Monday, December 28, 2020

More on Steve

Steve, as noted, seems to be on a good path these days. As a recovering addict, of course, he is and will always be one short step from disaster. He has a bit of money these days, and could certainly go buy a couple bottles of whiskey and end it all any given day. He is a grown-ass man, and nobody could stop him. I hope, of course, that he has not over the last week, and will continue not to for the remainder of his life.

Long time readers may recall that I took a picture of Steve near his nadir on the street, and wrote down his story, and then made a little blurb book that had some material on homelessness in general, wrapped around Steve's specific story. Steve has had two copies of the book, I have the third, and that's it. You could probably go find it on blurb, and read it (Steve doesn't mind) but ultimately it's not a book for you.

To my embarrassment, Steve credits my little book with a lot of the heavy lifting of his recovery. I don't believe it for a moment, although I will accept a single small sliver of credit, because I am at least that vain.

There were people directly involved, there were people who pumped his stomach, who saved him from fatal alcohol poisoning (at least twice), people who counseled him sternly that he was going to die if he didn't knock it off. There were people who sat with him in therapy, people who comforted him as he struggled through DTs, people who fed him and cleaned up after him when he was off his nut. I was none of those heroes, I just wrote a book and took a couple photos.

Still, my little book does seem to have been a little piece of it. It was, I imagine, a kind of talisman, proof that someone valued him enough to remember his name and a few details of his story.

This photo of Steve, from that time, is apparently now part of a before/after poster the homeless center downtown displays to prove that It Can Be Done (and by God, if Steve isn't proof that alcohol addiction can be beaten, or at least contained, nobody is).

Despite the slight impact this picture had on Steve's life, it is nevertheless the most important and impactful photograph I will ever take. Because nothing else I do is likely to have even so slender a consequence in the world.

What I think is worth noting here is that this shows us the breadth of ways to make a difference with a photo.

This wasn't published in The Times, this didn't appear in a book by MACK, this wasn't the cover a bestselling album. I wrapped it in, somehow, something like the right words, and I gave a copy to the subject of book, a busted-out homeless man with nothing.

And, somehow, it made a difference.

Steve can get sober, somehow, and you can make a photograph that makes a difference, somehow. You might not even know it, and it might take a surprising path, but it might just happen. Go take those pictures and tell those stories, write those verses, sing those songs, whatever it is you do, do it. It might just touch someone, somehow.

And that, surely, is the point of it all?

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Steve Update

My friend Steve, who appears from time to time on these pages, continues to be sober and is doing well. This photo is from April, I have not actually seen him since then.

I called Steve yesterday (technically I called the place he's living, left a message, and he called me back.) He'll be sober a year in January! He's graduated his one-year sobriety program and is moving on to the next, and also going to back to school (online, natch) in spring. No idea what he's going to study. This may simply be a re-learning how to do society exercise.

I continue to be very proud of Steve. He almost died of alcohol poisoning multiple times in the last year or so of his drinking, so this is kind of a big deal.

If he can do it, I feel confident in saying that there is no level of alcohol addiction that cannot be overcome, if only the right ingredients are in place.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 21, 2020

Blog Note

I have been using the email-based comment moderation system lately, and it turns out that the "silently delete this comment" link is right next to the "approve this comment" link. I am pretty sure I have accidently deleted at least one comment (sorry Matt!) and am trying to teach myself to not use this interface any more.

If you made a comment recently that didn't show up, please be assured I didn't moderate it unless you were selling photo retouching services, or, oddly, boxes. Or maybe it was in a script I cannot read?

My apologies if I zapped your no-doubt useful contributions! Please feel free to re-post if you feel you were a victim.

Friday, December 18, 2020


One of the things you do when you've got a new and promising theory, or way of looking at things, or definition, or whatever, is simply to run the old stuff through the new thing to see what comes out. If garbage comes out, then maybe your new thing is not so great. If you get the same, or better, results than you used to, well, great!

Let's think about the "Truth Claim of Photography" by way of my "photographs transport you to the scene" theory of looking at photos.

As, it seems, always, let us first take a step back. Consider yourself in the real world, not transported there mystically but just, you know, there in the ordinary way.

You are aware of stuff. You have, more often than not, a pretty good notion that you know what's going on. You do know a great deal about your environment, to be sure. Still, you may not be aware of the tiger in the bushes, although your dog certainly is (mine is pretty unaware of everything, but I assume yours is more On It.) You probably have a firm but somewhat inaccurate notion of what's going on in another person's head as you converse with them. You probably think you're reading them better than you actually are.

The world as rendered through smell and sound is a little unclear to us, because we're humans. We tend to discount things going on there, and focus on vision, sight, because that's what we're good at. We know there's a chair over there, a window behind us, there's our friend, and so on. We have situational awareness. But, as anyone who has ever been surprised knows, we're often overconfident. We can be surprised to find a piece of furniture in our way, and we can be surprised when our friend says "I'm not mad, where did you get that idea?" We tend to overstate to ourselves our awareness of the world around us, and only rarely do we understate it.

So let's think about photos now. Applying my new thing: when confronted with the photo, we are metaphorically transported to the scene, and we build, we imagine, a world to contain and surround what we see in the photograph. The world we build we imagine to be reality. We're speculatively filling in what we imagine to be the actual world that the picture was drawn from.

We do this, I maintain, whether the picture is real or not. Even if we know it's faked, or the result of painting, or AI, we still respond (to a degree) as if it were real, as if we were there. This reaction is biological, somatic, subconscious. Something like that. Something that operates to a degree outside our conscious control. Something below cultural and above chemical.

We know, of course, or think we know, certain facts that are visible in the photograph. There is a bicycle, there is a tree, there is a cat. We may in fact know these things are fake, if we know intellectually that someone painted the hyper-realistic cat. We respond nevertheless, somatically, with ideas about why the cat is there, how the bicycle came to be leaning against the tree, and so on.

This irresistible tendency to expand the mere visual facts of the frame — this tendency driven by the somatic response to the photo — conflicts with the limited truth actually present in the photo (or the complete lack of this kind of truth, in a photorealistic painting.) This is, precisely, where we get into trouble with truth in photography.

Anyone with a smidge of wit can delineate precisely where the boundaries of actual verifiable truth of a photograph lie, this is not the problem. The problem is that people who don't take care look at a photo and "just know" things that are not actually present, in exactly the same you "just know" that your friend is angry. We build and read an imaginary world, and make assumptions based not on the precise contents of the frame but on the imagined world which surrounds it, and which we in a sense inhabit.

We are, it should be clear, no better at "reading" this imagined world than we are at reading the real one. We can be wrong, we can be surprised. Also, we're surprisingly right surprisingly often — there is no a priori reason to suppose we'd ever be right about anything, here, but sometimes we manage it.

Just as we overreach in the real world, we overreach in this one. Adding to the overreach problem, we find that the boundary is vague between facts we can discern in the visible frame, and "facts" which are guesses and opinions.

The "Truth Claim" is valid, as far as it goes, but being the organisms we are, we are thoroughly unsuited to correctly bounding the limits of the claim, and thus we get in to trouble. We constantly, habitually, over-extend the claim.

Even, perhaps especially, if we style ourselves "experts."

Monday, December 14, 2020


There are probably infinitely many spectrums (spectra?) you could throw down to think about photography along, but the one I'm interested in today has photographers at one and and viewers at the other.

Photographers, naturally, are fond of any way of thinking that places them front and center (see also artists, authors, mechanics, and so on.) From an art-historical perspective, you probably need to keep the photographer in mind; if nothing else their birth and death dates bracket the dates on which the photos were made (usually.)

For things that are not photographs, frequently you can make a sturdy argument as to the importance of the author. No word of a novel appears by accident, the author stuck it in there on purpose. The painter applied each brushstroke. The photograph, though, at least often, contains much that the photographer could not control, or didn't notice, or didn't care about. Even in the studio, there is no guarantee that the photographer was as involved in the way the light fell on the vase as the painter must have been.

One can reasonably wonder if perhaps the author might, for some purposes, step back a bit when it comes to photographs.

My working hypothesis at the moment is, as longer term readers might be agonizingly aware at this point, is that meaning is mostly constructed by the viewer.

Current academic theory is very very author-forward. "Gaze" although originally defined independent of authorship, for all practical purposes, is now used largely as shorthand for the identity groups to which the photographer belongs. A photograph exhibits female/black/gay gaze if the photographer is female, black, or gay, and that is the end of it.

"Representation" is largely assumed to include the prefix "Politics of" and again refers to the photographer and the photographer's power to portray their subjects this way or that.

At the same time, of course, these same academic will protest loudly that authorship is largely irrelevant, "Barthes!" they shout, and then return to their author-centric thinking.

If "gaze" or "representation" means anything for photographs, they cannot meaningfully refer directly to the author. They must be the way that a viewer constructs an imagined author, based on what they, the viewer know (including, possibly, the identity of the author.)

A photograph of a naked woman can take on different meanings depending on whether you "know" the photographer was female, or male, or Terry Richardson, or Sally Mann. This is a construct of the viewer, at least as much as it is present in the frame. If I lie to you about the author, you will, most likely, follow along and construct an idea of "gaze" or "representation" or whatever that matches my lie. The locus of these ideas, therefore, is not in the picture itself, but in the information surrounding it.

Thus, it is not that the author vanishes, but that the viewer is brought forward and that the author is seen through the mind of the viewer. This is not the real author, but a constructed, imaginary, author.

To be fair, in some cases the imaginary author closely matches the real one. There is no law that says this can't happen.

At the same time, though, there is no guarantee that the assumed author does match the real one. There could be an immense gulf here, especially if the photograph has been misattributed, or if the photographer is unknown.

The biggest problem with a viewer-centric way of thinking, of course, is that it makes it a lot harder to scold photographers for taking wrong pictures. Since this appears to be mainly what the academy is currently interested in, I don't expect them to adopt my ideas any time soon.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Crit: Frédérick Carnet , "Meine Heimat ..."

M. Carnet recently sent me a note directing me to his completed project "Meine Heimat hat nur einen Namen: Frieden." Before you click, allow me a moment to urge you to give it time. It may come across as "oh, another one of these fucking things."

Which, you know, isn't entirely wrong? I think that if you give it a chance, though, you'll see that it's maybe not one of those fucking things at all, but rather an example of what all those fucking things aspire to be and fail. You have to scroll right at least a little ways.

I am torn between telling you to read the text, and suggesting that you skip it until you've looked at the photos. It works either way, but you only get one chance to decide, and the experience will be different. I will say that the text pretty much describes the thing. With the text in mind, the photos will (I think) fall in to place, the project is just what it says on the tin. Without it, the text may offer you a kind of surprise at the end.

I like the project very very much, probably more than you do. Not because you're flawed, but because I like it so much. I think it is both simple and extraordinary, and it is very very beautiful. Perhaps as a father of still fairly young children it touches me more deeply.

Anyways, let's look at it and have a bit of a think.

We begin with what appears to be the usual "I visited a concentration camp/museum and it was super upsetting" visuals. Photographs of documents. If we're generous, we unbend enough to notice that at least the documents are about the artist's actual family member who was actually in Buchenwald for almost a year at the end of WWII. So it's documents, a couple sad photos, whatever.

But then we get what is immediately recognizable to people like me (parents of the Western World) as an ultrasound image of (probably) a baby. More documents (is the ultrasound a document too? It kind of is) and another sad photo probably from the Concentration Camp, and then another ultrasound, and so on. It occurs to us, if we're paying any attention at all, that we're watching this kid mature in its mother's womb.

The "Nazis Bad" photos thin out and peter off as the baby documents get more frequent, and we begin to see a theme of garden photos emerging, growing denser and at the same time the garden itself comes to life. I don't have to spell it out for you, it's pretty clear what's going on, really. An interesting point here is that it's not clear where the concentration camp photos end and the garden photos begin. This is surely deliberate.

This is not like the first two segments of the larger project. "The Last First Day" was a creepy tour of an imagined place, abandoned, the site of something unknown. That felt like we were there for some other reason, escaping, exploring, going out for a loaf of bread or for cigarettes. The photos felt like what we saw and felt as we did something else. The second segment, "The promise of a better world?" felt like we're being led on a tour, not to buy cigarettes, but to be shown specific things and specific places.

This last feels like we're being handed a series of documents. We're seated, in a sense, being given a series of objects to examine.

The first two were mysterious, perhaps opaque (the first maybe because the circumstances themselves are opaque, the second as if the artist, the tour guide, is mute and struggling to express something that is perfectly clear but impossible to convey). There is no mystery in this last. It is clear.

Here is the past. Here is the future. The future is better.

There is, I think, a bit more to it maybe than even that, something more bound up with the underlying culture. Carnet alludes to the word "Heimat" which is a tricky one, with no direct English translation. It means, literally, "homeland" or sometimes "home" but in the sense of land, not a house or apartment. It can mean a region, a patch of earth, a village, a country. It is not explicitly political, but romantic, although it can be and is weaponized as political (but "Vaterland" is the explicitly political equivalent.)

"Heimat" is more "America the Beautiful" and less "The Land of the Free, The Home of the Brave."

It's possible that there's something in this project that hinges on Carnet's own difficulty with the word. I think French, like English, has no exact translation.

In any case, this piece is also explicitly an declaration of Carnet's "Heimat." It is not the AfD's "Heimat" it is this ground, this garden, this life, however small, right here. The text makes clear that this project is a rejection of jingoistic, nationalistic understandings of "Heimat." This little garden, this little family, this is M. Carnet's homeland. I think if you're familiar with the idea-cloud around "Heimat" in Germany here and now you might not need the text.

The title makes it clear as well: "My homeland has only one name: Peace."

This modest yet firm declaration of purpose brings, to my eye, the series of projects down to earth with a gesture of great beauty.

Also, the botanical photos are exquisite all by themselves. I love these kinds of pictures, and I love much more that Carnet has found a way to imbue them with such meaning.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Seeing Photographically

I spent a couple days out in the rural area up the Nooksack river from Bellingham, getting away from the kids. This is the Pacific Northwest (PNW), a region of the USA which is technically a rain forest, I believe. It's certainly wet and fecund, although quite a bit colder than what we normally think of as a rain forest. It occurred to me while I was out there to attempt an experiment of sorts.

We all too frequently run across people subtly bragging that they "just see photos" when they're out and about, and it is this that I think is what people usually means by "seeing photographically." The notion is that, with enough experience, you just see potential pictures, and can frame them and and shoot easily. Why this does not produce substantially more actual worthwhile photos is a bit of a mystery, of course.

I'm pretty sure this isn't even slightly special. The number of people I've seen over the years make this boast, and the fact that I can do it too, suggests to me that it's not a difficult skill to develop.

My experiment was to go out into the forest, and along the river, and see what I saw, making a special note of my sensations and thoughts as I did so.

The PNW rain forest is visually dense. You can stand anywhere and see half a dozen kinds of trees, a dozen kinds of undergrowth, fallen trees, cut logs, dead branches, berries, birds, standing water, running water, mossy stones and on and on and on. If you're in an inhabited portion, there will also be tumbled structures, abandoned equipment, sawn branches, and myriad other signs of man's hand.

Walking through it with a camera, it is an endless barrage of the texture, the fall of light, the interesting detail, the sudden vista, the charming fern, the beautiful rapids, and on and on and on. You can see a potential picture at literally every step, by zooming in to the details, out to the middle range, further out to the vista, and so on.

I had two problems. The first was that I had nothing to say beyond another futile attempt to somehow photograph the experience of being the PNW forest. I have never succeeded, and I have never seen a photograph or group of photos that did. The experience is dense, rich, distinctive. I've been knocking around these woods off and on for 40 years, and I can't describe it, but I know the sensation instantly as its own, unique, thing.

I've even tried myself, pretty hard. Vancouver. Looking over it now (mentally removing the urban scenes) it's not an unmitigated failure, but it's not very good. The urban bits are much better, somehow.

And this leads neatly to the second problem, which is that photographing this environment is no more than an endless parsing of reality into meaningless fragments. This fern, that hill, the texture with the light on it, none of these mean much of anything. While I suppose one might assemble them into something, the task strikes me — here and now — as hopeless. I've seen plenty of projects and portfolios full of this stuff, and despite the best efforts of exotic processes and over-processing (or not) it never adds up to much of anything.

The ability to communicate ones umwelt is arguably the central problem of photography. Sure, I can show endless documents of the existence of this thing or that thing, and there are certainly days when I think that might be all there is to photography.

Still, we know that people can and sometimes do experience something more from a photograph. We can at least fantasize credibly about communicating at least some slight, local, umwelt. We can imagine communicating, a little, this idea that we have here, now, about or related to these things which we give you documents of.

I see this in two steps. The first is that the photo(s) should induce some sort of larger world, some notion of a world surrounding the photos. Barthes's "blind field" here or "trame"

If I show you a fern, of course you're going to see a fern, and maybe imagine that it's growing somewhere. With a little material around the edges you'd imagine some sort of forest scene or whatever, but without some larger stimulus your reaction is likely to peter out right around there. "Nice fern" if I can get a good dappling of light across it. But you're not going to find yourself in a forest, you're not going to hear the birds, or the drip of water, or the rustling of leaves. You're not going to imagine the massive boles just out of frame, unless I do something else.

But the massive boles are just out of frame, and so is everything else. The fern likely doesn't get you to imagine much of anything past the fern.

The second step is to make whatever big huge forest thing you do imagine, assuming we can work out how to get even that far, to be something like the one I was in, that I felt. That is, my umwelt not some other thing you've invented for yourself.

This is very very hard.

I think some subjects are easier. An empty desert scene might be recreated fairly well with a couple shots of sensual dunes, the fall of harsh light, a detail of struggling vegetation. People are easier, and anything involving them. We understand people, we know people. We're social machines and we can bring all that social equipment to bear to make, at any rate, something out of a picture that's mostly about people.

Whether it's the something I felt there and then, well, that's still hard. But step 1 might be tractable.

This is another aspect of how far out to lunch the "gaze" theory people are. Not only are they claiming a fixed meaning for something inherently fluid, but they are also claiming that a photographer by default succeeds in communicating, nay, enforcing, his own umwelt on viewers of photographs.

Anyone who's ever taken any pictures knows perfectly well that even your own mom doesn't reliably grasp your world-view in a photograph. They see the flower in the corner and think you just screwed up the framing.

This is the central problem of photography: not to merely make your mom, and everyone else, see the object that you saw, but to see the world that you saw.

It's not enough to just see an interesting and dynamic arrangement of forms inside an imaginary rectangle. That's just the very very beginning, which is why everyone can do that, but almost nobody can actually take really powerful photos.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Fun: Techniques

Because there was what I choose to interpret as "interest" expressed in my previous post, but mainly because I love to talk about myself, I'm going to take a couple minutes to talk through my methods for my shitty school portraits.

It started when I realized that you could fake the "spot light on the backdrop" effect by using a very light backdrop and burning down around the edges. (Yes, the "halo" effect is cheesy, but it is part of the look, and it does serve a graphical purpose.) Also, I did a few "school pictures" for other kids with my 300mm lens, so I could be far away from them. This meant I could get away with a very small backdrop, not much bigger than the child's head. It is literally this thing:

The round things under it are a scrim made from a hula hoop and a sheet, and a barrel thing I have that serves as a seat.

Since I was using a much shorter lens for my kids, not having any 30 foot long straight shots inside my house, I set this shitty backdrop up to Just Barely frame the kid's head. Same barrel, same sawhorse/support for the backdrop. The backdrop is out of focus, some, but basically reads as white with smudges of blue and green watercolor paint. Because that's what it is.

So I also have a somewhat underexposed full frame shot of the same backdrop. Pop that in as a separate layer, adjust color temp/balance to turn the white to greenish/bluish per taste. Then mask and blend the backdrop barely framing the child's face into the other layer of Just Backdrop. Burn the edges down a bit, done and done.

I can't speak for anyone else's kids, but the key with mine is to get them in a good mood, and make the whole shoot last about a minute. So set up in advance, get focus close, then go fetch the kid. Fine tune focus and start shooting/directing, a few seconds later the kid gets to leave. Reward them with candy as necessary. It's basically the same as teaching a dog to sit, a subject about which I also know almost nothing (just ask my dog.)

Thursday, December 3, 2020


It's disturbingly fun to replicate the appalling tropes of "school photography" (there is probably something uniquely American in here.) These are per Grandma's request and, to be blunt, mine are a lot better than genuine "school photos" because I can extract a much better expression from my kids than the mill worker can. Of course.

It may look like I used a light on the backdrop, but I didn't. I also didn't bother with a light on the child, since I have windows.

Anyways, my beautiful children. Feel free to say something nice.

It's not even two different backdrops. It's the same shitty piece of cardboard with watercolor paints smeared clumsily around on it.