Monday, August 31, 2020

Design Horrors

I was reading Brad Feuerhelm today, in one of my periodic fits of wouldn't it be funny if I took one of his things and translated it in to English? It turns out, every time, that it's impossible. There are sentences that don't mean anything, so what do you do with those? There are sentences which admit multiple readings, although usually it doesn't matter which one you choose. Worse are the sentences which are clearly two thoughts spliced together, so rendering it more simply turns it from obscure gibberish to perfectly clear gibberish. Nobody would believe the translation, or at best they'd think I was being mean.

Anyways, he was going on about Stephen Shore's recent re-issues in his usual ponderous style, and mentioned that he really liked the line next to the page numbers in Transparencies and that MACK's book designers are super cool. Of course, anyone who pays attention knows that MACK design is awful. Ugly fonts, horrific margins, and photos just thrown fecklessly down on the page without any sense.

End papers that seem to be "look, just jam whatever you have extra from your wedding album business in, charge it as handmade Japanese paper, and we'll split the profit, ok?"

I probably should not get started on the front matter, because I won't stop until my heart gives out, which will only take a few minutes.

But this one, this is a bit special. You're gonna have to click it. There is, hand to God, a page number in there.

So, sure, I get it. First, obviously, it's an attempt to manage page hierarchy. Photos forward, book-mechanics back. The page number isn't as important as the photo. Check. Second, it's 50:50, but there's a good chance some smart-ass thought this would be a cute reference to transparency, referring to the title. Yeah, yeah.

Trouble is, it's non-functional. You can't read that shit, not reliably, and definitely not if your eyesight isn't spot on. I have an otherwise decent cookbook that uses the same idea, albeit rather more attractively, and I hate hate hate it.

Ok, so it's non-functional. They're, what, "playing with the functional form of the book" maybe. Nobody cares about the page numbers in a photobook so maybe let's have some fun. Hey, why don't you just number all the pages 6 you fuckmooks?

Don't make non-functional books. It's like making a watch that just moves the hands around at random. The point isn't just to make a watch-like piece of shit you strap to your arm, the point is to make a work of art that is also a watch. The watch-ness functions as a constraint, within which your brilliance can truly reveal itself.

Don't stick useless page numbers in there. With, or without, a line. If page numbers don't matter, just leave them out.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Me! Me! Me!

There is some sort of urge we have to photograph ourselves. Not everyone, of course, but a large enough percentage of people photograph themselves to make it "a thing." Sometimes the reasons are clear: vanity, self-promotion, or convenience. We're vain things, humans, and deluded. Some people view themselves as a marketable commodity, and as such attempt with varying degrees of success to convert their likeness into money. Last, but not least, we're the handiest models.

Maybe that's all there is, but I feel as if there's something deeper. Some urge to self-expression. The same thing that pushes some people to journal, maybe, or write confessional memoirs, whatever.

What we've lacked, photographically, is the means to really do it. Taking photos of oneself is surprisingly hard. There's a lot of traipsing back and forth, a lot of fiddling with kit, and a lot of blunders. You get the hang of it after a bit, but it's not easy.

Hippolyte Bayard famously made a highly performative self-portrait of himself in the role of a drowned man, as a protest against Dageurre's un-earned success. He is not only a convenient subject, but (as he saw it) the actual victim, so the selfie here is especially on-point. He's protesting, he's showing off his chops as a photographer, and he's scratching that selfie/performative itch some people have.

Let's set that aside and think about twitter. Famously, twitter limits you to Very Short pieces of text. You can, and some of us do, clumsily work around that by chaining many "tweets" together, if it happens that you have thoughts that don't fit in 40 words. Regardless, this is the thing. It has, in a sense, enabled "blogging" for people who don't have much to say. In another sense, though, the medium has shaped the kinds of things that get said (and, perhaps, thought).

Twitter enables the joke, the dunk, the drive-by comment. It's unworkable for conversation, mostly. It's unworkable, mostly, for ideas that are non-trivial. It does encourage brevity, which is to its credit. The point is, though, that it shapes the way its users write. While it emulates the text message format from phones, it renders that form vastly more accessible, and it changes the audience from 1 to several billion.

It is a mistake to imagine that twitter is "blogs, but short" or any other analogy. It is in some ways like all those things, but at its core it is its own thing, shaping communication into new forms.

Which brings us around to TikTok.

TikTok is youtube for short videos of yourself, in the same way twitter is short blogs. Which is to say, it's not, it is its own thing, but you can trace the descent.

Youtube is pretty heavyweight. To make "content" for youtube credibly you have to have gear and skill. It's pretty hard to do well. TikTok isn't. TikTok allows pretty much anyone to make videos that are reasonable for TikTik. This is a combination of technology, which smooths the path, and social conventions which set the bar fairly low. Originality and creativity are valued, production values are not, in the same way that twitter values the ability to compress a good solid dunk into 280 characters.

TikTok is very very selfie-focused. It is entirely about scratching the itch to perform, with a side of vanity thrown in. It is a medium of communication which is largely incomprehensible to people outside the community. People can and do clumsily use it in comprehensible ways, as I use twitter, but the natural form of the thing is something else entirely. It's easy to dismiss it as stupid, trivial. Dumb bored kids making dumb little videos.

This is, in a sense, true. However it is also a cant, us olds don't get it. We're not supposed to. That is part of the point.

This, in the end, brings us around to my real point here: a trend on TikTok.

Apparently teens are dressing up and making-up to look (sort of) like Holocaust victims, possibly speaking from heaven(?), and they make videos that purport to teach about the Shoah. I am absolutely certain that many of these videos are awful. Some of them are probably overtly anti-Semitic, and many of them are probably so shallow and self-serving as to be legitimately and obviously viewed as disrespectful.

What we are seeing, though, is broad judgement passed against this entire category, and that is an error. We are seeing young people conversing, communicating, as young people do, in a medium we do not fully understand. We would not call out teenagers for sitting under a tree in the park, telling one another things they've learned about the Holocaust. Even if, as they inevitably would, they made a hash out of it, we would applaud them.

Broad condemnation of something you don't understand is always a bit dicey. I wouldn't barge in on a conversation in Italian based on having understood a handful of the words, and I certainly wouldn't tell them they were all wrong. Now, TikTok is not teenagers chatting under a tree, it's not an Italian conversation, it's not anything except TikTok. But to judge TikTok by, say, even youtube standards is no more correct.

I am by no means convinced that a blanket condemnation is the right answer here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Let's Compare

As a few of you probably know, to your complete lack of interest, there is another social media tempest under way. This one is slightly notable, because it has moved Magnum Photos to respond, which of course has the mob going insane like a bunch of koi going after a cookie. I think I have something to say that's not just stupid cat-fighting, though. However much I enjoy a stupid cat fight.

The crux of this thing is that a Magnum photojournalist named David Alan Harvey, who I had never heard of but is apparently a solid B-lister, went to Thailand in 1989 and took some photos of and around Bangkok prostitutes. These pictures ended up, in the fullness of time, in the Magnum photo archive. Some kind of tool went through at some point (fairly recent, the bootprints of "AI" are pretty visible) and added a bunch of tags to all the Magnum photos.

A few of Harvey's photos were tagged "prostitute" and "13-18" indicating that the tagger was pretty sure these were, in the current parlance, trafficked children rather than prostitutes. How old the young women were is anybody's guess. The loudest voices of course are sure that they (male, middle-aged, white, British) can easily tell the age of a Thai woman. One might cattily wonder, and I do, how they got to be such experts at judging the ages of Thai children. Magnum has fired back claiming that as far as anyone knows they weren't underage and anyways the nude ones were dancers not prostitutes.

Two things are clear. First, nobody actually thinks any of the photos broke any laws, despite cries to the contrary. The most strident voices have cheerfully downloaded the content, and have declined to call law enforcement, although occasionally they have expressed mock fear that now they own kiddie porn. Second, there's almost certainly some dicey material in these pictures. Were there trafficked children in Bangkok in 1989? Yeah, I'm pretty sure there were. There's a lot of unknowns here in the actual photos, but it is absolutely possible that these pictures contain depictions of women under 18 years of age, engaged in sex work.

This opens up a whole ball of colonial attitudes. We're seeing a lot of projection of Western attitudes on to other cultures here, a lot of judging by Western standards. Which is not to suggest that selling kids is considered A-OK in Thailand, I'm pretty sure it's not. But it's perceived differently in Thailand, and in India, and everywhere. Every culture has its own unique take, here. This I mention merely in passing as context-setting, as it were.

I am opposed to exploiting children. There is no ambiguity there. I hold the Western attitude, 100%.

Consider now the famous Eddie Adams photo from the American Adventure in Vietnam, in which General Nguyễn Kgoc Loan executes a bound prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Lém.

There is no ambiguity here, the photo depicts a war crime. The war crime being committed by an American ally was never prosecuted, naturally, but that it was a murder and a war crime is not really disputed. Again, we view this with a Western gloss. I'm not going to go full-Kipling here and say "Asiatics simply don't value human life the way we do" but there is almost certainly a bunch of Vietnamese specific subtext here. Still, I am confident that in Vietnam this is still murder, and still not OK.

So here we have two photos, depicting what are to western eyes terrible crimes.

There is no doubt that some people, including me, feel differently about these photos. Eddie Adams gets a pass, as a journalist. He was merely documenting the appalling truth of the world. The General and his men are implicated. Perhaps the USA is implicated. Eddie, though, was doing yeoman's work exposing the evils of War.

David Alan Harvey, also documenting what might have been crimes, apparently does not get the same pass. The social media mob is certainly set on destroying him, and if they can manage it, Magnum in the process. To be fair, though, I also feel the distinction although not to desire to destroy.

There are differences, of course, in the crimes. I am loathe to assert that either is substantially more horrific than the other, they're both pretty clearly in "that's very bad" territory. The character of the crimes is different, in that children are victimized in one and not the other. There is also the possibility, insinuated constantly but never stated and certainly never proved, that Harvey actually took part in the crime — it is possible he himself used the services of a trafficked child. Finally, Harvey's work may have produced pictures which it is a crime merely to own.

It is certainly true that Eddie Adams was helpless to prevent the murder he recorded. It is also true that Harvey was helpless to end prostitution in Bangkok, or even to liberate a single prostitute. Neither man had the power to prevent the evil they were recording. Did Harvey have more power to wreak good, somehow?

Adams was, I believe, surprised, and reacted almost by instinct to a rapidly unfolding situation he was helpless to prevent. Harvey was not surprised, he went to brothels on purpose, and likely stage-managed his shots. He is, if not actually implicated in the crimes, at any rate more hands-on, more involved. He is in the event, voluntarily, remains there, and likely adjusts it to suit his camera. He influences it, though he is just as helpless to put a stop to it. Is this the difference?

If the murder Adams witnessed had unfolded over a day, or an hour, and Adams had walked around and through the scene, recording every detail of it somehow, would we condemn him for it the way Harvey is being condemned, or would we view him purely as a journalist still?

I don't know the answers here, but there is something going on here.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Local Journalism

There is a common refrain in these modern times: a cry for local journalists and photojournalists to be hired to cover events in faraway places. A flood in India? Don't fly some westerners in for three days to cover it, hire some local stringers! This sounds like such a good idea, doesn't it? It's cheaper, it spreads the wealth, and more importantly you'll get a more in-depth local-knowledge based report, right?

That's not wrong. The question is, how desirable is that, in reality?

The semioticians will happily tell you that a 1000 words or a photograph derive much of their meaning from the context in which they are presented. The sense of a small news article is only partly in the words and pictures of the piece itself, all those things derive their meaning from the Western Culture in which they are embedded, the culture in which I swim.

When I, through my proxies at AP and Reuters, send some craggy white dudes off to cover the flood in India, I am not looking (not really) for a local-knowledge-informed story about the flood. I want to know what the flood seems through western eyes, through my eyes. I want 800 words and 4 pictures about the flood that give me a quick rundown, in terms that make sense to me, about the flood. Yes, that is "colonial gaze" and that's what I want. That is what "news" in this sense is: a legible summary of an event.

The 800 words and 4 pictures produced by local workers, which would be allegedly so much better because of all the local knowledge, would be written from the point of view of a local, at least notionally. It would make perfect sense to them, and be 100% appropriate, it would completely avoid the colonial gaze. It would also be, at least in part, illegible to me. It would derive its meaning not from Western Culture, but from whatever the surrounding Indian Culture was. I would, obviously, be able to make some sense of it, but an unknown amount of it would elude me. What, exactly, does "uncle" mean in this piece?

The local worker might well be able to recast the piece for Western eyes, to emulate that colonial gaze and render the piece legible to me. Probably imperfectly, maybe badly, depending on how well the local fellow has mastered the art. Hiring locals to replicate the colonial gaze does not strike me as an improvement, although it would save money and spread the wealth.

The local worker has probably had enough Western Culture shoved down his throat to write a longer piece, that carefully translates all the local references and cultural cues into Western ones. Thus, the news item could indeed be shorn of colonial gaze, and simultaneously rendered legible. Well, not completely, I dare say colonial tropes would sneak in there in the translation process, but anyways. This piece, unfortunately, would be 10,000 words long. It would be a New Yorker article, not an Ohio Sentinal-Times news blurb for Page 3.

If you want to do news for the western audience, you have to translate it.

I assume the same is true for Chinese news, Indian news, and so on, but since I don't live there I won't speculate. Anyways, everything is Americanized, so there may be less symmetry here than you'd guess.

The essential job of the Western (photo-)journalist is specifically and on-purpose to tell the story in a way that is legible to me, that gives me the gloss that I would get if I went there myself, and that's what they do.

There is a legitimate question here on how much this applies to photography, which is (like it or not) a more universal language than words. The local photojournalist could probably photograph a flood in much the same way a Westerner would, but also they might not. Would they photograph flooded buildings instant recognizable to the Hindu, and incomprehensible to me? Would that substantively color the meaning? The problem is I think clearly larger for text, but perhaps also applicable to pictures.

Whether in fact "colonial gaze" and "legible to Westerners" are literally the same thing I don't pretend to know. Given how fuzzily defined "gaze" is, I dare say the answer is "it depends." They are certainly entangled.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Harmful Media

After the Second World War, in America, there arose a kind of anti-feminist backlash. Among affluent, educated, white women there was a strong trend of a return to the home, to the production of babies and of housewifery. Women, having recently won so much, seemed anxious to return to a kind of parody of "traditional" roles. In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in which she identified the trend and its causes. She uncovered first a kind of crisis, then some junk science supporting traditional roles, and finally a consciously directed media engine aimed at selling products to housewives, which in turn drove an entire media industry devoted to exalting the housewife.

The vast engine which produced this shift in culture, in a lot of ways, resembles the machine that brought us the Nazis: a crisis, some junk science, based on that a carefully managed media campaign and some unconscious media/ideological camp-following. The result was another cultural and behavioral shift.

The point here is that we have a fairly good idea of how media can shape culture, thought, and behavior. It's not a trivial thing at all.

At the same time, obviously, media reflects culture. Any trivial painting, photograph, song. Any mook who makes a thing, as a participant in a culture, is by definition making a thing that reflects that culture. It might be an outlier, but the sum total of all the media made by all the mooks is, by definition, that culture's media. There need be no vast engine of destruction to reveal culture. Culture is revealed in every gesture.

So you find some thing, some picture or song or whatever that bugs you. You say "this is racist" or "this is sexist" or "this is anti-trans hate speech." It occurs to you that this thing ought not to exist, because it is odious to you. You're not alone, it's probably odious to a lot of people. It's probably odious to me. It occurs to all of us that maybe the world would be a better place if this thing didn't exist.

The question is why? Is it harmful?

Well, if it is, or could become, part of one of these vast machines identified above, sure. These machines are not always obvious, so it's not necessarily obvious when you're looking at the thing. It could be steering thought in toxic directions. That is a toxic role for the picture, the song, the essay to be playing.

At the same time, it reveals culture for what it is. That's a positive role.

You might argue, and people do, that cultural harm is not the point. The point is that, essentially, the object makes me (or her, or them) feel bad, and that it enough to justify its destruction. While I sympathize here, I don't buy it, and mostly neither do the people making this argument. Invariably the argument spins off into systems of whatever-ism, and dark mutterings that hint at the "media alters culture, thought, behavior." And so, we come back around to the lack of any engine of change here.

Yes, these objects indicate systemic/structural whatever-isms. Those structures are real.

In general, though, these racist objects, these anti-trans objects, reveal the structure, they do not create it.

It is tempting to suppose anyway that if we but stamp out all media around these odious ideas that the ideas themselves will die out by some sort of alchemy, or through lack of support, somehow. I am pretty sure the Soviet Union tried this pretty hard, and it didn't work at all. Not even a little bit. But that's just one experiment, and maybe there's something in it.

I am not necessarily opposed to all destruction of media (I avoid the word "censorship" here because that leads to a really boring and irrelevant discussion.) If it makes you feel really super bad, well, that's a thing, right? I am not going to deny you your feelings, and I would be a monster to not wish for you to feel better.

At the same time, these things serve a real function in revealing culture, in holding it up to examination, mockery, and all the tools we have for changing our culture for the better. To suppress all mention of that we despise seems unlikely to encourage such positive change.

And at the same time further, we do need to keep our ears to the ground for those engines of change which appear to obvious in the rear-view mirror and yet invisible on the road ahead.

The answers are not obvious here. Any glib recital is practically guaranteed to be poorly thought out, likely wrong, and almost certainly ideologically motivated.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Generic News Photo

Let's take a peek at a picture. Hans Pennink for AP:

Reading the Pictures did their usual shitty take "I see this as a Citizenship Picture, you can see in her eyes ... " blah blah blah. Any of that stuff, if present at all, is in the text and not the photo. The photograph is an almost completely generic photograph of a person getting a shot. There are two features that render it not-quite generic: the medical staffer giving the shot is more suited-up than we'd have expected a year ago, and in the background there is a videographer.

There are a 100 explanations that cover those details that do not include "sars-cov-2 vaccine Phase III clinical trial."

There could be anything in that hypodermic, and the ground truth is that there's a fair chance that it's saline right now. This is a blinded trial, with a robust control group.

This is just one case of a million like it. Many news photographs are completely generic. Street protests look like street protests, arrests look like arrests, building fires like building fires, shots look like shots, car accidents look like car accidents. Increasingly (?) we see news photos muddled up. Wait! says the internet sleuth that is not the earthquake in Haiti, but rather the tsunami in Thailand! and they are perfectly correct. But, really, who cares? The devastation is indistinguishable.

We have a fetish for sending someone out to take the same damned photo, but in the new place, as if somehow it means something different. Nothing new is communicated by using the new picture in place of some stock photograph stand-in.

Why did the photographer make this particular photograph for the vaccine trial shot? Because the woman is pretty, she's tattooed and has dyed hair and cool glasses, but she doesn't look threateningly sexy or boringly ordinary. She's cute. 1000 other injections were given that day in facility for this or that, and some of them were for this clinical trial. But none of the other subjects hit the right note of cute for the photographer and the picture editor, so here we are.

The photograph was not selected for its information/news content, but for the attractiveness of the subject.

We live in a generic world of suitably picturesque refugees, nurses, victims, heroes. They all blend together. The picture serves exactly no informational function, it only reifies the text. It makes us grant the text a little more truthiness, and, perhaps more important, it gives us something picturesque to rest our eyes on for a moment.

There is something in the chain of evidence. We gain some value from knowing that a guy with a camera went to the place, at the time, and took the photo. The photo itself is essentially a stock photo, it's indistinguishable from 100s of other photos made of similar news events across the globe, but this one was taken there, then. When it works, we barely notice it. When someone botches it, when we see the NYPD badge barely visible on the arm of the cop who is, ostensibly, beating the hell out of someone in LA, the illusion shatters for some of us.

It speaks, somehow, to how little the actual photograph has to do with what we make of a photograph. There's something like the Kuleshov effect here. Show us the same photo of a prone man being handcuffed by cops: caption it Police arrest alleged school shooter after 3 day manhunt or Police arrest peaceful protester and we'll take the photo quite differently.

We understand any photo at least in part based on what we are told about it. With these kinds of generic photographs, there simply isn't any novel content, and we rely almost entirely on what we are told. Looking in the photo above for meaning "in her eyes" is a fool's game. Her expression can be read any way you like, it is an empty vessel in to which you can pour whatever idea you have, whatever idea you have derived from the accompanying article.

And so it is with any news photograph of this sort of repeated event, photographed with the repeated tropes. They are empty vessels in to which you pour the meaning you derive from the news article's text. Knowing that the photo is really of that thing, even though it is indistinguishable from 100 others, somehow enables us to so pour that meaning.

It is a curious phenomenon. We will read, or skim, the text to determine how we feel about the photograph, and make meaning of the photo from that without much regard for the details of the picture itself. The picture does not much matter. What does matter, profoundly, is our belief that this generic photograph is real.

An illustration would not work the same way. A photo captioned a similar scene was recorded last year in a different place would not work in the same way.

If we believe this completely generic thing to be the real deal, we pour our meaning in and by god we see in her eyes the thing that we want to see there.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Critical Ideology

I have realized that my approach to criticism is ideological. Here I thought I was just plain right all along, but to be perfectly honest, not so much.

My ideology is simple: what matters is the viewer's response to the work. I maintain that photography, at least the photography I am interested in, is a medium of communication, and I choose to evaluate it on those terms. I think I'm right, at least in the sense that this is a good idea. Loosen me up with a stiff drink and I might allow that other right answers exist.

There are, for instance, technique-forward ways to write criticism. You can talk about the formal properties, how big the print is, whether it's in focus or not, what the tonal range and color qualities are, and so on. You can talk about the texture of the paper. You can focus on sharpness and other purely technical properties; or you can talk about things like shadows and contrast leading to drama, and edge up against something like a discussion of viewer response that way. There's a pretty wide suite of tools here that you can mix and match, but ultimately you're thinking about individual measurable elements rather than a holistic/gestalt kind of thing, and you're tech-forward throughout.

This is the way Mike Johnston at ToP reviews things. Mike's view, whether he admits it or not, is that photography is primarily a technical pursuit. This attitude is widely shared. Indeed, I think it is far and away the most widely held position in photography, which is (partly) why blogs like mine have so few readers.

And, you know, photography is a technical discipline. Evaluating photographs in a tech-forward way does make a kind of sense. It's not an approach the ought to be dismissed out of hand (even though I have been known to do just that.)

Another position, widely taken by what I consider the second tier of photography writer, perhaps the bottom 1 percent, is that photography in particular and art in general should be evaluated mostly in terms of its relationship to other art. This seems to be the thrust of formal art schools. Art is made almost entirely to be so situated. The point of any given piece of art is that it was made by so-and-so who has a certain set of identity characteristics (politics, gender, etc), it was made at a particular time and place, and that the work was influenced by a specific cloud of other work.

This situation is the analyzed for meaning, and we get reams of turgid unreadable nonsense about Cindy Sherman's feminist ontologies and the epistemologies inherent in her methods.

Again, you can use this sort of thing as a jumping off point, or you can include formal details, and so on. The point, though, is that this criticism is situation-forward.

And, once again, photography (especially Art Photography) does indeed occupy a position in time, in relation to other work, and so on. There is indeed an author with an identity, generally. Sometimes there are several authors. This is not an approach to be dismissed out of hand (even though I have been known to do just that.)

My point of interest, which appears to be the least popular possible position in that I know of exactly one (1) critic who takes this position, is that the way a picture is understood by the viewer is by far the most important thing. I've been working for some years now fairly devotedly to making sense of the ways people read photographs, the ways people make sense of them.

Again, I can and do examine and think about the formal properties of the things, but always with an eye to how those will take the viewer. I do think about authorship and art-historical situation, but always again with an eye to how these might take a viewer. Our "read" on a photo can and often is influenced by what we imagine we know of the photographer. That is a real thing and we ought not to dismiss it.

What is puzzling to me is this: Photography is first and foremost a medium of communication. The number of photographers who will introduce themselves as storytellers is very very large. Nearly everyone who photographs, when pressed, will allow that they aim to communicate. Why, then, no serious critical apparatus that aims to evaluate photographs primarily in terms of their actual intended purpose?

I think we have, essentially, two populations of would-be critics.

The first are photographers. Photographers begin by struggling with technique. They spend a lot of time evaluating their own work and others in terms of technique in order to master technique. These people (e.g. me) have a hard time switching tracks, and attempt instead to re-task their technical understandings to communication. We get nonsense like "leading lines" and "it draws the eye" which are essentially technical or formal properties mated unwillingly to a fantasy of a mechanical generation of meaning.

The second group comes through Art school or anyways past it, and thinks largely in terms of situating work. They also tend to try to re-task their tools to meaning. The identify the author, or a painting the photograph resembles, or some political theory, and "explain" the meaning of the work terms of these associations: associations no "commoner" would make. They wander off into a thicket of ontologies and political theories, never to be seen again.

It is, I think, difficult to discard what you know and start from the beginning, to start from the basics of the visual apparatus and the cultures in which we live, and to work out how actual, ordinary, people will make meaning from a photograph, or from a book of photographs, or a white cube filled with photographs. While the non-viewer-forward ways to write criticism are not to be dismissed, they are also not particularly well-suited to understanding how viewers make meaning.

Art History is an excellent tool for Art History, but a poor one for making milkshakes, and and even worse one for making sense of what people think when they look at a picture.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Shootist and the Editor

I will eventually get around, here, to thinking about how people work on archives of other people's photos, but let me first do a little spade work.

I consider "photography" as a creative activity to take part in two modes, by the action as it were of two different tasks. The first is the shootist, who pushes the shutter button. The task here is, roughly, to reduce the idea-free chaos of the world to a finite set of visual ideas. The second task is that of the editor who begins from the set of ideas and produces a clarified, refined, coherent vision. A completed body of work.

This need not be a fancy fine artist. This could be mom shooting her kid's birthday party. As shootist, mom does not photograph the empty bedroom down the hall, or the clouds in the sky, or the silverware drawer. She shoots the cake, the children playing a game, the presents being opened. She reduces 4 or 5 hours of time in a house and yard to a few dozen frames that are related specifically to the party. Later, she throws out the ones that are out of focus. The experiment with motion blur during the game did not work out. The dozen frames around cake eating all look pretty similar, but there's one that feels a little better than the rest. Mom refines and clarifies the ideas around "birthday party" and reduces the pictures to those that show the birthday party as she wants to show it.

Mom posts 17 pictures to social media. The end. The shootist, and the editor, have both done their work.

Of course the same thing applies to Robert Frank and his Guggenheim journey. Robert Frank, shootist, reduced the infinite depth and texture of America to 28,000 visual ideas. Robert Frank, editor, further reduced and clarified those 28,000 ideas to 83 pictures in a book, a singular idea of dazzling clarity.

Naturally, the two roles, or tasks, are not perfectly distinct. They are not even two sides of the same coin, but perhaps two sides of the same marble. As with "tall" versus "short," where one leaves off and the other begins may not be precisely clear. Nevertheless the two things are different. One could argue also that someone working from, say, Google's Street View is acting in the role of shootist, rather than editor, since the collection of pictures is so vast, and is so devoid of anything resembling an idea.

It's complicated. As we are adults, I think we may continue regardless of the risks.

Consider now the creative who works with an archive of photographs. They could be found photographs. They could be someone's discard pile. They could be someone's entire output. They could be someone's keeper pile.

I am interested here specifically in archives shot with intent, an archive of ideas however half-formed. This excludes Street View, surveillance footage, and so on. Arguably it excludes Winogrand's later work (consider that remark 50% in jest) and, as usual, the lines are not crisply defined. Further, for reasons that will become clear, I exclude collaborations between the archive worker and the shootist.

We're talking about Szarkowsi and Winogrand, Maloof and Maier, Contis and Lange.

We have a pile of visual ideas, made with intent, by a shootist. Our notional creative arrives, in the role of the editor, to do something with the pile.

Because the editor is not the same person as the shootist, the editor's work includes reading the photographs in very much the same as when you and I look at a picture. The editor has no privileged position here with respect to the visual ideas represented by the pictures.

In this case, the editor begins with a loose pile of ideas, and spends time with those loose ideas. The editor then develops a refined, clarified, idea, and selects and assembles photographs to embody that idea (or ideas). The editor's idea might be intended as a new thing entirely, as is often the case with work done with found photos. It might be an attempt to edit "as-if" the editor had been the shootist as well, in which case the editor attempts to locate intention in the pile of work and to refine and clarify that idea.

No matter what the situation, though, there is bound to be some kind of disconnection, a discontinuity. The editor, holding no privileged position with respect to the photographs, cannot and will not read them exactly as the shootist would have. The editor might get close, perhaps being on first base rather than home plate, but cannot expect to take the place of the shootist. We, reading the editor's work equally imprecisely, cannot even expect to be at first base, but will inevitably find ourselves somewhere in the outfield.

There is no particular reason the editor's work cannot be in some meaningful way "good", perhaps even better than what the shootist did or might have done.

What it cannot be is photography in its full flower, in the form of shootist and editor, combined, producing a singular coherent vision start to finish. It contains, inevitably, a discontinuity.

When Sam Contis went to work on Dorothea Lange's castoffs, she found something new (a simulacrum of Sam Contis) and ran with it. Her book is, arguably, pretty good. More to the point, there's no essential, structural, reason it can't be superb. What it is not, however, is Dorothea Lange's work.

Let us take a moment to follow a detour. If the editor and the shootist are two different people working in collaboration, the situation is different. With the shootist, the original idea-finder, in the loop the whole thing changes. At least in theory the editor can work as an editor, and then check in with the shootist. Whatever alchemy and inexpressible ideas the shootist may have had can be brought to bear, can be embodied in the final outcome. So, the situation I am really interested in here postulates a shootist making photographic ideas with intent, and an editor — not in communication with the shootist — performing the task of editor.

My goal here, though, is to work out what a critic ought to do with one of these things.

The critic can, first of all, seek to get their arms around the original archive. What can be learned of the original pile of visual ideas? Can one examine the archive itself? Are there other publications shedding light on parts of it? Can we, perhaps, make sense of the underlying archive by close examination of the work the editor has published?

Second, the critic can attempt to discern the seam, the discontinuity, which inheres in the situation. Where does the shootist leave off, and the editor begin?

Third, of course, the critic can examine the work itself to see what can be seen.

It may occur to you, if you've been paying attention, that one can do this with the work of a single creative worker as well. There isn't the same kind of discontinuity, but still you can look at the raw pile of pictures and attempt to trace the ideas as they are refined and finally delivered in some form. This is not untrue. It's a kind of standard deep-dive form of criticism, I think, albeit a bit old school.

The single-person photographer is in some ways lot more opaque. When shootist and editor are one, the artistic process is more or less hermetically sealed. Nobody really knows what the hell is going on in there except, maybe, the artist. When the editor is separate, however, the gap creates an opportunity.

No more must we cope with the potentially irrational, potentially incomprehensible interior processes of a brain. The editor simply sat down with the photos and looked at them, just as we might have. The process is brought firmly to earth here. You and I could just as well have looked at those same pictures, have read them, and created something or other from our second-hand understanding of the visual ideas we're examining.

The editor, reading the original ideas, internalizes them and makes something that is essentially new from them. Whether the editor is attempting to paint a new painting based on a sketch, or whether the editor is simply using the notes as inspiration for something intentionally different, it hardly matters. The result is new. It might be an attempt to copy the original ideas, a sort of painting of a painting; or it might be by intention an entirely new thing.

At this point I feel comfortable asserting baldly that this kind of thing is inherently different from photography as we know and understand it. The discontinuity inherent in the thing renders it so. The two minds at work, not entirely (or perhaps not even slightly) in concert makes it so. It is something different.

I feel comfortable also in asserting baldly that the thing is difficult to get hold of. The discontinuity is potentially an opportunity, but also a difficulty. It is usually buried, sometimes on purpose. The editor, invariably, seeks to make something coherent and meaningful, and will consciously or unconsciously attempt to erase any latent attempt by the shootist to assert anything that would disturb that vision of the work. The photographs are bent, invariably, to a task for which they are not entirely (or not at all) suited.

The abilities of the two players, the supplier of raw material, the editor, are rarely in sync. The result seems more likely correlate with the smaller talent than the larger, where there is a difference. The best one can reasonably hope for is some sort of lowest common denominator. The worst is an incoherent mess, the discontinuity embarrassingly visible.

Mostly, of course, these things are an attempt at cashing in. Maloof has done rather well for himself making a mess of the nanny's pile of stuff. Sam Contis didn't sell many copies of her first book Deep Springs, but when she made a fair copy of it using Dorothea Lange's photos, she got a writeup in the Wall Street Journal (and loads of other press as well, I dare say the book is doing extremely well as these things go.) Szarkowski mainly embarrassed himself with Winogrand's archive, but I think they probably sold some books there as well and of course Winogrand remains something of an industry cash cow to the present day.

To an extent it's just the way Art is made. It's a sausage factory, and looking too closely at what goes in is generally going to turn the stomach. It's also rich, albeit messy, ground for the working critic!

I know I have turned it in to a great success.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Something About Archives

I am not dead. I am on holiday and thinking very hard about people who edit other people's archives. Hope to have something in a few days

Hope everyone is enjoying their summer. Or winter, I guess.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Looking for Readers

I have been humbled by the response here. Thank you, everyone. I do not require further readers, but if you are interested I will happily send you a copy anyways.

I have this goddamned manuscript, about 14,000 words (a little shy of 40 pages) of shit on "how we construct meaning when we look at pictures" which longish time readers will have seen before. This is more or less a single extended argument with a beginning, middle, end, all that business. More structured, more carefully copy edited, and I think it might be more readable than my usual blog posts (albeit considerable longer).

It is the worst possible length. Too long for a journal article, and too short for a book. But there it is, that's how long my brain is.

If you'd like to volunteer to give it a read-over, I can send you a PDF. Typos, clumsy phrasing, this makes no goddamned sense, this is a terrible idea all gratefully received.

Also the phone number and extension of any publishers you thing might take a flutter on the next Camera Lucida.

Drop me an email if you're interested.