Tuesday, September 29, 2020


It is thoroughly chic today to describe photography as extractive which is a newish word for an old idea.

The idea is, basically, that some white man (Steve McCurry) goes to a far off land, and takes some pictures of people. He pays them little or nothing, but is himself handsomely compensated for his pictures. This feels unfair. There is no question here, one of the normal human responses here is "this is unfair" and that ought not to be set aside. It's all social, after all.

Still, let us pick this apart a little. It will closely resemble my discussion of consent, from a few days ago.

Physical objects are possessed, generally, by only one of us. My dog understands that if I have the ball, she does not. She understands that if she has the ball, I do not (this is a very desirable state of affairs, according to my dog.) Dogs, crows, children, understand this concept of having something. It is symmetrical.

Photography, being obnoxious, divides it in two peculiar halves.

If you are walking down the street, and I photograph you, I now have a photograph of you. I possess an object, of sorts. You, however, have not lost anything.

If I took from you a ball, you would rightly demand compensation. This kind of quid pro quo is also something that dogs, crows, and children understand. This is not a cultural construct, although we wrap it in culture. The idea of exchanging a thing of value for another thing of value is a very, very basic idea. It is instinctive, somatic.

In these transactions, the part where you take the ball away, and the part where I no longer have the ball, are inextricably connected. When I pay you for the ball, am I paying you because I now possess a ball? Or, am I paying you because you no longer have the ball? It doesn't matter, because the two cannot be separated.

When I photograph you, however, the two are separated. I gained a photograph, but you did not lose a photograph, or indeed anything else. Is the ethical requirement to pay you rooted in my gain, or in your loss? The question suddenly becomes quite real.

Because we lack the tools to, at a visceral, emotional, level to make sense of this half-transaction, we naturally feel that when something is gained (a photo) something is lost (what?) We feel, in an attenuated way, that the subject of the photo deserves something for their trouble, for their non-existent loss. There is a very real social impression that subjects have rights, and should be compensated, in a sense not on the basis that they have lost but that that photographer has gained.

We should, obviously, respect this to a degree. We are social creatures, after all. Also, though, I think we should recognize the halfway nature of the thing. You, the subject, didn't lose anything.

The photograph has value, at least notionally. In 99.9% of cases, of course, the photo has no value whatever. In these cases, when the tourist takes the snap and hands a dollar to the picturesque brown person, the latter has arguably made out like a bandit having lost nothing, and gained a dollar. In the end the tourist ended up with an object worth nothing whatever. There is no value to be shared here.

Still, Steve McCurry's photos have value. A Marxist would tell you that the value derives from Labor, which would be pretty much all McCurry Inc. Other theories propose that the value derives from the cost of production, again, McCurry Inc. Modern theory has some complex gobble around value just being the product of how bad people want the thing, and there we might have some justification for money being shared around, right?

After all, the picturesque old dude is inherent to the desire for the photo, right? If the value is merely a measure of that desire, I guess the old dude generated a bunch of that value, so deserves a piece of the pie. It makes sense to me.

This, however, teaches firmly that if there is no desire for the photo, the old guy doesn't deserve a cent. If I go to Afghanistan and photograph some picturesque people, and make a book, and sell a few copies, losing several thousand dollars in the process, there is no economic basis for compensating any of the picturesque people.

They didn't lose anything. Let us presume I paid them market rates for modeling, for their time, whatever. No value was created, so there is nothing to share. All that happened was that I acquired some photographs which, presumably, have some personal value. Perhaps I earned a few exposure bucks.

There are no simple answers here, any more than there is a simple answer to the question of consent. We're looking at a situation we lack the fundamental tools to make sense of. We can use our big fat brains to intellectualize some stuff, but whatever the result our emotional, and therefore social, response won't line up. Like consent, it appears to be something that admits no pat answers, and requires us instead to muddle through as best we can.

In closing, though: the use of the word extractive is, to my eye, a deliberate attempt to frame photography as essentially the same thing as mining. If I go to Afghanistan and mine a bunch of diamonds and carry them off, then Afghanistan and her people have lost some diamonds. To frame photography as extraction is to propose, without quite saying it, that when I photograph someone, that someone loses something. This is disingenuous, of course, and part of a larger program to frame photography as Super Dangerous and Problematic.

But, while I think the word itself is ridiculous, the central question remains.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Crit: "London" by Paul Halliday

A few caveats. First, the thing I'm looking at is a video presentation of a project that is, I think, not done. The film is shot, but we should take this as a preliminary edit, at best. Second, I think Paul is an awful human being, and so find myself prone to the "and your photos are shit!" fallacy.

Which this in mind, you can view this video at this link: Dekho Paul T. Halliday. The video production is not great, I think it's just a recorded Zoom session. The english text at the beginning is rough, but there's a language barrier so get over it. You can watch it sound-off at double speed if you just want to see the photos, all of which appear in the first 60 minutes. Paul's talk is, um, well it is its own thing which I will get to.

Let's start with the pictures, though.

Paul displays a strong sense of graphic design now and then, almost frequently. There's some really punchy pictures in here, and of the 60-odd photos there are 3 or 4 that I genuinely like. I dare say you'll also find a handful that make you think "wow, that's just a good photo" and that they won't be quite the same ones I like. The collection has that flavor. There's also some more photos that I think are OK, near misses, that kind of thing. There are really only a few that look like total duds. Again, you might find a few duds, but different ones than mine. The collection has that flavor.

He is not, however, consistent. Many of the frames are just a jumble of stuff, or some cheap "street tog" juxtaposition. The arrow points right, the people walk left. The giant hand in the poster appears to grab the woman's head, that sort of thing. Many of the better photos feel vaguely familiar, and one guesses that Paul picked them off the contact sheet because they reminded him of whatever it is that we're recalling. It's a little like looking at Vivian Maier's photos, but attenuated.

The framing is frequently a bit off. Paul doesn't seem to be able to handle his rangefinder and is constantly chopping people's feet off and more generally the photos either feel like they ought to be cropped, or got cropped a bit badly. Several times he's interested in some cute replication of subject or form, but frames the picture is such a way as to practically conceal the joke. He does not seem to have any sense of positioning himself, of moving, to get a good framing.

The influence of Cartier-Bresson is felt throughout. My first impression was these look like all the frames Henri did not circle. After another viewing and some noodling, that still seems right. Which, you know, isn't entirely bad, right? HCB rejected some decent pictures. It also feels a bit like some random would-be "street" tog's Instagram.

And therein lies the real trouble. This thing is incoherent. It's just a bunch of whatever Paul thought were "the good ones" in no particular order. There is no sense of place, no sense of time, and no sense of any relationship at all between the pictures. Two more or less identical pictures of amusement park rides joggle shoulders with a picture of a cat in a window, two nuns on the subway, and apparently endless photos of people milling around in streets. The closest thing we get to a theme or an idea that carries across photos is three pictures of people sleeping.

Let us now turn to Paul's commentary. We learn that he spent 20 years on this, 1986 to 2006 which to be fair are probably the least visually interesting years in human history. He has an archive of 120,000 negatives holy shit this is the best he could extract? He has been all kinds of minor-league academic and has lived all over London, all his life, etc and so forth. It becomes clear that he's in the habit of going out weekends and knocking out a few rolls of film. He tells us, mercifully briefly, about his Leicas.

In all this blather, he spend a lot of time justifying his pictures. He offers up "longitudinal study" which it's not because he never seems to return to the same location at all, let alone over years. Like all the other justifications he mentions it once and moves on. He proposes that he is a "critical urbanist" which means something, I guess. An urbanist is someone who favors gentrification, but not the lame kind, the cool kind that produces awesome cafes, a thriving art scene, and affordable rents.

As a critical urbanist Paul is "quite interested" in the ways people move through and use urban spaces, which I suppose explains all the pictures of people milling around. Surely there's more to it than milling around, though?

Paul is also "quite interested" in urban animals. For one frame. He's "quite interested" in gesture, for one frame. He's "quite interested" in sleeping people, for three pictures. Indeed, there seems to be almost nothing Paul is not "quite interested" in for a frame or two.

All this blather feels like he's trying to tell us what the point of this project is, but none of it succeeds. He dribbles off, and is on to a new thing for the next picture. It's clear that if he has a concept here, he is utterly unable to articulate it either with words, or with pictures.

And now the last bit. Paul is extremely woke. He operates a Master's program at Goldsmiths where you can spend a year learning Wokeology and Photography for a mere 10,000 pounds (18,900 if you're foreign.) For those of you in the cheap seats, Goldsmiths is evidently well-respected, so god knows how Paul wiggled in there. He's some sort of interstitial scholar type, a failed PhD presumably on-staff for his admin skills and ability to extract money from wealthy foreigners.

This makes the one theme which actually does run through his blather especially sticky. Paul talks a lot about consent. He's really into contemporary discussions of consent in "photoland" and it shows here in his blather. His problem, though, is that he has rather a lot of pictures of people glaring at him, and many more pictures of people who haven't noticed him. He spends quite a bit of effort attempting to explain why this is OK.

Nazis, fuck them anyways, their consent doesn't matter and anyways I saw that one eating a bagel later (?!) The nun probably recognized me because we'd been riding the train together for years, although we've never exchanged a word, so that makes it ok (the nun is palpably angry.) The people sleeping? I don't even know why it's ok to photograph them, but I'm "quite interested" in sleeping people. The girl canoodling made eye contact before this frame was shot, so that's OK. And on and on. He's always got a story, and the subject is always either glaring at him or oblivious.

I get it, his opinions have changed. He was shooting this shit starting 35 years ago. It's ok to say I wouldn't take this photo now.

It must have been crushing for Paul to see Butturini's book. The latter is focused, intense. It has a powerful sense of time and place. The framing is consistently good. The edit is tight. The time it was shot was visually interesting. I don't think Butturini's "London" is really all that, it's not my favorite book, but it is astronomically better than Paul's efforts, and this damned Italian knocked it out in a summer. Paul's 120,000 negative archive might as well go in the bin now, and he probably shouldn't have started.

Butturini's photos are geographically tight: Regent's Park, Picadilly Circus, The Underground. That's pretty much it. It's temporally tight: summer of 1968. It's focused: this is what I saw and felt in London that summer. Paul's photos, in contrast, are all over London, all over time, and to no particular purpose. Could something be made of Paul's project? Maybe. It would be completely different from Butturini's project, and Paul probably doesn't have the chops to do it.

Is Paul conscious of this? Probably not. But at some level I think he picked up on it. It's pretty obvious.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020


Every time I make an attempt to argue that photographs are somehow different, I get a lot of pushback (thanks guys) and I have to regroup and try again. This is me trying again, because, damn it, photographs are different.

The most common complaint boils down to “what about photorealistic paintings?” so let us try to address that and see where it leads us.

A photograph (normally) takes us differently than does a painting (normally). A photograph of Margaret Bourke-White out on some art-deco eagle thing on a skyscraper induces vertigo. A painting may also induce vertigo, but it does it either through some sort of abstraction, or by being hyper-realistic and functioning the same way a photograph does. The photograph induces vertigo by directly indicating great height, and our body reacts to that.

A photograph can arouse us sexually (thank you for that specifically, my noble commenter). Again, it does so directly. There is little-to-no leap of imagination here, we see the object of desire, and we feel desire. Again it is a body-reaction, it is somatic. There is a brisk market, I am informed, for pornographic photographs. The market for pornographic animations and drawings is, while surprisingly robust, quite a bit smaller.

You could probably make a similar argument about the somatic experience of revulsion and a sufficiently grotesque photograph, but in the first place I don’t want to think about those photos and in the second place I think you can fill in the details yourself.

Speaking of animation, there is a well-known phenomenon called the uncanny valley. This was first observed with robots: a robot that looks completely unlike a human is fine, as is a robot that looks very much like a human. They can be likable. A robot that looks a lot like a human, but not enough like a human, is disturbing, unpleasant. The same is true for animations (and, one assumes) for drawings of people. There is a region of “similar, but not similar enough” in which we as humans find the renderings unpleasant. One might say, uncanny.

The existence of this “valley” indicates that there are two sides. One might argue that we visually understand the unlike-people drawings in one way, and the like-people drawings in another. Some theories of the uncanny valley (though not all) argue that the valley is induced by a conflict between two different ways of understanding the renderings. We cannot decide if it’s “real” or “drawn” in some sense. Again, though, this argues that there is something different about the way we understand sufficiently realistic renderings.

Allow me to stipulate then that photographs, often or usually, affect us in one way and that paintings and drawings, often or usually, affect us another way.

I am now going to do a Mathematician Trick.

Let us point at the category of stuff that affects us the first way. It’s mostly photographs, but includes hyper-realistic paintings, it includes the output of so-called AI algorithms, and for all I know it includes a few obviously not realistic drawings and so on. It’s a bunch of stuff, but mostly it’s photographs.

Let us also point at the category of everything else, the stuff that doesn’t affect us that way. This includes mostly paintings, drawings, and so on, but also a few photographs. Abstract photographs and, for all I know, a few perfectly realistic photographs that for some reason “don’t work.”

The trick is to simply declare the bunch of stuff we’re interested in to be a category in and of itself, and to name it, and then go to work studying it.

We could make up a fancy word for the first category, “pseudo-photographs” or something, but I think I might just make life simple and call them “fotos” in contrast with “photographs” because, well, that’s what they mostly are.

Maybe a better name that’s less silly sounding, but not too clumsy will occur to me.

Anyways, these creatures are the things I am mostly interested in.

What’s nice about this way to slice things is that it papers over the problem of “well, what’s AI output anyways?” conveniently. While there remain important philosophical questions here, we recognize them as roughly the same questions as “what’s a photorealistic painting anyway?” the only difference being the agent that made the thing.

To a dumb rube like me, who is interested pretty much exclusively in how humans see these things, how humans react to these things, we needn’t much worry about the philosophical details of what’s what. They’re realistic enough to induce the body-sensation of being there, and that’s enough for me.

Friday, September 18, 2020

On Consent

Start with this: when you approach a person, be they a friend, a colleague, or a stranger, there is a moment of social grease. Eye contact, a gesture, a few words, establish whether or not you are welcome in that person's presence at this moment in this place. Absent this, the situation is awkward, at best. We've all had that moment when someone just seems to appear and start talking. It's never comfortable, is it?

Next, this: when you are with someone, when you are present with them, I can somewhat arbitrarily divide your collective experience: they are present for you, you perceive them, you enjoy or detest their company; at the same time, you are likewise present for them. It seems absurd to break "presence" into symmetrical halves like this, I know, but stand by. All will be made, well, less murky.

Hold these ideas aside now for a bit.

I maintain, and have long maintained, that we react to photographs we see in a uniquely photographic way. My current notion is that we react somatically, viscerally, to sufficiently photo-realistic pictures. Part of the way we respond to a photo is not cognitive, it is not cultural. It is a reaction to perception of a kind of pseudo-reality.

Evidence: upon seeing a vertiginous photo, we can experience vertigo. The high-wire walker, the men lunching on a steel beam suspended over New York City: we can experience that gut sensation of altitude, which we do not get from a painting. Similarly, the reaction of a child, or anyone who has never seen a photo, to a photo of themselves: "It's me!" I maintain that, in a sense, we "enter the photograph" psychologically, we feel as if we are present in the scene.

A photograph of a person, therefore, brings me into their presence, in an attenuated way.

And thus we return to the opening thoughts. A photograph of a person brings me into their presence, half-way. They are present for me, but I am not present for them. Only one half of the symmetrical relationship of an actual meeting is there, and it is there only in an attenuated way. Further, there is no social grease, there is no active permission (or rejection.) I pick up the photo, and there I am.

Furthermore, we know this at some instinctual level. We feel this as something true about photographs.

Suppose a fellow wishes me ill. Imagine him seated in his living room seething with fury, fantasizing about my violent death. His hands clench the arms of his chair. Now imagine he holds a photograph of me, while seething. It's a bit of a different vibe, isn't it, when you introduce the photograph? He is now planning my murder, but in a sense he is in my presence. What if he holds a drawing of me, rather than a photo? It's not the same as either, is it?

A photograph of a person allows the holder to conjure that person's presence at will.

There are, at least, two ways to consider this.

Since what is conjured is only half of the presence, what does it matter? I do not know about the angry man clutching my picture; it harms me not one bit that he conjures my presence so that he may rage at it. I suppose we could argue that the photo whets some appetite and then when he later crushes my skull with a hammer it was somehow the photo's fault, but let us file that under Obviously Absurd and move on.

On the other side, though, he is nevertheless conjuring my presence without my permission. I do not give him the nod, the half-smile, that acknowledges and grants permission to be present for me while I am present for him. I would be too busy running away to do that. The photo takes that choice away from me. Frankly, I would prefer that he not so conjure my presence. Whether my preference is rational or not, my preference is real and perhaps ought rightly to be respected.

Consider now a portrait shoot of some sort. Or boudoir, or whatever. A model, a subject, has granted permission to you to take some photos. They have given consent. To what, exactly, have they consented?

The photograph you take of them is an object with the power to conjure their presence, without social grease, at will. You can conjure them up. You can distribute the photo, and allow others to do the same. Forever and always, your subject can be conjured by you or anyone else.

In contrast to the interaction with a photo, the social grease of a real-world interaction simultaneously grants permission to both halves of the presence. I nod and gesture, welcoming you to be present for me and simultaneously agreeing to be present for you. As East African Plains Apes there was no need to separate these two, they were, and are, inextricably entangled. Such a moment is a singular unit of social/animal interaction whether it be on the plains of Africa or in a New York office building.

The photograph changes that, and splits it in two. You are present for me. I am not present for you.

The social grease no longer makes any sense. Explicit consent to be photographed tries to stand in for it, but we're not built for this. The idea that I agree not only to this social interaction, but all similar ones in the future for all time makes no sense to us in any kind of non-intellectual way. The East African Plains Ape has no instincts that apply here, we have no meaningful model for this.

How should we treat the photograph?

If we treat it as You are present for me then one set of social rules applies and, taken to its logical extreme, I should ask the subject of the photograph before looking at the picture at all, every time I look at it.

If we treat it as I am not present for you then it doesn't matter at all. You are in New York, I am in Bellingham. The photo is a mere object. You have no social or moral stake in whether I look at it or not. Consent to even take the photograph is meaningless, let alone consent to look at it.

Since we are just jumped-up East African Plains Apes, though, the two exist simultaneously, and in irreconcilable conflict.

Obvious solutions like consent-to-be-photographed feel hopelessly off base, a stupid compromise. There is no compromise between fight or flight. It's not as if, well, we're not sure if it's a lion of a gazelle, so let's run away but slowly and to the side. No, you either run, or you stand and fight. I have no solutions here, but it strikes me that if some satisfactory solution exists it will be something unexpected, coming out of apparently nowhere.

It is also possible that no satisfactory solution exists. There is no rule that says there must be an answer.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Portfolio Reviews

I've never had a portfolio review in my life, and find myself remarkably uninterested in having one. I am going to say some stuff anyways! What, are you new here?

It strikes me that these things come in a bunch of flavors. You can sign up for a meat-market thing where one of a panel of "experts" will be randomly selected to opinionate about your portfolio. At something like the other end, I guess you get a meeting with the perfect person to make sense of your work, and that person likewise opinionates.

In the land of inventions and business ideas, there are any number of analogs, to both ends of this. There are hundreds of organizations that are completely generic, but will absolutely help you patent your invention, evaluate your idea, and help you get funding to start your business. These generic operations are a grift, they sift through 1000s of awful ideas very quickly, taking a fee for every one, and every so often then find something viable. When they do find something viable, they arrange to screw the principal.

Never, ever, ever get involved with these people. These people have a business model in which they take as much profit as possible as early as possible. The entire point is to leave you with as little as possible.

At the other end of the spectrum there are venture capital firms, private equity firms, even (maybe?) departments in banks, that actually exist to help you succeed. Their business model is to generate a lot of success for you, and take their profit as a smaller percentage off the back end. They make a lot more money than the first gang, but they have to do a lot more work and they have a lot of expertise.

The photo portfolio review seems to me to be similar.

My photographs are maybe more idiosyncratic than most, but I think it's true of almost anyone's work that there are some people who are going to get it, who are going to be able to make some sense of it, and others who won't. It's not at all clear to me what value there is in having the former look at your work. This seems a lot like the guys who collect fees on the front end and, hey, look at that, this is precisely the model.

They take your $50 fee, flip through your pictures of whatever, and tell you about how when they were the photo editor at <Failed Magazine> they wanted pictures that were more like <whatever> but great effort we think your work is strong come back next year with your $50.

On the up side, it's easy. You spend your $50 and some geezer will actually talk to you for a few minutes about your stupid pictures. If mainly you're into paying for social interactions, great. You should take some workshops, which are much more expensive but otherwise pretty much the same deal.

The other side of the spectrum places the work on you. To get a useful portfolio review you have to figure out who the right people are. Then you have to get a meeting. Neither of these is easy. Maybe there is some royal road here, but I suspect that any fixer who promises for a modest fee to introduce you to those right people is in fact a grifter. You've got to do the work yourself.

The right people are the ones who are equipped to make sense of your work, to see what you're trying to do, obviously. They should also, ideally, be in a position to do something about it if your work isn't shit, above and beyond advising you how to un-shit your photos.

I send my pictures around to people who I think will "get it" and so far they seem to like 'em. Mission accomplished.

So have you had a portfolio review? How'd it go?! Tell me I'm all wet!

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Social Media Injustice?

Note to regular readers, this is being prepared for submission to a larger audience, so you can expect less than my usual level of swearing.

Social media is always an uproar, there's no way around it. Photography social media is much the same, and mostly it's mostly harmless fun. I want to draw attention to two recent episodes which were not harmless fun, and which I worry point toward a larger trend.

A graphic designer from Italy named Gian Butterini published a photobook in 1969, called London. Some decades later Martin Parr discovered the book, found it interesting, and arranged for it to be re-issued in a kind of facsimile edition. The opening essays were translated to English, Parr added an essay, and some very small cosmetic changes were made. In 2019 a British academic stumbled across a spread in the book: a photo depicting a black woman, a ticket inspector for the London Underground, was placed across from a photo of the gorilla in the Regent's Park zoo.

The academic immediately noted that in the present era, in the western world, this reads as a racist trope. It compares a black person to an ape. The academic and his daughter took to social media as well as to the street, raising a furor. In the fullness of time the publisher pulled the book from distribution and Martin Parr stepped down from one or two roles.

More recently, under the auspices of the BredaPhoto Festival, Erik Kessels exhibited on the surface of a skate park a display of digitally generated images of facial plastic surgeries gone awry, the faces female in appearance. The exhibit, entitled "Destroy my Face" was intended to last until the photographs had been fully eroded by the action of skaters skating.

A small cadre of social media residents, overlapping with the critics of London, read this as violent and misogynistic. They took up a campaign to do, well, something about it. The result was that the skate park has committed to removing the photos, while the BredaPhoto Festival has so far stood firmly by their curatorial decisions.

Well, so what?

The issue at hand is that in both cases a small cadre of social media residents read the work in a particular, singular, way, and successfully parleyed their opinion into a dominant one — with real-world consequences. Artwork was removed from view on the grounds that it "said something" the cadre found unacceptable.

When some ordinary person walks up to a piece of Art, they're likely to come up with a single way to understand the work. Opening London to the spread, they might well recoil from the evident racism. Or, they might see it as a commentary on, an indictment of, racism. Or something else. This is the point of contemporary Art after all, If a piece of Art only said one thing you could just write that one thing on an index card and skip all the painting, photographing, sculpting.

And this is where the trouble lies. The loudest voices against Butturini's book and against Kessels' installation were academics, educators, experts. They should know, if they know anything, that Art allows multiple readings, and that these multiple readings are a large part of the point.

Art which critques, let's say, racism must of course reference racism. In its richness and ambiguity, it can then be read as racist by anyone who sees only the racism being referenced. That's ok, it's unfortunate that the critiqe doesn't come across for some people, but that is virtually inevitable. If you don't want ambiguity, just write it on an index card and be done with it.

The academics arguing against London never showed a single other page from the book, only repeatedly hammering the single spread with the single idea of it being inescapably racist. They omitted mention of Buttutini's opening essay which specifically addresses the two photographs in question. They omitted other spreads which showed Butturini's methods. They insisted that their single reading was the only conceivable one and that context was unnecessary. They loudly labelled anyone who disgareed as a racist, or a racist enabler.

Again, these are academics who should know as a basic part of their job that: context matters, and multiple readings are a thing.

The voices arguing against "Destroy my Face" similarly included experts who ought to know better, and similarly hammered a single point of view. Again, any attempt to suggest that alternate readings might be available were met with name-calling and boastful blocking.

This strongly resembles the campaign against "Piss Christ", a 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano of a crucifix submerged in urine. This photo also admits multiple readings. A vocal cadre saw only blashphemy and hammered that story to the exclusion of all else, raising a national hue and cry in the USA. Copies of the photo were physically damaged, and so forth. It was an exciting time.

The difference is that the professional artist class (whatever that might be) of that era stood with "Piss Christ," rather than calling for its removal. They understood that Art is complex.

To be fair, "London" can be seen as racist, "Destory My Face" as misogynistic, and "Piss Christ" as blashpemy.

They can also be see as a critique of racism, a critique of social beauty ideals, and a critique of the commercialization of religion. That's not all, of course, but let's stop there, as these are the documented intentions of each artist. We know what the artist intended, in all cases, and those readings are clearly visible in the works.

It's not that the voices decrying these works are wrong, or should be silenced. Far from it, let them be heard loud and strong!

But let other voices also be heard. Shouting "troll!" and boasting about blocking other voices in no way resembles discourse, it is unhealthy, it is damaging. It is not a conversation. It is not how serious educators, serious thinkers-about-Art, should be reacting to Art.

One of the professional educators decrying "Destroy My Face" (referring to remarks Kessels made) went so far as to ask "Now how about that 'conversation' he promised?" to which I have to reply "many of us were having it, but it was a little difficult because your lot kept yelling TROLL! and BLOCKED!!!!" over and over.

The voices which refuse to accept dissent and which refuse to grasp the basics of how art functions should be heard, make no mistake. I listen to them. They've usually got some kind of a point to make. In a narrow way, they're even right.

They're right, but they're not completely right. I submit that they are not right enough to be dictating what hangs on the walls of galleries, museums, and our public spaces.

Monday, September 14, 2020


We're not surrounded by fire up here by the Canadian Border, but Oregon has been sharing some of their smoke with us. It's been rated "unhealthy" for three says, so we're staying inside.

No cool color effects. It reads just like fog, and to an extent it is fog as particulates encourage condensation. But it's the same in all directions, which fog usually isn't, at least not here.

Spot the shitty visual pun!

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Visual Markers of Poverty, USA

I spent more time than I ought to have on Tonika Johnson's "Folded Map" project, because it caught my attention. Notably, how difficult is was to distinguish visually between the poor and the affluent neighborhoods. Of course, some of the photos are obvious, duh, but not all. The differences are usually present but subtle.

As is my usual method, I sought context. Given that Johnson provides addresses, the obvious thing is Google Street View. Let's see what's nearby. No expectations, let's just go look and see what can be seen. It always enbiggens the brain, even when it provides no particular flashes of insight. So checked around 3 or 4 of the addresses, to get the flavor.

Mostly the pictures are just what they seem. Tidy suburban homes are surrounded by tidy suburban homes. Unkept lawns are surrounded by more unkept lawns.

In one case, though, the tidy suburban home (affluent) is surrounded by a startling sea of shitty low-rise apartment buildings. Now, these might actually contain expensive condos, I didn't immediately hop on zillow to price these things out (although that would be a good next step, if my interest led that way — which it does not). It doesn't matter. The point here is that Johnson had to cherry pick a little to get even the 6 photos of affluence that she shared with us.

I don't care that she cherry picked, we all frame our photos the way we frame them on purpose. That she had to tells us a little about how hard it was to find pictures that suited all her myriad purposes. It's possible she's incredibly lazy and couldn't be buggered to look very hard, but let's assume that she did work, and that therefore she was forced to use this house despite its context. This gives us a sense of how common suitable pictures were.

This matches my experience of America. The visual signifiers of poverty are no longer obvious.

100 years ago, you could tell in an instant a person's socio-economic status. The clothing, the hair, the skin, everything pointed toward class unambiguously. Later, in let's say the 1950s, there was still indications. You could tell things from a man's hat, from his shoes.

Today, as fast fashion, global shipping, and, um, extremely inexpensive labor in foreign parts has led to the ubiquity of new clothing in similar styles you really can't tell. In cities, like mine, with half-decent services for the homeless, even the homeless dress like everyone else. The skin of a homeless person is still pretty rough. Sleeping outdoors takes its toll. At the other end, past a certain wealth level, the shirts are still from Gap, but they're bought one size large and tailored to fit.

There is one notable exception, the well-off black person often dresses extremely well. I can roll in to a meeting wearing my usual shit, and people will still listen to me. A black dude, not so much, so he shows up with a killer suit and tie because he has to.

Mostly, though, the majority in the middle all dress from pretty much the same selection of styles and manners regardless of wealth. The clothes, hair, and skin are all equally clean because running water (sometimes even lead-free) and some kind of access to laundry are more or less ubiquitous in America.

Living conditions are photographically similar. The homeless and the extraordinarily affluent live lives that are visually, photographically, different from everyone in the middle. Everyone in the middle, though, lives remarkably similar looking lives. My friends and acquintances range, for reasons, from the homeless to the millionaires, and for those who are housed the dwellings photograph in remarkably similar ways. There are differences, but they don't jump out in a photo.

Affluence produces more space. My home is roomier than my friends in HUD housing ("council flats" for you foreigners), and less roomy than my millionaire acquaintance's. Space, as anyone who's tried it, doesn't photograph for shit. You can feel it immediately, but just you try to take a picture. Affluent people sometimes tend their yards better, but not all. Ask me how I know. The more affluent sometimes tuck the inevitable flatscreen TV out of sight someplace, whereas the poor don't have that kind of space. Eventually, a visible TV will be a photographic trope for "poor" just as "laundry on a line" now means, weirdly, affluent.

The exterior of a block of council flats obviously does not resemble my house, and that can be a tell, but not a reliable one. Blocks of expensive flats look a lot like blocks of subsidized ones. This is, of course, on purpose. That's policy. And that's the point, that's the trend: we've deliberately erased many of the visual cues of poverty, because that's a really good idea.

Besides space, the main difference is ownership. Poor people rent, affluent people own. This is perhaps the least photographable concept imaginable.

What this comes down to is that both Johnson and Soth had a real problem. Soth reached for "homeless guy" "boarded up windows" and "black" to indicate poverty, and primarily reached for "fashionable brand" to indicate affluence. Johnson uses "boarded up windows," "unkempt lawns," "black" for poverty and "non-black," "well kept yard" for affluent. To be fair, both are photographing Englewood for poverty, and damn near everyone in Englewood actually is black.

So how would you photograph the socio-economic divide between, let's say, owners and renters? It's well established that there is a wide and growing gap between people who own property, and people who rent. Yet, they kinda look the same. A house, a flat, does not change visually when it is occupied by its owner versus a tenant. People dress the same because clothes are essentially free and disposable.

Do you resort to the lamest of MFA tropes, and photograph documents? Or the other lamest MFA trope of photographing random shit and pretending that there's some allusions and metaphors in play? The thing seems unphotographable, from where I sit.

It is, at any rate, a difficult problem, and both Johnson and Soth illustrate for us handily that the usual tools do not work very well.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020


Photography is a fever-swamp of copying. It takes only a moment to borrow an idea and create anything from an homage to a reference, to an outright copy. In the worst case, you might have to move a light stand or two.

Your copy might not be any good. You might have the wrong idea entirely and accidentally invent something new, or you might do a slapdash job. Maybe you nail it. None of these is the point, the point is that if you keep your damned eyes open you can see an idea one moment, and take a stab at it in the next.

We have workshops, tours, and fixers. Chernobyl photographs all look the same because there is a standard tour. There's another tour of a Cambodian museum of the Killing Fields, which produces another set of standard photographs. In some cases, we see these standard portfolios being passed off as attempts as "serious work" by "visual anthropologists" or whatever. I've mentioned the standard Lake Urmia photos in the past, which are also apparently the result of fixers/tour operators.

Borrowing ideas happens everywhere, of course. Nowhere else, though, can you attempt your copy literally by pressing one button. This steps up the pace.. a lot. If you're paying attention, and spend a lot of time looking at other people's pictures, you see the same ideas over and over, the same projects, the same visual puns, the same tropes. If you actually pay attention, in the ways that photographers usually do not, you see that everything kind of looks familiar, everything looks like something else. This is normal, this is OK. This is just how it is.

Anyways, the result of this is that photography as a whole can largely be understood in terms of a set of repeated, evolving, ideas rather than as a set of individual flashes of genius. The flashes-of-genius model echoes the great-man approach to photographic history, and is bankrupt for exactly the same reasons. Mostly there are neither flashes nor greats but rather there is a great tumbling river of ideas and photographs, trends evolving into trends, with myriad practitioners of all genders, colors, and sexualities.

Even when one thing does seem a copy of another, how are we to know whether the former copied the latter, or copied some copy of a copy of a copy of the latter? Perhaps they both copied something else. Perhaps both happened to stitch together the two obvious tropes in similar ways, both following the same not-quite-copying evolutionary path? Often there is no way to know, although the large scale trends and evolutions can and should be tracked.

We are seeing another minor scandal in the copying area. Alec Soth was "parachuted in" to Chicago to make some Soth-pix of two neighborhoods in Chicago, one poor and one more or less affluent, to illustrate a NYT opinion piece on how awful poverty is and how glad we are to be affluent. This was, it has been revealed, an obvious and deliberate rip-off of Tonika Johnson's Folded Map Project. I mean, sure, there are resemblances? Alec has attempted to apologize his way out of this and is in the process of learning that this does not work.

It is an article of faith and not untrue that photography, especially photojournalism, has a vocabulary, even a grammar. Having such a thing means that, inevitably, that there will be repeated phrases. That is literally what "having a vocabulary" means. It's not a consequence, it is the definition. It happens that within a genre, like say poverty porn, there is further shared vocabulary, and that in turn shades imperceptibly in to repeated tropes, and finally to outright plagiarism.

The lines are a bit blurry here. There are large grey areas. Where one sees plagiarism, another might see simply a repeated trope. Alec Soth claims to have been completely unware of Tonika Johnson's project. Some say this is perfectly credible, some say it is absurd, and still others say that Alec ought to have researched the field first and would inevitably have found the Folded Map Project. Me? It looks like shared vocabulary and perhaps a shared lack of imagination. Both sets of pictures are dull, thudding, ham-fisted.

But, you know, there's room for opinions here.

In the end, though, so what? Everything in photography is derivative, copied, referenced, and homaged. Truly original work is incredibly rare.

Johnson's project would absolutely not have served the needs of the NYT, which had a narrative already in hand and merely needed a couple of neighborhoods to attach it to. Any pairing of one of a 1000 poor neighborhoods with any one of a 1000 affluent ones would have served. They simply chose Chicago as suitably distant from NYC without being too far into cannibal territory like, say, Minneapolis.

Certainly they could have commissioned her, but why? They just needed a handful of completely standard pictures to go with a few hundred words they had assigned to someone already, and obviously they were going with the established business relationship and the established name.

The argument online goes that Johnson was much more deeply steeped and could have delivered a much more nuanced body of work (looking at her pictures, I am dubious, and they didn't want someone to write) but in the end, who cares? The NYT didn't want a nuanced and powerful body of work. They wanted a half dozen pictures to illustrate a few hundred words for the opinion page. It's all very well telling the Toyota buyer that Maclaren could have delivered a much more powerful car, but the Toyota driver just wants to get the kids to school, pick up some groceries.

An important element of this particular story is that Johnson's work breaks the economic divide down along a north/south divide, which is absolutely integral to the mythology of Chicago. I'm not even sure how true it is any more, but it's absolutely baked in to how Chicago thinks of itself, and it makes perfect sense. The "address twins" of 3915 North Ashland versus 3915 South Ashland is perfect. In Chicago.

It's nonsensical in NYC, and in many other urban centers. Sure, people outside Chicago will "get it" because we've read things and know people from Chicago, but it's not baked in to our urban experience. Neighborhoods are. So the NYC wanted a "rich neighborhood versus poor neighborhood" breakdown, and they sent Alec Soth (who lives a 1 hour flight from Chicago) to go get that.

Is there something to be said here, other than the facile and dubious "Soth ripped off Johnson?" Yes, yes there is.

There's some material on the current vocabulary of poverty porn. About how in the end the poor neighborhoods are remarkably similar in appearence to the more affluent ones (both projects suffer from the problem that you have to read the captions to tell which one you're in), or possibly the inability of either photographer to make a coherent statement. There's a question about how far to push the cherry picking in order to get compelling pictures, and another question as to what extent "black" stands in as a code for "poor" in photographs and projects of this general type.

If you start from the point of view that this thing is a long-standing idea, you could get somewhere. Jacob Riis famously made a project called How the Other Half Lives 130 years ago. While he did not juxtapose pictures of the affluent, their presence is certainly indicated by the use of the word "Other" in his title.

Riis's pictures are far more dynamic than the modern four-square "documentary" look, he uses more interiors, and does not use race as a stand-in for socio-economic status relying more on physical evidence in the frame to carry that water. In contrast, both Soth and Johnson use race as a visual standin for poverty, and are reduced to using unkempt lawns and the occasional boarded up window as non-human indicators of poverty.

At some point in the last 130 years some changes have occurred.

Arguably many of the physical markers of poverty have gone away, and the rest have changed. The reality on the ground has changed: the poor rarely starve for lack of calories, so the sunken face of the starving is no longer available. The poor no longer hang laundry on lines, although the affluent occasionally do. Much of the visible squalor of the truly poor in 1890 is gone, except for the contemporary homeless. Not only have the actual visual markers of poverty have changed, but also the vocabulary we use in America to indicate it has changed.

The haphazardly hung laundry and piles of refuse are gone from the pictures, in their place we have overgrown yards and skin color.

Isn't that more interesting than "I think some emo white guy ripped off some emo black woman's project!"

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

On History, On Photography

I have remarked in the past about the similarities between writing history, and taking photographs. Both reduce a chaotic world, infinitely complex, infinitely large, and reduce it to a legible explanation of sorts. Both, necessarily, take a point of view. Both select what to discard; both select where to stand.

There is an interested corollary of this notion. The notion that you can discern the race, gender, or politics of the photographer (or historian) in the work is revealed to be bankrupt and silly. White writers are fully capable of writing a kind of "black gaze" version of history, as we see from the famously controversial 1619 Project. To be fair, the project was largely written by black journalists, but there are a couple bog-standard white guys on the roster.

In the same way, I dare say that there are more women working specific kinds of projects than men. You could characterize those projects as "female gaze" if you liked, but then you'd have to allow that men can do it too which seems unlikely. Given the wildly incoherent framing "gaze" has in contemporary theory anything is possible, but I suspect that many of the self-styled thinkers here would balk at this point.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Bye Ming

By request, one last look at my best friend in Malaysia, Ming Thein.

I never had many kind words for Ming, he always seemed to be a faker, converting a mild talent for graphics, a penchant for overprocessing, and a case of logorrhea into a modest little empire that was never as big as he pretended it was. Then he teamed up with Robin Wong, one of the least interesting photographers on earth, that relationship died on the vine slowly, and now the whole enterprise has simply gone under.

Let's go take a look, though. We haven't peeked in in a few years, maybe in his old age he got up to something interesting. Let's look at his last think piece, "What is Creativity" shall we?

Well, that first sentence is a bit inauspicious, seeing as it doesn't seem to mean anything but it certainly uses a lot of words. No, not quite, he seems to be claiming that loads of people claim stuff is "creative" when it's not, but it's anyone's guess WTF the second clause means. To be honest, I can't even make out what is in need of such treatment. Is is the non-creative stuff people are doing? I guess.

So we have a strong Ming start here. He basically jumps in slamming some vague population of rubes as not creative, as neverthless claiming to be creative, and doing things which would be much improved by creativity if only said rubes were not so un-creative.

Whatever. We already knew Ming was a prick, so moving on.

Un-creative people think "creativity" is just unstructured randomness, truly creative people see it as a careful and structured process I guess, and naturally Ming has enormous experience that is relevant here and is just the fellow to tell us all about it.

Fuck. Next graf.

Pissing on uncreativity as mere rule following or whatever, yeah yeah uncreative people suck and are boring. Back to Ming for a bit how he spent the better part of 10 years (which we may take to mean 2 years or so, because Ming has never done anything except blog for anything close to 10 years, but perhaps he means blogging is uncreative), anyways Ming remains the perfect person to tell us all about whatever.

Graf 3 has nothing I can see about how great Ming is, thank god, but does contain a labored but very ordinary definition of what creativity is.

Onwards to something about Lego (not to quibble, but let me quibble, it's LEGO) and then to something about how breadth of knowledge, even across disciplines, can give you more stuff to be creative with, ok. Sure. I mean, obviously? Some sort of connection to life, but I'm pretty sure he just said loads of people (presumably all those boring people he worked for) are uncreative, so clearly it's possible to live without being creative? Not sure what he's going for with THAT, but he definitely wants to throw in "biomimicry" because, wow, cool word. I bet he's using biomimicry in his watches.

Incredibly labored paragraph about how designing watch movements is like designing photographs. Labored because the two have nothing in common except that you're making something to look at. You could make exactly the same analogy between designing watch movements and designing wedding cakes. The main takeaway here is that Ming is a meticulous worker and now he's desiging watch movements!!!! (no, he is not, stand by)

Photograph with a long caption that details the cosmetic changes Ming made to a bog-standard watch movement ("bridges and plates" means the stationary parts) salted with a vague insinuation that he could design his own movement (no). There is obviously an existing industry to allow a high degree of visual customization of watches so anyone with enough cash on hand can start a watch company. MING Horology is, by all accounts, doing very well. But then, MING Photography was allegedly a bustling operation as well.

Next graf. Stupid argument about how breadth of knowledge is better than depth for creativity because it enables non-linear advances. What? I mean, sure, breadth is good, I am all for it. Better than depth? Are horses better than jam? This, of course, segues into more about how great Ming is, and also how much he's grown because, you guessed it, he's got breadth albeit not a lot of depth. So I guess he's making non-linear advances by banging off the shelf watch movements into attractive cases. I mean, sure, the watches are nice, but I'm not seeing a lot of non-linear advances here, we're not exactly inventing time travel. Connection to curiosity which seems a little iffy, but OK, I can see it. The leap Ming makes here is awkward, though. Anyways, ends on this wierd 1+1=5 (more creative?) as opposed to 1+1=3 (creative, but not as much?).

Something something curiosity. We're wandering pretty far from creativity now, not sure what the point is. Beginning to sense that leaping from creativity to curiosity was a mistake, because this isn't making a lot of sense. Everything is awful, and people are stupid, curosity (and, I suppose, creativity?) are crushed by society, government, and stupid people. I think. Honestly, he's just rambling at this point.

Last graf thank god. At this point we've fully conflated curiosity and creativity, the lack of one is equivalent to the lack of other, and everything is horrible without people who will ask "why" like an innocent and yet very broadly knowledgable child, I guess, because asking "why?" and making shit are basically the same thing?

Big finish, "those of us who have had.. know it cannot be turned off.. we are awesome forever and ever and by we I mean myself, of course, yay for me."

So, yeah. Typical think piece from Ming. A lot of words and circumlocution to hide the fact that it's a mixture of roughly equal parts dictionary definitions, stupid conflations, and auto-hagiography.

I can see liking the dude's pictures, right? I mean, they have a crispness to them, and sometimes real graphical oomph. I found them facile and empty, but that's me, right? These fucking words though, god. I can't imagine anyone actually fought their way through this trash in a serious way. They skimmed it, and it sounded Real Smart and Maybe Some Day I'll Give It A Good Read. It's not Brad Feuerhelm levels of gibberish, since most of the sentences mean something, and often there is a sort of forward flow if not an actual argument.

The comments suggest that the few people who tried to read it made it to the second, maybe third, paragraph.

There is no way, though, that you will be rewarded for your efforts here.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Not Quitting

You won't be shed of me that easily, you bastards!

<shaking my fist furiously>

(some other, rather better known, photography bloggers have quit recently, so there's a certain amount of rending of clothing going on)

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Unpower of the Photograph

We are in this modern era confronted with horrifying photographs which, we are told, ought to change everything. A dying toddler with a vulture in the background. A dead child on the beach. An apparently wounded child covered with white dust. The photo is widely distributed, shock is widely felt. Sometimes, even, some minor and temporary policy change seems to occur, and we hope that our society will now act decisively to end some crisis or another.

And then nothing happens, not really, the crisis continues, children continue to die, and so on.

A year or two or ten later we revisit the photo and lengthy think pieces are written about how venal we all are, and why the photograph didn't work this time.

It never works. It never did work. Photographs don't do that. They do not shape society.

We see the horrifying photo, and, as we do with photographs that touch us, we metaphorically enter into the world of the photo. We build that world out in our imagination, from the things we see in the picture, from whatever context we know, from things of ourselves. For a moment, we are in some sense there on the beach. We can hear the lamentations, we viscerally feel the suffering of the refugees. We see their rubber boats and smell the terror, the sorrow, the exaltation of finding land at last after the terrifying night, after the storm, after all the people who did not survive to attempt the deadly crossing, after all the people who did not survive the deadly crossing.

We are there, in that world, we feel it profoundly. This is the power of the photograph. This is what photographs do.

We imagine that we have touched reality. The world in our imagination, built around the photo, feels like reality. We think our construct has revealed truth to us, because it is grounded in whatever truth the photograph holds.

This must change, we think. This is truth, and it is terrible, and therefore...

But it isn't truth, it's a construct. It's a dream.

It might overlap with truth. Hypothetically, we might even have gotten every detail right; our construct might, hypothetically, be a perfect copy of the real world surrounding the photograph. Nevertheless, what we react to is the copy, the construct, rather than the real thing.

The moment we turn away from the picture the dream, the nightmare, begins to fade; our powerful emotional response begins to fade. Still, we can turn back to the photo and re-feel those same sensations, can't we?

We imagine our fury, our grief, our pain to be continuous. After all, every time we check in on it, there it is. We recall the photo, and there is our pain, right next to it. Our reponse is not continuous, though. It fades the moment we cease to attend to it, because it is merely the response to a nightmare.

We do this, of course, with the real world as well. We don't grieve, after all, for the dying parent when we're not thinking about our dying parent. How much moreso, though, do our emotions fade in and out when they are responses to a construct of the imagination! Each of us does this, in roughly the same way, in reaction to the terrible photograph. Quickly, over minutes, hours, days, our response fades. Nobody does anything, in the end. The powerful emotion that felt like it could move mountains was, in all of us, a chimera.

The dying parent remains with us, irrevocably in our world, until the moment they are are not, and then their death remains with us, equally real. We cannot escape these hard realities.

The photograph and its pseudo-reality is a matter of choice. Unless we tack the photo to the wall above our desk, or put it on the fridge with a magnet usually used for lists, the photograph drops out of our view and with it its world and with that the tsunami of emotion that was supposed to change the real world.

Friday, September 4, 2020

What Can We Say About Context?

I am obviously very interested in the way context alters our perception of a photograph. Readers who have been with me for more than a few days know that my theory of how we read photographs proceeds roughly thus: when we look at a photo, we metaphorically enter the photograph, and from that vantage point mentally construct a world to go around the things we see in the picture.

We build this world from 1) the things we see in the picture, 2) the things we know about the picture, and 3) our own selves.

The second one is what I broadly refer to as "context" and of course the process of world-building involves all three elements sloshing around in a sort of incoherent brew.

To critically read a photo, we should gather as much context as possible, because we're interested in all possible personal readings, and we don't know which bits of context which people have. So, best to gather it all up.

To read a photograph personally, though, is to enter the world of the photograph with whatever knowledge we have on hand. We construct a world, and interpret the meaning of the picture in the light of that imagined world.

If we know very little, it is as if we enter a darkened room, with only the small area of the photograph illuminated. We populate the room with things of our own imagining, and it gradually brighten, filled with whatever we have imagined fits with the photograph. If we know a great deal, the room starts out with various areas brightly lit, filled with things we know (or think we know). Perhaps we're only filling in a few gaps here and there from our imagining — but always more than we think we are. We think the world we've built is true, or truer than it is, rather than imagined.

When I went to some effort to fill in the darkened room (in this case, a literal dark room) around a black prisoner dancing, I uncovered a lot of detail. Different people, furniture, a washroom, the relationship of many objects to one another, and so on. It may well have felt like there was some deeper understanding that must inevitably arise.

In the end, though, the emotions of the people in the frame remain obscure, perhaps slightly illuminated, but ultimately unknowable, and so often it is the emotions and thoughts of the people that matter.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Let's Look at This

This isn't really a critical examination of a specific photograph, it's not in my "something to look at" series. I intend here to look at a grouping of photos to illustrate the kind of forensic things that can be done, and see how the narratives we invent for pictures work, a little.

John Edwin Mason, an academic out of UVA, Charolettesville, VA, is one of those guys who thinks about photography. His politics are, um, predictable let us say. Not wrong, by any means, but never very nuanced. He is also one of those academics who will tell you at length how critical context is to understanding photographs, and who will in the next breath prove his point by eliding as much context as he can from a photo so he can tell you a simplistic story about it.

He recently shared this photo, by Jack Delano, from the FSA archive:

John makes the completely accurate point that this is a dance posture that appears in a widely reproduced cartoon of "Jim Crow" and speculates that Jack Delano may have asked the prisoner to pose (but John knows perfectly well Delano did not, as we shall see.) He quotes from Delano's memoir, noting Delano's excitement and later feelings of guilt, and theorizing at length about them.

A follower cropped out the face of one the men who is clapping, the bald fellow in the foreground here, and remarks "His face says it best" which we will revist.

Let's back up a little.

Delano's memoir was written more than 50 years after this photo was taken, and as such is a little suspect. He refers to the prison camp as "the county jail" repeatedly, which it isn't, and he describes his experience photographing the dancer as "snapping pictures as fast as I could" when in fact he's using flash bulbs and some kind of rollfilm camera. While he probably was working as fast as possible, the rate would not in fact have been that fast, at least not in modern terms.

It is in the nature of these things that if Delano had all the details right, it would be surprising.

His testimony as to his excitement at taking the pictures, and the later guilt he experiences, is indeed the best we've got, but we should treat this testimony with a little care, and not as gospel truth.

From the FSA archive we can deduce that Jack showed up at the prison camp with at least three cameras, as off-camera flash holder, and the relevant cords and things. He is kitted out. There are 35mm photos of... nothing. Just prisoners standing around, apparently at the Warden's funeral. Really blah photos. There are sheet film photos (a Graflex or similar, maybe?) and a series of roll film frames. Many of the photos are of this same room, from a couple of angles.

These are some of the sheet film photos. Starting with some views from outside, behind the dancer. There is a paint can on the stove which serves as a reference point. It is difficult to spot in these two photos, but visible. The light in all the sheet film is probably from an on-camera flash holder, slightly above and offset from the lens.

Here you can see the stove and paint can. Note that the stovepipe runs toward the camera. To the right of the frame is a washroom area:

The camera pulls back slightly and swings right, more toward the washroom area:

Two views of the washroom area, where we see men in fact "washing up:"

Here we are back to the stove with the paint can, and then the camera swings to the left to take in the wall opposite the washroom area. Note the articles of clothing hanging on the pillar:

The establishes the general shape of the room, from one end, the end Delano (apparently) entered through. Washroom right, stove in the center of the room with the paint can on it, various beds, hats and cups hung on the walls. This appears to be a dormitory space of some kind, men are relaxing it, perhaps washing up after working or eating (the series does contain what appears to be men eating in a mess hall arrangement, so a post-meal washup is plausible).

Onwards to to the roll film. These are shot from the other end of the room. The stovepipe runs away from the camera, although the paint can is still visible on the stove suggesting that these were likely shot on the same visit. A short interval of days between is maybe plausible. Notice that the light is off to the side, one side or the other. Delano mentions that he had the guard hold an "extension light" here. At a guess, he is replacing flash bulbs in a handheld light thing at every exposure.

The photographer and the guard/light stand switch places, and our bald friend is now lying down on the cot.

Note that our bald friend is not consistently looking unhappy:

Try as I might, I am unable to put these things in any order. Sleeves are not noticably unrolling, background objects are not being moved around, there are no particular tells of time passing. Where there are clues, they suggest very little passage of time, minutes or seconds, rather than hours or days. But the clues are a bit thin.

I rather imagine that Delano approached, shot some sheet film on the way in. The guard offered to get the guys to dance, and Delano switched to his roll film camera, and shot (finished?) a roll of film. It could easily have been the other way around. There may be more photographs of the dancer in the archive, but I can only locate these six. Working with the flash bulbs and the roll film camera I don't see how that takes less than a minute, which feels about right for the sequence we're looking at, but of course it could have gone on for much longer.

We can eliminate the hypothesis that the bald guy was protesting visibly. He was not, the apparent expression — so appropriate and legible here in 2020, and so unlikely in a 1941 prison for black men — is a momentary passing expression rather than a sour glare at the photograrapher. He is at least feigning enjoyment. Indeed, all the men either are enjoying themselves, or are faking it convincingly.

It is tempting to suggest that this was a "welcome moment of respite" or something, but we see in the surrounding pictures that these guys are already on break. They have not been taken from hard labor to perform, they're relaxing in their dormitory space.

Comparing the expressions of the men on the sheet film, with the men during the dancing sequence, it's not unreasonable to guess that they are enjoying the music and the dancing. The guitarist is, evidently, Buddy Moss, a blues guitarist of some note who was serving time for (allegedly) murdering his wife. We may assume the music was good.

We can tell that the dancer was likely not posed, this is an active sequence. Men are clapping, his feet are moving. It is possible that Delano might have called out the pose by name or gesture as a request? Possibly also the dancer threw it in as an expected pose for the white photographer. It's also possible that it's just a dance move. We do not know, and it is unknowable.

The space was cramped, as we can see from the other photos. The photographer is crammed up against walls, trying to get enough space to work. There's not much light inside here, the scenes are entirely lit by flash bulb. The space behind the grates on the wall behind the dancer, which I think is outdoors (?), appears black.

What we can surmise is that the men have entered their dormitory after being outside of it, and are presumably expecting to be locked up. There is visible "washing up" and then the men are sitting, standing, lying around, being photographed which does not seem to delight them. The dance sequence involves a radical change of mood, either they cease to much mind the violent pops of the flash bulb, or are able to ignore them.

Is this some kind of happy negro, jes' ever so happy to be dancin'? Fuck no, he's in prison. Is this a pleasant bit of entertainment for a moment? Maybe. It's entirely possible Buddy Moss was not permitted to play music just any old time. Is it possible that they're pretending to be in a good mood, at the behest of the guard? Yeah, possible.

What this could be is anything whatsoever. What it appears to be is something like this. Photographer and his fixer show up to take some pictures. The guard says hey the guys are just coming back from fixing roads, they'll have a meal and then go on into the dorm to be locked up for the night (possibly with more colorful language) so they collectively decide to shoot that. Delano, fixer, guard shoot sheet film of guys eating, guys entering the dorm, guys washing up. The guys are like 'what the fucking hell' but they more or less hold their peace because, guard.

Guard says hey Billy show these guys a dance, Buddy can play so they do that, and there's some combination of 'what the fucking hell' and 'this is nice' because the photographer, his fixer, and the guard suck but Buddy's pretty good with the guitar and Billy's fun to watch. Smiles and clapping for a few minutes, because prison sucks but this is ok.

Then it's all over, the photographer, his fixer, and the guard fuck off locking the dormitory on the way out, the end. Maybe Buddy plays some more, maybe he doesn't.

In the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, what it appears to be is your best guess at what it actually was.