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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!


  1. this makes me wanna photograph stuff. [stone seal]

  2. I like to think in terms of "seeing" rather than "looking." It feels like a way to turn off the filter of habitual noticing and ignoring.