Wednesday, October 28, 2020

I'm Sorry but No

Pursuant to my previous remarks, and the comments on it, I have to inform you that you can't buy any more camera equipment. I'm sorry, I don't make the rules.

Monday, October 26, 2020


I happened across a pair of articles, almost adjacent, on one of the ubiquitous photography news-review-thing-blogs. The first bemoaned the slow pace of innovation, blaming Sony, somehow. I did not follow the argument, mainly because I don't care. The second piece, two articles below the first. breathlessly urged readers to keep up with the fast pace of technological change in cameras. I did not read past the lede on this one, ibid.

While contradictory, the two pieces both hew to the idea of innovation in camera technology as an essentially good thing. Indeed, as a thing at all.

Let us review: a camera is a box, with a hole on one side that lets pictures in. That's it.

Yes, to be sure there are a few corner cases where technology is either necessary or a very great help. Now with really good autofocus, anyone at all can manage decent pictures of Birds In Flight with a little effort. With Amazing New Sensors people can take pictures of unspecified vigorous activities in almost total darkness. If you want to print Really Big you actually need more megapixels than my 10 year old bottom-of-the-line camera has. And so on.

Nevertheless, there are limited directions that innovation can actually go when you're dealing with a box with a hole. They're tried filling the box with sand, or maple syrup, instead of darkness but those experiments were by and large a bust.

And, further, if you actually look at the pictures people actually take, a different story reveals itself. Virtually any picture you actually see if you just go randomly looking for pictures, could absolutely have been taken with my 10 year old camera and the motley array of second-rate lenses I have lying around. While randomly trolling about, I happened across some aircraft photos and thought "ok, well, you'd need some gear for those" until I realized that they were heavily photoshopped pictures of models. We were back to "Yep, my D3100 and the old Micro NIKKOR 60 could totally do that."

Nope, barring a handful of exceptional cases, all technology really does it make it incrementally easier to do this thing or that thing, and all those things are quite niche, quite rare.

It might make you feel better about taking pictures to have the buttons just so rather than thus, and to have the control wheel there instead of there and a touch screen to move the focus point around might be good for some use cases, and so on. These things are all camera-forward, not picture-forward.

In almost all cases "I need a better/different camera" means "I want a different camera" which means "I am bored with my current camera or my pictures or both."

It is OK to be bored with your camera, or your pictures, or both. No, really. I have been bored my all my cameras for years and years. Unlike some people, I do not rely on my cameras for entertainment, but that too is OK.

What camera companies need to do is stop pretending that the new features have anything to do with pictures. Just add flashing lights, games, buzzers, and lots and lots of knobs, dials, and buttons. One touch screen? Screw that! We're putting three in there, and a shitload of options to configure what they all do! I'm putting ISO on this dial! But only in one direction, the other way adjusts the shutter speed!

Sure, they should continue to take pictures and all. There's got to be an excuse. But the main point is to dink around trying to get the perfect set of controls and menu items to truly optimize your shooting for various workflows, right? And then you can test all the workflows! And adjust the controls some more! And when, finally, you've wrung that rag dry, they'll have the new model out with four touch screens and two more configurable dials than the previous one!

I'm not saying that some technology isn't a bad idea. I love the autofocus with the lenses where it works, it's awesome. Metering is great. I'm sure ever more sensitive sensors with greater dynamic range is also wonderful. But it's all kind of minor stuff. You can make pretty good pictures of a lot of stuff with practically anything, and that's mostly what more people want to do, picture-wise.

You probably don't need a new camera, is what I'm saying.

Friday, October 23, 2020


So as you know I have the filthy habit of poking in to photography forums from time to time. Honestly, the whole genre is kind of dying off, so there are far fewer things to make fun of here, but this morning I struck gold!

Here's a thread you can enjoy, if you like. On, let us review, a publically accessible forum which anyone can look at and read without an account.

Someone went out and took a bunch of portraits of someone in a place. The photographer used a variety of lenses and apertures, and moved to achieve similar framing in all the exposures. The point is to illustrate the different ways the face is rendered, and the different effects of depth of field and so on.

So up rolls Mr. 480Sparky, who is one of the dumb bastards who will go on about how long they've been shooting, but who doesn't actually know anything. He says, "you've got it wrong, because the depth of field blah blah blah" which, while certainly true, misses the fact that the depth of field doesn't actually tell you directly how far out of focus stuff is. The pictures are perfectly correct, and Sparky is both stupid and ignorant.

If he'd bothered to look at the Hyperfocal Distance helpfully calculated by the same DoF tools he's using to throw shade and sneer, he might have gotten a brisk hint. But, he didn't. Alack, and alas.

To be fair, these things are legitimately complicated and the answers are not obvious. I had to draw a couple pictures to work out what's going on, although I have enough of a feel for these things that the pictures looked ok to me. 

That said, it's obvious if you actually go look at the tool the hapless victim laboriously created, you can tell immediately that they were done correctly. You can tell that if you cannot work out why a thing is a thing, then it's probably because you don't understand it and maybe you should go have a think before you go spouting off in public. But old fuckers who won't shut about about slide film never do, they're pretty sure they've got all the answers.

Also, Sparky appears to have absolutely no feel for how actual pictures look at various focal lengths and apertures.

Cheap Edumactaion

So, as regular readers of this blog will well know, I see eye-to-eye with Jörg Colberg on essentially nothing.

That said: you are, as a reader here, are in no way obligated to agree with me on this point (obv.) and I assume that some readers rather agree with him on a point here and there.

He is offering a little menu of educational opportunities here, it happens. The prices are, to my eye, insanely low. $95 for a one hour consult (not including prep time) and a little suite of 12 week long "mentorships" that include 6 one hour meetings, for $300.

Given that a normal human would rightly demand a million dollars or more to talk to someone about their photography for a solid hour, I think these rates are very very good.

I am half considering trying to sign up myself, on the grounds that no matter how sharply one diverges, there's bound to be something of value in six freakin' hours of talking. What's holding me back is that I don't think I can really honestly sign up to work steadily on a single project for 12 weeks. I do have a thing in mind, though, so maybe. I am debating it.

Anyways, anyone who sees more eye-to-eye with Jörg than I do, and that ought to include virtually everyone in the world, should give this some serious consideration. It's not that he's an oracle, it's that he's willing to talk to you about your pictures, at length, for a very good price. It might well be worth it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020


Christopher Knight, the LA Times Art Critic who is, when you look closely, actually an Art Industry Commentator, wrote a piece on a couple of Museum Deaccessions. This is getting a certain amount of social media traction as "pfft, white guy complains about dead white guy art being sold off" which is to completely miss the point of Knight's article.

First of all, "deaccession" refers to a museum selling off bits of their collection.

Second of all, let's take a look at universities.

Something like 50 years ago the professional bureaucrat really started getting a foothold in the University system. Modern bureaucrats, invariably, see their job as enlarging the institution for which they labor, which mainly means enlarging the revenues, reducing expenses, and hiring more bureaucrats with the liberated funds. This is universal, there have been books written on the subject.

It manifests in Universities as an endless pressure to perform the education portion of the show as inexpensively as possible consistent with the goals of maximizing revenue. In this case, revenue comes mainly from: student tuition, research grants (universities clip around 50% of grant money to pay bureaucrats with), and alumni donations. These, of course, require some students and a degree of education to be performed. Experiments with student-less universities were performed (at least once) but did not work out in the long run.

This does not mean the bureaucrats oppose good education. They merely oppose spending much money on it. So now we have a situation where increasingly the education — once the core mission — is carried out as much as possible by temps. The mission is now to enhance the University Brand, to attract: paying students (or students who can borrow, it doesn't matter which), professors who get large grants, and alumni donations. Secondarily, to maintain the supply of alumni.

Museums, it turns out, have long had a deliberately constructed firewall between "selling shit in the collection" and "spending money" and Knight's point is precisely that this firewall is being removed. Museum bureaucrats have suddenly noticed that the collection constitutes, effectively, an enormous piggy bank which can be used to pay for more bureaucrats.

There will be some hand-wringing, some assurances, and so on. There will be deaccessions in order to fund the acquisition of works from marginalized artists (yay!) and probably north of 10% of the money will actually go to do that! The rest will go to bureaucrats, new wings, walnut panelling, and really nice desks. Maybe some Technology Initiatives.

The thing is, once a bureaucracy gets hold of a source of money, they'll never let it go. They're going to sell as much of the collection as frequently as possible as is consistent with maintaining the museum's brand. They will have an endless, literally, litany of excuses and covers, but this is the new model. They're going to sell things from the collection to fund what they see as the mission: enlarging the institution in every way except the one that matters.

I predict that Museums are about to move down market and earlier in the art cycle.

Formerly the private market mostly set the price for things and decided who and what was "good," followed by museums acquiring those works as an archive of culture.

Over the next few years we're going to see museums selling off the Monets in order to acquire emerging artists. They will begin to take a larger role in the price-setting business. The MOMA will compete directly with Zwirner and Gagosian. Collectively, they will acquire emerging artists cheaply, and produce value by blessing these artists with the respective imprimaturs, and then sell the works off at much higher prices into the private market. The work will pass through the museum, rather than being archived in it.

The wealthy will cease to donate their Picassos, because it will become clear that donating your Picasso now merely means it gets sold in 20 years and vanishes back into private hands.

The effect of this is that Museums will have smaller collections of Past Culture on display, but larger (albeit somewhat ephemeral) collections of contemporary work.

In 10 or 50 years the desire to buy work from "marginalized artists" may fade, who knows? But the Monets and the Picassos will be gone, as will the money. Even the BMWs the bureaucrats bought with the money will be junked. But museums will still be buying cheaper, emerging, artists; creating value; and turning the work over for a profit.

It's not even clear that this is a bad thing? I don't know. I like Monet just fine, but it's a big world. Maybe the rich will still loan their Monets back to museums. Or maybe they'll loan them to Gagosian instead.

I do think that Museums are about to begin a transition to being little more than art dealers with a non-profit license and a spiffy brand.

Monday, October 19, 2020

A Matter of Taste

I happened to make a comment over on ToP about what an objectionable prick Edward Weston was, and it got me to thinking.

It turns out that I don't much like Weston's photos any more. I used to!

Don't get me wrong, I don't think they're objectively bad photos. I don't think they should not exist. I like photos, I still like photos. But Weston's aren't my favorites.

The thing is, they're all so damned chilly. I get what he's after; he claims to have been after the essence of the thing, and sure, there it is. The formal essence of the form of the thing. Not really the thing itself, but its form, sure. The nudes are all bodyscapes, the landscapes and vegetables are all nude bodyscapes too when you get down to it.

The portraits all seem utterly disengaged, and they all kind of look the same. They all look like they're self-consciously, pointedly, ignoring the man with the camera. Like he's yelled at them to stop smiling at him, like he's leaned pretty hard on them to make no connection to the camera and thence the viewer at all.

I mean, this is what he was trying to do after all. He wanted to make these explorations of form and essence, not to be hanging about with people in all their complexity and squishy yuckiness. He was after a real austerity.

To be blunt, this isn't anything I am much interested in any more. I'm increasingly drawn toward humanist photography, and away from, well, everything else. Certainly away from formal exercises in light or whatever.

This isn't to say that you can't like Weston. Of course you can! It's just a matter of taste.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

I Like Photos

I like photographs. I like looking at them. I like thinking about them. I like understanding them.

Having doggedly blogged away for about 8 years now on nothing much but photographs, I seem to have assembled a little community of people who also like photos. Hi! Thanks for being here. I appreciate you all.

What's interesting is how few people seem to actually like photos. No, I'm not whining that nobody likes my blog, because in the first place plenty of people like my blog and in the second place I get that there's plenty to dislike here. Still, every now and then something happens that gets me a great whack of engagement and it's exciting and alarming for a few days, and then it settles back down to, pretty much, the same people.

People don't stick when they swing by here.

As everyone knows most of the "photography community" is made up of people who like cameras. This is not a sin, I have myself liked cameras in the past. Also, liking cameras does not preclude liking photos, although it does take up some mental space. There are certainly people who like photos and also cameras, though.

I have come to the conclusion that virtually the entirety of the rest of the photography community is made up of people who are fond of roles rather than photos.

Quite a lot of people visualize themselves as photographers. They are attracted to that role, and they want to inhabit that role, to play it, to be it. Many of them become very good photographers, after all, making good pictures (in some sense) is what a good photographer does, right?

But most of them don't really like pictures.

You can tell, because all they every have to say about photos is "wow, so great" if it's a photo by someone they aspire to be like and "utter shite" if it's someone they don't like. They don't look beyond the photographer's name. Not really. They've looked enough to master some technique, but beyond that they simply don't have much interest.

Again, this is not a sin. Really liking photos is a bit of an idiosyncratic hobby. Someone's got to be the photographers, and I guess it might as well be those people. Indeed, not being excessively interested in photos as such probably frees up a lot of mental space to fill up with shit about lights and aperture thingies.

Now we get to the bottom of the barrel, people who aspire to the role of someone who writes about photography. They all want to be Susan Sontag, or Roland Barthes. They want to be effete public intellectuals.

Mostly these people are spectacularly uninterested in photos. They see every photo in political terms and almost ignore the contents of the frame. Their blather is invariably recycled, incoherent, warmed-over ramblings based on misunderstood sources. They have nothing to say, except a tedious repetition of their own uninteresting political positions.

Whatever else you might say about Sontag or Barthes, they seem to have actually been interested in photographs.

And then there's me! And you guys! And a small handful of other people. AD Coleman seems to like photos pretty well.

Photos, it seems to me, are very, very easy to consume, but extremely difficult to actually like. I think it's like being interested in jellybeans. Everyone likes jellybeans, in the sense of enjoying cramming them into their moist food holes. Actually being interested in jellybeans, liking them in the sense of wanting to know more, to think about them, to investigate them, to write seriously about them, is frankly bizarre. It's very niche.

Welcome to my weird little niche! And thank you all for being here!

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

On Gaze Theories

I have, I think, worked out why "gaze" theories have never sat well with me, and it's not because I am an unrepentant racist. Let's back up and sketch out what the original "Male Gaze" was about.

This is an idea from the 1970s, and it's about movies. The idea is that movies, often, present the male characters as heroic or at least strong, the female ones as weak, subservient, and so on. The women are there to be saved by the men. Embedded in this is the idea that a movie fixes the meaning of a lot of stuff. Not everything, of course, but a lot. We do not know for sure whether Deckard is a replicant or not. We do know that he is the protagonist, that he is the driver of the plot, the salvation of the girl. We know that Rachel is literally a made thing, and that Deckard in some sense rescues her.

These meanings are nailed down with varying degrees of certainty by the narrative, by the visuals, by the entire content of the movie.

A single frame of the movie does not convey any of this. No single frame does, any more than any single word of A Tale of Two Cities embodies the novel. We'd need rather a large run of frames, or of words, before any of these nailed-down meanings would even begin to suggest themselves.

"Gaze" implies fixed meaning. To suppose that something exhibits "white gaze" or "black gaze" or "female gaze" is to suppose that the whatever it has nailed down enough meaning to do that, to embody some kind of meaning that supports a specific point of view.

Nevermind that we're not really sure what point of view "female gaze" is supposed to support or embody, we first need to establish that whatever it is actually has the capacity to fix some meaning in place.

Meaning, in cinema, is an emergent property of the whole. You can probably cut a lot from many a movie without losing all the meaning, but at some point the wheels fall off. The meaning is not carried in the fragments, but in the arrangement of the whole.

Similarly any media. The arrangement of words, sounds, visuals, and so on carries the meaning. Sections and pieces may carry portions of the meaning, but at some point the fragment size becomes too small, and there is no meaning in those little bits.

So, to photographs.

On the one hand, I am absolutely certain that you need yourself to hold a point of view, to take up a position, when photographing. I am absolutely convinced that the point of photography is to fix meaning, to communicate.

On the other hand, I think that it is rare that a single photograph actually does that. This is why I make things that put a bunch of pictures together, often with a bunch of words.

Is a photograph equivalent to a single frame of "Blade Runner?" Sometimes, yes. Sometimes it's more like a scene. Occasionally, I suppose, it's the whole film. Mostly, though, photographs are fragments large enough to suggest meaning, large enough to hint and imply, but too small to really nail it down. Photographs tend toward the ambiguous. You can't read them any old way, but in general they allow multiple readings, they can be understood in several ways.

This is, really, what makes them artistically so interesting and powerful. You can easily make a thing that's big enough to open a door, but small enough that it won't close the door behind itself.

What this in turn means, though, is that "gaze" is not something we can meaningfully attach to a photograph. "Gaze" assumes a fairly fixed, nailed down, meaning. You can accomplish that with something that includes photos, easily enough.

Certainly you can argue that "colonial gaze" is, or was, a thing. There was certainly plenty of media produced in the service of Empire, in the service of colonialism in all its complexity. Certainly some of that media included photographs.

Those photographs, though, as often as not, do not themselves embody a "colonial gaze" any more than frame 73,271 of "Blade Runner" embodies "male gaze" or particularly proves Deckard to be the protagonist.

Similarly there are contemporary photobooks which reasonably be said to embody a "female gaze" in some sense. The individual pictures in the book probably do not embody any such thing, and to the extent that the book is just a container of pictures, it may also fail to embody a "female gaze." Still, it is possible obviously for a book to assemble a collection of ambiguous fragments (photographs) in such a way as to fix a meaning sufficiently to be said to embody a "gaze" of some sort.

But the "gaze" is not in the pictures. It's am emergent property of the whole.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Photography and The Cultural Critics

I have been dipping, very very slightly, into Stuart Hall who I think (don't quote me) was mainly just warming up Gramsci in the microwave.

His Big Idea seems to have been, in the very simple strokes I understand it, that events, people, objects, are not born with "meaning" but have that meaning assigned by media. This is obviously true, to some degree. Consider a protest march in some urban center:

One media outlet describes it as freedom-loving people struggling to reshape our corrupt society into something better, the other media outlet describes it as vandals and thugs tearing at the very heart of civilization. These media outlets are assigning meaning to the protest. The conventional sort of dunderheaded academic idea is that this is all there is.

But anyone who has actually been at such a thing knows that it was not a meaningless mass of lemmings, the march had meaning in and of itself.

Events and so on probably, usually, have some sort of ground-truth meaning, possibly different for everyone involved. Media provides mediated meanings of the same thing, which may or may not bear much resemblance to anyone's ground truth. This is a lot like history and historiography. Media can and does attempt to shape the meaning it delivers to its readers, as noted above. Of course it does. This is arguably the job of the media, just as it is the job of historians to shape and deliver the meaning of historical events to us. There's a lot going on, media and history try to distill it and in doing so inevitably take up a position. Sometimes they take up a wilfully shitty position, sometimes they try to be "honest" whatever that might even mean.

Stuart Hall, by all accounts, was not an idiot, and we ought to assume that he understood all these things and made some sense of them. These are all pretty obvious.

The big point beloved by modern scholars is that someone has power, someone has an agenda. The media does not shape meaning in a vacuum, they shape meaning according to some agenda. Is this agenda set by the bigwigs who own the thing? Or is it simply set by constantly testing "what sells more papers" (that is, set by the audience?) Well, yes. Obviously. Both. So, sure, media outlets absolutely have agendas, and interpret events through that lens, and assign meaning accordingly.

Academics prefer the it's the bigwigs take, because, of course they do. Everything is a plot to keep them out of the Endowed Chair of Naval Gazing, after all.

Here is where the wheels begin to fall off for photographic scholars.

A street protest has some meaning all on its own, as does any event. The people in it had motivations, hopes, dreams, ideas. These may be opaque, but if we are to accept that objective reality exists, then we have to accept that.

The news story about the event assigns some meaning to the same event, as well as, most likely, reporting at least some basic facts about the event.

A naked photograph lies somewhere between the two and off to the side a bit.

To assign a meaning to an event in the style of media is quite a bit of work. You have to write a headline, some text, you have to assemble a set of visuals to support your words, and so on. To shoot a single photo is indeed the first step of the process, but it's not all the way there. The photo stands closer to the event than does the final news story. The meaning-assigning power of a photo is more limited than the complete story.

Consider a photo of a cop wrestling a protester to the ground.

One article emphasizes the keeping of order in the face of violence and vandalism. The other article emphasizes the brutality of the police toward peaceful protesters. The ground truth could be either, both, or something else. The photo, however, is probably thoroughly ambiguous. Unless the photo editor selected a picture with a particularly brutal grimace, or a lit Molotov cocktail, we probably have a pretty generic photo which leaves the meaning wide open.

Modern photographic thinkers want very very much for photographs to fix meaning, and to thereby shape thought and culture. They want to be able to say pompously that such and such a photo, embodying colonial gaze, is of course very violent and it made them cry. While this is sometimes true, more often it is not. A single photograph rarely fixes meaning. A photo is as likely to unmoor meaning and let it float than the other way around.

To return to our cop, there was a ground truth. Was the protester smashing things, or merely chanting? We do not know if the cop was thinking "fuck this commie!" or "oh shit, I have to stop this guy from killing that girl!" The photograph leaves things out, and it reveals little or nothing of the thoughts of the players.

It removes meaning. It unmoors meaning, and lets it float. At the same time of course it may attempt to assign meaning with photographic technique.

To fix meaning, the photo editor must as a rule place the photograph in context. They must use the photo in some way. Photos, being generous, permit themselves to be read widely, and it does not take much of a nudge to fix the meaning of the photo. A caption can do the job.

The picture itself, as often as not, contains a great deal of material which begs to become meaning, but does not itself particularly fix that meaning. The usage of the photo, within a context, if skillfully done, will crystallize these latent meanings, these signs and omens, to a particular value. It it less the photo that "means" and more the usage of the photo.

I have in mind a sort of visual analogy.

Imagine a short piece of writing. Imagine a blank page. The piece appears, bit by bit. First the vertical strokes of the first line of text, just noise. Then some of the curved lines. The next line begins to fade in as the letters of the first line resolve themselves in to words, and so on. The meaning of the piece is absent, even after a fair bit of ink has appeared. Details fill in, and following some distance behind, meaning arrives.

In the same way, fragments of media contain less meaning than a coherent whole piece, and sometimes no meaning at all.

Is a photograph like merely a few vertical strokes of ink? Sometimes. Is it the first sentence? Yes, sometimes that as well. Is it, occasionally, an entire paragraph? Yes, that also, but only occasionally.

We could wrangle endlessly about where photographs usually land, I suppose. Do most of them unmoor meaning, and only a few fix it? Or do most fix meaning, and only a few unmoor?

The whole thing is made rather a muddle by the fact that, as individuals, we tend to assign meaning to photographs all by ourselves, and then to insist that this is the only possible reading. People, especially modern academic photographic "thinkers," tend to be thoroughly dedicated to the proposition that photographs do indeed fix meaning, and that anyone who doesn't see a picture their way is just visually illiterate.

This is wrong.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Photographing Buildings

There have been a few comments on earlier posts made recently about what it might mean to photograph buildings, versus people, especially with reference to structures with vigorously defended copyrights (Sydney Opera House, Eiffel Tower).

The first thing to note is that an encounter with a building is not, fundamentally, a social encounter. Yes, yes, you could fiddle about and say that it is after all because "social" means a lot of things or whatever, but what I mean is not that. When we meet a human being, these is a whole mess of communication, of back and forth, and glances, body language, words, gestures. None of that happens with a building.

So, a photograph of a building does not constitute a bisected social interaction in the way that a photo of a person does. Yes, both photos conjure you into the presence of the subject, but the building's half of the interaction is pretty much the same as it would be in real life. It just sits there. You can't go into it, or walk around it, but otherwise the interaction is pretty much the same. Where we lack the instinctive/somatic tools to make complete sense out of a photo of a person, I do not think that we lack those tools to make sense of a building photo.

The practical issue you encounter when you photograph the Opera House is copyright, of course. If I photograph your photograph, I've copied it, and the right to do so is to a degree controlled by you. Ditto a painting. The line gets blurrier when the object is a sculpture, or when your art is only part of my picture, and the laws bend, duck, and weave in efforts to accomodate that.

Architects, I think, claim that the visual form of their buildings is a thing that it subject to copyright? And that therefore they should be permitted to exert a degree of control over anyone copying that?

This sounds like bullshit to me, to be blunt. By placing the building in public, they permit it to be seen. The gap between being seen and being photographed is not that big. We are at the very remote end of a spectrum, far away from the "photographing a photo" end, and I think that legally this is the extreme end as well. Copyright law has been stretched this far, but not much farther. This seems like a purely monetary deal to me, the architect or designer wishes to both put their work out in to public spaces, but simultaneously control as much as possible about ways one might turn the visual form of the thing into money.

This seems to be related to ideas around the ownership of ones own likeness. While an attractive idea, it's not at all clear to me what a reasonable basis for this is. Privacy seems like a reasonable thing, the idea that I might want to get up to shit that's none of anyone's business is real and ought to be protected. The idea, though, that I can parade around in public, be seen, and still somehow control my likeness by judicious use of the law seems absurd.

While there is an argument to be made that "well, this is the sweat of my brow, I reserve the right to profit from it" the argument seems a little thin, and tends toward stifling the desirable consequences of copyright rather than encouraging them.

The point of copyright is to increase creation for the public good, not to turn every goddamned thing into a money spinner.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Consider an Apple

I've written a couple of things about how photography divides what feel like normal human interactions into peculiar halves, that we don't have great machinery for understanding. I'm going to, um, just start writing something and see what happens. Buckle up you sissies!

Suppose I hand you an apple. There is an infinity of possible human transactions this could be part of, but let us pin down a couple. Perhaps you are my child, and I want you to eat a healthy snack. Perhaps I am a grocer, and I am selling you an apple. Perhaps I am a friend, and you and I are friends who share things. Perhaps I hope to become such a friend, and my gift of the apple is an attempt to foster the growth of that relationship.

If you are my child, I expect you to eat the thing. If I am a grocer, I expect you to pay me for it. If I am a friend, perhaps I have no expectations, but a smile and a "thank you" would be nice.

We can run in to all kinds of trouble here, but the troubles are generally a result of us having two different ideas about what's going on. If I intend to sell you an apple, but you accept it as a gift, awkwardness can ensue. Nevertheless, we both have a normal human idea of the transaction, they just don't happen to line up.

A transaction in which, say, I allow you to take my photograph, can also have many shapes. Perhaps we are friends, perhaps I am a model, perhaps I am your child, perhaps I have specifically asked you to photograph me. I might expect payment, a cookie, or prints. There might be almost any blend of factors in play, just as I might be a friend or relation of the grocer who sells me, or gifts me, an apple.

We treat the photograph, a little, as if it were an apple. Or a chore, a piece of work. I agree, for a small fee, to stand still in front of a backdrop, or you agree as a favor to give me a print or a file of my own handsome mug.

As with the apple transaction, there is scope for misunderstanding due to mismatched expectations. If I expect a fee, and you expect a favor, we may find ourselves in an awkward situation. Unlike the apple, however, a photograph opens up a whole world of new problems.

An apple is a real thing. If I give it to you, you have it and I do not. There is a zero-sum symmetry here, and our expectations include that. You understand viscerally that I do not have the apple any more, and that informs the transaction, our human interaction. A photograph, not so. It's an abstraction, a thing that emerged from our interaction. Like an idea, its ownership feels ambiguous, we're not certain who had it before, and who has it now.

The transfer of an apple leaves the giver with an apple-shaped absence, and even a dog understands that it may be socially necessary to fill that hole with something in exchange. A photograph taken leaves no photograph-shaped absence in the subject's life. Is it necessary, socially, to give them something? A dog, certainly, would be helpless to provide you with an answer here.

An apple is temporary. Once eaten, it is removed from the equation. The apple is no longer relevant. A photograph lives on, with its power to conjure the subject. It is as if someone keeps eating our apple, over and over. How much should I charge you for apple you can eat over and over? If I charge you for ten apples, but you eat it twenty times, have I been cheated?

To treat the taking of a photograph with the same logic as the giving of an apple is simply not going to work.

The transaction of the apple can remind us, if that's necessary, of the vast breadth of human/social interaction that is possible around even something so simple as handing someone an apple. The photograph, the taking of a photograph, subsumes all that and adds to it complexity that is beyond the ken of dogs, beyond the ken of children, and arguably beyond our own ability to make much sense of.

There's hope, though. We muddle through each apple, feeling our way through the potentially ambiguous ground by pure instinct and almost always getting it right without even noticing. With the photograph, perhaps we can trust ourselves to do OK much of the time as well.