Sunday, May 31, 2020

Inclusivity Guide

Some industry people pulled together a Photographer's Guide to Inclusive Photography which has gotten a fair bit of traction on social media as a thing everyone should download and take to heart and so on. It's somewhere between not bad and pretty good. What it is, though, is rather thin. If we are honest with ourselves, it has gotten traction mainly because it ticks certain boxes, not because anyone other than me has read it.

If you like you can go download it from the official link where you will be asked to give up your email address because for-profit companies like PhotoShelter collect information on pure spinal reflex. You could also try this direct download link which may or may not work for you, but won't ask for your email address.

The content is a series of essays written by members of marginalized communities, all saying the same thing. This is the content:

Do your research, be empathetic, avoid stereotypes.

The single genuinely actionable piece of advice offered in one essay is to show your work to people in the marginalized community you're photographing and have them vet it for stupid.

In the first place, this is all pretty good for all photography and is, um, kind of basic, surely? Ok, I get that there are a lot of people who actually don't get it, and probably need to hear it again, and maybe 198932 more times.

In the second place, while I agree that showing your work to your subjects is a great idea, expecting them to be much help is a stretch. Members of marginalized communities sometimes love the stereotypes. The community members know their community better than you, but they don't know photography better, it's perfectly possible that they'll give you bad advice. They have no magical powers here. But, sure, share your work, and listen.


How could this have been done better?

The brochure contains this picture, in the section on Transgender.

Let us note straight off that while it may not, upon close inspection, turn out to be a stereotype, it certainly reads as one straight off. At a glance, this is a bog-standard "tranny at her dressing table" shot. Arbus shot a number of these and, less subtly, they are a movie staple. We have the dressing table, we have the gender ambiguous figure gazing at the mirror, we have the vaguely lurid stagey lighting, it's all there.

Err, so, what was that you said about avoiding stereotypes?

Is it, though? Upon inspection is it a more intimate and warm photograph than it appears. It isn't just a still from The Bird Cage or Flawless. It's not even an Arbus. The figure's expression, though largely hidden from us, is clearly muted, introspective. The mood is nothing like the outré stylings of the movie trasnsvestite, or the defiant glare of the Arbus victim. The lighting is, but the person is not.

So, we see if we are attentive that the advice given does actually produce a different picture. Arguably not much different, but different. The transgender woman here is relatively unguarded, or at least appears so, in ways that we are not used to seeing in this photograph. It might have been wise to draw attention to this fact in the text, but alas, no such line was drawn. I suppose we can draw it ourselves, though.

More importantly, though, what is missing is some discussion of how to present this picture so as to not appear a stereotype. At first glance, it looks like like the stereotype, and in this context I found it a bit jarring.

How might one couch this photo to avoid that reading? With what might one surround it?

Might one choose to simply edit this one out, and if so why? Or why not?

Hanging out by itself it appears a stereotype. If we know her better, perhaps we can slip past the stereotype to the person. If this photo truly reveals something important, let it stand, but have a care with it. Don't drop it in the middle of some glib brochure next to a sentence about avoiding stereotypes, put it in the center of a more thorough essay in which we are prepared for this one by a deeper understanding of the person in the picture.

We can read it as an intimate moment of introspection as she sits in what is, let us speculate, the heart of her world, her home. Or we can read it as a "tranny at her dressing table" shot. To comb those two apart is going to require more than being empathetic, there is an actual process of moving words and pictures around that has to happen.

Friday, May 29, 2020

In Faint Praise of Galleries

It is received wisdom in the world of Serious Artists that the art gallery, the curator, the old, white, gatekeeper is a problem. The conceit is that these people and entities are creating artificial barriers, usually vaguely defined, which prevent some brave new world of global, accessible, art. We don't know much about this brave world, except that the formerly underpaid artist currently complaining will be making a comfortable living making art, and that old white people will not be invited.

This is largely untrue.

Let us decourously set aside the transparent conceit here, which is that the people complaining just want to replace the shitty artists (anyone currently successful) with themselves, at the same salary but would, in a pinch, settle for smashing all the toys before letting anyone else play with them.

In reality most of the Art in play here is thoroughly unlikable. Nobody actually wants this stuff. Whether it's a gigantic print of the Rhine River, or some a sculpture you made out of your own underwear and 10 gallons of epoxy, no normal human being actually wants to possess this thing on its own merits. It's not like a candy bar, or a shelter from the rain, or a mode of transportation. Demand for these dumb things needs to be created.

Indeed, most people won't pay even much for appealing art. Legions of photographers attempt to eke out some little income from selling attractive landscapes in cheap frames, or on canvas, and a very few of them manage to pay for their gear. Even fewer manage to also get a living here. And this is stuff people actually like.

The galleries and curators, with their obnoxious artificial scarcity are in fact creating the demand. If Cindy Sherman sold her prints on amazon for $150 each, she would have made $450 by now.

The conceit is that artificial scarcity is to drive prices up, so that old white men can line their pockets. While, sure, this is obviously something the old white men approve of, the first thing artificial scarcity does is create demand. No scarcity, no demand. I mean, just look at this stuff?!

No sane human being wants to own a Crewdson. You might well enjoy looking at his prints, you might find much in them to see and to feel and to experience. But nobody wants to own one. The only reason to own such an object is because it is valuable, and it is valuable because that value has been constructed by a system designed to construct just such value.

The system is an ingenious machine of interlocking parts, including critical writing, marketing, salesmanship, and, yes, scarcity.

Right now, despite the predations of the old white curators, Art is available at every price point. From the $10 range to the $10 million dollar range. It sells at, well, at a rate. A very very slow rate. Because most people don't want to own Art.

If, as the good prog-lefties want, we knock the $10 million dollar price point off entirely, as well as all the high end galleries and auction houses and all the accouterments of the optimistically named "late stage capitalism" side of the Art Market, two things happen: one, several billion dollars evaporate from the industry, making it less accessible, and making the people in the industry less well paid; two, demand for art drops.

Trickle down economics sucks, and that is indeed how the system works now. I don't really see any way to make it work the other way 'round, though. It's art, not tortilla chips. You can replace the money with UBI or something, which is generally a pretty good idea, but hasn't anything much to do with Art.

On the demand side, the in the glorious socialist future (GSF), there is no demand for ugly $2 million dollar photographs, because nobody is drumming up the demand. The demand for $500 art stays flat, or drops: if you bought it because you liked it, maybe you'd do it again in the GSF. If you bought partly because you want a piece of the glamour, maybe you won't, because there's nobody drumming up the glamour.

Maybe I am missing it, but I see no way at all that demand rises in the GSF, and I see at least one substantive way demand drops. In the Glorious Socialist Future, even less Art gets sold.

Now, I am no particular fan of the current system. But the choice is not between "a few old white men get rich" and "all the happy young artists get to make a living gluing their underwear into heaps", it's between "some people make money" and "nobody makes any money."

My position has been, and remains, that we ought to be OK with nobody making any money. Especially not the underwear and epoxy crowd.

Thursday, May 28, 2020


When we react to a piece of art, our feelings arise from a whole bunch of different places. Some of those places are "measurable" and some are not, some are from inside of us, or from some sort of contextual information we happen to have, and which we inflict upon the thing. There are no straight lines here, there are great swirling masses of interacting ideas, facts, falsehoods, and more feelings, all smashing in to one another and producing more of the same.

There's a bunch of things a piano player can do to interpret a piece of music. They can play it fast, loud, they can play individual notes more or less quietly. They can fool around with tempo, they can "swing" the music, and so on. All these things are measurable, which is not to suggest that we ought to measure them. These are audible effects. Some piano players also do things that don't affect the sound, at least not directly. Pressing keys "deep into the keybed" has no effect on the sound, although it may affect the player and thereby alter the interpretation in audible ways somewhere else.

Other things, though, affect the way a piece of piano music takes us. If the player is very pretty, or known to be very talented, if the hall is elegant or shabby. If the stereo system we're listening to the recording through has solid gold speaker cables, and so on. None of these things are audible, but they nevertheless change the way we hear the music.

I do not care to deny anyone their "open soundstage" or their "three-dimensional print," these are real sensations that happen not to arise from anything that is actually present.

There is one important point to be made, though: these feelings which arise from externalities are not transferable. If you don't happen to know a priori that platinum prints, well made, can appear to glow, then when you see one you won't feel the glow. Measurable, the property so disdained by the aficionado, is not the point. Transferability is. The two happen to overlap, perhaps even be exactly the same, but nobody is going to take a densiometer to your print and nobody is going to measure your ridiculous stereo's output.

If I, as a would-be critic, want to tell you, an unknown reader, about a piece of art I cannot be nattering on about non-transferable things. I cannot be telling you about properties of the print, or the painting, or the performance which you cannot perceive unless you've been prepared properly. Critical understandings of Art need to stick to what is in the piece of art and a few details and facts that reasonably surround it. Can I talk about the artist a bit? Sure. Can I talk about the artist's mother? Maybe. Can I talk about the bacon the artist ate the morning before she took the picture? Probably not. The line is a bit blurry, the area is grey.

The region of legitimate discourse may have somewhat fuzzy edges, but it is constrained, and really needs to be mostly about the work at hand.

What I really can't do is talk about things only cultists perceive. I can't talk about the way an ambrotype seems to have such depth because that phrase doesn't mean anything, and it refers to a feeling that only people who like to talk about how ambrotypes have such depth perceive.

Indeed, by introducing such a phrase to the uninitiated, I am likely to do harm. A phrase like such depth might well mean something to the tyro, they might with a bit of struggle invent their own imaginary sensation to fit the phrase. Likely it will not match the feeling it describes to the aficionados, and now the tyro is not only perceiving things that are not actually present, but they're the wrong things.

If I tell someone willy nilly about cat piss flavor notes in wine they might well roll a bit of wine around, imagine they have found it, and then start tasting cat piss in all the wines that the experts agree don't have that note.

Now, not only have I made all wine taste like piss for this poor blighter, I have probably embarrassed him in front of his wiser friends.

To cast it in earlier terms, much of the mystification surrounding, say, photographic prints properly lies with the personal reading, and in that position is a wonderful and rewarding thing. These things do not, however, belong in the critical reading for the simple reason that there's an entire category of people (the uninitiated) who won't include it in their personal reading.

The critical reading seeks to understand the world of possible personal reads, and therefore properly hews to the transferable, or measurable.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A Fire on Railroad Avenue

In the early morning of Feb 18, 2019, one of the coldest nights of that year in Bellingham, a homeless man started a fire behind 1324 Railroad Avenue to keep warm.The fire spread to the building, damaging 1314, 1324, and 1322 Railroad. These buildings comprised Hohl’s Feed and Seed (1322 and 1324), which had become by 2019 a pet and pet supply store, and an at-the-time vacant space (1314).

The pet store next door, Clark Feed & Seed at 1326 Railroad, was without power for 18 hours, but by some minor miracle the astonishing fish collection housed therein survived unharmed.

The truck is loaded with broken remnants of the poured concrete pads under the buildings. Time to drive off. This is pretty much the end of the story here.

5 months later, a second fire started in 1326 Railroad, which spread to the record store at 1330, and gutted both storefronts. Firefighters were able to save a handful of bettas, but all the remaining fish perished.

The remains of 1314 Railroad, looking east from Railroad Ave. A small part of the foundation is visible in the center of the frame, the north wall near the back of the building. A couple feet of brick more or less underground. The cylinder with the lifting chain was always on site, some sort of ad hoc wrecking ball, I think.

Clark Feed & Seed maintained large salt water environments, and were home to a puffer fish, to various Nemos and Dorys, corals, shrimp, anemones, and lots and lots of goldfish. Bettas lived everywhere, in every nook and cranny of the store, hanging motionless in little plastic cups stacked one on another. The employees knew where all the stacks were, and took care of the fish.. Clark’s was the kind of store which would refuse to sell you an accessory you did not need, or a fish you were not yet worthy of. The best kind of store, with a dimly lit wonderland of colorful fish, and in the back under a heatlamp behind a sign reading Employees Only, a horrifying box of what I think were crickets. Lots and lots of crickets.

Avalon Records and Clark Feed & Seed, despite the modern-appearing exterior, was indeed an old brick building (1908) with a stone foundation. These are two of the the cornerstones, roughly shaped, chisel marks still visible.

The Fish Store was a destination for kids in Bellingham, for years. The interior was thoroughly cave-like, dark and moist to the point of dankness, a welter of plumbing and tools and supplies all but hidden in the murk behind the tanks. But the tanks. 100s of them, many of them 100s of gallons in size, each a glowing circus of jewels. Feeder fish here, a churning mass of koi there, a reef here and look, there’s Dory. They specialized in cichlids, whatever those are. A sort of fish, apparently. 13,000 gallons of tanks all told.

This building was destroyed in the second fire, the evening of July 17, 2019, and only the bettas, mentioned before, were saved. This same fire also destroyed irrevocably Avalon Records on the corner.

Looking north across the sites of 1314, 1324, and 1322 Railroad Ave at the steam plant behind Vienna Cleaners. To the left, west of the steam plant, the space formerly occupied by Clark and Avalon. The concrete pad is intact here but was shortly broken up and replaced with gravel pending an unknown future.

Demolition began in August of 2019, and was concluded in May of 2020. Asbestos mitigation, as well as certain structural challenges slowed the process down.

Looking east from Railroad Avenue, through the gap between Vienna Cleaner's and their steam plant. The empty space behind the chain link fence was occupied until early 2020 by Clark Feed & Seed's building.

To understand the history here, we should spend a little time with the history of Railroad Avenue, which runs through the heart of downtown Bellingham. In the late 1800s, as now, the main line of the railroad ran along the coastline. It runs often literally only yards from Puget Sound, or even on a causeway crossing some little bay or inlet. Bellingham earned a branch line that ran northeast up through downtown, looped around north of town, and turned south to end at Lake Whatcom 300-odd feet above sea level.

Clark Feed & Seed, seen from the south. The roof has been knocked down, asbestos abated sufficiently, and the contents of the building organized sufficiently for disposal. Vienna's steam plant is barely visible at the right of the frame.

Bellingham was a commercial destination of sorts, supporting the agricultural efforts inland, and the lake served the forestry industry. Bellingham’s branch line carried agricultural and timber products to and fro.

The cylinder of destruction.

Railroad Avenue was a central exchange area, a sort of narrow extended switchyard, with a small switchyard proper at the north end of it. There were up to 4 tracks running down the avenue, as well as space for cars, trucks, carts and wagons. A single track ran down the alley behind the warehouses and feed stores that were to become the two pet stores, and the record shop. Four tracks in front, plus parking and car lanes, one track behind with little sidings to serve this warehouse or that. The tracks in the alley are still there, long disused. The last track on Railroad Avenue itself was dismantled in 1987, but the center of the street still features wide islands where that last track lay, flanked by diagonal parking, then the traffic lanes, and more diagonal parking in front of the storefronts. It’s a wide street.

Masked and suited up to take Clark Feed & Seed apart. Asbestos.

The building at 1322 Railroad was the main entrance to Hohl’s Feed & Seed. It was built in 1902 with investment from Spokane, and was henceforth called The Spokane Building. It was a two story brick structure, with a retail space/commercial on the main floor, and rooms to let upstairs. Later, the rooms upstairs were operated as a hotel, reputedly as a brothel. By 2019, the upper floor was sitting vacant, by all appearances used as a storage area.

The interior of Clark's. Gutted by fire, in the process of being torn apart and sorted for disposal. The leashes still hanging on the wall display got to me. I have quite a few pictures of merchandise in the store. This was pretty tough to photograph.

Business end of the excavator, inside Clark's. The mist is mostly water-spray, keeping the toxic dust and fibers controlled.

The building next door to the south, designated street address 1324 in the county records, seems to have been added as warehouse space in 1914, to support the feed and seed operations that have always occupied the main floor. Curiously, the address, 1324 lies in the direction that address numbers ought to decrease. The city and county records were updated, as this was noticed during the fire investigations in 2019 and 2020. 1324 seems to have been a kind of phantom address, existing only in certain records.

Looking northwest, from Railroad, at the south wall of Clark's (Hohl's is completely gone). Excavator tearing down the remains of Clark's roof, as well as sorting and stacking the contents of the store in ways that apparently made sense, but appeared to the inexpert eye completely random. Note the water spray, a vertical pipe with a fitting on top misting down the area to keep toxic dust down.

This building, 1324, filled in the space between the Spokane building and a third building further south, 1314 Railroad Ave, itself built in 1900. 1324 housed, among other things, the Barron Tire company which sold Siebling brand tires in, at least, the 1950s. They offered both “recapping” and “vulcanization” services for tires.

Boarded up entrances to Avalon Records, and Clark's. The two storefronts contained in the old Pless warehouse building, from 1908. Plastic sheeting contained the asbestos abatement activities, apparently.

Looking south and slightly east, from the alley east of the site. Next to Vienna Cleaner's, looking at the last fragment of the north and only remaining wall of the Spokane Building, 1322 Railroad, the former home of Hohl's Feed & Seed. The weird bird says "You can't unsee me" on its belly, and is part of the Bird Alley mural.

1314 Railroad seems to have operated as a separate space, owned by the same general group of families that own all these buildings, but under a different system of trusts and corporate entities until 2018 when it was rolled up into the holding company that holds all (or portions of all) of the others. Most recently, it housed a sausage and pretzel shop from 2007 until that last sale, and stood unused until the fire destroyed it.

Speaking of the Bird Alley mural, here is a guide to it. The mural was painted across backs (east side, alley side) of a number of buildings and structures, all lost in the fire. The previous photograph is taken from, roughly, the center of the top edge of this diagram, looking south.

All three buildings, 1314, 1324, and 1322, were damaged beyond repair by the fire in February.

Equipment standing on the concrete pad underlying the now removed Spokane Building, where Hohl's was.

South wall of the Spokane Building, the exterior walls of the top floor have been removed, leaving mostly just burned interior framing materials standing up over the ground floor. The next stages will knock all this in, and remove the ground floor. Note the cockatiel. The owls and ducks that were south of it along the back wall of 1324 Railroad have all been removed with that building, at this point. We'll have a look at the mural on the back of the Spokane building shortly.

Beginning work on those exterior walls of the upper floor of the Spokane Building, from the front (Railroad Ave) side. The warehouse at 1324 has been removed.

To the north of the Spokane building, occupying both 55 foot lots between it and the corner of Magnolia and Railroad, Curt Pless built a warehouse for his own feed company in 1908. He subsequently left his wife, vanished, and turned up in Norfolk, Virginia. When discovered he reconciled with, and shortly after again abandoned his wife. His building eventually passed into the hands of Clark Feed & Seed, at that time an actual feed company.

The warehouse at 1324 is largely demolished at this point. Note the cockatiel, but also the "birds of a feather flock together" text that appeared at the rear of 1324.

Later a 40 foot storefront on the corner was sectioned off of the Pless warehouse's 110 feet of street frontage, and operated as a record store. First, Budget Tapes and Records perhaps starting in 1978, and then from 1987 to 2019 as Avalon Records. At approximately, perhaps exactly, that same time the last owner of Clark, Larry Oltmann, took over the business. The Clark name remained with Larry, in the 70 foot storefront along Railroad, and it became in the fullness of time a pet store specializing in fish.

Working in the largely demolished center area of 1324 among the still standing concrete supports, a worker cuts metal scrap apart. 1324 had a lot of defunct metal grain handling apparatus. Various supports and panels for these structures appear here and there, and the large grain hopper at the rear of the building was painted with pigeons as part of the Bird Alley mural.

A repeat of the "birds of a feather" text, with the remains of ducks from the mural, as well as another view of the leftover pillars from the 1324 warehouse. The cockatiel is just out of frame to the right. The RICE RAGE graffiti (not part of the mural) is on the second story of the Spokane Building, above the former roof line of the 1324 building.

At the time of the fires, Clark and Hohl’s were among the longest running continuously operated stores in Bellingham. As far as I can determine, each of them was, essentially, a continuously operating feed store operation from inception (1908 and 1902 respectively) until their respective fiery conclusions in February and July of 2019. The “feed” portion of the businesses waxed and waned, and shifted from cattle and chicken feed to rabbit and fish feed, but I dare say hay and straw were available in some quantity or another on almost any day of the 20th century, and onwards until 2019.

A little time with the Bird Alley mural. The exterior walls of the upper floor of the Spokane building have been removed at this point, so we're just seeing the lower reaches of much of the mural (some upper material on the 1324 building was lost in the fires, as well).

Details from the upper story of the Spokane Building, before the upper exterior walls were removed.

Equipnment details, because I love this stuff. There's that RICE RAGE graffiti again.

In the alley behind all these buildings, local artist Shawn Cass painted a complex of murals featuring birds, from about mid 2016 for the next couple of years. There were 100 birds, or near enough, by the time he was done, mostly well over life size, and a handful of whimsical signs and other illustrations tucked in here and there. But mostly, it was birds out back in the alley.

Bird Alley mural, various angles, while the upper exterior walls of the Spokane Building remained intact. Most of these are taken from the alley, looking west, but the last is from the parking lot, south of the 1314 building (former home of El Capitan's sausage and pretzels) , looking north at the "WELCOME TO BIRD ALLEY -->" text.

The building housing 1330 (Avalon Records) and 1326 (Clark Feed & Seed) Railroad, and the contents of both stores, were lost in the 2019 fires, and as of this writing is a neatly prepared gravelled lot, awaiting what future we know not.

Equipment is moved in to place, work begins on the interior demolition of 1314 and 1324 Railroad, the two warehouse buildings at the south end of the complex destroyed by fire. Note the pirate eating a sausage, on the south wall of 1314, the logo of El Capitan.

The cause of the fire is at present officially unknown. What is present in the Fire Marshall's report suggests strongly that the fire originated behind a wooden desk in the upstairs storage room at Clark's. A circular charred region on a lower horizontal surface of the desk, with no electrical or other external sources of likely ignition seems the likely point of origin. The report does not speculate further. It seems obvious to the reader, though, that someone dropped something hot behind the desk some time in the afternoon or early evening of July 17, 2019. Perhaps someone nipped upstairs for an illicit smoke before closing. Perhaps someone repaired some electronics with a soldering gun. Regardless, something hot fell back there.

This was taken the day demolition began, but the Spokane Building pretty much looked like this from the day after the first fire, in February, onwards.

The Fire Marshall's report also notes that the main floor of Clark's, where the fish were, was largely undamaged by the fire. The fire seems to have moved horizontally to the upper floor of Avalon, where it burned through the floor, destroying that store entirely. Unfortunately, Clark's was not deemed safe to enter for 5 days, by which time all the fish were lost.

The day after the second fire, that destroyed Avalon Records and Clark's. Very little additional damage was visible in Clark's, which had few windows and was pitch black inside on good days. Avalon's roof, though, had collapsed, letting in plenty of light. The destruction was obvious, and thorough.

The murals survived the fires largely intact, but were, of course, demolished with the buildings they were painted on.

The only really visible sign of damage to Clark's, from street level, was a plume of black soot visible from the alley, where the building met the Vienna Cleaner's building. For a little while we hoped the fish might have survived a second fire.

Saturday, May 23, 2020


Further to my question on the readings of photographs.

Suppose we are shown a photograph of an open field, a few trees around the edges. In the sky is a blurry oblong blob. The person holding the photograph out to us excitedly claims that it's a picture of an alien space craft.

Most likely, we don't believe that the blob is an alien space craft, we suspect in fact that it is a pie tin being waved around a bit.

At this moment there are two of what I called personal readings in play. The first is this is a picture of an alien spacecraft and the second is this is a picture of a pie plate. The separation of these two readings appears on first consideration to depend mainly on whether one is, or is not, a lunatic. This isn't quite right. The two readings differ for very specific reasons, which have almost nothing to do with the actual existence of alien spacecraft.

If you believe in UFOs, you may well read the photo as evidence of alien spacecraft in the skies above our planet. If you do not believe in UFOs, you will see a probable pie plate. Note that this has nothing to do with alien spacecraft, it has to do with what you believe. This is about you, not about UFOs.

Again, we don't think it's a pie tin because there's no such thing as aliens, we think it's a pie plate because we don't believe in aliens.

A critical reading acknowledges both positions, and recognizes that one belief system will produce one reading, and another, another.

A forensic reading in my parlance seeks not to understand what anyone might think, but rather to work out what the hell the object actually was.

All three of these things can be as deep or as cursory as you like.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Precious Media

Mike over at ToP is now going on about speaker cables and it makes me so sad I'm not even going to link to it. He's going full audiophile "double blind testing is shit" which just makes me clutch my head in despair.

There is a relationship here to photogaphy, and specifically to printed photographs.

Our sensory system is, in certain ways, eerily competent. In decades past there were cases in which Science Types were pretty sure that there was no way a human could hear "that" or see "this" and it turned out, nope, you actually can detect freakishly small phase differences. These surprises have not actually happened for some decades now, so there's good evidence that we, collectively, know what the human ear and eye can and cannot actually detect in a properly blinded test. Which is why people like Mike get so grumpy and dismissive about properly executed tests.

Mostly, though, what we "see" and "hear" is fabricated by our brain based on remarkably shoddy, imprecise, low-resolution input from our sense organs. There is a great deal of content in what we perceive which is not present in what we sense.

What this means, and what I think Mike is actually thrashing about trying to say without admitting, is that while you do in fact hear the difference with expensive speaker cables, it doesn't make any difference whether they're hooked up or you merely think they're hooked up. The perceptual difference generated by "audiophile grade" whatever the hells is real, but internal. It is, basically, emotional.

Mike treats prints the same way. He talks about how platinum prints give one impression, of being "in" the fibers of the paper rather than "on" them. This is exactly the same sort of language audiophiles use: the sound is more "open" or something. That is to say, it's bullshit, or more kindly, emotional language. He's describing a feel, not a concrete thing. He is describing, when talking about prints, things that almost certainly depend on knowing things about how the prints are made.

Blind testing on prints is almost impossible. If someone thinks platinum prints are "3 dimensional" or some shit, you're going to have a very hard time even devising a test to prove otherwise even for that single subject. They have, likely, developed some skill at recognizing actual platinum prints based on pretty mundane criteria that have nothing to do with some fantastical 3 dimensionality. They are, likely, are unconscious of the fact and will read whatever it is they are actually seeing as "aha, there's that 3D effect."

All this strikes me as, basically, a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s.

This seems to me to have been some high point of masturbatory medium-hacking. People built stereos not to listen to music but, per the old joke, played music so they could listen to their equipment. At the same time we have a fever pitch of fine-print making, wherein darkroom heroes competed to impress mainly one another.

Mike gets pleasure from all this, and more power to him, and to his compatriots. Having almost become one of those darkroom heroes myself, saved only by my native laziness, I get it.

In the real world, though, the medium hardly matters. People listen to Beethoven on their phones, not because they're stupid animals, but because Beethoven's music transcends the device through which it is played. People are happy to cut a Monet out of a magazine and stick it on the wall. An actual Monet would be inconveniently large, but might make up for that by being extremely valuable. The client's pleasure in the picture, though, would hardly change. Monet also transcends the medium.

The point here is that people mainly like content, not medium. It is in general a small population of specialists that take pleasure in the medium. Photographers with a special interest in printing will carefully examine those details of the print, and may spare only a cursory glance at the actual content (as Mike did with his first print crit piece. 1100 words about the print he was sent, and almost literally nothing whatever about the thing its a picture of.)

Audiophiles tends to get huffy when you suggest that they're missing out on, you know, the actual music and then blather on at length about jazz for a while before drifting, inevitably, back to the merits of Class L Amplifiers But Only If They Use Tubes. In the same way, I have to say I think Mike and his ilk don't actually like photography quite as much as they think they do. I mean, a guy sent him a perfectly pleasing picture of a church, and all Mike could talk about was a crease in the paper, the watermark in the paper, and the tones.

That's kind of a shame. Photos are kinda cool.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Preciousness of the Print

I wrote about this at some length a couple years ago. Obviously, those words remain, um, as wise and apropos as ever. That's the piece where Ctein got some small creases in some prints in shipping, and successfully turned the "ruined" prints in to money in the form of insurance.

I choose to resurrect this piece now, because Mike over at ToP has a piece of his own up in which he does a print crit which begins with him noting a crease in the print. He declares, and I quote, "Ruined."

He then proceeds to use the print successfully and completely in the way it was intended to be used. He looks at it, he talks about it, he shows it to us, and he files it. This print was consigned to this fate, it was sent on this mission. Its fate was fully realized, its mission successfully executed. Manifestly the print was not ruined, it was in fact completely unharmed for all practical purposes. Like a dump truck with a tragically dented fender, it delivered its load.

Yes, I get that the print may no longer meet the artist's high standards (although who is Mike to declare that, not being the artist?) and might be considered in those terms to be "ruined." I do not find that argument particularly convincing, as it seems a bit arbitrary and twee.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

A Question

In this longer form thing I am allegedly working on, a question has arisen. I have devised three general notions of "reading" a photograph, three scenarios as it were in which one might look at a photograph to assign some sort of meaning to it. The question is: Do these things already have names? And, related, are there similar categories (perhaps with names) that are more worked out, or better in some way?

They are:
1. What a single person sees in the picture. The normal "reading."
2. An attempt to work out what was actually there, the ground truth.
3. An attempt to work out what the breadth of possibility for the first sort of reading is.

The first one is just what happens when a normal person walks to a picture, or is handed a picture, and without thinking much about it looks at the photo. The second one is allied to the first, but focuses on the real things in front of the lens, without much attention to "what it all means" and more attention paid to literal truth. The last one is what a serious person, like, say, me, might do, trying to work out what different perfectly normal people might make of the thing, and trying to assemble something like a coherent idea of what the possibilities are.

The last one is as much about people as it is about the photo.

I call the first one personal, the second one forensic, and the third critical, which I suppose might clarify what I mean?

Monday, May 18, 2020


I had a minor epiphany last night while walking the dog. I have all my best thoughts walking the dog, it turns out. Thanks Julia!

The thought was around iconic photos of historical events. Where do they come from, and how are they selected?

Well, it's obvious that the photos we recall as iconic are the ones that best distill out some facet of our overall visual impression of some event. In this modern era, post 1850, when we think of any world event, we probably have some visual impression of the thing. We have seen 100s or 1000s of photos of whatever it was, over the years, and these have accreted into an overall sense of the thing, possibly in a couple of categories.

If some photo pops up that most clearly exemplifies one of those categories, it has a shot at becoming the singular photo that stands in for all the rest.

"Migrant Mother" stands in for a whole bunch of imagery around the dust bowl, the impact of the Great Depression on the rural population of the USA. She is ethnically ambiguous (it has become rather chic to remark that she was in fact Native American, but that's not the point) She shows a combination of suffering and grit, and so on.

What's interesting here is that what this picture distills is a piece of the visual form of the event which form was manufactured by Roy Stryker.

More generally, the media (broadly construed) gives events and places a kind of visual form. They don't do it alone, as with any cultural process, there is feedback of various sorts. Some pictures "sell" and others do not. But in the end, the event is given a visual form, and it is largely given that form by the media itself.

The icons are the ones, therefore, that most precisely distill out something that was constructed by the media.

When these pictures were made does not matter, but their status as iconic cannot be known until the event's visual form has been constructed. You can guess "ah yes, that's the one, right there. That's the one people will recall" but if the visual form of the thing is not complete, there's no way you can know. It might well be that whatever you're looking at now drops out completely from the overall visual impression our culture carries forward.

It would be interesting, I think, to study how iconic photos touch people who were actually there. Does "Naplam Girl" hit a Vietnam vet the same way it hits me? My impression of Vietnam and the war we put on there is entirely constructed from media accounts, and consists largely of dudes marching in ragged lines through vegetation, helicopters low to the ground, and our guys committing atrocities. So, "Napalm Girl" fits right in, and exemplifies that last category.

I consider it possible that someone who was actually there might remember things a bit differently. His visual impression is probably a lot more mud, boxes, tents, and boring shit, and a whole lot less massacring kids and leaping in and out of helicopters.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Movement II

I thought I'd see if I could experiment a little. Here is a sort of Colbergian photo. I regret that I do not have leafless trees through which the building can be seen, we must take behind as a substitute for through but I think I have some sense of the mashed midtones and overall structure he seems to favor. It's certainly a wretched picture.

It occurred to me that this sort of thing might have a place as a sort of harmonic dissonance, prepared for and then resolved. Note that these photos were taken within 200 feet of my current location over the course of about 5 minutes, this is an experiment to see what kinds of things might be possible. Something like this:

We begin with a fence, alone, with some dark, foreboding, tonality. Vegetation is introduced as the tonality moderates. The Colbergian arises as a dissonance, moderating the tonality too far and introducing the house (arguably implied by the previous pictures, what does a fence surround, after all?).

Finally all the subject elements are brought together in a pleasing composition, the blank foreground is filled in with something suitable. We still have the house behind the fence and the tree, but the tonality and formal structure of the objects finds balance. That last picture could lead to anywhere. It's literally an entrance.

It occurs to me that along with sequencing ideas from the 1930s, most photobooks seem also to feel that a consistent approach to tone and/or color is also mandatory. While this certainly lends itself to a certain cohesiveness, it also strikes me that it really stands in the way of any kind of emotional movement. So much of our response to a photo relies on the tone or color treatment, after all. It's a bit like a play spoken in a monotone, or a symphony with no dynamics, isn't it?

In the last 100 years we've radically altered what we photograph, and the way we treat those pictures, but the books we put them in use all the same devices as 100 years ago, without much variation. People still think it's radical to print full bleed, or to occasionally print verso.

Thinking back, it strikes me that pieces I like often seem to take a varied approach, to deliberate emotional effect. Katrin Koenning comes to mind. Go click on Indefinitely and side scroll at top speed. Don't even look at the pictures, just watch the dynamics.