Saturday, January 30, 2021

Guest Post: Rough Guide to Nowhere

By long-time commenter David Smith, the one with this web site. It's not how I think about these things, I wouldn't have written it, but I approve this message with a whole heart.

Visual, and literal knowledge are two separate species that cross paths with bad intent.

Are we there yet?

Walking bare-legged through brambles and poison ivy, or rather mental equivalents thereof, scratches open and inflames the mind. Seeking out the frisson of the dangerous, damaged, and unsightly has been a favourite pastime of mine since a very early age. Conventional beauty is soporific, the pablum of the cognoscenti. Stuff that isn't challenges, and will scare the shit out of you. No, we're not there yet.


Going to places you've never been provides a kind of stimulation and escape. That is one motivation for leisure travel, I guess. But what if you didn't travel, went nowhere instead? Here is a technique for glimpsing what is familiar to us as a stranger might, a stranger within. The key is glimpsing.

The camera and the photograph

It turns out the camera used properly is an excellent tool for achieving the desired state, and (sometimes) result. Something of the nowhere condition can be recorded! I don’t mean as a subject – we already know that can be recorded. The difficult thing is to make nowhere look like somewhere.

I view the photographic process as being equivalent in some ways to opening a ceramics kiln after a firing: one never knows what you'll get, and if you do already know, it will likely be derivative work.

I always want to be surprised by photographs. Really good photographs subliminally disturb our world view, are full of surprises that aren't readily apparent, and reveal their insights on repeated viewing and study. This calls for unconventional framing, leaving stuff in the frame that most photographers, by instinct and training, want to leave out, and vice-versa. Take it weird, you can pretty it up later if you must.

I have a confession to make: I find almost all photographs, in particular those taken by naifs, have surprising qualities. And I’m always surprised that more photographers and critics either fail to recognize this, or are afraid of it. I think it means that the camera, and anybody who picks one up, has an inherent potential to produce what feels to us like magic – talent and expertise are minor add-ons at best (FWIW, I think Susan Sontag nailed this point for all time). We want to harness this magic and bend it to our vision. That is the trick of this one-trick pony.

Glimpsing v. filtering

Unless we're dead or watching tv, our eyes are constantly moving. Our minds build all the things we glimpse into a coherent visual map of our environment, mainly by filtering out almost everything we see. Visual information we think we want or can use, and perceived threats are top of the heap. Everything else we habitually ignore.

Our stranger is incapable of exercising the sustained level of prejudice required for this to work effectively in a new environment, and that's exactly what we want. By turning off the filter, we may suspend received visual hierarchies. The stranger casts their eyes about wildly, seeking anything recognizable to (re)build a kernel of meaning from. This is how the stranger is able to perceive new meanings in ossified systems, often by sheer accident, the collision between an alien system and reality.

Knowing this, we can subvert rather than reify conventional expectations.

What about (...)

Conventional filters stifle creativity, are there other filters that may yet be useful? Indeed there are, and we have to make them ourselves. We humans have been making visual stuff for millennia, sometimes as ‘art’, sometimes for more prosaic or outlandish applications.

The thing about art is, better minds than ours have been working out just these questions for a very, very long time. So there’s that.

Anyway, from this fathomless and inexhaustible library of art and whatnot, we can build more promising filters, by a laborious effort of absorbing as much as we are able according to predilection – an effort that can take decades for the individual who is fully committed to the task.

If you're a visual person, the effort is supremely enjoyable, and there's a real risk of falling down some rabbit hole and losing the plot for extended periods. That’s OK, it comes with the territory, and one never knows which rabbit hole(s) will yield pay dirt. Also, it takes time to learn what the plot even is, bearing in mind it is meant to be different from everybody else’s, and there’s no map.

Some of the effort will take the form of focused study, mostly it's best left to osmosis: seeking out every available source, looking, looking, and still more looking, mutely internalizing all this visual knowledge, rather than ostentatiously declaiming and arguing as in some academic circles, given to showboating various, absurdly reductive superstitions. It has to be said, such notions aren't completely useless; they are signposts of what to steer clear of.

The how

Now we’re at the difficult part. The unconventional filters we’ve made provide frameworks for both glimpsing, and what comes after in the photographic context.

The intention is that these stranger -ish ‘glimpses’ are subconsciously pre-composed before the picture is taken, by referencing whatever state our evolving personal filter happens to be in. How this raw material is organized, so new meanings can be recognized, developed, and presented, is equally important. Ultimately we want to convey our own, fully realized visual ideas, not just half-baked glimpses that could mean anything, or nothing – we are chasing after solid new visual ideas and their proofs, not reciting the old ones.

These new ideas are communicated solely by clear and convincing visual evidence, and can't be verbally or literally described.

It should be noted that ephemeral claims of discovery, born from dubious technical and conceptual stunts, are trotted out with tiresome regularity through myriad networking silos. Also, there's no value in wasting time and energy on such, no matter the source or the silo. Caveat emptor.

Everyone has to build their own filter(s), and draw their own conclusions. After that, it's all glimpsing and organizing. Good luck, and see you in 30-years!

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Mark Making

I am a stay-at-home dad. I retired from the software biz five years ago, my wife earns the money and I raise the kids, keep the home, walk the dog, etcetera, etcetera. My life, to put it mildly, changed a bit in this transition and I won’t say it was easy. I managed it, and here we are.

The largest change, or at least the one that I have most noticed, is this: almost everything I do has ephemeral results. Sweep the floor, and 30 seconds later a kid spills sugar all over it. Wash the dishes, then cook a meal, and lo, the dishes all need to be washed again. You could argue, and I do, that the whole process is producing a long term result in the form of well-fed children who are in turn gradually evolving into older children presumably well educated and finally, one hopes, into well adjusted, interesting, adults.

This is a bit hard to see from here in the trenches. From here, it looks like I do the same tasks over and over to no permanent effect. Sometimes this is, uh, a bit of an emotional challenge.

Well, so it goes, right?

Indeed, for essentially the entirety of human history, everything any human did had this exact character. Dig roots, gather grubs, cook and eat them. Repeat. Eventually, recently, we invented agriculture, so you could plow a field and it would stay plowed until stuff began to grow but even then almost all the labor was the kind of thing I do all day.

Only in the most recent times have we come to the idea that normal people ought to be able to do things which last, to make marks on the world which are not erased by the incoming tide. The universality of this notion even in the west, the idea that we even ought to be able to make such marks, is, what, 100 years old? If that? In much of the world it’s still nothing like universal. There is no place in the world where the ability to make semi-permanent marks (like, say, blog posts) isn't at least a little of a privilege. I dare say there are vast swathes of humanity for whom the idea is at best a distant dream, and maybe even undreamed of.

And yet, it seems to be an in-built human yearning. Someone was drawing stick figures of animals on cave walls a really long time ago. Probably someone who had a whole great whack of people gathering roots and doing the mundane daily work of feeding everyone so Thag could go draw animals.

After that we see cultures building pyramids, or as my father liked to observe, piles. Every culture builds pyramids, because all you need is rocks and slaves. Something urged the warlords of everywhere to direct things to be piled on top of other things, which seems an odd choice considering the other more direct pleasures that could have been gotten with those same resources. Surely those same slaves could have been deployed giving backrubs, or incredible amounts of sex?

Backrubs and sex do not mark the world with anything like the permanence of a gigantic rock pile.

I feel it myself, and I think anyone reading here feels it too. That urge to make stuff, to make marks that last. In our case, mostly photographs. In my case, not enough photographs, and too many words.

My thoughts return to Michael Reichmann who made a bold play at some permanent mark, but didn't manage it. His web site remains, kinda, but it's not very interesting any more and anyways photography as something Everyone's In To is kind of petering out. His endowment and his book just kinda sank, and while the web site will no doubt putter along for a few more years, maybe even decades, it too will fade away. I sympathize, despite my distaste for the man.

Where am I going, here? Hell if I know. Partly I am just whining about the fact that so much of I do feels pointless and stupid on the bad days (not all days are bad days, I assure you). Partly I'm struggling with the fact that even the more permanent marks I make will pass away, probably much sooner than I imagine.

Is Buddhism just a set of ideas that boil down to "nothing you do will leave a mark, be happy anyways?"

I'm tryin' I'm tryin'! Settle down over there Guatama!

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Crit: Being Inbetween, by Carolyn Mendelsohn

There is a trope in the land of feminist-ish photography: I will get a whole batch of women, or girls, and take photos of them. This will empower them.

The details of how the empowerment is supposed to happen are, like so much else in the land of Serious Photography, left unstated as if it was well known, which it is not. Nobody knows, but they assume everyone else does. This does not make the projects bad, but it is an inauspicious starting point. Here is one such project: Being Inbetween, Carolyn Mendelsohn, on The Guardian web site.

There is a second trope being deployed here, which is "let's photograph tweens" which we see rolled out quite often. Sally Mann made At Twelve in 1988, and we see it time and again. Here's a related project by Justine Kurland, again on The Guardian web site, and I dare say there are more. If I can think of two in a couple of minutes, surely there are.

Anyways, let's look at Mendelsohn's project.

One of the first thing that's likely to strike you is the sameness of the pictures. The same black background, hearkening back to awful 1980s retail photographs in the "formal" mode. The same expression, although a very slight smile sneaks in a couple times. The subjects are all girls, all roughly the same age. The framing is the same. The kids with taller hair are forced down in the frame, which strikes me as a peculiar choice, but whatever, it doesn't seem to mean anything. Whatever. There's a lot of sameness here.

At the same time, the nerds will notice that the lighting patterns change subtly. I am no strobist or portraiture expert, but the changes in lighting pattern don't seem to serve any purpose and a quick check suggests that she simply changed it up a little every year or so. The body postures vary, as does the clothing.

You can read a version of the secret decoder ring here. This is one of those projects where its meaning is related to us in text, rather than being particularly visible in the pictures themselves.

When you peel away the blather about empowerment and agency, you see that the girls had almost no agency here. They selected their clothing and stance, and they made a little personal statement, and that's it. Everything else ran on rails defined by Mendelsohn. While more collaborative than if Mendelsohn had roofied her subjects, it's not notably collaborative, and indeed leans away from that. The girls mostly look vaguely uncomfortable, closed down, and for what appears to be good reason.

The girls all look the same, have the same expression, because they have been directed to look that way. This sentence, from the Impressions Gallery link, is especially maddening: This careful and measured photographic approach bestows the girls with authority, granting them a certain power held within their gaze. This is literally saying "by taking away most of the choices, the girls are given authority" which is some fucking Orwellian double-talk.

The statements made by the girls, while in no way earth shaking, are fun to read. Tweens can be pretty cool. I am raising one my my own, and she says shit every day that delights me. Abigail, who wants to move to Romania and raise wolves, is awesome. I will contribute to that GoFundMe campaign.

So what is it, visually? It strikes me as not a lot more than a typology of tween fashion choices c. 2018. The kids are cute, and who doesn't like kids? The fact that they're emotionally closed (mostly) does rather drain the life out of the thing, though.

The meaning of the project is entirely imposed on it by the blathering that surrounds it, the claims of collaboration, empowerment, authority, etc, are all great intentions which happen to be utterly invisible in the pictures themselves, and which to be blunt I do not believe in for a second. Mendelsohn may genuinely believe these statements to be true, but they are not.

Is it good? Not really. It's a set of warmed over tropes, roughly shoved into a conceptual bag into which is doesn't really fit.

This is Art made for Artists and Art Critics who, by and large, may be relied upon to not look very closely at the work itself but will prefer to read about your process, your identity, you intentions, and so on, and then will elect to either project that material on to the work or not according, mostly, to whether or not they think their peers will.

Monday, January 11, 2021


If you follow along in my other incarnations online, you might be aware that I'm writing a series of articles for Petapixel (click here) on my theories of how photographs are read. There's a fellow, A. Cemal Ekin, who's offered a few comments along the way. Nice enough guy, thoughtful, generally a little more focused on promoting his own blog than in actually being involved with anything I say but whatever, he's at least in the ballpark and I genuinely appreciate the engagement, which has been generally pitifully small.

He offered up a link to his own blog[1], and I stumbled upon another[2]. I provide links below.

The blog post he offered up was about how to read photographs, and he dragged out the usual sort of thing, the kind of thing I've thought a lot about myself. It's not at all a stupid thing. He wants us to think of our time with a photo as an interplay of "form," "technique," "content," and "mind" all of which mean more or less what you think they do. This is pretty standard, and he has a notion that these various factors can be more or less important, on a photo by photo basis. Ok, fair enough.

In the post I happened over while while trying to re-locate the first one describes an experiment he conducted in a class. One student looks at a photo, and describes what they see, then they pass the photo to another student who reports on how well the photo matches what they were imagining.

One result of this experiment was that, he relates, everyone talks about content exclusively.

Weirdly, the lesson he takes away from this is, roughly, that everyone is wrong. Everyone ought to be looking at line, form, composition, and so forth. And so he laboriously teaches all his students to do that, instead of what comes naturally.

Which leads us around to my conclusion. What Mr. Ekin is doing here, and what photographers and photo critics by and large do universally, is to create and then operate within a more or less sealed ontological system.

The form/technique/content/mind system of objects and relationships is a perfectly fine thing to do. It's absolutely a way to think about photographs, or any other sort of made objects. You could think of dishwashers within this system if you liked, and evaluate them on those terms. This is an ontological system.

Evaluating dishwashers within this system, while absolutely possible, would probably strike some people as fairly odd, which begs the question of why it is then seen as a Great Idea for photographs.

Other photographers use similar systems including things like "accurate focus", "depth of field", "rule of thirds" and so on. Photo critics tend to use a system built mainly on "how much do these pictures look like other 'good' pictures, and what do I think of the photographer as a person."

You can build perfectly coherent systems of all these, and many more, types. There are many ontologies that can be used to evaluate photos.

The one thing they share is an almost complete disconnection from the real world. Mr. Ekin's experiment reveals what we all know: people don't care about anything except content, in most photos. More generally, each system of knowledge has limitations, it is applicable only within a specific sphere. The people who subscribe to each of them tend to be unaware, generally, that theirs is an ontology which is at best co-equal with many others, that it has limits, that it is not universally applicable.

You get people in photography forums desperately trying to connect the Golden Spiral to the way "people react to your photo" which is absolute balderdash: an example of attempting to demonstrate the universality of a "rules of composition" ontology for evaluating photos. You get people who think Michael Schmidt is the bees knees trying to explain the social impacts media photos and droning on about "visual literacy," which is basically the same thing.

I am, with my pieces on Petapixel, trying to bring a new ontological system into the world of photos, one based on what normal people actually see in normal photos. That is, content, and how we react to it. My system is no more universal than any other, but it is specifically crafted to systematize evaluating how photos might work socially or culturally; how photos work as media.

It's useless for evaluating how other photographers will evaluate your photos. It's useless for evaluating whether or not MACK is likely to offer you a book deal. It's useless for a lot of things. There are ontological systems that will do a much better job for you there.

My system, though, might just be a pretty good basis for understanding the way photos land in the real world, how they might strike regular people who look at your pictures. That's the plan, anyways!

The promised links to Mr. Ekin's blog:

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Interpretation of Media

In the past few days we've seen the expected spate of media from January 6, at the Capitol of the USA. Shaky cell phone videos, photographs, all kinds of shit.

As also expected, these have been carefully curated by everyone to present this story or that. We saw videos of the Trumps watching a rally in the morning of Jan 6, which is routinely and repeatedly mischaracterized as the Trumps watching the mob storm the Capitol Building. We have seen a carefully selected set of pictures and videos of Capitol Police opening doors, opening barricades, and standing by as protesters move freely. These are positioned, generally, as the Capitol Police acting in complicity with the mob.

We also saw a lot of rhetoric comparing the Capitol Police treatment of these protesters versus BLM protesters earlier this year, with again carefully curated sets of media. More recently, we're starting to see more pictures of physical altercations between officers and protesters, more scenes of tear-gas-obscured chaos, and so on. In short, we are only now seeing pictures that more resemble the BLM protest photos, pictures which we were not seeing earlier.

It is surely true that the Capitol Police treated this protest differently from the way they treated the BLM protests, but what is not clear to me is why this is a bad thing. It is widely agreed that the BLM protests were badly handled, isn't it? Add to that the fact that this was a rapidly unfolding, short-term, very localized protest action as opposed to a slowly evolving, long-term, geographically diffuse and mobile protest action and I become quite leery inferring too much from comparisons.

But, whatever. The differences in handling play in to the ways people are interpreting the media they are seeing, and that is what I am interested in here, really.

Whether complicity, incompetence, or strategy, the building as a whole (with small but important exceptions) was ceded to the protesters, to the mob, for a few hours. You can read the photographs and videos any way you like.

You can read the photos and videos from within the mob as anything from "idiots talking shit" to "a vicious mob bent on murder" and it's not even clear to me whether there's a functional difference here. Idiots talking shit just need one yahoo, probably drunk, high, or both, to break ranks and start charging the building, or shooting hostages, and suddenly you're an actual vicious mob bent on murder.

There is an interesting theme running through the photos, which I am not sure many people notice. The uniformed officers are doing various things: standing around, shoving at the barricades, wrestling with protesters, spraying pepper-spray, that sort of thing. There are other guys, guys in suits over body armor.

I'm pretty sure these are the dudes who are charged with defending the legitimate government of the USA, and they seem to be really serious bastards. The protester who was shot was shot by a guy in a suit as she was trying to move toward the House Chamber (where that Government was currently sheltering, before being evacuated.) The cops with pistols out pointing at a door are these guys, defending the Legitimate Government of the USA which is currently huddled under their seats in the Chamber behind the cops.

These cops are aiming over a piece of furniture which I suppose is kept near the door for the feng shui. The fact that it neatly barricades the door as well is surely a happy accident.

Whatever your preferred narrative here, once the barricades collapsed the Capitol Police had very limited options, I think, and I think they executed pretty well. I guess they could have just opened fire on the crowd, there were cops with rifles positioned to do just that. The mob probably would have broken and run for it, eventually. I don't think I would approve that plan.

The civilians were protected, and safely evacuated (did you notice that there are exactly zero civilians visible in any of the media of protesters inside the Capitol Building? They've all been hustled off to defensible spaces, i.e. the two chambers, where extremely tense men in suits are doing their job.

What is interesting to me here, though, is the way these pictures are being interpreted. What looks to me to be consistent with de-escalation is seen by others as complicity, and still others as simple incompetence.

You can construct a narrative around Trumps and Republicans egging on the crowd, although that story doesn't hold a lot of water since all that media seems to come from maybe 1:30pm or earlier, when it seemed to be pretty much an ordinary protest. These things happen several times a week. You have to drag in some "well, the gun nuts were talking about it on Parler for weeks so obviously they knew what was going to happen" theory, which is, well, a bit iffy. But.. ok, I guess? I mean, it kinda works, if you squint, and weirder shit has surely happened.

You can construct a narrative of incompetence, and there have been resignations, so I'm willing to admit there was incompetence. I guess the crowd control specifics were pretty minimal. Again, you have to assume that the cops were supposed to take randos shooting off their mouths on Parler seriously. I dunno Parler at all, but it sounds like the kind of deal where randos are literally shooting their mouths off 24x7, it's the app you use to do that. Maybe there are ways to assess which blathering is credible, but if so, I am not privy to those methods.

And you can construct a narrative of a practical strategy, a protocol more or less properly executed. The Capitol Police have surely had plans in place for "when the mob breaks into the building" for 50+ years, and it probably includes options for "let's not just machine gun them all, but instead let's protect and evacuate the civilians, and clear the mob later."

It may also have options for "let's just machine gun the lot of them into hamburger and call it a day" but I am glad they did not choose that one.

In the end, the ground truth is probably a mixture. Some of the cops were probably a bit sympathetic to the mob. The leadership probably did ignore warning signs, and not roll out the Heavy Crowd Control gear. And, when it went pear shaped, the serious guys in suits kept all the civilians safe. Symbolically it's a huge event, an unprecedented breach, a line never before crossed. In terms of actual real-world effects, as insurrections go, pretty low key.  A failed coup with a total of 5 fatalities is pretty good, no?

What makes the whole thing particularly interesting to me, of course, is that people who ought to know better are falling into the trap. They are accepting mislabeled media as accurate when it supports their politics, they are consistently reading pictures in particular ways, ditto. Of course, even university professors and self-styled media experts are entitled to their personal views. Indeed, one can hardly avoid having personal views. Still, they seem, sometimes, overly credulous under underly critical.

Me? My default starting position on practically any piece of media is "I have no idea what the hell I am even looking at" and I try real hard to be careful about how I read it, and what I make of it. Meaning is slippery, and it tends to arise from inside ourselves far more than we think.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Happy New Year!

We're having a spot of revolution here in the States, nothing to worry about. We'll get it cleaned up well before you're allowed to come visit again.

I was reading some random bit of Thich Nhat Hanh and he was going about about Zen. The idea he was expounding is that continuous, long term, uncritical, examination of a thing leads to a kind of understanding if you're patient enough. A non-logical, almost non-cognitive, understanding. I get that, something clicked for me when I read that bit.

If I spend time with a photo, being non-critical, just looking at it, this, exactly, is one of the things that happens. I suppose it would happen with a stone, or a star, or a painting as well. I don't examine those things in the same way, so I cannot testify that it does.

I think that two things are happening here.

The first is that I am indeed absorbing all the details. I notice all the things, and make what tenuous connections can be made, and what sketchy inferences can be inferred. My actual knowledge does expand to pretty much the maximum possible. So, in a way, I actually do develop a deep understanding of the thing, and a deep(-er) understanding of what the meaning(s) of the thing might really be.

The second is that I am hypnotizing myself a little. I am persuading myself that I really do grok something indescribable but deep about the picture.

Put these two together and the result is sometimes startling leaps of what might or might not be insight. Sometimes I get the unshakeable sensation that the photographer meant a very specific thing, or that the subject is thinking a very specific thought. Something that is ultimately unknowable but of which I am quite certain. Sometimes, perhaps, I am truly reading some subtle but unambiguous sign in someone's face, or in the shadows, or whatever. Sometimes I am probably just making up nonsense.

This probably isn't relevant to anything I am actually much interested in, because normal people don't spend that kind of time with a single picture. The results I am actually interested in are the more ordinary ones. I collect all the details that are actually in the frame, and speculate using my skills of imagination and empathy to map out something of the world of meaning normal people might make of the picture.

What some old Buddhist might "discover" in it after meditating for 10 hours on it is a bit of an edge case. Still it's a neat effect to experience! And maybe it means something I haven't worked out yet!