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.


  1. I have no doubt my 'Archive' will end up in a dumpster somewhere down the line…

  2. Some zen-obsessed older musician who co-founded a rock band of note here in Canada (Blue Rodeo) has had a collection his old blog posts published in book format. He left the selection up to the editors. In a rambling and weirdly unfocused "interview" -- let's be generous and call it two stoners talking past each other -- that I read this morning, he allows at how it's all a bunch of fucking nonsense. I totally believe him, too.