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Thursday, July 29, 2021

A Book

And Now for something Completely Different. I think I've shared bits and pieces of this before, but never the "entirety" as it were. It's not photography, just a book I made.

My neighbor, across the alley, Alan, is a man of God. In the best possible meaning of that word. Raised a non-observant Jew in Queens, he landed in his 20s in a Christian seminary, and went to be a minister for many years. Now he does different things, but still in the service of the church. He's a good man, a normal man, not too given to proselytizing, just a decorous and reasonable amount.

Also, he has a kind of affinity for Paul the Apostle. Paul said some stuff that makes him really kind of unpopular in these modern times, and at least from where I sit he's often held up as the source of much that's wrong with the Catholic Church. Be that as it may, Alan thinks Paul was a basically good fellow, and worth reading. Accordingly, I resolved to read Paul and see what exactly I made of it. So I did that.

Then I thought to myself, reminded somewhere along the lines of a reading copy of the King James Bible that my father owned, "wouldn't it be interesting to make an edition of Paul's letters just as if they were any other famous figure's letters?"

So I did that. And I made a book, and I built a copy of it for Alan as a gift, because I like Alan. Then I made three more copies to be finished elsewhere for other reasons, and then I built one for myself. This is what I am showing you here, today.

I have not the skill, the temperament, nor the equipment to make books that look machine-made, precise. Accordingly, I embrace a kind of hand-made aesthetic. Functional books, durable books (I hope), and maybe attractive books. But certainly a bit "artisanal" in character.

Blue bookcloth and a kind of outrageous gold paper I own. My sister probably bought it for me (thanks!) from Hollander's in Ann Arbor, MI.

The spine is printed with these super-sketchy "craft grade" rubber letter stamps that don't line up worth a damn and are hard to even get properly inked. Hand-made, baby!

Endpapers. Note deckle-edge. So chic! Also a good way to use that edge, in my opinion.

Front-matter. Note the somewhat too deeply sawn holes for sewing, those slots in the gutter. This does not affect function at all, but is a trifle un-aesthetic, I guess. Bastard Title. Frontispiece (tipped-in color plate, natch) and Title. Colophon and Dedication. Preface.

And finally some content to give a sense of the interior page design.

I have to say that I am very pleased with this book. I stole a lot of good ideas to make it, and I rather think it shows. Thank you, nameless generations of designers, who invented all these good things!

The case is a hair small front-to-back, but I got it on pretty straight which is good. The endpapers are likewise not precise, but fairly straight. The whole thing is good enough, and feels good in the hands. 7.5 inches by 5.5 inches (this is letter-sized paper folded in half and trimmed.) The thing looks a trifle short and squat, because Paul was short and squat. The blue and gold also refer to Paul, as does the little glyph which closes each chapter. The references are open, and slight, but deliberate.

The text is KJV, and I left the capitals at the beginning of each verse, as a very slight nod to the verse-structure traditionally imposed on the text. You don't notice it, reading (I don't) but it's there.

It's infinitely more readable than a traditionally formatted bible.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Non-Place

One of the more popular subjects in Modern Serious Photography is the non-place. This is generally an urban area, or suburban, with a lot of strip malls, vacant storefronts, that kind of thing. The places we recognize as failures of some sort of urban planning. Not picturesque old places, relatively new places (say, less than 50 years old.) Sometimes they're not even failures, except to snobs.

A bustling strip mall filled with profitable but down-market chain stores is, from this perspective, just as awful or perhaps worse than if it were half vacant.

The conceit here is that these architectural markers indicate a failure of community. This is flyover country. This is where Trump voters, or Tories, live. This is where the unwashed masses live. This is a non-place, a non-community, a sort of metaphor for hell. Capital built this stuff, and it has destroyed everything. Capital is very bad, and also I would like a lot more of it.

It's great material for the normal Art Project idea, because it stands in for Everything That's Wrong. You can write some jargon about income inequality or about the rise of fascism or of racism with equal ease, and it all reads the same.

In general, people are not shown in these projects, or if they are they're shown in very specific ways. See, for instance, Kleinstadt by the Mahlers, which featured the gloomiest lot of young people ever consigned to film. Once you've got your dismal non-place architecturally, you can shove some gloomy non-people in there to complete the scene.

None of this is real.

Yes, I feel it too. I've lived much of my life in flyover country, but I was raised an intellectual, and have spent important formative years on the coasts. I am a classic coastal elite, even to the point of hating coastal elitism which is now a standard part of the uniform.

Strip malls give me the creeps. I am repelled by down-market pizza brands.

But at the same time I recognize that places are not made by architecture. Places are made by people. Communities are made by people. Teenagers having a laugh and drinking shoplifted beer in the wretched park up the hill from the 7-11 is a universal, it doesn't depend on being on the coast, or having a certain percentage of PhDs in your community. Friends are made. Love happens, and un-happens, everywhere. Victories and tragedies occur. Books are, from time to time, written. Art is made. Songs are sung. Music is composed.

Community is a thing that happens when there are people around. Humanity in all its registers happens wherever there are humans, even in the presence of strip malls.

It is well established that architecture and urban design contribute enormously to quality of life. A well designed urban system creates happier, more fulfulled people. A badly designed urban system does not, however, crush all humanity to a miserable robotic existence. To propose that it does is an insult to everyone who lives there.

There's no shortage of people who will tell you that, basically, you can't photograph poor people. You can't photograph Appalachia. You can't do this, you can't do that, because it's bad representation and you are committing violence, and so forth.

Often, those very same people think nothing of going out to photograph strip malls and, and rambling on about the existential horror of the "non-place" which is equally bad representation, and which is at the same time an outright lie.

I've taken these photos, and I know you have to wait for the smiling beautiful girl to get out of frame. You have to wait for the lads laughing at a joke to move along. You have to walk ten feet left to avoid including the couple holding hands. I know how to make this lie, and I know it is a lie.

Yes, the architecture is shit, and not conducive to the best possible life. And yet, people continue to life full, rich, lives.

There is no such thing as a non-place.

If there are people there, in human terms it is somewhere.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

To Add Meaning

Here is a piece of the type that seems almost calculated to drive me into a fury. "Seven Ways of Giving Your Images Meaning" sounds really meaty, right? It sounds like something someone who's already figured out how focusing works could really use. It's not.

It starts out strong, with a very very elementary sketch of what meaning might be, but then veers violently and permanently into "Seven Vague Platitudes about Photography." Item 2 isn't even an action a photographer could theoretically take, it's just a sort of dopey observation. The 6 actual things that might be a way to do something definitely do not give any useful guidance for giving meaning to a photo. They're not bad ideas, but they don't "give meaning."

God. Damn. It.

Let's try to correct this a bit. I actually do make photo illustrations on a semi-regular basis, so I have more experience with making photographs that specifically mean something than might meet the eye. Never you mind where.

What is meaning anyway?

Let us go broad here, and say that it's any mental response that occurs as a result of contemplating a photograph (or whatever) which is not literally contained in the photograph.

If we were talking about writing, this would be practically everything. The only thing contained in text is a bunch of lines and dots.

A photograph might contain a mountain, a setting sun, some pink clouds. What it does not contain is "that's pretty" or even just an emotional "ahhhhh!" of relaxation and awe. As meaning goes, a judgement of prettiness is quite thin, so it's immediately obvious that meaning can vary in depth.

Meaning, construed in this way, is something the viewer constructs in their mind as a response to, and on the basis of, the photograph. The viewer is bringing their own mental baggage to bear on the picture, and imaginatively spinning out something new, something built as a fusion of picture and self. The picture works with the mental baggage of the viewer, to form this new thing, this meaning.

You, as the photographer, might like to have some slight command over the results of this operation, to steer at least a little the construction of this meaning. Well, what do you have to work with? There is the highly personal, which you cannot predict (unless you're making your photo for an audience of one (1) in which case, carry on!) Then there are the shared experiences, and the cultural backgrounds. Most of us have been shopping, most of us have seen a sunset. Most of us are aware of certain literary references, movie quotations, cultural tropes.

Long time readers might recall this chap. who made a Yorick reference with a camera replacing the skull. The literary reference is obvious, many people at least in the West are likely to get to "Hamlet" fairly quickly. They're likely to get to the slings-and-arrows speech, which isn't right, but whatever. The photographer did drag out a cultural trope, one many people will recognize, and in so doing opened the door to a construction of meaning.

And thus we see another difficulty. Not only can meaning be thoroughly shallow, it can be thoroughly incoherent. Regardless of whether you get to the slings-and-arrows speech, or the correct speech about vanity and death, it's not really clear what the hell this photographer means here. Is he mourning the lost vanity of film photography, or what? I mean, obviously he's actually thinking about the 10 zillion lights he has lovingly arranged, but what are we to make of it, beyond the cleverness of the reference?

We are aided, as photographers, by the fact that for the most part photographs inspire the imaginative construction of something external without even trying to. It is basic to the functioning of the photograph that we extrapolate a world around the picture, before and after, left and right. We make something of most photos. We read-in to expressions and body languages, we guess about what's going on.

Contrary to the original author's side remark, "street photographs" as a rule are remarkably bad at this. By emphasizing the cute juxtaposition, the interesting shadow, the outré expression, they tend to distract us from the reality of the scene, and thereby suppress our natural meaning-making responses. Not, to be sure, all "street photos" but most of the modern ones.

Back to the mission in progress, however. As a photographer, to consciously "insert" meaning to a photograph, we therefore consciously insert elements that refer to shared experiences (shopping, sunsets) or cultural touchstones (Hamlet, Seinfeld.) We do so, ideally, in a way that is coherent, that might lead to something other than "cute reference." In the work I alluded to above, I am illustrating written matter, so the reference need only cohere with the point of the writing.

If you're making a body of photographs, then perhaps the meanings of each should build upon one another. They might contrast, or support, but anyways fit together somehow.

A single photo, to be honest, seems to really have trouble meaning in this sense. You get one shot at it, you get one gestalt of reference, and you hope for the best. This is why, I think, we see so many landscapes ("ahhhhh...") and portraits ("I see their personality!") and beyond that it's largely farting around with form to no particular purpose.

All of this comes down to this: you need to look at the pictures, and think about them. Do they in fact tickle something shared, or is everything you get pretty much personal? If they do tickle something shared, what is it?

You can do something of this before you shoot, of course. If you're building some still life, you can start even earlier. In the end, though, it's about creating some link to something we have in common, some shared thing that can be referred to visually, and from which the viewer can build.

There is, of course, no rule that says you have to do any of this. Many people, most people perhaps, photograph for reasons other than generating meaning that it broadly accessible.

You might be taking pictures for your own personal delight, and no more. You might be recording family moments, and generating at best meaning that does not extend beyond your own family. You might be testing your lens. It's all ok.

Friday, July 23, 2021

On Process

In the remarks immediately previous to this, I suppose I might have given the impression that I disapprove of "process" and that's not the case at all.

There is a continuum with something like an extremely rigorous process on one end, and a loose conceptual framework on the other, and I happen to think that most Good Art is made with something or other in that spectrum. I do not think that if you just blunder around trying to take "good photos" or "paint good paintings" that you're going to get anywhere interesting. You might make some very attractive objects, but the results of your effort is unlikely to produce that enlarging effect that we expect from Art.

That is to say, if you work without attempting to "say something" (construed very very broadly) then your work is unlikely to speak.

You could, in theory, shoot a whole lot of pictures without regard, and someone else could edit them into something. The edit would have to be done with something like a conceptual framework, or a process, and then the art-making would be the editing of the raw marble of "the archive." It happens that even this does not seem to work very well, most of the time, but I think it sometimes succeeds.

The difficulty arises thus: If you're going to make something good, I think you have to commit fully to your framework. You have to be all-in, you can't pussy-foot around tweaking it and softening it up and focus-grouping it. Commit, completely, or your work is inevitably going to be shit. At the same time, you have no reliable way to know a priori that your framework is going to yield anything meaningful.

So you have to leap, you have to take it on faith and just go for it, knowing that it might go nowhere.

And now you have the problem of working out how to tell whether it's working, and when to quit. Preparing to quit, and being fully committed, are opposites. You can't really do them both, but you better muddle your way through it somehow because that's how it works.

Generally, I have a certain reserved admiration for artists who are committed to some process, even when the results are pretty clearly going nowhere. They've got the commitment side down pat, and really, who am I to judge when it's time to let it go? There could be gold one hammer blow ahead.

Me, I'm pretty lazy and short-term. I don't really do much of anything that takes more than a couple months, because I lose interest. I could never do a multi-year project because, no matter how great the results, no matter how much meaning gets wrung out in the end, I'd simply stop caring after 6 months. I'd be on to a new concept, a new framework, a new process, that's fun and promising and either will or will not produce results in a few weeks.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Process Reveals Itself

The process doesn't always reveal itself, but sometimes it does. Sometimes, that's all there is.

Consider Mirjana Vrbaški, recently reviewed by all the Better Critics. She's spend more than a decade working on one of the "let's photograph a whole bunch of women the same way" projects, although mercifully they're not nudes. You can examine the results here, and here, and finally here.

If you then go read the "About" page, you find this graf:

In Verses of Emptiness (2009-ongoing), [ ... ] Vrbaški and her model isolate themselves in the photo studio, working in silence and concentration so as to ’peel away’ the model’s surface layers. Placing her sitter against a neutral, contextless backdrop and consequently ’sculpting’ her inward, she reduces her portraits to a minimum of visual elements until a more essential and strangely unsettling layer is exposed.

and if you're me you say "yep, that's pretty much what I would have guessed."

The artist has developed a process and a theory. The process is pretty definite, and the theory is essentially a variation on the standard theme of: if I just do the same thing over and over for long enough, surely something will emerge.

In a way, something has emerged. The trouble is that what's emerged is just the process itself. These pictures look exactly like what they are. A bored, and possibly over-serious model, sitting silently in a studio with a very much over-serious artist, working on a sort of ham-fisted modern interpretation of a Dutch Master portrait.

They certainly are unsettling photos, because the sheer awkwardness in the studio is palpable. You might think at first that these women are all combat veterans with PTSD or something, but it just goes on and on and they're all the same, and you realize that it's just direction. I've seen the veterans show, and it's different.

I think that this is, International Art English posturing aside, exactly what is intended. The Art is supposed to reveal the process, and the seriousness of the Artist, and not much else. It's not really Art about the Artist, it's Art about how Serious The Artist Is. It's not even as interesting as the novel about the novelist, or the short story about the peppy young woman navigating the vagaries of the publishing industry in NYC, written by a slightly less peppy young woman navigating the vagaries of the publishing industry in NYC. At least those people are telling us about their crashingly boring lives, the Serious Artist isn't even doing that.

Look at my process: I bore the model into oblivion! Look, I photograph only women, which surely counts for something! Look at my art-historical references! Vrbaški has pared away everything except these elements, and has done so evidently on purpose. At this point, this is literally what her photos are about.

They are, in essence, simply saying loudly "I AM A VERY SERIOUS ARTIST" in hopes someone agrees.

It isn't even Art about Art.

What it is, is it's pretty common. Photographers love this shit. I will photograph this fencepost every day. I will photograph my lunch every day. I will photograph a bunch of people in such-and-such a demographic in the most coldly impersonal way I can devise.

What makes me interested in it today is that sometimes it works. Noah Kalina has been taking a self portrait every day for more than 20 years. The result has been presented in various video forms, and also as a big grid of stills. Kalina has stayed on target, working his process, for decades, and something has by-god emerged. It's something about the passage of time, about aging, about mortality.

There are others. Arguably Robert Frank's trip around the USA was a process of sorts, doggedly adhered to through thick and thin, that produced 83 keepers that actually make some cogent remarks on the USA.

This does raise a problem. How are you to know when your process will produce something? I dare say Vrbaški got going on her project at some point, thinking something along these lines. She made a few pictures, decided maybe it was a thing to doggedly stick to, and has stuck with it. If, at some point, it occurred to her that nothing was emerging, well, she had a problem, didn't she?

This is her Thing. Assuming this thought occurred to her, by that time she'd probably gotten a few minor mentions, maybe a gallery show or two, and had committed herself to the IAE gobbling about layers of meaning emerging. What's she gonna do, pitch the idea and start from scratch just because it's not working and is obviously never going to work? Or is she more likely to double down, and try to persuade a few more critics that, no, truly, something ineffable and incapable of being articulated really has emerged?

Obviously, the latter, unless she's remarkably dim, which does not seem to be the case at all.

It kind of sells itself, too. The portraits are so neutral, so blank, that you can project anything you like onto them. If you're some dopey critic you can stare at them for a while and allow some vague sensation that there's something ineffable there. Then you write that down, and you've got your column for the week!

Drinks all around!

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Depth of Perception

I was on a brief camping holiday at Deception Pass, about an hour from my front door, this weekend.

The pass itself is a short (a mile or two), narrow (a few hundred feet at the narrowest) seaway between Fidalgo Island, which is really more of a peninsula, and Whidbey Island, an island about 40 miles long. As such it is the kind of place that develops substantial tidal currents. These are commonly 6 or 7 knots at their peak, which is quite a clip. Much faster than you can swim, row, or paddle.

There was a moment, maybe an interval, when I was looking out over the water at the patterns of ripples and waves and flotsam on the surface, and I perceived something of what was going on. The water nearest me, and out to the center of the channel, and then a little beyond, was moving to the right. Beyond that, past a little interval of rougher water, the water was moving to the left. The is normal at the changing of tides, the great mass of water is switching directions and does not do so all at once.

But what was actually to be seen? What, for instance, did my children see?

They saw a random seeming pattern of glitter and dark patches on the surface of the water. If they paid a little more attention, they maybe noticed a piece of kelp moving left to right, or right to left, but likely did not make much note of it. As a former sailor, though, I was acutely aware of the motions of water, and where one would position ones boat to best advantage.

We all of us perceived the neural shimmer of stimulation on our retinas in much the same way, and somewhere along the line that was transformed into a percept of "water in a passage of stone, bridge over there, beach here" with maybe even a shared idea of motion.

When I looked, I saw, I perceived, rivers of water of unknown depth, moving masses swirling past one another. I thought in terms of positioning a boat. In the back of my mind, the moon is humping up water, and these masses are the sloshing of water flowing forever down the slopes of a moving hill of ocean half the size of the planet. When my children looked, they saw glitter.

A Swinomish 500 years ago, looking over the same water, would likely have seen the masses of water in motion, though moved by what forces I cannot know. They might also, perhaps, have paid special attention to the interface between the masses, as these interfaces often concentrate sea life. Perhaps they would have thought of the scene in terms of food to be caught there, or spirits present at that interface, or something else I cannot imagine. They might have seen the Maiden of Deception Pass, Ko-kwahl-alwoot, in the waters.

Between the neural shimmer at the retina, and the gods of creation, there seems to be a continuum of perception. It's entirely possible that there are clear lines, clear layers, but that my mind papers them over for me. Since we're talking perception, though, perhaps it is the papered over version that is relevant anyway.

The point is that our perception of something, anything, is a structure that rests on the merest neurological stimulation of sense organs, and which extends upward to the narrative forms construed by the conscious mind in what we might as well consider as a continuous apparatus. The narrative forms that arise when we perceive, as a consequence of physical perception, seem to flow back down, shaping the whole into a single sleek structure, seamless from biology to story.

The upper regions of this continuum diverge in each of us, while we more or less share the lower regions. Our personal histories, our cultural backgrounds, determine much of the conscious mind's story around what we see. I perceive in a small way the moon. The Swinomish perhaps perceives something about their own Persephone, the Maiden, who married a man from the sea to guarantee the richness of food from the waters of the pass, who lives there still. My children perceive something of sparkly water and coldness and the delight of seeing their dog swimming after thrown sticks.

Any sailor would look at the moving waters of Deception Pass and perceive the whole rather as I do. Any child would likely see it the way mine do. A modern Swinomish might not believe in the Maiden, but might well see the waters through that lens, and might well visualize salmon massed in the interface between moving waters. We fall in lumps, groups, that perceive in something of the same way.

And so, of course, the same with the photograph. At some point, we each of us diverge one from another. This lump of people, this group, tend to see the photograph more or less this way, and that group sees it more or less that way, and perhaps there are a few other groups, and then there's the schizophrenic that sees monsters nobody else perceives.

Because this structure of perception, which builds the details of the percept up from raw senses into a story, appears to us continuous, unbroken, it appears to us that our perception is the true one and all others must be mistaken or incomplete. There seem to us no decision points, no places where a divergence might naturally occur. All follows naturally, inevitably, from the basic sense inputs.

But it's not true. The Swinomish and the white child do perceive quite differently, because they are different creatures.

It would be well for us to understand that the world is filled with different creatures, whose perceptions are not our own. It would be well for us to lean more on our powers of empathy, which are substantial, than on our powers of perception in this generalized sense.

Saturday, July 10, 2021


I'm working on a new thing. Not entirely sure where it's going, but it's going.

I started out making a couple of signs, the kind you stick up around the neighborhood when your cat is lost, or you're selling a table, or your kid wants to walk dogs for money. Standard letter sized paper, usually some kind of illustration on the top third, then some text, and along the bottom a set of tear-off tabs with some sort of reminder text and contact information. Mine were different.

My first signs were:
  1. a photo of a car; the word "CAR"; and a set of tabs each with the word "CAR" on them.
  2. a photo of me, looking crazed; text indicating that I was OK, tend talk too much, and not to feed me; tabs reading "SOME GUY"
  3. a photo of my dog; text consistent with an automobile for sale; tabs reading "DOG"

I stuck these things up, and photographed them. I am fascinated by photography projects which rephotograph photos, for some reason, so I did that.

Also, I tore one tab off. Since that's what you do, you tear one off as a starter, to suggest that there's interest in whatever you're selling or whatever.

Then people started taking tabs.

"Well, that's weird," I thought, thought I. They took a lot of tabs. My signs get more traction than the actual signs selling shit.

Which is kind of a dick move? Am I putting the boots to kids trying to run a dog walking business, or am I increasing interest in stuff stuck to telephone poles? I dunno.

Regardless. I made a few more surreal signs, one offering free tabs, and a pair about a lost photo of a dog, and a found photo of a dog, each featuring a photo of a photo (the same photo) which I then, yes, photographed again. These too got some traction. I am learning about where to place signs, and how to orient them.

My children were enamored of the "free tabs" sign, and one of them made her own which I put up next to mine. First, I wrestled with this intrusion on my project but then I decided that it was about community and interaction, so, onwards! I stuck hers up, and people have taken some of her tabs. She sometimes writes her B's backwards, so technically they are "tads."

I keep photographing these signs, as the weather and community interaction gradually dissolve them, which takes a surprising amount of time.

Having struggled a bit with how I can do something with the community interaction, I've put up a couple polls. Chocolate or Vanilla? Dogs or Cats? with tabs alternating the two choices. Chocolate and Cats, by the way.

Having trained people to answer polls, I think I'm going back to surreal, but with polls. Dogs or Chocolate? Yes or No? Cats or Yes? but that's for next week.

I don't know how appealing the photos are going to be, but the essay should be entertaining!

Monday, July 5, 2021

Cultural Vocabulary

I was, as I do, poking around on the internet reading things, and I read a recent newsletter from Jörg Colberg, which you can also read, here.

In the newsletter is a picture, which I will describe rather than reproduce: it's a picture of a bench, in a somewhat dismal outdoor corner. The bench has a plaque on it, which reads:

Robert E. Burke
Valued Employee, Treasured Friend
Sept 4, 1969 -- May 17, 2006

Dr. Colberg goes on somewhat pointedly about what a shitty monument this is. Not only is it a bench in a dismal corner, but the inscription leads with "employee" making "friend" something of an afterthought, and so forth. He expresses a little sadness that Burke died at age 37. He's perfectly on point here.

Baked into Colberg's discussion is the assumption of what the bench with its inscription means.

These little monuments are all over the place in the USA. A bench, a basketball hoop, a tree, a civic flowerbed, whatever. They are, invariably, a little monument to a life. The first date is the birth, the second one a death, and the inscription someone's idea of a little summary of the life itself.

Being me, which is to say "that fuckin' guy," I went and looked up Robert E. Burke of Northampton, MA.

Burke was born on Dec 17, 1947, and died on May 18, 2006. The obit mentions "Thursday" and May 17, 2006 was a Wednesday. The Social Security Death Index confirms May 18th.

What on earth is going on here?

Welp. The obit indicates that he was hired at the District Court (the bench is outside the District Court building) in 1969. The bench seems to have not the dates of his life, but rather the dates of his service at the Court. May 17 might well have been his last day of work.

The inscription changes meaning, then. If this honors his service as an employee, as it appears to do, the inscription no longer feels weird. Rather, the entire bench feels weird, and the inscription fits onto it perfectly.

This does not change the fact that the bench, as a cultural artifact, means what it appears to mean. As a sentence in the vocabulary of our culture, it literally means "Robert E. Burke, born in 1968, died in 2006 and we valued him as an employee and, uh, also as a friend." The fact that this is neither the intended meaning, nor reflective of the true events, does not alter that in the slightest. That is what this bench means.

I am nearly certain that the bench is a monument to the man's service, and I have literally never seen any such thing in my life. Well, I've seen service awards and whatnot, but never in this configuration. I cannot quite imagine what possessed the people of the District Court to come up with this thing, co-opting a well-established vocabulary and making this mess out of it.

As a side note, it is worth noting that this spot used to be a lot less dismal. Google Street View from 2015 shows that that ugly chain link fence is recent, parts of the cement used to be more attractive brick paving, and there are sometimes plants around the thing. I mean, it's still not nice, but when the bench was put in the location was less dystopian.

I consider it possible that Dr. Colberg has walked by this bench any number of times, and was waiting for grass in front of the bench to assume a suitably dried-out and untended look. It's rather a Thing in the school of photography he favors: the futile architecture of Man, as seen beyond or through scrubby, dead, vegetation.

Whatever. This has certain implications for the reading of art generally, and photographs specifically. We are reminded, yet again, that intention and reading need not align. If, in 50 years, the Monument To Service Bench becomes standard, if the meaning of these objects changes, then intention and reading might line back up, who knows?

It's a funny old world, and one is advised to stay alert.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Product Marketing

Today, a wild left turn from musing on Time, Culture, and Photography. There will be more that theme, um, as soon as I figure out what if anything I have more to say on the subject. Hold tight, but don't hold your breath, m'kay?

I occasionally, which is to say far too often, learn that it's "important" for photographers to "be on" this platform or that one. Flickr was it, way back when in an entirely imaginary past, instagram is it now even though it sucks and is terrible for photographers, etc etc. Nobody ever says why photographers need to be on the platform, or which photographers, or any of that.

If you're farming Likes, I guess, whatever. Churn out some crowd-pleasing oversaturated shit, sign up for all the platforms, and follow a few 1000 people, and run around Liking all their candy-colored bullshit. It ain't rocket science, it's just a job, and a remarkably pointless job. If you're me and doing things for your own amusement and a few friends, it matters even less. Sign up for no platforms, or all of them, and shitpost to your heart's content I guess.

The tacit assumption, I think, is that "photographers" are those who are trying to run some sort of photography business, though. So let's whittle the world down to "photographers who want to run a successful photography business."

The first, second, and third pieces of advice here are: lol, don't.

But if you really got to, let's dig in. No, I have not run a photography practice for money, that's insane, and no you can't have my resume. Use google and stalk me, like a normal person. There are two critical concepts you need to get your head around here.

The first concept is the whole product. What do you want to do in your business? Head shots! Great. NO THAT'S NOT A PRODUCT FUCK YOU.

A "whole product" is the thing you actually want to sell, wrapped up in a lot of other shit that makes it easy to buy, and easy to use. It fills in all the gaps your customer is going to stumble over. Head shots is fine, but: do I come to you, or do you come to my studio? Are we doing backdrops, or environmental stuff? Are we doing one at a time, or are we running a team past the camera one after another? Are we doing actors who have free time, and maybe odd hours, or are we doing corporate executives whose lives are scheduled in 15 minute increments?

The "whole product" offering is "head shots" with all the customer's questions answered. If you're on-site, and doing environmental backgrounds, you're scouting a week in advance, right? If you're on-site with a backdrop, you need such and such space, with such and such power, and so on, right? And it will take such long to set up, such long to tear down, and you can do one portrait every so-and-so many minutes. These things all matter. Get it sorted. Write it all down in the brochure. You can have more than one whole product offering, but let's stick to one.

The second concept is the target market. A target market is a bunch of potential buyers who share the same key buying criteria — they all buy the thing you're selling for more or less the same reasons; and they form a community, they talk to one another.

Maybe they're price sensitive and need a lot of headshots, so they're looking for speed and low-cost. Or maybe the opposite. Or maybe they're individuals who just need headshots of themselves (actors and models) but they need it every year, and they need 3 different looks each time.

This sounds a bit like the stuff that goes into a whole product, doesn't it? This is not an accident, pay attention and keep reading.

The fact that they have the same buying criteria means that they'll all respond to the same story, the same sales pitch, in roughly the same way. The fact that they are a community means that you can put yourself in front of all of them at the same time. Do they have a trade magazine, or a conference? Do they hang out in the same facebook groups, or under the same hashtags? Well, find out, and now you know where to position yourself and your marketing materials. Maybe you buy ads, maybe you just show up and offer knowledgeable, polite, low-key input. The venue you're looking at will determine how to approach it.

So that's product marketing in a nutshell. Your whole product is tuned to the needs of your target market, and the marketing messages is aimed directly at the buying criteria of your target market. Boom. It's all dynamic, of course, you test, you tweak, you learn. Nothing is every as simple as that, but this is the underlying structure.

So, do photographers "need to be on instagram?" Fuck no, god damn it. That's like saying "photographers need to be on planet Earth" anyways. Maybe, maybe, your target market community reaches into instagram. Maybe not. If it's "on" instagram, it's probably "on" a small set of hashtags on instagram, not "instagram" broadly construed.

Figure out what you want to do. Design a whole product. Figure out who wants to buy that, why they buy, and where they are. Realize that your whole product is shit nobody wants to buy, and change it to something else. Go around and around on this for a while, and somewhere in there you will learn not "what platform photographers need to be on" which is bullshit, but rather what platform you need to be on, and how you need to be messaging around your whole product.

None of this shit is rocket science, there are books and books and jesus christ more books and probably blogs and vlogs and wikis on this, but nobody seems to know it except the product marketing professionals at successful companies. More people stumble across this shit by dumb luck than ever learn it in an organized fashion.

It is, nevertheless, a real discipline, and entirely learnable. It's not even hard.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Magic and Time and Photographs

Photographs are both a kind of a magic trick and a kind of a document. They are a talisman for conjuring, a portal to the past; they are a bland testimony to that-which-was. They do both simultaneously. Like one of those printed holographic things, it depends on how you look at it; it tends to shift without warning, underfoot.

Flusser states that photographs are a return to "magic" — a cultural conception of time that is cyclical, a conception of eternal and endless return and repetition. Barthes asserts the opposite, that the photograph testifies to such a specific past, with such certainty, that a photo tends to support a historical, linear, conception of time, a conception of time as a endless sequence of unique events.

A commenter here noted recently and correctly that either position works, depending on how we interact with the photo. As soon as you add a viewer into the equation, almost anything can happen! A photo as talisman offers a portal to the past, a cyclical revisiting of the past, a cycle which repeats whenever we look at the picture. At the same time, the photo as document offers a wealth of detail, it offers incontrovertible proof of the uniqueness of the event, proof that it is never to be repeated.

The character of a photo's magic doesn't matter too much. Is it merely a window to the past? Does it, as I have argued, induce something like a "somatic response similar to presence?" Whatever it is, there is something going on which draws a line from "now" to "then" and sometimes to "then and there" or to "then and them," some kind of direct-ish access to the past is produced. While I am more interested in generalities than specifics, it might be well to ponder a few specific examples here.

Consider a portrait of a matronly, elderly, woman. A grandmother type. If you don't know her, don't recognize her, you might nevertheless feel a sensation of "grandma" here, and by implication the eternal cycle for grandma, mom, daughter. A group portrait of three appropriately aged women might drive the point home. If you do recognize her, if she is your grandma, you will instead feel induced a very specific cycle, a line drawn to the past, to when she was that age, to when she was alive, whatever. Perhaps that time is decades past, perhaps it was literally yesterday. The line is drawn, either way.

Already we see a distinction between a generalized mythical cycle, and a personal, specific, cycle. There is perhaps a spectrum from personal memory to cultural memory (to myth.)

Consider any "classic" photograph of, say, working class people from the early 20th century. Lewis Hine, anything on shorpy, the FSA archive. There's a distinctive look to these things. We do not know the subjects, but we recognize the style, and the time period and social class they represent. These photos draw a line from the present to that time, the early 20th century, the Great Depression, and so on. We return to a "then" but not really a "there." Even if the caption says "Chicago," the Chicago of 1927 might as well be the moon as far as we're concerned. But, we know the time period, or we think we do. We've seen it in photos. We return through the photo to a notional world made up largely of photos, but also of what we know of the time. We return to the stock market crash, to the Depression, to WWI, to WWII, to jazz.

This isn't the cycle of time's progression, 1920s jazz will not come back. This is a cycle of return to the past. Jazz, that jazz, does not reappear, will never reappear, if we simply wait; but we can go back to it and revisit Jazz, and the world that surrounded it. The Depression and the Dust Bowl might return, but they will return in new forms. We can go visit the previous ones.

The cycle of time induced by the personal photo is similar. A have been spending time with a photograph of my deceased father. Like Barthes, I cannot find him in the photo, but only fragments. Memory, prodded, provides other fragments. The return to my father is real, albeit subtle. I feel it. While he is present for me, I am not present for him. I am like a ghost, like Scrooge, unable to touch the past, unable to do anything more than observe and regret.

This is, I think, the nature of human culture. We have always lived with memory, with stories, with mythology. We live also in the now, we look toward the future with hope and ambition while simultaneously connected to the past. I don't think that either Barthes or Flusser would, if pressed mean to suggest that we ever cut off completely the connection to the past, to myth, to cyclical time, or that contrariwise we cut off entirely our forward view. The point is surely that the emphasis swings this way and that, some cultures at some times look backward, or forward, more than others. In the modern USA we are surely very forward looking. I think it is normal for Americans to have a fairly vague idea of their family history prior to grandparents, except possibly in certain regions notorious for their backward-looking ways.

On the advice of a different commenter, I watched the movie "Coco" recently, and enjoyed it. It's a good flick, built around the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, and by all accounts gets the culture around that celebration pretty much correct. Apparently there is a broad range of culture around this celebration, but the movie lands somewhere in that range. The film and the celebration are built specifically around the idea of return: the deceased return to visit the living, to accept offerings and remembrances, on that one day each year.

The altars built to the ancestors have food and drink, decorations, and photographs of the ancestors (these latter are important in the film, they are treated as a talisman which literally enables the return of the dead, without a photo placed on an altar, there is no return.)

The living experience a kind of return to the past, through memory, through talismans, through rituals, while the dead experience a visit to a future they never knew (that is, the present, now.)

Perhaps a side note, but nevertheless I think this is interesting: where a real family tree spreads out as you recede into the past, the family tree in "Coco" narrows down to a single great-grandmother (and her husband), a single couple in a network that biologically has 4 separate couples. Graphically, the ofrenda (altar) in the movie is wide at the bottom where the recently deceased are represented, narrow at the top where the matriarch's photo stands. The story is all about this singular great-grand couple, so it all makes movie sense. Still, the excluded great-grands are, by the movie's logic, in pretty bad shape here.

Perhaps there is something to be said here about the selectivity of our returns to the past. Not everything is remembered, not everything is photographed, not every person has stories told about them in the next generation. Bloodlines end, stories attenuate and either fade away entirely or are rolled up into someone else's story. Myth tends to summarize, to reduce, to edit the past down to the best bits. History does the same, but makes at least an effort to preserve more broadly.

Perhaps Americans, or Western European derived cultures, or Enlightenment influenced cultures, or whatever, are unique in our relative lack of interest in our past. Certainly many other cultures have more interest, from traditionally having a better grasp of their family tree all the way to straight-up ancestor worship. Many other cultures live, literally and figuratively, with a greater connection to previous generations, sometimes literally living in the same dwellings, an unusual and mildly discouraged configuration here in the USA.

One might imagine a culture which treats time as purely cyclical, perhaps some strands of Buddhism do this. Everything repeats, everything is reborn, and reborn, and reborn. Nothing exists except what has already lived, nothing exists except as a repetition, as the billionth turn of the wheel. At the opposite end, one might imagine a culture that exists largely unmoored from the past. Technological advancement relies on memory, but a culture without technology might be a culture with no past. Dogs don't seem to have any sense of myth, and their memory, while very much real, seems to be quite focused and quite limited.

Even a technological culture might do without myth, remembering only facts without stories.

A memory of certain facts of grandma's life is different from recalling her story, her stories. This again is different from seeing her features, her nature, reappearing in a grandchild, which is again different from imagining her literally reborn, reincarnated. Perhaps Americans are distinctly factual in their memories, only recalling what is necessary for that system we name "progress" and consigning much of the rest to the bin.

At this moment, at this time, I think perhaps Flusser is on to something. Where we have lost much of our capacity for myth, for magic, the photograph plays a real role in resurrecting that capacity in a new shape.

The news photo, as I have noted, references the cycles of (recent) history. Here is a riot, a president, a king, a ship, like any other, like all the others you have seen. The copy next to the picture might distinguish one king from another, one riot from another, but the picture does not. The picture reifies the copy by connecting it, cycle-like, to other instances of the same thing, to riots and to ships past. The shorpy or FSA photo reifies the Great Depression, and transports us to that time. The photograph of our father transports us, a wraith-Scrooge, to him, to that moment in the past, to look, to experience that half-presence.

In American culture there is little else to bring us to that past. We do not, as a rule, tell ourselves myths. We do not related the character of our forbears, only, sometimes, a little factual anecdote. Well, at least in my family that's how it goes. The great events of the past we learn about as specific events.

Recently we saw an outpouring of news and discussion around the Tulsa Massacre, everything from Twitter to the Wall Street Journal was all over it. It was presented, invariably, as "the worst" massacre, and we learned endless specific details about it. The photos, though, looked like any urban disaster from the time, and somewhere in this great outpouring discussion almost nobody remarked on that. Collectively, we chose to imagine this as a unique event, related to but not the same as, other similar events that were almost never identified. It was "the worst" but no mention was made of the "second worst" or of the in fact far worse massacres of First Nations people.

Textually, if you will, the Tulsa Massacre was given to us as a unique event. Even to the point of essentially suppressing similar events.

The photos, by far, were the element that most connected this Tulsa Massacre to other events. Only the photos connected the Massacre to larger cycles of culture, to other events like it that came before, that came after. The photographs reflect the cycle of destruction, of unrest, of violence, of racism. They look like Hiroshima, like Chicago, like Dresden, like Belgrade, like London.

Time, cultural time, has a dual nature; time ticks forward inexorably producing an endless sequence of seconds each distinct and unique; time cycles around and around endlessly, bringing us events and happenings and people and ideas that repeat and repeat forever.

The photograph also has a dual nature, and reveals to us both sides of cultural time. The photograph records with total precision a moment, and brings it back to us. Viewing these things as cultural animals, we see revealed the dual nature of our own conception of time. We see both sides, we repeat and return, we progress inexorably forward, both and at the same time.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

A Zine

Long story short, I made a zine that's "about" the year 2020, in some sense. I did not talk about it here because I embargoed pandemic talk something over a year ago. I intend to maintain that embargo for the forseeable future, but am going to slip this one set of remarks in because some people are interested in the zine and, anyways, it's been a damn year.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Embargo Breaking

It is my intention to write something soon about a thing I made that is tangentially "virus related."

I don't know if this moment in time counts as the smoke having cleared or not, but I want to write about this zine I made and share details and whatnot, so there it is. I will put it behind a "read more" link which doesn't seem to work on mobile devices, and I am placing this note here, now.

I have no idea how much people have valued having the "no COVID" guarantee, so perhaps I am making a mountain of a molehill. But promises are promises, whether anyone cares or not.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Vilém Flusser

In this book by David Levi Strauss, I ran across some references to an essay by Flusser, an essay I had not read. At the time, I shrugged it off and took Levi Strauss' summary as correct, and moved on with my life. It happened that a few days later I realized that I do in fact possess of copy of "Towards A Philosophy of Photography" and so in due course I read it, and as one does, had a bit of a think.

Levi Strauss' summary seems to be perfectly fine, as far as it goes. He only wanted a few little things from the essay.

Flusser was definitely kind of a weird guy with some weird ideas, but there's stuff in here worth thinking about. The essay (book?) dates from 1984, so a bit later than Sontag and Barthes, but maybe a bit earlier than Stuart Hall.

A bureaucracy is a system made up of humans and processes which has one or more goals consciously held, often publicly stated. To some degree, invariably, a bureaucracy actually operates in opposition to its stated goals. Equally invariably, a bureaucracy operates to expand itself, its influence, its budget, and so on. A non-profit seeking to, say, solve the Problem of Homelessness will often operate in ways that on the one hand mitigate homelessness while at the same time perpetuating it, while simultaneously increasing its own budget to solve the ever worsening problem.

The non-profit argues that the problem is just getting worse, and their best efforts can merely slow the advance, send more money. Close examination of the actions of the non-profit are invariably ambiguous, and yet it often seems that they are perhaps not after all doing as much as they might be, except for the part where they ask for more money, a larger staff, and perhaps some more real estate which they are definitely on top of.

The underlying problems, at the same time, certainly are getting worse, so perhaps they're right after all. It's hard to tell.

This is more or less universal. Some bureaucracies do a better job of combating the natural tendency to expand at the expense of stated goals, and to operate in opposition to them; some others do a worse job. The natural tendency, though, is omnipresent.

The causes of this tendency are, as far as I know, largely unknown.

Flusser does not talk about bureaucracies as such, he's interested in what we might term a generalized form of this bureaucratic phenomenon. He's interested in systems of culture which operate according to programs which systems humans are largely unaware of, and against which humans struggle to some extent (but not always) in vain. His systems are obscure, he doesn't seem to have any notion of what form they take, or the mechanics of their operation, although he is sure that they do operate.

This is an alternative view to the Frankfurt School's Critical Theory which assumes (roughly) that all cultural systems are driven purely by power relationships. Flusser does not think it's that simple. While both schools believe in hidden systems that control everything, the Critical Theorists believe (roughly) that if you open the black box you will find a struggle for power between humans and/or human institutions. Flusser believes that inside the black box are only more black boxes.

Flusser also believes that there is a hierarchy, or perhaps a network, of these opaque cultural systems. If I become aware of the system I serve, and rebel against it, I am likely only rebelling against that system while my rebellion is in fact perfect compliance with the program of the larger surrounding system that programs and maintains the system I can see.

So, this is some serious tinfoil hat shit, right? And yet, bureaucracies are a thing, aren't they?

I don't actually have a clear sense of where I land on this. It feels kind of right, and kind of bonkers at the same time. But let us set my personal position aside.

Flusser believes that photography, broadly construed, is such a system. Photographs are produced by your free will, by accident and serendipity, by automated surveillance cameras, and so on. But just as a rolled die comes up 6 about one sixth of the time, you and your photographs considered en masse comply with the broader programmatic constraints of the system of photography. If you can somehow defy that system, if is only in conformity to larger systems you're even less aware of.

Flusser theorizes about the nature of the program driving the system of photography:

In the pre-History, ancient times, humans lived largely according to cycles of endless repetition. Day follows night follows day. Winter follows fall, summer, spring follows winter forever. The king dies; the king is crowned. Flusser terms this cyclical kind of existence "magical."

At some point linear writing and thence History are invented, and now everything that happens is new. It is not long merely that the king has died, and the king is crowned. This king has died, and now that king is crowned. The death of one causes the coronation of the other.

History led in the fullness of time to the Industrial Revolution which has in turn led us to now, a time of programmed cultural systems. The programmed goal of the system of photography is to enlarge itself, its influence, to make the picture universal, to replace text with picture, to return from text to picture, to, in the end, destroy History. The end result of photography is a return to the cyclical, magical, time, but in a new form.

In some sense, he's not wrong. News photographs do not make events distinct, they blur them together. One riot is just like any riot, it must be riot season come back around again. Successful struggles to make newsworthy events distinct, Historical, are rare. Photographs don't tell us which king is crowned, only that the king is crowned, and that the king has died. When Queen Elizabeth dies, we will see her funeral photos next to her father's funeral photos, and we will see the new king crowned next to photographs of her coronation, and they will all look the same.

Every photo on instagram is a repeat of another photo. The lattes, the sunsets, the pretty girls doing yoga, they all come around and around.

Notice here that this is the exact opposite of Barthes' position.

Barthes, recall, insists that the photograph makes Historical that which was formerly Religious, or Mythical. One might as well say Magical. Barthes places the era of Magic as ending more or less exactly at the time photography was invented, whereas Flusser places the end of Magic at the invention of linear writing; still, in broad strokes they seem to be talking about the same kinds of things. Barthes is probably thinking in terms of the French Peasant, a character that maybe somewhat fancifully is imagined to reside in a kind of utopian pre-history up through the Victorian era as far as I can tell. Flusser is thinking of humanity writ large, and probably urban, the humanity that toiled in factories and therefore confronted History rather more definitely than the shepherds.

I haven't any notion of who's right. I think both arguments have some weight to them, both feel right in some sense.

Barthes says that the photo testifies to facts, and is therefore part of the machinery of History, of linear time. Flusser says that the image, broadly construed, is inherently magical, cyclical, and therefore opposes History, linear writing, linear time.

They both kinda have a point.

Friday, June 11, 2021

An Article

The usual suspects are passing around this article, How the George Floyd Uprising Was Framed for White Eyes with the usual approving nods. It's the sort of thing I think is always worth reading, and it's not terrible. Nor is it particularly good, though.

The reason the usual suspects like it is because it is a succinct and fairly cogent summary their preferred theory of media. Every generation is certain they have the objectively true theory, and that all previous generations were basically just kidding themselves, and sort of dim. The author is a remarkably well-spoken recent graduate, so it's not really surprising that it contains no original thinking. That's fine, there's nothing wrong with applying contemporary ideas to things you see around you, but that is the character of this piece.

The conceit of the article is, essentially, that photojournalistic photos of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests are drawn from a limited palette of possible tropes, which tropes specifically lend themselves to a specific interpretation by a specific audience. You can go read the details if you like, but I confess I don't find them particularly interesting and those details are not something I want to devote much time to here.

A brief note on protests: for the most part, at least here in the West, protests are a ritual, a system of gestures and set-pieces that we collectively perform to exhibit our political opinions as a collective. The purpose is ostensibly to generate change, but this never occurs in modern times. The underlying purpose is to build community, to shore up our beliefs with the knowledge that others share them. It is essentially a rain dance, a highly ritualized social/community action which does not in fact produce rain, but which serves a number of useful social functions.

My kids attend a lot of protests with their dad, because I believe strongly in those social functions.

The gestures and set pieces tend to be camera-ready, because we have learned them from the camera. The signs, the chants, the inevitable march to somewhere from wherever. Occasionally the sheer emotion of the moment overwhelms the crowd and it becomes a riot, and that too is largely ritualized.

I am not a specialist in the area, but my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement protests in the USA is that they were consciously ritualized. The difference today is we pretend very hard that the gestures and set pieces of protest are organic, emergent, a natural outflow of the emotion of the crowd in response to the injustice they see. Which, to be fair, is perfectly true, but the crowd draws upon a small set of visual pedagogy in developing their own strategies.

There is a reason all protests look the same.

Back to the topic at hand. The general argument of the article I introduced above is to offer up the tropes with examples, and to say "well, there you are, see?"

It is a bit like arguing that the children are limiting themselves by building only with LEGO and Lincoln Logs, and then offering up documentation of a lot of LEGO and Lincoln Log structures built by the children. There is an essential missing step here, which is to list something else the children might be building with. You have to actually say "And look, here are Tinkertoys, which the children are not using." The Mother Jones piece notably lacks any examples of these other notional pictures that might be made, to illustrate the alternatives to the tropes. There are by my count two sentences which suggest ideas which ought to be portrayed but are not, and there are no hints offered as to how one might photograph those abstractions.

The tropes, as offered, in fact cover a lot of territory. Here is option A, which is read in such-and-such a way by our notional audience of liberal white people. Here is option B, which has precisely the opposite meaning to that same notional audience, but somehow leads to the same place. Here is option C, again quite different, but again mysteriously leading the same conclusion. Without meaning to the article offers a fairly cogent argument that, whatever the photograph, it is positioned and sold against the same backdrop of meaning and results in the same received messages. About this, more in a moment.

What the article gets right is that meanings are, by and large, imposed on photographs by the audience on the basis of, well, a lot of things including the surrounding material (text, other visuals, in this case.) Multiple readings are, the article admits, perfectly possible, and indeed occur. It is the specific tranche of White Liberals who see these pictures in these particular ways, we are told. One could argue about whether that specific tranche of White Liberals even exists, but let us stipulate that they do. Someone is reading "Mother Jones" after all.

What the article gets wrong, I think, is the idea that there are specific tropes which uniquely lend themselves to this reading by these people.

It suggests as a corollary that there are other photographs, those Tinkertoys if you will, which would uniquely lend themselves to other readings. It fails, as noted, to provide any such photos, or ideas for what they might look like, and I think the entire enterprise is bankrupt, thus:  

An alternative possibility is that virtually any photographs at all could be read that way by those people, given a suitable presentation. This is my position.

The piece leads off with the more or less sui generis photo from 1963 of Walter Gadsden being attacked by a police dog. I say it is sui generis, the only one of its type, because of the remarkable ambiguity in the action-packed, information-dense, scene. Unlike the standard protest and riot tropes, you can see a lot of faces, a lot of expressions, there's a ton of body language in play. The cop and Gadsden are interacting in a profoundly ambiguous way. Anyone who's taken a lot of pictures is likely to guess that this is one of those photos of frozen motion which in no way resembles the actual scene, like a blink.

News photos almost never have that "blink" character. They invariably at least appear to be accurately giving a sense of an unfolding situation. The Gadsden photo, while obviously a "blink," is also obviously so powerful a visual that it passed muster and got printed.

The standard tropes of riots and protests certainly avoid this kind of thing. Faces are frequently abstracted away. We want either an undifferentiated mass of people, or a single figure in a dynamic posture ideally with their face hidden. In addition to being generic in this sense they also hew to the standard photojournalism model, and present the appearance of accurately summarizing some unfolding moment, rather than being a "blink."

There absolutely are standard tropes here. Nobody lies down to photograph the crowd's feet, nobody focuses in on single faces in the crowd, nobody takes blurred photos, nobody singles out signs, etc etc. My position is not that tropes don't exist, but rather that the tropes that do exist don't support any particular political position. The standard photos are not specially open to specific political readings. The standard tropes exist and are taken specifically to standardize, to make generic, the visual representation of these events.

The Gadsden photo differs from the standard protest fare in another way: it is a moment that is outside the gestures and set-pieces of protest. It was an accident. Gadsden was just walking by, the dog went for him for some reason, and the cop is in fact trying to pull the dog off him while simultaneously manhandling Gadsden. What exactly the hell is going on in the cop's mind is unclear, but he's not setting his dog on a protestor. Similar imagery exists from within the set-pieces of the time, certainly. The dogs were set on protestors, as a part of the performance of power by the police, and the corresponding performance of protest by the protestors. This particular event, however, took place as it were outside the theater. It is as a consequence more humanistic than the typical photos, even from that time.

The photos we see today are invariably taken inside the theater, and of generic situations, generic actors, generic gestures. They are not particularly humanistic, and they specifically document the predetermined ritual gestures, in predetermined ways, specifically to made the event generic. This is the function of photojournalism, broadly, so make every event generic, to thus connect it to other similar events, to create a thread of history as a sequence of similar events.

This is not to say that stories are not shaped to appeal to whatever the audience is, whether it be White Liberals or Trumpists, or whatever else. The point is that the photos are generic, and will serve any outlet's purpose. The NYT shapes the story one way, Fox News shapes it another. There is no reason on earth they can't use the same photographs, because each photograph's job is only to reify the protest as a protest.

"There was a protest this afternoon in Someplace, and here are the photos to prove it. Look, it looks exactly like a protest. Now let us tell you about the protest, and why it means whatever it is you, our audience, expect us, your media, to say it means."

This point is, I think, cogently argued by the Mother Jones piece, although it clearly doesn't intend to argue that way. The piece offers up 5 of the standard issue tropes, 5 thoroughly contradictory tropes, for reifying a protest; it shows how each one is shaped by the surrounding material to produce a specific message to a specific audience. You could write the same piece about essentially identical photos found in conservative media, and show how the message is shaped to appeal to those readers.

It's so tempting to media theorists to ascribe these kinds of powers to photos, but it's just wrong. Media shapes culture, to a degree, but this isn't the mechanic by which it does so.

Friday, June 4, 2021

On Camera Lucida Part 2

Yes, yes, we're still stamping around in this same swamp. Barthes, despite his flaws, seems to have been one of the few people who have thought seriously about how photographs actually work. So, you know, interested.

First, as is my habit, let me clear a little underbrush. Part 1 of this book is where all the studium and punctum business that nobody understands is. At the end of Part 1, Barthes wraps up with a very short chapter which says, in effect, "yeah well, not so much. this doesn't get to the essentials, so now I will make my recantation, my palinode." A palinode is a poem that retracts a previous poem.

He's not saying that studium, punctum, and blind field are all wrong, but he's definitely saying they're not the answer. So he wrote a whole second half of this damned book about other stuff, which nobody every seems to mention. The second half is where the so-called "Winter Garden" photo appears, the possibly fictional photo of his mother and uncle as children, taken in a conservatory.

As an aside, it is notable that mostly we don't even see blind field referred to, despite the fact that inducing it is literally the definition of punctum. My working theory is that almost nobody has made it to Chapter 23 of the book (which has 48 chapters) let alone all the way to Part 2.

The standard take on Part 2 is to interpret Barthes' ecstatic reaction to this photo, in which reaction he finds his mother's true essence, as one of punctum and to pretty much stop there. This is not only incomplete, it's simply wrong, as we shall see. He's talking about something else.

The more sophisticated readers will drone on a bit about Death, because Barthes does talk something about Death in this section, and while that's probably not wrong, there's rather more going on here.

So, what is going on, smartass? Glad you asked!

The essential thing a photograph does is this: it testifies that something was there, and that someone saw it. It does nothing else but that. I photograph a can of beer, you see the photograph; you have no idea where the beer is now (you can probably guess, if you know me, but you don't know). You know that there was a can of beer, and that the photographer saw it.

This is very much absolute. Yes yes photoshop, I've heard. Also trick photos, etc. The point is that those are the exceptions. The photograph's testimony of that-has-been is far more definite than anything else we have. If I tell you about the can, if I write about it, if I paint it, draw it, if you recall it, etc, none of those have the same weight or the same character as a photograph of the same can.

Throughout, Barthes is comparing History with Religion, although you have to pay attention to notice the Religion. Much of the material about Death is actually Religion in disguise. Religion, as I see it, is a stand-in for a greater/older culture that is built on myth, story, song, tradition, and so on.

500 years ago, we understood ourselves as people by way of these latter things. We had songs and epic poems and traditions. We had religion. We had stories. These things mutated and evolved. They lived. Some of the material was frankly squishy, some of it was pretty darn firm, but even the firm stuff you might dress up the stories with some local color. We're goat people around here, so let's make the Sermon on the Mount have some goat people in the crowd. The guys in the next valley raise sheep, so their priest chucks in shepherds from time to time. The stories live even if we're very particular about, for example, the exact words Jesus spoke.

At some point History comes along, and now we're dotting tees and crossing eyes that previously needed no such decorations. While History is framed this way or that depending on fashion and necessity, once framed the details are filled in statically, in a way that does not live in the same way.

Folk singers are less likely to extemporize, and more likely to give us a period-correct rendering of the version from 1798, and possibly get involved in fistfights about the ordering of verses.

History pins our understanding of ourselves as a people, as a culture, a little like butterflies in a display case. The whole point is to nail it down and render it as certain and immobile as possible, to render it lifeless. History replaces culture, and religion. Or rather it subsumes them. There's a fair bit of religion around, but we're rather oddly consumed with it as history considering that it is by its very nature mystical.

In the same way, the photograph consumes our personal understanding of ourself, ourselves, our family.

Once, our families were built on traditions about grandmother's grandmother and the story of the badger. Was it really grandmother's grandmother, or has a generation been inserted or deleted somewhere? Was there really a badger, or is it really a mashup of two stories, one involving a cat and the other a skunk? Who cares? The point is, our family histories lived, and stretched back, back, back in a living braid of story.

Now we have a photograph of great-grandma, and her name is pencilled on the back, and that is the end of it. When the photo gets lost, great-grand is also lost.

Both History and The Photograph behave the same way, and for the same reason: they are definite, they are certain. They cut off all possibility of change, or evolution, and thus render lifeless and exact what was once inexact and living.

Ok, so that's Barthes' point, and he's not wrong. It might be a bit dramatic, but there it is.

So what's the deal with this Winter Garden Photo?

There is a thing, Barthes suggests, that can happen in a portrait. It is analogous to punctum but he doesn't call it that so we can reasonably assume that whatever it is, it's not punctum.

The effect of this thing is an inversion of punctum's effect. The punctum spontaneously generates a kind of ecstatic direct access to a belief in the larger world that surrounds the photo; the punctum causes our visceral understanding of the photo to abruptly, ecstatically, expand outwards past the edges of the frame, through time and space. This other property causes the inverse effect, although with the same ecstatic, visceral, violence: we believe in, we perceive the essential character of the subject of the portrait. It is an expansion inwards, rather than outwards, an inversion.

Barthes sees his mother's essential nature in the Winter Garden Photo. He exclaims "there she is!" is what I think simply has to be a sly reference to "Ecce Homo!"

He insists that the photograph is not resurrection, even metaphorically, it is purely reference to what was. A portrait, indeed, does the opposite of resurrect, it directly implies the Death of the subject. They were, that is all.

This new property Barthes has invented he called air which seems to mean exactly the same in French as in English. It's "air" in the sense of "manner" more or less, but with a more mystical nature (of course.)

It is the air of his mother in the photo that transmutes a basic that-has-been (and now she's dead) into there-she-is! (Ecce Homo!)

For those of you in the know, or who have googled it, "Ecce Homo!" (See, the man!) is what Pilate says when he presents Jesus to the mob, and we all know what happens to Jesus.

The Winter Garden Photo bridges the worlds of History and Religion. It is a dead, static, incontrovertible testimonial to the effect that once a little girl stood with her brother on a little bridge in a conservatory, and that someone saw her, and that she is probably dead by now. It is simultaneously a metaphorical resurrection of that same little girl, Barthes' mother, a myth of his mother, a legend, a song, a poem of his mother. It is a memory of her, that visceral living thing we keep inside and which is, all too often, killed by the literal, intractable, unarguable, testimony of the photograph.

This, says Barthes, is madness.

At this point, I must say, he seems to open himself to the possibility that this kind of bridging is possible with more photos, or perhaps even with all photos. We don't allow it, because we reject madness, and so we neuter photographs and retreat to the banal, to the mere that-has-been testimony of the things as Art, or as bland and endless Media Fodder.

There is an analogy here with Part 1, and I suppose you could describe Part 2 as an expansion on Part 1, but I think it is in fact different material.

The that-has-been testimony is the normal operation of a photo, it's what it does. You could say that this is kind of like studium, that also being the normal operation. They are both normal operations but on, as it were, different planes of operation. The testimony is what the photo is in its essence, but the studium is really what you, the viewer, do in response.

You could argue that air is a kind of punctum except that the effects of each are inverses of one another.

Finally, blind field is kind of like that direct perception of a person's essence, induced by air.

There is a fair analogy here, but these are not the same things in any meaningful way.

What do I think of all this?

Well, for starters I think it's important to keep in mind the extremely limited frame he's set himself within. He's investigating this whole thing purely, willfully, and explicitly, in terms of his own reactions, his own sensation, his own perceptions of things. He is not, for example, trying to make sense of these things in neurological terms, or in terms of Art History, or some sort of generalized theory of perception.

In some sense, we kind of have to grant him whatever he sees, then. If this is what he experiences, well, that that's what he experiences, no?

On the other hand, his experiences do not seem to generalize. These ecstatic, visceral, responses seem to be an exclusively Barthesian thing.

My take is that he has both punctum and air upside down. He views them as disturbances to, as additions to, the normal operation of the photograph in one sense or another.

My position is that the normal operation of the photograph as a social, cultural, visual actor is almost exactly the effect he ascribes to punctum and to air, minus the ecstasy and violence.

It is certainly true that the photograph, in its nature, only testifies to that-has-been and it is true that we read photos in terms of cultural codes, we make sense of them in terms of the ways things we see mean in our social context, and our own ideas of culture, etc, (studium.) So, he's right about those, but these are not particularly relevant.

What is relevant, to both me and, I maintain, to Barthes, is that we believe the photo first. Our first response is that visceral one, where we believe in the blind field, where we believe we see the character and essence of the subject of the portrait. Both the outward and inward expansions of the photograph are normal, baseline. They are acts of imagination which we perform without thinking.

These somatic reactions, these nearly biological reactions are the basis, and it is the reading of cultural codes, the recognition of the static, fixed, testimony of the picture, and all that other machinery which disturbs that. The studium, if you will overrides, obliterates, the effect of the punctum which was already there.

So in some sense I agree with Barthes. I agree, in general, that there are these opposing effects going on, and the general shapes of them. Where we differ is in the relationship between them, which ones are on top as it were. I also think we have more control than Barthes seems to imagine. He seems to lean toward spasmodic responses beyond our ken, beyond our ability to control, spontaneous and violent.

I, on the other hand, think that the somatic responses are not merely basic, underlying, but can be recovered by the attentive reader. Yes, it's tempting to wander off into the cultural meaning of the policeman's uniform, or the expensive shoes, or the tumbled-down house and the un-mowed lawn. One does that kind of thing. It's tempting to fade away from the reality of the scene, and to consume a photo as merely banal media. Another celebrity, another riot, another dog, ho hum.

We can choose to recover the visceral reality of the thing, the sense of knowing the scene, of knowing the person, if only we consciously reach for it. We can set aside the banal, the static, the cultural, and find that living, breathing, beating heart of what is in the picture, simply (I think) by taking a moment to look for it.

We know it's there, or we ought to, all we have to do is open our eyes for a moment.

The photograph is nothing more than testimony to that-has-been but that's all it needs to be. We do the rest.

Monday, May 31, 2021

A Sense of Place

The second half of "Camera Lucida" is a maze of weirdness, which I noticed recently is explicitly called out as a repudiation of the first half (where all the studium/punctum business is explained.) He's trying to build some different theory of photography here, around his reaction to the infamous "Winter Garden" photo of his mother, aged 5, to which photo he reacts more or less hysterically after her death.

His theory is largely incomprehensible, although it is here that he arrives eventually at: representation is bullshit, all a photo does, all it can do, is attest that something was there and was seen. Everything else is just us reacting. Which seems right to me, but leaves us with the elephant: our reaction(s).

To be honest, I feel like there must be more to it, because he spends 10 or 15 thousand words on it and his conclusion can be stated a little more compactly than that; I'm not sure he's marshaled an argument at all. So, not sure what all the other words are for. My thinking here is kind of a work in progress, I am still making extensive, probably futile, notes.

After chewing on these things for a long time and cudgeling my tiny pea brain more or less endlessly, and also taking a lot of naps, I have arrived at some sort of synthesis of, maybe, what he's going for except in my own terms.

There are at least two endpoints in the spectrum of possibility for how one can be in a place, how one can shape one's awareness, one's presence there. Assuming that one is paying attention at all. I exclude the also-quite-normal forms of presence that do not include any meaningful awareness of place.

At one end is a kind of totality of awareness, a kind of vaguely Buddhist notion, where you're gently, lightly, aware of a very broad slice of what's available to perceive. You are, mentally, soaking in the presence of the place. You see the dapple of light, your attention flits to the squirrel, to the rock, to the man in the distance. You feel a total sense of what it's like there, you perceive widely, you feel the place-ness of it.

At the other end, you're looking for your coffee cup. You are pretty narrowly focused, you're noticing almost nothing of the surroundings. You're inspecting flat spots that you habitually put your cup on to the exclusion of all else. Or you're looking for the bun shop everyone says is on this corner, or you're crossing the street and noticing nothing except the oncoming cars and the walk signal. You have almost no total sensation of the place, you have only a handful of details. Probably, you have those details firmly in hand.

Ironically, when people are "out taking photos" they are, as a rule, present in the second manner because that's how you see the relationships of form and light that everyone thinks are so important, and this is, quite specifically, why most photographs are meaningless drivel. You need to be present in the first way to make pictures that mean anything, that have any connection to place, context, etcetera and so forth.

Now let us consider the way we are present in a photo, when we look at it, when we examine it, and when we (figuratively) enter it. We are in an attenuated way there: but how?

After some thought, I conclude it is very much in the latter way. We attend to a few details that we can see in the picture, perhaps a few add-ons based on the imaginative way that we build out a world to surround the picture. We do not "soak in the place-ness" in any meaningful way, we're very much more in that narrow, specific, way of being present. We feel no particular breadth of perception with respect to the place we're visiting, the time and place, the moment, we're visiting. It might feel complete, wide, but our awareness is restricted mostly to what's in the photo. It's somewhat dreamlike, in that we think, we feel, that we "know" the larger world around the photo, but if we try to actually see it, to look at it, it will slip away and elude us.

In this sense, experiencing a photo resembles my attempts to pre-visualize a photo. I know there's a dog in the photo, I can see it clear as day, but when I try to work out whether it's in the center or off to the side it slips away. I don't know where the dog is. I can't actually see my pre-visualized photo, I just think I can. I can, of course, then place the dog somewhere in my mental image, but now the clouds and the table and the tree are lost in the same way. The feeling is clear, the general shape of it is clear in my pre-visualization, but I have to take the picture before I know much about the details of what things are where, and what's actually in the frame.

A slight shift of direction now, bear with me if you would:

A not-completely-unknown trope in Science Fiction is the pocket universe. Usually, for some reason, some of the characters get stuck in a loop of time that is split off from the main universe. They're stuck in a repeating mini-universe, and have to escape (something like the movie Groundhog Day but usually with fewer jokes and more space lasers.)

In a way, the world we "enter" in the photo is a kind of pocket universe, a time loop of zero duration.

The photo of the riot from 1969 is the riot. Upon inspection of the photo we are, in some sense, at the riot. We experience it, in an attenuated way. But it is not the real riot, obviously. It's a pocket universe, a time-loop zero seconds long, that was split off from a moment during the real riot. We can go there, and experience it, in a sense.

It is the riot, in a sense. But it does not go on, it does not continue to the end of the riot, the people in the picture are real, they are at the riot, but those people do not go on. They remain forever in their zero-length time-loop pocket universe, the photograph. They are real, they are themselves, and simultaneously they are not.

I think this last bit is what ol' Roland is driving at with his obsessive Death Death Death drumbeat in the second part here.

It feels like he's doing that shitty pomo reversal trick: well, the photo captures their Life and by being about Life it refers to not-Life (Death) by the absence of Death so, ta-da, it's really been about the exact opposite of its apparent subject all along! This is a stock rhetorical gambit and, once revealed, is obvious sophistry. X by its mere statement suggests not-X and by leaving not-X out, by absenting it, and so whenever anyone says X they automatically mean the exact opposite, not-X, oh do shut up.

This is... to an extent, what Barthes is up to. The bootprints are fairly clear. And yet, he is aiming at something bigger, he feels something. Perhaps if he'd read more Science Fiction he'd have come up with the pocket universe theory.

Anyways, lest any super-woke idiots get confused: a photograph does not actually trap copies of people eternally in pocket universes where they are tortured for all eternity. It just feels like they're trapped in a pocket universe, so don't panic. And for god's sake, don't start writing papers about the violence of photography as a method for trapping people in pocket universes.

So now we are left with the following, I will confess quite outré, theory of how to take photographs:

Be present in the first sense, the Buddhist, total presence way. Snap photographs from that position of total presence, so they feel contextualized, complete, a part of a whole, whatever.

Viewed, we experience the photos in the manner of the opposite sort of presence, a presence of details closely noted, of un-totality. The totality itself is obscured, a sort of dream-like cloud of mere feeling, a vague sensation that won't stand up to examination. Our attention cannot flit to anywhere else, to flit is to obliterate. The vague cloud, with a few details in it, constitutes a kind of separate universe, a split-off copy of reality, just as real and yet static, limited. It feels almost as real as a real world, even though it is rather cloudy when examined.

Our total presence as we snap informs, but some alchemy I cannot explain and which might be bullshit, the sense of completeness in the pocket universe of the photo. It makes that cloud of impression, of dream, of imagination, feel more complete. The illusion of completeness that surrounds the un-total presence we take up inside the photograph is bolstered.

Every snap of the shutter spins off one of these little pocket universes, cheaply made, without much detail and with the dimension of time eliminated entirely. A shoddy knock-off universe, but one that we can visit and revisit, not much good for a vacation, but we could look for our coffee cup or a bun shop in it.

Sometimes we find out mother in there, but not really, and it's very upsetting. Apparently.