Monday, November 16, 2020


Suppose you happened across what appeared to be a stereo amplifier. There's a CD player and two speakers plugged into the thing, 5 knobs on the front, and music is playing from the speakers. You might imagine the knobs control, respectively, volume, left/right balance in the speakers, treble, bass, and midrange tones. This would be pretty standard.

Upon fiddling with the knobs, though, you find that every knob seems to adjust several of the parameters at once. The music gets louder, but also the treble tones vanish with one knob. Another knob adjusts the sound toward the left speaker, but raises the bass tones. After some fiddling at semi-random, you are able to adjust the volume downwards while leaving the rest of the sound more or less the same, but you have to make several adjustments to each of the knobs. Worse, you learn that the behavior of each knob changes as the character of the output sound does. When the music is loud, what used to mostly adjust balance now seems to mostly adjust midrange tone.

It might occur to you that the widget in fact was not designed with ideas like volume, balance, tone at all. Indeed, perhaps it wasn't designed at all. The volume of the music is something we can measure, that we perceive, and which indeed the widget does alter, but the idea of volume does not appear to be a central part of the widget's logic. The idea of volume is something you impose upon the system, it's not something that the system is built around, that it is designed for.

As an aside this describes biology, except that you've got 1,000,000 knobs, most of which adjust one another as well as the system, and you're attempting to operate a frog rather than a stereo.

Hold this analogy for a moment.

I will assume that most of my readers have successfully prosecuted some sort of intimate relationship with someone at some point in their lives. The rest of you, do your best to follow along.

When you have some sort of romantic interest in someone you know socially (let us suppose it's an attractive woman since that's my life) there is a social dance that occurs. You get to know one another. You have some control over this, but by no means total control. At almost every moment saying something like "I would really like to kiss you" is going to produce a negative reaction, the attractive woman will reject you, perhaps vigorously. At certain specific moments, but only at those moments — and this applies even after you've been married for many years — making that same statement will result in a flush of positive response.

The point here is that no social action will invariably produce the same social reaction at all times. Indeed, the normal state of affairs is that almost any reaction to a specific social action is possible, depending on the rest of the social situation. You could get punched, laughed at, gently told to slow down, or abruptly kissed, depending on when and where you made your declaration.

Humans, happily, are pretty good at reading the signs. We know, to some extent, what the likely reaction is to whatever we choose to do or say. We're by no means 100% accurate, we get it wrong a lot, but given the fractal complexity in play here, we're surprisingly good at it. Which I guess is why we haven't died out yet.

Ok, so what the hell does any of this have to do with photography?

Welp. Media is how our culture talks to itself, right?

There's a really strong temptation to imagine that we can adjust our culture by adjusting our media, and this leads to blockheads thinking some dumb stuff.

In reality, and anyone who's actually done any marketing knows this, is that media is one of those knobs on the stereo we started with. Sure, you can turn the knob, and it might adjust something. But which way it adjusts whatever you're trying to fix is anyone's guess. How much it adjusts it, ditto. It probably adjusts some other stuff as well, while we're at it. And, this is important, just because the knob did one thing yesterday doesn't mean it'll do it today. Doing exactly the same thing today might well produce the opposite result.

People who adjust culture for a living, marketing professionals, know this. They are constantly taking the temperature of the culture, watching the results of their efforts, and adjusting. They are not blindly turning knobs.

They are like the notional you in the opening lines of these remarks, trying to make the music a little quieter by gingerly fiddling with all the knobs, feeling your way through the result you're looking for in the face of a system that is a maze of feedback loops, that is not designed at all, let alone around "volume," and so on. Society is not designed to buy cars or dishwashers or TV shows, but it can be persuaded to do so with careful adjustments.

Similarly, humanity is not designed to produce bigotry or fascism, although tends to fall along those lines. Humanity's culture does not appear to be designed at all, and if there is a design its parameters are beyond our understanding. We can grasp the results. Bigotry is a real thing, and it often results, in just the same way that the stereo we started with does indeed play music loudly under certain conditions.

There isn't a bigotry knob on humanity, nor a fascism knob, or a racism knob. Such knobs as exist adjust things beyond our ken.

To suppose that we can control and adjust our culture by blindly adjusting the words we use for things, or the photographs we publish, or the movies we watch, is a fool's game.

Nevertheless, we can and do control and adjust our culture through media: just ask BMW, just ask Betty Friedan.

The process of doing so is highly dynamic, and systemic. You cannot seize one knob, you have to turn them all. You have to pay attention to the moment, you cannot say "I want to kiss you now" just any old time. If you want to be kissed, you can make adjustments to the situation that seem right in the moment, and then you can wait until fate, serendipity, or other factors adjust the rest, and then maybe you take your shot, and sometimes it still doesn't work.

Humans are complicated.


  1. "the difference between what is legal, moral, and ethical is something most photographers seem to have a hard time with." ... said without a trace of irony.

    1. It's just a tic. Jörg doesn't mean anything by it, he says it without thinking. It's just the thing you say at that point in that particular canned conversation.

      That's all these guys do, is recite conversations they've had 1000 times before. I assume they watch netflix or whatever while they're doing it.

    2. He and his ilk are academics, researchers, 'visual sociologists', PhD candidates, and whatnot.

      I doubt they know many actual photographers, let alone "most photographers."

    3. Oh, and Jörg: retweeting an instagram video of a bimbo in a bikini ain't a good look, whatever the intention. Just sayin'

    4. Have you considered just getting a twitter account? ;)

    5. Here's why: Twitter, Facebook et al are, arguably and demonstrably, a far more potent and dangerous force for evil and violence than photography is or ever was, and so I refuse to participate in it.

      Keeping an eye on it for sure.

      If Jorg, Lewis et al had blogs with public comments (like yours), I'd be all over that.

      Which is exactly why they don't, because they can't allow their weak and wrong-headed notions to be publicly debated.

    6. You can comment on it's just that Lewis doesn't care. People who aren't "more important" than he is don't exist, apparently because he's such an iconoclast?

    7. A week after posting it, Lewis' "Open Letter" has exactly zero comments published.

      I get it.