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Monday, June 29, 2020

It's all Social

Here is a fun fact. Suppose you are the CEO of a privately held company, and that you and the board have decided that your plan to get rich is to sell the company to, say, IBM. It doesn't matter who your buyer is. Your next move is to find someone who's recently sold a company kind of like yours to IBM, and hire that someone. Make them VP of something, anything, it doesn't matter.

Corporate mergers and acquisitions are driven by who knows who. Deals are driven by people who have already done deals. This doesn't mean that IBM will buy garbage, but given two decent looking deals, they'll choose one. Your new VP gives you a big leg up, and the expense is essentially zero. He might even be an OK VP of whatever.

The MACK First Book Award, which was established in 2012 to support emerging artists and bodies of work that find a voice through the book form was just awarded to a guy who first exhibited 26 years ago, got an MFA 20 years ago, and lists 4 solo exhibitions, about 45 group projects/ exhibitions, 11 grants/awards, and 4 collections in his CV. I am so pleased that Damien Heinisch is finally able to emerge after nearly 30 years of work.

Just today I saw a remark to the effect that Lena Dunham (writer and showrunner, I think) sold her first show to HBO on the basis of a ridiculously scant pitch. The complaint was that she, obviously, sold the show because of her family connections and not because her pitch was any good.

None of these stories are really about insiders thinking "hurr hurr hurr, we gotta keep the outsiders out because it's our club!" although that is the effect.

No, when Lena Dunham comes in with her one page of scribbled notes, the social dynamics are different. When you know Lena, you're more relaxed, more open. You read the notes, and think a bit, and the idea opens before you. You fill in a lot of shit in your head (probably not the way Lena intended, but it's your head) and you say to yourself this is dogshit. dogshit that people will watch the hell out of! Lena gets the deal.

The (imaginary) well respected guy who came in before Lena, who had a really coherent and thorough pitch for something that was not dogshit, but that people would still have watched the hell out of, well, you don't actually know that guy. A friend of a friend said he's really well respected in South Africa and has done some amazing stuff, but you've never seen it.

You are not as open to this fellow's idea. His idea does not spontaneously flower in your mind into a vision that feels right, it remains words on a page. You have to struggle a little to visualize it at all. You do not offer him a deal.

But let's be clear, the fact that Lena is the daughter of your best friend, and the fact that the other guy is black, while causal, are not proximate causes. The ingroup, the private club, asserts itself relentlessly, but it's not the proximate cause. The proximate cause is this sort of vague social grease that makes you actually perceive one project as worthy and the other as not.

If some rando approaches you on the street and asks to borrow five bucks, you probably say no. If a friend does the same, you might well say yes.

Now, if you're pretending to operate a meritocracy, this is a bit of a problem. My $5 loan business is not a meritocracy, and I don't pretend it is. HBO's pitch process, MACK's first book award, and corporate M&A activity, all pretend to some degree to be meritocracies. They are not.

People are tribal, social, animals. I think one could argue that pretending things are meritocracies is just stupid in the first place.

I think it is fairly obvious that we do not benefit, in the long run, from a bunch of relentless closed clubs. It is, therefore, beneficial to try to continuously pry the closed clubs open, to break them down, to create new ones, and so on.

Still, rather than thinking those hypocritical fuckers! we must tear this facade down and erect in its place a true meritocracy! is both not very productive, and a fantasy. You can no more erect a meritocracy than Michael Mack can.

There are really two threads of thought that come out of this.

The first is that the tearing open of closed clubs should not, I think, be viewed as some sort of revolutionary gateway to a better world. That's mostly just not going to happen. Local improvements, sure, but also local failures. Change, and maybe some slow overall progress, sure. Revolutionary change leading to utopia, nope.

This doesn't mean revolutionary activity shouldn't happen. There is benefit to a kind of dynamic equilibrium here, even if no real progress is possible. Shifting barriers around creates temporary opportunities, cross-fertilization, social benefits of many kinds. Fixed, closed, clubs lead nowhere but to inbred stagnation. Even just moving the deck chairs around is substantively better than that.

The second thing is the super secret road to success: acknowledge the social aspects of it all.

Do you want to be an M&A person? Find the guy who sold a company and just got hired as VP of whatever, and get a job as his assistant. Do you want to win an award for emerging artists? Go schmooze, be social, work your ass off for a few decades. If you want to sell a show to HBO, um, choose your parents wisely I guess.

Art, like everything else, is a highly social game played by highly social animals. Relying on your awesome work to carry you is a fool's game, and definitely Will Not Work. Relying on your awesome work, together with your angry Tik-Tok videos in which you call out the Tate and the MOMA, hilariously according to your mom, at least once a week is also not going to go very far.

You gotta schmooze. You gotta show up and make friends and pitch in.

If you and Michael Mack's second favorite designer happen to share a love of cheese, and bond over that at a festival here, an opening there, your chance of getting a book deal at MACK goes up. I don't even mean this as an indictment of MACK, it's just they way of the world. I'm not sure why anyone would want a book deal at MACK but apparently it's a thing. Anyways, almost literally everything works this way.

So, uh, wear your cheese shirt proudly at as many openings and festivals as you can.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Crit: Extinction Party by Jonathan Blaustein

This book crossed my radar a bunch of times. I think I was aware of the kickstarter campaign in November of 2019, and I've seen mentions of it here and there (not least because I read Blaustein on aPhotoEditor). Initially I was completely uninterested. Absolutely not my thing. But damn it, that drip marketing works, and so eventually I came around to thinking it might after all be my cup of tea. At some point in there I asked him for a favor, and he was very nice about it, which led me — primed to buy — to actually buy. Probably he popped into mind in part because of the book, so keep that in mind. Publish a book, and the mooks are gonna start crawling out of the woodwork with favors to ask.

Anyways, here we are.

So, what is this thing? You can buy it here, while supplies last. It's about 50 pictures, from four different projects. Two essays, and two anecdotes. All in a slim volume, well-made, with a foil embossed graphic of a mask on the cover.

The essays tell you what it's about. It's about consumerism, consumption, and the effects of that on the planet. It directly indicts us, you, me, the reader. At the same time it indicts the wealthy even harder. So, that's about right. But, anyone can write an essay about that, and god damn near everyone has at this point. The question is whether the pictures support the thesis in a good way.

The answer is, yeah they do, but let's look at how.

The four projects here are as follows, in no particular order:

MINE which is a series of studio studies of natural objects arranged or built into sculptural forms, and captioned My <whatever> so My dirt and My snow and My mushroom or whatever. The caption is the key here, Blaustein is explicitly claiming stuff from the natural world that is, in absolutely no meaningful way, his.

Party City is The Devil is a series of studio studies of objects purchased at Party City, arranged in sculptural forms, and captioned neutrally with an inventory of what's in the frame, Blue spoons and green tablecloth. These are very brightly colored, and Blaustein uses formal color theory a lot here. Blue and orange show up a lot.

The Value of a Dollar is a series of studio studies of one dollar's worth of various edible products, arranged in sculptural forms, captioned One dollar's worth of <whatever>.

Recycling my Junk is a series of studio studies of things Blaustein was throwing out, arranged, you may have guessed, in sculptural forms and captioned with various whimsical, tangential, remarks.

Ok, so what do we have? Blaustein may do more in his life, but these four projects which have consumed much of his time for many years are very very similar. They are objects, arranged sculpturally, and photographed in the studio. The frames contain nothing but the subject, and perhaps a little neutral background. There is no implied world around the objects, they are explicitly arranged to be seen by themselves without any visual context.

This, essentially, is why I have been wrestling recently with what a photograph of artifice actually does. I knew I was likely to want to make sense of this thing, so I best have a theory handy, right?

Let us clear some underbrush first.

The sequence is very strong in the visual/graphical sense. The visual connections frame-to-frame are very dense and well done. I have learned that the publisher, Jennifer Yoffy, did most of the work here. One assumes that Blaustein and the designer (Caleb Marcus) spent the year mooching around drinking coffee and talking smart while a woman did all the work. As a feminist I am, naturally, outraged. (You in the cheap seats? It's a joke, settle down.)

All the text is set in this bland-ass sans font which I hate hate hate. But I am a known fontist, number three on the Southern Typographical Law Center's list I think, with very strong and inappropriate opinions, so there's that. The covers caught my eye, because the elements are centered on the boards rather than the book — the spine material does not seem to have been considered here. The result is that the title (on the back) and the mask graphic (on the front) both appear to be set forward on the book. I don't know if this is a deliberate detail to.. I don't know, create unease? It feels like a design flub, in a book that is very well designed indeed.

So that's the design bits and pieces. It's well done, elements are thoroughly considered, the thing is a very pleasing and elegant object. I would not say it feels sumptuous, but it definitely feels done up right and I am pleased to have it in my house.

Moving on to what it might mean, and how it works conceptually. Let us suppose that I've got it right, and that what a photograph actually does is it brings the viewer, you, to the subject in a sort of metaphor of teleportation.

If you are being brought to the subject, rather than the other way around, or something else, it follows that you are being explicitly brought to Blaustein's studio. You are being brought there for a pretty explicit purpose: so he can lecture you.

Now, this sounds pretty bad. But Blaustein is not literally snatching you off the street and yelling at you, it's just a book! Calm down! What I mean is that the book is didactic, by design. The notion that, metaphorically, you travel to the subject rather than the reverse is really just a device to explain how the thing is didactic. It is a bit lecture-y, but never in an annoying way. The captions are the lecture, and they are short, sometimes witty, never strident.

I attended a webinar thingy a few days ago, about the making of this book. The making was a pretty Cadillac process with most of the trimmings. Designer, Publisher, Offset Presses in Europe, a year of effort, and so on. In the discussion, Blaustein suggested that mashing these four projects together was not particularly easy, and I have to say I am a little baffled by that. The projects seem to fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

It may be that he was having trouble making the work together graphically, rather than conceptually, though. As concepts they work perfectly in concert.

The Value of a Dollar hammers home how cheap bad food is, and how expensive high quality food is. Party City is the Devil highlights a bunch of other useless cheap shit. MINE covers the all too human attitude of simply assuming ownership of anything that's not nailed down. Recycling my Junk is maybe the weakest here? Still, Blaustein drags out a handful of cheap consumerist shit objects and shows them to us. They're the kind of thing we seem to "need" 100s of. Thumbtacks. Dusters. Why do we need so god damned many objects?

This brings us around to the two anecdotes and two photos I haven't mentioned. There was a dead deer one winter, and Blaustein took a foot off it, and photographed it in the same style he uses for everything else (having failed to take off its head). Later, his mother-in-law gifted him with the head, which he also photographed. This is one of two dead animals in the book.

The deer parts are the only full bleed pages in the book, the head being a two-page full bleed spread. We're supposed to notice these things. Also, I do not think they're officially part of any project, although he claims the head — kind of — as part of MINE by captioning it My dear head (not a typo.)

What are we to make of this? The deer, we learn in the anecdotes, was not the victim of environmental disaster as far as anyone knows. It was just a deer that died, as they do sometimes, in winter. I think it is intended, though, to stand in for all the deer, all the non-human life. Its deadness leaps off the page. The foot and the head are photographed with greater depth than anything else in the book (Blaustein tends to render things rather flat, planar). It is maybe the most real thing in the book.

At the same time, in contrast to everything else, the deer's meaning is left more open. We are not boxed about the ears with its meaning, it's there to be made sense of on our own terms. Blaustein's use of the word "dear" in the caption suggests, I guess, that he values the deer in ways that he doesn't value most of the other shit he's photographed, which certainly makes sense.

So, Blaustein teleports us to his studio and lectures, us, persuasively and fairly inoffensively, about how bad our consumer culture is. He rubs our nose in object after object that support this point.

Look at all this garbage we buy. Why is garbage from 10,000 miles away so cheap, and quality so expensive? Why do we claim every damn thing that's not nailed down? What the fuck are we even doing, how can this even make sense? And oh christ look at this poor fucking deer. We chopped it apart for photographs.

There is a certain irony in a book indicting cheaply made brightly colored Shit You Can buy being itself an inexpensive, brightly colored, Thing You Can Buy. Thanks to Blaustein, I have another goddamned object in my life which I cannot eat, which gives me no shelter, which provides me no warmth.

I bought it because I liked it, and I still like it, but man, we like so much shit, you know?

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Teleporter

I've been noodling again on what a photograph actually does and have a new analogy to try out on you all.

A photo, by its indexical nature, or the fact that it looks very very real, or whatever the hell, evokes its subject in a particularly photographic way. I have been thinking of this in terms of it metaphorically bringing the subject to you. The metaphor of the window gets dragged out, and I think not just by me.

What if, instead, we imagine that the photograph brings you to the object?

Without, of course, all the usual trappings of the teleporter as a science fiction device. You're not actually in the war zone, you're not in danger, you have no concerns about how you're going to get home. But the mental gymnastics you perform perhaps make more sense if you treat it as you going there, rather than the subject coming here.

When you see a fashion photo, a model in a dress, a greyhound at her feet, you are not looking through a window at her. The greyhound and dress and woman are not brought to you. Rather, you are transported there, to revel for a moment in that life, to try that dreamworld on for a moment. If you like it, you might buy the dress.

This also matches the documentary photograph. Because you are there, you seek to fill in the surrounding world. If you were merely peering at it through a window, there is no particular motivation beyond an abstract desire to work out a larger sense of "what's going on?" When some MFA student inflicts a documentary photograph of nothing on you, you are like Scrooge transported by the Ghost of Sept 24, 1817, When Nothing Much Happened, to some random empty lot. You struggle to work out why you're here, but unlike the other ghosts, this one offers nothing but a shrug and a yawn. No wonder Dickens left that one out.

I can't actually see why a photo would "take you there" rather than "bring it here" and indeed, the latter seems simpler, easier, and more obvious. I think, though, that the former more closely matches the kinds of effects that photos have on me, and (apparently) on others. The effect seems, in practice, more like passing through the mirror (however lightly) than merely gazing at Wonderland.

Thursday, June 25, 2020


Arrrg. I cannot escape this news, and now you can't either. Olympus sold its camera division off to a private equity firm.

The Internets are alight with theories and rambling conspiracy theories. I am going to help. I will not tell you the answer, but unlike everyone else I not only know the answer but will tell you how you can figure it out yourself.

Private Equity firms have web sites, on which they disclose their investments past and present. You can look up those investments and see how they have fared. It should not take you an hour to formulate a general picture of what kind of strategy this particular firm uses, and how successful they are at it. No two Private Equity firms are the same, so generalizations about how they just strip mine companies and discard the remains merely reveal you as a rube who reads too much Mother Jones.

This is the firm that's buying the Olympus camera division: JIP. An hour with google's translation and search services will tell you what is most likely to happen to Olympus camera.

Assuming you care, which I don't.

The NASCAR Noose

Those of you elsewhere in the world may not be aware of the noose story.

The team of the sole black driver on the NASCAR auto racing circuit was assigned to a garage at the Talladega racetrack, and a hangman's noose was found in the garage tied in the end of some sort of pull-rope for the door to the garage. This was investigated by the FBI to determine if some sort of racist/hate crime had occurred, and they determined that since the noose had been tied some time before October of 2019, it could not have been targeted at the driver, Bubba Wallace.

Here is a photograph of the noose.

There's a lot of ideas running around. Maybe the FBI is lying! Maybe the hate crime is actually in assigning Bubba Wallace to that specific garage! I don't pretend to know, but what I am pretty confident in is this: nobody else knows either.

There is no denying that the hangman's noose is closely associated with racial lynchings in this country. It is not the only association, but it is a tight one, and the dominant one. How the thing takes someone in, say, the UK I do not know. At least it has a kind of macabre to it, surely?

What interests me is the commentary I have seen. There are people who say, perfectly seriously, that the rope is new and the knot recently tied. This is something that you absolutely cannot see in the picture. There are people who remark that it's a slipknot, which renders it useless as a door pull: the first part is true, the second is not, as anyone who's actually tied one of these things knows.

Another little fact that someone who's tied one of these things knows is that the knot uses an astonishing amount of rope.

Anyways, much of the discussion around the picture boils down to asserting as facts things that the speaker cannot possibly know, in support of a theory of motivation.

In reality, we have no way of knowing why someone tied the knot. No amount of chemical analysis of the strands or poring over surveillance footage will reveal the motivation. It could have been a sort of blockheadedly whimsical way to use up excess rope. It could have been tied specifically to threaten some other black person in NASCAR (Bubba Wallace is the only driver, but I bet there's plenty of black mechanics.) It could have been tied, and then used, to hang a cat, or a Halloween decoration. To be fair, if some prick hung a cat with it it's possible surveillance footage would reveal motivation.

What we are observing here is that people have formulated a theory, invariably along strict dualistic lines: a) it was a deliberate racist act specifically against Bubba Wallace or b) it was a completely innocent act, intending only to create a useful handle by which to close the garage door. The selected theory then informs what they see in the picture. This is a near perfect case study in how people strive to discern motivation to a photograph, when there is none to be discerned.

There simply isn't much to be seen in the picture.

The motivation of the man who tied the knot is certainly not present, and no amount of wishing will make it appear.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Creating, Making, Reading

Humanity performs any number of creative acts. Everything from oil paintings, to writing assembly instructions for a bicycle. Writing software, writing a novel. They all contain the same three underlying actions: imagination, execution, and reading.

To begin there is, at least normally, some sort of act of imagination. A will to make something, with some certain properties. There might or might not be some visualized form here. There might only be an idea to make something, anything, that tells how to put the bike together. Next, the creative human does some things. Ink is applied to paper, marble is removed with a chisel, paint is applied to a surface. Sometimes, a button is pressed at what seems to be the right moment. Finally, the result is examined, it is "read." This might be a potential final result, to be culled or kept. It might be an intermediate result, perhaps merely the same painting after one stroke of new paint has been applied.

In photography, the execution part is severely attenuated. I have described it as not even a "making" but rather a "selection" and I stand by that, but I realize that it is a quibble. Moving on.

If you're making Art, your purpose is something pretty specific. You're not trying (usually) to communicate information about a procedure like assembling a bicycle, for instance. You're probably trying for something more abstract, some sort of Art-like experience (he said, tautologically).

In all cases, though, the reading is vital. You draw a diagram, and then you lean back and ask does that really illustrate the way to attach the kickstand to the frame in the best way? You place yourself in the shoes of the owner of the new, diassembled, bicycle, and ask does that read?

As you paint your painting of a teapot, you apply a bit of paint and ask does that look more like a teapot? does it look like an empty teapot? does it read?

And so with the photograph. You begin with an act of imagination. I often have clearly in mind a picture. It feels detailed, complete. There is a field, and in the field in the distance, there is a dog, tongue lolling out. Oddly enough, if you ask me what color the dog is, or whether the dog is frame-left or frame-right, I probably don't know. The picture only feels detailed and complete, in reality it isn't. What is clear and detailed is the imagination of the picture.

I, and perhaps also you, need to actually take the picture to see what it ought to look like. I probably have to take a bunch of pictures, with the dog here, the dog there. I select this view, and that view. Or, if you prefer, I make the picture by moving myself, and pointing, and pressing the button. Later, I select (maybe) one frame of many as representing the picture I had in mind.

All of this work is informed by continuously reading what I see through the finder, what I see on the screen. I ask myself, consciously or subconsciously, is this the one? is this the one I imagined, and does it do what I imagined it would do? does it read?

This process of reading back out is essential in any creative endeavor, whether writing instructions, or taking photographs.

An editor working on a novel knows the job: it is to ensure that other people can read the book, and get from it that which was intended by the author (more or less). The photographer, and the photoeditor, needs to wear the same hat.

Photographers have a tendency to focus not on does this read? but rather more on have I done thing things which I have been taught to do which make a photo good?

In a sense, photographers operate as if they have learned a series of things to do — things which are in making — that they believe will produce a photo that reads. If you clone out the distracting thing, adjust the color balance, and observe the rule of thirds, the picture out to be good, right? It ought to read.

It's not just simple things like this. There are endless guides on how to light men, how to pose women, endless do's and don't, endless manuals filled with endless procedures. The grammar and syntax of "correct" photography is boundless, and yet at the same time nobody suggests simply stepping back and asking does it read?

No serious editor of words cares much about grammar and syntax. These are only a baseline. The question is always whether it reads. Does the voice come through, do the words sing when they need to sing, pulse when they should pulse, and flow when they ought to flow? Grammar plays a role mainly in avoiding pointless dissonances, the key word here being pointless.

Photographers, all too often, can only ever find instruction on grammar and syntax. There is no manual of song, no primer of rhythm, and photographers do love manuals.

You must learn to read photographs, to see the rhythm, the melody, the harmony, and yes the dissonances, those purposeful dissonances. We can take a lesson from language. How does one learn to write words that sing? One reads an enormous number of words with voices raised in song. There is no law here, no rulebook. This is all cultural construct, without any particular logic, no stone with Hammurabi carved into it. You simply have to soak in it, and try it, and fail, and fail, and fail.

It probably would not hurt you to stop paying attention to the grammarians after a while. They have things to teach you, but they cannot teach you the important things.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Whither Humanism

I have been wrestling with these ideas for a while now, and I am not at all sure how this is going to come out. Let's see!

In something like the first half of the 20th century, a great of deal of Serious Photography centered around a kind of humanist idea. People were photographed with sympathy, yes, but more importantly as the heros of their own stories (I stole this idea from John Berger, who said it of the works of Michelangelo and L├ęger.) Hero might be too strong of a word, sometimes I suppose people were the villains of the story, or possibly even supporting characters. Whatever the role, it would be anyways eligible for an Academy Award.

Their story was not always an uplifting one, and not every person was inherently heroic, but underlying the whole was the idea that the people mattered, as themselves. The photo might be critical of the subject, but was rarely dismissive.

In contrast, in today's Most Serious Photos, the people are dismissed. Every Alec Soth photo, if it even contains a person, is of someone who might as well appear in the movie credits way down at the bottom of the crawl as Hooker #4 or simply Henchman or Man in Bar. I might have this wrong, but I feel like it all starts somewhere in the general area of New Topographics. That work is built around some notion of the sheer venality of the works of humanity, the idea that people are basically stupid and wrong, that their works are naught but stupid, venal, damage.

I don't mean to suggest that we oughtn't to criticize, we should. But criticism is not the same thing as an endless drumbeat of "look how stupid, how venal, how ugly" which seems to characterize much of the more serious contemporary photography.

I spend, as regular readers may know, a certain amount of time examining work from other continents, searching for that which isn't "white gaze." It occurs to me, grumbling in my interior monologue about all this, that much of what characterizes, say, African Gaze is not so much a distinctly African vibe but rather a return to basic humanism. Someone promotes an African photographer and shows us some work, and comments that this is what happens when you let Africans photograph Africa and send the white boys home; what I see is a return to the 1940s. Africans, under the lens of Africa, are permitted to enjoy a range of emotion, and to be the heroes and villains of their own stories.

Certainly they are also not depicted merely as victims, but more to my point even when they are victims, they're not Flood Victim #17 way way down in the list of credits. Even if she is a flood victim, she has a name, she has personality, one imagines indeed a whole story arc might be associated with her.

I consider it possible that part of what we see here is that the white photographer is not permitted to take the humanist photographs. When this white male colonialist comes home, his editor throws all those humanist frames out. Those are un-serious, unworthy. The modern photograph renders people (yes, especially brown people) as ciphers, as archetypes, as anything but fully formed people. And so what we get to see is a bunch of anti-humanist photographs when our Hemingway stand-in returns from Asia. The Asian photographer is, in some sense, permitted to take the humanist photos. In a sense, arguably, we name humanism "non-white gaze" and claim that white people cannot, or won't, do it.

I cannot help but speculate that there might be in here somewhere an unhealthy vein of colonialist thinking smuggled in. Are we somehow permitting African photographers to take humanist photographs because, well, they're just Africans. They have not yet reached our exalted level of miserable anti-humanism, so we can applaud their primitive humanist approach. For now.

Probably a bit tinfoil-hat but the thought does follow more or less logically, and I do like making hats.

Of course, out here in the hinterlands of the greater West, we also have these humanist pictures. They are not taken very seriously. My children are the heroes of their lives when I photograph them, but nobody wants to exhibit a hall of enormous prints of my kid snaps. Pictures of happy people, or people who are not essentially ciphers, or types, are unlikely to go anywhere, out here in the West. There's a large community of very competent amateurs who take ruthlessly heroic photographs of architecture, celebrating the works of humanity. Galleries and museums, naturally, are the opposite of interested.

There are, of course, exceptions. Sometimes even the gloomiest MFA student is somehow unable to suck all the life out of their subject. Sometimes an artist of sufficient stature to survive the hit can slip a few pictures of living people in here and there. Mostly, though, the more serious you get, the more the people resemble animated corpses, and the more the works of humanity resemble a post-Apocalyptic hellscape.

It is truly just fashion.

These is much to love in this world. There are many people to love, or to hate, or to admire. There are places one might stand in ones mind, places from which humanity and its works do not look quite so venal, so stupid, so vain. There is much criticism which could be done using actual three-dimensional people, and much praise as well. Not everything need be humanistic, but we could certainly stand to bring a bit of it back, here in our gloomy West.

We seem, here, to have fallen down a kind of narrow well of theory in which complaint stands in for criticism, and all else had been drowned in the chilly waters.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Something to Look At

Jonathan Blaustein of aPhotoEditor wrote about a thing (here) and mentioned a photo that was in the thing. It's an interesting photo. It's this photo. Let's look at it.

This is George Wallace, former Governor of Alabama. At the time this photo was made (1963) by Avedon, he was an avowed racist. Segregation nahw, segregation tomarrah, segregation forevah!

My method, as regular readers will know, begins with an inventory the frame. It is a man. He is posing for a portrait, the standard tropes of Male Portrait are all there: Shoulders turned, near shoulder dropped, face straight on to the camera, head tilt toward aft shoulder, chin up. Any sufficiently low-rent photography forum will contain any number of old men who can and will recite this litany on demand. It is a stern, strong, masculine pose. It is also remarkably uncomfortable.

His suit, shirt, and tie appear to fit well, and as far as we can tell are consistent with the fashionable body-hugging slim-fit narrow tie of the times. What we can see of his clothing is consistent with a certain severity of appearance.

Lighting is pretty Avedon, not quite dead on single light, a very nicely dialed in degree of modelling.

His hair is thinning, combed strictly back, gelled in place. Both his face and his gaze are exactly aligned on the camera, note the symmetry of the ears. His attention appears to be completely on the camera's lens, and by the usual alchemy, on us the viewer. His raised chin creates the impression that he is looking down at us from a higher vantage point. His left eye is centered in the frame. The immediate impression is of an extreme and negative intensity of attention, of gaze. The corners of his mouth turn down severely. A closer look shows that his eyes are black. An accident of eye color, lighting, and the black and white process has eliminated any differentiation between the iris and pupil.

The short, strictly tamed hair, and the absolutely dead-on alignment of the face with the absolutely direct gaze-from-above combine with the black eyes and the set of the man's lips to produce, I think, a sensation of angry intensity. Anyone, I think, would read this face as intense and somewhere between the edge of anger and barely contained rage.

This is perhaps a bridge too far in terms of reading-in, but note also that his head is cocked to the side. This is what birds do when they inspect something they intend to eat. Whether people would specifically read this is dubious, but he certainly does look a little like a bit like an eagle inspecting a wounded mouse.

We in this era, knowing who George Wallace was and the kinds of policies he espoused, don't like him. We likely tend to read this as the expression of essentially an enraged and dangerously intelligent animal. We might reasonably see his expression as one of personal animosity or simply predation — at a basic level he intends to eat us. A supporter might have read it as righteous indignation this guy is gonna go bust some heads, the kinds of heads I want to see busted. Still, I don't quite see how even an ardent supporter would have felt entirely comfortable under that predatory gaze.

But let us, just for fun, look closer. The forehead is smooth, the jowls are not quite loose. The sitter might be holding a little tension in the back of his jaw, but while his face is certainly not softly affectionate, he does not seem to be holding much tension in it. Try this experiment:

Look at the picture for a few seconds, let it soak in. Now cover his mouth. Just the mouth. Let that soak in for a little time. Repeat this a few times, and attend especially to his brows.

What do you see?

What I see is this: with his mouth uncovered, the brows seem to gather tension. Cover his mouth, the brows seem to relax.

Examining some other photos, I conclude that to a degree, George Wallace simply suffered from Resting Angry Face. Certainly he also spent a lot of time being angry, or at any rate appearing so to his supporters. It was kind of his thing.

A personal reaction, now: the man looks inescapably Hispanic to me. Something in the rendering of the print sells his skin as slightly brown, his dark eyes support that idea, and there's something about the way his face is shaped that reminds me of a certain kind of Mexican gentleman that is, somehow, familiar to me. Somehow he feels a little Anthony Quinn, a little Danny Trejo, to me.

I still absolutely buy the illusion of slightly crazed intensity, even after I have worked out that it is in part illusory.

Avedon took several other portraits of the man. There is one other in circulation which looks like it's from this session. That one does not show the intensity of gaze, although neither is it remotely flattering. There is one more, taken when Wallace is much much older and has changed his coat to become an avowed integrationist and supporter of racial equality. In this latter his expression is almost identical to the photo under consideration here, though he is disheveled and posed quite differently. The black eyes, down-turned mouth, and severe, direct, gaze are all present. He even has his chin lifted a trifle.

At this point is is worth reminding ourselves that Avedon selected this frame from many, and surely picked the one with the intensity he was looking for. With that in mind, one can can readily imagine that the session, however it went, was less intense than this picture.

Blaustein, in his piece, sees the photo as hate-filled with extra animosity directed at (gay) Avedon. This is certainly consistent with the appearance of the photograph, and I see what he means. I do not, after spending more time than is sensible, think that it is a the ground truth of the thing, though. I think Wallace is just putting on his standard Serious Engaged Face, which combined with posing instructions from Avedon and the black and white process, produced this thing.

To me, it calls in to question Avedon as portraitist. Looking back on what I recall of Avedon's pictures, it occurs to me that his method did not particularly pretend to get at a person's essence. I have no notion of what the critical consensus on Avedon is, so perhaps I have nothing new whatever to say here (or, perhaps, I fly in the face of any such consensus. A boy can dream!)

Standard portraiture at least pretends to be revealing something of a person's truth, and I suppose that at times it does that. Avedon was less interested in the person, and more interested in locating and photographing a persona, some theatrical, public, veneer that a person might project. That veneer might, or might not, reflect the inner life of the person, and to be honest, I can't see that Avedon gave much of a damn whether it did or not.

This photo of George Wallace strikes me very much as a persona, a projection of someone's (Avedon's? Wallace's? Some collaboration, or just an accident?) idea of a man. A not very nice man.

I suspect that Wallace, about whom I admit I know very little, was likely a hollow man, as are many politicians. I suspect that there was very little of a complex man inside, that he was largely a persona, put on and off, altered as necessary to fit circumstances. Perhaps what Avedon teased out of him that day, though a mere shell, was really all there was anyway.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020


In my wrestling around with photographs of real events and whatnot, versus photographs of artifice, I have reverted to a much earlier notion of mine on photographs. In this conception, a photo is essentially a kind of show-and-tell. I photograph the flower, to show you the flower. I photograph the protest, the automobile race, the model in her dress, to show you the thing I photographed. Distinctions between artifice and not-artifice are set aside.

The point is that a photograph has distinctive properties in the "show-me" action.

Barthes claims that the only thing a photograph does is witness that-has-been, and here I am leaning heavily on that idea. If I draw a rose to show you the rose, that is one thing, and if I photograph the same rose to show it you, that is another. This is not to suggest that the drawing is lesser: I could draw you a cubist rose, and show you the front, sides, and back all at once which a photo cannot do. I could draw a botanist's anatomically detailed rose, based on the rose, and you would learn more of the structure of the thing. The photo shows but one view, obscures details, and if I took it it probably doesn't even show you the color and is kind of muddy anyways.

But the photo of the rose nevertheless has a quality of reality to it. It is more like actually seeing the rose, albeit for a moment, than any painting or drawing can be. It more closely resembles the moment when I point and say "would you look at that rose!" than a painting, a drawing. Even a film does not resemble the moment, but rather something else, perhaps a walk around the rose or something else depending on the way the camera moves or does not.

When I show you, thus, a picture of a cop pepper-spraying a protester, it is a little like coming upon the scene yourself as if transported there from the starship Enterprise by a perennially stressed out Scotsman. Thrown into the world thus, you struggle to grasp what is in front of you, and you fit it into your world-idea. You quickly accuse either cop or protester depending on your politics, and then Scotty beams you back up.

When I show you a photograph of a model in a dress, you need not struggle to fit her into your world-idea, because you recognize the fashion shot as artifice. Still, the dress on the model's body has that same quality of reality, that same quality of being shown you in real life. "Would you look at that dress!" It is more visceral, more immediate and real, than a drawing of the dress or a technical description of the dress. Wow, there it is, that looks great.

You learn almost nothing about the dress, except what it looks like. Happily, the function of a fashionable piece of clothing is to look like something, so the photograph suits the purpose perfectly. You might reasonably, on the strength of the photo, wish to possess the dress.

In the same way, I could show you a photo of a plastic model of a Spitfire, a model you could buy for $19.90 and which includes the necessary glue and decals. The photo would, again, resemble in important ways the experience of seeing the actual built model. Seeing a small model of an airplane might be a thrilling experience for a few, but for many of us — even aircraft enthusiasts — a small plastic model is not particularly thrilling. This photo might not induce a desire to possess. Thrill appears in the painting of the aircraft in battle. Possibly a really good photo of a similar battle scene would be even more purchase-inducing, but it might also be a little too real for comfort.

Perhaps one can more easily set aside the ideas around simultaneously plummetting and burning to death, when one sees a painting.

Regardless, this sort of notional mechanic of "Would you look at that!" strikes me as a sort of useful baseline, the starting point from which we might usefully spin out theories of how photographs induce meaning. And so, you know, I shall and I do.

Monday, June 15, 2020


Some students from the Hartford Photograph MFA are doing a print sale to raise money for good causes, so clicked on it and said Arrrrrrrg.

These are MFA students, from the institution where Colberg has been teaching so, really, I ought to have known what to expect. At $100 for an 8x10 print these are, generally speaking, about $110 overpriced. In the sense that if you got pushy I might be persuaded to give you $10 to not send me your print.

Ok, so some are vaguely pleasing pictures, there's a lot of snapshots of nothing, and there's a handful of sweet jesus tear out my eyes in there. Of course there are. It is exactly what it says on the tin.

Any of these could, obviously, make sense and be meaningful in the right setting, and it's possible albeit unlikely that any of these people have accomplished such a setting. Regardless, a bare 8x10 print is definitely not it. I guess it might make sense as an add-on to the book the artist gave you?

On the one hand this is certainly a bunch of basically nice people seeking to help out a cause, and for that they ought to be commended.

On the other hand at least some of these artists are also seeing this as a chance to shift some work. No, they won't make any money, but let's be honest money isn't the point. They hope to gain some little ego boost by selling a few prints. They may even hope that someone Notable will buy a print for a good cause and, somehow realize how Important and Necessary the work is, and something good will result. Heck, it could even happen.

Every arts collective thingy on earth is running one of these, for more or less the same complex of reasons.

I don't mean this as a condemnation particularly. People are complex things, and we do things for many reasons. It is rare that there is not some self-serving facet of a thing.

It's just that in this case is was specifically brought home to me. These are unlovable objects, these are not objects that these artists have really sold many of, if any. I recognize some of them as authors of thoroughly unlovable books that almost certainly sold in very small numbers. The venality of trying to piggy-back on a cause du jour pretty much leaps off the page.

I'd suggest that if you really approve of the cause that you buy a print anyways, except that I have a better idea which is: just donate $100 directly.

The kids are deducting the cost of printing and postage from your $100, so unless you really want one of these pieces of shit, just send money.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

On Design

David S. always weighs in when I mention design, and I have finally seen the light. I will no longer design books, instead I will be working with these guys on all future book designs. Thank you for believing in me, David, and leading me finally to the truth.

Artifice II

Really, this is probably the 2478237th essay entitled "Artifice" that I have written, but this one follows up to the most recent one, so, II.

I'm going to break things down to the beginning and see what happens.

A photo reifies its subject. That is, basically, the only thing it does by itself, it bears witness to the realness of whatever the camera was pointed at. Everything else that happens with a photo is inside your head.

So if you want to make some statement, to say something, which relies on or is supported by the realness of something else, a photo is just the ticket.

This is where modern documentary photographers can run into trouble. Mathieu Asselin (in Monsanto) wishes to make real for us a certain train accident which resulted in a spill of chemicals, so he photographs the crossing of road and tracks where the accident occurred some decades before. This is largely pointless, because what he actually wishes to reify is not a piece of land, but rather the billowing clouds of toxic gas.

Absent the clouds of toxic gas to photograph, he's going to want some other approach. No matter what, we are going to have to imagine the derailed train, and the clouds, nobody can show them to us.

In this case he might have been better served by a map indicating, say, the site of the accident, nearby residences and population centers, maybe arrows indicating wind direction. It provides, arguably, no less of an anchor for us to imagine the clouds of gas. But, he is a photographer, so we got a photo.

In the same way, as Mike C remarked, the little plastic model of the airplane is not the point. Nobody really disputes the existence of the little plastic model one can build, and nobody is much interested in it. What we are interested in is the Spitfire Mk IIA because Battle of Britain! (which used Mk Is, I am being witty, see?) so, a photograph of the actual plane would be better, and perhaps best is a painting of the actual plane downing some German fighter plane in a bewildering hail of ack-ack.

The point of a piece of visual art, or at any rate the point I perceive, is to allow you to imagine some larger thing. It is to give you a hook, a kernel, a trapdoor, into something bigger.

In the documentary or vernacular mode, the key lies directly in front of the camera. There's grandma, smiling. Click. By testifying to the reality of grandma and her smile, we open the door most conveniently to the imagining of her joy. The camera is pointed at some moment and scene (or several of them) which summarize the whole thing; in looking at the pictures we mentally reconstitute the whole thing, albeit with flourishes.

When purposefully photographing artifice, the key has to be the object in front of the lens.

The luxury retailer wants you to buy a dress, or a watch, or a car. To persuade you in that direction, they seek to evoke an imagined lifestyle, with drama, ease, and pleasure. The object they're trying to sell you, they want you to imagine, is an integral part of that lifestyle, and so they photograph that in an evocative way. The dress serves the role of the Spitfire, decidedly not the role of a small plastic model of the plane.

To return to Monsanto the dress is the billowing cloud of toxic gas, the lifestyle is the entire train wreck and its aftermath. Asselin wants to sell us a dress by photographing a sewing machine.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Something to Look At

Reading The Pix did a "deep dive" into this picture over on instagram, which you can examine here. As usual, I found their discussion fairly uninteresting, but my attention was caught by the photo. Let us, therefore, examine it.

Let us begin by an examination of the contents of the frame. Let's go back to front.

A storefront, at the corner of Tilden Ave and Bedford Ave, Brooklyn. An area that appears to be undergoing gentrification, just like everywhere else. Home values have tripled in the last decade, the storefront has recently changed hands (or at least branding on it.) In front of the storefront, a group of what appear to be protesters, including many black faces, and many apparently recording with their phones. In front of the protesters, a sedan in the far lane of the street.

On the left side of the frame, a group of uniformed cops, blocking the sedan's path. Centered in the frame, a cop with what looks like a spray bottle, ejecting a stream of liquid to the right. On the right, a group of protesters, at least 3 of them. Two are identifiable as probably white. The nearest figure appears to be a white woman, face apparently averted from the spraying cop.

Both the central cop and the nearest protester are in the near lane of traffic. There is a splatter of some sort of liquid on the ground, and apparently on the cop's pants.

The various lines of attention are peculiar. The protesters in the background attend to their phones, which we assume are directed at pretty much what we can see, but from the other side. The cops frame-left are looking all over the place, or perhaps nowhere. It doesn't seem to mean anything, but it is striking that nobody in frame is particularly looking at anyone else we can see.

The cop in the center seems to be looking at the protesters frame right, behind the foreground woman, and the foreground woman isn't looking at anything.

It's a picture that is structurally a lot like this one. The facts enumerated in this one would overlap a great deal with that one, and there is similarity in the dynamics of the pictures (whatever that means):

Let me quite clear clear here: I think NYPD are a bunch of fucking thugs and should all be fired. I suppose there's probably some good ones in there, but if you're good you can probably get a new job. This is not the same thing as thinking that every NYPD cop is beating the shit out of random innocent people 24x7, I rather think they spend a lot of time doing their jobs more of less competently.

Let us proceed to what one might make of this picture. The standard leftist position is that this is a police officer who has gone off the reservation and is simply randomly pepper-spraying innocent bystanders. More or less. You might suggest that they are non-violent protesters exercising their rights rather than bystanders, or whatever.

The cop appears to be shouting, his arm muscles are clenched, you could certainly see this as an extremely aggressive posture. The foreground protesters are small people, with their hands up, in a posture of submission and innocence.

We have an aggressor, performing an act of aggression, against non-violent protesters. This is what it feels like powerfully to me, and most likely to you if you're reading these words.

Consider the pro-cop position. Let us slip on some uncomfortable moccasins and walk a little ways.

The pro-cop position notes that the protesters are in what by all appearances is an active traffic lane. There is a car in the far lane, presumably Bedford Avenue is open to traffic. That position notes that there's something going on that splattered the cop's pants and the street.

Note also that none of the several cops in-frame seem to have the slightest interest in the protesters on the sidewalk in the background, nor in the evident filming that is going on. Attention, if anywhere, is roughly on the small group of white protesters standing in the traffic lane. It's not at all clear that the uniformed cops aren't simply chatting about baseball.

One might construct a hypothesis: the protesters have been throwing things at the cops (liquid splatter) but are not now doing so. A small group of protesters have blocked the street, and are refusing to move. One of the several duties of the police is, in fact, to clear traffic obstructions, and faced with a stubborn group of excited young women, pepper spray may in fact be the appropriate escalation from giving stern verbal commands which have been, thus far, ignored.

These are two possible readings.

In fact, both of the pictures mentioned above are the same situation. Protesters block the street, leaving police with few options. The entire point of the exercise is to force this exact scenario, the point is to maneuver the players in to this precise photograph, which is why we keep seeing this photograph over and over. It's dramatic as hell, but it is essentially staged. In a sense, both readings above are correct. The cop is aggressively aggressing against non-violent protesters, but has been maneuvered, on purpose, in to doing so.

Now, this is sort of the point of non-violent protest. The strategic idea here is to force the other guy to perform acts that they themselves cannot abide. Getting pepper sprayed is a victory condition. Kinda. In truth, there's a good chance that these cops here are actually doing things 100% by the book, and there's a pretty good chance that they don't have trouble abiding procedures that are actually in the manual. But boy, the photo looks bad.

The second photo, of the woman in a dress, was one of a sequence of photos. I would bet good money that the first photo also was, and that the photographer pulled out the one that looked best, probably the one with the most aggressive looking arm extension, and/or where the central cop appeared to be shouting. It's not much good if he's got a bemused smile, so that one doesn't make the cut, eh?

Let's compare, though, with this one:

This is, to be blunt, a vastly more powerful photograph. The bad guys are completely out of frame, there is no ambiguity for anyone to play with. It isn't really about the act of aggression at all, but about the aftermath. To try to justify the aggression is several steps away, and nothing justifies the girl's grief. The boy is dead, the girl grieves, that's it. No circumstances to parse, to interpret.

The photograph contains nothing that allows the bad guys any wiggle room, because they, and the circumstances, are simply missing. The only things you can try to explain are a dead boy and a weeping girl, and that's going to be hard to do.

There is no stage machinery to be noticed here, because there isn't any. If the boy was deliberately provoking the National Guardsmen, we don't see it. In fact, we don't really know what the boy was up to. Certainly the protests were rowdy as hell, and the Guardsmen were provoked, but the death of Jeffrey Miller was not part of the program. As far as we know, there is no evidence whatever that Miller went out that day to get shot.

The young woman in the first photograph, above, most likely did go out to be pepper-sprayed. The internal evidence of the frame is at least consistent with that idea. The stagecraft is fairly evident in the frame.

Doesn't make it right. If the cops had simply walked off, there would have been no photo-op, and ten minutes later the protesters would have wandered off. Or, maybe they would have kept Bedford blocked all day. So what? Brooklyn has a whole grid of streets.

The protesters got their photo-op, though, and the already-persuaded will be suitably revved up. Won't persuade anyone who wasn't already persuaded, though.

Not like that photo of Mary Ann Vecchio and Jeffrey Miller.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020


I've been thinking a lot about how we understand photos of real stuff. News photos, vernacular photos, things which are not staged. Photos which are themselves made, of things which are not made. All along I have shoved off until later the other sort of thing. I feel like now it's later.

Why do we take fashion photographs? Why not fashion drawings? (Fashion drawings do exist, and they are far more fabulous than the photographs, and certainly much cheaper to make in many cases, so why fashion photos?) Of course, this applies to all kinds of things. Advertising, certainly, or really anything that falls under the broad aegis of still life.

The formal portrait probably lands near here as well, although I maintain (with my clumsy little fists if necessary) that a well done portrait is also in the documentary mode. Perhaps it bridges some gap, here.

Perhaps it's like the difference between a puppet show and a play? Other than a certain awkward aesthetic, are not puppet shows and plays essentially the same? It's artifice all the way down, a bunch of representational figures acting out a fictional story. And yet somehow when the player are live humans versus puppets, the result is different in ways that matter.

If we see photographed a collection of human figures in action, in such a context as to believe that this is documentary, we find ourselves compelled to make sense of the picture in terms of our own world-view. We try to fit the picture to our notion of reality. This is, as I have noted, a fairly ruthless and rigid process. We are wont to reject the photo as somehow faked if we cannot make it fit.

If, on the other hand, we are given to understand that these are actors in a play, we only need to fit their action to a fictional story. If we don't know the play, we may be fairly unconcerned with the story, although we'd probably still try to guess at the point of the scene. Regardless, we no longer need to reconcile the photo with our probably fairly rigid world-view.

What, then, is left that is photographic here?

To be perfectly honest, I am unsure, but I do think there is something. We do not use fashion drawings, and people watch a lot of plays with human actors.

I think it likely that there is something, something important, in the reality of the things on stage. Perhaps the fact that the model is real, and wearing a real dress, provides some emotional access point. Even though we know the scene is artifice, and the model is actually an angry European waif who will shortly fly home to Milan to argue with her layabout boyfriend, the dress is real. We can, perhaps, imagine ourselves in the same dress with the same haughty look, stamping on a few serfs, because it is a photograph.

The toaster and the car are more appealing, because they are real and we can imagine making toast, and then driving very fast.

If this notion is right then, naturally, it applies just as well to photos in the documentary mode. Not only do we have to fit the photograph of the UFO into our world-view, but when we succeed, we can imagine ourselves in those roles. We feel an empathy, perhaps, with the man in the picture; we can imagine, perhaps, ourselves tossing pie-plate UFOs across the frame while our sibling photographs them.

Maybe it's this emotional trap-door to the scene that the photograph provides, which is supposed to be changing the hearts and minds?

If this notion is right, then it is, obviously, inextricably entangled with that whole business of how we read the picture, how we make sense of it in terms of our world view. Not for complicated theoretical reasons, I assume an entanglement because everything always is.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Changing Hearts and Minds

As long time readers know I am fascinated by the question of if and how photographs change minds and alter public opinion. This is the latest iteration of my evolving thoughts on the matter.

When we read a novel or watch a movie, the world implied is fictional. It may contain fantastical things. Alien spacecraft, talking dogs, college girls who are not boring and who truly love middle aged men, that sort of thing. We accept these things, because that world is fictional.

A photograph, on the other hand, at least a photograph in the documentary or vernacular mode, is nominally true. The world implied by the picture is the same world we live in.

Accordingly, when we look at a photo of this sort and attempt to make sense of it, we strive to reconcile it with the world we live in — as we understand it. Sometimes we simply elide details in the photo, either by accident, or semi-kinda-on-purpose to make it fit. Almost always we interpret details, even if the details are objectively neutral, as having some biased meaning that makes the picture fit. If we cannot reconcile the picture with our idea of the world, we are most likely to reject the picture as fake.

The fictional worlds of novels and films can introduce us to new ideas more gently. We do not reject the remarkable college girl as ridiculous, because she exists only in this movie. More usefully, there are actually ideas and possibilities that are relevant to the real world that can be more safely offered up. You can sneak a little socialism past a die-hard free-marketeer, a little racial justice past the bigot, even a little authoritarianism past, well, me.

Consider a photograph of Donald Trump reading Infinite Jest. There is a large swathe of the world that would summarily reject the photograph as faked: either staged, or photoshopped. Almost all of them would say that thay're rejecting the photo on the grounds that it is an objective fact that Donald Trump doesn't read books like that. This isn't quite right: the rejection comes from your belief that Trump doesn't. Whether he actually does or not is irrelevant, you reject the photo because you believe he does not. Others would accept the photo because they believe no such thing.

Yes, yes, they are wrong and you are right and it is objectively true. Hush, you're missing the point.

If a photograph were to have changed our mind, in the first place it would have had to not fit into our world view, and in the second place we would have actually altered our world view to fit the photo, rather than vice versa. That's what it means to have changed our mind, after all.

Unlike a novel, or a movie, or a drawing, the photograph does not present us with a possible new world, it does not offer a what-if scenario. It offers what actually is. In order to change our mind, we must change our idea of what actually is. There is no gentle path to a modified world-view here, it's all or nothing.

The only place I can see a photograph working, on its own, to change anything in our minds is in a place where we're already uncertain. A space needs to be available in the mind. A photograph of something we know nothing of? Fantastic, now I know a little. A photograph of something I used to be sure of, but am now uncertain? Perhaps it will change my idea, it's possible. An opening exists.

I think one might have a firmly held opinion softened up over time, probably not entirely by visuals. A news story here, a fictionalized (and thus more digestible) account there, a few pictures and so on. After a while we're no longer entirely sure that our country's adventure in Vietnam is a great idea. At some point, we are prepared to accept a photograph of an atrocity as, maybe, real. There is a soft spot in our world-view into which, with minimal housekeeping, we can actually fit that awful picture.

A year earlier, when we were more sure about the rightness of the adventure, we would have dismissed the photo. A fake, a poorly chosen camera angle, a fluke of some sort. Now, it feels quite different. The war itself has not, history will teach us, changed very much. Our belief about the war has.

Accordingly, the world-idea against which we are compelled to reconcile the photograph is different, and the reconciliation is possible, or at any rate proceeds along different lines.

It feels fairly weird to be arguing that photographs are peculiarly ill-suited to changing public opinion, but to be honest, I think my argument's pretty strong.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

The Apparatus of Photographic Criticism is Trash

The first pillar of contemporary theory of photography is that the truth claim is ridiculous. Any mention of something like it is brushed off with a fruity laugh and a condescending "all photographs are constructs, of course." While this may be true in some theoretical/academic world, down here on earth people treat photographs rather differently than they do paintings.

The condescending reply is an expression of something real, of the basically squishy nature of the truth of photos, but the person with the fruity laugh doesn't understand that because he's an idiot and doesn't care.

He doesn't even notice how radically his idiotic idea conflicts with the other pillar of contemporary theory of photography, which is that photographs have immense power to harm. Curiously they seem to have almost no power to generate change for good, but they have almost infinite power to harm.

The mechanic I have in mind here is usually described as something like "perpetuating stereotypes."

Now, I do not deny even slightly that photographs can depict stereotypes, even very negative ones, and that such things are odious. My objection is to the claim that by making an odious depiction, a photograph becomes a deadly instrument capable of wreaking harm.

When we can date these things, and we often can, we find that photographs follow culture or, at best, are abreast of culture. They do not appear to generate culture. They follow, rather than lead. The claim, though, isn't quite that photos generate (negative) culture, but rather that that sustain it, which is a somewhat weaker claim.

The idea that imagery can generate cultural or social change was trotted out a while back in studies purporting to illustrate that watching pornography turned men evil. These studies, um, have not held up. Given that we're watching astronomically more porn now as a society than we were in 1990, you'd expect a 24/7 rape party in the streets, but rates have gone down instead. But, perhaps it's just sustain anyways.

It is clear, from the timelines if nothing else, that photographs reflect culture. They are, at least, a kind of mirror which reveals culture. When we consistently see, say, women, depicted in a certain way in photographs, we know something of how the culture perceives women. Timelines teach against the idea that photographs generate new understandings of women, but perhaps photographs do actively sustain an idea of women.

The conceit, thus, is that if we could eliminate those stereotyping pictures we could break some cycle of feedback which sustains the cultural idea. On the face of it, this sounds like a pretty sound idea. It does, however, begin to smack of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for language, that our vocabulary dictates the limits of our thoughts. This sort of idea has not stood up well in the courts of actual studies.

I will concede that photographs of stereotypes are part of a cultural morass, a system of inextricably entangled cause and effect, in which everything is causal and everything is also an effect. What is not clear is what changing some part of that system actually does. There's no particular reason to suppose that the system won't roll along just fine without the photos.

At the very least, photos of negative stereotypes can be condemned as a kind of proxy for the underlying idea they illustrate. Rather than "this photo ought not exist" you would say "the stereotype this photo illustrates ought not exist." This isn't a big distinction, but the latter phrasing has the advantage of being much easier to support, and also rather more on-point. In the end, who even gives a shit about some photos, it is after all the stereotype that's the problem.

Speaking against the photos rather than the stereotype itself begins to feel a bit like sympathetic magic, when you examine the notion closely.

It's not really that the idea photos of negative stereotypes are bad is a terrible idea, it's that it's so shoddily presented. It's invariably stated as an obvious truth when, if you take a few moments to think about it, it's not at all obvious. As with everything else in photographic theory, this is stated without a shred of evidence.

All the theory of photography appears to simply be convincing blather. Sontag, Barthes, and me, we all just say stuff that sounds good to us without a shred of evidence. The academy accepts ideas, as far as I can tell, based largely on how well they support the easy writing of stupid derivative think pieces complaining about anything and everything.

Nobody seems to notice or care if the entire edifice is a maze of contradictions and stupidity, it's entirely about how easy it is to grind out another 1200 words on how much you dislike some artist who's making more money than you are.

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Object Under Consideration

In the relatively early days of photography, Duchamp selected a urinal, named it Fountain, and declared it Art.

This was in a sense a watershed moment in the Art world, and had an impact on Photography As Art. Duchamp in one fell swoop declared that craft, that labor, that skilled work, was not required for Art. One need not make a thing at all for it to be Art. Any object that, because of an artist's declaration or perhaps for other reasons, has Art-like properties is Art.

The photograph, with its depressingly low skill requirements, with its unfortunate reproducibility, with its potential for simply happening by accident, was suddenly liberated from stodgy requirements, and was free to be Art.

Well, in a sense. The liberation began much earlier, and was never much of a sudden event, but still, the idea has a certain soundness. This is an old story, well worn.

It occurred to me this morning that at the same time a second thread of thought was launched, one rather less fortunate.

Duchamp's experiment also suggested that the object itself didn't matter much. What mattered was intention, context, authorship.

We can draw a pretty straight line from Fountain to the modern approach to photographic criticism. The modern conceit, despite protestations to the contrary, is that the picture itself hardly matters. What truly matters is who made it, why, and for whom.

I am the first to allow that context, authorship, and politics absolutely affect the way we grasp a photograph. The nude selfie made by the feminist, even if pixel identical with the nude made by the male pornographer, will take us differently — if we are aware of the facts of its making. Intention, context, and authorship do indeed matter, when we know them.

Still, the object under consideration, the photograph and its contents, have largely gotten lost here.

The result we have arrived at today is that the apparent job of a critic is to project his or her politics onto whatever random collection of pixels swims into their view. They don't notice details in the frame, they don't care about the ground truth, they just open their mouths and let words fall fecklessly out.

These are maybe not quite the droids we were looking for.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Notes on Lens Compression

Somehow or other lens compression effects seem to have hit the zeitgeist. A day does not go by when I fail to see some news photograph critiqued on the grounds of lens compression. Either what it appear to show is fake (or allegedly fake) due to lens compression, or lens compression is concealing some truth. So here's a little description of it, and a cautionary example.

Lens compression doesn't have anything to do with lenses. It's about where you are.

If two things are 10 feet apart, but you're 500 feet away, they look pretty much the same distance away from you. That is, they appear really close to one another. On the other hand, if you're 5 feet from the nearer thing, then the farther one is three times as far from you as the nearer one; the farther one is "much further away" even though the two objects in question have not moved — you have.

Lens focal length only comes in to play because to photograph something 500 feet away you usually want to use a pretty long lens.

The cautionary tale is this: you can't actually tell how far apart things are from just a photo. You can sometimes tell ratios if you know how big things are (e.g. two people are usually about the same size): this thing is so-and-so further from the camera than that thing. If you then have one or more of several measurements, you can calculate the rest them, but without any actual measurements all you have is ratios.

Here are two photos I made just now:

In both cases the tiny cake is closer than the eraser. In one of them, though, the cake and the eraser are 6 inches apart, and in the other they are 12 inches apart. The camera is twice as far away for the 12 inch gap, so the same "compression" is accomplished. The ratios between all the distances between this thing and that thing are the same (except, the sharp-eyed might note, the background is a bit off).

While you can, usually, tell from other evidence in the picture that there's some sort of compression effect in play, one cannot a priori tell much about the absolute distances in play without knowing a little more.

In these pictures, the floor underneath the two objects betrays that there is some front-to-back gap between the two. It is possible that a minute examination of the floor texture would allow you to determine that the gap is larger in one case than the other, but in general this cue is at best difficult to read and at worst cropped out of frame entirely.

So when you see someone saying "the cop is 20 feet behind that guy" take it with a grain of salt. "Behind" might be discernible but "20 feet" is probably a wild guess.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Central Camera of Chicago

So apparently there's this camera store in Chicago that burned down. Mike over at ToP has a thing on it. I'm not going to link to anything here, but you can look it all up if you like.

So they burned, and within what looks like under 24 hours they had a GoFundMe up aiming to raise $250,000. As of now, they're more than half way there and will likely blow out that number by morning (update: they didn't, the rate of new donations, while still large, has dropped a LOT). The details in the fundraiser are all pretty generic vows to rebuild, nothing whatever about the very first thing that popped to my cynical mind which was don't you guys have insurance?

At this point I can guarantee you several things: first, the owners of this business have no idea what kind of insurance settlement they are up for; second the subject of insurance is front and center in their minds. They are trying to determine if the building owner has coverage that may be relevant, they are checking with their own insurance providers, and they are seeing if there is anyone else relevant (a building management firm?) who might have some insurance they'd be eligible for.

They got the GoFundMe up before they actually filed anything.

8 hours from now they may decide not to file anything, because they'll have way more money than they need, since all they really need to do is replace inventory and cover some startup costs. The business still exists with all its goodwill, relationships, cash-on-hand, and systems. The staff all survived. What they need is a new storefront and some shit to sell.

Now, there certainly are reasons one might choose to fundraise. Perhaps they see speed as vital. Perhaps they are confident that they're underinsured (in which case, what dumbshits, but, sigh, ok.)

But you know, perhaps they also decided that, since a GoFundMe is free and photographers are dumb, they might just take a shot at raising a nice big lump of cash. The fact that they do not mention insurance, or really anything, in their fundraising campaign makes me pretty unhappy. I know they're thinking about it, so.. why aren't they talking about it?

There's some chance that if they raise $300,000 or whatever, the insurance company will just knock $300,000 off the top of whatever the settlement is in the end.

To be blunt, this feels like some good old Chicago-style grift.

Give your money to... anything else. Or, what the hell, give it to these guys. It's your money. If you just wanna give it away to some insurance company, go for it!

Me? I'm giving money to my local food bank.

Crit: Tokyo Likes You by Dan Ryan

Dan Ryan has now made two books out of his apparently very deep archive of photos from Tokyo. I wrote about the first one some time ago. There's a lot of background there that probably applies exactly as well here.

This one, available in the form of a PDF here, is much the same sort of thing.

The concept is pretty simple. It's a whole bunch of pictures of people in Tokyo, making eye contact and, more often than not, smiling. There is a range of reaction from neutral acceptance of the photographer, through friendly smiles, all the way to outright mugging for the camera. The common theme is that all the subjects see the camera and the photographer, and all accept him and his photograph.

That by itself is worth noting. If we pay attention in the right places, we "learn" that Japanese object to being photographed. My personal experiences suggest that in the USA there is not exactly universal acceptance of being photographed. Dan has something of a magical ability here, and I don't know how he does it. Does he simply take millions of pictures and throw the snarls out? Is he brandishing a pistol in his non-camera hand and screaming SMILE! at people? I do not know, but if you follow his activity online you will see that he produces pictures not unlike these from Tokyo, in California, on a daily basis.

He has some manner, some glamour, some way of interacting that makes this work. Even in what we are taught is the famously insular land of Japan.

So what can we learn from these interactions, from what we might as well take as our Special Ambassador to Japan, Dan Ryan?

Well. The title says it, doesn't it? Tokyo Likes You.

We see that Tokyo is filled with a humanity we recognize. These are not mysterious aliens, although to my eye they are not quite familiar.

What I feel, looking at these pictures, is the continued presence of the wall that separates my culture from theirs. There is a degree to which the person in the photograph and I would never understand one another. Of course, this is true between any two humans, two brothers will never fully understand one another, so this truly is a matter of degree. The point is, though, that a Tokyo native and I are farther apart, culturally, than I am from an average westerner, and the gap between us is in some ways deep and broad.

According to legend, to received wisdom, and things I have been told personally by people I trust, the average Japanese is not much interested in closing that gap.

Perhaps I am merely projecting, here, I certainly can point to no specific evidence in the pictures, but these pictures feel consistent with that notion, to me. The people in the pictures strike me as smiling at Dan across that chasm of cultural difference.

But the point here, the big revelation, is that it's OK. The cultural chasm isn't a fortified wall, it isn't fueled by anger or hate.

The pictures seem, to me, to say you and I, we are different, irrevocably, but that is OK. you are I, we're still human, and we share a lot. you and I, we both smile, mostly for the same reasons, mostly at the same times. like right now. hi!

These pictures do not tear down the cultural barriers, at all. They do not unify us as brothers. They reveal the wall as essentially transparent, and without animosity. At least in these moments the wall is transparent and amiable.

It's a very hopeful and positive book. It speaks, to me, to a way of relating across cultures that is neither assimilating, nor antagonistic.

Our differences do not need to be reconciled for us to like one another. We can be different, even mutually incomprehensible, and still we can like one another. It's OK.

This is maybe a lesson for all of humanity, applicable to every human relationship.