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Saturday, March 27, 2021


I turned 5 near the end of 1970, 15 in 1980, and 25 in 1990. My childhood is essentially a product of the 1970s, and I became an adult essentially in the 1980s. In the heady days of those decades we were sure those days were the best of all possible times, that all the problems were minor, and that we were the Emperors of Creation. The music was the best that ever would be, although there was a certain degree of argument about whether 1970s hair bands were better or worse than 1980s hair bands. The cars of the 1970s were certainly the best, and surely the errors in automotive design so apparent in the 1980s would be corrected before long. If nothing else by our own selves, when we rose to be Ford and Chevy execs and brought back the Mustang and the Firebird in appropriately awesome forms. That is to say, in their 1970s forms, but bigger, louder, and with incredible sound systems. Possibly in matte black, or maybe completely covered with flames.

In hindsight, of course, all the hair bands were ridiculous, derivative, and most of them were barely competent musicians. The cars were terrible and silly. It's not as if the making of cars that are actually fast was unknown in 1972, there is no excuse for the 1972 Camaro. The Chrysler K car was, we knew even then, sort of dubious, but the sheer enormity of the disaster was not to be fully grasped for a decade or more.

The 1980s, especially, were an era of almost complete trash, and the 1970s not much better. A lot of things were badly made, and almost everything was ugly.

At the same time, it was an era of optimism. Nixon, a highly conservative president, signed the EPA into law an action that I do not think our current sitting president (notionally liberal) would do. The civil rights movement and the race to the moon had both come off rather well, and I dare say people who were not, like me, dumb kids were cautiously optimistic. We were starting to not feel that nuclear holocaust was inevitable.

Now, of course, a lot of stuff is much better made. A decent car can be expected to run for 2-3 times as long as a 1970s equivalent, use far less gas, and has better performance. My shitty minivan probably corners and accelerates better than a low-end 1970s "muscle car" and that's kind of sad. Whether you like Taylor Swift or not, she can write pop songs with a practically Mozart-like facility, just bashing out streams of the right word following the right word more or less as fast as she can write. This is, um, notably different from most of the popular acts of the 70s and 80s. Not that all modern music is good, particularly, but a surprising amount of it is really well assembled.

We have our share of trash today, of course. It's hard to buy a vegetable peeler, a lawnmower, or a pair of pruning shears that isn't terrible. Occasionally one comes across a consumer product which is so poorly designed as to be unusable. A broom purchased in 1976 could be presumed to be at least moderately useful for sweeping. In 2021, you can make no such assumption. These were not the things which mattered to us, to the teenaged boys, of the 1980s. Aside from the constant labor of acquiring beer and trying to attract the attention of girls, cars and music and the culture around them were the things that interested us. Those things were, in hindsight, incredibly awful.

Nevertheless, those heady days of the 1970s and 80s, when I discovered beer, and weed, and girls, will always hold a glow in my memory. Of course they will. I am a relic of an older, crummier, time, and part of me lives there still.

I was never that well made myself, and I'm pretty much falling apart, but I still run after a fashion.

1971 Ford F-250 Pickup, Sport Custom

1982 Alfa Romeo Spyder Veloce

Highwaye Overpass, vintage 1950s/60s

"The Executive" motorhome, early 1970s

Mark II Toyota Supra, early 80s

This is maybe more a 90s thing

WilTel was founded in 1997, but you get the idea

Busted down relic of the 1980s. Still runs, kinda.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Writers and Authors

I continue to occasionally open up my Barthes Reader more or less at random and read some little piece or another.

In "Writers and Authors" (1960) our pal Roland talks up the "author" who is someone who writes intransitively; to no object; who writes for the purpose of making something out of words; for the goal of nothing more than language itself. The "writer" on the other hand, writes down words on paper for a purpose: to explain something, to sway minds, to express rage, whatever. The "writer" writes transitively, there is an object to the writing beyond the construction of a pile of language.

Barthes goes on the propose that the "author" in this sense is rewarded, by a process Barthes describes as a miracle, by the resultant pile of language amounting in the end to something more than a mere pile of words.

What the author views as an "end" (the words themselves) is transformed by the power of language into a "means" for expressing ambiguity, for opening the door to questions, or something like that. Since Barthes wants very much for there to be no conscious goal to the writing, he finds himself a bit at sea to explain what the writing does other than exist. But sure, let us stipulate that "literature" even if written purely as a craft unto itself, does something larger.

Clearly, Barthes wants to restrict our attention to the good authors. Bad poets have always been with us, and we may assume that no miracle occurs to transform their doggerel.

Also, Barthes very much wants to argue that "good writing" (the kind authors make) is inherently ambiguous and allows multiple readings, and his argument is that the author didn't intend for it to mean anything, so, yay post-structuralism!

There's some sort of analogy here with photography, I am pretty sure.

On the one hand there are lots of photographers who want to tell you a story. They photograph for explicit reasons, to show you the conditions in the factory, to record the protest for posterity, to explain their boring road trip, or whatever. These are "writers" in the Barthes terminology.

At the same time we certainly have a lot of photographers who are in love with craft. They photograph to photograph.

The photographers of this stripe that manage, nevertheless, to make pictures that are more than exercises in craft are, maybe, the "authors." Despite focusing on the craft, they make work that nevertheless "means something" in some sense.

Here we have, of course, the artist's tic of refusing to explain themselves, as well as the amateur's obsession with sharpness and the rule of thirds.

Even Barthes admits at the end of the essay that, in these modern times, "authors" and "writers" are usually the same person, and what he's really talking about is two endpoints of a kind of spectrum of writing activity. In the same way, I dare say we can sensibly talk about a spectrum of photographic activity. Are you shooting for the craft of photography, or are you shooting to explain, reveal, record something? Probably a bit of both, most of the time.

At the end of it all, though, I am kind of attracted to the notion that if you simply hammer the craft of it all hard enough, something more will emerge spontaneously. Barthes' miracle is a very appealing idea, even if it doesn't actually occur very often. I certainly see a lot of photographs that are made with a profound attention to craft, to form, to the act of photography, which in the end don't seem to have attracted the attention of the Gods. There is no evidence of the miracle, only the craft, in the end.

Maybe the miracle is real, but only as a social construct. The work acquires meaning because we say so, not because of any notional exterior force, not because of some semi-mystical emergent property, but only because someone liked it well enough to declare "it means something, namely, this" and they successfully sold their idea to a hapless public.

I'm not entirely sure that it matters.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

On the Relativism of Ethics

If you look through earlier posts a bit you'll find a thing a couple posts back. I re-wrote that with less swearing and more focus, and cleaned up the thinking a fair bit, and it appeared on PetaPixel to be admired by millions, and read by three or four of them.

I think it's a pretty solid piece of thinking, and well worth everyone's time. No surprise there. In this post which you are reading right now I want to unpack some of the consequences of my theory, and take a little time to understand what it is not.

As background, here are two posts by one Wasim Ahmad. With Trump Threatening to Track Protestors Down, Should Photojournalists Show Faces in Photos? and then, later, Yes, Photojournalists Are Allowed To Film You Being Racist.

In the first of these articles, Ahmad argues that Journalistic Standards demand certain things (he calls out getting the subject's names, as a proxy for consent). In the second of these articles, Ahmad argues that Journalistic Standards demand no such thing, and instead strongly suggest that the opposite is true (it is, mysteriously, no longer necessary to get people's names.)

Obviously what is going is that Ahmad has a political position, he feels that BLM protesters are on the side of goodness and truth, and the Proud Boys and their ilk are, well, not. He feels, explicitly, that one set of rules applies to one group and another to another. I'm sure he would argue that the BLM protesters are at risk and the Proud Boys aren't and so on, but whatever. There's a lot of half-assed logic chopping you could do, if you were devoted to the idea that you're applying objective Journalistic Standards consistently.

Anyone can see, though, that this simply isn't the case. There are two quite different readings of "the rules" being applied, and it is no accident that the readings fall along political lines.

The trouble is that, somehow, we want to pretend that there's a single, unique, coherent, standard to which we can all hew if only we try hard enough. There isn't.

As my brilliant remarks on PetaPixel make clear, if you read them thoroughly, there are no absolutes here. Ahmad absolutely should photograph BLM protesters one way and Proud Boys another. That is his political allegiance. It is perfectly human to choose sides. It happens that Ahmad and I are on the same side here.

Having chosen a side, it is absolutely moral to hew to it, and arguably immoral not to.

Ahmad, being a leftist, being a person of color, sympathizes with the BLM protesters. His duty to them, the subjects, is ascendant, his duty to his viewers, descendant. He feels that his obligation to protect his allies supersedes his duty to reveal all to the viewers of his photos. With Proud Boys and their ilk, his loyalties, and therefore the duties he feels, are reversed. The viewer's right-to-know is ascendant, and fuck the Proud Boys.

Do you get to yell at people whose loyalties differ from yours? Do you get to yell at people for revealing the faces of protesters you are trying to protect?

Sure. Why the hell not? It's a free country. But be aware that they're applying the same rules you are, but starting from a different political stance. You cannot get all Journalistic Standards with them, not honestly, because you don't actually care about them yourself.

Photoethics is a lot more like personal relationships than it is like a hard-and-fast set of rules.

There is an argument to be made here, but it is fundamentally a political one. I happen to think, and could argue, uh, somewhat cogently, that the BLM people are right, and the Proud Boys are wrong. This hasn't got anything to do with photography. Literally nothing.

But since I believe in this political stance, I would photograph the two protests differently, not because Journalistic Standards, but because this is where my allegiance lies, and because it would be immoral to set aside my allegiance.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

An Experiment

Thinking of making a series of these things.

Hampered by my total lack of ink technique, but what the hell. It's not shitty, it's artisanal!

Monday, March 15, 2021

Non-Fungible Tokens

You may have heard about NFTs. Everyone's doing a think piece about them! Here is mine!

The NFT ecosystem is a borderline criminal enterprise and NFTs are dumb.

The End.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Toward a Framework for Photography Ethics

I have been thinking about the ethics of photography for... a while now. More recently, I've been digging in to what we might think of as kind of the state of the art of "photoethics." I have opinions.

What are the ethical considerations around punching a man in the face?

To judge such an action, whether in the heat of the moment, or in front of a jury, there is a sort of calculus. The reasons leading up to the punch, the likely immediate effects of the punch, the expected outcomes, and the actual outcomes: these are all options to be considered, weighed, and added up.

Are you a bigot and his skin or accent offends you? Did you start the fight? Are you protecting an innocent? Are you meting out justice? Are you preventing your best friend from pursing a fatal course?

Before you can really get started you need to know what a punch to the face does. It hurts. It shocks. It might injure, it might disfigure. It might even kill. It is different in very specific ways from giving the man a daisy, it has a very specific functioning. It does specific things, there is a world of possibility beyond those. It surely hurts. It might kill.

The calculus of ethics examines the situation leading up to the punch, and the results (both hoped for and actual) that follow. The punch connects these two things.

There's an underlying problem with all the contemporary discussion of the ethics of photography in that it's not based on a theory of how photographs work, on what they do. You cannot really theorize an ethics without a theory of function. Without knowing how a thing works, or what it actually does, you're a bit at sea when it comes to working out what's right or wrong. The result is that, since everyone is just sort of feeling their way through how it works, they wind up feeling their way through ethical discussions.

You can't judge a punch to the face if you don't know that a punch hurts.

And so in photography there's a lot of scenario-based material, there's a lot of "well, it's complicated, innit?" and so on.

This is not to suggest that the people doing the talking don't know how photos work. They do, but in an intuitive way, and they tend to focus on the kinds of photos and the situations that they're interested in. They have no conscious theory of photos, and so tend not to notice when they're a bit tunnel-visioned. At best, they end up simply thinking through a series of specific, sometimes too-specific, scenarios.

At the end of the day some scenarios are gonna turn up. You're going to wind up working through examples and trying to apply them. I'm not proposing that a purely theoretical ivory tower is the way forward, or even tremendously useful. But maybe some kind of foundation might be useful, as a basis for the examples.

When we examine scenarios for whether or not it was ok for so-and-so to punch what's-his-name in the face, we always have in the back of our minds that a punch hurts, that it shocks, and that it might kill.

Therefore, let me begin by re-iterating my theory of how a photograph functions: When we look at a photo, we are in a sense transported to the scene of the photo. We react, viscerally, somatically, a little as if we were actually there. As a consequence of this transport, we imagine a world to contain the picture. You and I might imagine different worlds, because we are different people, but we will tend to imagine a world tightly fitted to whatever we've noticed in the picture. We will tend not to imagine the photo as showing an inflection point, but rather as a typical depiction of a fairly static world. We will not imagine an inappropriate clown outside the frame. We will not imagine that the girl's expression changed a moment later, and so on.

To take a photo is to create a talisman with specific properties, as outlined. This is "a punch hurts, and it might kill" except for photographs. This talismanic power of evocation can, but does not necessarily, create a kind of duty of care. If you punch a villain, who cares? If you punch a friend, you care. Unlike a punch the power of the photo lands on both the subject and interested parties, and viewers. You may, or may not, have a duty to care for your subject. You may, or may not, have a duty to care for your viewers.

You might photograph a villain to look like a monster, but never a friend. You might strive to make a photo that reads truthfully, if you are a journalist, but the opposite if you're making Art.

Having been steeping a bit in contemporary thinking around photo ethics I am going to propose first a division that formalizes much of the thinking and talking around this.

There's the bit that comes before you take the photo, the situation in which the photo will be taken.

And then there is the bit after, where the photo appears somewhere in some context, in which a use occurs.

I am going to treat the photograph as a floating un-contextualized abstraction, as an essentially neutral object which connects the situation to the use. It connects the situation to the results in the same way the punch does. The punch is not the point, the point is that it hurts, that it can maim, that it might kill. The photograph is neutral, it is a talisman which, in use, exhibits certain powers.

A great deal of concern about the situation is just regular ethics. At the end of the day, when we're somewhere and we're taking a picture, the main thing is that we're in a place and we're living our life. If you're abusing your models, pimping a 12 year old, or pitching puppies into a wood chipper, the camera is irrelevant. You're a scumbag, and should change you ways, and this has nothing to do with photography.

At the same time, much of the genuinely photographic issues that arise (are you posing your subject, re-arranging the furniture?) are of ethical note only in some uses but not others, so those ethical concerns can be deferred to the use discussion.

Finally, there are purely photographic issues on which regular ethics are more or less silent, but which are not tied to the usage of the eventual photos.

The situation end of the discussion therefore reduces to cases in which regular ethics do not dominate — you're behaving, I guess, more or less normally — but for which the use is irrelevant. The pure nature of the photograph, as a talisman with certain powers, and our cultural understanding of that is what matters here.

Is it, or is it not, ok to create such a talisman here and now, regardless of the ways the talisman might be used?

This is the nub of consent. Does the model consent to have you make a photo, knowing that the use could be anything? Does the stone consent? Does the stone's owner, worshipper, or friend, consent? Is it OK to make a thing which evokes this "being there" response, and which could evoke that in anyone at any time in the future? Is it OK to invite others to the sort of half-presence this talisman evokes?

This is why people don't like to be photographed. We know what a photo of us does. It is a talisman which evokes us. It conjures us, whether we like it or not.

Try as I might, I can find nothing but consent as an ethical issue that is truly present in the situation side of photography. But perhaps you are smarter than I am!

This brings us to the use side which is where the wheels really fall off.

The trouble with use is that anything is possible. You, as the photographer, might intend the photo for your blog, or a magazine cover, but there is not a lot you can to to prevent its use in some deep fake pornography. Whatever duty of care you have for the subject side, or the viewer side, can be well-thwarted here.

This is the "a punch might kill" end of things. All things are possible, but most things are unlikely. We cannot go through life assuming that every punch will certainly kill, or that every photograph will certainly end up in an odious deep fake. We can appreciate these risks, and we can work to mitigate them, certainly. We should.

We should advocate, fight, argue for limiting the uses of photographs to those agreed upon before the shutter fired. At the same time we should be conscious of the worst case scenarios.

If you punch a man in the face, and against all odds he dies, that is blood on your hands. If you punch your best friend in the face to prevent him driving drunk, and he dies, that is going to create a problem for you. You failed in your duty to your friend. But perhaps you made the right choice anyway. You made the best guess possible in the heat of the moment, you gambled with the odds on your side, the dice nevertheless rolled the wrong way.

Anyways, with this sketch and discussion, let us lay out concisely the framework I am proposing:

The situation is the context in which the photograph is taken, and the ethical considerations here are: 1) (informed) consent, 2) consideration of possible future use of the photo, and 3) just regular old don't-be-an-asshole ethics.

The use is what comes after, the ways people will see and read the photographs, which we hope has been considered thoughtfully in the situation under the aegis of item 2, but which now occur in perhaps unexpected ways. Here we're considering the impacts, both real, emotional, imaginative, on interested parties (subjects and viewers) caused by the ways the photograph is read in the uses which occur.

Overlaying and informing all, the photograph as a talisman that evokes a presence; that the photo is read as a kind of imaginative version of reality in possibly many different ways which depend on the use, on the context in which the photograph pops up; and the duties that accrue therefore to the photo.

Just to tie it all together, here's a shitty diagram.

I dunno. I think it's a start, maybe.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Photography is Inherently Ethical

The title of this may not come as a surprise to many people, but nevertheless it's a position that needs, I think, some defense. It's not that loads of photographers are wrestling with this, but there are serious people who actually write books and get quoted in the mainstream press who disagree.

So, let's see if I can mount a defense of sorts.

My thesis here isn't that photography is always ethical, that every photograph is a shining light of purity, or that every photographer a saint. Certainly not. It's more like cooking. Feeding people is a basically ethical activity. You can make it unethical (Sweeny Todd) but you kind of have to work at it. If you go about it in the ordinary way, it's pretty much definitely going to be an ethical act. You can assume as a base position that it's ethical.

There is a surprisingly well-received theory, or set of theories, that photography is not. Photography is seen by the self-styled experts as suspect by default. The photographer's gaze is probably re-victimizing someone, or re-capitulating colonialism, or something.

So why is photography inherently ethical? Let's break it down in a way that seems good for what I am about here: photography is in the first place seeing, and in the second remembering. This isn't quite the whole of it, but I think it's a sound enough breakdown to be getting on with.

To defend remembering is easy. Every society has people whose job is literally to remember. Remembering is an unalloyed good, with almost no exceptions. To remember someone is to grant them a kind of extended life. To remember good as good, and evil as evil, is to teach future generations. To remember evil is to open the door to justice. On and on.

An old photo of damn near anything evokes, it remembers for us. There is something in us that responds. This is, in part, why every goddamned archive of shitty negatives of whatever is, invariably, revelatory of a hitherto unknown talent. It's never an unknown talent, it's always the power of memory, working its magic on us. And that's good. I mean, the business of "Vivian Maier, Photographer" is still a grift, but the general working of her photographs is basically good.

There is one exception. We forget, as a part of a process of forgiveness. We agree, as an act of mercy, to forget a wrong done to us. By calling this out as special, though, we prove the rule: we acknowledge that the usual course is to remember. Further, this "forgetting" is pro forma not literal. Often we state the sentiment as "we will not speak of it again." To thrust something into the oubliette is exceptional, even fictional. Remembering is the default, and we see it almost without exception as a good thing.

To remember is ethical, almost or perhaps entirely without conditions.

To see, though, that's a little stickier, a little harder to defend.

To photograph is to see twice. Once when you take the picture, and again when you look at it. The second seeing is attenuated, and different from, the first one, by virtue of the distance from the subject. But let's worry about the distinctions between the two seeings later, and think about simply seeing at least for a moment.

There are things we ought not to see. Peeping from outside through not-quite-drawn curtains is broadly frowned up. Privacy is widely seen as a not-unreasonable expectation.

To use the camera to subvert the normal uses of curtains would be unethical. To use the camera to subvert an unusual use of curtains to, perhaps, conceal a crime might not be so unethical.

Ariella Azoulay remarks that cultures have hierarchies of visibility. These things are not to be see. These other things are only to be seen by priests, or men, or women, or the Gods. These others are only seen on holidays. This is seen only by a man's wife.

This is, obviously, true. It is tempting to propose that subverting these hierarchies is an unalloyed evil, that it is inherently unethical. This is, almost as obviously, not quite so true.

In the first place the hierarchy might need some good old fashioned disrupting. As the curtain might hide a crime, so many a cultural veil has concealed many a crime against humanity. Do we respect the hierarchy of the visible when it conceals practices we find odious? We do not. There is a whole separate question of colonialism here, about how far, and exactly why, we ought to extend the ideas around cultural relativism.

Still, we can argue at least that to photograph a cultural practice is as ethical as it is to condemn it. Only by taking an absolutist position on cultural relativism can we take the absolutist position that visual hierarchies should be respected. These are the same thing.

The rightness of condemning slavery, or sati, is identical to the rightness of disrupting the visual hierarchies that defend these and other practices.

So, we'll all land in different places here. Very few people will support sati, but there are other rituals and privacies. Even the well-meaning might differ on them here and there. You'll land in hot water with yourself if you allow the desire for the visual to override your own belief about what ought to be private. You'll land in hot water with others if your desire for the visual overrides their beliefs about what ought to be private, but perhaps you ought not to worry so much about that.

Seeing, though, is not quite the whole of it. To see is to imply presence.

If you are present, and pitching puppies into a wood-chipper to get a great visual, perhaps you should evaluate your life choices. If you are present, and not preventing someone else from pitching puppies into a wood-chipper, ditto. If you are powerless to prevent it, though, then perhaps the ethics flip and you now have an obligation to see, and to remember. To witness. This is basic photojournalism stuff.

To be blunt, the old standards of photojournalism look fairly sound to me. If presence is nullified because you cannot, for whatever reason, intervene, and if allow yourself to see, then all that remains photographically is the unalloyed good of remembering, of witnessing. So, do that. With, maybe, one minor wrinkle:

These is also the secondary seeing of looking at the photograph, and of the pseudo-presence that implies.

It is, philosophically, right about here that the modern thinkers discover a trove of problematize-able material. This is where "gaze" lives.

So let us first note that the secondary seeing, and the pseudo-presence, are attenuated. They are not, no matter how much you might try, equivalent to the primary seeing and the primary presence of the photographer. They are also profoundly modulated by the viewer.

To point to any ethical issue that is rooted in the secondary seeing, but not also present in the primary seeing, is essentially to implicate the viewer.

If my taking of the photo was OK, but you see something not-OK, that's on you.

At this point, in the secondary seeing, we have what my father would call a mare's nest. It's a mess, and there really is no disentangling it in the abstract. You can unpack these things more or less indefinitely, and you will uncover cases, more or less indefinitely, in which photography takes on a distinct lack of the ethical.

The point, though, is that we're kind of down in the weeds here. Yes, there's plenty of opportunity to drop the ball, to behave badly as a photographer, but for the most part, most of the time, if you comport yourself in the ordinary way, you'll find yourself on pretty firm ground.

Photography is, basically, ethical. Remembering is an unalloyed good, and seeing, well seeing is usually just fine. It's OK to see.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021


Because I am feeling a little whimsical, I am going to offer a print for sale, like I'm some god damned MFA student.

An 8x10 inkjet print of this on some sort of decent heavy paper. My shop downtown does a decent job, this isn't a drugstore print.

I will sell up to 10.

To obtain a copy, send me evidence that you have donated $USD25 or more to some charity local to you that helps people in need. Food bank, homeless shelter, drug treatment center, free medical clinic, whatever. Send me a picture of a receipt, anything. Please file off your credit card numbers, for gossakes.

Also send me your address.

amolitor@gmail.com works as well as some other ones you could probably find. Or, I dunno, comment here or tweet at me or christ there's just a lot of ways to contact me.

I will send you a print um, in the fullness of time. Soon. Anywhere on the earth unless the postage is just like HOLY SHIT WHAT THE FUCK in which case we can negotiate.

As an alternative anyone who has made, or will make, such a donation may request from me a high resolution image file suitable for self-printing. Honor system, I don't need to see a receipt. I will send you a TIFF or a big JPEG suitable for 8x10 printing, and you should consider yourself to have at that point a license to print one (1) good copy, as well as proofs as necessary to acheive a good print.

These self-print copies fall outside the edition of 10, mainly because I think editions are stupid and welcome the opportunity to screw them up.

Ends, I dunno, let's say the end of March, 2021.

This was not a hard shot, it was one of the easiest photographs I have ever taken. It was trivially simple to shoot. Calla lilies love the fuckin' camera. But I like the result and will probably print one myself.

The whites are not blocked up. Except in one place where you probably arent looking, and there's just specks of lost highlights there.