Thursday, April 30, 2020

Mona Lisa

Let's consider this painting by Leo, the Mona Lisa. The exact details of its origin seem to be lost, or at any rate irretrievably muddled. Still, within a decade or two of its painting it came in to the ownership the French Monarch and remained there until the French Revolution. After that point it moved to the Louvre, with a side trip to Napoleaon's bedroom for a bit, and it's been in the Louvre ever since except for when it was stolen.

The point here is that this thing has been rattling around for 500 years, more or less.

The social milieu in which the painting has resided has changed several times, even if we lump "French Kings" all together, which we probably shouldn't.

For 500 years, various and sundry cultures have looked at the painting and found in it enough worth to not throw it out. What some king saw in it in 1712 I have no idea, but I dare say whatever he saw was not in any meaningful way what I see in the painting. Probably it doesn't much resemble what Leo saw in it 200 years earlier, or what whoever commissioned it saw (if indeed anyone commissioned it.)

The thing has legs. (haw haw haw)

I don't pretend to know why this painting has managed to avoid being thrown out. It probably does not hurt that it's a picture of a person but that is certainly not the whole thing.

Consider now contemporary art.

Somewhere in the MOMA's storage facilities are things like a pile of bricks, with a sheet of paper describing how to stack them up. They paid $800,000 for this at some point. (I am making this specific thing up, but the shape of the thing is true even if the details are made up.) In its day it was, genuinely, a powerful statement of something or other by a renowned artist. The social milieu in which it was made accepted it, created it, as that thing.

Will the social milieu, the culture, of 2120, find some new value in this, find some new way to view this crated pile of bricks as valuable enough to not throw away? I don't know, but I hazard a guess that the answer is probably not. While this pile of bricks might survive the inevitable culling, many similar objects will not. Some attempt will be made to sell them, and then into the dumpster they go.

This is not an indictment of the pile of bricks. In the first place, we're stipulating that it was a Good and Important piece in its day. In the second place, the process of culling and reducing collections is inevitable. If the MOMA still exists in 2120 it will have gotten rid of a great deal of 20th and 21st century art, to make room for newer work. That art has to go somewhere, and some it will find its way into dumpsters. sic transit gloria mundi and all that.

For all art, the passage of time is a gauntlet, and all will eventually fall to the headsman. Some few pieces get more time than most. It may surprise some of you to learn that libraries discard books at a fairly brisk pace, which is why libraries do not normally explode.

Which brings us around to photography.

It may well be my snobbish sneerning nature, but I cannot shake the notion that virtually everything from about 1970 to 2020 will end up in the dustbin before 2120. Good stuff, bad stuff, whatever. Not much of it makes any sense outside of its social milieu.

Even Sally Mann (sniffle). Those Blackwater tintypes will never survive being broken out of the collection. They make exactly zero sense outside the context of the rest of Mann's oeuvre. I mean, it's not a sure thing, art lovers are weird and idiocyncratic. Maybe 100 years from now there will be some completely new read on them that continues to declare then Great Art, just as the Mona Lisa is continuously re-imagined, re-read, and maintained in the pantheon. I am not particularly hopeful about the Blackwater series, though.

Things like pretty much everything in the MACK Books catalog will, I predict, be gone inside of a decade, maybe two. The bubble of collective hallucination which sustains all art is, in this case, very small, and to my eye very tenuous.

A commenter asked me what I thought of Brad Feuerhelm's Dein Kampf and I answered somewhat glibly. Later, I watched a video leafthrough, which you may also endure here: Dein Kampf. To be fair, it's not nearly as awful as I glibly suggested. There are hints of sequence, there are references back and forth between pictures. There's citation of Pictorialism, which always warms me up to your project.

But it's still very thin. There's no pacing, no modulation, it's just a single note of "I Hate Berlin" which is a pretty overdone and not very interesting genre. Especially since, as far as I can tell, everyone loves Berlin.

Is it going to wear well? Well, like the Blackwater tintypes, I'm not seeing it. Unlike the Blackwater tintypes, it has no particular context that gives it life. To my eye, it's just out there blundering around in the dark with all the other books of German Cement marinating in self loathing to no particular purpose. Will some social milieu 50 years hence somehow latch on to it and raise it to iconic status? It's possible, but I don't see how.

I consider it possible that in 100 years Art Historians will look back on this time as the last gasp of photography. These were the decades when photography split its time between inferior copies of the early 20th century, and meaningless noise. These were the decades when photography discovered, to its surprise, that there wasn't anything there, and by around 2030 the world was, to everyone's relief, pretty much giving up on photography as a serious thing.

This isn't a viewpoint I find appealing, because I think there is a lot of juice left in the old girl. It's just that nobody's doing it, the Serious Names are all engaged in this pointless self-loathing exercise, and the amateurs are all trying to be Ansel Adams or Alec Soth, or just stuck taking pictures of bugs and milk splashes.

(present company excepted, naturally! But we are not collectively much of a movement, are we?)

I would hate to see photography lose its way not because there is nowhere to go, but because idiots keep spilling their drinks on the map.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Artist You Hate

It occurred to me, as I was noodling on something or other, that everyone who thinks about art seems to have a little list of Important Names that they hate.

My list isn't even little, it's an enormous sprawling thing, but if you pay attention you'll find that this guy can't stand Alec Soth but loves Michael Ashkin, while that other guy is exactly reversed. Sometimes it's nuanced, I suppose, perhaps the first guy "gets" Soth, but simply doesn't like what he has to say, but often it seems to be just Soth's photos are just bullshit about nothing, but my guy's photos are awesome. Someone looking from the outside might well propose a pox on all their houses because, holy cow.

The liking tends to be pretty vague, too. In one discussion from a year or two back, a fellow proposed to me that Soth and some others had adopted the look of the snapshot, but within that aesthetic made things that end up being very different. Not to put too fine of a point on it, I don't follow. It's not clear that my correspondent was capable of further elucidating the "very different" elements, and I certainly don't see them. All the snapshot-aesthetic people seem to be to be taking snapshots (which is not necessarily a bad thing.)

Certainly there are photos made by Sally Mann which, taken in isolation, look like a bunch of nothing. I can do a little better, I think, than no, they're something very different in the way of explaining why I like them, but it might come out sounding to you like mystification. Even if I can, this is not really an indication that Ashkin's fans are all wet, maybe they're just not very articulate.

Anyways. As previously noted in these pages ad nauseum we evaluate Art both on the basis of properties inherent in the piece, but also on the basis of social and contextual cues.

Jörg Colberg likes Michael Schmidt's pictures of cement, I like Sally Mann's pictures of underbrush and grass, and someone apparently likes Alec Soth's pictures of drowned bedframes.

Each of us is, in some sense, inside the artist's world. We see the interconnections that give these things meaning beyond the contents of the frame.

The insight here is that in order to make someone like your pictures, you don't want to get into their world, you want them to enter yours.

Monday, April 27, 2020

A Paradox

A stupid conversation emerged on twitter. Someone, a middle-aged white dude, took exception to the idea an artist's best work is done when young. Then a bunch of other middle aged white men agreed desperately. It was like looking in a mirror after a stroke.

Anyways, anyone who spent any time being a mathematician knows that there are changes in our mental capabilities as we age. The hard truth is that if you, as a mathematician, are going to make some dizzying leap, are going to see some vital connection between two wildly differing things, are going to break some terrifying new ground, you are going to do it before your 30th birthday.

This does not mean that you become immediately at age 30. As our minds evolve, we trade in that (potential) lightning in a bottle for a steadiness, for experience, for both depth and breadth. Older mathematicians publish valuable papers, but those papers expand existing work, finish things up, clarify things, and generally steady the foundations of what has been built. Almost without exception there are no tremendous, startling, strides made by mathematicians over 50. I do not mean here only 1 in a 100 or so I mean like maybe 3 people total have made substantive creative leaps in mathematics after their 50th birthday, and I can't name any.

The young creative strives to pack enough material into their brain — barely, there's not much time — to do some explosive work before mental arthritis sets in. Later, in the fullness of maturity, they find other things to do.

Art, interestingly, reveals here a paradox.

We evaluate Art in part on the work itself, and in part on the stature and character of the Artist. This can range from a cynical well, he's in the pantheon, so if he shits in a bucket, that's Great Art to more generous greater willingness to take time with an artist you recognize. Regardless of where you fit in the spectrum of cynicism, you will find it difficult to disentangle the artist's stature from the quality of the work.

The consequence here is that as a known artist ages, and their stature rises, their Art tends to "improve" at least in the sense that it is evaluated more and more positively.

Paul Graham, aged 55, can show up with 18 substantially identical snapshots of him mum napping in a chair and get a book deal. Reviewers will scramble around muttering about the subtle differences between the frames, and how important they are, and so on. People will mumble about view cameras, despite the fact that Graham might as well have used his phone to take these things.

Objectively, Graham is lazily phoning it in. Whether he has no ideas, or whether he's simply not willing to put his ideas into a book for Micheal Mack I dunno, but his latest book is certainly pretty thin.

But his latest is nevertheless judged to be superb, because Paul Graham is in the pantheon, and he's aging and therefore getting wiser and better, right? Right?

This is what a friend of mine calls a self-licking ice cream cone. The actual work is free to vanish up it's own ass as far as anyone cares. As long as the work is not visibly the result of advanced dementia, Paul Graham (and legions of other members of the pantheon) can do pretty much whatever the hell strikes their fancy. The arc of their career is set, subject to minor in-flight adjustments.

This doesn't mean that 50 year olds are all doomed and ought to hang it up. We oughtn't. Indeed, if we didn't do anything worth a shit in our 20s, it is indeed possible that our best work is ahead of us still.

But whatever we do, it is wildly unlikely to be anything earth-shattering. Our shot at making something wildly new, something remarkable, of making some insane new synthesis of ideas that, somehow, Just Works, that's gone. That was 2 decades ago, we missed it.

Now, we can make good work ringing the changes on things we've already done, that others have done. We can clear away underbrush, we can steady the foundations.

There's plenty of excellent work to do. Just not that work.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Book Project

This is what I've been working on. I have yet to buy a hard copy so I don't actually know for sure how it'll be, hence the pricing. Obviously if you really want a copy that bad, go for it, but I cannot in good conscience recommend it. Not only is the magazine $10,000 but blurb always gets ya on the S&H too.

Sonata No. 1 "Clematis"

Friday, April 24, 2020

Working on a Thing

I'm in progress on a thing. A thing involving these things:

I sure hope these damned things are clematis, because that's what I am calling it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Good-ness, Gracious, Me

Lest anyone think I am merely picking on the hapless Mr. Colberg in the previous, allow me to remind you that the entire thrust of this stupid blog of mine from the beginning has been to work out what separates a good photo from a not good one.

Tyros seem to think that it's a collection of technical and formal qualities (focus, rules of composition, lighting patterns) muddled up with some purely subjective judgments that are beyond the ken of man. See these idiots, for example.

In reality the goodness of a photo, like the goodness of any art, is largely social, but only slightly subjective. We agree, as a community, on what is and is not good. This narrows down to as small a community as a camera club or an internet forum, or even as small as the austere community of 3 or 4 people who actually like German photo books. It grows as large as Western Society all numbly agreeing that da Vinci was quite good after all.

Well, I cannot do much socially about my own status as a pariah, so I am interested in which of these societal judgments are made on the basis of things that actually appear in the frame. Things which I could, in theory, put into the frame.

Let us back up to Duchamp and his urinal. This work is declared good because of the artist, because of his concept, because of the social construct around "Fountain." Nobody ever said Boy, what a great urinal. That's a good urinal. To say such a thing would have been to completely miss the point. See also the banana duct taped to the wall. I am not complaining here, I quite like both pieces. They are both witty, they both make a point (much the same point). I think they are both good but I do not think that the qualities in the piece itself are at all relevant.

On the other hand, we have Ansel Adams. Also in part a social construct, of course. The stature of the artist matters. However, there are formal, visual, qualities in the pictures themselves you can point to which we, as a society, have agreed tend toward goodness. As a society we think wilderness and mountains are pretty. There are formal qualities of composition leading to balance, interest, resolved tension, and so on and so forth. These are things we can observe in the picture which are, to a degree, predictors of the social response to the pictures.

I cannot be Ansel Adams, but I can put things into the picture that will tend to make people like my pictures in the same way they like his. The goodness adheres in part to the content of the piece, in ways that the goodness of Duchamp's "Fountain" does not.

Now, if I vanished into the archives of Michael Schmidt, and came out with this:

there is essentially no doubt that some people who nod wisely and say things like not his best work, of course, but it's obviously good, don't you know. And then, they would be very grumpy to learn that I shot it last night on my phone while walking my dog.

And this is the essential nub of the thing.

I am happy to stipulate that in some sense Michael Schmidt's shitty pictures of concrete, when bound in to a book, are in some sense good in the same way that Duchamp's urinal is.

If anyone can do it, though, if anyone can go to the hardware store and buy a urinal, we have to admit that the goodness in no way adheres to the work itself. It is not present in the qualities of the object.

As nearly as I can determine, anybody can churn out these dreary grey messes more or less endlessly. I seem to be able to bash them out at a few an hour. Now, if I wanted to be a proper photo-monk, I would do it with a view camera, and my rate would drop accordingly, but so what? No matter how much fuss I wrap around this sort of thing, there's no way the pictures themselves are in any way special. This isn't to say that Michael Schmidt and the Mahlers and Michael Ashkin and all these people are not making good work in some sense. I am not part of of community that judges it so, and indeed I don't get it. But there is a community that has passed judgment, and found these artists to be good.

What a community of this sort cannot do, though, is claim that the urinal itself is good. The goodness of "Fountain" does not adhere to the urinal.

Either there are qualities in Schmidt's (and Colberg's) photos that I cannot perceive, or they are in fact stampable-out like donuts by anyone with a camera. I am going to proceed thus, since, after all, I cannot perceive any such qualities. Absent these mysterious qualities, these photos can no more be good than Duchamp's urinal is in and of itself, a good urinal.

So, when Jörg pops up saying one or more of these things are good it captures my attention. It's not a statement that makes sense to me, and so I think about it, quite hard, to see if I can work out what I am missing.

If we pay attention over the next couple of years, we are going to be treated to a case study. Jörg has gotten himself a book deal, and he is indeed capable of grinding out those horrific masses of flat grey. In my judgement he has the attention, to a slight degree, of the powers that be.

If indeed there is some quality inherent in these kinds of photos, some discernible properties which the sufficiently delicate (Jörg, The Establishment) can indeed perceive, then his work should be recognized as good. If on the other hand it's got nothing much to do with the pictures, but with who you know, who your mentors were, how rich you are, and how well you schmooze, well, the mysterious qualities he sees in his pictures might not in fact propel him into the pantheon.

Nothing is certain, of course. It's always partly about how well you schmooze. But we'll be keeping our eyes open! Jörg has already sold one book, assuming it's not some 400 euro monster.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Something to Look At

Jörg has a newsletter, but you don't have to subscribe. You can just read it here. It's not very exciting, but you might find something in it you like. Perusing his latest, I came across this picture:

(note that I did not download this, I am simply linking directly in to substack's publicly accessible copy of the picture, so fie on thee and thy DMCA takedown notices).

Anyways, he remarks: I knew this would be a good picture the moment I saw the scene.

Now, I am long on the record as being open-minded on the subject of what "good" might mean. I think any picture can be good if you give it the right home, and I also wrote about this guy: Vernacular Enigma. So, I am the guy who is definitely willing to go to the mat and try really hard to see what makes a picture worth looking at, worth taking.

Quick now, before I start ranting, I will acknowledge that I think the question of what makes a photo good is a ferociously complicated and difficult question. I am very loathe to declare a photograph not-good, and my judgements are always conditional well, look, if you put it in the right context, maybe? The quality of being good is not entirely or even mostly inside the frame. But, if you're gonna declare your picture good as a stand-alone object...

I just don't see it. We're not in the land of Jörg's vague the pictures in the book are, of course, excellent where you wonder maybe if he means this one, or that one. We're up against it. He's baldly asserting that this specific picture is a good picture.

So, uh, christ. Let's try to figure out what on earth he might be seeing here, I guess?

He's smashed the midtones into a flat goo, so it looks like all those other Germans, or, I suppose, maybe the light really was that flat? Whether he did it in post, or whether it looked like that, it's clearly part of the look he feels is good. Maybe it's a clinical thing, or a refusal to lean on the conventions, or a refusal of cheap drama.

I mean, whatever the rationalization, it's definitely an aethetic, they all do it. There's a reason, even if we don't know it. It is, as the kids say, a thing.

Formally, there's some structure. There's the rock in the foreground, a flat area of ground, a contrasting welter of tangled branches above that, and obscured behind the branches a oddly geometrical building with a sort of weird grid structure that both defies and echoes the tangle. There's the strong cross shape of horizontal branch across tree, which could either read as a reference to The Cross, or is just another echo of the grids on the building behind.

There's the blob of evergreen thing in the middle which, uh, fuck, I have no idea, but I could probably make up some formal bullshit about what it echos or balances, and there's some other shit around the edge.

So there's some sort of chaotic formal structure, I guess, all revealed in this sort of HDR-lite clinical detail, more like a blueprint than a photograph. Ok, I guess.

But ultimately who gives a shit? It's a clinical precision blueprint of some random crap.

How, really, is it different from these flat messes I shot with my phone while puzzling over this?

These things also have formal structure and a wilfully unappealing flatness, although I must admit I did not wait for a cloudy day and it was evening, so there's still a bit of drama that I could not drain out.

I'm certainly not claiming that someone ought to give me an MFA for these pictures. Indeed, I would probably attack anyone who attempted it.

But... what the hell is Jörg seeing in his picture that causes him to judge it a good picture? What, in particular, distinguishes it in his mind, as it surely must be distinguished, from any other potential picture of random shit taken on a cloudy day and murdered in Photoshop?

Why point the camera there with such satisfaction and not just, well, anywhere?

If we unwind time a bit, maybe we can trace this sort of thing back to the Bechers. The Düsseldorf school is certainly all over this kind of austere fuck-you look to their pictures, and often they seem to lean toward pictures of nothing.

The Bechers could absolutely answer the question of why point the camera that way instead of anywhere else? The answer was because there's a mine headframe there, and there isn't one in any of the other directions. It was not a complex algorithm, but one could make sense of it.

The result was, as we all know, a whole bunch of these austere, clinical, photos of mine headframes. Another year it would be grain elevators, and so on.

The same fuck-you aesthetic, more or less (they were not so allergic to blacks and whites, but the same sense is there), the same bland nothing subjects. The same sense that the viewer is being willfully cast adrift in a small boat to make their own way to land. With the Bechers, though, there was land to be found. The point is actually pretty obvious. Mine headframes are cool, they are interesting. It is interesting that they all look the same, and yet differ. They are interesting and in a way beautiful on their own.

Once one begins actually paddling, the land is not even hard to find.

It might be worth noting that the Bechers did series, not singletons. A single mine headframe, though more interesting that much of what we see from Mr. Colberg, would not be likely to make the point. 16 of them in a grid begins to make sense, though. Gursky doesn't do series, at least not famously, but sometimes he can make some sense even with his own take on much the same clinical aesthetic, but that's because he's very political and blunt. He's trying to make a point, rather than trying to avoid making a point.

With the others in the same vein, whether actually Düsseldorf or no, I don't feel like there's actually any land. It feels as if the artist has managed the aesthetic, and the pose of clinical detachment, has mastered the fuck-you, and the thrusting of viewers in to small boats, but has missed the point that there's supposed to be some land somewhere. Indeed, they seem to have developed the idea that there isn't supposed to be land. The viewer is supposed to, I guess, find something in the boat.

But if the point is to find something in the boat, if there is no land, then again, why this picture instead of that one? Why not point the camera any damn place? What makes this picture good?

Putting these things into books does not seem to help much. It's just bafflement on bafflement, although sometimes you do get a hint of boy, I hate Berlin.

Jörg seems to feel that there is some land someplace, but I am damned if I can find it, and I've been paddling this boat a while now.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Henri-Carteir Bresson is NOT a Street Photographer!

I know, I know, everyone thinks Henri-Cartier was the greatest street tog. But he was not even a street photographer!

Is there any evidence, ever, that he argued with anyone about what real street is? No. I looked. There isn't any. He never argued with anyone about what true street was. I don't think he even called his photos street! He didn't even know the term "decisive moment!" and used some weird nonsense word instead: ala sauvette whatever that means. Is it like horse douvre?

In fact he doesn't even seem to be in any forums or on social media. I didn't check every forum of course but I hit all the big ones, and he's not there. How can you argue about street unless you're in a forum?

Obviously if he's not in any forums or on social, he also can't have called anyone out for not shooting real street.

The other thing I checked for was collectives. Every real street tog belongs to at least one street collective, and he doesn't belong to any.

The only group he seems to belong to is some sort of gun club.

All he ever seems to so is to take pictures.

Time for us to stop worshipping Mr. Bresson! He isn't all that!

(Doesn't anyone like my "gun club" joke?)

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Tools of the Trade

Academic Art, as I have noted in the past, is explicitly made to be opaque to outsiders. Students are urged to be dig deeper, to create new ways of expression. The results read, and are intended to read, as inscrutable. These are experiments in expression.

James Joyce wrote a, um, celebrated thing called Finnegan's Wake. It is universally known, and almost universally unread, on account of the difficulty involved in reading it. This thing was an experiment, and kind of an interesting one, I guess. I certainly have not read it. I have read Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury in which every 4th chapter or so is written in a similarly, uh, difficult style. It was No Fun At All.

This category of experiment, the nonsense/stream of consciousness style, popped up every now and then for a while. While individual works are celebrated, it has not been successful in the sense that it has been widely adopted, at least not in toto. Similarly people experiment with lipogrammatic novels, La Disparition for example, in which you write without the use of some particular letter of the alphabet, and again, these ideas may or may not be successful in single cases but are never widely adopted. And on it goes. I dare say one could develop quite a list of similarly failed and semi-failed experiments.

Indeed, people write novels today using more or less the same toolkit that Dickens used, the same tools 7th graders use to write book reports, the same tools middle managers use to write memos. Sentences with structures one can diagram, that follow more or less from one another, and so on. Certainly the memo writer tends to use fewer allegories and a different vocabulary than does the novelist, but they two things are recognizably the same thing in ways that Finnegan's Wake recognizably is something else.

This is not to suggest that we ought not favor experimentation. Not every idea is going to work out. Indeed, most of them will founder. A few will work out. I dare say there was a time when the framing devices we now take as standard in novels would have been frowned upon. Does the flashback fall in and out of fashion? What about unreliable narrators (the most irritating of tics, but common), and inner monologues?

Can we see the bootprints of Joyce or Perec in contemporary novels? Maybe? I suppose there must be at least few writers at least who are both publishable and sufficiently fannish to work a little of their hero's methods in here and there, and I dare say it enriches the literature. I guess, for instance, you can draw a line from Joyce to Kerouac to the present time.

Could you, in 1900 or 1940 or 1960 have guessed which of "stream of consciousness" and "lipogram" would enter the standard toolbox? In hindsight it appears obvious that lipgram was not going to make the cut, but probably at times stream of consciousness looked just as ridiculous as lipograms and nonsense.

I suppose every MFA candidate who's taking pictures of his feet with a pinhole camera for his book Racism is Very Bad hopes to be inventing something akin to the unreliable narrator, with a backup plan of being Joyce in a pinch. In reality, though, most of them are just the long-forgotten author who thought "what if I write the book backwards with every third letter reversed" and who never found a publisher.

Not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, innovation is a good thing. On the other hand, we seem to be sacrificing an awful lot of lambs for not much useful output.

Where is the line between laboratory and scam?

And, perhaps more important, who really needs to care? Most novels, still, are written using Dickens's toolbox, which seems to be adequate to the task. The novel is not, after all, the tools. One does not actually need a new mode of expression to express a new idea.

Friday, April 17, 2020


I have spent a lot of time over the years grumbling about how carefully photographers teach one another not to see. They learn to distract themselves with trivia like leading lines and rules of thirds. They examine sharpness and white balance, lighting, poses, and so on. This, I have argued and continue to believe, often prevents would-be photographers from actually seeing much of the photo.

Rudolf Arnheim talks about a lot of experiments (and there are a lot of them) in which people are repeatedly shows very simple scenes in many variations, with their impressions being recorded and charted and studied.

The point is that we all bring a lot of baggage with us when we're looking at pictures. The experiments Arnheim surveys are largely concerned with how we see when the baggage is set aside — they use a lot of abstract shapes, lines, and so on. The scenes are simplified to the point of absurdity, arguably for no reason except to clear away the clutter.

Amateur photographers of the particularly earnest technical stripe on the other hand bring a lot of very specialized baggage with them.

The average mook looking at a pictures brings their own baggage. While they may not bring a bunch of "rules of composition" nonsense with them, they might well bring some pretty personal stuff with them. They will also bring a sort of standard kit of baggage, that everyone in their cultural milieu carries around.

A picture of Kim Kardashian is likely to have some pretty dynamic curves in it, and if it's well done there will be some things about the fall of light on rounded objects and whatnot. Stuff Arnheim could tell you about.

It will also be a picture of a voluptuous woman, likely one who is holding herself in a way to emphasize that voluptuousness because, Kim. There's a whole slew of material the average, say, westerner is going to bring to a picture of a voluptuous woman.

Finally, it's a picture of Kim, who is locked eternally in a social media battle with Taylor Swift, and getting her ass handed to her. Many westerners (and not a few non-westerners) will have some sort of like/dislike reaction to Kim, she's a polarizing cultural figure.

I have, of late, been interested in what we might as well call pure seeing, that kind of stuff Arnheim talks about. That baggage-free seeing. I think I have some little facility with it, and I certainly try to do it when I look at pictures as well as, sometimes, the world. It seems to me that, surely, it is the basis of it all. These are the human universals, right? These are the things we can rely on, regardless of which set of baggage a viewer is dragging with them.

At the same time, I wonder if it matters.

Does pure seeing inform the way we take in the voluptuous woman's form, and does that in turn inform the way we take in the photograph of Ms. Kardashian? Or, alternatively, does our affection for the subject simply obliterate all the other stuff, and we see only Kim-the-celebrity?

I don't have an answer here beyond maybe? maybe both-and? It certainly encourages me in the direction of subjects to which less baggage adheres. Maybe I can make something out of flowers after all.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Where are all the portraits?

I just had a thought the other night.

You know how Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston, and loads of other Famous Photographers started out/supported themselves by running commercial portraiture operations?

Where the hell are all those portraits? I mean, we see portraits, but only the ones from their artistic ventures, never the grind-em-out commercial work. I cannot recall ever seeing any such thing, nor any collections of them, nor any shows containing these objects. Surely there must be a bunch of these things out there, and surely someone has (could? might?) collect some of them together.

Where the hell are all the portraits?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Great Men of Photography

The so-called "Great Man Theory" is really an approach to writing history as a series of biographies. History is seen as, essentially, a series of accomplishments of particularly potent individuals. WWII is the struggle between Hitler and Churchill.

This theory is not particularly well respected in these modern times, although the layman continues to conceive of history in this way. A modern interpretation of WWII (I am not a scholar) might explain it as the inevitable consequence of vast cultural and economic forces. It would have occurred without any of the great men. Had they all died at birth other figures would have been thrust forward to play those roles. The details of the event would have changed, but the overall shape of the thing would have evolved in largely the same way.

I have argued in the past that the "invention" of photography occurred in much this way. Niépce, Daguerre, and Talbot are usually trotted out as the inventors of photography, with varying degrees of implication that "but for these men..." In reality, as is obvious to anyone who looks, the knowledge and the will had simply coalesced in western Europe at that time, and the invention of photography in some form was inevitable. The details would have varied, as the parallel development in England and France illustrate, but the end result would almost certainly have ended up more or less exactly here.

At this point allow me to divert your attention to a recent Colberg piece, on Stephen Shore's latest book (from MACK, naturlich, Jörg being apparently their in-house reviewer now.)

In it he draws a somewhat outré parallel between Shore, Strand, and Moholy-Nagy. I think I get it, though. He seems to be making the point that each of these three men represent a departure from earlier "photographic seeing" (by which he means "photography") and that each is thus some sort of a pivotal figure. A "great man" in the classic historiographic sense. He's not wrong, here, except in how he relates the narrative.

It is indeed traditional in Photo History to use the Great Man approach, because Photo History is written by amateurs who don't know any better.

Photography is such a chaotic mass of influence and borrowing, it is so easy to steal a method, a look, an aesthetic, that the Great Man approach is guaranteed to be wrong.

In reality, these things are always happening in a morass of cross-influence. Strand, Moholo-Nagy, and Shore (as well as everyone else) were simply artists plucked from the flowing stream. The people doing the plucking (the curators, critics, and so on) tell us that each of these men was seminal, was perhaps the clearest exemplar of the new voice, the new look, the new aesthetic. Was Moholo-Nagy really the shining star of Bauhaus, the one who not only led the way but was also the clearest voice, the most talented of the photographers working there and then? Or did he simply talk faster, schmooze better, and sell himself more effectively? Did he simply choose his friends more carefully?

I don't know, but I do know that Bauhaus wasn't exactly a bunch of yahoos, and I do kinda know how the world works.

Shore's antecedents are at least to a degree obvious and explicit. He grew up, like everyone of his age, surrounded by color snapshots, and his work obviously derives from that. To suppose that he was the only person who made a serious effort to make serious photographs that looked like color snapshots is insane. I know exactly nothing about the Serious Photographic Art in this vein at that time, but it is inconceivable that Shore was alone (and yet the Standard Narrative insists that he was.)

Strand, Moholo-Nagy, and Shore certainly seem to have had ability and clarity of vision, but I think we must allow that in addition they had luck and good PR. We must allow that they do not represent vast revolutionary leaps of aesthetic, of photographic vision. They are, rather, simply good examples of what was going on around them at the time, selected by a somewhat opaque process, and anointed.

None of these players are causal, to suppose that they are is simply ridiculous, but is also the standard narrative. Neither, of course, are they merely swept along by trends outside of their control. Everyone takes part in their own culture, and when one is anointed as a Serious Influence in ones own lifetime, one's influence naturally increases. Each of these photographers certainly was influential, each one bent the course of photography.

Still, if Strand has never picked up a camera, we still would have had Modernism. If Shore had become a banker, color photographs that look like snapshots would have happened anyways. Collage would have been fine without Moholo-Nagy.

Rather than treating Churchill has a prime mover in the Second World War, we see him through the lens of modern historiography as the man who happened to be the leader of Great Britain at that time, and whose actions did shape the conflict to a degree, but always within the confines of the vastly larger forces that caused it, that defined the larger shape of the thing. In the same way, we ought to treat Famous Photographers not as the agents of change, but rather as the most visible objects of change, the victims of change, as it were. They are less the creators of change, and rather more the indicators of it.

It is unfortunate that Moholo-Nagy (and Churchill) left more citable detritus than their contemporaries. Hannah Hoch left us nothing like the 60 Fotos Colberg cites that we can point to as an artifact of that place and time. Churchill, likewise, could not be prevented from writing and writing and writing, and so the bureaucrats who effected the changes demanded by the vast gears of history are forgotten, and Churchill is left to tell us how great he was.

It is curious to see Colberg, who likes nothing more than to rail against the Macho Cult of photography, and to complain about the dominance of Male Gaze in the standard narratives of photographic history, fall into the same patterns. He ought to know better.

He has a platform, of sorts, and he ought to knock off this Victorian way of relating history which is as dated as Pictorialism, and a lot less attractive.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Happy Easter!

If Easter isn't about boiled eggs covered with shards of metal, I don't know what Easter means.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

A Short Narrative

Let me first note that while Arnheim's ideas certainly do resemble in certain details ideas that have come before (Plato's Ideals, Jung's Collective Unconscious) it isn't the same as those things, and his purpose in writing is not the same as those people's. Arnheim is interested in a pretty simple question, which is how do we see? and his book is more or less a survey of the science that had been done up to that point. Is it all correct? I rather doubt it.

Does it fit well with my perception of reality? Yeah, and it's possible, even reasonable, that Plato and Jung both had some vague notions of these same things (they were, after all, humans who could see, and had therefore access to a human visual cortex to ponder and examine) and constructed their towers on some of the same material. But really, Arnheim and I are mostly interested in how people see stuff.

Here are some simple graphics which, I propose, relate a short narrative:

Now, to be sure, this is just me, fumbling through my probably shoddy understanding of Arnheim's ideas, feeling my way through some graphics. To me, the "story" reads clearly. To you.. I don't know. I dare say you see some sort of narrative, especially since I told you there's supposed to be one. Certain elements are likely to "read" for you, but probably not all of them.

For reference (spoiler alert) what I intend is: figure at rest, an eye observes you observing, the figure rises, violent outburst, the figure is prone once more. Is there one figure or two, or three? Is the figure at the end victorious or dead? Unknown.

These arise out of some photographs I have taken recently, and it strikes me that the photos muddy the allegorical waters a great deal by being photographs. It is not an abstract prone figure, but a hand, or a razor. The eye is not an eye, but a flower, or a bottle cap, or a ball.

Even assuming that the abstracted graphics "read" can one successfully do the same things with photographs? Does a prone razor, followed by an ball, have the slightest chance of reading as the prone figure... observes you or will the ground truth of the pictures as what they are forever prevent that? I dunno.

Certainly if I repeat many prone figures, the hand, the razor, the dog, the branch, you will probably get the prone figure reference. Arnheim might teach that your percept of each of these photos would contain the prone figure abstraction, and I assert that by repeating different pictures of different things your percept will distill naturally into the underlying abstraction.

Similarly, if I gave you the ball, the bottlecap, and maybe even an eye, each centered in the frame, you would at least note the common graphical appearence, and might be willing to accept the idea of an eye or a peephole with a little prompting.

I don't entirely know where I am going here. I don't want to tell "Gilgamesh" with pictures of razors and tennis balls, because that would be stupid. But some sort of flow of emotion, or feeling, would be nice.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Arnheim on Expression

I finally managed to bash my way through the last page of Arnheim's Art and Visual Perception. It's not difficult to read or understand, but it is pretty dense, so it took me a lot of time. Many many small bites.

Anyways, as I mentioned earlier he talks a lot about the idea of the percept, that which is perceived, rather than merely seen. This is some sort of gestalt but essentially visual experience of what is seen. It transcends the mere geometry projected onto the retinas, and includes our understanding of the objects as possessing three dimensions (sometimes), ideas about motion, and tension, and so on. The point here is that the rabbit hole goes very deep.

The entire conceit is that, roughly, the material assembled by our visual apparatus, that low-level, distinctly sub-verbal, non-cognitive, chunk of our brain, that material goes much further than we imagine it does. We see two distorted hexagons, one smaller than the other. We perceive two dice, one farther away than the other, one seems in some ineffable way to be striving toward the other.

Arnheim wraps up with a short chapter on Expression, which is essentially the conclusion of his argument and, I think, the statement of his overall thesis. I will attempt to state it myself, with some of what appear to be the implications. To really determine where Arnheim leaves off and I begin, I suspect you'd best read the book, but I will try to alert you to the rough shape of the boundaries as we go. Everything about culture is me, extrapolating from what I understand of Arnheim.

Consider two different cultures. In one (mine) we grieve in postures of low-energy, of ennui. Our bodies are limp and listless, our head hung, our arms dropped. In another, perhaps, they grieve with arms and face lifted to the sky, appealing thereto, in a posture we might consider one of prayerful exaltation.

Consider now a tree, or a painting of one, or a photo. A tree with limbs upthrust and spread, reminiscent of that second posture.

In my culture we might read the tree as symbolizing exaltation, in the other as grief.

The standard explanation here, and evidently the one given by Ruskin, is that we know the postures of people. The tree reminds us of those people, consciously or nearly so, and so we make a cognitive analogy: the tree appears as a man grieving, and so we recognize the tree as symbolizing that.

Arnheim argues, persuasively, that both the tree and the human posture evoke the same expressive/emotional response at a visual level, as percept. Regardless of culture, we see either one, and we react, we feel, in roughly the same way. This feeling is evoked at a pre-verbal, pre-cognitive level. It is baked in to our visual system.

Arnheim's argument is — I think — that it is only when it comes to assigning a name to this percept that we seek analogy with the expressed emotion. Assigning exaltation or grief comes after the expression, not before it. At least to some degree.

Well who cares? The result is the same either way, right? We name it exaltation and they name it grief either way.

In the first place it's academically interesting, and if you know me at all, you know I love that shit. But in the second place it speaks to the universality of visual art.

If the tree begins by evoking essentially the same emotional reaction across all of humanity, well, that's powerful, right? It means that we can, to a degree, reach out to all or at least to many, with some hope of getting through.

Now, we do need still to take care. If we intend to tell "Gilgamesh" with photographs of trees, we might still be sunk. We may need not only the raw, universal, responses to our photos, we may need also the culturally-specific naming of those reactions.

For us, we may need our drooping willow tree to specifically mean grief, the grief of Gilgamesh upon the death of Enkidu. If it doesn't read specifically as mourning, the meaning may collapse, and even Arnheim cannot save us here.

If on the other hand all we require of our drooping willing tree is that pre-verbal, rather more vague, expressive quality, that sense maybe of ennui, of dis-energy, perhaps we can make something more universal. "Gilgamesh" isn't going to work, but something else might. In the land of arms-up grief, they will still read something of the same listlessness in the drooping tree, because the percept in universal in ways the cultural naming of it is not.

The implication of Arnheim's thesis is that a lot more stuff might be down to nurture than to nature, more than we might guess. What the stuff is, though, is pre-verbal, non-cognitive. Something about energy, tension, motion. Maybe yearning, reaching, falling, failing. But nothing so specific as "grief" or "prayer" or "love." Visual art does, after all, seem to enjoy a strangely universal appeal.

Further, if Arheim is right, these things are embedded in strong graphics. Not the muddled grey mess of the MFA student, but the sturdy line, the distinct shape, the clear diagonal obviously leaning heavily on the strong vertical. It's runes and cave drawings, not vague washes of middle tones.

I don't know if Arnheim is right, but his argument is pretty burly. There seems to be some pretty definite work about a world of perception far richer that we might guess offhand, that lies below the verbal, below the conscious, and (perhaps) inextricably entangled with our humanity, even our biology, rather than in the nuance and minutiae of our cultures.

Monday, April 6, 2020


Remember my friend Steve? Well, I ain't seen Steve in 3-4 months. I figured he was in jail, or dead.

Turns out he's neither. He's sober. No drugs or alcohol for three months so far, he's working in the kitchen at the Lighthouse Mission downtown, feeding the homeless guys. He's in a program. A year long thing.

He's even tracking pretty well. Previous bouts of sobriety have left him not-entirely-present. But the lights are on in there this time. Looks good, looks healthy.

Made my day.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

A Thought Experiment

This will ramble a little, and then I will get to the thought experiment.

I was reading an "art-thotz" piece on The White Pube, well, ok, I was skimming it and then after a little bit skipping great chunks of drivel in a desperate race to reach the end before my soul died. So, I didn't really get all of it. Anyways.

The gist seemed to be that some organization, let's call it the People's Front of Judea, has funding, and some other organization. the Judean People's Front, doesn't. Both seem to be social-justice-focused Art Organizations, I guess. I assume that both produce, essentially, macaroni glued to construction paper with an incoherent essay on the back that says roughly "Colonialism was v. bad why won't anyone talk about that."

The fact that the PFJ was well funded and the JPF not seemed to bother the author. I assume that the PFJ is doing social justice all wrong, and the JPF is doing it right or something. I don't know, and the extent to which I do not care cannot be measured with current technology.

This is, essentially, an oft-repeated refrain: There should be more funding for the arts, but it should go only to good art which is, in a bizarre coincidence, made mainly by me, my friends, and a few other people who agree with us about some things we happen to think are very important.

Here comes the thought experiment: Maybe there shouldn't be any funding at all for arts organizations. This neatly solves the problem of allocating funding to good art, but not to bad art. Indeed, I thought to myself, perhaps there should be a limit on the financial size of privately funded arts organizations, because when you get enough private funding in a pile it turns into a grotesque grift anyways.

How awful! What a barbarian! I hear you thinking.

Here's my clever scheme, though. Rather than funding the PFJ and the JPF and the Tate and the MOMA, why not fund people? Everyone gets a check. Not a huge check. Just some money. Do whatever you want with it. If you want to make some art, go for it. If ten of you want to pool your checks and bootstrap a little gallery, go for it. Start an art school. But keep it pretty small, there's a cap.

I'm not sure how amused I am by the idea of the MOMA and the Tate closing, but I rather like the idea of a rotating cast of little schools and little galleries popping up and failing constantly in every town, almost no matter how small.

Sure, there are technical issues (is a graphic design house an Arts organization?) but it's just a thought experiment. Throw out government funding of Arts Institutions entirely, and give that money equitably and across the board to everyone. See what happens.

Yes, it's Universal Basic Income, wearing a prettier hat.

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Punctum

Obvious, the punctum is the dog.

Romeo is the largest pit bull I have ever seen in my life, but he is a very sweet boy.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Is it real?

The world of photography is awash in projects and collections in which cumbersome processes are front and center. This guy takes wet plate photographs of pig's noses, this guy found a huge stash of glass plate negatives inside a piggy bank he bought at auction in Iowa, and on and on. Everything from collections of improbable found material, through cumbersome darkroom processes, to simply I shoot film.

The common thread here, from where I sit, is that all of these things are essentially trivial to fake. Given the sheer number of them, it stands to reason that at least some of them are fake.

Is the Vivian Maier archive fake? Probably not. That one is old enough and got enough traction that, probably, enough people have actually seen some negatives and someone would have said something. That said. John Maloof continues to hold the actual collection remarkably close to the chest. I do not think that one can apply to study the whole archive, even today.

But this is surely the most public of all of them. This is the one that would require the largest conspiracy to cover up, and even there it's probably a dozen people you'd have to have subverted. As any pirate knows, though, that is 11 too many.

Most of these things are really just one person, who is pushing out medium resolution JPEGs onto the web.

What astonishes me is that we have yet, as far as I know, to have seen a Big Scandal in which so-and-so's whatever-it-was is revealed to have been fake all along.

I assume that it's simply because people are not looking very hard, and most people don't even know what to look for.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

I Don't Know

There's tons of people out there who can grab a camera and take a ramble and come back with a bunch of pictures, and in a way, I am jealous of them. Not all of them produce pictures that are any good, and some of them tend toward imbuing these visual beachcombings with rather more weight than I find convincing. But sometimes they're perfectly nice pictures, pleasing to look at.

I could probably do this, technically. At least pretty well. I like to think I have some minimal competence in filling a frame.

The point is, though, that I don't want to. It's not that I am jealous of other people's ability to do it, I am jealous of their ability to take pleasure in doing it. It's just not fun for me, and it clearly is for them (even the windbags, even the people who take junky snaps of nothing.)

Related, and even more important in my tiny insular philosophical corner of the world, is that I find myself unable to force a story to emerge from snapped pictures.

I am certain, as sure as I am that the sun will rise, that if one simply goes and takes photos on some theme, that some sort of project can in theory emerge. One can, eventually, construct a sort of poem, a sonata, or a story, by simply starting out shooting and letting the project emerge.

I can't do it.

I absolutely cannot do it. I have tried, and it does not happen. I have to have some sort of project idea to start with, or nothing happens. What emerges may not much resemble the initial project idea, so in theory I could have started anywhere, right? If the end of the journey is far away from the beginning, why does it matter where you start? And yet, somehow, it does.

I have over the years preached variations on this process, this method that does not work for me, so if I suckered you into it and it didn't work for you either, I apologize. On the other hand, maybe it worked beautifully for you! In that case, I do not apologize.

As always, I dare say there is a spectrum from no idea whatever to a very clear idea indeed and all I can really be sure of is that I need to begin somewhere near the clear idea end of the spectrum. Where, exactly, is a bit murky. All I know is that if I am too far off in the weeds, I end up with a pile of photos and no will whatsoever to look at them after a little while.

So, I Don't Know! Maybe you should always start with a pretty clear project idea!