Friday, July 31, 2020

A Plague of Critics

As I have remarked in the past, I consider the job of the critic to offer a nuanced, layered, view of the object under criticism. We should learn something of how the thing touches us collectively, what variety of ways it might naturally be understood by people, and so on. What we get from the likes of Colberg, Shaw, Mason, and others is not that but rather just more personal readings. The photo takes me this way, and there we have it.

When the chips are down, at least sometimes the critic will defend their personal position as in fact the only legitimate one, all others are deeply problematic. The chips are not usually down because, usually, nobody reads these guys. This kind of criticism is 99% output only. Still, the bad habits they develop writing things nobody reads carry through to those rare times the larger world tunes in.

The conceit is that because they are educated (i.e. have been hanging around art schools and reading the wikipedia entry on "male gaze" for a few years) is more valuable and correct than that of some ordinary bloke's silly ideas. This is, it turns out, exactly wrong.

Critical theories arise from time to time. Properly understood, they should be considered as additive. A new theory, usually, should add nuance and layers to previous understandings. When postmodernism considered the idea that the author's intention should not be considered, the proper way to use that idea would have been to add it to the idea that the author's intention does matter. The result should have been that we should consider the author, but also the text separate from the author. Both/and.

What actually happened, at least in the hands of the ham-fisted, was that the author got thrown out. The new theory replaced the old, rather than adding to it.

In the same way we see singular theories from media studies being used as the lone basis for these so-called critic's personal takes.

Representation and gaze, those modern theories from the 1970s, are essentially the entire basis upon which Colberg and his equivalents view media. There isn't anything else.

Thus, their personal takes are not merely as narrow and singular as any other personal take, they are peculiarly narrow, singular, and above all idiosyncratic. Their criticism often makes no sense whatsoever from the point of view of anyone not steeped in 1970s era media studies.

Their takes, far from being broad, nuanced, layered, are singularly and peculiarly irrelevant and wrong in terms of making any kind of larger sense of a photograph or other media.

Thursday, July 30, 2020


Photography is, maybe, unique in that one can reasonably disagree with the author on what a piece means. That is, without deploying the unusual methods of literary criticism or something similarly antic.

If I write on a piece of paper my dog is happy the meaning of that piece of paper is pretty clear. A po-mo lit-crit aficionado might remark that, by pointing to the dog's happiness, I allow the possibility of the dog's sadness and that therefore encoded in my piece of paper is the dog's sadness as well. Which, well, ok then. Normal people will agree with me on what it means, most of the time, though. Note that the dog's actual joy is not relevant here. Perhaps I don't even have a dog. The point is the meaning of the text on the paper.

If I make a painting of my dog, larded up with cues as to the dog's joy, and maybe even title it my dog is happy then again the meaning is clear. You might remark that the body language of the dog in my painting is not consistent with joy, but that just makes it a bad painting (maybe). The meaning of it is still clear, it is an assertion about my dog's happiness, and there isn't much room for disagreement. The meaning of the painting is unambiguous, and disagreeing with me, the author, on what it means is going to be a bit dicey.

Now let us say I photograph my dog, again larded up with the tells of canine joy. The ball in flight, the bounding animal, whatever. Perhaps I entitle it, again, my dog is happy. Whatever is necessary for you to imagine that my intention is clear, imagine it.

This thing, you can trivially disagree with without any lit-crit shenanigans.

If the dog's body language indicates that it is anxious rather than happy, there it is. You can point to that, and say "no, the meaning of this picture is not that the dog is happy, but that it is anxious, you have misread the dog."

Again, it's still not the actual joy of the dog we're interested in here, it's what the meaning of the piece it. The picture's meaning is, as we see it, contrary to the author's intention.

What drives this, obviously, is that the dog's actual condition is (or at least might be) robustly encoded in the picture. It's right there, you can see the dog's state of mind in the set of its ears, its jaw, its tail, whatever your book on dog body language says.

The distinction here, as I see it, is that when I make a painting or write some words, every smear of paint and every letter on the page is laundered through my psyche. I might lie to you about my intent, I might be unconscious of my intent, you might misread my intent. But my intention informs every infinitesimal blotch in the thing. A photograph, on the other hand, is not made but selected, generally from reality. My intention informs only the rough form of the thing, my intention informs the moment and the angle, a few other parameters, but in the end the real world remains traced there in the picture.

The author is not really in control of the meaning of a photograph. Meaning arises both from the real world shown in the frame, from the viewer's perception of the real world, and often only in third place, the author's intention.

One of the virtues of the book form, surely, is that there are more places for the author to stick their oar in and control what the hell is going on.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Crit: London by Gian Butturini

Let us begin with what we can determine of the facts.

In the summer of 1968 (probably) Gian Butturini, an Italian graphic designer went to London on business, and took a lot pf pictures of London with some small camera. His pictures were, where we can identify or guess locations, all taken very close together. Regent's Park, Hyde Park, Carnaby, Earl's Court, Portobello Road, Piccadilly Circus. All these locations are located within a circle not more than 2-3 miles across. I don't know if this counts as "London" or not.

The London Street Commune as a historical event was happening then. Butturini has a photo of the sign for Pronto Cafe, the epicenter of the thing, according to some accounts. It seems likely that the Street Commune was a source of much of his material. If not actual members of the Commune (insofar as that even means anything) then the events in which the Commune was admixed.

Accordingly, the breadth of humanity we see portrayed is, well, substantial. There are a lot of black people, white people, poor people, less poor people, hippies, squares, young people fashionable and not in a variety of ways,and a couple of guys who look like Jesus (European standard version.) We see a surprising number of indications of theater in the backgrounds, but I think this largely occurred in a theater district? The book is very much of a specific place, which may or may not arguably be "London" and an even more specific time.

The photographs are uniformly blurry and what purists would consider to be remarkably badly printed. There's a ton of grain, and everything looks push processed to hell and back. Contrast varies from "very high" to "off the charts", figures are often rendered as silhouettes (sometimes, apparently, with a certain amount of post-processing effort). The whole thing has a very graphical feel, it all looks like poor newspaper prints which feels very weird given the nearly sumptuous physical production of the book.

Interleaved with his often nearly two-tone prints, Butturini stuffs in graphical bits and pieces. Pure black and white design notes, no greys. Some of the prints are intended to look "torn" although you can tell the "ripped edge" is simply drawn in. Other figures are cut out and dropped onto a plain white background. A few of the prints might even be collage, or possibly just a strangely busy background with, maybe, a poster behind the subject. The flavor is very low-fi, very zine-like, very collage-like. I think this works rather well with the overall beat sensibility of the thing, but the total effect is not something a purist will like one bit.

There is text, rendered very stylized, in that zone between text and design: an excerpt from a poem, and the Italian text of Luke 3:23-35 rendered in a pseudo-calligraphic font on a "torn" page opposite a photograph of a guy who looks like Jesus descending a staircase.

Butturini is fond of the jarring juxtaposition. You may, or may not, recall the two page spread which has caused Martin Parr a little trouble: a black woman in a booth, a ticket inspector for the Underground, appears opposite a photograph of the Regent's Park gorilla in his cage. This caused a extraordinarily small amount of extraordinarily loud of outrage. The photograph of the gap-toothed old man with the Israeli flag (a Jew?) pinned to his front, opposite a graphic of barbed wire, and one page prior to the young boy with the Nazi pin (eagle and swastika) doesn't seem to have raised any eyebrows.

The photograph of two young women waiting for a train, the black one reading a book and the white one smoking a cigarette and holding her purse protectively, caused no fuss. Even the fashionable young man on the opposite page, "looking" bemusedly at the women was unable to arouse any outrage here in the year of plague, 2020.

Butturini places a photo of a young man with a needle, opposite a pure black page with a single "rip" of white down the center like a bolt of lightning.

Butturini refers in his opening essay to a few controversial pairings, the occasional ironic emphasis, a touch of pity, an almost restrained smile. He declines to tell us what it means, and insists that it's up to us.

Butturini is not an idiot, he knows what he is about. You can see the fingerprints of his design credentials throughout, nothing is accidental. This is, to my eye, an excellent example of what sequencing can bring to the table. He has, ultimately, a bunch of really crappy photos, printed very poorly, and he makes this thing out of them.

Mixed in there, we see some harbingers of "street" tropes we are now very tired of. Juxtapositions of the poor and the advertising. The homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk. An old and very ragged man stands on the curb; in front of him painted on the street, the word LOOK. How very clever.

There is one photograph which reveals something of what Butturini was aiming for.

If that's not a direct quote of Robert Frank's photo:

... then I don't know my business. Butturini clearly knows The Americans and had ambitions in the same direction.

Is it good? Fuck if I know. It's very idiocyncratic, and it's very... rich? Yes, let's go with rich. There's a lot of material in it that seems to mean something, but what, who knows. The Jew is placed next to barbed wire. I get the reference, but what are you trying to say? The Jew is placed one page before the Nazi, and again, I get the reference, but what does it mean? The black ticket collector in a box is placed next to the gorilla in a box, and it seems impossible that this isn't on purpose, but again, what does it mean?

There are plenty of people out there who are certain it means to assert "black people are apes" but those people are blockheads. It doesn't mean that any more than Butturini means to assert "Jews belong behind barbed wire" or "Nazis are soft-faced little boys." Butturini is being deliberately obscure, and it seems unlikely in any case that he thought any of these things were true. Indeed, in his own opening essay he writes:

The blacks are sad. The blacks are good. The blacks are dignified. I was photographing them in Portobello Road, but they forced me to flee.

At Speaker's Corner, however, I was able to photograph them. On Sundays, they crowd around a box to listen to one of them give them a sweet fairy tale about freedom of equality of racial integration.

Make of that what you will. Butturini seems very black-positive, but not optimistic, and he says "Them" rather a lot. It's certainly not a clear statement of anything, but I have a hard time reconciling it with "black people are apes."

The book is highly political, there's a lot of political content and to my eye the left/protest/hippy/poor position is given a sympathetic eye. This is consistent with the essay from Butturini himself, however obscure it is, with his selection of an excerpt from Ginsburg's "Europe! Europe!" near the beginning as a textual element, and with the essay by Luciano Mondini, a friend, introducing the photographer.

We may take it as given, I think, that Butturini was, like the text you are reading, left aligned. In the 1960s what would this have meant? Likely it means, and again we see this in his own words, he would have seen black people, as well as Jews, the poor, and so on, as a distinct Them, to be respected, loved, supported, lifted up, but nevertheless definitely Not Us. In modern terms we identify this attitude as racist, sexist, classist, and anti-Semitic. These are the attitudes that lead us out of the frying pan of personal isms to the fire of systemic isms. In 1968-69 it was, however, pretty much the standard radical-left position.

Here I enter the land of speculation. Butturini was a leftist, distinctly so, as anti-racist, as feminist, as anti-classist as any leftist weirdo who happened to be white and affluent could be in 1968. He wasn't really optimistic, he didn't see the world becoming a fair and beautiful place by 1970. But then, nobody who wasn't incredibly high was particularly optimistic.

1968 was the summer of love, but also of darkness and fear. Harold Wilson (Labour), so famed that his wikipedia entry has 90 words 18 of which are his name, styles, and dates, was the Prime Minister of the UK. Labour was about to lose Parliament, Margaret Thatcher was about to begin her campaign of terrible ideas from a seat in Cabinet. Lyndon Johnson was merrily pursuing the shit out of the Vietnam War, and Nixon was about to replace him. Nuclear Armageddon seemed around the corner.

Note: the very short wikipedia article I report for Harold Wilson seems to have been an error, whether on the part of wikipedia or me I cannot say. You may make your own judgments, of course. Wilson's article is appropriately lengthy now.

Butturini, to my eye, reflects this precise gestalt of idea and attitude. I recognize him as, more or less, my parents. Good, earnest lefties who didn't actually know many black people and who were honestly a little bit uncomfortable with anyone who wasn't white. This particular leftist made a book aiming at a Robert Frank meets a graphical underground-newspaper sensibility, together with a healthy dose of leftism mixed with hardheaded realism. He hit it, I think, and we can see his bootprints on it clearly. What is unclear is whether it was a good idea or not.

I do not think it has worn particularly well: it's dated in its attitude, its styling, its politics in ways that Robert Frank's book isn't.


By way of a sort of coda, I think it is notable that the voices shouting at Martin Parr to apologize for his role in republishing this "extremely racist book" seem to have never mentioned the opening essay by Butturini. This essay explicitly references the photos in the spread they find problematic, the ticket collector and the gorilla:

I did photograph a black woman, locked in a transparent cage; she was selling tickets for the Underground; just a listless prisoner, in immobile island outside time in the midst of waves of humanity flowing by and mixing and then splitting aside around her prison of ice and solitude.


I did photograph the Regent's Park gorilla, which with imperial dignity receives the witticisms and peel thrown at it by its nephews in ties.

These are the only two photographs specifically mentioned in the essay (there is a remark which may or may not specifically call out the young man with the needle.) That Paul Halliday and Ben Chesterton, both of whom have the book, neglected to mention these remarks is interesting. This also casts Parr's insinuation that he didn't notice the spread in a dubious light. What is perhaps most clear is that Parr, Chesterton, and Halliday, are all disingenuous pricks.

By all means, cancel Parr. But why not cancel the lot of them?

Monday, July 27, 2020

Notes and Sketches

If I were a poet or a novelist, I might carry with me a notebook and in it write particularly good rhymes that occurred to me, or short character sketches, or bits of dialog, or whatever. If I were a painter, I might make pencil sketches, drawings, studies of various kinds. Nobody would mistake my notes for a novel or a poem. Nobody would mistake my sketches for a painting. Even if I were a film maker and made various kinds of test clips, nobody would mistake my clips and snippets for a film.

Photography is maybe unique in that this isn't true for photographs. Every sketch, every test, every note, is essentially the same object as a finished piece. They are all photos.

If I died and you inherited 100,000 pages of my scribbled notes, you would have a very hard time extracting a novel from that (it has been done, but only when a great deal of money is on the line, and usually to great derision and controversy). If I died and you inherited 100,000 negatives from me, you could extract an oeuvre from it without much trouble at all, and nobody would bat an eye. This is in fact standard operating procedure in photography.

You can dig through anyone's pile of shit, extract whatever you like, and promote the idea that it somehow embodies that anyone's artistic impulse.

This is largely described in AD Coleman's paper "On Redaction" and it echoes some things I've said in the past about Winogrand, Maier, and Sam Contis' efforts with Lange's archive. Coleman goes so far as to dismiss these efforts entirely. His claim, and it is supportable, is that if the artist didn't publish it, or mark it for publishing, that it's not part of the oeuvre, period, full stop. Maier has no oeuvre, and that is the end of it. What Contis published is not Dorothea Lange's work, end of discussion.

I am maybe a little more generous, although this sort of absolutism definitely provides clarity in a world where we could jolly well use some clarity.

I cannot shake the notion that there is something there, in the unfiltered archive. That there at least might be an artist in there, who could be somehow discovered and brought out, if only one were careful enough.

It happens that, having glanced at a few of Winogrand's later contact sheets, I do not think that late-stage Winogrand contains any sort of oeuvre. It happens, having seen a bit of this and that I think it possible that Maier-as-an-artist might actually exist in some meaningful sense, but that we're wildly unlikely to ever meet her. Lange, as an artist, obviously exists and has an oeuvre, and what Contis pulled out is an unrelated collection of material.

Which leads us around to the current era. We have, for example, instagram. Everyone is obsessed with the sheer quantity of photos, the thoughtlessness and so on. Yes, the frictionless nature of the thing has consequences.

But in the terms I'm working with right here, right now, a person's instagram stream constitutes a collection of something like notes, sketches, and finished work, all jumbled up together. We cannot know which is which, or what is what. Are these things "published" in Coleman's sense? If so, they he counts them in the oeuvre, which then becomes indistinguishable from the archive of notes and sketches. If not, then has the photographer an oeuvre at all?

I don't know what Coleman thinks about the status of an instagram account, but from where I sit it's in some ambiguous territory. On the one hand, I am loathe to dismiss everyone's instagram out of hand, because obviously these things exist, and carry some kind of cultural weight.

I guess all photographers over time have, mostly, just made archives without an oeuvre, in this sense. Still, in the old days the gap between "published" and "not published" was clear, and most photographers knew they were just making an archive. Most of them knew that their archive was going in the bin the day they died, although most probably held out some slight hope that an heir would rescue their name and make for them a reputation.

In this era it's less clear. If I post to my 'gram is that part of my oeuvre? Have I created a body of work by posting shit to this blog? Indeed, I have a handful of books on blurb, available for sale. Is that really a oeuvre? Some of them are very experimental, arguably sketches. At least one is a parody. Blurring the line between publishing and not-publishing is a serious business model now, and many of us are caught up in the gears of it.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Formal Properties

I am continuing to bash stupidly away on how people make meaning when they see a photo. It was brought forcibly to my attention that the formal qualities of the photograph do matter, in several ways. Including that they speak to artist intention, but also, of course, in other ways.

Especially with a print, we do look at the damned thing. We feel it, it flexes, it has mass, we can't see the photo because of glare, and so on. On a screen perhaps, we look less at the properties of the object itself, perhaps because the screen is more ambiguous. Sometimes the screen literally is a window to elsewhere (a video conference, a webcam) and sometimes it's only metaphorically so — but the clues as to which we're looking at Now are a bit thin.

Still, we look at the picture and its formal qualities. What's in the center of the frame, what's in focus. Is it bright, or dark. Is it large or small.

I have formulated one of them quadrant things:

to describe how we might categorize the formal properties of the picture. The left side "Saw it", "Didn't See It" refers to our theory of the photographer's actions. Do we think the photographer noticed/meant whatever it is we notice, or not? ("Meant It" versus "Didn't Mean It" might be better terminology here, but I am damned if I am going to redraw the stupid thing.) The "Important" versus "Not Important" refers again to our theory of whether whatever formal property we're seeing matters.

If the picture is dark and muddy, and we think the photographer meant for it to be, but it's not actually an important property of the picture, then the muddiness is Incidental. If there is a bird in the background which we don't think the photographer particularly planned to include, but which is important to the picture, it's Serendipitous. And so on.

This taxonomy is going to be a bit personal, a bit fuzzy. For any given photograph, and any given viewer of it, it's likely to be a bit specific. But likely also there will be a lot of commonality if I show the same picture to 10 people.

If the picture appears to be a poorly made snapshot, we're going to evaluate it one way: a lot of stuff is going to be lumped in to Accidental or Serendipitous because we judge the photographer to be not very observant or deliberate. The only thing the photographer meant was to stick grandma in the middle of the frame, everything else is just stuff.

If, on the other hand, the picture appears to be well-made, we're likely to guess that the photographer "Saw It" a lot more. The botched focus might not be Accidental at all, it might be Intentional.

Whatever we judge to be Important is, of course, the stuff we're going to put weight on. That it, we include Intentional and Serendipitous.

I guess this is a fancy way of saying "we theorize that the photographer meant to do some of the important stuff, and didn't mean to do some of it" which isn't really a remarkable statement, but at least we have names for it now?

So in any case, the Important stuff is by definition the stuff we're likely to try to make meaning from. The Intentional stuff is likely to inform our Theory of Authorship (again, pretty much by definition) and the Serendipitous is stuff that we suspect that the photographer didn't mean but which we think changes the meaning of the thing. You might imagine a photograph of a crime scene, where the foreground material points to suspect A, and the photographer's intent is to implicate suspect A. The bushes and shit in the background don't matter, but the foreground evidence does.

At the same time, there a Clue in the background which, to our eye, absolutely convicts suspect B rather than A.

The photographer's intent was (we theorize) to implicate subject A, but the meaning we make from the picture is rather that B is the guilty party.

And so we bring this baggage with us, as it were, into the mirror world of the frame. We enter the picture in the role of the detective. The photographer excitedly shows us the evidence against suspect A, and we nod. But, because we are clever and observant, we notice the Clue and arrest suspect B. The world we build around the picture, around "ourself" as we inhabit the picture, may waffle between suspects for a while, but the presence of the Clue resolves the shape of the notional world the picture was taken from, and provides us with the meaning of the picture.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Theory of Authorship

I've been working on this stupid book. As part of that process, I have approached some rather more visible and well-known people in Photography, who have invariably given me many things to think about. I am loathe to mention names, because I do not wish to usurp their authority, nor do I wish to make it know generally that they are perfectly approachable lest they get inundated with more idiots with manuscripts. I mention this only because I don't want to pretend that what follows originates entirely in my own skull, it does not.

It is chic these days to sort of set aside the idea that you can discern anything about intent in the picture. This is part and parcel of the modern program of gassily waving away the idea that there's anything whatever that can be trusted in a photograph. I have, to my regret, been somewhat taken in on this point, but I was set straight by wiser heads.

My interest here is not particularly in what one, as a critic, might make of the author's nature by way of a photograph (although this also could be done.) I am interested in what we, as more or less normal people, looking at a photograph, might make of the author's intentions with this picture, and how that might color the way we make meaning from the picture.

If we were to, say, discern that the photographer had momma issues, that might color the meaning of the picture I suppose, but also perhaps not.

Whatever the Smart Set's opinions, the fact is that we do form theories of authorial intent when we look at photos, and that guessed-at intention does color how we make meaning from the picture.

Let us proceed and see what happens. I have no idea where this leads.

We do, sometimes at least, formulate a theory of the intention of the photographer. There is the thing we're supposed to look at. There might be other things of interest in the frame. This is a picture of the little girl, oh, and also her stuffed toy. Or perhaps the other way around. Usually there will be a bunch of extra crap that we decide isn't important to the frame There is an ugly cross-stitch on the wall behind the little girl, out of focus and partly obscured by the toy, it probably doesn't matter.

First and foremost, with most pictures, the thing we're supposed to look at is probably whatever is in the center. I don't mean most pictures taken by Serious Photographers, I simply mean most pictures. If the thing in the center of the frame is also out of focus, we have to decide whether the photographer meant something else as the Main Thing, or whether the photographer failed to achieve sharp focus.

This unpacks quite a ways, I think. What is it, really, that we're supposed to look at? Is it the thing in the middle, the thing in sharpest focus, the brightest thing? If the picture strikes us as a naive snapshot, we'll probably accept the thing in the middle, every time, and treat any other prominent things as accidents. If the photo bears marks of sophistication, we might be more cautious.

There are photos which are clearly, or at least we imagine are clearly, about the whole scene. A crowd of people. A landscape. Now, it might be that we have a naive photographer trying to photograph her daughter in a crowd with a with a wide lens. Is this a crowd scene, or a botched portrait of the little girl slightly left of center in the front of the crowd? We don't really have a way of knowing, but depending on the details we might lean one way or the other.

Photographers have often trained themselves to "follow leading lines" or look at "rule of thirds power points" for the subject, and if the hack who made the picture has used these devices, the subject is usually obvious anyways. The girl on the train tracks is indeed at the end of some leading lines, but she's also the girl in the photo so we look at her. There's nothing else in the picture of note, so she must be the thing the photo is "of." It is possible, though, that we could run in to trouble here. If the thing we're supposed to look at does not stand out particularly, a normal human being might not be able to identify it whereas a Thoroughly Modern Photographer would, because of its position in the frame.

A certain amount of contemporary (ach-German-oo) art photography doesn't seem to be of anything, and efforts to discern authorial intent might well founder entirely due to the over-sophistication of the photographer. The cynic (me) identifies the intention of the photograph to be indecipherable on the grounds that the photographer suffers from a sort of self-induced lunacy, and is seeing meaning where none is present. A less cynical but equally naive viewer might assume that they simply are not clever enough to discern the meaning. The photographer's students would, likely, nod wisely and claim to see the point, naturlich but find themselves mysteriously unable to articulate it.

This same sort of thing probably encompasses a lot of snapshots. Is there a difference between an idiot (me) trying to photograph a small bird with a 35mm lens, and a serious German artist taking a random snap, err, serious critique of humanity in the form of a bunch of tangled branches and shit, in which you can barely make out a tiny vaguely bird-shaped blotch?

This is, I guess, a manifestation of a larger issue which is really smeared all over the problem of making meaning from photos: we're all different, and we are sometimes going to come up with different things. My broader thesis is that we tend, generally, to light upon roughly similar things more often than not, and so make meaning in similar ways, and I think it holds true here. There might be more than one reasonable guess at authorial intent, but there probably aren't more than a small handful of such guesses.

What makes this relevant to me in this moment is that, whatever else is true, this process takes place outside of the photograph. Much of a photo's meaning arises, I have maintained, from in some sense inside the frame. We imagine ourselves there, rather than here. This theorizing about intent, though, cannot reasonably take place from that point of view. Like any formal analysis of the properties of the picture itself, it occurs from where we actually sit or stand looking at the picture.

It follows that my larger Theory of Photography includes the making of meaning from multiple locii. We inhabit the picture, sometimes we inhabit a role within the picture, and at the same time we remain here, looking at the picture.

Which is, roughly, "aaaig" from my point of view.

Adding to the difficulty is that we may or may not care that much about what we think the author intended. The old lady centered in the frame, smiling at the camera, might not be of much interest to us. Perhaps we find the vase on the shelf behind her to be most interesting. To be honest, that would be a bit perverse, but it's not impossible.

I don't mean to suggest that there's some specific order of operations here, but we can in a way imagine some sort of sequence like this:

I look at the photo, I see someone's grandmother. She bores me, my eye slides off her and alights on the vase behind her because I have a peculiar interest in mid-century vases. I then "step into" the frame and inhabit the role of a spectator in the frame, examining the vase and wondering about how it came to be there on the shelf, and whether the old lady would sell it, and so on.

In this case, we might imagine that I begin outside the picture, here in my chair, looking at the photo. I then metaphorically pass into the mirror world of the photo, and continue to make some kind of meaning, albeit in this case idiosyncratic meaning, from that point of view.

In reality I think it all sort of happens at once. There simply isn't that much time, our process of making meaning from a photo is all over in a second or two.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

In Praise of Friction

We don't value things that we don't pay for. If you have something that's worth a little bit, which you don't want, you might offer it up for free. You won't get many takers, and the people that do promise to come take it away generally won't. Offer it instead for a token price, and the situation changes completely.

When people propose online gallery shows, they generally are enthused about the idea that there's less friction. There's greater accessibility. Why, the whole world will be able to see our show! Which is all true, but it's not actually a good thing, it's a terrible thing.

The whole point of seeing a gallery show is that you've made a commitment of time and energy, which completely alters how you take the work. You're going to value it, you're going to actually look at it, you're going to struggle with it. Or, at least, you're more likely to do those things. If it's just a quick click away, you're far less likely to. It costs nothing to boredly click a mouse.

On the flip side, digital photography has reduced friction in the making of photographs. Instagram and its friends have virtually eliminated friction all the way through "publishing." It costs me nothing to snap a picture and shove it out there, it costs you nothing to look at it.

Why on earth anyone would imagine people would, somehow, find value in here is beyond me.

Friction is the point, after all. The value of all these things is completely abstract, completely socially constructed. I can't eat a photograph, and it would take an awfully large print to offer me much shelter from the elements. Removing friction removes some of that socially constructed value, and as such, doing so is a rotten idea.

Interestingly, the use of film and alternative processes is often treated as a form of value-adding friction, and in a sense it ought to be. Some people perceive added value here, for sure. I generally do not, but that is something of a personal take.

Sally Mann's wet plate work, for instance, derives value from the process in two quite separate ways. The first is that sort of socially generated friction-value. The second, though, is that the processes serve the work. The battlefields simply would not work without the flaws and trash introduced by the process. The blackwater photos demand the look of the tintype to work at all.

The second piece, though, the part I see as valuable, could be done equally well with a digital filter. For my money, Mann would do just as well to shoot all this stuff with a good phone and apply a snazzy "wet plate" filter that throws down random artifacts and shit all over the file. I mean, she's welcome to screw around with wet plate if she likes, she's got all the bottles and plates and whatnot, and she's obviously got it all on autopilot at this point so why not?

But the frictional value here, the fact that it's a demanding process, strikes me as largely negated by the fact that this could all be done with a filter.

So what kinds of friction really do add value?

Well, as near as I can tell it's the kind of friction that can't be simulated by the machine, and thus is something of a moving target.

I think (surprise!) that making a book is a good example. You can take your easily made digital photos, sequence them, wrap them in a design, think about stuff, write some copy, and so on. There's real work here, which is not (yet) subject to automation. The work shows up in the result. At the same time, I can't just lazily click a thing, I have to lever my ass out of this chair, pull the thing off the shelf, and, using my clumsy paws, leaf through it a page at a time.

Friction, value.

Putting things in a real white cube also creates friction, and value. Someone's deciding which print goes where. Someone's framing and matting things, and driving nails, and standing back, and adjusting lights. At the same time, I have to drag my ass down there, maybe even pay a fee, and walk through the gallery on my other clumsy paws, gaping stupidly at the walls.

Friction, value.

"Online gallery show" misses the entire point. It's just a shitty version of instagram. Don't do it!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

On Theories of Photography

I've been more quiet than usual for a bunch of reasons, not least, summertime and feints at holidays. But also, I've been writing a short book, which is proving difficult as usual but fairly productive. I will be asking for readers in a little bit, I think.

Anyways, the point of the book is something that I think could be called a Theory of Photography.

For my purposes here let's call anything a Theory of Photography that grapples seriously with what happens when someone looks at a photo or a body of photographic work. We all claim that photographs affect people, affect societies, but often leave unstated any serious effort to answer the question: "Ok. How?" A Theory of Photography attempts to do that.

It might feel, for example, that "gaze" is a Theory of Photography, but I don't think it is. It's usually just a way to state a property of authorship, with a vague hand wave in the direction of some undemonstrated and undescribed negative effects. All we need to know is that "male gaze" is bad and "female gaze" is good, and that it the end of it. The actual alleged impact is left unstated, and the mechanism is silently assumed. "Representation" is similar. It's really the other end of the same stick.

Barthes' Camera Lucida on the other hand is a kind of Theory of Photography. He describes in detail the effect some photographs have on him, a "doubling a vision", a kind of ecstatic reification of the contents of the photograph, induced by a slippery thing called punctum, and finally the assertion that this is all there is. This is the limit of the power of the photograph. He is describing an effect, and naming and to some extent describing a mechanism, and then at least claiming a kind of completeness to his theory. It does this, via that, and that's the end of it.

I think he's got it wrong, but at least it's a Theory of Photography.

My memories of the details of Sontag are due for a refresh, but I am pretty sure that somewhere in there she articulated some things that sound like a Theory of Photography of some sort.

But who cares? Why would anyone need a Theory of Photography? I suppose I could leave this as an exercise to the reader, or assert that it's obvious (it is pretty obvious, surely?)

The point about a ToP is that it provides a framework in which to talk about how photography affects people and society. Without such a thing, you're just wandering around in the dark making unsupported assertions (cf. Colberg, Reading The Pictures, Bush, the MFA-Industrial-Complex, the Photobook Extraction Industry, the whole shoddy lot of them.) Worse, your assertions are not even connected to one another. When you read these guys you will routinely find them saying something one week and the exact opposite the next.

There are still old school photography critics out there, scribbling away. They seem, generally, to have at least some internalized ToP, though whether they ever got around to writing it down I can't tell. Still, even reviews I like tend toward a detailed description of the object under review, together with a fairly slender discussion of meaning and impact based as much on surrounding material as on the photographs. Photo reviews tend to end up as caption reviews.

See, for example, Vicki Goldberg on Sally Mann in this NY Times piece. The piece wanders back and forth between Mann, Hold Still, and the actual work being reviewed. A surprising amount of what appears to be criticism is actually paraphrased quotation: her willingness to experiment with levels of romance beyond what most late-20th-century artists could tolerate is something Mann says about southern artists generally, for example.

The actual criticism is larded into this material largely in the form of adjectives attached to descriptive material. To my eye, it's pretty spot on. It is clear that the critic has a firm idea of what the meaning of the show was, and she's not shy about suggesting that this meaning is, if not objective, at least broadly intersubjective. Goldberg is pretty sure that you ought to see these pictures the same way she does, and she makes at least a nod toward specific things she sees in the frame that support her views (both of the pictures, and the idea that you should also see the pictures the way she does.)

Is it perfect? No. It's not even very serious, and it cannot be. It's a newspaper review of a show. As such needs to spend a great deal of time and energy just describing the thing itself, it has to be fairly anodyne, and, contrary to pretensions, the NYT is a thoroughly un-serious paper designed to feel serious. All that said, I believe Goldberg did a fair job here.

Anyways, I am working up 12,000 words or so on a Theory of Photography which should be pretty familiar to long-time readers. I think I've made a fairly sturdy argument in support of it, but we shall see.

If you know any publishers eager to publish the next Camera Lucida hit me up, you delusional maniac.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

On Representation

Those of you In The Know will be aware that there's a whole vague system of understanding photography around "representation" and "the politics of" which is built on the ideas of who portrays whom, and in what ways, and via what power, in media. I do not intend to dig in to that, particularly. Rather, I propose to continue to expound, like a psychotic monkey with a drum, on my current theme of "you enter the world of the photo."

Recall that my thesis is this: when you look at a photograph, at least if the photo works, you metaphorically enter the world of the picture. Your reactions are at least similar to, related to, the reactions you would have had if you had actually been there.

Consider now if there is a human figure in the frame. Let's suppose for now that the picture has a single dominant human subject.

It is in our nature to empathize with humans. We will, to some degree, see ourselves in that human subject. If we share a gender, an ethnicity, an age, if we both have or do not have a beard, if there's just something ineffable, our empathetic bond may be strengthened. The more we identify with the figure in the picture, the more we will see ourselves in them.

Which leads us to our role when we "pass through" the picture into the mirror world of the photo. To some extent we will arrive as spectators, and to some extent as characters in the scene.

Consider this blast from the past:

This is the photograph by Fabrice Monteiro which I talked about at length here: Something to Look At.

Now, I have essentially nothing in common with the model beyond being male and incredibly handsome. I empathize to a normal degree, I think, but not to any special degree.

If we imagine looking at a photo as a kind of Star Trek transporter beam, I materialize in the empty region on the right, looking at the man.

If I were a young black man, I might well find myself on arrival rather more inside, in the role of, the model and rather less outside looking in.

We arrive in the mirror world of the photo, and one of us is standing next to a man with a curious and violent looking contraption on his neck. The other of us is that man, wearing the contraption. To a degree, and metaphorically. But, to that degree, it alters the way we perceive not so much the photo itself, but the mirror world of the photo.

This is analogous to, though probably much less forceful than, "male gaze" in the original cinematic conception. In a standard Action Movie there is a male hero, a male villian, maybe some sidekicks, and a beautiful woman whose function to to be kidnapped and threatened by the villain before being rescued by the hero.

As a white male, when I watch these movies, I identify with the hero. To some small extent, I experience the movie vicariously as an exciting experience that I am having. I rescue the girl. Possibly, also, I threaten the girl. My wife, being a beautiful young woman, experiences the movie a little differently, she is the girl who is threatened, and then rescued.

Again, all of this is to a degree, and metaphorically.

Or, perhaps more correctly, our reactions to and experience of these things is subtly colored in ways that are as-if we were in the photo, or in the movie, in those various roles.

The important observation here is that there is in both cases something larger in play than simply the photo, or the movie. There is a whole world implied by the photo and by the movie, a world of our own imaginative construction. We are injected into this larger world, or if you prefer we build it around ourself. Our empathatic machinery inevitably places us in — or not in — various roles in that world.

Am I slave or free in the world of my imagining? Am I the hero, or the ingénue?

I believe the "politics of representation" starts, more or less, from here (albeit probably without as firm a footing, usually) and proceeds off into the kinds of damage that result from being persistently placed in this role or that, and that's certainly an avenue of discussion.

Be that as it may, the underlying mechanic is a separate thing and is what I am interested in here.

We are, as it were, projected into this mirror world. We make meaning from the photograph from that vantage point. We understand the photograph to an extent as if we were there, in the role(s) our empathetic machine assigns to us.

If I arrive in Monteiro's photograph as a middle aged white man, a spectator, in the empty space of the frame so neatly prepared for me, I will understand the photograph one way. If instead I arrive as the young black man with the grotesque collar, I will understand the photograph in, arguably, a radically different way.

If I, as a critic, want to understand Monteiro's photograph broadly, I probably need to be able to imagine myself as a young black man with a grotesque collar. Any attempt to understand the way a young black man will understand this picture will necessarily involve an attempt to see the photo as he sees it. He, arguably, wears the collar at one remove. The best I can do is wear it twice removed, but that is an effort I should make.

I don't think I did anything like that in my original discussion, and that was a failure on my part.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Power of the Photo II

Lately I have been banging on about the idea that a photograph functions to take you to the scene. That is, your reaction to a photograph resembles in important ways your reaction to physically being present at the place and moment the photograph was made. I now intend to see how far this analogy will stretch.

If a photograph does indeed work that way, then we can consider looking at a photo to be a bit like visiting someplace. You go there for a little while, and then you return. This speaks to the power of the photograph as follows:

When we visit somewhere, it is not unusual to be inspired. I shall learn Japanese! or I will start to make my own yogurt!

When we return home, these aspirations tend to fade away. We make yogurt once, and that is the end of it. Perhaps 1 person in 1000 actually takes up a dedicated hobby of yogurt making, or takes a serious stab at learning Japanese. Some small percentage.

In the same way, a photograph, even one which inspires us, which makes us rage, which makes us weep, which makes us shout with joy, is but a short visit to another world. When we turn the page, the inspired reaction begins to fade, and two hours later it is largely gone. Except, perhaps, in a few cases, perhaps one in a thousand.

Suppose, though, that we visit each weekend for 20 years the town which inspires us to make yogurt. Even if only one visitor in a thousand takes up yogurt making, more than 60% of thousand-time-visitors will have become dedicated yogurt makers. The visit becomes more like a class, regularly attended, with a message consistently delivered.

This is, then, one way to think of the difference between a single evocative photo, or even a parade of disconnected evocative photos. It's like visiting Japan, over and over, going to this city or that one, soaking it all in. You are inspired, you are enlarged, it's a really good thing to do, to have done. You are probably a better person for it. What you are not is someone who speaks Japanese. That never happened, though after every trip you pick up the grammar and hammer away at it for a few days. You are still struggling with where is the bathroom? and you always will.

That's OK. Not learning Japanese doesn't make you a bad person. It doesn't mean all the trips to Japan were pointless.

In the same way, endless photographs of Tiger Woods have wrought no particular change in the demographics of golf. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't have been made.

Photographs don't work like that. They enlarge us, the reveal to us possibilities and ideas and situations we would never have seen, or felt. They do not teach us Japanese, they let us experience Japan through the eyes of a foreigner.

Nobody seriously suggests that one can learn Japanese by visiting Japan a lot. That's not really the point of visiting Japan. To learn Japanese, you take classes.

Organized classes are akin to organized media campaigns. To change the demographics of golf, you need more than a lot of photos of Tiger Woods; to learn Japanese, you need to do more than visit Japan a dozen times. They are simply different things. To change the demographics of golf, an organized media campaign might succeed where Tiger failed; to learn Japanese, a series of classes might succeed where relentless tourism will inevitably fail.

Viewing a photograph as a short visit to a mirror world seems to me to encapsulate this difference rather neatly!

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Power Of The Photo

The usual suspects are rambling on, on twitter, about how reprehensible and wicked it is to photograph someone without getting that person's consent. They have no argument, of course, it's simply received wisdom that it's wrong. And, look, it's not a trivial problem. There are issues here. But it's a lot more complicated than either side of that debate ("street photographers" versus "academics" let's say, or "type 1 assholes" versus "type 2 assholes" if you prefer) See, for instance my brilliant analysis here.

I diagnose this, based on not very much, as rooted in the conceit that photographs are Terribly Powerful. This is a notion held, to nobody's surprise, by a lot of people who have devoted themselves to photography — either doing it, or bloviating about it, or both. If you dig through the archives of this very blog, you'll probably find some dumb shit I said. Consistency is for the weak.

Since photographs are Terribly Powerful, it follows that one needs to be Terrible Careful with them, and everyone except the bloviating-elite has been (obviously) insufficiently careful, and so colonialism and so on. Then there ensues much hand-wringing and pearl-clutching on twitter about How Awful It Is.

It all reminds me rather of a Wired article I read years ago about containerized shipping. In the piece, the author waxed lyrical about the amount of data that surrounds a shipping container, basically: what's in it, and where it is. The author proposed that some day the data about a container might some day be worth more than the contents, which sounds very high tech and shit, but is obviously stupid. I will pay, it turns out, absolutely no more than $20 for information about a $20 bill. That is a hard limit.

Photographs run into the same problem: there is always the hard limit of reality, against which the photograph competes.

Why are there very few black sailors in the USA? Because black people in the USA generally don't swim. Why don't black people in the USA swim? Because there are no black lifeguards. There is, I am pretty sure, actual research backing this up. Good research? I dunno, but it's just an example, so let's go forward anyways.

This is a classic "representation" problem. If you don't see anyone who looks like you doing a thing, you're less likely to feel like it's a thing you could do, or should do, or want to do. Nobody wants to be the only black kid in the pool. It's not an impenetrable wall, obviously, but it's a barrier of sorts.

This gets translated, by a sort of sleight of hand, into a story about media. The conceit is that media is pretty much the same thing as life, so if you see (or don't see) yourself represented in media in a certain way, they you react in certain ways. It sounds logical, and maybe it even is.

The thing is, media is not real life. You can see all the black lifeguards you like in magazines and on TV, but when you get to the pool, you're still the only black kid in this here pool in real life. There has been no spike, or even noticeable increase, in black kids playing golf over the career of Tiger Woods. Media's power is always less than the power of real life.

This shows us one boundary on the power of media in general, and photography specifically.

Let's consider propaganda. It absolutely works. Advertising and propaganda are well worked out and successful strategies. They absolutely alter perception and behavior, and they are, fundamentally, media. So... uh? What gives?

Well, first of all, ads and propaganda work when you're talking about organized and well funded campaigns. Message discipline and saturation are both necessary. So, if you want to sell cake mixes, or cars, what definitely does not work is a random assemblage of bullshit thrown together by amateurs across the world, all with their own personal takes on the matter.

There is a world of difference between a whole bunch of pictures of Tiger holding up trophies, and a propaganda/ad campaign aimed to get black kids to play golf.

Ads and propaganda also work best when they're working an already established trend. Goebbels wasn't trying to turn Battleship Germany around, he was just trying to steer it a little to the right and whip already existing sentiment up to a fever pitch. You can sell people stuff mainly if they're already ready to buy.

Partly, this is the campaign: you prepare the ground for, potentially, years. Partly, it is simply taking advantage of conditions on the ground. These two blend in to one another.

So, we have another bound on the power of media: scattershot jumbles have very low impact, organized campaigns can have real juice. 1000 dolts posting pictures on flickr is, we can be pretty sure, going to have exactly zero impact on the world. 30 dolts posting news photos on the front page of the NYT probably don't do much either. One dolt with a budget and a coherent plan? Now we're cooking with gas.

Photographs, being but one form of media, and a limited one at that, cannot possibly have the power claimed. Photographs do certain things, they have certain effects, but the power of the photograph to alter the world, whether for good or ill, is extremely limited.

If you're worrying about some dipshit's book project because you don't approve of his methods, maybe you should stop being such a goddamned princess and start worrying about things that actually matter.

There are days when it appears that much of "photoland" is devoted primarily to scolding. They seem to have an entire theory of photography which, while disconnected almost completely from reality, is optimized to provide material and rationalization for scolding, because scolding is their favorite thing.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Something to Look At

Via Reading The Pictures, we have this photo:

Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post 

Michael Shaw offers his typically blockheaded discussion here, which I will request that you peruse at some point. Let us inventory the thing. Back to front, let's say.

A sunset, or possibly a sunrise. A statue of some sort with a standing figure, a bowed figure, and some other shit I can't make out. Small and out of focus, but probably recognizable to anyone familiar with the statue, unrecognizable otherwise. A fence and some kind caution tape, possibly but not certainly to barricade the statue. Some people out of focus doing various things, nothing particularly recognizable. One might be taking a photo, or drinking from a flask as far as we can tell. Some temporary waste containers.

Two figures in the foreground.

A young black women with braided hair, un-striking clothing, a bandanna-style mask with writing on it, pulled down off her face. Her posture is mostly relaxed, hip slightly cocked, hands behind her back. Posture might have a hint of some kind of tension in it. Her chin is up, she gazes upwards slightly, eyes rolled further to the sky. Her expression is neutral. She has an attitude, maybe, of studied calm. Consistent with a sense that she is waiting, almost but not quite patiently. Equally consistent with a sense that she is listening intently and with focus.

An older white man a couple of feet away, close, looks directly at the young woman with brows apparently furrowed. One hand is in his pants pocket, the other is spread wide, possibly but not certainly gesturing at the statue. Possibly also at the waste bins, or something else, or nothing at all. He leans forward toward the young woman, there is a clear intensity to his posture. He appears hot, possibly excited. His posture is consistent with talking intently to the young woman, with a degree of tension. He is masked, so we cannot be sure he is even talking, but we guess that he is.

We are, I think, certain that there is some interaction between the two foreground figures, which has been going on for a little while at least. More than the last few seconds. Perhaps at least a minute or two, and maybe a lot longer. The two figures appear to be interacting, with intensity but without any obvious tell of pleasure or satisfaction.

The overall structure of the photograph certainly suggests an intense discussion between the two figures, and the photographer has indeed placed the backlit statue dramatically between them. Since, according to the caption, they were indeed arguing about the statue, the structure of the photo does indeed match the ground truth. Good job, Evelyn Hockstein.

Now would be a good time to read Michael's analysis if you haven't yet. He does his usual prog-left "analysis" which tells us a great deal about Michael Shaw and very little about the picture. He does the weird thing where he notices random geometrical coincidences, and assigns meaning to them. He does not tell us what he intends here, though: Is this meaning the photographer intended? Is it meaning that everyone would see? Is it just meaning Michael sees? Who knows! It could be anything, because Michael is not going to say. He just notices the juxtapositions as if they have import, and moves on. Why doesn't he notice that the texture of tree resembles the texture of the young woman's hair? Why not notice that the word TRASH is written on WHITE plastic as if to label the man as WHITE TRASH? Who the fuck knows.

But let us stipulate that apart from a few minor quibbles what Michael sees in the photo is a perfectly good reading, and much of what he sees people of his political stripe would see.

I will note that Michael says Or who has the greater exposure to the virus? and what he surely means is that people of color are getting sick more than white dudes. What is present in the picture, though, is an unmasked black woman interacting with a masked white man, and let us recall my mask protects you, your mask protects me so we have a little conflict here which Michael, being a prog-left dolt, simply ignores.

Anyways. Michael sees mansplaining, whitesplaining, a white man's rendition of history. Which, sure, you can totally read into this.

What Michael does not notice is the equally reasonable alternate reading, which is of an earnest white man trying to engage with a young woman who is responding by rolling her eyes and waiting for him to stop making mouth noises because OK boomer. This is surely what someone who wants the statue to not be torn down would see in this photo.

The man can be understood as irrationally furious, earnest, tired, or any and all of those things. Depending on your politics, you will see him in whatever way suits you. The woman can be understood as listening intently, or as arrogant and dismissive, or anywhere in between. Depending on your politics, you will see her in whatever way suits you. Regardless, the way you read this photo will reveal much about you, as it has revealed (again) much about Michael Shaw.

Honestly, how can you take the white guy more proximate to the waste bin seriously? Shaw is like my high school English teacher who found symbols for Jesus and for sex in every book.

Me? I think you should take all the monuments down. Monuments are stupid. Or, leave 'em all up, but march all the schoolkids past 'em every year as teachable moments. Anything but leave them there to catch bird shit and do nothing. Honestly, people don't even see these things after a little while.