But what I see in both books is a real dislike for the things in front of the camera.

This has some sort of relationship to Alec Soth's addiction to the tawdry, the shabby, Ashkin's recent If it were not for which is basically HORIZONT for the Mojave Desert, and every MFA student's first book.

It is all, at least on the surface, simply a simple and blockheaded condemnation of whatever the camera is being pointed at.

Allow me now to quote the finest thing ever written on criticism:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

God knows I am fully aware of how easy, and how fun, negative criticism is. The quote, by the way, is from a Pixar movie, and I am dead serious about its stature. It did not hurt the speech to be spoken by the one and only Peter O'Toole.

It strikes me, though, that the I hate... genre of visual book is also easy, and kind of fun to read. It is a form of negative criticism, easy to make, fun to read. The Germans get double benefit, because it also constitutes a good wallow in the Official National Guilt and therefore also constitutes of act of atonement.

These things are without nuance, which is fundamentally what makes them easy. Which picture should I stick in, and which to discard? Toss the less glum one, obviously. There is only one note that need be struck, here, there is no complex of tones in play, no harmonic relationships to consider. Just keep hitting glum over and over until you've got the required number of pages. Apply some basic Walker Evans sequencing, if you want to get fancy, and you're done.

It's not that I hate negativity and want everything to be rainbows and puppies, I just like a few more notes in my songs, and in my books. There are nuanced books out there, lots of them. There are books that function as criticism of something or other, without being relentlessly, clumsily, negative.

I like those books better.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Stephen Shore, Etcetera

Stephen Shore has been crossing my radar more often lately. It's probably just a case of me noting the name particularly, at random, once, and as a result noticing it more often, later. On the other hand, maybe he's seen an uptick in interest recently, I dunno, and it doesn't matter. He's one of those guys where my reaction is "Yeah, uh, him?" and then I look up some photos and I think "Oh, right, that guy."

I kind of lump him in with Jay Maisel, just another colorist making appealing pictures of not much of anything, to not much point. There are others.

They're nice enough photos. The critics will tell you about the connections to Walker Evans and they're not wrong. Shore is famous for his photos of what amount to Americana, in the same way that Walker Evans is. Shore doesn't stick people in the frame as often as Evans did, so the overlap is more limited than a first impression might suggest.

The process by which he made these things, at least in the 1970s when he made his nut, is pretty much what everyone serious was doing. You wander around in your chosen environment, looking for likely-looking views. When you see one, you set up your 8x10 camera, and burn a couple sheets. Later, you pick out "the good ones" and put them in your portfolio.

By "the good ones" we mean something not so easy to define. A certain formalism and structure, visually. Maisel says gesture which I think is half a real thing and half bullshit. A balanced frame with good interest, and not too much confusion. Some sort of meaning or sense of something or other, but in those days one could be a little lax about this. Shore wound up with a sort of loose idea of a certain slice of America, at one point. It's a bit like Evan's American Photographs and a bit like Frank's The Americans but curiously unpeopled, curiously deadpan.

In those days, it was something of a feat to produce one of "the good ones" because the processes in play were laborious.

When people pop up and say I love this photo by Stephen Shore they are invariably reacting to the formal qualities of the frame. It is dense without being cluttered, the colors are pleasing, there is a nice balance to the thing. There may be an undercurrent of and I love his oveall portrait of America, it speaks to me but at the end of the day we're looking at one photograph which, by itself, isn't a portrait of anything.

From where I sit, Shore lands in that interval between the Iconic Photo and the photo essay. Before Shore's time, every photograph was an effort to achieve standalone greatness. The assumption, the standard model, was that you could print the thing out big and put it on a wall and it would speak to the fullest extent it was capable of speaking. The goal was to make a picture that could stand alone. You might get even more oomph with a group, but the intention of a show was to put a Row Of Titans on the wall which might, or might not, have had relationships between them, but who cared? They're Titans!

I went out walking the other day, the sun was bright but still a bit low in the sky here on the 49th parallel, lending a kind of warmth. The streets here are depopulated for reasons. I said to myself self, this looks like Shore weather so I took a few pictures. It's not as easy as it looks. I got the curious lack of people for free, but hitting that dense without being cluttered note is not obvious. Stuff wants to overlap with other stuff, and once you clear that up by stepping to the left, everything is in the wrong place now.

Doing this with a view camera, without a plague to empty the streets, sounds like a nightmare. But in these modern times, it's simply not that hard.

The pictures above are not Stephen Shore, although I dare say I could persuade some rubes that they are. They're not as "good" as Shore's published work. The exercise of making them, though, gave me some information. Making Shorealikes in terms of individual frames is just not that hard, with modern equipment (even 10 year old "modern.")

Of course the same it true across the board. Any fool can make fake Ansel Adams photos, and far too many do, and so on. The point is, and secretly always was, what are you trying to say with your photos. I have banged on at length about how photographers in the eras before Shore wrote and thought and talked at great length about what they were trying to say with their pictures. At the same time, they were trying to shoot Titanic single frames, but underlying that work was, as often as not, some fairly fervently held philosophy of what the point was.

I don't know whether Shore had (or has) some philosophy, some mission, some over-arching idea against which we can measure his work. The critics, though, seem to be stuck on formal connections to Evans and a sort of anthropological fascination with middle America, small-town America. There is no equivalent to so did Weston reveal the pepper's soul or not?

I am not saying that Shore is bad, or that he ought not to have done the work. Even if all it is, in the end, is a sort of distillation of some slice of a notional place: middle America, I can't actually contest that. I do a certain amount of work trying to merely distill the essence of place to a series of pictures, after all.

What I am saying is that the reaction I love this Shore picture is to miss even that point, and to apply adulation to what is essentially the easy part.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Home Schooling

The state of Washington has closed our schools for about 6 weeks, so I have the kids. Obviously, I don't want to let them get all stupid in the interim. I have prepared this social-media-ready presentation of Day 1.


As in many other jurisdictions, we're experiencing school shutdowns for several weeks. We are privileged to be able to home-school during this interval, and it's already shaping up to be a beautiful and fulfilling experience for us all. Like so many other affluent pricks, I want to share some of those precious moments from our first day.

8am - 10am: Construction of proper anti-horde barricades. The right, and wrong, ways to protect our precious toilet paper reserves from the diseased masses.

10am - 10:30am: Wheat grass smoothies! Your choice of vegan snack!

10:30am - noon: Molotov cocktail dos and donts.

Noon - 1pm: Lunch. Tofu-pops. Rocks sweetened with organic sorghum for dessert.

1pm - 4pm: Humane and sanitary elimination of the infected (we're still working on maintaining a 2 meter distance, luckily blood splatter is not an issue with COVID-19 — this isn't Ebola, people!)

4pm - 5pm: Construction of crude radio transmitters.

5pm - 6pm: How to cook a squirrel.

6 o'clock dinner, and then off to bed!

At night, the vicious attack dog defends the home.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Interstitial Photographs

There are these two projects out there, one nominated for some award, the other claiming that the nominated one copied theirs. You can look up the details if you want, but they do not matter here.

Fading Flamingos

The Eyes of the Earth

If you flip through these things casually, like a normal person, you could certainly get the impression that they are very similar projects. Some of the same objects and scenes are shown, the locations look similar (and, if you inspect closely, are indeed sometimes actually the same). The color palette is similar, and so on. They are, in fact, projects shot in the same area of Iran, covering the same subject matter.

If you are a sophisticated reader of photographs, like all of us, if you are very clever indeed, like all of us, of course these two bodies of work will be obviously different. You will no doubt roll your eyes at the absurd notion that these are similar projects, right? Well, ok, maybe not. But they are. If you give them time, and really look, you'll see that they are quite different studies of more or less the same material. I promise.

The cries of plagiarism are based on similarities of a handful of the photos, which are the marquee photos. It turns out that everyone takes those photos when they go to Lake Urmia. The blue ferry, grounded at the dock is the main one. That is to Lake Urmia what the DC3 plane wreck is to Iceland.

Which leads us around naturally to what's different rather than what's the same. One project is very personal, there are family snapshots, often the subjects of contemporary photos are family members, in family places, and so on. The other is not personal, it has a certain distance. The people photographed are not my family but rather local residents. It has all these weird interiors (some natural history museum? a laboratory?).

It strikes me that for a project of this sort there are really two kinds of pictures that are being taken.

The first are the marquee shots, the scene setters. The ferry, the salt flats, the locals drinking tea. These establish us at Lake Urmia, and they're the same shots everyone takes, because these are the things you see there. This is the impression one gets, everyone gets, when they arrive at the lake and hang around a bit.

The second lot are the pictures that define what you're actually trying to do. Are you telling a personal story of your family's trials? Or are you trying to do straight reportage of the situation?

I am thinking of these are the institial pictures, which phrase I liked a lot but am finding less and less appealing as I noodle on it.

Anyways, the point is that anything that is obviously interesting and public is going to get photographed to death. If you go somewhere, or just stay somewhere, and try to make some photo essay, the first thing you're likely to do is duplicate a bunch of the Standard Photos (unless you are somewhere really obscure, or doing something really obscure.) As your project refines itself in your mind, ideally, you will find the little pictures, the pictures nobody would think of, the pictures that don't make any sense by themselves but which complete your idea.

At this point it might be a pretty smart idea to go throw out all the marquee pictures. Or a lot of them. How much scene setting do you really need? Maybe none, probably less than you thought.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Crit: Frédérick Carnet, New Era

I periodically circle back to M. Carnet who is truly one of my favorites. He's particularly apropos today, since he's one of those artists who is working at what looks to me the "edge of meaning" and is consistently hitting the groove, that point where the ideas are genuinely new, but just before the wheels fall off and the work disintegrates into gibberish.

I've written about two pieces he's done, before: "The Last First Day", and "The promise of a better world?" which are connected works. He's working on a third piece, "My Homeland has only one name: Peace" which feels like a conclusion, or, hmm, something to finish the larger piece anyways.

You can see all this material on his web site: Frédérick Carnet but I will note that if you click on the "Meine Heimat..." ("My Homeland") link under "Nouvelle ère" ("New era") you will NOT, as of this writing, get that work in progress. You have to click the other "Meine Heimat..." link available at the top of the navigation under "Nouvelles." I would provide a direct link but I can't figure out how to.


In the first piece, "The Last First Day," we saw a strong style in play, depicting ambiguously some kind of apocalyptic vision. The scale and nature of the disaster was not clear, but the sense of some sort of disaster was clear. The pictures interlinked graphically back and forth in a very satisfying kind of way, and we were free to project a lot of meaning on to the work. At least from my point of view, it sat — and continues to sit — in a very satisfying spot. The arc of meaning is clear, but there's plenty of room for my imagination as well. The artist neither lazily forces me to do all the work, nor dictates all the details to me.

The followup, "The promise of a better world?" was clearly linked to the first. The style notes were there, a lot of the same creepy notes, the same densely interlinked pictures making graphical citations back and forth. Indeed, the tone starts out similarly, but the difference is that it turns and opens up into a more optimistic place by the end. It suggests, maybe, the trials and hope of a new beginning after the disaster of the first chapter. Again, the arc of meaning is clear, but the details are left to the viewer to fill in or not as they choose.

And now with the chapter "Meine Heimat..." we have something new.

It occurs to us when we look at the new thing, I think, that the first two were distinctly fictional. They had not struck me so, but now they do. There is something cinematic or allegorical about the first two. We are, as it were, being told a story but it's not entirely real, whereas this last chapter is real as shit. "Heimat" is a word associated with some Germanic notion of nationalism, blood & soil, Vaterland, etc. I can't quite tell if it's standard extremist nationalism that so many nations enjoy, or if it truly is a distinctly German sin, but Germans seem to think the latter. Whatever it means, M. Carnet is re-claiming it for himself, and using it in his own way.

I have to admit that I blanched when I saw the documents reproduced. This is such an awful trope! But the mechanic is not itself terrible, it's completely neutral. The trouble with documents is that they're deployed by terrible artists making terrible work so often. M. Carnet isn't making terrible work here.

No, this new chapter is real life. M. Carnet is opening himself up, a touch of history, a touch of his personal future. We are seeing his very real life, his real concerns and fears, his real joys. In just a handful for pictures (for now) it's just a sketch, a few lines on the page.

There remains a strong visual connection to the previous chapters, you can tell these belong with those, but they are different. The drumbeat of the centered singular object largely drops out. The sky remains, the treatment of tone and color remain. Some sensation I cannot put my finger on remains, something I might be imagining. Some flavor. Anyways, these feel like they belong with those, yet are different.

I see "Meine Heimat..." not so much as a final chapter as maybe a framing device. As a last chapter it's a sudden fall to earth, an abrupt confrontation of reality after the deliciously scary allegories we're been enjoying. But as a basis, as a start and an end, I think it provides a foundation or a frame to support those allegories, inside of which to experience those dreams.

This whole thing is maybe a man, an ordinary man, a tiny figure in the tapestry of history like most of us. He has a life, family, a history. Nothing of great import. H has worries, he has hopes. He sees things happening on the larger stage that give him hope, that cause him to fear.

He has dreams, or maybe fantasies, or nightmares, about the end of things, the beginnings of things. Maybe it's all going to come crashing down. Maybe it'll be OK. Maybe both.

In the end, as in the beginning, he is rooted in his history, his family, and in his little plot of lend. He rejects, maybe, as best he can the bigness of the world and all its potential for disaster. He tends to his family, his little plot of ground, his cat.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020 sale -

Blurb is having a 25% off sale which is normally not big thing.

This one applies to other people's books, though, which is kind of a big deal. If you've been eyeing someone else's book for a while, but the price was a little high to justify to, say, your spouse, today is the day. No idea if it applies to trade books or magazines. But Mike Chisholm has some excellent products to which it totally applies at his store and you should GO THERE and BUY THEM.

It might cut into his profit, but he's an ego-driven maniac and doesn't care if it does.

Or go buy something else, like THE GREATEST PHOTOBOOK IN THE WORLD.

The coupon code is MARCHFLASH25

On The Edge of Meaning

In the olden days, when photo books were mostly just show catalogs, when Robert Frank roamed America, and so on, photo books were uncomplicated things. You balance two things: 1. connecting each photo with the next one, graphically and/or thematically, and 2. maintaining a fairly steady flow of overall meaning. Walker Evans had an idea of America which came in two parts, and the his book American Photographs reveals that idea to us. One assumes that, first, the show did, and then the show catalog, which we know as the book.

Ditto Robert Frank, for a somewhat different vision of America, and without a show.

Naturally, this evolves, along multiple paths of evolution. On some paths of evolution, interconnections between photos get more complex, we're not just going from one to the next, citations go back and forth across the whole book. On some paths, meaning becomes looser, more amorphous, more open to interpretation.

In recent years we see people eschewing everything we know about photography. The cliche is desperately avoided, MFA students back away from the old cliches into their own, new, cliches. The meaning inherent in a single photo becomes more and more tenuous as the referents we're used to are discarded. As often as not the superficial interconnections between photos grow in to a dense thicket of graphical and subject references, but this thicket does little to reveal meaning. A, B, and C are tied together by X, suggesting that X is important, but we're no further forward on why X matters.

I have already drawn an analogy with abstract painting, which I continue to think is apropos.

I have no particular objection in theory to these kinds of experiments. Change is good, right? We shouldn't just go ahead and make the same things over and over.

Anyways, the natural result of this kind of experimentation is that artists find themselves riding a razor edge. They're pushing away from what was, where meaning was clear, where we have a vocabulary of tropes to lean on, where we know what's going on. They're striving for something new, something apart from that cozy and understandable world.

Sometimes they push too far, and the result is gibberish. Sometimes they don't push far enough and the result is sort of trite. That narrow groove where the work is meaningful but interesting, new, challenging, is not a groove that's easy to hit.

The failure we're seeing today (and, who knows, maybe in every era we saw the same) is that the critical apparatus surrounding the activities of art-making are not up to the task of telling the artist whether they hit the groove or not. The critical response to an artist's work seems to be almost completely independent of the work itself.

Criticism has abandoned the art almost completely, to focus on the artist. Colberg appropriates photos of women, photos he did not take, of women he does not know. This is ok not because of any properties of the work, but because we know Colberg is a good guy. He dutifully wrings his hands in the proper ways, on the proper schedule, so we know that his work is good. Prince, doing the same work, but resolutely failing to signal his politics suitably, is a bad guy and therefore his work is bad. Obviously it's not just Colberg/Prince, this approach to criticism is near-universal, from amateur photography forums to exalted European Biennales.

There is even, kind of, a theoretical basis for this. You hand-wave vaguely at "context," remark that you cannot meaningfully examine a piece of art in isolation, and hope nobody notices that you've palmed the ball.

But palm it you did. It doesn't matter which cup the mark chooses, the ball won't be there.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Some Notes

Our friend Jörg Colberg relates a story in his latest about how he bought some snapshots at a flea market, scanned then, reworked them to suit his own vision, and then published one of them — a photo of a woman, natch.

This is a man who is on the record complaining about Richard Prince doing, well, exactly the same thing. This is a man who is Very Concerned about the Macho Cult of photojournalism, which simply acquires people's likenesses and uses them for its own purposes without concern for the subjects of the photos.

Now, I am considerably more willing to allow that these kinds of things are OK. I rather think people are much too precious about ownership of their copyrights and their likenesses. The point, here, though, is that Colberg does not think this. The point isn't even necessarily that he's a huge hypocrite, it's perfectly possible that he can explain some subtle, or not so subtle, difference between his actions and the things he abhors.

The photographic community, from the rankest amateur camera-fondler to the most stratospherically austere critic, is extremely fond of laying down diktats. As in all human endeavors, they are rather fonder of enforcing them on other people than on following them themselves. I have been forced, by a modest program of self-examination, to take up a nearly libertine attitude on the grounds that I do and would like to do a lot of stuff photographically. It has not always been comfortable.


The book Colberg refers to is available from the editor's web site, for $US75, US customers only, at the link he provides. This is fascinating on two fronts.

The first is that the editor's storefront does not name the publisher, which is Schilt, nor the fact that it can be purchased for 60 euros (about $US70) from the publisher. The second is that buying from the editor/author is going to run you about $14 more. The publisher will ship it free, Ms. England wants $9, and she's charging about $5 more for the book in the first place. And she's no help if you're not in the USA anyways.

If you're in the USA you probably oughta buy from Ms. England anyways. Throw the author a bone, eh? But if you're not in the USA, or you'd prefer to pay list price, Schilt will sell you a copy. Use this link.


In other news.

I stumbled across The White Pube the other day. Ignore the front page and poke around the navigation links on the top. This thing is the work of two former art students, both women of color, who are making a credible play to be the new enfants terrible of art criticism. You can read some of the reviews for yourself.

The content of the reviews is fairly boring and quickly becomes entirely predictable. The art world sucks, white people ruin everything, we need a new criticism which, evidently, mainly involves the critic talking about herself, a quick nod at the art which either sucks because white people or, occasionally, is ok. This is, of course, catnip to the art world. It's so important that we have these conversations etc.

What I am fascinated by is the cant they have devised for themselves. They have small handful of tics: The use of "n" for "and" as in we went to the show n had drinks later, the use of lowercase "i" as the pronoun, occasional use of "im" for "I'm" and occasional use of single letters for words where the meaning is clear, the bar was c so we had to go next door to the bar that was open.

This, plus a sort of breathless pace, and a sensation of run-on sentences gives the flavor of hip youth, a sort of texting/social-media vibe.

If you look closer, though, a most interesting thing reveals itself. There are no spelling errors. If you perform the simple substitutions to undo their tics (replace "n" with "and" and so on) the whole thing turns in to tolerably well written and perfectly normal English, albeit a bit prolix, a bit self-centered, and a lot boring. Indeed, you note that they only insert the tics occasionally, usually "and" is spelled "and" and "I" is capitalized.

This is a delightfully weird style. It occurs to me that the intent is not to, in fact, write like a teenager, but to give the flavor of writing like a teenager. This is perfectly adult writing given a light gloss of teen to pep it up and give the writers a gloss of speaking authoritatively for their demographic.

I find the whole effort hilarious. On the one hand, they disdain the authority of the contemporary art world's authoritative figures, professing to a sort of anarchist system of equality, while at the same time claiming an authority of their own.

They strike me as a couple of moderately posh British girls (but see comments below, I am Just Wrong) (although I am no expert on accents, they remind me rather too much of Priti Patel for comfort) who are making a bold play to land in cozy positions in the Art Establishment. This is rather like Tony Soprano's rise to power, which began when he executed a carefully calibrated robbery of a Mafia poker game, a robbery calibrated to establish him as a man to be reckoned with, but not a man who needed to be eliminated.

I could be wrong, of course. There's a good chance that they're just fuckin' around enjoying themselves, and they might also be honest-to-god anarchists genuinely trying to find a new critical voice.

Their writing, while stylistically very fun, is crashingly boring in terms of content. It reads like a lovingly copy-edited tweaker rant, always on the same topic, over and over.

Give 'em a read! Tell them I sent you!

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Saturday, March 7, 2020


I've stumbled across two separate projects that strike me as similar, recently. Paul Graham's Mother and Deanna Dikeman's 27 Goodbyes. The former is a MACK book containing 18 (I think) more or less identical photographs of the photographer's mother, and the latter is a blurb book and (probably in a different form?) a MACK First Book Shortlist winner containing a group (27, one assumes) of similar photos of the photographer's parents waving goodbye to her over the years.

Are there things good or bad? I dunno, I found Graham's thing to be boring and stupid, but I dare say that if you spent some time with it various differences would reveal themselves and perhaps some sort of meaning would congeal around them. I have observed before that there is a risk of seeing meaning in practically anything if you simply stare at it long enough, and sort of induced pareidolia. Dikeman's project has more charm and pathos to it, but the pictures are, again, awfully similar. The parents age, Graham's mother does not.

These are both projects aiming at a kind of simplicity.

This is really really hard to pull off.

If you're writing a novel with Dickensian scope, there's a lot of ways to save yourself. Your clunky writing can be covered by a sprawling plot, or interesting characters, or whatever. You're working in a bunch of dimensions, and as long as you do well in a few of them, you can be merely adequate in the rest.

If, on the other hand, you're writing a children's book, let's say one of those things with one line of text per page and a picture, there's a hell of a lot less room for failure. You have to hit a precise note of wit, of rhythm, of charm. You can't flub anything, you've got one dimension and almost no content to work with. I have read a lot of these things in the last decade, and there's a lot of terrible work. I made this up, but it is typical of the worst stuff.

Mouse and Owl are friends. Mouse was hungry. Mouse found a nut. Mouse shared her nut with Owl. Mouse and Owl are friends.

No rhythm, no wit, an insulting story, and blunt moral stupidly delivered. A child of three would justly hate it.

The genius of Dr. Seuss was that he could reliably hit that note of rhythm and wit. Seuss is not alone here, but he continues to tower over virtually anyone else trying it out. When I wrote a few of these things to entertain my kids I did not attempt rhythm or rhyme, I simply made fun of stuff. The result is better than the worst by far, mainly because I left out the moralizing, but I'm no Seuss.

The Seuss estate published some posthumous material, and it is, I have to say, fascinating to see. The good doctor knew this difference between good and bad, and while his rejects are still better than, say, my stuff, they are distinctly lesser. It emphasizes, to my eye, the dizzying heights that his terribly simple little books scaled. This stuff was hard even for him.

The point here is that simplicity is hard. Simplifying your project may seem like a great idea, because, simple, right? It is not. A simple project has to be perfect to avoid failure, and maybe you haven't got perfect in you. Maybe you're got gallons of very good but no perfect. I certainly contain no perfect, although from time to time I persuade myself briefly that there is some adequate.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Something to look at

This is, allegedly, a kitchen:

Specifically it is a kitchen (one of several, I think) in a home owned by Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, a home styled by the design firm Axel Verdoort (famous for their sleek minimalist design aesthetic.)

We can notice a few things. The design uses no trim, no moldings. There are no upper cabinets, only a narrow shelf holding a few dishes which match the colors of the kitchen. The color palette is tones of ecru, and green, and that is the totality of it. There are strong converging lines pointing directly at the view out the window, which looks oddly structural, like a not very good impressionist painting. One way to consider the picture is that it's entirely designed to frame the view out the window, which, while formal, doesn't seem worth that much effort.

But back to the kitchen. The styling is maniacal. The cupcakes match the color scheme. The whole thing is intended to create a sense of spaciousness, and of minimal "clean" lines.

What it is not is a useful kitchen. The sink under the window is at least 6 feet from anything else. The kitchen island is at least 6 feet across. Trying to cook anything in this mess is going to be a nightmare of endless hiking back and forth. There's no visible splash guard behind the sink. The single narrow shelf for, apparently, bowls is placed at roughly where the back of the first or second shelf of a standard over the counter cabinet would be. Not out of reach, but also not great for Kim who is 5' 3" tall.

Is this intended as an entertainment space? Setting aside the issue of whether Kanye and Kim are really "chatting with friends while baking pies" kinds of people, the aesthetic is not welcoming. It is far too austere. There's nowhere to sit. Kim and Kanye live largely on the road anyways. They are busy, global, people.

So what is this thing? Why would anyone build this thing?

Well, first of all this sort of clean austerity is rather chic in advertsing for kitchen wares. Strong converging lines is absolutely a thing, although mostly the high end brands opt for at least a slightly warmer look, a little more cozy, usually with some people. Sometimes it's a supermodel leaning against a $12,000 stainless steel stove, wearing 5 inch heels and not even slightly pretending to cook.

Anyways, Kim and Kanye's kitchen shows off no appliances, and indeed does not appear to contain any. The point of the picture is austere spaciousness, with a nod toward contemporary kitchen photography.

I conclude that the point of this thing is to be photographed.

Look at the view out the window. It's a layered composition of yellow green/green/yellow-green again. Perhaps it was pasted in during post, or perhaps someone actually arranged plantings to look like this. The important thing is that from anywhere else, it looks different. Whatever was done, it was done to create that painterly "view" from this spot and this spot alone. I'm sure it's very nice from other angles, but just look at where the tree is placed. It is placed exactly where an amateur painter would stick it.

Obviously this whole thing is simply signaling. Kin and Kanye talk a good fight in the Architectural Digest article about how the home was built for their family, for their kids, for living in with their kids, but there is literally no evidence of anything even remotely kid-friendly here. The parts we get to see (which, to be fair, are maybe a couple hundred square feet of many thousands of square feet) are unlivable.

What is interesting to me is how purely visual this display is. Of course Kim Kardashian would build a house designed for instagram, and she has.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Make of me a Good Report

Imagine that you are walking down the street. A man, a stranger, approaches, walking in the other direction. He makes brief eye contact and passes on. It occurs to you suddenly that he is going to relate this encounter to his friends later. He is going to tell them something, you don't know what, about you, about this momentary encounter. You hope, probably, that he will make of you a good report. You hope he will make you look good.

The same aspiration would arise if we suddenly understood that an observer intended to paint us, to draw us, to write a story about us.

The critical point here is that we do not have these epiphanies. It does not occur to us that this stranger or that will be making a report on us, although most of us do it to someone else routinely. I saw this guy downtown today..

The presence of the camera changes that. We are immediately, acutely, aware that someone is going to report on us. They're taking.. oop, now they've got a picture of me. Our aspiration to be reported on positively instantly makes itself known. This, combined with the residual mystical feelings of the camera as soul-stealer, may make us nervous. We want it to be a good picture, and we know, because we're not visually illiterate and because the power of the photograph is finite, that the picture will not make as good a report of us as we desire. It will, likely, fall short.

Some people, a few, perhaps the vain, quite like the experience. It is as if the thrill of being gossiped about outweighs the possible content of that gossip. These people are not the majority.

Published the other day in the LA Review of Books: "Migrant Mother: Dorothea Lange and the Truth of Photography." The author spends a depressing amount of time pointlessly and badly arguing that Lange's claim — in a story we already know to be wrong — that she spent only 10 minutes shooting Florence Owens is false.

But what the author really wants to bang on about is how false the picture is, and how awful Lange was to take it, and so on. The usual nonsense.

We hear, again, how disappointed the family was in the picture, how Owens was uncomfortable with her iconic status, and how the picture showed only a narrow slice of Owens, a slice the family felt was a negative one. It is surely true that the family felt Lange had made a bad report of their mother, and they felt accordingly cheated by that. At any rate, this is what they genuinely feel now, and recall feeling then, decades after the fact. Let us try not to forget that memory is a bit plastic, and there are things that are simply lost forever, like tears in rain (as Roy would tell us.)

The standard pitch by academic types is that people are routinely tricked by the idea of the photograph. People expect it to reveal truth, completeness. If photographed, a person expects that the photograph will show they truly and completely, well maybe with the naughtiness hidden. The photographer is therefore a trickster and a cheat, because as only all us super-duper erudite types know, the photograph is a big fat liar.

The standard pitch is garbage. Everyone knows that the photo is a slice, a narrow slice. Open a popular magazine and ask anyone does Taylor Swift always look like that? and they will laugh and assure you that the opposite is true. Everyone knows, fairly well, what the boundaries of the photograph are. Everyone expects to be disappointed by photographs of themselves, it's a cliche. What is unusual is to actually like a picture of yourself.

What Florence Owens and her family experienced was that same old disappointment, which is rooted in the aspiration to be reported on well. The photograph has nothing much to do with it, it is the report which matters. The camera is only the unmistakable harbinger of the report to be made. Had someone walked about the place and then written a piece about "Florence Owens, destitute pea picker, nursing her baby in full view of the public, looked like nothing if not a filthy savage" they would have been just as incensed, albeit over a shorter interval of time.

In fact, the photograph makes a wonderful report of Florence Owens, she looks like an amazing human being. This does not matter much to the family, who see her only as poor. I get it, to be forever hitched to the wagon of poverty is no delight. There is surely a strange conflict here, a desire to tell the world "that's my mum in the famous picture!" but also to deny it, lest the stigma of poverty get on you.

Anyways, the idea that the Owens family was somehow misled here, was tricked, was cheated, is I think dicey at best.

They are disappointed, in the same way that we are disappointed by the photo on our driver's license, albeit on a larger scale. We do not expect the driver's licence to reveal our wonderful qualities, we expect it to be just what it turns out to be. There is no trickery here, there is disappointment. That disappointment is real, justified, and practically universal among the photographed.

Dressing this disappointment up as trickery strikes me as a scam to justify a puritanical impulse to wag a finger and tell people not to photograph other people.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Cindy Sherman

I went to see the Cindy Sherman show in Vancouver this weekend. I guess it's a kind of retrospective.

The show is essentially chronological, and fairly completist. There's a video of a childhood book project, there's student work, there's Untitled Film Stills (UFS), and then onwards to color work organized as as collection of series, which you walk through in order. There's a wall-blurb for each series, presumably distilling the critical consensus around each. There is a complete set of Untitled Film Stills, and at least 3 or 4 prints from each series mentioned. Whether there are series completely unrepresented here, I do not know. The work spans 1975 or so until the present, we're looking at several hundred prints here.

There are something like 100 prints of very early work, all smallish black and white pictures. As time passes, the prints get larger and larger, until in the present time we see a lot of essentially life size or larger full-body portraits. Sometimes there are two or more Shermans in the frame, life sized, with a fair bit of space around them. These things are big.

The show is hung like garbage. In several cases its not clear what photos a given wall-blurb refers to, and some photos are sprinkled throughout that could belong to one of several different series that are blurbed and (mostly) grouped at the end. Frequently, examining a photo involves dancing around reflections and glare. The wall-blurbs themselves are borderline gibberish, but I suppose that is to be expected.

Knowing that prints of several of these objects have sold for millions of dollars imparts a slight sense of awe. It's a little like seeing a Monet show, although attenuated to the tune of a couple of zeros.

Anyways, with a little effort you can sort it out and start to make some sense of Sherman's career.

The magic quality that Sherman has is the ability to evoke a kind of recognition. In the Untitled Film Stills you recognize the movie. Kind of. It's not Breakfast at Tiffany's it's.. it's... what is it? You can't quite put your finger on it. Eventually you realize that there is no single film she's drawing from, that there is nothing to recognize, and yet you feel that powerful tip-of-my-tongue sensation. She is showing you the distinctive look of the thing, the tropes, the posture, the framing, and so on.

After the UFS it's a bit more hit and miss, but you do often have that same recognition, usually of people. I know her, she's that famous.. who is she?

Unfortunately, Sherman starts and ends with that sense of recognition. Well, she's also quite funny, but "funny" doesn't shift Art, so there's a lot of energy expended pretending that Sherman isn't just being funny.

She does this recognition in, I think, two distinct ways, although UFS arguably constitutes even a third.

The first approach is more direct. You recognize a specific thing, or you feel you do. I know that film, that person. In this case we are recognizing essentially media tropes, elements of cinema or public personas. The second, different, approach is recognition of a type or mood. Sherman has several series (Centerfolds, The Pink Robe, and a couple of others) which appear to be experiments with color and mood. In them she is generally portraying an otherwise generic woman-as-victim. We do not recognize the woman or her specific circumstances, but we do recognize the mood, the general kind of woman and the kind of situation in which she finds herself. We are recognizing here something more real, and less media (although the media surely colors our idea of what a woman in trouble looks like.

The trouble with Sherman is that all she's got is this thing we might call quotation. She started out quoting (or, if you prefer, paraphrasing) cinema. Later on she did various grotesqueries paraphrasing pornography and fairy tales, and for the last 20 or thirty years she is quoting (or wilfully, humorously, mis-quoting) specific types of people. This ability to create recognizable and yet not recognized (if you will permit me the glibness) pictures makes her quotations especially wonderful. But they remain quotations.

Archetypal are some magazine cover triptychs from her early work. Three copies of the same magazine cover: the original, another with Sherman's face made up to resemble the model (very well, by the way) pasted in to replace the model's face, and a third the same except Sherman is making a silly face. The antecedent, the quotation, the witty mis-quote. This is her constant theme.

These quotations are generally credited to her as "critque" which is largely bullshit. When she makes a grotesque of pornography, she is, well, let me quote from the wall blurb:

Sherman's images debunk the conventions of pornography and ridicule its visual language as a sham that conceals a striking emptiness.

Which, well, OK. I'm certainly not going to argue that pornography is deep and profound, it is pretty empty in some important senses. But let us see what the wall blurb has to say when she does the same thing for fairy tales. After some blather about media and violent themes in cinema and television drama and the forces of depravity in the contemporary world, we end with:

Sherman's use of artifice distances her images from these media sources. Even so, Fairy Tales hold up a mirror to the inescapable fact that such dark forces exist.

I mean, which is it? She's doing much the same thing in both places. She's quoting, in humorous/ridiculous ways the visual language of porn, and of fairy tales. Perhaps it's the fairy tales that actually conceal the striking emptiness, and it's porn that's the mirror. How on earth are we to know?

The critics are, obviously, just blathering. They are seeing Shermn more or less blandly quoting this thing or that thing, and applying to her work their own ideas. Pornography bad, therefore obviously this is a harsh deconstruction of its badness. Fairy Tales are um, damn it, violence in television is a thing so something something.

When I quote Brad Feuerhelm, let's say this doozy:

When one gets to speaking on “photographic seeing” what I am proposing is a way in which those attributes along with the rigour of what the subject may or may not be to an outside audience is endemic of the whole.

if I just put it out there, you could guess that I am mocking Brad (I am) because you know me. Perhaps you, like me, think Brad is a dunce, you'll examine this dogshit with fear and lust, and realize that it is as usual gibberish. If, on the other hand, you were a fan of Brad (i.e. another dunce) and found this quote in some random context, you likely would not notice that it is gibberish and would interpret the act of quotation as something other than mockery.

To make a quotation unambiguously criticism you have to add something to it, you have to say "and therefore, the whatever-it-is is dogshit."

There are a few things in the Sherman show that the critical apparatus is unable to get a handle on. There are some pictures of Sherman decked out as this clown or that clown, and the wall blurb contains 31 words on the series, and concludes that clowns are vaguely sinister. The critics have no idea what the hell is going on, and so, for once showing wisdom, fall more or less silent. I like the clown pictures almost the best of the lot, because they are so patently Sherman having fun and not trying to lard the work with to signs and portents for the critics to gnaw on. And, lo, she has evidently thwarted them here! Yay!

The single most interesting thing I noticed in the exhibit is how thoroughly different the Untitled Film Stills are from the rest. In these pictures she is engaged in full-body acting, in a fully realized scene, to recreate various feminine movie character types. I think you can argue maybe successfully that there is critique, comment, here, simply because she made a whole lot of them and one can readily see how limited the available character types are. This was a rather in-vogue discussion at the time (Mulvey invents "male gaze" in 1975, Sherman shoots these things 1977-1980). It's just quotation, but a great deal of it, perhaps to make a point.

In the UFS photos, she consistently looks like Cindy Sherman in a wig. Because she has not yet settled on her later technical methods, she is not able to so alter her face. Therefore she leans on other, less artificial-looking, methods to evoke her signature sense of recognition. Following UFS she did a couple of other things which are much more like her later work (focus on Sherman just sitting/standing there, in a made background, she fills the frame and emotes rather than acts) but in which her technical methods are not as fully realized.

The Centerfolds, Pink Robe, and a few other items mentioned above fall here. Sherman is emoting in the role of woman-as-victim, but is not trying to look like any particular physical type. She is content to look like herself, and embody a role. She does these things well. I would not say that she is much of a colorist, while these things over the decade or so that she did them are color studies they are invariably unappealing, almost ugly. These kinds of things wrap up in in the 1980s, though, and Sherman settles in to her groove of media quotation and mis-quotation more or less permanently.

Apart from UFS and the handful of color-study series, all the pictures are of the same type. Sherman glommed on to a bit of technique very early (I think we might see it first in the magazine covers). for the last 30-35 years perhaps, she has been lighting herself with two equally sized lights, one on each side, a little out front. This, I think, flattens her face out and allows her to draw on whatever contours she likes. She turns her face into a visually flat canvas, upon which she paints a new face.

It is startling to see the same lighting pattern so ubiquitous, over so many decades. Even when she is making fake old-masters paintings, there are the two highlights, the flattened face, the painted-in shadows indicating contours that do not exist. It is especially weird when she is quoting paintings from those eras when light was so central -- her light is completely wrong for the style, although Sherman as the model generally nails it.

Eventually she uses painted backgrounds, and in the series she made for Chanel a few years ago, the Cindy Sherman figure is blended into the background, the edges of her figure disintegrating into digital paint strokes to fit the painted scene in which she "stands." Everything is merely a canvas upon which paint of one sort or another is applied, and always, always, the two parallel catchlights in the eyes, one a little left and one a little right.

Sherman is clearly have a great deal of fun. She might well be having a go at social criticism, but it's not particularly evident in the work. I think she just shoves in some stuff for the critics to play with, and lets them figure it out, and meanwhile she's dressing up as a dinosaur and saying RARRRRRRR a great deal, because who doesn't want to dress up as a dinosaur and say RARRRRRR?

I kinda liked the show, but honestly, after a couple hundred pictures of Cindy Sherman, it gets a bit thin. She doesn't have an enormous range, and while she does the thing she does very very well, one feels that she has rung the changes on all of it, and perhaps there's not much more to say here. Perhaps she was kind of done around 1990 and has been fuckin' around enjoying herself every since. Which is all very well, but the work isn't super interesting any more.

It's fun, it's witty, but it's just so goddamned BIG and there's just so MUCH of it.